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Slipping Through A Sideways Door

by hornethead

First published

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

Some say reality and the physical world are tied into a series of strings. That space and time are woven into an unbreachable fabric, a thick sheet that separates an unthinkable amount of worlds and realities. None of this is true, yet at the same time, it is. With a little influence and the right amount of force and energy, holes can be created, passages through which one may slip through. This isn't the only way, however. There are other ways. Naturally occurring tears and rifts that fit perfectly in the order of the universe.

The Battle of the Western Coast has been over for years now .Treaties have been signed and alliances formed, but the land has fallen into a restless peace. Trouble brews in Equestria. While most of the Lotkin tribes have settled on land granted to them by The Royal Sisters, renegade bands still roam the land, driven by some unknown force.

A fighting legend, a leader and the founder of Equestria's elite Royal Special Tasks Group has disappeared without a trace. His legacy is carried on by those he trusted most, running and expanding the unit he started, but can they continue without the experience and guidance he provided?

Another may have arrived to help. A man on a continuous search for his lost brother-in-arms stumbles onto the path his friend had previously walked, quite by accident. With luck, he may find what he was looking for.

This is a sequel to the first. If you don't read the first, you wont understand half of it.

OC Iron Defense created by: Shawn820

OC Howitzer created by: Cyber

OC Swift Paws created by: Danish Adonis

OC Blackjack created by: Reignbow

OC Redflare created by: Radical Prescott

OC Cray inspired from an idea by: It911

OC Kai Silverblade created by: Gale Force

1: Getting Lost

Chapter 1: Getting Lost

Clad in a stark white ensemble of a warm parka and matching pants, a large man trudged through the snow and wind. In his arms he cradled a very large weapon, a 7.62mm machine gun. Every few yards, he would cycle the bolt to prevent it from freezing shut. He was on a routine patrol in a desolate corner of the world, quite devoid of civilization. It was snowing and the last weather report indicated that a blizzard may be blowing through very soon. Because of this, the man tried to complete his patrol as soon as possible and return to his base camp where it was warm.

It was somewhere hidden high in the arctic circle, a desolate land barren of all but the most persistent of life forms. Even so, it was not an easy walk. Hard icy patches would suddenly give way to soft areas of deep powdery snow. The wind started building up, rushing fast over the tops of snow ridges and across flat stretches, throwing up sheets of the frozen ice crystals into the man's face. The man cursed the foul weather and pushed on harder, eager to reach the shelter and relative warmth of camp.

After a few more minutes of struggling against the cold wind and squinting though frozen eyes, his goal was finally in sight. The front half of a Quonset hut poked out from the base of a large mound of snow. So close to home, he quickened his pace to a jog and ran up to the door. He gave it a few knocks before swinging it open and stepping inside. The change in climate was almost immediate, warm heavy air blowing onto his face and melting the snow and ice that had accumulated on his body. He shivered and shook off the water droplets, the liquid splattering on the deck. On his right were a couple of men sitting at a low table and playing around of cards.

"A bit cold for ya, eh Jackie Boy?" One of them quipped.

"Yeah, just a little," Jackson replied as he began taking off some of his cold weather gear.

"What, doesn't it get cold where you're from? I though you Brooklyn yobs were tough chaps."

"Don't be an arsehole, Gary, everyone here knows yer the biggest poof 'round here." The man's partner joked, "Ya see anythin' interestin' out there, Jackson?"

"Nope, just the same whitewashed landscape it was the last few days. Anything new pop up back here?" Jackson asked.

"Not much. Oh! We did get a couple of more participants for the exercise."

"FNGs?"

"Nah, hard blokes, just back from the sandbox. Sound like a couple of Aussies."

That grabbed Jackson's attention, "They just got back? Where from exactly?" He asked, turning to the two Brits and placing his hands on the table edge.

"Dunno, didn't ask."

"They still around?"

"Yeah, took the bunk room down the corridor, third on the left."

"Thanks." Jackson left the two to their game and gathered up his weapon and equipment.

"Ha! Two for me heels!" Gary shouted at the table.

"What!? Oi! You fuckin' cheater!"

"That's another pint, Toph!"

First thing he did was head back to his bunk and stow his gear, putting up his weapon and hanging his cold weather gear up to dry. The building he was in was dug out of and built into a low earthen hill in the tundra, a great rarity in that part of the world. The hill had been hollowed out and insulated against the cold, bunks, a latrine and even a small mess facility being constructed inside. It's current use was that of a base camp for an international joint training exercise in escape, evasion and survival in an arctic environment.

Now in just his base uniform, Jackson retrieved a small photograph from a compartment in his footlocker and left to go find the new arrivals. He followed the SAS member's directions and came to the bunk room. It was empty of it's occupants, but they had deposited their gear there. Reasoning that they may have gone to the mess for a bite. Quick stepping down the hall, Jackson reached the mess, the pungent smells of cooking food assaulting his nose.

He looked around the room for a second before he spotted his quarry sitting at a corner table, eating some freshly fried powdered eggs. Striding confidently up to the two of them, Jackson politely nudged one on the shoulder.

"Hey, uh, excuse me."

They all turned and looked up at him with an uncomfortable stare.

"I heard you guys just got back from deployment not too long ago."

"Yeah, what's it to you, mate?" One of them asked, though not unkindly.

"I was wondering what you guys were doing out there."

"Bit o' this, bit o' that, why?"

"No real reason. Just... while you were out there, did you happen to see this man?" Jackson asked, holding up the photo to them.

In the photo was a group of five soldiers posing together in civilian clothing at a bar on one of San Diego's beaches. There was Bellis on the far left, in a simple outfit of a t-shirt and some shorts. To his left was Nix and Feng, both holding two bottles of beer together, high over their heads. Next was Jackson himself, standing tall, sporting nothing more than a mixed drink and pair of shorts with flip flops, dark swarthy skin and toned muscles exposed for all the ladies' benefit. Finally, on the end, stood an average sized man in a t-shit and jeans, one hand in his pocket, the other held a glass of rum, a slight smile on his face, dirty blonde hair shining a dull gold in the sunlight. To the man on the end, Jackson laid a finger.

The two Australians studied it for a moment before leaning back and shaking their heads, "Sorry mate, can't say we have. Friend of yours?"

"Yeah, real good friend of mine. Went MIA on us a while back."

"Ah, rough shit. Few of ours 're gone as well. Well, if we spot 'im ever, we'll sure give you a holler."

"Thanks, I'd appreciate that." Jackson said, his spirits lowered just a little.

Dejected, Jackson left them to their meal and went back to his own bunk room. When he returned, Nix was in there gearing up.

"Hey man, what you fittin' to go do?" Jackson inquired.

"What, you didn't hear?" Nix replied over his shoulder, "We're about to run the field ex, Bellis want's us up and ready to go in five."

"Already? He knows there's a blizzard coming in and fixin' to freeze our asses, right?"

"Recent weather reports say otherwise. Apparently, it ain't gettin' heavy for another day or two, so top brass cleared it." Nix told his teammate.

"Shit, well all right..." Jackson conceded and began gearing back up.

It only took them both a few minutes to fully assemble everything they would need for their mission. Nix strapped up with his rifle and pistol. For protection he donned a ski mask with goggles, leaving the latter resting on his forehead until he needed them. Jackson grabbed his 9mm and slung his Mk 43 over his back. Fully armed, they then made their way to the compound's cramped briefing room, where the rest of the participants were already gathered. Jackson nabbed a seat near the back while Nix went to go fetch some coffee. After a few moments of waiting, an officer finally walked in, dimmed the lights and switched on a projector that featured a map of the area around their camp.

"Good morning gentlemen, I'm Commander Bellis and I'll be your OIC for this exercise." He started.

While the commander spoke, Nix returned with the coffee, handing a cup to Jackson who gave him thanks, and then sat down.

"Some of you already know me," Bellis said, looking to the corner where Jackson and Nix sat, "but the rest of you here are from some of our Allied countries and I would like to welcome you all here on my command's behalf. Now, getting down to business..."

Bellis turned and began gesturing to the map projected on the wall behind him, "Pretty straight forward. We're looking at a mostly barren tundra, but about twenty kilometers to the south is a sparse forest. There, the terrain also changes some, plenty of places to hide. The objective for this exercise is for most of you to successfully evade capture or 'death' and survive in a hostile environment, eventually reaching an extract point here." he pointed to a black square some thirty two kilometers south east of the camp. "However, this won't just be some walk in the park. You will be chased by two hunter-killer teams that I will designate now. Now this is a joint operation so the teams will be mixed; Chief Jackson, you and Mayfield will be one team."

Jackson looked over to the SAS member he had talked to earlier, the one that had been playing cards with his friend Gary. The two exchanged a glance and a nod.

"The other will be Jaques and Yarhon." Bellis gestured to a Frenchman sitting near the front and an Israeli member of the Mossad seated in the middle of the room. "The hunter teams will be equipped with their firearms and the gel tipped training rounds. The training rounds are non-lethal and will only mark you with paint, but they hurt like a bitch and can still take out your eye so be sure to wear your PPE at all times." Bellis warned, "In addition, we have some inclement weather moving in. Visibility will be extremely low for the next two days with a blizzard expected to arrive on the third. That said, the exercise will terminate no later than the evening of the second day. In case of emergency, you all have your radios and flares. Keep your radios handy at all times, weather forecasts aren't entirely predictable. This evolution may just be a simulation, but the environment is very real. Getting lost is entirely possible and can be deadly. Other than that, gentlemen, good luck."

At the end of his speech, Bellis walked out of the room. A murmur rose among the men gathered in there while they all stood and stretched, eager to get the exercise over with and go home. Mayfield sat next to his friend Gary, poking the side of his head, fingers twisted in the shape of a gun.

"Right fuckin' here ya cheatin' twat, I'll peg ya right fuckin' here."

"Shut yer gob, Topher, ya gotta find me first."

"Oh, I'll find ya. Remember, in the head." Mayfield threatened as he stood up.

Jackson stood and lumbered back to his bunk room, nix followed close behind, "Looks like we're splittin' up. Try to avoid the crotch area, I need those bits for the weekend."

"No guarantees on full auto."

"Please don't."

When the two rounded the corner into the bunk room, they were a little surprised to see Commander Bellis waiting by the racks.

"Hey there fellas, how are you both doing?" He greeted.

"Good, sir." Nix responded.

"Glad to hear. You two be careful out there, ok? The weather around here can be lethal."

"Yes sir!" Both of them replied.

"Good. Nix, could you please give us a moment, I'd like to speak with Jackson alone."

"Of course, sir." Nix spun on a heel and left the room, leaving Bellis and Jackson alone together.

"Sir, something wrong?" Jackson asked cautiously.

"No, nothing really. I just wanted to check in on you."

"Sir?"

"Well after we lost Kaughn a while back, you dropped into a kind of funk, but you bounced back from that, if not entirely. I know you were bothering the Australians, trying to find info again."

"Sir, I apologize, I didn't mean to-"

Bellis held up a hand, cutting him off, "It's ok, no harm done. I'll admit, sometimes even I run a query through the network, just in case. What I'm worried about is more recent events, what happened with your wife, and.... Sophie."

"Oh...." Jackson looked down at the deck, sorrow flashing across his face, eyes on the brink of tearing up, "Yeah. I uh... I'm fine now. It still hurts, but..."

"I know," Bellis said, stepping forward and putting a hand on Jackson's shoulder, "If you ever need anything, anything at all, you know we got your back."

"I know, sir. Thanks, but I'll be ok for now."

"All right." Bellis said softly, nodding. "Now go out there and show them what a Chief can do."

A small smile crossed Jackson's face, "Yes sir."

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



A long black barrel wrapped with strips of stark white tape spaced at different intervals poked out from a stand of trees situated at the top of a small rise in the landscape. Visibility was fair, but deteriorating, offering an ok view of the surrounding area. The barrel belonged to an L118A1 AW. Laying prone behind it's scope was an averaged sized man with black hair and green eyes, face blurred with some stubble. Behind him, leaning against a tree, was a large dark skinned man, a watch cap covering his bald head.

"See anything yet?" Jackson asked the man on the rifle.

"Not a effing thing." Mayfield replied, "Wait a tic...."

"What is it?"

Through his scope, Mayfield tracked a body trouncing through the snow and heading for the trees, "Aww, it's that arsehole, Gary."

"Gary, your squadmate?"

"The same. I'm gonna put one right in the side of his head..."

Mayfield lined up the shot, anticipating his quarry's movements. Once he was ready to fire, he carefully flipped off the safety and rested his finger on the trigger. Then slowly, ever so slowly, he applied pressure. Gradually, the mechanism moved to the edge before finally slipping free of the catch. Unfortunately, at that exact moment, the wind decided to gust, slightly alternating the path of the projectile as it sped on it's way. Because of this, instead of hitting it's intended target, the round splattered onto a tree trunk just in front of Gary's face.

The running man knew better than to stop and sprinted for cover. Mayfield fired off a few more rounds, but none hit their mark. Cursing, Mayfield stood up and pulled out his sidearm, a P226. Then he looked over his shoulder.

"Jackson!"

"On it!"

Jackson sprinted past, weapon already to his shoulder, and stomped down the hill.

"Watch it, looks like he acquired a pistol!" Mayfield shouted in warning.

"Noted!"

The weather was picking up now, flurries of powder were beginning to blow around, obscuring their vision. Great puffs of fog blasted from Jackson's mouth as he raced after his target. Gary was weaving through the trees now, trying to make himself as difficult a target to hit as possible. Except when you can toss a couple hundred rounds down range in a few seconds, accuracy doesn't matter all that much, which is what Jackson chose to do. Spotting an open avenue throug the trunks, the large man stopped and fired off a few bursts. Miraculously, none of them hit, instead plowing into the snow or smacking into tree trunks, leaving big splatters of green paint.

"Can't hit a target, mate?" Mayfield teased as he ran past.

Jackson started to chase after Mayfield, but stopped when his radio crackled, "Warning, weather is deteriorating...... than anticipated. All participants are ordered......... TB. I repeat, all.... ord...."

The transmission came in patchy and filled with static, but Jackson caught the gist of it. Bad news was coming. The wind was whipping all around faster and more violent than before. It was time to kick rocks. The situation turning urgent, Jackson now ran after Mafield and Gary not because of the hunt, but because their lives may very well be in danger.

Throug the deep snow he ran, desperately scanning the blurry white landscape for any hint of the two other soldiers. After a few minutes, all he could find was Mayfield standing in a small clearing and looking around.

"Lost 'im." Mayfield said in a disappointed tone.

"Well we need to find him, did you hear the radio?"

"No, what's it about?"

"Bad weather's coming in, we need to get back!" Jackson started to raise his voice to speak over the wind.

"Bollocks. All right then."

Jackson and Mayfield spent the next thirty minutes roaming the wood and calling out Gary's name. He may have not heard the warning over the radio, so they also repeated that, shouting it into the wind. Hopefully he wouldn't think it was some kind of ploy to get him to drop his guard. After a while, they still hadn't found him and it was starting to get dark. They needed to get back and find shelter.

"I can't find him!" Mayfield shouted over the rising wind.

"He's got the same training as us, he should be okay, but we need to find shelter, fast!" Jackson shouted back.

"Agreed!"

Jackson took out his compass and tried to get a bearing to find the nearest shelter, but something was wrong. At first, the device wroked as it should, fining magnetic north. But then it spun the opposite direction. Then it pointed east, southwest, northeast, it just woudn't stop changing direction.

"Shit." Jackson cursed.

"What?"

"The compass is goin' all screwy!"

"There must be a lot of iron in the soil here!" Mayfield suggested.

"Must be, but it doesn't do no good for us!"

Their directional tool unreliable, they both trudged on through the blinding white blasts of snow. They stuck together, niether letting the other out of his sight, to get separated now might mean death. They had to find shelter now, or else they may freeze due to exposure. For fifteen more minutes the stomped on, beginning to lose hope for themselves. Then Mayfield spotted something. Up ahead, through the wind and snow, an enormous outcropping of rock and ice. On the face of rock turned towards them, Mayfield could see an opening, a gap, through which one might fit and take shelter from the cold. It wasn't much, but it was better than nothing.

As they ran up to it, Jackson took a look the the snow and ice above the entrance, "I don't like the look of that. What if all that falls and blocks us in?"

"What if we don't go in and freeze to death out here?" Mayfield retorted.

"Good point."

Together they entered the small cave. The relief from the biting wind was sudden and greatly welcomed. Once inside, they found they could stand comfortably. The interior was spacious, but not overly large. It should be able to heat up quickly enough with what they had. Almost immediately, Jackson got to work with some heat sticks he carried in a side pocket.

"There, not so bad in here, is it?" Mayfield said cheerfully.

"Yeah, just as long as we don't get trapped in here."

"Oh, come now, we've nothing to worry about. I'm sure we'll be just fine in here, sturdy walls and all." Mayfield reassured, giving the cave wall a few solid smacks with his palm.

Just then, there was a slight rumbling. It grew and grew some more. Jackson looked over his shoulder and saw some pebbles fall by the entrance. Unfortunately, they were chased by a heavy amount of snow and rock that completely covered the entrance and plunging the two into complete darkness.

"Sshhhit"

2: Capture

Chapter 2: Capture

"Christopher Mayfield, that's my name, though ma friends usually call me Topher, or Toph, Scratch to my team. Joined up at nineteen, somehow winded up goin' fer the SAS, don't know how I passed selection, and here I am. What about you, mate?"

Mayfield and Jackson were still holed up in the cave with nothing but some chemical head pads for warmth and some chemsticks for light. The chemsticks cast a ghostly green glow onto their faces. Currently, they decided to wait out the storm for a while before trying to dig out since they could still hear it raging outside and there seemed to be a source of fresh air coming from somewhere. To pass the time, they were getting to know each other a little better.

"Not much to my story either. Name's Darius Jackson, or Rocka, Grew up in Brooklyn with two brothers and two sisters, parents were nice, but they're gone now. My family didn't make much, so my childhood wasn't the greatest, but it was better than most kids' there. My brothers and sisters tried to go to college, but I wasn't about all that, so I went to the Navy. Next thing I knew, they were sending me all over the country for training."

"Huh...."

"So you're a sniper, huh?" Jackson asked.

"Yeah, mostly. I'm a fair shot with the right tool."

"I had a buddy of mine, was our designated marksman. I tell ya, he could pull off some good shots with nearly anything."

"The bloke from the photo?"

"Yeah."

"He was a good friend, wasn't he?"

"Sure was. We met in training and just kind of hit it off. He didn't have much growing up, like me. Even his parents were fucked up. But he pulled it together somehow. He used to come with me back to Brooklyn on leave, my family just took him right in. He was like another brother to me."

"What happened?"

"*sigh* Fucked up Op. It was simple snatch and grab, but when we got to the exfil vehicle, it wouldn't start. We had a ton of hostiles on us. Stupid motherfucker stayed behind and drew them off 'til we got it started and got away. Haven't seen or heard of him since. Six months later, he was declared dead, but I didn't believe it. Still don't believe it. Not until I see a body."

"Whew, that's rough. I'm sorry mate."

"It's ok."

"Well, I'm gonna get a little shut eye, mind covering the lights?" Mayfield requested.

"Sure."

Jackson picked up the chemsticks from the cold floor of the cave and slid them into a pocket, leaving the flap open to allow at least some of the light to escape to keep him comfortable in the small space. Across the way, Mayfield got comfortable and set his head on his shoulder, soon nodding off. Jackson sat there in the darkness, pondering his situation. He was sure to get a good ass chewing for this, he should have been paying attention to where he was at.

Bored, he looked around. On the ceiling, small icicles hung, sharp points aiming threateningly down at him. A cool breeze tickled his face, a peculiar sensation in the cave. Curious, Jackson pulled a pinch of dust from the ground, held it high and released it. The small cloud mostly dropped to the floor, but there was a slight lateral movement. As far as he could tell, the breeze was coming from deeper into the cave.

Jackson got to thinking that there may be another way out, that maybe they wouldn't have to dig. Taking out one of the chemsticks, he got up and went towards the back. The further he went, the smaller it got. Soon, he was crawling almost on hands and knees. He also felt the breeze becoming stronger, fresher. Up ahead, he thought he could see daylight. He wanted to go further, but he didn't want to leave Mayfield behind. So he scootched back and made his way to where he had come from.

Jackson crawled up to Mayfield and shook him gently on the shoulder, "Hey, Mayfield, wake up."

Mayfield snorted and sat up straight, "Huh, wha-?"

"I think I found a way outta here."

"What? You sure?" Mayfield asked, now sitting bolt upright.

"Yeah, I think so. C'mon, grab your shit, let's go."

"Right, right."

Jackson gathered his own equipment, cradling his weapon in his arms. He led Mayfield to the back of the cave and into the small passage he had found. When it got tighter, Jackson struggled to get his large firearm through, but he persisted. Eventually, after crawling some distance on their bellies, they broke out into a wider corridor where they could get up and stand. Jackson saw the light from before and walked towards it. It still looked like daylight, but seen from down a long hallway. He trod up to it and saw that it was but a tiny hole in a wall of rock.

"Dammit" Jackson cursed.

Mayfield walked to it and took a closer look, "Hmm... Doesn't look all that thick. You got anything ya can chip through with?"

"Naw, I left all that stuff in my rack. Didn't think I was gonna use it."

"Well, we have guns."

"Loaded with non-lethal paint tipped rounds."

"Better than nothin'."

"*sigh* Yeah, I guess it's worth a shot. Cover your ears."

Mayfield retreated back a few steps and cupped his hands over his ears. Meanwhile, Jackson brought the muzzle of the Mk 43 to the edge of the hole. Then, bracing himself for the pain he was about to caused himself, he fired. The automatic weapon created a furious din in the tight confines of the rocky space. He let the firearm go until the belt of ammunition was expended and the weapon clicked dry. A dull ringing remained in his ears, constant and painfully annoying. The hole was wider, but only slightly so and ringed with slightly fluorescent green slime.

"RAAAGGHH, Fuck this shit!" Jackson screamed in anger and pain.

He flipped his weapon around and started hammering away at the edges of the hole with the butt of his gun. Little by little, the stone began breaking of in chips and falling to the floor. Mayfield just stood by and watched in amusement as the large man began to break through the shell of rock like a hatchling from it's egg. Finally, after so much effort, the hole was now at least big enough for a man, stripped of equipment to slide through. Exhausted, Jackson sat down against a wall and rubbed the ears on the side of his head, trying to soothe the aching pain.

"That's one way to do it." Mayfield commented, "Well, let's see what's on the other side."

Slowly and cautiously, Mayfield poked a head out through the hole and looked around. Outside all he saw was a strange light mist. The air was still as chilly as it ever was. Other than that, the area was clear. Before continuing, he went and sat down next to his large companion.

"Seems the storm's passed. Ready to get out of here?" He asked.

"WHAT!?" Was Jackson's reply as he massaged his ears, urging his hearing to return faster.

"I'll take that as a yes." Mayfield chuckled.

Mayfield waited until Jackson's hearing gradually returned. Then when he was ready, they both stripped down their equipment and got ready to pass through the hole in the wall. Mayfield went through first, worming his way through as best he could. Once he was on the other side, Jackson passed the man's rifle, vest and pistol belt through, along with all of his own gear. Then it was Jackson's turn. While the hole he had created was large enough for Mayfield to squeeze through, Jackson had a tougher time of it. His broad shoulders almost wouldn't fit, but after some flailing and a helpful pull by Mayfield, he was out.

After some stretching, Jackson joined Mayfield in putting all their equipment back on. Both reloaded their weapons, making sure everything was loaded with a fresh mag. After locking another belt of ammo into his Mk 43, Jackson pulled out his radio.

"Alpha one, this is Hotel one, we got caught up in the storm, but we're ok now. What's the current situation? Over." He spoke into it.

He waited a moment, but no response came. A bit worried, he tried again, "Alpha one, this is Hotel one, I need a sitrep, over."

Still nothing.

"Hey Mayfield, something's wrong, I can't raise th--"

"Shhh!"

Jackson stopped and looked on in a bit of confusion at his companion. Mayfield was crouched down by the ground, examining the snow. Gently, he ran his fingers over and around some strange shapes imprinted in the fluffy white powder. Then a thought occurred. There shouldn't be any fluffy white powder. The winds that had blown through naught but a moment ago should have left nothing but a hard crunchy shell. Something was off.

Mayfield felt it too, but for a different reason. The imprints he was examining in the snow were strange. They almost appeared to be human, but the toes seemed to end in thick claws. Besides all that, someone, or something, was walking around barefoot in the cold stuff like it was sand on a sunny beach. Trusting his instincts, Mayfield drew his pistol and chambered a round.

"I don't like the looks of this, Jackson." The Briton said in a low half whisper, "Everything seems... different. And these tracks, I have no idea what could of left these."

Jackson walked over and looked at the tracks, "Damn. Sasquatch maybe?"

"Whatever it is, it was here not too long ago." Mayfield said, eyeing the strange fog around them with an uneasy gaze.

Suddenly, a twig snapped behind them, back the way they came. Jackson spun around, but saw only the rock wall from which they had emerged.

"Shit, above you!" Mayfield shouted.

Jackson looked up and saw one of the strangest things he'd ever seen. Standing on top of the rocky formation, leaning over the edge, was a large humanoid being. It had mottled green and brown skin, which was mostly covered by a mismatch of medieval looking armor. it's head was topped with lanky and greasy looking hair, black as pitch. Framed in the strands of messy hair was a brutish face, small black eyes and a hooked nose, jagged yellowed teeth poking out from cracked and blistered lips. It was barefoot, the shape of it's feet matching that of the prints in the snow. Jackson didn't really pay attention to any of this however, most of his attention was focused on the long black sword it held menacingly in one hand.

"What in the bloody hell is that thing!?" Mayfield said in astonishment.

"I don't know, but I don't think we're in Kansas anymore..."

The creature let loose a terrifying bellow and leaped off the rock, sword gripped in both hands high over its head. Jackson barely got his weapon up in time, holding high with both hands to block the attack. The sword came down in a swift arc, smashing into the firearm. Mayfield rapidly pulled the trigger of his pistol, sending several rounds splattering onto the creature's chest and face. This only pissed it off, the creature kicked Jackson hard in the gut and turned its attention to Mayfield.

Mayfield holstered his sidearm and drew a long knife from a sheath attached to the small of his back, dropping into a ready combat stance. The monstrous being slashed and hacked at the man, but he managed to duck and dodge the swipes of the blade, occasionally deflecting one with the flat of his knife. Meanwhile, Jackson recovered and hefted his Mk 43.

"Mayfield! Down!"

Mayfield dropped to the ground just before Jackson unleashed automatic fury on the creature. It turned to face its new threat, which proved to be its undoing. Multitudes of rounds impacted its face, chest, arms and legs. The ones that hit its face tore into its mouth and nose, blinding its eyes. It let out a howl of agony and rage, blindly charging its adversary. Jackson ducked down and let the thing's torso impact his shoulder, then forced his body upright, sending the creature tumbling up over the man, landing hard on its back behind him. Mayfield was on it in an instant, burying his knife in its throat. It gurgled and gasped for air for a few seconds, dark crimson blood gushing from its neck, before finally succumbing to the lethal wound and passing into the void.

Mayfield extracted his blade and stood up next to Jackson, both were panting heavily, "What do you suppose that is?" He said, gesturing to the now lifeless body.

"I ain't got a clue, but it just tried to kill us. Dead now, though."

"Better it than us. I'm going to try raising camp again, this needs to be reported." Mayfield took out his own radio and got to work trying to contact their base of operations.

While he did that, Jackson knelt by the body and studied the strange being. It was nothing like he'd ever seen. Something completely alien and not of his world. It also reminded him of the Predator, which made him shiver. Then he noticed something. A faint buzzing in the air, like an aircraft was flying somewhere in the sky. He looked up, but over head was just as obscured by fog as everywhere else. He strained to listen, wondering if anyone was out searching for them. Then he heard something else, something he did not expect to high in the frozen north. The sound of hooves, galloping through the snow. Remembering how their first encounter since leaving the cave just went, Jackson moved to get out of sight, grabbing Mayfield as well.

"Hey! What you doing?" He asked in annoyance as Jackson dragged him around the corner of the rocky outcropping.

"We have company." Jackson explained, putting his back to the wall and peeking around the corner.

"Good, it might be a recovery team. Coffee and warm food!"

"It sounds like they're riding horses. You remember us ever having horses up here?"

"Uh... huh, no I don't."

In silence they waited, the sounds of hooves getting closer and slowing as they did. Jackson listened and estimated there were four, maybe five of them. Soon, the pounding hooves reached them, but they remained out of sight, their shapes barely discernable in the fog. Jackson watched, noting that the shapes didn't appear as large as a horse should. It looked like they stood just up to his chest and he couldn't tell if there were riders. Another strange aspect was that they seemed to be wearing some kind of armor and some had bulky equipment strapped to their backs or on their heads.

The steeds trotted around the body in the mist, sometimes lowering a head to inspect the corpse. They walked around, like they were searching the area for something. Jackson and Mayfield did their best to keep hidden, lest their riders also be hostile.

"You see anything?" Came a voice from among the group of quadrupeds.

Another answered it, "No, but there are definitely signs of a struggle here, if the body is any indication. Looks like there were two more here. Wait a second. Now this is worrying."

Jackson tried to find the source of the voices, but he still couldn't spot the riders. He thought that maybe they were somewhere behind their mounts.

"Look here," the second voice said, "shell casings. Lots of them. And disintegrating belt links! Whatever took this guy down was pretty well armed."

"What's that goop all over his body?"

"I'm not sure. Something else, too. There aren't any bullet wounds. The cause of death is a knife wound on the throat."

"Think maybe whatever did this is still around?"

"One way to find out. Silver!"

One of the horses trotted over to the two by the body, "Sir?"

"Try and locate what did this, looks like bipeds, maybe more limas, can you do that?"

"Yes sir."

The horse backed up a few steps and Jackson was surprised when a silvery white light flashed briefly on the top of it's head. Suddenly, it spun around, it now faced the corner Jackson and Mayfield were hiding behind. Jackson ducked back behind it. His blood froze when he heard the tell-tale *click-clack* of several weapons being loaded.

"We know you're there and we know you're armed!" The second voice shouted. "Put your weapons down and come out slowly!"

"Shit, what's all that about?" Mayfield quietly asked.

"I'm clueless. They speak English though. Maybe we can talk to them."

"Yeah, talk to them," Mayfield said sarcastically, "because they can speak English. Not to mention that they have guns and the intent to use them!"

Jackson ignored his companion and edged closer to the corner, "Hey, we don't mean any harm, we were attacked." He yelled around the corner.

"Identify yourself!" The voice demanded.

"I'm Chief Jackson, I'm with the U.S. Navy."

"Hold on, did you say the U.S.?"

"Yes I did. You're actually trespassing right now, I suggest you leave."

"I'm sorry, but you're the trespasser here, and I'm going to need you to come with us. Or else."

Jackson turned to Mayfield, "What do you think?"

"You're asking me? Well, I'm certainly not going with them."

"So what should we do?"

"Leg it."

"Leg it?"

"Leg it." Mayfield said, nodding.

"Ok, here's what we're gonna do then. From what I can tell, that cave we crawled through was a straight line, so there should be that patch of dead forest back there, right?"

"Guess so. We headin' there?"

"Yeah."

"Sounds good. So on three?"

"Yup, let's go."

"Ok, three!"

Both of them took off running in the direction they thought the trees were. After only a few seconds, Jackson heard the sound of pounding hooves behind them, their pursuers must have mounted their rides. Jackson and Mayfield huffed and puffed, racing desperately to get to cover where they might be able to lose their would be captors. But the sound of the hooves were catching up fast.

"Mayfield!" Jackson shouted.

"What!?"

"They don't know about you." Jackson said between breaths, "Let's split up, I'll try to draw them off."

"I don't know about that, we should stick together."

"Just do it." Jackson snapped.

"Ok ok, jeez, where should we meet?"

"I'll radio you."

"Gotchya, be careful!"

Mayfield reluctantly peeled off and went in a different direction. To distract his pursuers, Jackson raised his weapon and let off two bursts into the air. The hooves started coming at him harder now, so Jackson ran faster, almost breaking into a sprint. He ran and ran, searching for the grove of trees that should have been there, but never showed. It was just the same white mist and fluffy snow. A shot rang off behind him and a spot of snow exploded into the air beside him. A warning shot.

Jackson turned and tried to fire off a bust to dissuade those that were chasing him, but all he got was a click. He looked at his weapon, the ejection port was busted, a shell was lodged in there. Damage the weapon probably sustained in the attack. Jackson cursed and threw his firearm around his back, where it hung from its strap. The horses were on his heels now and there was still no cover in sight.


He knew he couldn't run forever, so Jackson did the only thing he could do. He stopped. He stopped and turned round to confront his pursuers, hand resting on the M9 in its holster. The horses stopped as well, their shapes remaining in the fog, just enough that Jackson couldn't see any detail.

"Take your hand of your weapon!" A voice shouted.

"Not until I get some answers! What the hell is going on here?" Jackson shouted back.

"You're in no position to ask questions. Silver, if he makes a move, stun 'im."

"Yes sir."

"I don't care what position I'm in! I ain't goin' no where with no one until somebody tells me what the hell is going on!" Jackson shouted in anger, "What the fuck you y'all think your doing out here, with live weapons, in the middle of a goddamn training exercise!? This area is property of the United States government!"

"United States? I don't know who you are human, but you're a long way from home. Silver, stun him, we're taking him back for questioning."

That last sentence was all Jackson need to hear. He spun on a heel, drawing his pistol as he did. Then he took off at a sprint, firing over his shoulder as he did. He wouldn't be able to take any of them out, nut the marker rounds might surprise them and let him slip away. Except this wasn't to be the case. Out the corners of his eyes, Jackson saw the same silvery white flash he saw earlier. A strange tingling sensation washed over his body, this suddenly turned into a violent electric shock. Then his body flopped into the cold snow and his mind drifted to darkness.

3: Questions

Chapter 3: Questions

In a secluded corner of Canterlot Castle, a part that was rarely visited by the the staff and almost never by civilians, a dark rusty coated unicorn with electric blue hair sat behind a desk, scribbling words out onto a piece of parchment with a magically animated quill. He was wearing a shadowy digital patterned uniform over his coat, on patches of hide that were visible, the faint lines of scars accumulated during a rough life could be seen. On his uniform, he wore a patch that featured a phoenix with the letters RSTG embroidered in gold over it.

The room the stallion sat in had only one window that looked out over the lowlands. On the wall opposite, and old cuckoo clock was secured, the turning of it's gears and clicking of it's inner workings providing soft background noise. It was soothing and helped him concentrate, something he welcomed after accepting the responsibilities of his current job. It had been almost two years now, almost two to the day since he had accepted his appointment to this posting. He had big shoes to fill too. He was only the second officer to ever hold the position.

Sometimes he thought back to the day. The day they had lost the first one. They day his land was saved from a ruthless invasion, but at a great cost. Sometimes he thought back to the days before that one. When he was with his old team, doing his nation's work, hooves on. Not stuck behind a desk like was now.

His nostalgia for the old days was interrupted by a soft knock at the door.

"Come in." The stallion at the desk said casually.

The door swung open and a charcoal coated pegasus with bright green eyes and a steely mane walked in. His left wing was folded to his side awkwardly, as if still affected by an old injury. The dark stallion came forward to the desk and sat himself down at one of the two seats in front of it. The unicorn looked up and was delighted to see an old friend.

"Flash! How are you doing? It's been a long time."

"Yeah, been pretty busy, especially with all the trouble some of the tribes are causing. How's your desk job, Sparks?"

"Not bad. A little boring, but it has to be done. Honestly, I had no idea how much paperwork this organization could generate."

"Yeah, for all the secrets you'd think Princess Luna would want less of it." The pegasus chuckled.

"Ha ha, yeah..."

"How's your little foal doing?"

"Great! He's already tinkering with machines, just like his parents. What's going on with you and Pinkie, still going steady?"

"Yup, things are good. She worries a lot though. I can't help but feeling a little guilt about what it does to her. Heh, she goes out of her way to through a party for me every time I come back home. But I'm afraid of what it might do to her when I don't come back." Flash said with a dour tone.

"Well, hopefully it won't ever come to that. It's been a couple of years now and the treaties are still intact. Your patrols couldn't be easier."

"That's actually why I'm here. We hit a slight snag on the last one." Flash told his old friend, voice becoming serious.

"What is it?" Sparks asked, worry welling up in his eyes as he picked up on Flash's change of demeanor.

"Up north, we found a dead member of the Renegade Tribes. Fresh kill, messy yet clean at the same time. We found the the thing that caused it. Took it prisoner."

"Is that all?" Sparks said with some relief, "Just turn it in to its tribe and call it a day."

"That's the thing, it wasn't killed by its own kind. It's a human."

Sparks' eyes went wide with shock and he leaned over his desk, closer to his friend, "Are you sure!?"

"Absolutely positive. We have it in lock up, the vault."

Sparks got up and put his paper and quills away. Then he used his magic to levitate a pistol belt from where it hung by the door, belting it around himself, checking that the firearm holstered there was snug in its place. Flash got up to join Sparks as he walked out of his office.

"Has Princess Luna been informed?" The unicorn inquired of the pegasus.

"I sent a runner just before I came to tell you."

"Good."

The two stallions walked together at a brisk pace, almost a trot, down the long corridor that led to Sparks' office. On either side, it was lined with beautifully crafted stained glass windows, much like the wing that housed the Elements of Harmony. Only instead of featuring the deeds of a certain group of ponies from a small town in Equestria, these depicted scenes of a great battle that took place not too long ago, lit from behind by the dimming sun of late afternoon. It showed images of ponies and griffons alike locked in a vicious battle with strange two legged monsters.

Most fought amongst each other on the ground, eternally locked in a violent struggle with hoof and sword. Still others exchanged volleys of arrows and bolts. One window showed a small fleet of tiny airships attacking and harassing a ship of much greater size. There was one window, at the end of the hall, that had the most curious picture of all.

It showed a faceless two legged figure, armed with strange weapons. It stood side-by-side with with a group of ponies and even one of the monsters from the other windows. All wore matching uniforms and armor. They even had the same insignia emblazoned on each of their shoulders. They were shown pushing back the brutal hordes of invaders, working together to bring peace and protect those they cared for.

As they passed this last panel, Sparks and Flash viewed it longingly, their eyes lingering for a brief moment before continuing on in their task. The two stallions left the passageway and went down some stairs to the main corridor of the palace. The hall was busy with staff and servants, preparing for the change of guard that was soon to take place. Much of this went unobserved by the two, their minds lay on more important matters.

After walking some distance, they finally came upon an innocent and unassuming stair that led downwards into the depths of the palace. To most, it would look like any other boring stair case, laced with a few cobwebs and almost eternally dusty, but that was its ruse. If one were to descend the stair, like the two stallions now, they would find themselves at a large iron bound door, two stories high and guarded steadfastly by the best the nation had to offer.

The guards at the door stiffened and became wary as the two other ponies approached. However, all Sparks had to do was simply step forward and show himself. The guards, recognizing the rank and status of the stallion standing before them, immediately snapped to attention and rendered a salute, allowing them both to pass through the now opening doors.

Flash and Sparks entered and found themselves in Celestia's secret underground vault. An enormous hidden room sequestered in the bowels of Canterlot. Its primary purpose was to house the myriad trinkets and artifacts from other worlds that sometimes slip through the folds of reality and found their way into theirs. Most were harmless and posed no threat to the denizens of Equestria, but some, some were quite dangerous.

Now, it was also used as a sort of armory, and brig, for Equestria's secretive special forces. Through the side rooms and galleries of the clandestine vault was a small passageway that didn't appear to be much. But upon following it, one would find themselves in a long hallway, its walls on either side hosting thick wooden doors with heavy locks on them. It was here that Equestria's most dangerous criminals, those that sought to bring terrible harm to the county's populace, were kept under lock and key.

At the moment, almost all of these rooms were empty. A couple were occupied, members of the Renegade Tribe that had attacked villages and pillaged homes. Here they would be questioned, all the facts gathered, before being released to their own kind to be tried in the ways of their kin. Other than that, this corner of the vault was quite empty. Save for one room, ensconced far in the back, where none might disturb it. At it's door, a special guard stood, members of the RSTG the patches on the front of their uniforms feature a knife crossed with a wrench. Embroidered above the image was the title; The Fixers.

"Has he been any trouble?" Flash asked the two members of his team.

"Some, sir." Replied a silver white unicorn with a light blonde mane, "He's broken out of his restraints three separate times, we have him suspended and restrained magically now, sir."

"Broken from his restraints?" Sparks asked quizzically, "How badly is he freaking out about us?"

"He doesn't know." Flash answered.

"He doesn't know?"

"I thought it would be best. When we captured him, he seemed to think that we were also human. To be honest, visibility at the time was extremely poor. When we knocked him out, we black bagged him and set him up in here. As far as he knows, he's still back on his own world." The pegasus explained.

"This is troubling. I don't want a human here freaking out about his situation."

"There's one other thing..." Flash started, "When we searched his uniform, we found this," he produced a uniform top that had a patch with the image of an eagle carrying a trident and flintlock pistol in its claws, "and this."

From a pocket on his uniform, Flash pulled out a photograph. Sparks took it with his magic and studied it. At first, it seemed just like a random photo, but with humans instead of ponies, there were five of them at a beach somewhere. But as he looked closer, an expression of astonishment sprung to the unicorn's face.

"Is that... James!?" Sparks asked with shock, eyes going wide.

"Sure is. And that bigger one next to him, with the dark skin? That's the one we have locked up right now."

"You're kidding!"

"You remember any of the old stories he used to tell? About his old team?"

"Yeah, some."

"Lieutenant Commander Flash, Commander Sparks, what is all this ruckus about a human being found?"

The two stallions turned and suddenly found themselves face to face with Princess Luna.

"Ma'am," Sparks started, giving her a short salute, "Lieutenant Commander Flash and his team captured a human during their patrol in the Frozen North." He reported to her.

"I see. Do you know the location and manner in which he arrived?" She inquired.

"We have the location marked on a map," Flash chimed in, "but we are still unaware as to the way he got here."

"Very well. I shall have Ms. Sparkle informed and dispatched to the site in the morning. Commander Sparks, I expect you to assign her an escort."

"Yes ma'am. There's also something else you should know, ma'am." Sparks added.

"What is it?"

"This human, it seems knew James at some point in time."

"How so?" Luna asked expectantly.

"He's wearing the same unit patches James did when he first arrived. That, plus he had this in his possession." Sparks showed her the photo.

"Hm... interesting. Have any of you attempted to speak with our guest?" Luna asked.

"Negative." Flash said.

"Then let us begin now, perhaps we can learn more. Open the door."

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



The darkened hood was stuffy and scratchy. It had been who knows how long he had been wearing it. He couldn't see any light out of it to be able to tell. On top of that, he had no idea where he was. Jackson knew that after being rendered unconscious by the strange blast of energy, he had been transported to some other location, but to where or how far away he had gone, he had no clue. He had tried escaping three times now, but each time he had been recaptured an restrained again. After the third time, instead of putting on a different style of shackles, he found himself floating weirdly, like he was in some sort of suspension tank, only he couldn't move his arms or legs. In addition, the same peculiar tingling feeling from before teased his body, only this time there was no pain.

The sound of the door latch unlocking reached Jackson's ears and caused his body to tense up. Then came the painfully annoying sound of the door swinging slowly open on squeaky and neglected hinges. Then another thing happened that had been baffling him for some time. Rather than the foot steps he had expected to hear, the sound of hooves on a stone floor echoed throughout the room. As best as he could guess, he was being held captive in some kind of stable.

"Hello human, we wish to speak with you." Came a voice from his front.

The voice sounded feminine and young, but also with a tone of experience and wisdom, like the speaker was very old.

"Hey, I don't know what about, I don't really know anything." Jackson replied calmly, "Especially with this rag you got pulled over my head."

"Our apologies on that, but we found it necessary."

"Uh-huh, sure, whatever. How about lettin' me go now, I got shit to do."

"I'm afraid we can't do that just yet, we need to know more about you first."

"Well that's a problem. There ain't really shit to know about me." Jackson chuckled.

"The items we found in your possession say otherwise. Where are you from?"

"Everywhere." Jackson answered in defiance.

"Please try to be cooperative, we mean you no harm."

"Yeah, I've heard that before. Right before I got my fingers smashed with a hammer. C'mon, this is some really amateur shit."

"I assure you, we will not bring harm to you."

"Yeah, then let me go then."

"In due time. First, we wish to learn your intent."

"Intent? What kind of mind game bullshit is this? Is this some kind of test or something, did Bellis change the rules again? I'll tell you what, though, you ain't gettin' nothin' outta me." Jackson said without seriousness. The whole thing was starting to come off like a joke to him.

"Maybe this might change your mind." Came another voice from his left, this time male, "Would you by any chance know James?"

"James? I know a lot of James', it ain't all that rare a name. You might as well ask me if I know a guy named Bob!"

"Kaughn. His name is James Kaughn."

Jackson's heart nearly stopped. The drop of that name caused a shock to his system, but now he was angry.

"Ok, ok. This is starting to go to far now. I'm done with this little game or whatever this is." Jackson said, his temper rising.

"I assure you, this is no game." Said the female voice.

"You know what? Take this fucking mask off, I wanna see responsible for this shit." Jackson said with ire.

"Are you sure?" Asked the female voice.

"Yes, I'm fucking sure!"

"Very well..."

The hood that was over Jackson's face lifted and floated away, enshrouded in a dark blue aura. Standing on the ground in front of him, or rather below him as he was suspended at least five feet in the air, were five ponies. On each side of the stood a unicorn and a regular looking pony, the unicorn's horn was glowing a dull red. Jackson looked down and saw all of his body, save his head, was covered in the same dull red aura, additionally, he was stripped of his cold weather gear, all of his equipment and his uniform top. Directly before him stood three more ponies.

One was a dark charcoal gray with two wings on it's back, one hung at an awkward angle on its side. The second was a rusty red with an electric blue mane, a horn protruded from its forehead. The third had both wings and a horn. Its coat was a midnight blue while its mane looked like a night sky be speckled with stars and seemed to flow in a non-existant wind. In addition, the third one stood about a head taller than the rest. Except for the large pony, four of them were wearing matching uniforms of dark digital camouflage.

Then the one in the middle spoke with the same feminine voice Jackson had just been conversing with, "Please do not be alarmed, we mean no harm and only wish to speak with you."

"What the fuck is this Mr. Ed shit? Nix, is this your idea of a prank, did you do this?" Jackson shouted at the walls around him. "I swear, Nix, if this is your doing, I'm gonna kick your ass when I get down from here!"

"There is no 'Nix' here," the cosmically maned one continued, "I am Princess Luna, these here are a few of my subordinates."

"'Princess Luna, right." Jackson scoffed.

"I ask that you take this seriously." Luna said sternly.

"Yeah, yeah, take off the freaky horse costume, lady, then I'll take this seriously."

Luna didn't answer this time, instead staying silent. For a moment, Luna and Jackson stared each other down, neither yielding to the other. Then, Luna backed away and exited the room, Sparks and Flash following behind her and closing the door. Once outside, Luna reared up and kicked the wall in anger.

"Ugh! He is so stubborn! And that last comment, just... Ugh!" She huffed, kicking the wall again. "Are you absolutely sure that human in there was a friend of James?" She asked Sparks.

"If that photo is anything to go by, they knew each other well enough to hang out together. Don't take anything he says to personally either, ma'am. I'm not sure he's completely aware of the situation he's in."

"Hmmm. I must speak with my sister. Continue to interrogate him and lessen his restraints if he calms down." Luna ordered.

"Yes ma'am."

4: Escape

Chapter 4: Escape

Jackson floated there stewing in his own anger. He didn't know what was going on, but everything was out of whack. He didn't know how he was being suspended above the floor, maybe some kind of wire system. And these guards, they were ponies, ponies, of all things! It was a situation he wasn't sure how to handle, but he knew one thing, he had to get out of there. Mayfield was still out there. He need to meet up with him and find a way back to base.

Something still bothered him though. The pony, the one with the horn, a unicorn, if that was what it really was, had asked about Kaughn. How the hell would it know about him? He was sure they had taken the photo from his pocket, but he hadn't written any names down on it. Besides, there were five of them in that photo, so even if they knew that he'd known Kaughn, they'd still have to know what he looked like. Whatever was going on, he was gonna try to get some answers before he escaped.

The door across from him opened again, hinges squeaking. The horned pony, the unicorn, from before entered and shut the door behind him. Jackson and the unicorn stared at each other. Each wary of the other. Finally, Jackson spoke.

"So you guys lettin' me go, or not?"

"I don't know. Do you intend to bring harm to our country, or not?" The unicorn replied.

"Motherfucker, I don't even know where I am! But apparently, this ain't Earth, seeing as how I'm suddenly surrounded by a bunch of talking ponies."

"I'll tell you where you are, but I need you to tell me something."

"How about you tell me something," Jackson countered, "how the fuck do you know Kaughn?"

The unicorn stared at him for a moment, not moving or even seeming to breathe. Then, "Ok. I'll tell you."

"Just like that?" Jackson asked skeptically.

"Just like that. James came to us almost three years ago. Nopony is entirely sure how he got here or where he came from."

"Hold up, hold up. Three years ago? Naw, that's some bullshit, he's been missing for almost seven years!"

"Seven? Hm... interesting. Anyway, after he spent some time acclimating and adjusting to the new culture and environment here, our ruler, Princess Celestia, enlisted him in her service to help combat a new threat to our land. A threat that wasn't fully realized until it was almost too late. She commissioned him to train some of her guards for a special task force. I was one of those he hand picked."

"That's a pretty good story. How long it take you to come up with that?" Jackson mocked.

"Ok. How about this then?"

The unicorn flared his magic, his horn taking on a wavering light blue aura. A similar aura appeared on an holster strapped to his side. Jackson watched with baffled interest as a pistol was pulled from the holster and made to float in front of his face. At first he thought nothing of it, maybe an intimidation tactic. But then he took a closer look at the weapon in front of him. All the scratches, the lines of wear on it, the style of the grip and the knock off brand model. It was an old M1911, one he had seen many times before.

"Where the hell did you get this?" Jackson asked with astonishment.

"He gave it to me. It was the last time I saw him. It was about two years ago." The unicorn explained.

"Who, Kaughn?"

"The very same."

"So he gave you his favorite weapon, just like that? Who the hell are you?"

"Well, he didn't just give it to me. It was more like a loan, I needed a sidearm and he gave me his. I was going to give it back to him, but I never saw him again."

"What do you mean you never saw him again?" Jackson asked, eyes narrowing.

"It's kind of a long story. You might not like it."

"Tell me."

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



Celestia lay resting on her bed, forelegs tucked comfortably under her, a relaxing book levitating in front of her by the warm golden glow of her magic. It had been a frustrating day and she needed all the recreation and rest she could get, even if for only a few hours before she had to sleep, wake up and do it all over again.

There was a soft knock at her chamber door.

"Who is it?" She asked without looking up from her book.

"Tia, it's me." Came the voice of her younger sister from the other side, "Are you busy?"

Celestia sighed. All she wanted to do was relax and forget about here day, if even for a moment. But it was her little sister and she would always have time for her, "Come in, Luna." She beckoned, placing her book to the side for now.

The chamber door swung open, admitting the moonlight princess into the bedroom before swinging shut again. She looked quite troubled, even though she had only been on her shift for a few hours now.

"What is it, Luna?" Celestia asked. "You look worried about something."

"It's the human Flash and his team captured. He isn't being very co-operative. He's very coarse, even insulting!" She complained.

"Now Luna, you knew what you were asking when you requested to take control of the RSTG and their activities." Celestia chided.

"I know, sister, I just wanted to take some of the weight off your back. You already do so much, especially with the tribes to deal with now."

"Oh yes, the tribes..." Celestia said with exhaustion.

"You had a meeting with their counsel today, how did that go?" Luna asked her sister.

"The same bickering as before. All of them want more land to stage their conquests against one another on, but there isn't any more I can give them. And on top of all that, the Renegade tribe is causing trouble for both us and them. I wish sometimes that we had not lost James. He might know a solution. His peoples' cultures and that of the Lotkin had many parallels."

"Hm hm, maybe he would knock a few heads together." Luna giggled.

"Hm, yes, that I'm sure he would." Celestia agreed

"As it so happens, we may have a solution, Tia." Luna offered.

"Really? How so?"

"The human we have in custody. It seems he might have been a friend of his."

"Is that so?" Celestia asked with interest.

"Yes."

"A Solution this may be indeed."

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



Jackson sat at a table now. Still in the same room, but as less of a prisoner. Even the guards that had been resolutely standing inside the cell on watch had been dismissed. Across from him was the unicorn he now knew was named Sparks. A Commander and the Director of the Royal Special Tasks Group. A special operations organization that was apparently founded, trained and run by his former teammate. Jackson had to admit that it was a lot to take in and he wasn't sure he even believed all of it.

"So this is where he's been, huh? 'Equestria', you called it."

"Correct." Sparks replied.

"So where is he now?"

"We don't know." The unicorn shrugged.

"What do you mean 'you don't know'? He was here, right? Where'd he go?" Jackson asked, getting angry again.

"There was another human. John Kraster. He organized an invasion force with the intention of taking over the country. Thanks to your friend, he was stopped, but in the process, we lost him."

"How?"

"He and another member of our team assaulted a flying fortress, a bomber Kraster's forces constructed to destroy us. They succeeded in destroying it. While they were still on board. Kraster was confirmed dead after we sifted through the wreckage looking for your friend, but as for James himself, he was never found." Sparks finished explaining.

"So he's still out there. He has to be."

"Well we just don't know that. We never found a body and it's been so long."

"Yeah, he pulled the same shit on us, but he was here instead. He's got to be alive." Jackson said stubbornly.

"*sigh*, I really hope so. He was a good friend to me, too."

"So we find him."

"It's not that easy."

"Bullshit, it ain't that easy. You get a team, we go out there, and we find him." Jackson told the unicorn, his voice rising, "If you were such a good friend, you'd do that."

"You don't think we've tried!?" Sparks replied, his temper now raising as well, "We searched for months out there, the sea, the mountains, the cities, we couldn't find a damn thing!"

"Well I've been searching for years!" Jackson shouted back, "I traveled all over the place, visiting all sorts of hellholes just hoping I'd find something, ANYTHING, that would tell me that my best friend, my brother, was still alive somewhere! And now I get to this fucked up little reality and find out he was here, only for you to tell me to give up, he's gone? Nuh-uh, no. You said you didn't find a body, well neither did we and looked how that turned out. He's still here, and I'm gonna find him." Jackson finished with fiery determination.

"Oh? And what do you suggest we do? We've tried everything." Sparks scoffed.

"Think about it, were you his only friend here?"

"Of course not! There was Flash, Garth, Myst... Feather.... Alister," Sparks listed, his voice taking a somber tone at the last two, "and don't even get me started on Ponyville, that whole town was friendly with him. Ms. Sparkle and her friends were even the first ones to...." Sparks drifted off, his eyes going blank as something connected in his mind.

"What, what is it?" Jackson asked, noticing the unicorn's blank expression.

"The girls..."

"The girls? What girls?"

"Nothing!" Sparks exclaimed, quickly getting up from his seat and making for the door. "I have to go check on something. Be good and we'll let you out, see if we can send you back home somehow, bye!" He quickly spit out.

"Naw, you don't just say something like that and leave, come back here! Sparks! Sparks!" Jackson shouted after him, but it was for naught.

Sparks exited the room and slammed the door shut behind him, the locks clicking back in place. Jackson sat there, dumbfounded at the sudden turn of events.

"Fuck this shit, I'm gettin' outta here."

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



Luna walked down the corridor with renewed purpose. She had another task to complete. If they didn't have James, the first human to have helped them out and rallied the fighting spirit of Equestria for its defense, maybe they could have the next best thing; one of his friends. All she had to do was talk to the man and persuade him to work for the court, like his friend did before. If everything went well, her sister might even trust her with more tasks, like helping with the squabble of politics among the world's nations and crushing the Renegade Tribe that still threatened the stability and well being of their subjects.

The thought of finally being included in the rule and workings of her country for so long put a little extra pep in her step. She felt lively and content, like the light of the stars were shining through her and nothing could stop her. As she neared the corner she would turn to reach the derelict passage that led down to the depths of the castle, the frantic sound of hooves rapidly galloping across the stone floor reached her ears.

A second later, a unicorn stallion with a silvery coat that held a natural sheen came barreling around the corner. Luna recognized him as one of Lieutenant Commander Flash's subordinates, a member of his team. His name was Sylver Lyne, she recalled His gray eyes were wide and his breath came ragged. The unicorn spotted the princess and tried to stop, hooves sliding across the floor.

"Your Majesty!" He cried through pants of breath. "We have a problem!"

"What is it?" Luna asked, a patch of coldness growing in her chest.

"It's the human, he escaped!"

The cold patch in Luna's chest suddenly solidified into a solid lump and dropped to her gut.

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



Jackson darted through the passageways of the palace he found himself in, dodging staff and guard alike, all of them ponies. The whole experience was still threatening to fry his brain, but he needed to stay focused. Getting out was easy enough. He smashed the table in his cell and salvaged a strip of metal from it. Then he used the strip to pry off the back plate of one of the locks on the door and knocked it out of the frame. The hard part was when the guards stationed outside his cell noticed this happening and like the good sentries they were, attempted to put a stop to it via barging in and kicking his ass.

Fortunately, they weren't entirely aware of exactly who they were fucking with. As soon as one of them dropped their guard, Jackson seized the opportunity took them by surprise. After everything was said and done, Jackson was leaving the room alone, two unconscious guards on the floor behind him.

Now all he had to do was escape the palace while remaining undetected, figure just where he was at in relation to where he was picked up somehow and then find Mayfield, where ever he was. It certainly was a daunting to-do list, but he didn't see any other options. At the moment, he was slinking down a wide hall way with a tall ceiling. One side was covered with a row of ornate windows, the other was lined with tall arches that led out into a moon lit garden.

From the intersecting passage down the way, Jackson heard the sound of hooves. Thinking quick, he ducked through an arch and dashed out into the garden. As fast as he could without making noise, he entered the brush and trees, threading his way through to the other side. After going some distance, he abruptly hit a wall. The wall was about ten feet tall and extremely well made, he couldn't spot any hand holds or cracks he could use to scale it. The landscaping need a little work, though, a little further down he saw the limb of a tree that extended from the trunk planted in the garden over the wall that he needed to get by.

Treading softly to the tree, Jackson jumped up to a low branch, gripping it with his powerful hands. He pulled himself up and balanced out onto the limb, being careful not to fall until he was at least over the wall. He made it across and looked past the wall, cursing at what he saw. The wall ended and the top of a short, but steep and rocky slope began. Gingerly, he lowered himself down onto the wall and then onto the beginning of the slope from there. Then with as much grace as he could muster, Jackson descended the treacherous rocky slope as quietly as he could.

With some luck and a little flourish, Jackson reached the bottom intact and undiscovered. He looked around to make sure nobody was around and continued on to his next obstacle. Before him now was another, larger, garden. Part of it veered off and appeared to turn into some kind of hedge maze, the other way had less cover and sported a variety of statues rising from the ground among the grass and brush. Jackson didn't have time to get lost in a maze, so he went the route of the statues.

Passing through medley of chiseled stone structures, Jackson couldn't help but to look at a few of them as he snuck by. Some were pretty straight forward, like the one with a pony standing triumphantly atop a hill aside a flag with three diamonds. Others went beyond his scope of understanding, the one that appeared to be a mix-match potpourri of several different animals especially threw him off. One in particular, however, caught his attention and forced him to pause in his flight.

It was a wide pedestal with a few different figures on it. Firstly, there were three different ponies; horned, winged and normal, all standing stoutly and armed in grim resolve. Next to them to their left was a gnarled looking creature, similar to the one Jackson and Mayfield had run into and fought upon arrival in this strange land, and a griffon. There was one more part to this statue, one that caught Jackson's attention most of all.

To the right side of the group was a faceless two legged figure that was clearly a man. He was armed with a marksman rifle and a long wicked knife strapped to his vest. The figure share almost all the same features as the rest, from the uniform they wore down to the defensive pose they held, except for one detail. Around the man's neck hung a bright silver-white medal. It rested on his chest just below the neck and was in the shape of an eight point star, four of the eight points half as long as the others, like a compass. The medal was not chiseled from stone, but a military decoration that had been placed around the man's neck after the statue's completion. Jackson stared at it for a awhile, his mind focused on nothing else but that stone formation and the story he had been told about his friend and former teammate.

"It was his, you know..." a wise motherly voice commented.

Jackson spun around at the comment, hands flying up into a defensive pose, body adopting a combat posture. Instead of an attacker he was met with another pony. This one was the same as the midnight blue one that had interrogated him earlier, except she was larger with a white coat and her hair was streaked with three different flowing pastel colors.

"Sorry, but I ain't going back to that little incarceration operation you got goin' on back there. I don't wanna hurt none of ya, so please just back off and let me go." Jackson warned.

"I'm sure it won't come to that," the large pony said, "but while we're out here, wouldn't you like to know a little more about your friend?" She asked.

"My friend? You mean Kaughn?" Jackson asked with curiosity, his guard relaxing just a little.

"Of course. That statue is of him and some of the warriors he fought along side with. That medal around his neck was an award I was going to present him with a long time ago. Unfortunately, we never got around to it." She said, gazing at the statue.

"Why's that?" Jackson inquired, his interest growing.

"Oh, a mixture of time constraints, scheduling conflicts and unfortunate events. Not to mention he wasn't all that fond of the attention."

"Yeah. That sounds like him. What's the medal and the statue for?"

"The medal is the Equestrian Star, the highest honor or country can bestow upon somepony that has done a great service to the land and it's peoples. This one I was awarding him with because of his involvement in finding and rescuing a number of our citizens that had been kidnapped and put to work as slave laborers for a horrible task. The statue itself though is a representation of sacrifice. It's a monument to all the brave warriors who put their best forward to defend us all and tragically lost everything they had in the process." She explained with some sorrow.

"He didn't die, right?" Jackson asked in an almost pleading tone, "that one guy in there said he might still be alive."

"It may be a possibility, but a slim one." The large horned and winged mare said with a slight knowing smile, "After the battle that inspired this statue, he was never seen again."

"A slim possibility is still a possibility." Jackson said stubbornly, "And I'll follow it until I find either him or his grave."

"Hm... maybe we could help each other."

"Yeah? How's that?" Jackson asked with suspicion.

"You want to search your friend. Equestria is a big place, doing so will be no easy task. I can provide you the means and equipment to help you."

"And what's the catch?"

"These services wouldn't be free, of course. What I want from you is your help."

"My help? My help with what?"

"While our country is safe for now, there is still unrest. Your friend, James, possessed skills that were useful in resolving many of the matters that plague us. When he left, he left a hole that so far none of my ponies could fill. However, you worked with him and you possess many of the same skills as he. All I ask is that you assist us, aid us in our plight and I will provide you with all that you need." She explained to him.

Jackson stood there, head bowed, one hand resting on his chin and considered everything she had just said. He needed to get home, he needed to report in, but he also needed to find his friend and he might not ever get another chance. With some reasoning, he made a decision.

"Ok, I'll do it." He announced, looking the mare straight in the eye. "I just need one more thing right now."

"And what is that?"

"I ain't the only guy that came here, I need to go find my other teammate."

5: Back In The Game

Chapter 5: Back In The Game

The hum of a large propeller and the cold rushing air from the open side door filled the main cabin of a small airship. Jackson now sat on a bench inside that ran along the starboard bulkhead. He was back in his uniform, but none of his weapons and equipment had been returned to him yet. Across from him sat the pegasus with the damaged wing and four other stallions. They all watched the man carefully. Neither party fully trusted the other.

Currently, they were all headed to an area near the Frozen North. There were reports there of a strange two legged snow beast that stole food and disappeared without a trace, all without injuring any of the ponies it stole from or threatening any of the villagers. Jackson of course knew better. He knew only one being that could possibly be doing all that.

Jackson leaned over and looked out the side door to the snowy ground below. They were just now passing over the village that reported the incidents. The homes within it were beautiful, the architecture was inspired by the fractal geometric patterns of snowflakes. Then, before he could really admire it, it was gone, the airship speeding past on its way to wilder places.

The pegasus with the damaged wing cocked his head to one side like he was listening to something. a second later, he looked directly at Jackson and started to speak, "We're nearing the site. When we put down, you stay here and let us find the guy."

"Flash, was it?" Jackson asked, "That's a pretty bad idea. He sees you and your crew coming and it's over, he bolts and we never see him again."

"We'll catch him, don't you worry."

"Yeah, and if you corner him, he's gonna fight back and this guy is at least as dangerous as me, if not more. I'll go snag him and bring him back. If he sees someone he trusts, he'll come out of hiding and I can explain to him the situation."

Flash considered this for a moment.

"Very well," he decided, "Sylver, you go with him."

A spark of annoyance flashed across Jackson's face, "That might not be a good idea."

"Either he goes with you, or we all go and you stay here." Flash gave in ultimatum.

"Fine, but he stays out of my way."

A few minutes later, the airship put down near a grove of trees. Flash's team filed out and took positions with practiced grace, each one of them setting up to cover a field of fire or avenue of attack. Jackson jumped down into the snow and scanned the area. On two sides was a line of trees. To the right was a slope that went down into the valley. On the left was a rise that culminated in a hill with steep sides. It had less cover, but Jackson knew his target. He was a sniper, he could disappear in any environment. And he had probably already seen them coming. Taking a deep breath, Jackson started off for the hill,

Sylver trotted out from the firing line and followed.

The human crunched through the snow with the unicorn following close behind in his footsteps. Jackson marched forward, annoyed at his situation, but he wasn't about to make it worse by causing a scene out here. He would play nice for now, find Mayfield, go back to that place they called Canterlot and get what he needed to find Kaughn from Celestia.

"How did you know him?"

Jackson stopped at the sudden question. He turned and saw the unicorn staring at him, curiosity in his golden hued eyes.

"Know who, Mayfield? We were just working together for a training exercise." The man answered, resuming his steps.

"No, not him. I'm talking about Commander Kaughn."

"Commander, huh? He get promoted?"

"I guess so..."

"Why do you want to know anyway?" Jackson asked the unicorn in a slightly hostile tone.

"Well, you actually worked with him, I want to know more than just the tales. I mean, he's the whole reason I applied for this job in the first place. If a stranger like that with no stake in the country could change the world the way he did, imagine what I could do."

"Why don't you ask your team leader there? From what little I was told, they were pretty good pals."

"They don't really like to talk about it all that much. Even our melee combat instructor would smack you around a little even at the mention of him. The subject of him is pretty much taboo for some reason." The unicorn said dolefully.

"Well, if you really want to know, he was a good man. Always looked out for his buddies, never enjoyed being the subject of attention. All around down to earth guy." Jackson told the stallion, without any flare.

"Oh. I expected something a bit more... exciting or heroic."

"Then stick to the stories, kid."

The next mile was spent walking mostly in silence, the situation between the two now growing somewhat awkward. They soon came to the base of the hill. Jackson looked up it and picked out a possible path to ascend among the rocks and trees. He started going up it, watching for signs of the SAS operative in the snow and on the trunks of the trees. At one point, the path leveled out and they came out into a small circular, shallow bowl like depression at about half way up the slope.

Jackson stopped. On one side of the opening, up hill, a stick lay in the snow. This would be unremarkable in itself, except this particular stick did not match many of its brethren that were scattered about the clearing. While all the other sticks and broken branches lay covered in a layer of undisturbed snow, this one looked like it had just recently fallen into the fluffy white powder.

Jackson looked up the slope and saw a patch of disturbed snow on top of a large boulder, "Ok, we gotta be careful, he's here." He warned the unicorn.

"Aye-up, ya miss me?"

Jackson slowly turned around to where the voice came from. Behind him and the stallion stood Mayfield, clad in his white winter gear, rifle in hand and barrel pointing straight at Jackson's chest. Gradually, he lowered his weapon, a wide grin appearing on his face.

"Long time, no see." Jackson replied.

"Yeah, was wonderin' when you were gonna show up. What happened to you radioing me?"

"These guys took all my equipment." Jackson explained while gesturing to Sylver.

"Thought I saw you get snapped up. So this really is a land of talking horses, eh?"

"You found out?"

"Who you think I been stealing food from, mate? Had a bit of a shock at first, but I think I'm all right now. Tell you what though, I'll definitely be drinkin' a skin full after this."

"Glad to see you're adjusting well."

"Yeah, you could say that. So, what we doin' now?"

"Looks like I made nice with the leadership here. Well, we won't be POWs or anything at least. They're gonna help us get back, in exchange, they want our help with some problems they've been having with some hostilities." Jackson told him.

"So we may be saying a while?"

"Probably."

"Meh," Mayfield shrugged, "I've been wanting to go on holiday."

"You took that pretty well." Jackson commented in a slightly surprised tone.

"I could still go bat shit if ya like." The Brit offered.

"Naw man, it's cool. C'mon, I got us a ride out of here."

"Thank the graces, been freezin' my nuts off out here!"

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



It was a long ride back to Canterlot. Mayfield sat with Jackson the whole way back, suspicious of the team of stallions seated across from him. His paranoia was made worse when their team leader, Flash, kept trying interrogate the man. Throughout the experience, Mayfield remained defiantly silent, sometimes ignoring the officer's existence all together, much to the Lieutenant Commander's annoyance.

Eventually, they all made it back without much incident. Jackson had dozed off during the trip and was woken by Mayfield as they touched down for a landing at a secluded and heavily guarded pier ensconced of a cliff that hung beneath the Palace. Groggily, he stood and shuffled to the door. Jumping down to the deck, he was surprised to see the two large ponies with wings and horns he had come to know was Equestria's royalty.

Both of the Royal Sisters trotted up, Flash walking to intercept them with a salute and a greeting, "Your Majesties, we've returned with the other human. He was armed, but just like the first one, only with non-lethal rounds."

"Very well," Said the larger of the two, "Dismiss your team, but remain here yourself, we shall speak with the two humans."

"Yes ma'am." Flash replied before trotting off to execute the orders given to him.

Jackson watched as the royalty began approaching and leaned towards Mayfield, "The larger one, with the big golden crown and colorful hair, that's Princess Celestia. She's the head honcho here. The smaller, darker one with the star hair, that's her younger sister, Princess Luna. Luna runs the black ops organization for the country."

"These wankers are black ops? Don't look much like it to me."

"After they captured me, I woke up in a literal dungeon with a bag over my head. Not to mention, they were trained by my old friend."

"Really? Now that's a bit of interesting."

"Chief Jackson, this is your friend?" Princess Celestia asked.

"Yes ma'am, he's Chri--"

"Uh, please, just call me Scratch, for now, your Highness." Mayfield interjected.

Jackson looked at his friend with a 'really?' expression.

"What?" Mayfield said in reply to the look, "We just met them in a land that shouldn't exist, I'm not tellin' them my name yet."

"Ok then. This is Scratch." Jackson continued, "He's an operative, like me."

"So you do the same things as Jackson?" Luna inquired of him.

"Not exactly, but similarly." Mayfield replied.

"Please elaborate."

"'Fraid I can't. Not unless you have the proper clearance and I'm sorry, but you're not even of my country."

"Very well then."

"Not to be rude or intrusive," Jackson said cautiously, "but do you have any place for us to stay that isn't that musty dungeon you had me in?"

"Of course, you're our guests now." Celestia assured him, "Lieutenant Commander Flash here will escort you both to one of the officers' quarters in the RSTG's section of the palace."

"Officers' quarters? Sounds fuckin' good to me." Mayfield quipped.

Flash led the two humans away to their new quarters, leaving Luna and Celestia alone on the airship pier. Their meeting with the two new humans over, they began walking back up to the palace to resume their other royal tasks.

"Tia, I'm sorry about the incident last night. I promise it won't happen again." Luna apologized, referring to Jackson's escape.

"It's ok, Luna. I expected something like that to happen. That human is every bit as crafty and dangerous as James was. You've handled everything else extremely well and I'm sure you will continue to. Besides, we now have not one, but two powerful allies to aid us. With any luck, we may regain a third."

"Thank you, sister. Is all going well with the court?"

*sigh* "It's as chaotic and stressful as it's ever been. Perhaps even more so with the new nation of tribes we now currently host." Celestia said in exasperation.

"Wouldn't it have been better to have simply cast them back into Tartarus from whence they came? We would probably have a great less trouble than we do with the Renegades."

"That may be so, my dear sibling, but it wouldn't have been fair to them after they showed such restraint and civility in their surrender. In the positive, we have a competent and experienced ambassador to them matched by no other. Even if he is somewhat blunt and unorthodox during diplomatic meetings."

"Perhaps an old hold over from his previous leader?" Luna said with a quaint smile.

Celestia chuckled a little, "Yes, perhaps..."

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



Flash opened the door to the room, letting soft light flood the darkened space. Jackson and Mayfield entered, Jackson finding and flipping the light switch he found near the door. The lights flickered on and revealed a small, but spacious room with two beds, two wardrobes, a large window and even a small bathroom with a couple of sinks and a shower.

"Here is your quarters," said Flash, "the mess hall is two floors down and to the left, keep going until you see the double doors. If you need anything else, I'm right down the passageway here, room three twenty-two Bravo. Don't leave the building unless you're escorted by Lieutenant Sylver or myself, understand?"

"Yeah, yeah, we got it. Let's go get some chow now, eh?" Mayfield said non-chalantly.

If Flash was offended by his comment, he didn't show it. Instead, his eyes just narrowed and he backed out of the room, closing the door behind him, the sound of hoof steps receding down the hall following soon after.

"Whew!" Mayfield exhausted, flopping onto one of the racks, "So, what you think, we losin' our fuckin' minds, or what?"

"Hm?" Jackson was busy making up his own rack.

"This place, are we really on a planet dominated by horses, or have we both just gone conveniently mental in about the same way?"

Jackson shrugged, "Could be. It all feels real enough, looks real enough. We might as well go with it."

"And if we're actually in a psychiatric ward somewhere, being treated for some psychological effect brought on by being stuck out in the cold?"

"Then we're on some pretty good drugs that give us the same hallucinations." Jackson chortled.

"Either way." Mayfield said with a dismissive tone. "Hey, why don't you say we go get some grub? Haven't had a proper meal in ages!" He suggested, suddenly sitting up.

"Sure, let's go."

Together, both the humans got up and out the door, ensuring it was closed before they left. Then, following the directions given to them by the pegasus, they descended a couple flights of stairs before coming into a wide hall way that looked to be a main thorough fare through the building. Taking a left, the walked side-by-side down the corridor, taking in every feature it had to offer.

On either side were some offices and administrative rooms, clerks working feverishly on stacks of paperwork. Some were more more secretive, having no windows of any sort, the doors heavy and fitted with many different locks. Most of the hallway, as with the rest of the building, was constructed out of extremely smooth and well crafted stone walls and blocks, much of it fitted together so expertly that it appeared as if the entire structure had been carved straight from the living rock itself.

Along the walls were thin glass boxes. Each held a row of pictures of many different ponies and stallions. Next to the photos were ribbons and accolades earned during their service accompanied by a short description of their deeds. In addition, they also had a grim feature under their placards; the dates of their birth, and their death. For an unfortunate majority of them, the date of their deaths were the same.

Jackson and Mayfield continued on to the double doors further down the hallway, passing many other ponies in the same dark uniform as the rest, occasionally receiving on odd glance or two. Swinging the doors open, they met a large bustle of activity, ponies everywhere sitting at tables and eating their meals. A few looked to the doors at the new comers, some gawking for a moment, but all returned to their meal without much else.

The two humans made their way over to what they assumed was the chow line and grabbed a couple of trays from a stack on a cart near the beginning of the line. They filed through, finding much to their chagrin, that most of the food consisted of things like hay, oats and other consumables clearly not meant for their digestive systems. There was, however, and abundance of other edible vegetables suitable for them which they hastily loaded up on before proceeding to find a table at which to sit.

"Nothing but damn rabbit food. They expect us to live off of nothing but greens?" Mayfield complained with a sour expression.

"I dunno, but we better fill up on as much as we can." Jackson said, "something tells me we're gonna be pretty busy soon."

6: The Cyclops

Chapter 6: The Cyclops

Luna sat in the darkened briefing room in one of the buildings of the RSTG headquarters. Before her, on a desk, was a pile of papers and compiled notes which she shuffled around, reading and re-reading them. The humans were due to arrive anytime now and she had taken it on herself to fill them in on her countries current situation and what was being done about it.

It pained her, re-informing herself about the plight of her subjects. She had hoped that the last large battle would have been the last Equestria's problems, but that hope was soon dashed shortly after. There was still harassment from the Renegades and nightmares among the citizens of her land were becoming more frequent and more intense, for whatever reason.

There was a knock at the door, "Enter." Luna said without looking up.

The door swung open, allowing a dark rusty colored unicorn through. Tiredly, he walked over to the desk where the Princess sat.

"Ma'am," he said in short greeting.

Luna looked up from her work to see Sparks standing in front of her.

"Ah, Commander. Welcome back, your trip went well I trust?"

"Not exactly, ma'am. The girls weren't entirely forthcoming with any information they might have had."

"Not unexpected."

"I just don't understand," Sparks said with a small amount of frustration, "He has to still be alive, if he was dead he wouldn't be that hard to find, only he could pull a disappearing act like that. The girls know something, I'm sure. He had the closest connection with them. I questioned them, I tried to steer the conversations into that direction, sometimes I begged, I even snooped around behind their backs, nothing! I couldn't find anything and they wouldn't tell me anything!"

Luna picked up on his attitude, but suspected that his failure was not the cause, "That's not all, though, is it? Something else troubles you."

"Well... no, not really..."

The Princess gave him a stern, yet un intimidating stare, like one a parent would give to a child that was not being entirely truthful. Sparks tried to bare it for as long as he could, but for all his fierceness and combat experience, the Princess of the Night was still a daunting figure.

"Ok," he sighed, "I'm just a little upset. I mean, he's got to be out there somewhere, but why wouldn't he tell me, tell Flash? Why wouldn't he stay in contact with us, his teammates, his friends?" He spilled out with some anger.

"We can never know why for sure. He is human after all and their race is still largely unknown to us. But I'm sure, given the time, things will work out for the best."

"I hope you're right ma'am."

Just then, there came another knock at the door. This time, one of the clerks working with the RSTG entered and presented himself, "Excuse me Your Highness, sir, the humans are ready."

"Ah!" Luna exhaled, gathering her papers with a waver of her horn and moving to a podium set in front of some seats and beside a large screen, "You may send them in. Commander, will you be joining us?"

"I'm afraid not, ma'am, I have a lot of paper work to catch up on." Sparks replied while making his way out of the room.

"Very well, then."

Sparks left the room just as the two humans filed in, both species giving the other a curious glance as they passed. Jackson gave the unicorn a particularly studious glare. But quickly they both parted and Jackson moved to take a seat by where Mayfield had already sat down by the front.

"Chief Jackson, and Scratch if I remember correctly, welcome to the briefing room. Here I will give you a brief history of Equestria and inform you of its results and consequences." With a flourish of her magic, she bought an image to the screen to her left, a map of Equestria. "This is our land. For hundreds of years, my sister has watched after it in rule and recently, I as well. However, this was not always so. Evidence was discovered of an mold race, a race long forgotten. 'Twas in these very same lands that they dwelled. In times past, a calamity, a famine or drought, forced them from this place to the cursed plains of Tartarus. Some years ago, they broke from that place and sook return, led by a man of cruelty and malice."

"You're talking about John Kraster." Jackson said, remembering his conversation with Sparks.

"The very same." Luna confirmed. "At the Battle of the Western Shore, he was killed and his invading army defeated."

"And that's where you lost track of my friend." Jackson interrupted.

"While you are correct, he is not the subject matter, please wait until I am finished." Luna chastised with authority before continuing. "Kraster's armies were scattered, but some remained. From this we learned that they live in tribes and while savage and battle thirsty, were not so intent on battling us for our lands, merely they just wanted a place of their own to carry out their customs and traditions, the invasion being the machinations of Kraster. Now we have treaties with them. In exchange for colonies to call their own, they keep their war like nature and campaigns of conquest amongst their own tribes. There is but one exception." Luna continued, becoming grave, "A splinter group did not favor this agreement. They split from the main tribes and founded their own. From north to south, east and west, they harass villages and towns, seeking to take more land and subjugate their inhabitants to their twisted will. We call them the Renegade Tribe and for the past few years, it has been the duty of the Royal Special Tasks Group to counter their attacks and thwart their plans. He creature the two of you fought some days ago was one of them."

Both Jackson and Mayfield sat there a moment, processing the information they had just received. They also studied the map on the wall, if they were going to be there for a while, might as well get familiar with the landscape. A question popped into Jackson's head upon seeing the distance from where he assumed he was found and the dot on the small mountain that said 'Canterlot', but Mayfield piped up first.

"So what's all this then? A battle of good and evil, us against them? Bloody sounds just like home." He queried.

"There is no good or evil here. They do what they believe is right, but it wrongs us." Luna replied, "They bring the practice of slavery and destruction to our land and we find it unacceptable to see our citizens in such a plight. Therefore we do what we must to stop them, no matter the costs to our own selves. We do things that nopony ever should have to to ensure others may sleep well at night. This is the legacy that the Commander; your friend, Chief Jackson, left to us."

"And what is it, exactly, that you want us to do?" Jackson asked.

"Simple. While the members of the RSTG are highly trained, many of them lack what you and the few senior leaders have. Experience. All I ask is that you work with them, lend what you know to them." Luna explained.

"And you'll help us with our problem?"

"Correct."

"Good," Mayfield cut in, "'Cause I got a right pretty bird waiting for me to get back and I wouldn't want to keep her waiting long."

"Rest assured, we have our brightest researcher working on the problem."

Jackson leaned forward in his seat, "So what do we do now?"

"Both of you will be assessed in your abilities and placed in the care of a handler."

"Well fuck that!" Mayfield objected, "Last thing I need is for some tosser constantly looking over my shoulder!"

"It's either that or you spend your time restricted to the palace grounds under constant guard." Luna gave in ultimatum.

Jackson thought about it for a moment. While having a babysitter would be extremely annoying, the alternative to him was much worse. There was no way he would be able to accomplish his own objective while locked up like some political prisoner. Because of this, he went with the lesser of the two evils.

"Ok, I agree to your terms. But the two of us stick together." He said, gesturing to Mayfield.

"Load a shite." Mayfield muttered under his breath while crossing his arms.

"I am glad you came to that decision. I apologize for the harshness of this, but we can't trust you until we know more about you." Luna said in a softer tone.

"Well ain't that just peachy," Mayfield complained, "so who's this 'handler' gonna be?"

"I already have a suitable candidate. Lieutenant Commander, you can enter now." Luna called to the door.

The door opened and entered a dark coal coated pegasus with a wonky wing. The two humans turned in their seats and looked over their shoulders to see the newcomer.

"Uff, this guy again." Mayfield scoffed.

"Lieutenant Commander Flash here is an experienced and well respected member of our task group. He will see to it that you are well acclimated to your new home and that you're both where you need to be when you need to be there. That's all for now, the Lieutenant Commander will take it from here." The Midnight Princess finished before politely excusing herself.

The room descended into awkward silence, neither party averting their gaze. After a brief second, the two humans stood up and walked up to the pegasus stallion.

"So I guess we'll be working together for a while." Jackson commented.

"Looks like it. I don't have anything for the two of you right now, so go ahead and relax for the day. Get your rest, we start early tomorrow morning." Flash told them.

"Sounds good, what ya got for us first?" Mayfield asked.

"Unarmed combat."

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



*Knock Knock Knock Knock*

Jackson sat up in his rack, instantly throwing off his covers and getting up. He looked around the room, confused for a split second as to where he was. Then it all came rushing back to him; being trapped in the cave, finding a way out, being captured, escaping, agreeing to help the Equestrians and winding up in the situation he was currently in. He still felt a little shock at it all, but not as much as before. He went to the door of his quarters and opened it up. Outside stood the pegasus from before, Flash, he remembered.

"Rise and shine!" The sooty colored stallion announced, "Time to get the day started."

"Roger, roger." Jackson said lethargically, "Lemme get my buddy up, we'll be right out."

"I'll be waiting."

Jackson closed the door and walked over to the rack opposite his where Mayfield was sleeping. Gently, he put a hand on the man's shoulder and shook him to consciousness.

"Mmh, five more minutes, mum." The fighting man mumbled, still half asleep.

"We ain't got five minutes, get up!" Jackson said, yanking the sheets off of his friend.

Mayfield sat up straight and looked Jackson angrily in the eyes, "Oi! What gives!?"

"We got shit to do, remember? Coming to Equestria, getting picked up by the magical ponies?"

In his tired state, Mayfield's mind took a second to process, "Oh, right. Share a sink?"

Quickly, Jackson and Mayfield made up their racks before heading to the small sink they shared, brushing their teeth and shaving at the same time with the kits they had been provided with. Once finished, they went to the small wardrobe the room was furnished with and pulled out a set of new uniforms for each of them. The uniforms matched those worn by the members of the RSTG, measurements had been taken the day previous for them. They were identical to the others in color and pattern, but lacked the patches and insignia of the uniforms the ponies wore. After dressing out, the two stepped outside the door to an impatient officer.

"You both finally ready?" Flash asked. "Good, come with me."

Jackson and Mayfield followed the pegasus as he trotted down the hall and down a flight of stairs to the main hallway. Following a brief breakfast in the mess hall, they were then taken out of the building and into the courtyard.

""We fightin' out here?" Mayfield inquired.

"Nope, ain't gonna be that easy for you two." Flash replied, continuing across to an alley.

Jackson and Mayfield shrugged and resumed following the Lieutenant Commander. He led them down the narrow passage to an area near the edge of the cliff that the city of Canterlot sat on. At the end of a rocky trail sat a low built building, modest and devoid of any special decorations. The entrance was Spartan in it's looks, a simple pair of thick wooden double doors. Flash brought them in and made them wait by the door while he retrieved the master of the building, going around an area of ponies practicing the martial arts and disappearing behind a set of dark red curtains.

Inside, a mass of ponies six across and five rows deep practiced a combination of strikes and blocks that played to the strengths of their anatomy in the large dojo, many ending in a hard, devastating, buck of their hind legs. Along one wall was a rack of various weapons, both non-lethal and deadly.

"Are we supposed to be fighting these blokes?" Mayfield asked Jackson.

"How the fuck should I know?"

The two operatives waited only a short moment more. Abruptly, a gong sounded from somewhere unseen, causing Jackson and Mayfield to look around the large room in wonderment. All the ponies practicing their fighting moves halted and quickly moved off to the sides in rehearsed order. Flash soon reappeared, exiting the curtains and standing off to the side. The two humans stood in anticipation, closely watching the fabric that covered the entrance to the back room.

The curtains shifted and a gnarled hand emerged, shoving aside the woven material with authority. Out came a tall two legged figure with dark green and brown mottled skin. At first, Jackson and Mayfield thought it might be another human, bit on closer inspection they saw it was almost similar to the creature they had fought on their arrival to the strange land they were now in. Except this one had some discernable features.

It had a strange and complicated curved symbol branded onto the top of it's left brow. It's left hand was missing the two lower fingers and it was covered in a miss-match of scars across it's body. It's most outstanding feature though, was the pitch black eye patch it wore over it's right eye.

"Hey, it's one of those things that we killed." Mayfield commented.

"I am not a thing and you would be hard pressed to kill me." It said with a gravelly voice.

"And it speaks! Well, whadayaknow...."

Flash began to introduce the two humans to the building's master, "This is our unarmed and melee combat instructor. He's fought in numerous engagements over the years, including the major battle a few years back against the invasion. He will assess you're fighting abilities."

"Nice to meet you," Jackson started, "I'm Jackson and this is my friend, Scratch."

"I am Garth." The large being replied.

"You got a... rank, or military title we can address you by? Or shall we just call you Cyclops?" Mayfield jokingly inquired.

"No. Just Garth." He said with complete seriousness.

"Ah, peachy..."

"Garth has no rank or anything, even though we've tried countless times to give it to him," Flash explained, "but he just keeps refusing."

"Golden thread and shiny metal trinkets hold no value to me, only knowledge and experience in battle." Garth said.

"Ok. So how do we get started?" Jackson asked.

"Step onto the fighting floor and we shall begin." Garth said with authority.

Jackson looked over to Mayfield and gave him a questioning look.

"What? It's all you, mate."

Jackson sighed and started rotating his shoulders while simultaneously removing his uniform top, leaving him in just his pants, boots and undershirt. Warily, he strode to the middle of the floor, cracking his neck and knuckles as he went. Garth's only preparation was to take a few slow lumbering steps forward. They stopped, staring each other down, neither now moving. Then, almost unexpectedly, Garth burst forward with surprising speed, throwing powerful strikes at Jackson's body.

Jackson recognized the covered eye as a disadvantage and dodged to the left whenever he could, forcing Garth to compensate for his blind spot by turning more and offsetting his fighting stance. Garth made another strike at Jackson, half guessing where he was. Jackson dodged it again and saw an opening. With as much speed as he could muster, Jackson landed a flurry of blows against Garth's torso. Garth spun around and shot a leg forward, catching Jackson in the stomach and sending him stumbling back while wringing his now aching hands.

"Damn, his sides are like granite!" He complained.

Garth made a gravelly coughing sound in his throat, like laughter, "Years of good fights!"

"Watch out mate, he's not too bad at this." Mayfield quipped from the corner.

"No shit!" Jackson yelled back, narrowly ducking another high kick.

The fight went on for a few more minutes, Jackson was losing energy fast and he needed to end it soon. He ducked, dodged, dipped and blocked a plethora of incoming strikes, each wearing down his stamina with daunting swiftness. Garth threw a kick-punch combo that nearly knocked the human off his balance, but Jackson remained steadfast. Finally, after spending an eternity on the offensive, Jackson saw an opportunity. The old warrior's left knee wasn't as flexible as the rest of his body, perhaps due to an old injury.

Using this new information, Jackson redoubled his efforts in making the large warrior twist and change his fighting stance. He jumped back out of Garth's range and waited for the fighter to advance. When Garth made a lunge for him, Jackson jumped forward and rolled past Garth's right side. Garth twisted fast to get the man out of his blind spot and over extended his left knee, causing the joint to give and force it to the deck. Jackson reacted quickly and launched himself at the martial arts master. With a mighty leap, he jumped over Garth's head and spun, wrapping his arms around the fierce fighter's neck, jamming his own knee into the small of Garth's back and leaning as far back as he could.

Jackson flexed his biceps as hard as he could, cutting of Garth's air and blood supply. Garth bucked and struggled, trying to throw Jackson off, but to no avail. Before two minutes had passed, Garth reached up and tapped Jackson's shoulder. Still not leaving anything to chance, Jackson released and jumped backwards into another fighting stance. Garth stood up and rubbed his throat while catching his breath.

"Good," he said with an even rougher voice, "you are proficient in combat."

"Uh... thanks?" Jackson replied, still unwilling to lower his guard.

Garth waved Jackson aside, gesturing for him to vacate the fighting space. Warily, the man complied.

"We now know one of you are fit to wear the mantle of the warrior, but what of the other?" Garth said inquisitively as he turned to Mayfield.

Mayfield was leaning against one of the weapons racks where he had watched the whole spectacle. He looked up to see Garth, Flash and Jackson staring at him.

"What? Jackson won, do I really still have to fight?" He asked.

"Yes." Garth stated with some annoyance.

"Oh, all right then." Mayfield said as he pushed off the wall while making a nearly undetectable shoving motion behind his back.

Slowly, Mayfield stepped onto the mat and approached Garth who readied himself into another fighting stance. They stared each other down for a moment. Suddenly, Garth lunged forward as he had done before, only this time, Mayfield stepped out of the way and pulled out a thick wooden stave from where it had been hidden in the back of his pants. With one quick stroke, he brought it down hard and heavy onto the back of Garth's head, knocking the fully grown Lotkin out and sending him sprawling across the mat. Jackson, Flash and the rest of the ponies who had been watching stood staring in shocked silence.

"What?" Said Mayfield, awkwardly shrugging his shoulders and putting on a charming smile, "No such thing as a fair fight, right?"

7: A Gruesome Discovery

Chapter 7: A Gruesome Discovery

Jackson and Mayfield trudged on back to the barracks and their quarters. They were both battered and tired. After Garth had awoken, Mayfield was afraid that he was in for a real beating. Instead, to his surprise, the large war fighter stood up and began bellowing in his strange laughter before striding forward and clapping Mayfield on his back with his great hands. Then he put both the humans through a series of exercises to test their flexibility and endurance, something which left them in their now sore and tired state.

"What I don't understand, is why you had to hit him hard enough to knock him out."

"It was a fight, wasn't it?" Mayfield retorted.

"I just can't help but feel that if you hadn't done that, he wouldn't have made us run through all that stupid crap." Jackson said.

Wincing at every step, the duo walked back in the mid day light towards the building that housed their quarters, and food. Not only were they exhausted, but famished as well. They'd burned a lot of calories in the eventful morning and needed direly to replace them. And even though their bodies hungered, their taste buds were lacking the same enthusiasm for the spoils of the mess hall, the fare being as it was.

Quickly and quietly, they got their food and sat down, hopefully in peace. In silence, they ate, shoving fork after fork full down their throats to fill the massive void that was their stomachs. Mayfield suddenly stopped and picked something out of his food that appeared to be a flower.

"What's that?" Jackson asked.

"Think it's a dandelion. Well, they are edible." Mayfield said, bringing it to his mouth.

"Might need some sugar on it, they're pretty bitter." Jackson chuckled as Mayfield popped the plant into his mouth and bit down on it.

Mayfield started chewing, an unpleasant expression rising to his face, "Mmm... lots."

With gusto, they consumed their meals, enjoying the brief peace of their repast. It did not last long, however, as soon the sound of hasty hooves approached the table. Flash trotted up and came to a stop next to the two masticating humans.

"Aw, what now?" Mayfield muttered with some annoyance.

"Hey man," Jackson said, "we've been working all morning, let us eat and then we'll get back to your tests."

If the pegasus was offended by the shortness of the human's words, he didn't show it, "Actually, no more tests for this afternoon. You have an assignment."

"An assignment, so soon?" Mayfield asked quizzically.

"Yes. Upper management thinks you both need to see what the extent of our problems are yourselves. Get back to your quarters and rest up, you need to be fresh and ready to go by 1900." With that, Flash turned and trotted away without another word.

Jackson and Mayfield watched him go for a second before quickly returning to their meal.

Mayfield shoved another forkful of greens into his mouth, chewed and swallowed, "Well mate, I'm down for a party if you are."

"Yup, should be interesting." Jackson replied without enthusiasm.

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



Jackson sat up in his rack, a cold sweat streaking his face. He had had a dream, one that had haunted him for almost a year now. His little girl, his pride and joy, sprinting around the house in search of new adventure. Then she got slower, lethargic, small injuries transformed into emergencies and almost uncontrollable bleeding. It was something that almost never left his conscious thought.

He arose from his rack, seeing Mayfield still passed out on his own mattress and shambled to the head. Jackson turned on the faucet and splashed some cold water on his face. Briefly he checked his watch, the time read 1852. It was almost time to get up, so he went back to the room and proceeded to shake Mayfield awake.

"Hey, hey, hey!" Mayfield said as Jackson shook his shoulder. "Oh," he said while sitting up and looking around, "damn, still here. What time is it?"

"Time to get to work." Jackson said.

"Right then, let's hop to it."

Mayfield popped out of bed and started getting dressed along with Jackson. They were almost fully clothed when a knock came at the door. Jackson finished buttoning up his top and moved to the door. He opened it wide to reveal a charcoal colored pegasus.

"You two ready to go?" Flash asked.

Jackson glanced back to Mayfield who was just finishing up with his boots, "Yeah."

"Good, follow me."

Flash began trotting away, Jackson and Mayfield left their quarters and walked after him. The dark colored pegasus led them out of the building and down towards the docks. After several silent minutes, they finally came to the fenced in area that held the operations group's transports. Already, one of them was on the tarmac, engine spun up and ready to fly. Flash took them to this aircraft and brought them to the side door. Jackson looked inside and saw four stallions, all armored up and armed to the teeth.

"Any chance we get our own equipment?" Mayfield asked.

"We have armor for you both loaded in the back, as well as your weapons. Go ahead and gear up." Flash told him.

"All right then."

Jackson climbed in, followed by Mayfield. As the pegasus had said, a pile of weapons and armor were piled in the back corner of the compartment, including Jackson's Mk 48, which had been repaired, and Mayfield's sniper rifle. Both picked up their respective weapons and gave them a quick once over, making sure they were in good working order. After that, they retrieved the armor, something that was like contemporary body armor, but... different. It was like Dragon Scale armor, except it was thinner and more form fitting.

"What is this gonna protect us from, letter openers?" Jackson complained.

"Don't worry, they'll work." Flash assured, "they're actually an improved design of the original your old friend brought with him. They'll stop anything short of cannon fire."

"If you say so..." Jackson replied while strapping on the protective garment.

The occupants now all aboard, the airship began rising into the air, the engine pulsing a gentle vibration across the deck. In no time, Jackson and Mayfield were all suited up; body armor, tac vest, helmet, safety goggles, throat mics attached to small radios, ammo and NVGs. Together, they sat down on one of the benches that lined the bulkheads, away from the rest of the team.

The rest of the team consisted of the four other stallions; a chestnut coated pegasus with a lime green mane, a white coated earth pony with a black mane, a sandy coated unicorn with a dusky orange mane and the almost all silver and gray unicorn that seemed to be the second in command in the group. While the two unicorns were armed with assault rifles, the other two only sported swords and a few weird looking grenades.

A few moments of uneasy silence passed before Flash walked over and began to introduce the crew, "Everypony, we have a few tagalongs for this op. This is Jackson and Scratch," he said, pointing to the humans, "they'll be assisting us." He then turned to the humans and began going down the row of stallions, "This is my team, we're called 'The Fixers,' Princess Luna's go-to." He pointed a hoof to the pegasus, "This is Sumner Breeze, he's our spotter."

"Yo." Said the chestnut pegasus, raising a hoof in greeting.

Flash continued, "Then we have Frosty Glade," the white earth pony nodded, "Saffron."

"Call me Saff," the unicorn said.

"And of course, Sylver Lyne."

"Hey, how's it goin'?" Jackson said with a short wave.

"Ok, now down to brass tax," Flash went on. "We're en route for a settlement by Galloping Gorge. They've sent a missive calling for help against a series of attacks they've suffered on their outlying farms. We believe this may be the work of the Renegade Tribe. As such, our team has been sent out to investigate."

"Real quick," Mayfield questioned, "what's this 'Renegade Tribe' you're always going on about?"

Flash sighed, "After we stopped the invasion, the survivors of the opposing army sought to make a treaty with our rulers. They were granted land to inhabit on some of the unoccupied islands off the western coast and to the south in the San Palomino Desert. The Renegade Tribe is a splinter group that still believed that all of Equestria should belong to them and them alone. For the past few years, they've been attacking our country using guerrilla tactics, harming us and instilling fear into the populace."

"So why don't you just go wipe 'em out?" Jackson suggested.

"Unfortunately, they are extremely hard to pin down, as they are constantly on the move." Flash said.

"What about 'cutting the head off the snake?'" Mayfield said, "We do that shit all the time. Although some other wanker is always there to take his place."

"I'm getting to that." Flash responded. "From what we know, their leader is a warrior called 'Sahjri Khot.' Loosely translated from their language, it means 'Death's Call.'"

"A bit on the dramatic side, innit?" Mayfield commented.

"Maybe, but the tribe takes it very seriously. Apparently, he's behind all the attacks. We don't know where he is or where his group is operating from, but if we can track the movements of the raids, we might be able to trace them back to where ever he's hiding."

"Ok, so we go on this little fact finding mission and what, hunt down and capture the bad guys for info?" Jackson asked.

"That's the plan. But be warned, these guys don't go down easy. They wont let themselves be captured, they'll take their own lives first and take any of us with them if they can. Be prepared for a hard fight."

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



Something nudged Jackson's shoulder, soft at first, but then with more energy. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes, lifted his head and looked over to see Mayfield was shaking him awake.

"Wakey wakey, eggs and bakey, we're on spot." The black haired man said with a mocking tone.

"Shit. All right."

Jackson got up from where he was sitting and scanned the compartment. The rest of the team was busy gearing up; Flash, the earth pony and the two unicorns were buckling into what looked like parachutes while the chestnut pegasus was simply adjusting the straps on his weapons. Jackson and Mayfield found a couple of other rigs with harnesses fit for their frames. Sensing what was about to come, the two humans hastily began putting their own devices on, checking and re-checking each other to ensure that nothing was loose. Once finished, they moved to the side door where the rest of the team was waiting and Flash stood looking towards them expectantly.

"I'm sure you both know how to jump." He said, "There's a small settlement northeast of the small mountain range by Galloping Gorge. We'll be hitting the deck just outside it. Right now, our task is to perform a covert insertion and sweep the area for the next few hours until dawn. If we don't find anything, then we hit the town for any info the inhabitants might have, understand?"

Both Jackson and Mayfield nodded. Behind Flash, Sylver opened up the side door, letting in a rush of cold air.

Flash turned to his team, "Breeze, you're up!"

The pegasus gave a curt nod before hurling himself out into the night. After about thirty seconds, Flash pointed a hoof out the door and the other three stallions followed suit, swiftly exiting the vehicle. Once they were all away, Flash returned his attention to Jackson and Mayfield, who were now standing by the door.

"Well, take a leap." The pegasus urged.

Without hesitation, Jackson launched himself through the door way. Mayfield stayed just a second longer though.

"What's the matter, Scratch, got the jitters?" Flash teased.

"Not exactly, I just have a question." Mayfield said in response, "If you've got wings, why do you have a parachute?"

Flash narrowed his eyes, "Old injury, now get the fuck out there." He shot back while giving the human a hard shove with his forelegs, sending the man careening into the night.

"Ugh, humans." Flash sighed before jumping out of the aircraft himself.

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



Whipping wind whistled past Jackson's face as he fell from the sky, quickly reaching terminal velocity. His Mk 48 was bumping rapidly against where it was strapped on his stomach, but the armor he now wore reduced the feeling to nothing more than gentle nudges. With caution, he spread his arms and legs to further slow his fall.

Below him, he could see faint green glows in the blindness of night, patches of photo luminescent material adhered to the backs of his temporary teammates' helmets. Past his right side, a reddish-brown pegasus shot by, buffeting Jackson briefly with a gust of air. He smiled as he thought about the dynamics of having a completely sentient being capable of flight falling beside him. The potential was almost limitless.

Suddenly, Jackson noticed a quick jerk in the the lights below him. Instincts, honed through years of experience, took over. Swiftly, he arched and reached for the pilot chute, yanking it from the pack and tossing it into the air above him. Following a few anxious seconds, he was violently snatched up, the main chute catching the atmosphere and abruptly slowing him down to a gentle drift towards the ground.

Twin handles popped off, unsecured from his vest by the arrest of his fall. Recognizing the system, Jackson grasped them, taking control of his descent. With nimble adjustments, he followed the other three down to the patchy surface of the terrain below. Within no time, the ground rushed up to meet him. Training and experience lunging forth in his mind, Jackson prepared for his landing, prepping his legs for the impact.

With a bump and a roll, the large dark man brought himself to an uncomfortable, but safe stop. Working quickly, he turned and started rolling up the cords before the wind could catch the chute and drag him unceremoniously across the dirt and scrub brush. In seconds, he had his parachute secured and rolled in a neat pile on the ground.

Next, he readied his weapon and strode forth to meet his other teammates. Nearby, Breeze the pegasus thumped onto the ground. Seconds later, Mayfield hit the deck, closely followed by Lieutenant Commander Flash. All hands and hooves on the ground, the team converged to hash out the plan. Flash pulled out a map, spreading it out on the ground, and a red filtered flashlight. Illuminating the map with a crimson glow, he began to speak.

"Here's the town of Galloping Hills," he said, pointing to the eastern end of the mountain range, near its base, "We're up here," he drew a hoof north to the scrub lands that separated The Frozen North from the rest of Equestria. "There are a few outlying farms between us and the town. This is where the most activity is being reported. We'll sweep the area on the way into town. Sylver, I want you to take Jackson and Scratch, take the east side in."

"Sir."

"Frosty, Saff, you're with me, Breeze is on over watch. Any questions?"

Mayfield raised a hand, "Yeah, what's our ROE?"

"Return fire only, unless you, your teammates or a civilian are in a life threatening situation." Flash said.

"Right then."

"Ok, everypony knows their part. Get to it and stay safe."

The meeting concluded, each team went their own ways, while Saffron the pegasus leaped into the sky. Flash's fire team ventured west and south while Sylver took the two humans east. The stars flickered brightly in the sky overhead, a half moon in the western hemisphere helped to light the area a little. Neither team saw the use of their NVGs necessary, letting the natural night vision of their own eyes guide them across the scrub plain.

Training kicking in, they spread out in a wide line, minimizing the risk of casualties should they unexpectedly come under fire. For a few hours, they continued like this, occasionally checking in with their spotter and the other team. Boredom started to set in for Mayfield and Jackson, it seemed like it was turning into a long night. That is, until a set of low buildings appeared on the horizon. Instinctively, Sylver and the two humans crouched down, eager to conceal their presence.

"Sir, this is Sylver, we've encountered a set of buildings, clustered close together, I think it might be one of the farms." The unicorn said into his mic.

Sylver's radio crackled as a response came through, "Are there any lights?"

"No sir, no sign of activity."

"Check it out, but proceed with caution."

"Yes sir."

Sylver glanced over to his two teammates and signaled them to use their NVGs with a hoof. It was time to move in and they needed every optical advantage. With all the stealth they could muster, the small team crept warily towards the buildings, alert and eyes open for any and all movement. The humans held their weapons at the ready, though still pointed to the ground, accidentally shooting a farmer would not do for any of them.

Silently, they moved in. Every rock, every bush, every corner and every shadow posed a threat. Eyes dutifully scanned the area ahead, ready to react to anything that might try to take them by surprise. Fortunately, they met no resistance upon entering the cluster of buildings, all that was there to greet them was an eerie stillness and the silence of the night.

The buildings consisted of a small house, a tool shed and a modest barn. Jackson and Mayfield looked to their team leader. Sylver nodded and they split up, each going to a separate structure. Jackson ran up to the house, avoiding the windows and stopping at the front door. He noticed the door was slightly ajar, something worried him. He stowed his weapon, letting it hang from its strap and pulled out his pistol. Cautiously, he nudged the door open, it swung inward on creaking hinges in dire need of oil.

Jackson put one boot in, then another, guard raised in the expectation of an attack. Eyes moving across the interior, he studied everything he saw inside the house. It was a mess. To the side of the room, to his left, a table lay overturned by some windows. A few chairs had been smashed up and there was debris all over the floor. Treading softly, he resumed exploration, further entering the abode. As he walked, something crunched under Jackson's boot. He paused, weapon raised, listening incase his presence was made know to anything that might be in the house.

There was no other sound or movement, he was alone. Jackson bent down to see what he had stepped on. Moving his boot, he uncovered a small picture frame, the glass broken and cracked. Gingerly, he picked it up and examined it. There was a photo behind the broken glass, a family of four posed in front of the house inside the picture, smiling and happy in the moment that was captured within. Jackson gently placed the frame on a nearby piece of derelict furniture and continued his investigation.

The rest of the house revealed a frightening tale. The kitchen was left with food still on the stove. Stale bread, left out on the kitchen table, was left to gather mold. Transitioning to the bedrooms, Jackson found garments strewn haphazardly on the floor, drawers pulled out and closets ransacked, as if the previous occupants of the home had been over eager to leave in a hurry. His search turning up nothing else, Jackson strode back to the main room and out the front door to the yard where Sylver joined him shortly after.

"Find anything?" The unicorn asked.

"No, not really. Although it looked like there could have been a struggle in the house. No bodies though, no blood."

"That's because they're behind the barn..."

Sylver and Jackson turned, slightly stunned at the words, to Mayfield returning from his own search.

"What do you mean, where?" Sylver inquired with morbid anticipation.

"Two of 'em, 'round the corner. Executed by the looks of it." Mayfield said.

"Damn it, that's not good." Sylver muttered.

"Something else," Mayfield continued, "they were shot."

Devastation

Chapter 8: Devastation

At the back of the barn, Jackson stood with Sylver. They looked down on two bodies that lay slain in the cold dirt.neither were bound, but both had obviously been beaten. Dried blood stained the ground around them. Some of it had come from multiple wounds they had across their bodies, but most was from the multiple bullet wounds clustered tightly in their chests, the spent shell casings of which littered the earth in two messy piles just yards away.

Jackson knelt and picked up one of the empty shells, inspecting it in the low light of the moon, "Seven-six-two, rifle round. Probably automatic. You guys got weapons that use this round?" He asked the unicorn beside him.

"Yeah, a bunch, but this ins't from us. This is really strange. The Lotkin have never used firearms, still don't as far as we know."

"They have any outside help?"

"They did during the conflict, unfortunately from some of our own citizens." Sylver said, a bit downcast at the thought.

"Any chance this is still an issue?"

"Unlikely. After the war was over, we captured them all and put them behind bars. They're still there now."

"Even so, where'd the hardware come from?" Jackson wondered.

"Hard to say. Could've scavenged them from the battle a few years back. We lost a lot back then. Soldiers, and the equipment they carried."

The soft pad of boots on loam announced the arrival of Mayfield, back from his investigation of the scene. One hand held the strap of his rifle, which was hung over his right shoulder. In his other was a photo, recovered from the house. As he walked over to his two teammates, he glanced at the corpses, shaking his head somberly as he did.

"Find anything?" Jackson said loudly.

"Not much, a lot of it makes for a downer, but I did find a bit a hope." He tapped the photo, "Lot of foot prints, lot of hoof prints. A load of the hoof prints belong to this poor couple here. Most are in the yard, but eventually they lead here," he explained, gesturing to the bodies. "Looks to me they put up a bit of a good fight before... you know."

"So where's the hope in all this, Scratch?" Sylver asked semi sarcastically.

Mayfield tapped the photo again, "The kids. Found another set of tracks behind the house, small enough to be juvenile."

Sylver perked up slightly, "You see which way they go?"

"'Course mate! Looks like they headed southwest."

"Good. Maybe they made it to Galloping Hills."

Suddenly, all their earpieces crackled to life, "Lieutenant Sylver, report."

"Sir, we checked out the farm. The area is clear, but there are two casualties." The gray coated unicorn responded.

"Ours?"

"No sir, civilians."

Flash growled softly in anger on the other end, "You got the TOD?"

"Hard to tell."

"Guess."

"Might be three, maybe four days. There's a possibility the hostiles could still be nearby."

"Roger that, Lieutenant. Good work. Our search turned up squat. Rendezvous at the town by dawn, hurry up, the sun's coming."

"Understood, sir, Sylver out."

The group stood in silence a moment, before Jackson broke it, "All right, so... lead the way?"

"Yeah, come on," Sylver said dejectedly, "we've got a long walk."

"Wait..." Mayfield interrupted, "we gonna do anything about the bodies, bury them maybe?"

Sylver sighed, "I wish we could, but we don't have the time. We'll let the townsfolk know when we meet up with the Lieutenant Commander, they'll see to it."

"Sorry to hear that..." Mayfield said sadly, "Well, let's get on the march then, shall we?"

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The darkness of night was retreating, giving way to cold gray morning light. Nocturnal creatures returned to their dens while the dwellers of the day emerged to begin foraging for food. Birds woke from slumber, chirping their cheery song. All the while, three figures marched across the plain, their goal in sight.

The small town of Galloping hills lay before them, only a few scant miles away. Smoke could be seen rising from chimneys, the inhabitants scurrying about in the start of their morning routine. It would be a welcome and calming sight, were it not for the horror the three had witnessed not a few hours past.

A short distance away, another group, similar in size, though not in composition, trotted abreast of the first at an angle, quickly closing the gap between them. Not far overhead, a lone pegasus flew, keeping watch over them all. In short time, the two groups finally met, the motley team known as the Fixers rejoined. As they regrouped, the pegasus took to the ground, tired and spent from a sustained flight. Meanwhile, the two team leaders came together to discuss recent and upcoming events.

Flash trotted over to his lieutenant, "Sylver, good to see you back safely. You doing ok?"

"Yes sir, though I wish I could say the same for..."

"I know. Could you get a good angle on what happened there?"

"From what we found, the whole incident didn't last long. The farm was attacked, the owners beaten and dragged across their property, then.... well, they were executed." Sylver described grimly.

"Executed? Same style as others we've found?"

"No sir, that's the problem. They were shot with firearms, rifles to be exact."

"Rifles? This is disturbing." Flash said with puzzlement. "Were there any other tracks, other than the farm owners'?"

"Yes, there were. Scratch found some belonging to their children. Fortunately it looks like they got away. We think they might be safely in town. Other than that, nothing but Limas."

"Damn. Poor kids. Hopefully they're all right. Good job lieutenant. Let's see if we can find some more answers in town."

Together the team walked towards the town of Galloping Hills. In just over an hour, the managed reach the outskirts, the main street of the small settlement now clearly in sight. But something was wrong. The townsfolk that previously had been seen going about their mornings were no longer visible. In the small amount of time it had taken the Fixers to arrive, it had turned into a virtual ghost town. Sensing something was amiss, the operatives raised their guards and and began scanning for hostiles.

As they got closer, troubling details began to appear. Walls were pockmarked with bullet holes, while some buildings had sustained visible damage with gaping holes ringed with soot and charred wood. Smoke no longer rose from the chimneys and an uneasy silence had settled around the area.

"Damn. Looks like this town's been shithoused." Mayfield quietly commented.

"This isn't good." Flash said. "Everypony watch for movement, Saff, keep an eye on our six."

Slowly, the group approached the town, eyes roaming over the roof tops and probing alley ways. When they got close to the entrance to the main street, they stopped. The air had suddenly become deathly still, as if it were waiting for something. Flash pointed to Sylver and Frost, motioning for them to advance. The two stallions nodded and moved forward, weapons ready. They were half way there when a wagon suddenly shot out from behind a building. The rickety vehicle careened across the street before crashing into the side of the building opposite, effectively blocking the entryway into town. Sylver and Frost back peddled fast while the entire team raised their blades and firearms, dropping into combat positions.

"Stay where you are!" A voice shouted from amongst the buildings, "There's a lot of us and we're armed! Turn back now or my archers will open fire!"

"Is he for real?" Jackson said, glancing over to Mayfield who just shrugged.

Flash stepped forward, clearing his throat, "This is Lieutenant Commander Flash, we're with the RSTG. Identify yourself and tell me what's going on here!" He angrily shouted back.

The challenger hiding in town didn't answer back. The team listened as there was some shuffling behind the buildings along with frantic whispering. Finally, the sound of hooves on a wooden roof echoed towards them and a new voice called out.

"If you're with the RSTG, then why do you have those two things with you?" The unidentified voice spat with contempt.

"Oi! Is he talking about us?" Mayfield said with annoyance.

"If you think those are Lotkin, you are sadly mistaken." Flash shouted back, "I'll explain everything to you, but first we need to come in and talk, you're town looks like it's been through a rough patch of crabgrass."

Another moment went on in tense silence before the pony in the town finally responded, "All right. But only one come in, unarmed. And no funny business!"

Flash thought this over for a minute. The townspeople were obviously spooked about something. Probably something to do about the current condition of their town and likely even with the discovery Sylver, Mayfield and Jackson had made only hours before. In a second, he made his decision.

"Frost, Sylver, regroup with the team." He ordered as he started stripping gear, "I'm gonna go in and speak with them, stay here and keep an eye out for anything, comms stay on channel two. If I'm not back in fifteen minutes or I don't call in, radio our airship and call for another team."

His orders given, the team leader trotted off at a brisk pace to the wagon. When he was within a few yards of it, it slowly drew back a few feet to allow him admittance. The charcoal colored stallion passed through quickly. Once he did, it swiftly slammed back shut against the side of the building it had been resting on.

Anxiously, the rest of the team waited, senses on high alert for any sign of trouble. Mayfield watched the town intently, occasionally raising his rifle to get a better look at a point of interest through his scope. Sylver absently pawed the ground with a fore hoof impatiently. Jackson looked at his watch, counting down the time. Five minutes passed, then eight and twelve. At fourteen, Sylver activated his mic, ready to call the airship. Just seconds away from the fifteen minute mark, as Sylver was about to make the call, his radio crackled to life.

"Lieutenant, bring the team in. It's safe."

Sylver hesitated a moment, unsure of the situation, before carrying out his orders, "You heard him gentlecolts, let's move. But don't lower your guard, keep three-sixty security."

The team began their approach, steadily moving towards the blocked street. When they were close enough, it withdrew a little, allowing just enough room for each of them to pass one by one.once they were all safely inside, it moved back into its position, pushed by two earth stallions, blocking the exit out.

Inside, the Fixers found a small group of guards, some armed with spears, others with bows, a few were visibly wounded, battle dressings stained red covering spots on their bodies not covered by armor. Among them stood Flash and a rather grim looking sergeant of the Royal Guard.

"So those two are the 'humans' you told me about. I apologize for the misunderstanding, but things have been pretty rough around here." Spoke the sergeant.

"It's ok. Tell my team what you told me." Flash said to him.

The sergeant let out an exasperated sigh, "Very well," he started, directing his attention to the newcomers, "It started two weeks ago. A few sightings here and there, Lotkin by the looks of 'em. At first we thought they were just passing through for trade, we know there's a small settlement of theirs northwest, up by the coast and while not often, they do travel through here on the way to Manehatten for whatever business it is they do. But then folks started disappearing. Then without warning, a large group attacked the town, shooting what they could and blowing up what they didn't. Now most of my stallions are in the infirmary and the Captain's dead! It was horrible!"

The sergeant stopped talking, disturbed by the past events. Flash took the opportunity to further brief his team, "Sergeant Boon here has been holding the town however he could for the past week. From what he's told me, we're looking at about twenty or so hostiles. We need to locate them and neutralize the threat, questions?"

Before any of the team could open their mouths the sergeant interrupted, "No! Please don't leave! They haven't attacked in a few days, they're sure to return tonight, I don't think we can last much longer here!" He pleaded desperately.

"I'm sorry sergeant, but-"

"No, wait, he's right." Mayfield cut in with a sly smile.

"Really, how so? Elaborate."

"He said they'll probably be coming back, right? They don't know we're here, so why not set up a little surprise party for them?"

"What are you getting at?"

"I know what he means." Jackson added, a smile forming on his lips as well.

"What?" Flash said in question.

"Easy. We do just what my friend here said. We wait for them to come, and then do what we do best. You got explosives?"

Flash thought in silence for a few seconds mulling it over. Then in almost an instant he understood what they had in mind. In a swift movement, he keyed his mic.

"Skyla, you still floating around up there?"

"Sure am, boss." Came a quick response.

"Find a clear place to land in town, we'll be here a while."

"You got it."

Flash then returned his attention to the humans in his charge, "Ok, we'll go your way. What's the your plan?"

"Easy," Mayfield said as constrained excitement sprang to his face, "these Lotkin fellas like a good ol' fight, yeah? So we invite them in with a little challenge and then... pure, unbridled, chaos."

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



Jackson and Mayfield were walking back to the airship, which they had learned had been dubbed the "Alister." Beside them was Sylver, who had been helping them ferry supplies to the town entrance from the ship. The plan was almost set, all they had to do now was retrieve a few weapons suited for the task and set the trap.

They approached the ship and clambered in through the side door, heading towards the back of the compartment where the extra gear was stowed. In there, the door to the engine compartment was open, the airship's pilot and mechanic hard at work tuning up the engine. She was a female light blue coated unicorn with a white mane and icy blue eyes clad in an olive drab flight suit. Strapped into a modified shoulder holster under her left foreleg was a 9mm pistol. On one shoulder was a patch with the infamous symbol of a spread winged phoenix clutching a knife and rifle with the Letters RSTG embossed over it. On the other was a quite different patch. Dark wings tipped with silver flared out from the center which held a pair of menacing crimson eyes on a field royal purple. The words emblazoned over the image read "The Night Mares."

"Hey Skyla, how's the old bird doing?" Sylver said in passing as he pulled out a trunk.

"Still fit as a fiddle. Battery just needs a little recharge." She replied as she warmed up he magic.

In the meantime, Jackson and Mayfield went about gathering the most critical part of their plan and stuffing it into bags, the explosives. They were small bricks of a sort of hardened shell. They came in a metal box with a set of tiny peculiar devices the Sylver had explained were the "hammers." Apparently the bricks were not unlike the strange grenades that the members of the RSTG carried, they needed to be struck and broken to go off, but they had a much more higher concentration of power stored within. Jackson was a little uneasy about handling what he saw as extremely volatile and unsafe ordinance, but he had been assured by the silvery unicorn stallion that they were quite stable, having been heavily enchanted to only detonate when struck by the special "hammers."

Still, it didn't exactly calm him. Once his bag was full, Jackson hopped out of the aircraft and began making his way back to the town entrance. Mayfield, however, remained behind, finding interest in the large item Sylver was currently extracting from the trunk.

"Blimey, where'd you get that from?" The human asked in admiration at seeing the large firearm.

Sylver had pulled out a large caliber sniper rifle, chambered for the .50 Cal BMG round, "You like it? It's an M82. My father passed it on to me when he retired, told me to keep good care of it, said somepony very important gave it to him years ago."

"Ha ha, nice. You sure you can handle that cannon, little pup?" Mayfield teased.

"Meh, I'm all right with it..." Sylver replied vaguely with a smirk on his face.

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


Jackson walked down the street cautiously, careful not to let the bag over his shoulder bounce with his long strides. As he walked, he took in the sights of the town, the first real civilian population he'd encountered since arriving in this strange place. Most of the shops and houses were decrepit and and damaged, but the damage was recent and it looked like the town had been a great sight to see before ill events had befallen it.

The ponies that inhabited it were no better off. A lot looked like they hadn't seen a good meal in a while and most wandered the streets with their heads drooped low. Children were almost non-existant, hidden away by their mothers and fathers in the now dilapidated buildings they still called home. It was a sad sight to see and it made Jackson angry.

A flutter of movement caught his eye, just off the road. His attention snapped to it, years of conditioning thrusting his mind into friend-or-foe identification mode. What he saw was a small filly peering at him from around a corner, a look of sadness and fear evident in her eyes. She was alone, Jackson looked around, searching for her parents, he was sure they were nearby. Then something clicked in his head. He glanced at the filly again, the dark brown color of her coat, the pattern of her tan shaded mane, but most of all, the dark gray hue of her eyes, they were the same as the female in the photo he had stepped on back at the barn.

In that moment, his heart sank. Tentatively, he took a step towards her. Suddenly, she cowered back in fear and began to retreat back into the alley. She started breathing quickly, panic setting in.

"Hey there, it's ok, don't be scared." Jackson said with a calming voice as he knelt down to the ground.

Tears started welling up in her eyes before she took off down the alley without warning.

"Hey, wait!"

Jackson dropped the sack of explosives and ran after her, cutting down the alley and leaping over random piles of trash. The filly led him down several twists and turns, she was actually fast enough to almost lose him a few times. Finally, they reached a dead end, the filly panicking in the corner, scratching at the back wall with her hooves.

"Hey, calm down, I'm not here to hurt ya." Jackson explained soothingly, "I just wanna--"

*SLAM*

Jackson was abruptly cut off as he was knocked violently to the cold ground.

"WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO MY SISTER!?" Shouted a booming angry voice.

Training taking over, Jackson sprang to his feet, drawing his pistol from the holster on his thigh, "Now hold on right there buddy, I recognized her, I just wanted to see if she was ok." He warned.

Hurriedly, the small filly scampered past Jackson and behind the large, angry stallion that was now on the wrong end of a gun. The stallion was large and muscular, strength rippling under a tawny coat. Around his neck hung a tattered striped scarf of a similar color to his eyes. Dark gray eyes shown with an intensity of anger under a messy brown mane. Looking past the scathing face, Jackson studied the apparent new threat and saw a mark on the stallion's flank, one of a hammer forcefully striking a metal shield.

"Yeah right, definitely doesn't look that way. And if you think that little blaster scares me, go ahead and take a shot!" The stallion said, squaring up for a fight.

Jackson sighed and slowly lowered his sidearm, "Ok, listen. I'm not about to shoot somebody over nothin'."

"Sure, whatever. You expect me to believe that? You said you recognized her, where from?"

"Yeah, I recognize her and you too in fact. I'm glad to see you both made it here safely." Jackson said with tranquility.

The ire in the stallion's face rose even further, "Just what do you mean? How could you know anything about us!?"

Jackson sighed, almost afraid of what his next words might do, "This might be hard to hear. I'm with the RSTG guys. On our way in, we found a farm. I searched the house, inside I found a photo of you two. Although it must've been an old one, you're a lot bigger in person."

The anger in the young stallion dropped, replaced with deep concern, "The farm... Our ... The owners, ar- are they ok?"

"I uh... I'm sorry."

Behind the stallion, the small filly teared up and began to cry softly. The stallion almost seemed to lose composure. But he looked down to his sister, now clinging tightly to one of his legs. At the sight, determination leapt to his face and he turned back to the large human standing before him.

"I... thanks. We uh... we..."

"It's ok... I... I know what it's like to lose family. If it means anything, it looks like they put up a pretty good fight." Jackson said in consolation as he holstered his weapon.

"Yeah, that sounds like pops. You uh, you said you're with the RSTG?" The stallion asked.

"Yeah, we gonna get rid of the baddies for you guys. Take care, everything will work out ok."

"Yeah, uh, I hope so."

Jackson turned to leave, remembering the important task he had set to earlier. He only made it a few feet before he felt a tap on the shoulder, tensing at the unexpected contact.

"Hey, you guys are based in Canterlot, right?" It was the stallion.

"Uh, yeah. But I'm not really with them." Jackson replied, turning. "What's your name?"

"It's Iron. Iron Defense."

"All right Iron, you and your sister stay safe."

"We will. Thank you."

Sensing he needed to get back to work, Jackson turned and left the two behind. He had something important to do and even more of a reason to do it. Exiting the alley, he picked up the bag of explosives and continued on to the main entrance. One way or another, he was going to end this suffering

Author's Notes:

OC Iron Defense created by: Shawn820

Surprise Party

Chapter 9: Surprise Party

The sun was starting set, hanging low in the sky like a great glowing fruit. Mayfield grunted as he pulled himself up onto a roof top some distance away from the front of town and the stage they had set for the evening. The roof was slightly angular, so he crawled all the way up to the spine and placed his bag on the other side that was facing down range to help even out his spot of choice for more stable shooting.

Still keeping low, he lay his rifle across the roof's spine and his bag, flipping out the bipod and removing the lens covers from his scope. Then he took his pouch of magazines and laid it on the roof's spine within easy reach so he would be able to reload quickly. Once he was done with that, he sighted through his scope to the front of the town entrance below.

In the field in front of the town, Jackson was hard at work with the Fixers, finishing up the patterns of deep trenches and holes they had dug out for the explosives. Currently, all the charges had been placed and they were putting on the finishing touches, affixing the detonators and covering the holes back up with loose dirt and plant matter. Jackson used the shovel he had borrowed and tightly packed the earth down on top of the explosive device. When he was done, he moved on to check up on the others.

"How's it looking over here?" The large man asked as he walked over to Saffron.

"Pretty good, all set and ready." The unicorn answered while he packed the dirt in with his hooves.

"Good to hear, good to hear. Once your finished with that, post up, it's starting to get dark."

"Roger that."

Satisfied that everything was coming together, Jackson started on his own way back to the town. All the ordinance was in place, all that was left were the finishing touches. He went past the make shift barricade and up a ladder to the roof of a house that sat on the border of the town, overlooking the stage they had set up for the play.

Already up there was his weapon and radio. Now instead of a fore grip, his Mk 43 now had a bipod on the front mount, a piece of equipment Jackson had found in the airship. This wasn't going to be an up and close fight and he needed stability for the range. No use in trying to handle it from the hip or shoulder here, spraying rounds everywhere and wasting ammo. Jackson went over his weapon a few times, ensuring it was ready, before picking up an ammo can nearby and loading the firearm. Then he picked up the radio and turned it on.

"Mayfield, you all set?"

"Yeah, jolly as the green giant back here." The green eyed man responded.

"What about Sylver, he doin' his thing?"

"Ha, yeah." Mayfield chuckled. "'Lil bugger's trying to one up me. He set up shop in a bell tower way back there." He thumbed back towards the center of town even though Jackson couldn't see.

"At that distance, let's hope he can. We're good down below, now it's just the waiting game."

"Lovely, my favorite game of all."

While the townsfolk sequestered themselves in their homes, the team known as The Fixers set the finishing touches and manned their stations. Flash occupied another roof top not far from Jackson, on the other side of the road. Down on the road itself, Frosty waited with Saffron behind the wagon/barricade. Above them all, Breeze hid in a cloud, watching the plains all around the town.

All settled into silence. For some time, all that could be heard was the gentle hush of wind through the air, the rustle of a few errant leaves blowing across the dry ground. The whole town seemed to hang on a halting breath as the sun slowly dipped below the horizon in the west. Around their various hideaways, the warriors waited, still as stone statues. One hour passed, then two. Sunset slipped into twilight, then twilight gave way to darkness. At the emergence of night, only one order was given.

"Goggles down gentlecolts, no use fighting what we can't see." Flash whispered into his microphone.

With only the basest of movements, the members of his team complied. Mayfield opted against the goggles in exchange for a specialized optic he pulled from his pack, quickly affixing it to his rifle, in front of the scope. Soon, all of the world before them had transformed into a ghostly green landscape. And they continued waiting, the reserves of their patience not near run dry. Up on his roof, Jackson shifted slightly to give one side of his body some rest and to keep it from stiffening. Time seemed to stretch on and his mind almost began slipping to idle thoughts, until it was interrupted.

Breeze's voice crackled over the comms, "Sir, contacts. Due north by northeast, out maybe ten miles, give or take."

"Size?" Flash asked.

"Hard to tell, could be between fifteen and twenty-five."

"Let's assume the high card. Ok team, wait until they enter the kill zone, Breeze gives the go."

So they waited. In the distance, spectral shapes bobbed and juked in an unorganized mass as they grew closer. Another hour passed while they closed the gap. Soon, Mayfield could pick out details through his scope. He counted twenty-two individuals, all outfitted in a patch work of armor. There was something else he noticed. Something that caused bells to go off in his head. Quickly, the sharpshooter keyed his radio.

"Heads up, Jackie boy, they've got firearms. Rifles by the looks of it."

"Shit, that ain't no good. What kind?"

"Various. Some automatic, some semi."

"Flash, you hear that?"

"Yeah, got it." The pegasus replied over comms.

"All right," Jackson said with an exhale, "let's try to knock 'em out before this turns ugly."

The whole team tensed up, expectant and nervous about a possible firefight. Mayfield made sure his magazine was seated properly before shoving the bolt home and chambering a round. Below him, Jackson pulled back the bolt on his weapon and slid it forward with a satisfying clack. Down on the street, Frosty pulled out a long blade with a slithering scrape while Saffron inspected his own rifle. Above, Breeze kept an eye on the advance.

The cluster of hostiles quickly entered range, drawing nearer to the kill zone. Up in the cloud, Breeze watch intensely. In no time, they had come quite close the trap and the pegasus in his high up hide started the countdown over the radio.

"Thirty yards... twenty... fifteen... ten, five." At this point, the hostiles entered the center of the explosive set up. "Blast 'em!"

Without hesitation, Flash hit the detonator. The charges were timed in sequence, the first to go off were the outer most, followed by the mid-range and finally the close-ups, causing a hefty amount of damage and confusion among the loose ranks. Without another moment's notice, Jackson flipped the safety on his Mk 43 and went to work. A rapid staccato burst from the barrel, bullets tearing into what was left of the marauders.

The Lotkin that weren't immediately cut down or crippled by the shaped charges managed to squeeze of a few rounds before being ventilated, but they went wide and smacked harmlessly into thick wooden walls or flying overhead. Jackson kept firing in bursts until he could no longer see movement in the cloud of dust and dirt created by the initial explosions. All in all, the whole ordeal had lasted only a minute and a half, a perfect ambush. But those that had perished had not been the only attendees to the party.

"Got three more!" Breeze shouted. "They're taking off, moving out of range!"

Mayfield was watching the whole event through his scope, not yet having to fire a shot. He sighted higher, spotting two running at a hurried clip away from the town, only a couple hundred yards out and one more at a much farther distance. It made sense for a few to hang back, in case something exactly like this happened to the main force.

"Mine!" The sharpshooter shouted into his mic.

Acting quickly, he flipped the safety on his rifle and brought the crosshairs to his targets, placing it just a bit above their heads to compensate for distance. Then he thought better, the main force had been completely wiped out and they may need Intel. So he adjusted his aim, moving the sights to the lower back of one and squeezed. His rifle kicked, sending a projectile arcing over the scrub plain and tearing through a leg. He then repeated the act with the other one, taking both to the ground and forcing them to crawl away. Then he tried to sight up on the third, but the warrior was already nearing the limit of his weapon's effective range.

"Fuck! The bloody bastard's getting away!"

"No he's not." Sylver stated matter-of-factly.

Suddenly there was a crack of thunder from the bell tower. Mayfield kept his eye on the fleeing Lotkin. It continued for about fifteen more feet before it suddenly jerked forward, struck by some great force, and crumpled to the ground in a useless heap of torn flesh and broken bone.

"Awww, nice!" Mayfield exclaimed in excitement. "That fucker had to be at least sixteen hundred meters out!"

"Who's a little pup now?" Sylver said snidely.

"Hey, after clean-up, you and me gotta have a little chat." Mayfield shot back with a hint of giddiness in his voice.

"I take it you like my work."

"Oh, that shot was just beau—"

"Cut the chatter!" Flash interrupted. "We're still on the job! Breeze, search the area for any other threats. Frosty, Saff, get out there and check to make sure they're all dead. Jackson and Mayfield, you're coming with me to detain the cripples, Sylver you have overwatch."

"We on it." Jackson quickly replied.

With gumption, the two humans packed up their positions and swiftly moved down to the main street where Frosty on Saffron were already pushing the wagon aside to make an exit. They quickly reached it, Flash joining them a moment later. Once the way was clear, Saffron raised his rifle up with his magic and cautiously moved out with Flash and the two humans following close behind.

First they moved to the kill zone. It was a complete mess. Bodies littered the ground. Some were whole, the victims fortunate enough to have been killed by the concussion of the blast alone. Others, however, had not been so lucky. Here and there, limbs and chunks of flesh lay about, severed by the shrapnel of rocks and earth that had been thrown around by the buried explosives. Everywhere, blood was slowly turning the soil into repugnant, coppery mud. Some bodies twitched a little, a cruel mockery of the vibrant life that had once filled them. With a robotic like routine, Saffron set his rifle to semi and began plugging each one in the head, putting them out of their retched misery.

While the unicorn carried on his grim work, Flash, Mayfield and Jackson moved on, hurriedly walking out to the two raiders Mayfield had wounded. Even at that pace, it took a minute to get out there, especially when they had to slow down and get their weapons to the ready as they neared the spot the hostiles had gone down at. After all, they could still be armed. Flash had his blade and Jackson had his automatic rifle, but with a well practiced motion, Mayfield slung his rifle and pulled out his pistol.

They came to a small ridge, stopping briefly while they got their minds into the right place. Then the exploded over the top, weapons raised and ready. The two Lotkin were on their backs, assault rifles in hand. Instantly they moved to bring them to bear. Without even thinking, Jackson took aim at the one on the left and riddled it with lethal lead.

Mayfield took a more accurate approach with the other. He took careful aim and fired, his pistol barked a rapid report as he nearly emptied his mag, reducing the warrior's right arm into a worthless mass of quivering bloody tissue. It tried to reach its rifle with its still good left arm, but Flash was on him in a second, pressing his blade to the Lotkin's throat. However, he did not slice. This one he wanted alive.

Knowing the drill from experience, Jackson slung his Mk 43 and pulled out a pair restraints he had been given earlier from a pocket on his tac vest. Fluidly, he secured the Lotkin's good arm to its own armor on its back. There was no need to secure the other, the grizzled warrior wouldn't be using it anytime soon. The appendage was just a wet, limp mess.

"Is the other alive?" Flash asked Mayfield, knowing he had watched the long shot by Sylver through his scope.

"No need." The Brit said with a small chuckle. "That bugger's ready for the ice chest."

"We'll leave that one for clean up then, back to town." Flash ordered as Jackson hauled their prize to its gnarled feet.

With that, the ambush was complete and they returned to the town of Galloping Hills, the prisoner hobbling along in front.

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



It was still dark out, only now it was morning. A chill had settled over the region throughout the night, gripping the earth tightly before sun could emerge and loosen its grasp. What was left of the town guard had been rousted, a squad was working on pyre for the bodies. The Fixers were gathered some distance away, now outside the town, waiting by their airship. A junior RSTG team had been called in to watch over the area in case of a follow up attack and The Fixers were waiting for them to arrive and relieve them so they could return to Canterlot and take some much needed R & R.

As they sat waiting, a faint humming could be heard growing in the southwest while the sun sun rose in the east. Jackson looked up to the noise, anticipating the arrival of the source of the sound. An airship, identical to the one he, Mayfield and Flash's team had arrived on appeared, moving with purpose to their position. He was surprised, though, when a second one painted a light haze gray with no markings followed soon after.

"Hey Flash," Jackson said with some concern as he turned to the pegasus, "What's the deal, I thought you called only one team."

"Huh? Yeah I did."

The officer moved from where he was standing near the prisoner and gestured to Breeze to give him something, the other pegasus tossed over a pair of binoculars with a hoof. Flash gazed through the optics at the incoming aircraft, an amused grimace falling onto his face.

"Horseapples..." the winged stallion muttered under his breath, although in a tone of mock annoyance.

"What is it?" Mayfield inquired.

"Just a shadow of the night come to snatch away our guest."

"A what?" Jackson asked with some confusion.

Mayfield leaned over to the man, "I think he means a 'Spook.' He put it quite beautifully actually. Though I never really did like their kind enough to extend that courtesy." He said sourly.

"What's the matter, afraid of ghosts?" Jackson teased.

"No, just what they get up to behind our backs."

They watched as the two airships zoomed in and came gently to the ground near them. The conventional looking one immediately powered down, the side door sliding open to disgorge a team of lightly armed stallions which Sylver moved to intercept and brief on the situation for the town. They would provide security for the settlement until new guards could be sent to relieve the battered company already there.

Meanwhile, the engine of the unmarked airship merely dropped to an idle state. It was to this one that Flash moved to, a slight smile on his lips. The side door of the unexpected arrival slid open and a singular pegasus jumped out, fluttering his wings a bit as he came down. The whole of him was a very deep black, not only his coat, but his mane as well. So intense was it that it was hard to tell where the start and finish were of either. On his face, he wore a sleek pair of equally dark sunglasses, almost indistinguishable against the dark background of his coat.

The only difference on his entire body was the mark on his flank, and even that was hard discern. It appeared to be something of lightning bolt crossed with a magnifying lens, both of which were only a slightly lighter shade than the rest of him. On his upper body, he wore something like a casual suit. It was just a white undershirt, buttoned up to the top three, which were left undone. Over this was just a light overcoat, as black as his own hide. Both he and Flash came together and shook hooves.

"Howitzer, this is a nice surprise." Flash greeted, "What brings you all the way out here, you starting to miss our exciting way of life out here, or are you just getting tired of working behind the scenes?"

"Ha, this job's exciting enough." The newcomer replied with a chuckle. He reached up and removed his shades, stuffing them in a front pocket on his overcoat and exposing a pair of scarlet red eyes. "I'm here for your buddy over there," he nodded to the prisoner they had taken, "not to mention an interest in how those two are doing." He said, meaning the humans.

"Well, our two legged friends definitely didn't fail to please. They've got a little mischievous innovation in them. As for our other guest, you can have him, but I'm surprised you came all the way out here just to pick him up. They usually let us bring them in." Flash said with some speculation.

"Ah, yeah, about that. I didn't come here entirely of my own volition. I'll take the prisoner, you go home."

"Go home?"

"Yep. An order from the Princess herself."

"But why?" Flash asked with a little concern.

"Come on, buddy. You haven't been back in over a month. You need a rest. If your reports are right, and I'm sure they are, then the guys you've got are more than ready for their own teams. Plus, if I were you, I wouldn't be leaving that cute little crazy mare you got waiting like that."

"Yeah, I guess you're right. Some leave sounds pretty good right now." Flash conceded

"Oh, and one more thing..."

"What's that?"

"She said take the humans with you."

"What? Why?"

Howitzer shrugged, "Dunno. It's what Princess Luna ordered."

Author's Notes:

OC Howitzer created by: Cyber

Sorry this took so long. Been real busy.

A Bit Of Leave

Chapter 10: A Bit Of Leave

The ride back to Canterlot was a lot more upbeat than the ride out. Breeze, Saffron and Frosty sat in a corner, laughing and playing a round of cards. Not far away, Mayfield and Sylver were engaged in a heated discussion about long range ballistics. Jackson sat alone on a bench, staring at a photo he always kept close to his heart. Flash walked over and plopped down next to him. Jackson hastily stuffed the photo back in his breast pocket, but before he did, the pegasus caught a glimpse of it. He thought he saw a little girl in the photo, she had the same skin tone as the large man next to him and was beaming with a smile that was missing the two front teeth.

"Something on your mind?" The pegasus inquired, noticing the strained look on Jackson's face.

"Ah, no, it's nothing." The man quickly replied, wiping his face with his palm.

"Well, ok." Flash said, unconvinced, but unwilling to press the issue.

Jackson seemed to perk up, hiding whatever was paining him inside, "You need anything, boss?"

"Yeah, just wanted to get your thoughts on the Op. You got an idea of what's going on here?"

Jackson slipped into professional mode, "Yeah, you guys seem to have a hell of a problem. I haven't seen anything like this in a long time. Asymmetrical warfare is a bitch to fight. You know what we should have done?"

"What's that?"

"Let the last guy go."

"What, really?" The pegasus asked incredulously.

"Yeah, really. Let him go and track him back to wherever he came from."

"Ha," Flash scoffed, "we tried that. They work in cells. Every time we track one down to their hideaway, all we find is burned papers and broken equipment."

"Sounds like their being run with some experience."

"Yeah, and there's only two individuals I know with that skill set. As far as we know, one is already dead. The other..."

"Kaughn?" Jackson blurted out.

"Yeah, him." Flash said with dejection. "But I don't think it's him. At least I hope not."

"No, no, that doen'st sound like him." Jackson shook his head. "He wouldn't do somethin' like this."

"By Celestia's will. But sometimes... well... he did go a little nuts a few times."

"Heh heh, yeah." Jackson chuckled, trying to lighten the mood. "Sometimes he took what he did a little to close to the heart. Tore him up inside. Some handle it a bit worse than others."

"Don't I know it..."

"So what are we gonna do now?"

"Hm?"

"We heading back to Canterlot?"

"Oh." Flash was taken a little off guard by the sudden change in subject. "We're gonna drop the team off and de-arm and debrief. After that, home."

"Alright, you gettin' some leave." Jackson said happily. "Me and Ma- Scratch gonna just kick it in the barracks then?"

"Nope, you're both coming with me.

"Really? Where's home then?"

"Oh, just a nice small town pretty much away from it all."

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



After a quick debriefing and turning in their weapons at the armory (though they were allowed to keep their sidearms), it was time to leave. Flash, Jackson and Mayfield walked their way down to the docks where their ride was waiting. Sylver accompanied them, still talking to Mayfield.

"...and I kid you not, Scratch, I swear he arced the bullet around the tree and hit the pumpkin."

"I dunno, there had to have been a right strong gust to pull that kind of shot off. And you don't have to call me that any more, call me Topher."

"Topher, huh? So Scratch was just your-"

"Callsign, yeah. It's not that I didn't trust you guys, it's... well, yeah, I didn't really trust you guys..."

"It's cool, I understand."

"So we're calling you Topher now?" Flash asked over his shoulder.

"Only if it suits you."

"Well, it's better than 'Scratch.' How'd you get that one anyway?"

"Ugh," Mayfield exhaled, "I don't really wanna talk about it..."

"I bet he caught crabs or something." Jackson laughed.

"Yeah, from your mum!"

Jackson only laughed harder, with Flash and Sylver joining in.

"Oh you got jokes, huh? All right, all right, I got you, Imma get you back." Jackson warned.

Soon enough, they made it to the high security dock that held the Clipper Class airships used by the RSTG. The guard at the gate recognized the Lieutenant Commander and waved the group through. Except for a few empty spots, most of the aircraft were there.

"So, what, we're just gonna take one of these?" Mayfield asked.

"Kind of, I called in a favor from a friend. Gonna be a lot faster than the train." Flash told him.

The pegasus led them all past the parked aircraft to a hanger in the back. The two wide bay doors were open, inside was a battered up airship sitting on a low rolling platform. It had old looking armor attached to the outside that appeared to repaired and re-repaired a hundred times over. Sitting on the cabin deck in the open side door was a misty gray unicorn absently reading a book. She looked up from it as the group approached, a grin growing on her mouth. She put the book off to the side and got up to greet them.

"Hey ya Flash, how's it goin'?"

"Going good, how about yourself?"

"Can't complain, just pushed another class of cadets through graduation. We actually had a couple of stallions this time! Whose your friends?" She peeked past the pegasus at the two humans behind him.

"Oh yeah, these are the new arrivals, I'm their handler while they get acquainted here." He stepped aside and motioned them to come forward. "This is Jackson and I guess Topher now. They're humans."

"Humans, really?"

"Yeah, I know. And guys," he said turning to the two men, "this is Aria Myst. She's a personal friend of mine and the head of the Training Department for all our military pilots."

"Nice to meet you both!" She held out a hoof which they both shook. "I haven't seen a human since—"

Flash held up a hoof, stopping her short, "Not now, it's kind of a sensitive issue."

"O...k... Anyway, Lectric coming along with us or just you guys?"

"Na, sorry Aria. He's still pretty busy. But he said he'd be home in a few days."

"Oh, all right." She said sadly with a sigh. "He'd better hurry up though, Flicker's starting to get anxious about when daddy's coming home. Well, pile in everypony!"

Sylver said his goodbye and took off back to the base while the rest climbed into the main compartment and took a seat. While they got comfortable, Aria moved to the cockpit and started up the engine. Outside, a team of ponies hooked a tow bar up to the aircraft and started rolling it out of the hangar and to a landing spot. Once it was in position, the ground crew disengaged the locks holding the airship to the platform and moved away to a safe distance.

Aria completed her checks and and prepared to take off, feeding power to the small, but buoyant balloon that would hold the aircraft aloft. In seconds, the airship began lifting free of the platform, skids now several feet above the deck. Aria kept her aircraft ascending until it was well above the ground and engaged the propeller, using the flaps on the cage to spin it around and face away from the docks to open air. Once clear and in the right direction, she accelerated quickly, thrusting the airship forward on it's journey.

Jackson leaned over to Flash, "How long's the flight?"

"About forty-five minutes, give or take. Might be shorter with that crazy mare at the controls, she's always pushing her ship's limits."

"Hey, I heard that!" Aria shouted from the cockpit.

The weather was mildly warm and Aria flew low so they left the side door open during the flight. Jackson sat by the edge of the deck, watching the landscape below whip past. A winding river threaded its way across the land not far to the northeast. Looking further down, Jackson could see it fed into a large kidney shaped lake by a dense forest before continuing on.

Minutes later, he spotted a large orchard, covering many acres, to the front and only a moment afterwards, it too was rolling by beneath him. He looked down and noticed that nearly the entire orchard was comprised of apple trees of all kinds, which struck him as odd. But then, farmers could grow what they wanted here.

The orchard took a while to scroll by with its size, but once it did, Jackson was treated to an astounding bird's eye view of a perfect little town below. It was about midday and many of its residents were going about their day, giving it the appearance of a large, colorful ant farm. He took it all in as they flew over its center, remembering as many details as he could. Beside him, Flash suddenly materialized.

"Looks great, doesn't it?" He asked the human.

"Yeah, seems like a pretty nice place. We staying here?"

"Well, yes and no. Below us right now is the town of Ponyville."

"Sounds original!" Mayfield shot from the peanut gallery, but Flash ignored him and continued.

"My house is actually some distance away on the other side of the river and by the forest. Nice and quiet."

"Sounds good to me." Jackson said, stretching his arms over his head, "I could definitely use nice and quiet."

"Oh, yeah, I kinda need to warn you about that..."

"About what? You said it was nice and quiet. Is it not?" Mayfield asked mockingly, obviously trying to get on the pegasus' nerves.

Once again, Flash ignored him and resumed talking, "Well, I kinda live there with my marefriend."

"So? Ain't nothin' wrong with that." Jackson said without worry.

"Sometimes she can be... Well, you'll find out."

"Oh no. No no no no! Every time someone says that, it turns out to be bad." Mayfield said while waving his arms in front of his face. "What is it? Is she mean? Kinda bitchy? Psychopathic, into some weird fetishes? C'mon, spill it!"

This finally grated a nerve with the pegasus, "What!? No! She just gets a little hyper sometimes!" Flash shouted at the dark haired human behind him.

"Is that all? Well then I don't see what the big deal is..." Mayfield shrugged.

"You're gonna get the worst of it, buddy." Flash threatened.

"Bring it!"

While the two of them were bickering, Aria had passed over the river and put her aircraft into decent. Up ahead, a medium sized two story house with a nice covered front porch came into view. Aria expertly maneuvered around it and to the back yard where a small field separated the house from the forest. Gingerly, she touched the aircraft down, allowing Jackson to hop out onto the soft grass. Boots on deck, he walked forward to the glass windows of the cockpit and gave them a quick pound, mouthing his thanks for the ride to the unicorn mare inside. She gave a smile and little salute in return.

Flash and Mayfield soon joined him, the airship lifting back into the sky once they were off. They were now looking at the back door of the house with the pegasus happily trotting up to his home. Quickly, Jackson and Mayfield moved to follow.

"Ok," Flash started, "We'll be staying here for a while, or until I get called back to work. There's two empty rooms on the second floor, the bathroom is on the first near my own room, which is off limits. I don't have any spare clothes that would fit you guys, but I can just send your sizes to a seamstress I know in town, until then, you'll have to make do with the uniforms."

They reached the door, but instead of going in, Flash stopped and turned to his two guests with a serious look, "Now, Princess Luna set up a stipend account for the two of you to use while you're here. She gave me the account numbers and passwords to give to you, but, when you do go into town do not, I repeat, do not cause any trouble, clear?"

"Touchy, touchy," Mayfield tsked, "Don't worry mate, we won't shithouse the place."

"Good," Flash said, now turning back to the door and reaching to open it, "Now let's get inside and get some—"

*WHAM* "FLASHY!"

Flash was unable to finish his sentence as the door suddenly flew open and we was knocked backwards onto the ground by a speeding pink blur which them proceeded to peck him all over the face and mouth with kisses.

"Omygosh omygosh, I'msogladyou'reback, you were gone for so long, Imissedyousomuch, but now you're back back back! And you're back just in time, I baked cupcakes, do you want some cupcakes? Ooooohhh! Maybe we should do a party, a welcome back cupcake party! We could throw a party with games and fun and punch and music and friends, we should invite our friends, oh, who're your friends?" She finally finished, eyeing the two humans with interest and a beaming smile.

Mayfield and Jackson slowly glanced at each other, not quite sure what to make of the situation. Meanwhile, Flash extracted himself out from under the energetic mare with a cotton candy mane and dusted himself off. Once presentable, he began introductions.

"Pinkie, these two are a couple of my teammates. Their gonna stay with us for a while, is that all right?"

"Of course, the more the merrier!" She cheerfully exclaimed, "What's their names?"

"This one's Topher and the bigger one is Jackson."

She ran up and started vigorously shaking both their hands, "Great to meet you both! I'm Pinkie!"

Jackson reached out for her extended hoof and gripped the end. Suddenly, her other hoof was on top of his hand and his arm began to vibrate at such an intense rate, he thought it might come off. He let go, but his arm still felt weird, he though all the blood must have been shaken out. While he was rubbing his right hand with his left, Jackson got a chuckle when he then watched the same happen to Mayfield.

"WAIT A SECOND!" Pinkie gasped and abruptly stopped mid shake and focused on her coltfriend, voice for some reason becoming serious, "They're new here, huh?" She asked with a mischievous smile.

"I—"

"Yep!"

Before Flash could even properly respond, the mare dashed back into the house, the clatter of pots and pans following soon after.

Jackson went over to Flash's side, "So... that was—"

"I told you."

"What's she doing now?"

"Probably getting a party together for you guys," he replied non-chalantly, "It's kind of her thing."

"That right?" Mayfield said, now massaging his own arm. "You know, that's not hyper, mate, she's absolutely mental!"

"I know, isn't it great?" Flash said with sincerity.

"I- uh- You know what, to each his own." Mayfield shrugged. "Now I think I heard something about cupcakes?"

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



Jackson trudged up the stairs in the house to the two bedrooms Flash had mentioned earlier. Down in the kitchen, Pinkie was busy whipping up some kind of concoction of batter while Flash took a shower and Mayfield searched for a beer. At the top of the steps, the large dark skinned man found two doors, one to the left, the other at the right.

The one on the right was closed, but the left one was slightly ajar, so that was where he went. Jackson gently pushed the door further open and stepped inside. The room wasn't much. In a corner under a large angled window sat a wooden desk, complete with drawers. A thick film of dust lay on its surface, as if it hadn't been touched in years. On the opposite side of the room, by the door, there was only a bare twin sized mattress. The wall it rested against had a fist sized hole in it. At least the carpet was clean.

The only other feature was an average sized closet, but it was devoid of any clothing or any other items. Curiously, he strode to the desk and started peeking in the drawers, but they were all empty as well, except for the bottom one in which he found a half full bottle of rum. He opened the cap and sniffed it, but quickly replaced the covering, the drink had gone bad. Jackson kept the bottle in his grip, intending to take it downstairs and toss it out.

This would be his home for a while, at least until he found a way to get back to his own world. It wasn't bad and it could have been a lot worse, he also had a lead on where his long lost friend might have ended up. Counting his blessings in the strange place he had ended up in, Jackson turned and exited the room. He had been through a lot in only a short while, maybe he'd go help Mayfield find that beer.

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



Commander Sparks marched down the corridor, a satchel hanging over a shoulder. Inside was a stamped folder marked 'Pinnacle.' It was a report on the last operation that the two humans had participated in, one that needed to go out to all the high ranking officers in Equestria's military, including the Princesses. The new information gathered on enemy equipment was alarming and a development the unicorn had been dreading for some time.

Now he had the most difficult job, passing it on to his superiors and briefing them on the report. He took a turn down the palace passageway and came to a large set of double doors, doors he had seen plenty of times in the past. With purpose, he knocked on them strongly. A second later, they swung open enough to let him pass and he entered, the portal immediately snapping shut behind him.

In the room was a low table, lit only by a singular bulb over it which was also the room's only source of illumination as it had no windows or any other entrances. On the side of the table opposite the door, two large ponies sat enthralled in discussion with each other, Sparks' bosses, the Princesses. On an adjacent side, though, was another. A pegasus with a coat so black that he almost seemed to meld with the shadows in the small space.

"Howitzer, it's almost a surprise to see you here, what brings you?"

"Oh, you know Commander, just a little detail of information in your report that could potentially sow panic and fear through the populace in such a way as to cause riots and loss of faith in the government." The black pegasus said casually.

"That's a bummer, sure you don't want to come back and work for us?"

Howitzer sighed, "Sometimes I do miss it. I'm not entirely comfortable hiding in the dark and playing cloak and dagger for Intel, but it's what I'm good at."

"Well, we'll always have a spo—"

"Ahem..." came the soft voice of Luna.

Picking up on the hint, Sparks and Howitzer dropped their conversation and turned all their attention to the table. Sparks opened up his satchel and pulled out the folder he carried, placing it gently on the table with his magic and opening it.

"I apologize, ma'am." He said, separating photos from reports and spreading them out on the table for all of them to see. "Your Majesties, we have a serious problem. It seems that our enemies, the Renegade Tribe, have armed up with modern firearms. This poses a significant threat, tactically." He explained, indicating photos that featured corpses of the attackers at Galloping Hills that held assault rifles in their thick arms.

"How so?" Celestia asked.

"First, it means we need increased and more advanced body armor, not just for our special forces, but for the regular guards as well. Also, it means we need to figure out where they acquired these weapons, are they scavenging them from somewhere or did they somehow construct them?"

"That's where I come in." Howitzer announced. "I'll be applying my skills, gathering information where I can. That is, if it's ok with you, Commander?"

"Of course. There's one other thing, included on page four in the packet. I spoke with Garth about this, as we've never really seen Lotkin use or even pick up a firearm before, even on the battlefield where it was a life or death situation. He found the fact that they are now very disturbing." Sparks continued. "According to him, advanced weaponry like that is strictly forbidden in his culture, a warrior true to his tribe only uses the 'arms of his ancestors.'"

"But didn't he, himself, use firearms when part of your team in the past?" Luna countered.

"Yes, I asked him about that as well. He told me that at that time, he had no tribe. When he defected to us, they cast him out, which forbade him from using the weapons of his tribe."

"So he decided it didn't matter anymore..." Celestia guessed.

"Correct. In addition, he now identifies with us as his tribe, so use of are weapons doesn't necessarily conflict with his ideology."

"What does this mean for the Renegades?"

"That is the other part of my threat assessment. If everything we now know holds true, then this country may be in much bigger danger than we thought. An organization radical enough to twist and warp its beliefs just to cause more pain to its enemy is an even greater threat than the isolated attacks we've been experiencing."

Sparks went silent at this point, having covered everything he thought important. Across the table, the two princesses fell back into heated debate between one another, their tones hushed and urgent. Sparks glanced over at Howitzer, who gave him a small reassuring smile of confidence before returning his focus to the two royal sisters.

Finally, they both stopped and Celestia nodded slowly to Luna. Luna then turned and faced Sparks, looking him directly in the eye, and said, "Commander, do whatever you have to do."

A Quick Trip

Chapter 11: A Quick Trip

Jackson and Mayfield sat strung out on the large couch that took up half the living room, bellies aching. The amount of sweets and pastries they had eaten was mind boggling to them. No matter how much of the delicious food they ate, more seemed to appear. In an open space near a large bay window, Flash danced with Pinkie to a catchy tune that played off a record player. It was strange to Jackson, up until now, he had thought that the pegasus was a humorless grouch. But then, he had known plenty of others that acted differently at work than they did at home. Or maybe he had gotten comfortable enough around the humans to unwind a little, he didn't know.

Whatever it was, it seemed to be contagious, as Jackson was feeling pretty good himself. He didn't know if it was the food or the place he was in, but at the moment he was the most relaxed he'd been in a long time. Next to him, Mayfield was on the verge of dozing off, he hadn't found any beer, it was just the way he got when he ate too much.

Suddenly, the music stopped and two sets of hooves could be heard walking away. Then one of them changed direction and detoured to the couch. Jackson looked up and saw it was Pinkie.

"Heya guys, didja have fun, didja like the food, wanna do it again sometime?" She shot off, rapid fire like before.

"Aw, yeah, thanks." Jackson replied, Mayfield was seemed to still be incapacitated, "The food was great!"

"Glad to hear it! Well, I'd love to stay up and chat, but I gotta go to work in the morning, see ya 'round!" She shouted cheerfully, and headed back towards the downstairs bedroom.

Flash followed her to the door, but then stopped and whispered something in her ear. She just smiled understandingly and continued on into the room without him. Flash shut the door and went back into the kitchen. A moment later, the clinking of glass bottles traveled into the livingroom, one of which sailed through the air before landing beside Mayfield.

Mayfield quickly sat up and grabbed it, "Oi! Where in the bloody hell did you pull this from?" It was beer.

"You didn't look hard enough." Flash said matter-of-factly.

"Well, good on ya." Mayfield said, raising the bottle in cheers and popping the lid off. Foam suddenly started gushing profusely from the mouth of the bottle, quickly soaking Mayfield's pants and part of the cushion he was sitting on. "Goddamnit, the fuck!?"

Both Flash and Jackson burst into laughter as the Englishman frantically tried to wipe the beverage off his legs before it set in. Of course, there was little he could do. He looked up at the laughter, zeroing in of the pegasus.

"Oi, you taking the piss or something?" He said almost angrily.

"What?" Flash said through his mirth.

"He thinks you're playing a joke on him!" Jackson clarified.

"Oh!" Flash only laughed harder, "No no no, buddy, that's more Pinkie's department, she's the one you gotta look out for! You just didn't wait for the carbonation to settle down before opening it!"

Mayfield stared down at his now half empty bottle and then back up to the man and stallion still laughing at him. "Fair enough." He shrugged before bringing the bottle to his lips and downing the remaining contents in one gulp. "Please get me another one then. And this time just put it on the table!"

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



"Sophie!"

Jackson sat up, his mind fuzzy. For a moment, he forgot where he was, but he knew the room he was in was unfamiliar. Then it all came back to him in one great rush. He reached up with a hand and rubbed his temples, he had just come out of a bad dream, but he could'nt remember exactly what it was about. All he knew is that it was one of the worst kinds, the kind that let you believe that everything in your life was the best it could possibly be, all happiness and good thoughts, until it suddenly thrust you back into the cruel reality when you woke up.

Then Jackson's stomach gurgled, interrupting his train of thought. Automatically, he reached over to the desk and swiped his watch off the surface and checked the time. It was just past seven in the morning. Bouncing to his feet, he grabbed his pants and a towel Flash had given him and ran down to the bathroom to take a shower.

The water was warm and inviting, just what he needed to start the day. He didn't linger, though, and toweled off quickly before getting dressed and heading out into the livingroom where he bumped into someone.

"Took ya long enough, mate."

"What? I was in there for like five minutes!" Jackson said, eyeing his roommate quizzically.

"Five minutes and fourteen seconds, to be exact!" Mayfield sniffed.

Jackson chuckled at the early morning humor and moved to the kitchen while Mayfield took his turn. His stomach growled again, impatient for a meal. Jackson went through the cupboards, wondering what Flash might've had in stock. Then he thought back to the mess hall back up in Canterlot, almost nothing but leafy greens and oats. At least he could make oatmeal.

Opening cupboard after cupboard, he found hard pucks of condensed hay, oats (of course), fruits, vegetables, bags of nuts and various other edible botanical items. Then he noticed the fridge in the corner and took a peek inside. His face lit up. There was a jug of fresh milk, eggs, and cheeses, all high in protein. He gathered what he wanted from the fridge and retrieved some vegetables from the cupboard, then got to work on his creation. He was gonna make omelets.

Mayfield finished up in the washroom, but didn't get completely dressed, he sat on the couch in his boxers instead. His pants were outside drying on a line after a quick wash last night.

"You making any for me?" He called into the kitchen.

"You want some?" Jackson called back, already cracking two more eggs open.

"Why yes please, that would be delightful. No cheese please!"

Jackson carried on cooking, humming an idle tune to himself. Not much later, the door to Flash's room opened and the pegasus emerged, mane a mess, but otherwise looking well rested.

"Heeey! Sleeping beauty's up!" Mayfield immediately started to tease. "Get in a good rough and tumble?"

"Huh?" The pegasus still wasn't used to the man's sayings.

"Don't answer that question, Flash!" Jackson warned from the kitchen, "He's just trying to mess with ya!"

"Whatever." Flash mumbled. Then he sniffed the air. "What are you cooking, is it eggs?"

"Omelets!" Mayfield said with some excitement. "Eh Jackie boy, why don't you whip up an order for our fearless leader?"

"You got it!" Jackson shouted back.

"Uh, thanks." Flash said gratefully before ambling into the washroom to start his own morning routine.

Jackson cooked up three plates with omelets, including some toast he had made with bread found in the cupboard and and a few glasses of milk. Once he was done, he put it all out on the counter, complete with flatware for himself and Mayfield that he found in one of the drawers. Flash had finished by then and came to the kitchen with Mayfield where they all sat down together and began eating.

"So what's the plan for today?" Jackson asked almost immediately.

Flash looked up, "Uh... Well, I gotta get more clothes for you guys, that's easy, I just have to take your measurements into town. I guess I could show you guys around town too, but first we need to get some pants on Topher."

"Hey, I look damn sexy without them!"

"Case in point." Flash sighed. "Other than that, whatever, I guess."

"Any chance I could come with you for the clothes?" Jackson asked the pegasus.

"Flash mulled it over in his mind for a minute before answering. "Ok, But Topher can't leave the house."

"Scouts' honor!" Mayfield replied almost sarcastically. "Although I really could do with some exercise..."

Flash narrowed his eyes at the man, but didn't say anything.

"So when do we leave?" Jackson inquired, eager to explore a little.

"As soon as you want."

Jackson quickly finished his meal, scarfing down the last few morsels and began to clean up, washing the pan and dishes in the sink. Once done, he went to his room and slid on his boots, then heading down to the front of the house where Flash was sitting on the porch, waiting for him with a saddle bag over his back.

"All set?"

Jackson nodded.

Together they walked out towards town. The journey didn't take long, only about fifteen minutes at their pace. As they neared, Jackson scanned the area, taking in the sights and goings-on of the town. In the streets ahead, various ponies milled about, doing chores or running errands. Up high in the sky, there were only pegasi, herding clouds, part of a weather control service if Jackson remembered what he'd been told. From the looks of their movements, he concluded it would be a nice sunny day with hardly any clouds.

The first thing they did was cut through the market to it's far side where an ornately decorated, three terraced building stood. It had a small sign tacked over the front door that read; "Carousel Boutique." It was here that Flash led him, opening the door with a hoof and stepping inside.

Jackson looked at the building with an odd expression, "We're getting our clothes here? No offence man, but this looks like it's for females only."

"Trust me, you want them from here." Flash replied, halfway into the building, "The mare that runs this place has more experience with your body shape than anypony else."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Jackson asked, now eyeing the pegasus suspiciously.

Flash tried to come up with something on the spot, "Uh... She makes clothes for diamond dogs?"

"I have no idea what those are."

"Oh, ok th—"

"And my sister would freak out if she heard you use anything that has to do with her and the word 'diamond dog' in the same sentence." Came a sweet tiny voice from beyond the open door.

Flash turned around and went deeper into the building, Jackson now following close behind. The human looked around and cringed at the massive amount of frilly lace and bright colored fabrics inside the shop. As an operative, to him any clothing that brightly colored screamed shoot here. He didn't spot the owner of the voice, however, until he looked down.

Standing near the center of the room was a small unicorn filly with a white coat and a curled pink and purple mane. She looked up at the two of them with big green eyes.

"Hi Sweetie Belle," Flash said, "Is your sister around at all?"

"Not right now," she replied, "Rarity went out to the market to buy more fabric. Who's your big friend?"

"This is Jackson, he's visiting from Canterlot. He's actually why I'm here." Flash replied, reaching back into his saddle bag and pulling out a slip of paper and a small bag of coins that jingled. "He needs some clothing, about six different sets." He glanced back at the human, who was still looking around the rest of the shop with distaste. "And please tell her they're for two humans, male, nothing fancy or brightly colored."

"I can do that." The little filly said jovially, accepting the measurements and payment from the pegasus. "Oh, and can I ask you something?"

"Sure."

"Is the sleep over still on at yours and Pinkie's place?"

"Sleep over? What sleep over?" Flash asked her, confused.

"Oh, she didn't tell you?"

"No, she didn't, must've forgot." He said flatly.

"Well we asked her if we could have a sleep over at your place because it's close to the woods. We wanted to go camping on our own, but mine and Applebloom's sister won't let us. Pinkie said it would be ok if we stayed there instead."

Flash thought for a second, "Well, we have guests over right now," Sweetie Belle's expression sunk a little, "But if you guys camp out in the backyard, I don't see a problem with it."

Her face instantly brightened up again, "Aw yes!" She shouted, "I'm gonna go tell the girls!" With that, she haphazardly threw the bag of coins and the paper onto a nearby table and raced out of the shop.

"Nice kid." Jackson commented, heading for the door.

They exited, Flash closing and locking the door shut behind him, he didn't want the little filly to get in trouble for leaving it open. "Yeah, she is. But watch what happens when she and her friends get together. Trouble."

They then left the shop, heading back to the market. There they picked up some groceries and a few other things for the house. Jackson noticed a sort of entertainment district that had a few bars. He'd have to check it out before he left town. Other than that, they just stopped at the bank to set up Jackson's account and then went on back home. When they arrived, they found Mayfield suspended from a rafter in the porch roof by his legs, doing crunches.

"'ello!" He waved, "You get my knickers?"

"Not yet." Jackson said.

"They'll be ready either tonight or tomorrow." Flash told him.

Mayfield pulled himself up again, but gripped the rafter with his hands and swung down to the porch deck, "Ah, well. At least my uniform pants are dry by now. You two wanna pint?"

"It's barely noon..."

"Hey, none of us are driving." Mayfield shrugged as he opened the door and went into the house.

Flash looked at Jackson, but he just mimicked Mayfield's move and went inside as well, placing the bags he carried on the kitchen counter. He didn't usually drink this early, but as far as he knew now, he was on vacation. He and Mayfield made a quick sandwich of cheese and left over egg from breakfast and moved back out onto the porch with a couple bottles, including one for their host. Flash eyed them for a second, but took the bottle any way, though with a sour look.

"What's the matter my friend? You're on leave, relax a little!" Mayfield said to the pegasus.

"You know, I gotta agree with Topher here." Jackson said, "I know that when I got off work for a while, I would party every day. Your girlfriend would definitely be into it."

Flash swirled the amber liquid in his bottle a little bit before taking a swig, "You know, I was the same way not too long ago. I would stay up all night, drink a ton and generally act crazy when I got the chance. But now... I don't know, I'm just tired."

"Aw yeah? Well maybe I can remedy that." Jackson said assuredly.

Flash and Mayfield watched as the large man went back into the house and began rummaging through drawers and checking cabinets. Finally, after a few minutes a searching, Jackson let out a triumphant Aha! returned outside where he dragged a small table over to a few chairs in the corner. He sat down on one of them and smacked a deck of cards onto the table. Mayfield bounced over and sat down next to him.

"Ooh! What're we playing?"

Flash soon walked over and joined them.

"A little game a friend of mine taught me. It's called 'Big Two,' we'll play it as a drinking game." Jackson said.

"'Big Two,' huh?" Flash queried.

"Yeah, you heard of it?"

"Not really..."

"Well, it's real easy, here." Jackson began dealing out the cards and explaining the rules.

They played a few practice hands with Flash losing pretty much all of them. Mayfield got eager to play with the drinking involved and Flash agreed, which sent up a flagin Jackson's mind, but he didn't really pay it any heed. Flash went into the house and got a large bottle of rum, Jackson noticed it was the same kind he'd found in his new room.

They began slow, with Flash once again losing and taking the first few shots because of it. But then he started to win. Only here and there at first, but then with more and more regularity. Before even an hour had passed, the whole of the bottle had been spent between the two humans with Flash taking on only two more shots for himself.

"You know, this one's a sneaky little bugger," Mayfield slurred, "been leadin' us on the whole time."

"Yeah," Jackson agreed, "how'd you learn this game so good?" Slowly, because of the alcohol, the answer surfaced in his mind, "Wait, I know! You learned it from him!"

"What! Who? Learned it from what?" Mayfield asked.

The dark pegasus just sat there with a smirk on his face, "Yeah, he taught me how." He said slyly, "and he taught me how to play harder then you two pansies." As if to punctuate his statement, he picked up yet another bottle of rum from where he had hid it under his chair and slammed it onto the table.

Mayfield chuckled slightly, "Oh, you're so goin' down!"

A Slip Of The Tongue

Chapter 12: A Slip Of The Tongue

In the deep south of Equestria, high in the air over an unnamed mountain that stood lonely in the desert, a single Clipper class airship hung lazily in the sky. Inside the main cabin, amongst a plethora of charts and maps and with a radio headset clasped firmly over his ears and a mic extended down his mouth sat a pitch black pegasus with scarlet red eyes.

A voice crackled in his ear, "Gulf-3, in position."

Howitzer leaned over his maps and found a spot on the mountain circled in black. He then picked up a marker and placed a black dot in its center, "Acknowledged, proceed when ready, Gulf-3."

"Copy."

Howitzer left the channel open and listened as the operator he was connected to started huffing and puffing as he galloped into what the pegasus was sure was a hole in the side of the mountain. There was a whole team down there, conducting a raid on what his Intel had indicated might be a cache of weapons. Of course, they couldn't know for sure until they checked.

The operator's heavy breathing slowed as he stopped somewhere, "Contact, three hostiles, armed, permission to engage?"

"Granted, go."

"Weapons free." The operator said to the rest of his team.

Howitzer listened as several almost imperceptible coughs puffed through his headset. Then there was a silent moment where he wasn't sure exactly what had happened, what he wouldn't give for a live visual from the team down there. His country already had cameras, and even video recording devices, but they were still working on the technology to transmit.

The operator came back on, "Limas neutralized, proceeding to objective."

Then there was several more tense minutes of silence. Every once in a while, Howitzer would hear the cough of a silenced weapon or the scrape of a blade and the team leader would call in another hostile downed by his team. But then, he heard exactly what he wanted to hear.

"Sir," the team leader called, "we've reached a chamber, space is clear. Gulf-3 has eyes on crates."

"Good work Gulf-3, verify." Howitzer ordered.

He then waited while his operatives on the ground began breaking open the containers they found. After a moment of listening to boards crack and pins dropping, the team leader reported back in.

"Sir, we have confirmation, crates are filled with assault weapons and... sir, they have energy grenades."

Howitzer cursed under his breath, "That means they're still making them, we'll notify the Princess. What model are the rifles and condition are they in?"

"The rifle models vary, got some AK's, M16's, old bolt actions. The others are banged up a little, but the AK's look new, if low quality."

"So we know they're manufacturing at least some of them. Good job, Gulf-3, destroy the cache and bang out."

"Roger that, sir, moving."

Howitzer leaned back in his seat and exhaled exhaustedly. He may not be down on the ground any more, but these missions still set him on edge. He wasn't responsible for his own life any more, now he was responsible the the lives of those he sent down range instead. Not being able to personally react physically and instantly to situations was very stressful to him. That's why when the crackle of gunfire came through his headphones, it caused him to jerk back forward, heart rate wildly accelerating.

"Gulf-3, report!" He demanded.

"Sorry about that sir, we got snuck up on. Charges are set and we're on our way out. Call a casevac, one of my guys took one to the flank."

Hurriedly, Howitzer switched channels and called up an airship that was waiting on standby not far away, "Hellcat, you got the call. Gulf-3 is on their way out. Lock and load, they're bringing the party with them, one wounded."

A female voice replied, "I got you sir, we'll swoop in and bring the heat, ETA two mike."

Howitzer switched channels back to the ground team, "Gulf-3, Hellcat is inbound."

"Thank you sir," the team leader said over bursts of gunfire, "we're clear now, detonating charges." The audio popped and went fuzzy for a moment as the explosion overpowered the microphone. "Objective completed... sir, Hellcat's here, boarding and extracting."

Howitzer relaxed a little. the ground team was on their way out now. Unless something really unexpected came into play, they were pretty much home free. He shuffled his wings into a more comfortable position and then switched his comms to his airship's internal channel.

"Ok, Slipstream, we're good, take us on home."

"Yes sir." His pilot replied.

Howitzer felt the deck shift as the pilot turned her aircraft onto a bearing back to Canterlot. Meanwhile, the pegasus still sitting rigidly in the main compartment began gathering papers, packing up his maps and stowing them in a sealed bag. Now all he had to do is get back to the palace and brief his boss on the good, and bad, news.

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



It was late afternoon. Jackson was out in the back, near the edge of the woods, doing push-ups. The weather was mildly warm, not too hot, and just a little bit breezy. He almost couldn't get over just how perfect it could be out there. But when you effectively had control over the weather where you lived, any day could be as perfect.

Jackson finished up his fitness routine, sweat soaking the shirt front and back before heading back to the house. He had been there a few days now, enjoying the peacefulness, reading some books Flash had in the house that were from the local library. He was surprised when some of these books not only contained knowledge for things like history and cooking recipes, but also in magic. He went through these, fascinated by it all.

As he neared the house, he thought of the books again, thinking of looking through a book he skimmed before, remembering a part that mentioned time travel. After he took a shower and got dressed in his new clothes, he would take a look at it again. The large man walked up the short steps and reached for the handle, but jumped back when he saw it turn on its own. Just in time too, because not a split second later, it flew wide open, three little fillies barging through and galloping out into the yard, giggling all the way.

A bouncing Pinkie Pie followed close behind. Soon after that, a heavily laden Flash trudged out the door, carrying all sorts of camping gear on his back. Quickly, Jackson moved to help out the pegasus, grabbing a few things like a large folded up tent and a couple of old style lanterns and holding them while Flash made his way out into the yard.

"Thanks." The pegasus grunted.

"No problem, man, these goin' over there?" Jackson gestured over to where the girls were snooping around, presumably searching for a suitable spot to set up.

"Yeah, just set it down and they'll take care of the rest."

Jackson followed Flash's lead and wandered to the group of fillies. They eventually stopped, signaling they had found their perfect spot, near a small copse of trees that formed a horseshoe shape, half cocked away from the house. Jackson put his stuff down and then helped Flash to put all the gear he carried into an organized pile.

One of the fillies, one with a light yellow coat and a vibrant red mane topped with a bow rushed over to the pile, "Thanks Mister Flash, Ah don't think we coulda carried that all by ourselves." She said with a thick southern twang.

"Not a problem, stay safe and have fun!" Said Flash, turning and walking away.

Jackson went back as well, "So those are the trouble makers, huh? Don't look all too bad to me."

"Yeah, you'd think so. Those are Sweetie Belle's friends, Applebloom and Scootaloo, they do everything together. I gotta tell you, I let them try and fix the plumbing one time when we had a problem with the sink and before I knew it, the whole bottom floor was flooded out."

"Really?" Jackson chuckled, "Well I don't think they can do much damage to some grass and a few trees."

"Just watch, they might be able to pull it off." Flash mumbled.

A few hours later, Jackson was sitting on the front porch with a beer and a book, reading by the soft light mounted in the overhead. It was still fairly warm out, even though the sun had already set. He was in a comfortable set of civilian clothing, just a light t-shirt, a pair of dark slacks and his boots, it still seemed that footwear made for anything other than ponies was hard to come by in this land.

Absently, he stuck his hand inside his pants pocket and pulled out the same photo he always carried around. He sat there, lost in time, staring at the image that brought up so many happy, and painful, memories. He remembered just how long it'd been. Two years. Two years since that day at the doctors when everything had gone wrong. And a year after that, she was gone.

Of to the left, in the darkness, a bush rustled slightly. Jackson paused, quickly shoving the photo back in his pocket and quietly setting the book down. The foliage rustled again, his eyes snapped to it and he found his right hand automatically groping for his sidearm, which was locked up in his desk drawer upstairs.

He tensed and got up, taking a loose combat stance and focusing on the apparent threat. Jackson moved down the short steps, placing himself in a good position, ready for whatever came his way. The bush rustled more violently now and a small for leaped out, striking a menacing pose, forelegs held high over her head.

"RAAAAWR!" The short purple maned filly roared as loud as she could.

Jackson dropped his arms, shoulders slumping in exasperation, "Oh, it's just one of you little gals." He looked at the small pony, she had an orange coat with two tiny wings on her back. On her face, she wore the night vision goggles the special forces teams here used.

"Did I get you, did I get you, huh? Huh?" She asked excitedly.

Jackson decided to play along, "Oh, yeah!" He said, placing one hand over his chest, "I thought you were some big scary something, I'm glad it was just one of Sweetie Belle's friends!" He finished with a relieved tone.

The little filly giggled at her success, "Awesome!"

"What's your name?"

"I'm Scootaloo. What's yours?"

"Darius, Darius Jackson."

"You're Mister Flash's friend, you and the other guy, right?" Jackson nodded. "Ya wanna come make S'mores?"

Jackson hadn't had a one of those in a very long time, and right then it sounded delicious, "Sure, lead the way."

Scootaloo brought the large man over to where she and her two friends were camped out for the night. Pinkie was there as well, sitting by the fire they had built, mouth already stuffed full of marshmallow and chocolate. Jackson sat down by her and who he assumed was Applebloom by process of elimination. He introduced himself to the country born filly and started on his own snack, grabbing a stick and skewering a couple of the puffy white sweets.

"Anypony know any good campfire stories?" Applebloom asked.

"How about the one about old nag and her shoe?" Scootaloo suggested.

"Nah."

"The Headless Horse?"

"Heard it." Sweetie Belle said.

Pinkie swallowed what she was chewing and jumped in, "Ooh, ooh, I got one!" She leaned in close and her voice adopted a spooky tone, "How about ~The Demon Of Everfree Forest~?"

"The Demon Of Everfree Forest? I haven't heard that one." Applebloom quandered.

Scootaloo sat up straighter, "I've heard of that! It's supposed to be based on fact, there are rumors in town of something strange out in Everfree!" She explained with gusto.

"Indeed!" Pinkie started in a hushed tone, "Deep deep in the darkest parts of the Everfree lurks a being of shadow! It stands just a bit taller than most ponies, better to get the drop on them with. Instead of walking normally, on all fours, it strides across the ground and through the trees with just two long legs. At the ends of its arms are not hooves, but multiple wiggling digits!"

Jackson cocked an eyebrow, "You mean hands?"

"Shh! I'm not done." Pinkie chided. "The Demon it very cunning, hard to pursue and impossible to capture. For you see, it has the supernatural ability to blend with the darkness in night and the plants and trees of the day. Many have tried to catch the Demon, all have failed. Those that try to hunt it or venture too deep into the forest fall victim to its traps, all without getting a single view of it."

Alarm bells started ringing in Jackson's head, some of the story was starting to fit a clear picture in his mind, something familiar.

"So beware, BEWARE, for the Demon could be anywhere. Even BEHIND YOU!" She shouted the last two words and pointed to a dark area behind Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo with a terrified expression. They all turned their heads and looked where she pointed, but there was nothing there.

"Uh . . . What's supposed t—"

A creature suddenly dropped from the branches of the tree overhead and into the center of the camp, shaking its head and waving its arms about while letting loose a loud bellow. The three little fillies screamed and ran into their tent, quickly zipping it shut and turning a lantern on inside. Meanwhile, Pinkie and the creature both burst out in laughter while Jackson sat there with a bemused expression on his face.

"Really, Topher?" He asked rhetorically.

The creature reached up with an arm and pulled the hood off its head, "What? That was good!" Mayfield said in defense.

"Sure was, we got 'em!" Pinkie said, still laughing. She put a hoof up in the air towards Mayfield, which he smacked with an open palm, like a high five.

The tent then suddenly unzipped, "Get him!" Came the battle cry.

"Uh-oh, gotta go!" Mayfield laughed.

He ducked low to the ground as Applebloom launched herself at him, sending her flying over his head. Then he took off at a sprint across the grassy yard, three little fillies in hot pursuit. Jackson watched in amusement for a moment before redirecting he attention back to Pinkie, who was already making another S'more. He remembered his marshmallows then and checked, but they had already been burnt to a crisp, the end of the stick falling off into the flames below. He chalked it up to a loss and put the stick down.

"Hey Pinkie."

"Mhm?"

"Is what Scootaloo said the truth?"

"Is what the truth?"

"About the rumors. There's something out in the forest like in your story?"

"Oh yeah! But we're really not supposed to tal- I mean, there was, but its just an old myth." She quickly corrected herself.

"A myth, huh?" Jackson asked, unconvinced.

"Yeppers, sure is, just a story!" She quickly responded with a smile, as if she was trying to hide some deception.

Jackson wanted to pressure her more into telling him something, but he didn't want to be rude to his host. There were other ways to get the information he wanted. If there were rumors in the town about it, that would be the ideal place to start.

"Well, I think I'm gonna turn in." Jackson said gruffly, getting to his feet.

"Okie dokie, goodnight!" Pinkie said cheerfully as he left.

Jackson walked back across the yard to the backdoor of the house. Along the way, he spotted Mayfield. Mayfield was currently pinned on the ground, laughing, while the three fillies tickled him incessantly. It bought a small smile to Jackson's lips. As fun as that looked, he had an agenda now. A two legged being that could escape detection and hide out in the forest, sounded extremely familiar to him. He was going to plan a hunt.

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



Flash hid in shadow near the little campsite. He had listened to the whole story, including the short conversation between Jackson and Pinkie. The orders given to him at the debrief had been clear. He was to report straight back to Sparks with any descriptions matching those he had just heard.

He didn't like having to spy the way he did when he was supposed to be enjoying some time off, but he began to put the pieces behind whatever the reasons were in place. He watched Mayfield get chased away by Sweetie Belle and her friends and Jackson leave to go back to the house. He waited just a moment longer and then backed away, taking a slightly longer route back to his home.

He would go to his room, his marefriend was sure to be out here with the girls until late. That would give him time to write his report and stash it somewhere until he found time to get it to Spike unnoticed. He loved Pinkie, but she and her friends were hiding something. Hopefully, that little slip Pinkie had made with her story would allow him to reveal what it was in time.

In Exchange For Services

Chapter 13: In Exchange For Services

Jackson wasn't able to start his hunt when he wanted to. Then next day, Flash announced to him and Mayfield that they'd been called back to Canterlot for an Op. They all left only a few hours later, this time taking the train instead of flying there. Flash assured them that it would only take a couple of hours longer and it would give them time to sleep before they went to work. Apparently, they would be leaving again shortly after arriving in the capitol city.

The train ride was pleasant, but as soon as they arrived, a squad of guards received them at the station and immediately ushered them into a carriage to be whisked away up to the palace. Whatever they were needed for, it must have been urgent.

On arrival at the palace itself, a pair of RSTG members escorted them to a windowless room on one of the upper floors. Waiting for them there was Princess Luna. In shadow of a corner behind her, a strange silhouette leaned against the wall. Jackson didn't like being rushed into situations like this, it usually meant he was about to be asked to do something he really wouldn't enjoy.

As soon as they filed in and the doors closed, Luna started speaking, "You're all here, wonderful."

"Yes ma'am, what can we do for you?" Flash replied.

"Ah, your eagerness heartens me. I have received more information on the activities of our enemies and needless to say, in order to continue, certain skills are needed. Skills that are unfortunately in short supply among our own." She explained.

"What exactly do you need us to do?" Jackson asked bluntly.

"A simple snatch job really, but it requires a certain level of. . . stealth and finesse."

"That all?" Mayfield grinned, "I don't know if you know, but that's kind of our thing."

"Yes, but this requires a bit more than simple recon. We need full access. Unfortunately, it will come at a price." Luna looked over her shoulder to the corner, "Miss Paws, if you will?"

The shape in the corner glided forward, shadow sliding off it like a satin veil. A Diamond Dog emerged, stepping purposefully up to the table. Gray fur covered her body, except where it was hidden by a loose fitting shirt and shorts. A single white spot surrounded her eye which was an icy blue, different from the other that was a rich brown. The only other noticeable attribute was a pair of black tipped ears.

Upon seeing her, Flash immediately stiffened, "Miss Paws? You don't mean Miss Paws as in Swift Paws, do you? She's a wanted criminal!"

"Criminal." The Diamond Dog spat in a husky voice. "Nothing is criminal about surviving."


Luna cleared her throat, "Miss Paws has actually been helping us for quite some time now, passing on information she has come across in her. . . profession. She has agreed to lend us her expertise full time for something in return."

Flash narrowed his eyes, "That being?"

"Freedom." Swift Paws said without prompting. "Freedom from the scum which even now oppresses my clan."

"Miss Paws' family currently resides in Manehatten." Luna filled in for her. "As you well know, Lieutenant Commander, even with the best efforts of the Royal Guard Corps., crime is still very hard to combat, especially organized crime. A certain syndicate based in Manehatten is particularly difficult to deal with."

"So in exchange for us getting rid of them, she'll 'help' us?" Flash guessed.

"Precisely." Luna answered. "What do you say?"

Flash thought about it for a moment. He was adverse to associating with any kind of criminal, no matter what the reason. Thoughts of a lost friend who had suffered under the yoke of a gang of thugs buzzed through his mind, he didn't know if this Diamond Dog was any different. After some consideration, he opened his mouth to voice his decision, but someone else beat him to it.

"Well, I don't know about Flashy here, but a nice trip to the city is too good to pass up. I'm game." Mayfield said enthusiastically. "When do we leave?"

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



Mayfield walked calmly along the street in his best civilian clothing, occasionally checking his wrist watch. It should happen anytime now, he'd done enough to draw the necessary attention, though it hadn't been easy. A conventional approach produced only marginal results at best, so now they were improvising.

Info on the gang they had targeted was a lot harder to come by than they had anticipated. They kept almost no records of their business and left barely any evidence of their crimes behind. True professionals that demanded a modicum of respect by his standards. Still, their activities were very distasteful, ranging from extortion to the occasional firebombing. He'd be glad to rid the streets of these scum bags.

Because of their elusive nature, Mayfield had had to resort to more blunt tactics. He'd gone around to any business or area in the secluded borough suspected of even the tiniest affiliation with his target and did the stupidest thing any investigator with half a mind could have done. He'd gone and openly asked a ton of detailed and intrusive questions. Surely his nosiness would catch the wrong kind of attention.

Suddenly, he was aware of a couple of the ponies that made up the usual traffic in the crowded street were following him a little more closely than he felt comfortable. Mayfield checked his watch again, so far everything was going as expected. Moving on with the next part of the plan, he made another stupid mistake, he suddenly turned into a deserted alley, obviously attempting to lose his followers in some manner.

He smiled when he only made it about half way down when the end of the passage was suddenly blocked by a pair of large earth stallions. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that his followers were now blocking the only other way out, back into the street, putting him between a rock and a hard place. He turned back to the earth stallions with a grin, they were now much closer than before.

This was certainly not the best situation to be in, but the human felt that everything would be all right. After all, everything was going as planned so far. Unfortunately, the next thing he felt was a sharp pain on the back of his head as something solid impacted it with great force.

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Mayfield came to sometime later, how much later he wasn't sure. When he opened his eyes, he found his vision obscured by a rough cloth sack, burlap, he guessed. He knew he was in a chair, as he was sitting upright with his feet solidly on the ground. He tried to move his arms, only to find that they were securely fastened behind his back.

"Hey, he's awake, I saw him move." Said an unfamiliar voice from off to the side.

"Finally, I was starting to get bored!" Said another.

The sack over Mayfield's head was pulled roughly away, revealing a dim, cramped room. He didn't know where he was, the only windows were boarded up. In front of him stood one of the stallions from before, his face held a dull expression. To his right, a unicorn circled around from the rear.

"Good to see you're finally up." The unicorn started. "You're a human, right? Now what is one of your kind doing here so far away from home I wonder."

"Dunno, mate, I'm just a lost tourist." Mayfield replied calmly.

"Tourist!" The unicorn laughed haughtily. "Tourist my flank! Not with the kinds of questions you've been asking. You know, it's very dangerous for your health, what you've been doing."

"I don't know nothing about no questions. Just got a bit lost is all."

"Sure ya did, pal. And my grandmother was a griffon. Why don't you tell me why you're really here? I promise it'll be a lot less painful."

"Honestly, I haven't the slightest."

"Ok then," the unicorn shrugged, "if that's the way you wanna go." He nodded to the large earth stallion.

The stallion walked up and with a smile struck Mayfield hard across the jaw. The human reeled back from the hit, but remained silent.

The unicorn shook his head. "Come on, pal. Nopony asks those kinds of questions without some kind of agenda. Who are you working for, the Guard?"

"I already told you, I was just sightseeing."

"Fine, if this is the way you wanna go. . ." The unicorn shrugged, "give him another one, Barney."

The stallion drew back a foreleg and struck Mayfield on the other side of his face. However, Mayfield just spit out a glob of blood onto the cold concrete that made up the floor, "Who taught you how to punch, your husband?" he said mockingly to his attacker. Angrily, the stallion added a few more strikes, finishing with a punch to the gut for good measure.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk. . ." The unicorn said, "Barney don't take to kindly to that kinda talk. Why don't you just make this easy for the both of us and just come clean?"

"Sorry, but I really don't have anythin' to come clean about."

"Ok then," the unicorn sighed, "have it your way. Barney?"

Mayfield braced as the stallion gave him a few more hits before backing off again.

"You're really making this too hard on yourself. I just need a few bits of information and then maybe we'll let you go." The unicorn offered.

"How about these words? Jog off, ya big fat cunt!"

The unicorn sighed, "You might wanna reconsider your tone, buddy. Otherwise you might end up in a dumpster. Barney, hit him again." He said with boredom.

The earth stallion again began delivering blows, the expression on his face belying the enjoyment he was getting from beating up an opponent that couldn't fight back. The expression changed to a confused one when Mayfield's reaction was to laugh, spittle mixed with blood flying from his mouth, "Then you'd better just kill me!"

"Oh darn," the unicorn said almost forlornly, "I was hoping this wouldn't have to get any messier, but you give me no choice. Anything else to say, while you can still talk?"

Mayfield noticed a shadow flicker in the thin beams of light that struggled passed the boards on one of the windows, "Yeah, just one thing, mate. Could you just take a peek outside there, tell me what you see?"

"Oh I suppose, seeing as it is very likely your last request." The unicorn said while rolling his eyes. The unicorn trotted over to the window like he was doing the human a huge favor. He peered through one of the tiny cracks between the boards, "Hm, it's really nice and sunny out. Shame you won't get to—"

The unicorn was abruptly interrupted as a large metal ram smashed through the wood and into the pony's face. It was immediately followed by a huge muscled man who swung down into the room from above. The large earth stallion flinched and covered his face at the sudden intrusion, but quickly rallied himself and charged the intruder.

The large man calmly raised an M9 equipped with a suppressor and fired three rounds into the charging stallion's chest. Fortunately for the attacker, instead of a spray of blood, his hide just rippled as he was struck by rubber bullets. He fell to the floor in agony where the man quickly put him in restraints. The man repeated the action with the unicorn, except he also injected him with a drug that would prevent the use of any magic. Once he was finished, he strode over to Mayfield and sliced off his restraints with a knife.

"'Bout damn time you finally showed up Jackie Boy." Mayfield said, rubbing his sore wrists.

"Hey, just be glad that little beacon they gave you worked." Jackson chuckled lightly.

"You got my gear, mate?"

"Right here," Jackson took a small pack off his shoulders and tossed it over to Mayfield who caught it and opened it up. He pulled out his pistol and web belt with ammo, along with a headset radio and an armored vest. "Careful with that vest, man, it's stab proof, but the only pistol round it'll stop is a .22."

"S'ok, we're just dealing with wannabe mafia punks." Mayfield said, donning the equipment.

On the floor by the smashed in window, the unicorn spat out some teeth, "Wha th', wha th' hay ith happenthing!?" He shouted past a broken mouth.

Looked up at the unicorn as he loaded his weapon, "Sorry about the face, but y' really should be nicer to your guests."

"You- you thson of a bucking nag!" The unicorn squinted his eyes and strained, a faint aura around his horn pitifully flickering, but ultimately failing.

Jackson laughed, "Yeah, keep tryin' buddy, you almost got it! Naw man, you shit outta luck." He keyed his own headset, "Flash, I'm in on the south side, sixth floor. Two charlies down and restrained and the rabbit's got his teeth back."

"Sounds great, shock and awe settin' up at the back door, on your go."

Jackson turned to his partner, who was finishing up threading a suppressor onto his own pistol, "You good to go?" He asked, eyeing the blood trickling out of the corner of his mouth.

"No worries, little twig bastard can't throw a proper punch. Let's get this shit done so we can get back to our real job. We leavin' these two wankers here?"

Jackson looked at the two ponies lying on the ground, their legs all tied up. The unicorn was still struggling to cast some kind of spell, but the drug wouldn't wear off for hours. The earth stallion was wheezing on the ground, gasping for a full breath after being struck in the chest with non-lethals. "They ain't going anywhere."

With a nod, the two humans readied their weapons and went to a door in the corner of the room. It opened into poorly lit hallway with peeling paint and a musty smell. It was hard to believe that given the reputation of this gang that their headquarters would be so abysmal. The fact that they'd taken a prisoner of unknown abilities and connections straight to their base of operations for questioning showed just how rookie they really were.

The two humans stalked the building finding a lot of empty rooms on the level they were at. So they descended at a set of stairs they found, poking their heads into the hallways at each floor, listening for activity. On the second, they hit the jackpot, it was bustling with activity. They waited until the hallway cleared for a moment, then moved across to a room. They surprised a trio of stallions inside, a pegasus and two unicorns, counting money at a table.

The ponies didn't have much time to react, Jackson closed the door behind him while Mayfield pumped a couple of rounds into each of their chests, knocking them to the floor before they could utter a word. The two men swiftly moved to restrain and gag the ponies before they could raise the alarm. The pegasus was especially troublesome as he kept flapping his wings wildly while they tried to tie them down.

Once finished, Jackson went back to his headset, "Flash, we're now on the second floor. We're in one of the rooms across from the stairs, three more charlies down. The second floor seems to hold most of their operation."

"You want us to help clear it out?"

"Please."

"Wait one. . ."

Jackson and Mayfield waited calmly while the other team got ready. The three stallions writhed against their restraints in the corner, but to no avail. Finally, the building shook, followed by the bang of a controlled explosion. The entire structure went silent as all activity within stopped dead. Then all at once there was a flurry of hooves on cement floors as the gang members rushed out to combat whatever threat they were faced with. Gunshots soon followed as fighting broke out.

Mayfield gave Jackson one look, then together they burst into the hall, pistols up. There were only a few ponies left, stragglers that were slow to get to the action. The humans made short work of them, dropping them with non-lethals and then restraining them. Then it was a simple matter of clearing the rooms and repeating the process with all that they found.

The building shook again as yet another assault team blasted their way in from the roof, they would work their way down and take out any hostiles still hiding out above. finishing with their own specific task, the humans moved to head down the stairs and catch the main force of the gang from behind. When they reached the door to the first floor, Jackson stopped, hearing a sound he didn't like, the sound of a weapon he knew none of the teams were using.

"You hear that," he asked Mayfield, "what does that sound like to you?"

Mayfield listened, filtering through the chaos on the other side of the door, "Sounds like a large calibre pistol. Shit, we didn't here nothin' about them having guns."

"Yeah, try not to get shot. On three. . ."

"Fuck that, three!"

Mayfield kicked the door open, Jackson shook his head and followed. The other side was pure pandemonium. The main floor was divided into two levels. A lower level opened out to the street, a wave of Guards mixed with RSTG members poured in from a back entrance somewhere, engaging the gang members in hoof to hoof combat. Above them, where the two men had come out to, was a mezzanine. Along the balcony in front of them was a squad of unicorns firing spells into the crowd below, hitting their own as well as the Guards. At the end was another unicorn, this one firing a snub nosed .44 magnum.

The two operatives immediately got to it, and even though they were using non-lethal rounds, their superb aim dropped each of the unicorns to the ground, effectively stunning them. The one with the pistol noticed it happening from the corner of his eye and wheeled around, discharging his weapon haphazardly. Mayfield's shoulder suddenly blew back, Jackson cursed and ducked around a corner, trying to drag his partner with him.

Mayfield shoved him away though and got back up, firing one handed with his good arm and striding angrily forward, cursing all the way, "You fucking cunt! Goddamn buggerer of boys, you bloody twat, I'll turn your arse into glue!"

The room suddenly went silent and Jackson wasted no time in restraining the unicorns and administering the drug. Down below, the tide had turned when the spells stopped showering down from above, allowing the Guards to over power the gang members and clap them in irons. Jackson ran over to his partner, who was standing over the twitching body of the unicorn that shot him, blood already soaked his right side, running down the now useless arm and dripping onto the floor.

The unicorn was much worse off. The Englishman may have only been using rubber bullets, but they could still cause a lot of painful and irreversible damage if they struck the right places. Jackson looked at the injured pony and saw that one of his eyes had been shot out, the orb reduced to a pulped mess. He picked up the pistol and examined it. It looked new and un-used, like the owner had fired it for the first time today. He took out the remaining rounds and pocketed everything for the Intel guys to look at later.

Then he went to check on Mayfield. "Hey man, you all right? That shoulder looks pretty nasty."

"I'll be fine, it was a through and through."

"Yeah, though your collar bone, brother. You need to get that looked at, c'mon."

Jackson led Mayfield down to the street level floor where the Guard was busy leading trussed up gang members outside to waiting jail carts. Flash was down there as well, talking to Swift Paws the Diamond Dog who had insisted on coming along on the operation, even if it was just to watch. Jackson passed a begrudging Mayfield off to a medic and went over to the RSTG officer.

". . . Yes, I am most pleased. These scum may have been but a trifle to the city, but to my clan they were a torture. Now they may peacefully live."

"And you'll be applying your skills for us then?"

"Yes, all. There is no more need to steal for my clan now that they can live for themselves."

"Good."

"Hey Flash!" Jackson called out.

The pegasus turned around, "Yes, what is it?"

Jackson pulled out the snub nose and showed it to him, "We got a problem. Pulled this off one of the gangbangers. Looks new."

"Horseapples, that will complicate things. Oh well. Thanks for the help there and Topher did an absolutely excellent job as bait. Now we can move on to the next part."

"What's the next part?"

"Now with Swift Paws' help, Princess Luna has given me the info on our next Op. It'll take some time though, so we're getting a few days rest."

"Good." Jackson said. "Mayfield's gonna need it, he took one to the shoulder."

Flash cursed, "Ugh, I'll notify the healers to give him extra attention. I need you both in your prime, you guys got some swimming to do."

Author's Notes:

OC Swift Paws created by: Danish Adonis

Midnight Endeavors

Chapter 14: Midnight Endeavors

It was late at night, well past the time she needed to be in bed, but still she could not sleep. Celestia sat at her desk, poring over the reports her younger sister had gather during her duties. Reports of attacks and results of reconnaissance, all involving guns.

Guns, rifles, pistols and explosives, all specifically tooled for death and no other purpose. She longed for the time before they had come into play in her country, before the human came, before she even discovered the existence of humans, before she had discovered the existence of IT. There had been a lot less blood shed then. Even so, she believed her subjects would be a lot worse off right now if not for the humans and their violent creations. And then, there was still IT.

IT would still exist regardless of the current situation, doing whatever IT could spread fear and misery, pain and loss. IT had to, IT needed to, in order to feed. That was its only purpose.

Celestia had spent several sleepless nights thinking of how she could get rid of the wretched thing. The Elements of Harmony were ideal candidates, the magic within them could surely defeat IT. But there was a catch. IT could not be simply imprisoned nor could IT be banished. IT could only be destroyed, life ripped out and cast to oblivion.

Could they do it? Could they do such a horrid thing? They had the power, the ability to use it, the courage and determination to take on such a task. But could they take a life, even one as horrible as IT?

No, she didn't think so. And neither could she bear to subject them to such a thing. There were others though. Others suited to the task, accustomed to it. She thought of the two new arrivals, the operatives from Earth, they could do it. But would they be able to wield the elements properly? No, once again she didn't think so, they were not familiar enough with them and she didn't think they ever would be.

Celestia thought. She needed the other, the original, but he was lost. Most thought him to be dead, but that couldn't be the case. No, he had taught her long ago, there needed to be proof and she hadn't received any. Fortunately, whatever was lost could always be found with the right push and incentive. She knew her sister was working on such a project.

Celestia looked up at the grand clock that stood stately in her chambers, it was well past midnight. She would have to speak with her in the morning. For now, she needed to stop fretting and get some sleep.

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The craft flew fast and low over the water, so close that the waves below seemed to reach up and grab for it. Fortunately the night was calm and the moon bright, allowing the pilot to easily cruise over the roiling liquid without fear. Inside sat a small team, checking and rechecking their gear for the task ahead.

Jackson stood still, arms out, as Mayfield went over the crude SCUBA system he was strapped into. It was simple and still in it's early stages of development, but suitable for the task at hand. Once Mayfield finished he turned around to allow Jackson to do the same for him.

In another part of the cabin, Sylver stood in front of Swift Paws, giving her a lecture on the equipment and the proper method of its operation. She was hesitant about what she was about to undertake, but steadfast in her desire to complete it. She was, after all, a dog of her word.

Flash was the only other passenger. He sat in a corner reading and re-reading the details of the Op, which had been painstakingly explained to him that it needed to go of without a hitch. Of course he knew better, experience taught him that much. Still, he needed it to be a resounding success, five in and five back out.

The pilot flashed the cabin lights, signaling that they were nearing their drop point. On cue, each member of the team made their final checks, making sure they had everything they would absolutely need to pull of what they were about to attempt. All gear functional and accounted for, they lined up by the door, Flash slid it open, exposing them to the frigid air of the northern isles.

The aircraft started to turn, slowly changing its course into a sideways drift. The pilot flashed the lights again and the team leaped out the door one by one, landing in the chilly water and submerging at once. Her payload delivered, the pilot swung her aircraft back around and made a beeline for the mainland.

Underwater, the operatives checked in with one another, double checking that none of their equipment had been damaged. Everyone was ok and breathing normally. Jackson looked at his compass and air pressure gauge before looking at his watch and judging how much time they had in the water. It would be a thirty minute swim to their destination, more than enough air at the depth they'd be traveling at.

With a wave of his arm, he signaled the team to form up on him and together they all began kicking or paddling forward through the inky liquid on a set course. Sometimes, the two humans had to stop and wait for their teammates to catch up, better suited as they were to swimming. Just over half an hour later they'd reached their destination, a small island off the northern coast.

While snow fell over much of the far north, this island was devoid of any such feature, in fact, it rarely rained there. Still, it was cold and the sooner they were out of the water, the better. With practiced smoothness, Jackson broke the surface of the water without a sound, gazing around the shore to make sure it was clear.

Seeing no other souls, Jackson raised his weapon, a simple M4 with a fitted suppressor, and glided gently through the water until his fins touched the sand. The rest of the team followed suit behind him and once they were all in shallow water, they cast off their swimming equipment and moved up onto the beach.

It was still dark and quiet, none had been alerted to their presence. They found a small rock outcropping and took cover there while miniature waves crashed onto the shore. Flash pulled out a map and a red filtered flashlight while Mayfield and Sylver climbed onto the rocks to watch for any hostiles. Flash laid the map out and gestured for Jackson and Swift Paws to come look at it.

"Ok, here's the plan. There's an old abandoned fortress on a rock ledge not far from here. It was condemned about fifty years ago, but it looks like it's been put back into operation. We've been sent to find something."

"What are we looking for?" Jackson asked, "Weapons, explosives, their plans?"

"If we find these, yes. Howitzer passed down something else though. We're looking for a certain document. A doctrine of theirs or something. They want to know their motives, what's driving them. Now, according to the blueprints we pulled up on this place, anything important to them would most likely be kept in the armory at the central office where there's a safe. Swift Paws, that's where we need you."

The Diamond Dog nodded.

"Where's our point of entry?"

Flash traced his hoof down the coast for Jackson, ending at a point where the beach met the base of a small cliff, "Here. There's an opening for a large storm drain for runoff."

Jackson sighed, he never did like small places, "As long as it doesn't connect to the sewer." Flash remained silent. Jackson cocked an eyebrow, "Does it? Aw shit, fuck it."

Flash continued with his brief, "Sylver will lead you and Swift Paws into the compound while Topher and I provide overwatch in case things go south."

From there they packed up and went north along the beach, Flash and Jackson briefed Sylver and Mayfield on the way up while Swift Paws padded silently in front of them on point, the night vision of her eyes giving her a natural advantage in the dark. Soon the cliff base was in sight. Flash and Mayfield peeled off in search of a suitable point from which they could look over the fortress with a proper height advantage, Sylver, Jackson and Swift Paws continued onto the cliff base.

The rushing of waves grew louder and soon they could here the boom of water slapping against rock. Swift Paws ran ahead, sniffing the rock wall all around for the entrance they sought. By the time Sylver and Jackson had caught up with her, she had found it. Unfortunately, it was some distance away, amidst the turbulent surf.

Jackson checked in with his buddy, "Mayfield, we found the entry point."

"Copy that, Jackie Boy. I got my sights on the compound, rifle shouldered and ready to rock."

"You sure your shoulder can handle it? It's only been a few days."

"It's still a bit sore, but those medics did a superb job on it with their magic tricks. Just let me know when things go pear shaped, I'll steal the spotlight."

"Thanks. Entering now."

Together, the three members of the ground team fought through the agitated water, using the wall for support when they could, struggling to prevent themselves from being washed away to sea. Jackson made it first. He pulled himself up into the pipe, it was cramped, Jackson found he was taller than the ceiling by at least a foot. Once on stable footing, he immediately turned around and helped pull Sylver it, followed by Swift Paws.

A foul rotten stench of tepid water and rotten things mixed in the air with the fresh sea breeze. They all flipped on their lights, low and filtered red, before plunging further into darkness. The smell grew worse and the air stagnant as they continued, but they dealt with it. There were more important things at hand. After a time, they came to a large square room of stone. The sound of the surf still pounded loudly through out the chamber even though they were now far away from the beach.

Sylver stopped and used his magic to pull a square of paper from a water proof pocket on his outfit, quickly unfolding it. To his two teammates, he revealed a miniaturized blueprint of the vast structure that sat on top of them. He found where he thought they were underground.

"Ok, we're here." He pointed to a part of the map with a hoof. "According to this, we can go two ways from here. That way," he pointed to a pipe similar in diameter to the one they had just left jutting out from the wall about five feet above their heads, "will take us further on to the armory. Or," he pointed directly over head, "we could use that access. It'll put us in a basement room near the main hall and closer to the central office. Input?"

"Treasures lay close to the heart, even ones blackened with malice." Swift Paws said cryptically.

Jackson got the gist of her words and agreed, "Specifically we're looking for documents of some kind, they ain't gonna be in the armory. I say the office."

"Office it is then." Sylver decided.

There were rusted metal rungs set into the stone that led up to a heavy iron cover in the ceiling. Jackson and Swift Paws had better a better time ascending up to it, but Sylver found it difficult with his hooves. Ultimately, he let his two teammates go up and clear the room before using a spell to lift himself. It was difficult and left him slightly winded, but he was in.

From there, they checked in with their overwatch, who told them that the majority of the activity in the fortress seemed to be remaining outside in the large courtyard where the majority of the Lotkin host was camped. Only fleeting shapes and shadows could be seen flitting about through the windows. Still, they needed to be extremely cautious. If they were found, it would be terribly difficult to escape.

Jackson checked his rifle and was satisfied when the bolt still moved smoothly, even after its exposure to the salt water. He moved to a heavy door at one side of the room and tried the handle. He found it locked. Swift Paws gently pushed him aside and drew a long, thin knife. Without even the faintest sound, she inserted it into the gap between the frame and door at the handle. There was a faint click and it silently glided open.

Jackson had his rifle up in a second and moved into the hallway beyond. He caught some surprise, as well as a Lotkin warrior as they unexpectedly met face to face. Without missing a beat, Jackson lunged forward and shoved the end of his barrel hard into the Lotkin's solar plexus before giving the trigger a few pulls.

The weapon coughed gently into the warriors chest and the body fell limply back onto the wall behind it with a muffled thump before sliding to the ground. Hastily, Jackson grabbed its arms and dragged the corpse back into the room, dumping it into the hole from which he had just emerged.

That taken care of, they all moved to the corridor, Jackson and Sylver keeping eyes on opposite ends while Swift Paws remained in the middle. Sylver led the way, with Jackson covering their rear. Stealthily they crept along the hall, senses alert for any danger. Occasionally, they would hear or spot one of the monsters of the keep walking lazily along, eating something messily or en route on an errand, but they were easily avoided.

At one point, they passed a large, long hall with a podium at its head. Jackson stuck his head in, finding it empty. He noticed a large book sitting open on the podium and made a mental note of it. Sylver led them past and took them up a short flight of stairs to the next level where their goal was.

The level was mostly empty, entirely devoid of any hostile life. Tall, narrow windows looked down into the courtyard where the occupiers took up their living space. Across the way, Jackson spotted what he guessed might be the armory. It was almost completely surrounded by the fiends, he was glad of their choice to hit the office instead.

They dodged a few more wanderers before finally coming to the door that they sought. It was mostly plain, like the other doors they'd gone past, except for a single placard on its face that read; "Captain of the Guard" in elegant, but faded print. Without any prompting, Swift Paws moved to the door and pulled some tools from her pack, but stopped when she examined the lock.

"It is open."

"Son of a nag, one of 'em's probably inside." Sylver cursed quietly. "Jackson stack up."

Jackson took to one side, Sylver on the other, Swift Paws moved to the wall behind the unicorn. With a nod, Jackson signaled he was ready. Sylver flared his magic, using it to grip the door handle. Then with a forceful push he shoved it open. Jackson exploded through the door, moving fluidly to one corner of the room while Sylver took the other.

At a desk set at the back wall, a Lotkin stood up in surprise, hand flying to a weapon at its hip. Jackson already had his rifle up and simply squeezed the trigger. The Lotkin's head snapped back, blood mixed with chunks of brain matter and shards of bone spraying onto the wall behind it before its body collapsed and its head struck the desk top with a wet thunk. Swift Paws entered a second later, closing the door behind her and giving the corpse a disgusted look.

They waited a moment, listening in case they had been heard. A minute went by and Sylver decided they were safe for the moment. Then he went behind the desk and looked at the body. Beneath the desk itself, he spotted the safe they were looking for and motioned for Swift Paws to get to it. The Diamond Dog obeyed without a second more and knelt down to place an ear against the safe door while she began manipulating the lock.

Meanwhile, Jackson and Sylver examined the body for anything else they might want. Jackson grabbed its shoulder and shoved it back in the chair, causing its head to loll lifelessly back on its shoulders. He started patting it down while Sylver picked something up from the table with his magic. It was a book.

"Strange," the unicorn said, "the Lotkin are intelligent, but they aren't really known to read. I only know one that can and Miss Sparkle spent weeks teaching him how."

"That ain't all, check this out." Jackson pulled something from the corpse's belt and held up a small black pistol. "T-33, Russian made, 7.62 mm, nasty little thing."

Sylver stared at it and back back to the book. He read the cover of the book and made a connection in his mind, one he didn't particularly like, "This isn't good, not at all. This book is about the Equestrian Royal Guard and their practices. They haven't really changed much."

"So?" Jackson said. He looked at the book, it seemed old, "Ain't nothin' on the RSTG in there, right?"

"Yeah, but look at this!" Sylver flipped the book around so the human could see its back cover. On it was a stylized sticker, "This is from the Canterlot Royal Library! How did they get this?"

Below them, there was a small click followed by a harsh squeak as a metal door swung open. Swift Paws had done her job and gotten in. Inside the small safe was a stack of documents and maps, which the Dog began hurriedly loading into a water proof satchel. She finished quickly, Sylver tossed the book in before she closed it up and Jackson pocketed the pistol. Now it was time to leave.

They moved as fast as they could while staying quiet, dancing light from the fires outside lit their way through the dirty windows. As the went back down the stairs and past the large hall, Jackson stopped. He remembered the book he had seen on the podium. He thought that anything worth putting on a pedestal would be worth taking. So he got Sylver and Swift Paws to stop and beckoned them into the hall.

Sylver gave them and an annoyed look, but followed him in anyway, stopping at the door to keep watch. Jackson went to the podium, stepping up the stairs onto an orator's platform. He thought that back when it was still in use by the ones that built this place, it must have been used for formal and military ceremonies. Indeed, the view from the raised platform painted a grand view of the hall, but now it seemed to be used for much darker purposes.

The base of the podium was crusted with what Jackson hoped wasn't dried blood. The book resting on it was large and thick, lines on the page it was opened to were scribbled in a dark and cruel text. He couldn't decipher it, he didn't even know what language it was, but someone probably could. His mind flicked to the combat instructor, Garth. He'd have to have that guy give it a look.

Jackson's thoughts were interrupted by a loud howl emanating from the entrance of the hall. A Lotkin stood there, pointing and screaming, "Anjles, anjles! Sarhot mesbaht Rakhti Khot ra!" It pivoted to leave, but found itself suddenly floating in the air. Sylver suspended it above the ground and pumped three rounds into its chest with his pistol before dropping the hostile against the wall.

Then it was quiet. All too silent. They were suddenly aware that the raucous noise and regalement previously heard from the courtyard had come to an abrupt halt. Jackson's radio crackled loudly in his ear.

"I don't know what you did, mate, but I think you might've been noticed." Mayfield warned.

"What's going on outside?"

"They've all stopped. They're staring back at the main building. Oh, shit shit shit, they're going for weapons, get outta there!"

"Got it, can you give them something to look at while we slip out the back."

"We'll do what we can."

Jackson flipped the book closed, tucking it under an arm and hurried over to his teammates who were standing tense and alert for trouble. Once he rejoined them, they quickly dashed through the corridors back towards the basement room. Bright crimson light suddenly streamed though the windows as a flare shot up into the sky outside. It was soon followed by the sound of periodic rifle fire.

A group of warriors almost at the main door halted and turned back around, gathering crossbows and bolts instead of swords and spears. Jackson and his teammates used the momentary distraction to their advantage, hustling as fast as they could to the basement. They encountered few hostiles, the ones they did were expertly dealt with, leaving a small trail of bodies through the halls.

As they ducked back into the room they had used to break into the compound, Jackson waited by the door to ensure they hadn't been followed while Sylver and Swift Paws jumped down the hole. When none came after them, Jackson gently closed the door and chased his teammates down, only pausing to replace the cover over the top. He barely bothered to climb down the grimy rungs, instead just dropping down where he landed on something soft with a wet crunch. He gazed down and saw he had fallen on top of the Lotkin he'd killed earlier.

Sylver and Swift Paws were already racing down the pipe. Jackson hunched down and took off after them. Before long, they reached the end, plunging into the surf with little thought of safety. They swam as fast as they could to the shore nearby. When Jackson pulled himself onto the sand, he contacted the overwatch.

"We're out and on the shore, you guys ok?"

"Just a bit busy! Do us a favor and let our pilot know we're coming in hot!" Came the reply from Flash.

Jackson quickly relayed the message to the extract team. In mere moments, the low hum of a propeller could be heard over the thrashing waves. Jackson and Sylver posted up with their weapons, while Swift Paws crouched behind them with the Intel at their urging. A few seconds later, Mayfield bounced over a low hill, rifle jostling in his arms with Flash galloping swiftly by his side.

They ran together down to the shore with an angry horde of Lotkin hot on their tail. As soon as they were clear, Jackson and Sylver opened up, felling many of the hostile warriors and causing them to pull back to cover before they were slaughtered. This allowed the pegasus and human to gain precious ground and rejoin their teammates.

The Lotkin were firing back now with crossbows and even a few rifles. Luckily, they were terrible shots. Mayfield worked with Jackson, picking off anything that so much as poked their hand out to shoot blindly. Some of the shots were landing far too close, kicking up sand into their faces.

Finally, with a great whoosh of air and a spray of water off the waves, an airship slid into place behind Flash and his team. Up on its top deck, a gunner let loose with a barrage from a mounted machine gun, forcing the opposing fighters to say down unless they wanted to literally lose their heads. At the same time, the assault team piled into the cabin as quick as they could.

Mayfield was the last in with Flash. Glancing over, he saw an old M240B mounted on a swivel bar. Moving fast, he dropped his rifle, letting it clatter to the deck and pushed the swivel bar into place until it locked in the frame of the sliding side door. He was relieved when he saw there was already a belt of ammo loaded in. With a jerk, he cycled the bolt and opened up on the shore. Behind him, Flash shouted at the pilot to take off and with a lurch, they pulled out over the sea, bullets still slapping and pinging into the hull until they moved out of range.

With a huff, Mayfield staggered back and slumped onto a bench by Jackson. The man was staring at a thick, soggy book as big as a bible. "What's that thing?"

"Don't know, but it ain't even the strangest thing we found."

"What you mean by that?"

Jackson pointed to Sylver, who was sitting across the way. Suspended in his magical grip before his face was a small book. He was flipping through the pages with a grave expression. He wondered how the book had traveled so far and how it had even gotten out of the library. Who checked it out?

Revelations And Machinations

Chapter 15: Revelations And Machinations

Luna stood up on a balcony, overlooking a fresh set of recruits during their morning PT session. There was a rather large one in this batch, a big muscular tan stallion that almost loomed over the rest of the group. He constantly wore a blank expression, no matter how hard the instructors pushed him, but his dark gray eyes held a restrained ferocity. She made a note to keep an eye on that one.

She was turned, about to leave for her quarters and a good day's rest when she found her path blocked by one of her personal guards, "Your Majesty, your Royal Sister requests your presence in the library." He announced.

Luna sighed internally, so much for sleep, "Very well, I will go to her. You may take your leave." She dismissed him.

Luna hoped that for whatever reason her sister had summoned her at this hour, it was important. She hadn't been sleeping well lately and needed to catch up. She hurried to the library, hoping that if she could get there fast enough and find out what here sister wanted, she could get to sleep sooner. Her hopes were dashed as soon as she arrived, however, on seeing the door to the library heavily guarded. Such a thing was never required, unless the circumstances were indeed grave.

The guard stepped aside and allowed her to pass, closing the portal with a rebounding boom after she was inside. High shelves stocked floor to ceiling with books almost made her feel small when Luna saw the library was utterly deserted. She trod back and forth among the volumes calling out for her sister.

"Tia! I'm here, you wanted to speak with me?"

"Back here!"

Luna followed the sound of her sister's voice and found her sequestered far in a back corner of the library that housed some of the oldest books in the entire Canterlot collection. Her sibling was hunched behind a rather large construction of books, papers and other paraphernalia, she was scribbling something down onto a piece of parchment before sending it off in a flash of green smoke and light. On the table lay a large water damaged bound book, the writing she glimpsed inside gave her the shivers.

"Sister, what is it?" Luna asked with concern, "Has something gone awry?"

Celestia's head snapped up, her expression wild and drained. It appeared as if she hadn't been sleeping well, "Oh, sister! Please come here, we have much to talk about." Luna went and sat by Celestia's side, apprehensive about what her sibling had to say. "You are aware of most all the threats that have befallen our country, yes?"

"Of course Tia, from these dark days all the way back to when we first overthrew Discord from his seat of cruel power. All have been dealt with and even these 'Renegades' shall be cast down eventually."

"I'm afraid those were mere trivialities. In our land's trials."

Luna now became troubled at her sister's words, "What do you mean?"

"Luna, this land is old, far older than even we. That is evident enough given the newfound history of the Lotkin tribes." Celestia started explaining.

"Yes, I've read up on all that since the treaty was made. While quarrelsome, they did rule in an uneasy peace and left any others alone. At least until whatever calamity that befell them forced them from their homes." Luna said.

"You are absolutely correct." Celestia said with pride. "But there was always the question of the calamity itself. What caused it? What did it do? What was it?"

"Is this what has been bothering you sister, why you've been so pre-occupied lately? Please, I urge you to rest, this is not so imp—"

"Its everything, Luna!" Celestia exclaimed with slight exasperation, "While Equestria is no longer young, there are still things far more older and some of them would mean us great harm. The Elements of Harmony, the essences of life's greatest attributes, the epitome of peace and good will. A very nice thing to have in our world. But they have a balance, an opposite, a darkness to their light.

Discord mastered a part of it, Nightmare Moon brushed against it, King Sombre became an aspect of it. The humans are more in touch with this other side than our subjects ever could be. Some even live it."

Luna was certainly scared for her older sister now. Anything that could cause her to pause was not something to be treated lightly, "Please, tell me Tia. What is this awful thing you speak of?"

"I'm afraid I can't tell you." Celestia said woefully, "IT doesn't necessarily have a name. Sure, it has many descriptions; pain, suffering, deception, hatred, destruction, war, but these are just symptoms."

"Then how could we defeat it, treat the symptoms?"

"I like the way you think, my dear Luna, but if there is one small sliver of fortune, it is that it needn't be that complicated. However, the task will be arduous. I'm close to finding the source, the wretched being that entered this world and began to cause so much misery. Much of my progress can be accredited to you and the RSTG, for that I am grateful. But there is still one piece of the puzzle to find if we are to solve this problem and you have already started on the path to finding the solution."

Luna looked at Celestia, perplexed, "I'm sorry, but I'm not sure of what you speak. How could I have already begun to help if I knew not the danger we faced?"

"It may be a happy coincidence. Tell me, have you heard anything unusual come from Ponyville lately?"

Luna thought, "Not really. There are some new rumors of a strange being in the forest, but there's not much substance to it. Why?"

"It may hold promise. Tell your spy to continue, but not to reveal himself. And send the humans back with Lieutenant Commander Flash. That is all." Celestia added.

Luna took this as her cue to leave. She didn't understand everything her sister did, but it was always for a good reason, like the recruitment of Swift Paws into their ranks. The Diamond Dog's skills had proved invaluable on the last operation she had sent the humans on. She hoped that whatever Celestia, and herself, hoped to actually find in her machinations and manipulations in Ponyville would really be the answer to solving their crisis.

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



Howitzer moved as quietly as he could down the dark street, trying not to draw attention to himself. It was difficult to do when in a hurry. He occasionally paused to check his watch, he was late. The pitch black pegasus was on the way to a meeting with one of his contacts about the smuggling of materials through the country. The info grabbed from a small isle up north had proved most helpful in narrowing down the search area to the seedy Los Pegasus neighborhood he now trotted through.

He came up to a shabby building, its windows barred with iron on its exterior, paint flaking off the faded walls. Carved into a cracked wooden sign over the door was the word "Lucky's." It was an old dive bar by the waterfront. As it was now, it was a hangout for sailors and merchants, all skilled in moving goods from one place to another, quietly if the price was right.

Howitzer pushed his way inside through a squeaky door and surveyed the interior. It was dimly lit, many of the lights near the back didn't work or merely flickered. A few stallions down on their luck sat in various places around the old wooden tables, finding their way to the bottom of a bottle. Along the right wall ran the bar itself. The bartender, a scruffy old earth mare, eyed the black pegasus with an air of recognition.

"Howitzer, haven't seen you 'round these parts in a while. What brings ya to this part of Los Pegasus?" She asked with a rasping voice.

Howitzer trotted to the bar and took a seat, tossing a couple bits on the worn counter top, "not much Maud, just some business."

The old mare swept up the money and replaced it with a cold drink in a clean glass, "Business, eh? You ain't gonna wreck up my bar like last time, are ya?"

"Of course I wouldn't! I would never cause trouble for a sweet young mare like you, Maud." He replied charmingly. "Now, if some other thugs get a little rowdy. . ."

"Yeah, yeah. Flattery will get you no where young man." She said harshly, but with a slight smile.

Howitzer took a few gulps of his drink and placed it back down, suddenly becoming serious, "Is he back there yet?"

"Yup, second door past the washroom, the one with a back door, just like he always asks fer. Oh, and a little warning, he's got some friends."

"Thanks Maud, you're the best."

The barmare just nodded and went back to cleaning glasses. Howitzer took a few more swigs before hopping down from the bar and heading to the back. He entered the dark back passage, briefly checking to make sure he wasn't being followed before continuing on. Satisfied he was alone, Howitzer followed Maud's directions to the second door past the washrooms.

Silently, he crept to a green wood door, ears twitching at any sound. He stopped and listened, there were voices on the other side, a few sounded angry. Not wanting to just barge in to a bad situation, he gently cracked the door open and peered in.

There were five stallions seated at a table, playing a round of cards. The game didn't seem to be going well for some of them, the pot consisted of personal items as well as a pile of bits. Four of them were dressed in red jackets with patches sewn on and other matching attire. One stood out from the rest. He wore a black Stetson with one side of the brim folded up and pinned to the top with a cream colored vest. Underneath he had a dark brown coat the shade of rich mahogany and a messy, ragged mane of dark blue poking out from places under his hat. On his face, he wore a set of aviators to hide his eyes. On his flank was an image of an ace of diamonds with a dagger hiding behind it, as if to hint at some kind of warning.

At the moment. The gang of four matching stallions were glowering at the fifth one, "You better not be cheatin', salt lick. We don't play nice with cheaters!" The larger of the four threateningly proclaimed.

"Little ol' me, cheating?" Said the stallion with the shades in a very thick drawl, "Why, just the though is preposterous. You know I wouldn't cheat an honest gent like yerself, Maggie."

"It's Magrathorn!" The lead stallion growled.

"Of course, of course, my apologies. Tell ya what, how 'bout we play this hand double or nuthin', huh? Here, I'll even go all in." To validate his promise, the Stetson wearing stallion pushed a substantial amount of bits into the pot with both his hooves.

The stallion known as Magrathorn gave him a look of skepticism, finally saying, "Deal," and tossing out a few more bits along with an expensive looking gold pocket watch into the pot.

"Whooee! Yer not one fer fancy trinkets like that, who'd ya pinch it from?" The country stallion whooped.

"None of your business." Magrathorn said with malice. "Now deal!"

The stallion in the Stetson and shades dealt the deck between them, automatically laying out five cards from the deck once they had their cards. Magrathorn looked up from his hand with a smile, "Ha! Two pair, aces and kings!" He triumphantly shouted.

The vested stallion just stared at him, a cocky grin slowly growing on his face. Then he laid out his cards, an ace of diamonds and a jack of the same suite. Although meaningless on their own, with three other of the cards played, a king, a queen and a ten of diamonds, they trumped Magrathorn's with a straight flush. The red jacketed gang leader looked on in bewilderment while his subordinates cringed at what they knew was to follow.

"I'm mighty sorry about yer luck there, Maggie." The dark brown earth stallion said without a smidgeon of remorse as he began shoveling the winnings into a bag. "Maybe ya come back in a week or so, nick a few more baubles off some tourists and come back. Shucks, I might even go easy on y—"

Coins and loose items were suddenly launched into the air as the table flipped, cutting the stallion off. "Blackjack, you're a no good, dirty cheater!" Magrathorn raged, "That ten of diamonds was played two hands ago!"

Howitzer went wide eyed, as he saw a couple of the thugs slip a few blades from their clothing, hiding them behind their backs. He couldn't just sit back and watch anymore, not if he was to conduct his business. The stallion in the Stetson hat dropped back into a fighting stance, ready for a brawl, but he couldn't have know about the knives.

Just as the thugs were about to pounce, Howitzer smashed through the door, tackling one to the ground and giving him a few crosses to the jaw. The others turned in surprise, confusion playing on their faces. The southern stallion used the opportunity to buck his chair at the would-be aggressors, it struck one of them full on in the chest, exploding in a shower of splinters and wooden parts.

Howitzer was back up now, engaging one of the other thugs armed with a knife, expertly disarming him and driving him back toward a wall with a flurry of strikes to the ribs and kidneys. Meanwhile, Magrathorn began advancing on the stallion that had beat him out of his money, a vengeful look on his visage. He swung at him, which the stallion easily dodged, countering with a straight slug to the side of his neck, sending the gang leader staggering back.

"Yeehaw! I love a good ass backroom brawl!" The Stetsoned stallion hollered.

They went on like this for a few minutes, exchanging blows and tumbling around the room. Then finally, the group of thugs organized, forcing the country stallion and Howitzer together into a corner by the window in a standoff.

"Howie! It's been a coon's age! Sorry I can't give ya a proper howdy at the moment, seein' as I'm in a slight bind here." The dark brown stallion greeted.

"It's ok, Blackjack, isn't this how we usually meet?" Howitzer replied. "How are we gonna get you out of trouble this time?"

"Well, I don't think Maud's gotten around ta barrin' up the back window yet. . . You gettin' my thinkin'?"

Howitzer knew exactly what the stallion was thinking, "Aw, Maud's gonna kill me for this one. Ok, on three. One... two..."

"Three!"

Both Howitzer and Blackjack launched themselves into the window, shattering the glass and throwing themselves into open air. The back of the bar hung out over an alley that ran lower than the street out front, meaning they had a two story fall to the ground below. Fortunately, there was a sizable pile of garbage under the windows to cushion their impact.

The thug leader leaned out the broken window, screaming and shouting a variety of curses and obscenities after the two individuals as they made their escape. They ran some distance, eager to get clear of the area, the guard was sure to be there soon. After galloping a couple miles, they slowed, confident that they were clear of any danger.

The two suddenly found themselves at one of the many piers that jutted out from the wharf in this part of the city. They trotted up to a guard rail by the water, catching their breath, "Now that was a good little scuffle there." Blackjack said. He hefted a sack that jingled when it moved, "Even got away with the loot." He grinned, extracting the shiny pocket watch he'd won from the gang of hooligans, admiring it in the light of the late afternoon.

"You haven't changed much, Jack." Howitzer commented. "Still swindling crooks out of their hard earned stolen goods."

"Well, I find that crooks usually have the best stuff to swindle, what with them havin' already swindled the items in question from their previous owners. Besides, that pecker-head had it comin', saw one of the 'lil bastards swipe from Maud's tip jar when she wasn't lookin'." Blackjack said in his defense. "What about yerself, though? What brings an old dog like you back to these parts?"

Howitzer leaned against the rail, gazing into the water sloshing under the pier, "Looking for some info. You see, some of my boys found a sizable cache of dangerous items down south in the desert. Then some documents were recovered up north on one of the little islands off the coast hinting that its origin may be from that area."

"So ya think I may know a thing er two about it?"

"I was hoping. Considering that it couldn't have gone by land or air — we would have intercepted it — logically, it could have only come by sea. Since this is the closest port city to the desert, I thought you might have an idea as to what's been passing through."

Blackjack scratched his his chin, "Yeah, I reckon I may know sumthin' about it. I could probably find out more, but it'll cost ya. Smugglers don't take too kindly to having their secrets exposed."

"I'm sure we can work out an arrangement." Howitzer exhaled sharply and pulled away from the rail, "Well, I should get going. Got some other things to take care of. Drop whatever you got at the usual spot and I'll scrounge together a payment for anything extra you might want to undertake. And take good care of that pocket watch, would ya?" He said, walking away, "By the looks of it, it was probably pretty important to the original owner."

Blackjack looked forlornly at the shiny case of gears. It would most likely fetch a hefty sum on the market, but Howitzer's last sentence lingered in his mind, buzzing with annoyance. With a sigh, he tossed it to the pegasus, "It ain't really match my style anyhow. Why don't cha turn it in ta the City Guard Lost 'n Found." He put dully.

Howitzer smiled to himself. Blackjack may not run in the best of circles, but he was good at what he did and honest too. A rare pony to find in such a rough business. "That I will," Howitzer assured him as he trotted away, "That I will."

Author's Notes:

OC Blackjack created by: Reignbow

Chasing Questions

Chapter 16: Chasing Questions

It was partly cloudy out, large clouds rolled lazily across the sky, occasionally casting a shadow across the small town below. The town was populated almost exclusively by the denizens of Equestria, except for one.

Down at a small coffee shop, sitting alone outside at a sequestered table in a small corner, sat a very large, bald headed man. He calmly sipped his drink, observing the townsfolk passing by. On the table was a small crumpled notepad scribbled with writing. He'd been asking around about myths and legends originating in the forest that bordered the town, but had so far failed to find anything substantial.

However, he did make some progress. Some of the ponies he talked to mentioned a time, years ago, when the town of Ponyville had its very own human. He didn't gather much, all he talked to said the man that used to live here was very secretive and never talked much to anybody from the town. Except for a select few. He now had a few of those names on his list, he just had to decide where to start.

There was the apple orchard nearby, where he had worked briefly for some reason, a library he visited from time to time, ponies had seen him go to the local veterinarian a couple times and then there was a 'Rainbow Dash' he seemed to be the most involved with. He found that she was one of the pegasi that handled the weather over the town and ran a small business on the side. Skydiving, if he was correct. He would have to sign up for lessons later.

He sipped his drink again, noticed that the cup was almost empty and downed the rest in a single gulp. Then he grabbed the notepad, sticking it into one of his pants pockets and walked away, heading for the library as it was closest. He didn't get far when something bumped into the back of his legs.

"Oh, sorry Mr. Jackson!"

He looked down and saw a small purple maned pegasus on a tiny scooter, "hey Scootaloo, no worries. What are you up to today?"

"Not much, just trying to get back to class. Love to chat, but I gotta go!" She quickly said, once again taking off on her scooter, using her wings to propel herself forward.

He had only been in town a week or so, and he didn't know how much longer he had off, but Jackson was already on friendly terms with most of the townsfolk he met. Especially little Scootaloo, she reminded him of his daughter, feisty and full of energy. Adventurous and always out to try something new. The very thought choked him up a little, but he quickly shoved it back down and capped it.

Jackson continued on to the library, it took him only a few minutes to get there from where he was. He soon came to a large tree sat in the middle of town. He had been told to look for such a thing, but had assumed it would just be an architectural style, not an actual gargantuan hollowed out tree with doors and windows.

He approached the front door and gave the wood a rap of his knuckles then waited. a few minutes went by before he heard a scrabble of sharp claws against hardwood and he stood back from the doorway. It finally opened and Jackson found himself puzzled, staring at open space.

"Down here, buddy." Said a voice in slight annoyance.

Jackson gazed down and saw a short lizard in purple scales standing on just two legs, "Oh, hi. I'm uh, looking for a Miss . . ." He pulled out his notes and glanced at them, "Twilight Sparkle?"

"And you are . . ."

"Jackson, Darius Jackson. Is she in?"

"Sure," the lizard said grumpily, "just gimme a minute to get her, she just got back from a trip up north. Come on in." He left the door open and walked off to the back.

Jackson let himself inside and closed the door behind him. The interior was huge, bigger than it looked from the outside. The entire surface of every wall was covered top to bottom with a variety of books. Across the room were two doors, one was open, exposing a modest kitchen. Off to the right was a set of stairs carved out of the wood that ascended up to a small, but comfortable looking loft.

After a few minutes, the closed door on the other side of the room swung open and a magenta coated unicorn with a raven mane emerged, "I'm so sorry, I was a little busy, what can I help you with? Oh!" She said in surprise, rushing over when she saw who it was, "You're one of the humans that somehow breached the quantum fabric of the space-time dimensional plane! How did you do it? I examined the area and got base residual readings of a high energy magical event, but there was no evidence of a hole or tear. Is there any possible way you could tell me how you did it?" She fired off with excitement.

Jackson just stood there the whole time, utterly perplexed. He considered himself pretty smart, but everything the unicorn had launched at him was currently beyond his comprehension. So instead, he shook himself out of his blank stare and tried to get back on the topic of why he was there.

"Uh, I don't really know about all that. I just wanted to ask you a few things Miss Sparkle. My name is—"

"Chief Darius Jackson, species: human, gender: male. Occupation; specially trained operative for high risk or clandestine operations with emphasis on combat, sabotage and/or intelligence gathering. Or to put it in base terms, a special forces soldier." Twilight said with confidence.

"Yeah . . . How did you know all that?" Jackson said warily.

"I have a few need-to-know privileges given my position as head researcher for magical conundrums such as this. So, is there anything specific you could tell me about your travel experience?"

"No, not really. We just kind of walked through a cave after getting trapped in a snowstorm. I Didn't really feel anything weird or see any flashing lights or something crazy like that. Listen, I'd love to answer your questions some other time, but I'm kinda busy right now." Jackson said gently.

"Oops, sorry. I can get carried away some times. So what can I help you with?" She asked cheerily.

"I'm looking for some information."

"Well you came to the right place!"

"I'm trying to find out anything related to rumors or myths of strange things or creatures in the forest nearby, the Everfree I think it's called."

"Hm . . . There are plenty of things like that, the forest is a pretty strange place, uninhabited for more than a thousand years, since the schism occurred between the two Royal Sisters. As for creatures, there are more than enough of those running around in there, some of them quite dangerous. I can have my assistant, Spike, pull a few books related to the topic and the forest's history for you." She offered.

"I'm looking for info on something more recent, like a demon."

"Oh, you're talking about that silly story that's been going around!" She said in realization. "Well, I can assure you there's no such thing. Just wild stories made up by bored ponies. Pointless really."

"Ok, but I got another question."

"Shoot."

Jackson's voice dropped to a low tone, "I'm also looking for a certain person. Human like me, shorter, fair complexion, goes by James here, last name Kaughn."

Twilight stood motionless, face unreadable. Jackson suffered an awkward silence and was about to break it when the unicorn beat him to it, "I'm sorry, I don't know anypony like that. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm very busy at the moment and I must ask you to leave. If you still want the books, Spike will help you."

Knowing when he was being blown off, Jackson wanted to push the issue. However, he also didn't want to cause an incident in a town where he barely knew anybody, so he backed off, "I'm sorry to hear that, Miss Sparkle, don't bother with the books."

Without giving it another thought, he turned and left, resisting the urge to slam the door behind him. Bringing his notepad back out, he extracted a pen from another pocket and crossed off the library along with Twilight Sparkle's name. She was smart and he was sure he woudn't be able to get anything out of her very easily, at least not by asker her nicely.

Going down the list, he locked onto the name of the orchard, Sweet Apple Acres. Information he gathered told him that it was run by the Apple family with the primary manager being a mare by the name of Applejack. Jackson looked up into the sky, he'd forgotten to put on his watch that morning, and estimated it to be about two in the afternoon. The orchard wasn't far, but it wasn't close either, so he immediately set off in its direction. If he didn't get his answers there, he would try again the next day somewhere else.

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



Luna sat on her bed, enjoying the company of a dusty old book from the library. It dated back three centuries before her return, definitely an era she needed brushing up on. On her bedside table was a glass of wine, which with a flick of her mind, she enveloped in her distinctive nightshade magical aura and brought up to her lips for a sip. It was early morning, the sun was rising, her sister had taken over her duties not long before.

She was just starting to relax and get comfortable, laying back on the pillows, drawing the curtains tight over the large window to block out the sun, when her reading was interrupted by the sudden entrance of a wisp of green smoke through the cracks in her sill. With a twist and a small flash, it materialized into a rolled up piece of parchment tied off with a small green ribbon. Recognizing the message for being one from her informant, she quickly grasped the parchment and unraveled it with a flex of her abilities.

She read eagerly, interested in what he had found. It was not as much as she had hoped, far less than really, but it was a start. Hopefully, in short order, they would find the elusive being she sought. And then maybe, she could end her country's pain.

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



Jackson rose from his bed, like a corpse from the grave. He was tired. He had gone to the orchard, but none of the ponies working there would help him until the day's work was done and there was a lot of it. By the time they had finished, the sun had set and it was past supper. With a little luck, he tracked down the mare known as Applejack and began asking her a few questions. The whole time, a very large red stallion was there, watching his every move suspiciously with threatening eyes though he didn't utter a word.

Applejack had proved just as troublesome as Twilight, except instead of giving him a straight answer about what she knew, she just danced around with her words, confusing them up so that yes could have been no and no could have been yes. The entire ordeal was exhausting and once again, he had come up empty handed.

Getting to his feet, Jackson stood over his desk and looked down at the notepad sitting on the surface. He still had a couple more places to go. He could go find Rarity, but contact with her had been limited. There was the skydiving company, he still had to set that up. Then there was the local animal doctor. He found out her name was Fluttershy and she happened to live close by. He decided that was where he would start that day.

Jackson quickly got dressed and ran down for a brief breakfast before heading out the door, only giving Mayfield and Flash a casual wave before he left. They were already deep into their meals and let him go. With a brisk pace, he set out for the residence of Fluttershy.

He wanted to make this quick so he could get to making his skydiving appointment before the day was out. One of the perks of having control of the weather was that the forecast was always one hundred percent right, no matter what. Flash had told him the previous evening that tomorrow would be an ideal day to stay in, the weather team was bringing in a veritable downpour.

Soon, a small cottage on a short rise emerged around the bend. Jackson recognized the description of it he got from a nice pegasus in town and hurried on to what he was sure was Fluttershy's house. He didn't get much further, however, as a rainbow streaked blur shot past him. The backwash of air threatened to tear his clothing away and he watched as it angled up and came back around towards him at a slower velocity.

Fearing the worse, he dropped into a combat stance, ready to face what might be an attacker. The blur don't rush at him, but rather slowed down and became a very aggravated looking cyan pegasus with a multicolored mane. She came to a hovering stop in his path with a very angry look in her eyes and forelegs crossed.

"And just where do you think you're going?" She challenged.

"Listen, I don't want any trouble right now. I was just on my way to see a pony named Fluttershy, that't her place, right?" Jackson responded calmly, pointing past her to the cottage.

"Oh no you're not." She said defiantly, "I heard about you goin' around and asking questions. Piece of advice, bub, lay off!"

"What's the deal? I just want some information, that's all."

"Nuh-uh. You wanna go bother Fluttershy, you'll have to get through me first!"

Jackson weighed his options. He really needed to get as much info as he could, but he didn't want to have to cause trouble to reach that goal. At the same time, this pegasus had come out of no where and was hassling him for almost no reason. He was in a secluded area, he might be able to push past her with out much incident. A second later, he made his decision.

"You know what? I ain't out to cause her harm, if I wanna go talk to her, you really can't stop me." He warned, starting forward.

"Oh really?"

The pegasus lunged at him suddenly, but he was ready. He stepped back and caught her hoof as it lashed out at his face. He twisted and threw her back using her own momentum. Only instead of crashing into the ground or a bush, she instantly used her wings to correct herself and came back for more. This time, Jackson attacked, but only to shove her away. He didn't connect. He felt his arm get gripped between two hooves and before he knew it, he had been flipped upside down onto his chest.

He tried to get back up, but she was on top of him like a thunderbolt, pinning his arms and placing a hoof to the back of his neck, "Now if I were you, I'd consider going back where ever you came from and forgetting all about whatever you were curious about." She said.

"How'd you learn how to fight like that?" Was his calm reply.

"None of your business!"

"I was just asking because it's kind of how they fight in the RSTG. Did Flash teach you?"

The follow up question caught her off-guard, "Wha- what do you know about the RSTG? You know what, don't answer. In fact, I've had enough of this conversation."

"Ok, ok, just one more thing. I'm looking for something in the forest, rumors of it have been going around. You hear anything about this de—" Jackson stopped as the hoof on the back of his neck began to grind on his skin and force his head tighter against the ground.

"Listen to me and listen good. I don't know exactly who you are or what you want, but stay away from Fluttershy and stay away from the forest, clear?" She said in a menacing tone.

"Hey, I'm just a guy looking for his lost brother."

The pegasus mare paused for a minute, seemingly in thought, but then got off him and took to the air. Jackson got to his feet and rubbed the back of his neck with a hand, trying to massage out the pain. He pulled his notes out, which had been crumpled in all the activity and looked at the names. He'd spoken to Pinkie, Twilight and Applejack. Rarity he'd never met formally, but she was a unicorn. He'd been on his way to see Fluttershy. All of them were connected, friends he was told.

Jackson took out his pen and circled one of the names, Rainbow Dash. That had to have just been her, she knew Fluttershy and mentioned other friends. He then crossed out the skydiving thing, he didn't think he would be able to swing that now. Even so, the pegasus had still given him some information to go on, even if she hadn't meant to. She was the only one who had told him specifically to stay out of the forest. Jackson thought it was high time he went for a nice, scenic hike.

Some Come To Light

Chapter 17: Some Come To Light

Wavering flames danced on torches set on a stone wall, the rock blackened from their soot. The passageway echoed with the heavy step of shoddy boots marching in time, their owners enrobed in strange ceremonial garments. They marched in two columns with a multitude of others between them in black cowls. Permeating the air was a dark guttural chant that seemed to foul the air itself.

They came to the end of the passage, emerging into a high vaulted chamber, the ceiling of which was lost in the shade of night. Upon their appearance, a vicious cheer erupted from a mass of Lotkin that populated the grand floor below, the chanting grew ever louder. From the way the hooded figures had come, they made their way up a steep ramp to a platform above the bubbling crowd of bloodthirsty brutes.

Up there, over looking the spectators, the others of the ceremonial group stepped up onto a raised dais, elevated above their peers. In private alcove hidden behind the platform, sat a lone figure in more elaborate robes than the rest, reading a thick book filled with cruel writing. It closed the book and stood. It approached the dais, the crowd falling silent as it did.

With a flourish, it pushed off its hood, revealing a gnarled head. It called out, "SAHJRI KHOT!" The gathering loosed a savage roar in praise, which the figure in the robes of royalty silenced with a sharp hand gesture. Then, continuing in the harsh tongue of its people, "Today, we gather to initiate the worthy into a higher ascendance! Through our covenant with the great end, these shall be the knowledge to destroy our enemies!" Then with grimness, it raised it's arms high to the air in invocation.

"Khot ayeen! Khot ayeen!" Began chanting the leader, "Khot ayeen! Khot ayeen!"

The rest of the congregation slowly joined in, chanting in such a fervor that the entirety of the gargantuan chamber was soon reverberating with a damning call of a grotesque nature. A shimmer appeared in the air over the dais. It pulsated, growing stronger and stronger, vibrating with the chant of those that called it forth.

With a flash of the purest white, an essence came to be. It took a humanoid form and descended down to the dais. The congregation halted their chant, staring in reverent silence. It had no features of any discernable nature other than four limbs, a torso and a head. Though white in form, a dark pallor seemed to hang in the air around the being, as if it were a despicable corruption of something once great.

Without lips to move it spoke, its voice callous and sinister, "Hmmm Children, my faithful followers. . . You seek, purpose. You seek, retribution. You seek, knowledge!" Its subjects cried out in agreement. "You seek what is rightfully yours. YOU ARE NOT CONTENT TO KOWTOW TO THE WILL OF THE EQUESTRIANS LIKE THE WEAKENED ILK OF THE TRIBES!" Once again, the crowd roared at the being's riling words.

"I give you knowledge! Knowledge belonging to a race even more devious than yourselves! Do you accept this gift!" Its devotees let up riotous praise, stomping feet and banging swords on armor.

The vile being turned to the volunteers gathered on the dais. It raised its arms in their direction, their cowls blown back by an unseen force, exposing the heads of the Lotkin that wore them. Tendrils sprouted from the being's fingers, piercing each of their foreheads. Violently, they began to convulse, but they did not fall, their bodies were locked in an invisible embrace. When it was over, a quarter of them fell to the floor, lifeless.

The ones that remained stood stout as the tendrils receded, leaving neither a mark or wound of any kind. There was a difference in, however. Their eyes. Their eyes burned with a new, stronger desire for destruction, and the knowledge to use it. Now turning from its creations, the being faced the group's leader.

"You have more of your tools now. Use them. Feed me."

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



The sun was on its way to set, casting pink and red hues across the sky. Jackson sat at a bar he'd found in Ponyville, the Hoof and Mouth, that was to his liking. It was secluded and out of the way, not many of the towns people went there. It wasn'g exactly a dive, the place was clean and the beer good, even if the Equestrian brew was a little salty for his taste.

He sat at a table in the corner, his back to the wall and his face to the entrance. Old habits died hard. Idly, he scribbled on a pad of paper, doodling next to the plan he had laid out for his little trip. It was something he'd come up with based on the information he had gathered on the forest. From what he'd heard, he had to be careful.

The door to the street opened and he looked up. Mayfield walked in and looked around the bar before spotting him. With a wave and a smile, he made his traipsed over. With a slight panic, Jackson ripped the paper off the pad and crumpled it up under the table, he wanted to keep his plans a secret. Unfortunately, Mayfield was as experienced as him in the art of hiding things.

"Hey, there ya are! Been looking for you, mate. What you got under the table there?" He asked, sliding into a seat across from his friend.

"Uh, nothin', man. Just some uh. . . Shopping list." Jackson quickly made up.

"Hm." Mayfield considered. "Bollocks, you're hidin' something. C'mon, what is it?"

"I told you, man, don't worry about it."

"Nuh-uh. Hey, what you drinkin'?" He whistled towards the bar, "Oi! Barkeep! Pitcher of whatever he's got, please!" He called, twitching his head at Jackson's mug. "So whatcha got hiding there?"

"I said nothing, just drop it!" Jackson muttered a little angrily.

"Ha, no chance." Mayfield leaned over the table and reached for the paper Jackson had crumpled into a ball. Jackson resisted, wrestling with the Englishman for control over the item. They fought hard, giving each other a few punches in the ribs and arms, but ultimately, Mayfield was the victor, ripping a chunk of the paper out of Jackson's hand. "Ah, that wasn't' so hard. Now, what have we got here?" He smoothed it out as best he could and started reading.

The bartender came over and placed a pitcher and mug on the table, but Jackson didn't take notice, focused as he was on the man across from him, "You can be an asshole sometimes. You know that, right?"

"And you can be a fucking bellend, but it doesn't really matter much in the long run, does it? What is this, planning on a little camping trip in the forest? It's gonna be an absolute downer without your best pal."

"It's not a camping trip."

"Wait a tick. Is this all about your friend there, yeah? The missing bloke? Yeah! I can see it in your eyes! Hey, now why didn't you invite old Topher here, it hurts being left out y'know."

"Its nothing personal, its just something I have to do. And don't tell anyone, all right? I don't want to mix the others up in this, especially since it seems to be a sensitive issue around here." Jackson angrily whispered.

"Ok, now listen buddy." Mayfield said, pouring himself a drink from the pitcher, "You're trying to go on an adventure here and I'll not be left at the house with that wacky winged bastard asking me all sorts of questions while you have all the fun. Besides, from everything I've heard about this Kaughn fellow he sounds like someone I'd like to meet. If he's still alive, of course." Mayfield argued.

"This ain't open for debate. I'm going alone, so let's just drop it before you announce my plans to the whole town and attract some very unwanted attention. Got it?" Jackson said with finality, snatching the paper from Mayfield's hand.

"All right, all right, don't getcha knickers bunched up. So what do you want to do now, since we're here?"

"Nothing, really. I was actually about to go home."

Mayfield gave an uneasy smile, "Oh, no, no, you don't wanna do that right now. Flashy's got his gal over and it's a bit loud over there. Distracting, really."

"Damn, ok. Well, you ordered the pitcher, might as well finish it."

"That's the spirit!"

Just then, the door again opened. Both humans glanced up to see who it was and did a double take. Sparks had just walked in, a misty gray unicorn mare following close by him. He walked over to the bar and began chatting up the bartender with the mare, laughing at some unheard joke.

"Ah, shit. I hate it when bosses show up just when you're about to have fun." Mayfield said, turning his head away and trying to look inconspicuous. "Who you think that bird is with him?"

Jackson studied the mare, "I think that's the pilot that took us here last time. I think Flash said her name was Myst or something."

"Oh, right. She did mention his name briefly, but I didn't think they were together."

"Yeah, and I think they got a kid too. Uh-oh."

"Uh-oh? What uh-oh? I don't like uh-ohs, Jack."

"They spotted us."

"Fuck."

"They're walking over."

"Bugger all, there goes my night of debauchery. . ." Mayfield muttered.

Sparks trotted up, Myst alongside and smiled at the two humans, "Hey, funny seeing you two here. What're you up to?" He asked cheerfully.

"Not much," Jackson replied non-chalantly, "could ask the same of you. What's up? I didn't figure you for the type to go to bars with all the seriousness."

"Well, I'm off duty now and this is my favorite bar. It's actually kind of a tradition of ours to come here before taking off again. The seriousness is on hold until I go back tomorrow."

"Yeah, we figured we'd go out and have some fun before he has to leave again." Myst added. "Too soon if you ask me."

"That's nice I guess. It's just you guys?" Jackson asked.

"No, a few of my girlfriends are joining us too. Hey, you guys wanna come too? It'll be fun, I promise." Myst said with a mischievous wiggle of her eyebrows.

Jackson looked at Mayfield, who clearly wasn't happy about spending his off time with one of his bosses, "C'mon, you said you wanted to do something."

"Fine," Mayfield relented, "we'll bloody do it."

"Awesome! I'll go get us some drinks!" Myst exclaimed and ran off to the bar to make her orders.

While she did that, Sparks pulled up a chair and took a seat next to the humans, "So, how has your stay here been so far?"

"Can't complain." Jackson responded.

"That's good. What about you, uh. . . Topher, right?"

"Yeah, sure. Guess I'm ditto with Jackson here."

The conversation was halted when the giggle of various females approached the table. Myst walked up with two other mares. The other two hung back while Myst stepped forward to introduce them, "Guys, this is Lily and Quick Fix. Lily helps run a flower shop in town, Quick Fix is thinking of becoming a pilot. Girls, these are the two humans from work I was telling you about."

"'Sup."

"'Ello." The two humans greeted

Without any prompting, Sparks used his magic to draw up a few more chairs from some of the surrounding un-used tables. Lily, a cream white earth mare with light yellow eyes, and Quick Fix, a chestnut brown unicorn with aquamarine eyes and a matching mane plopped into seats next to the humans on either side of the table while Myst took her place with Sparks. Soon after, the bartender rolled up with the drink orders, martinis for the girls and a whiskey for Sparks. The bartender asked if Mayfield or Jackson wanted anything else, but they just waved him off and paid their tab.

While Myst and Sparks started talking about what they'd do when he got back later, the other two mares got to chatting with Jackson and Mayfield. The two bipeds were uncomfortable, never having actually interacted socially so casually before in the country, but they weren't about to just cut and run.

Lily turned cheerily to Mayfield, "So, where you from?"

Mayfield responded flatly, "Britain."

"Britain? Where's that at, I don't think I've heard of it before."

"It's an island, far across the. . . Well, it's very far from here."

"Ha ha, you know, you sound like you're from Buckingham."

Mayfield blanched, "Buckingham? You have that here?"

"Well, yeah. It's a country across the sea, near where the griffons live!"

"Griffons?" Mayfield said with a half-cocked eyebrow.

Across the way, Jackson was having a little more in-depth conversation, "Quick Fix, right? That's a pretty interesting name, how'd you get it?" He asked the unicorn.

"Oh, my parents gave it to me when I was born, you can call me Q, though.. Turned out to be a little prophetic, I have kind of a knock for fixing things, just like them, only I was a bit quicker at it." She laughed nervously. "It's a great career path, but fixing wagons and water pumps can only get so interesting. I wanted to work on more complicated things, a lot more complicated things and I heard becoming a Nightmare was the best way to do it."

"A 'Nightmare'?"

"Yeah, it's what all the mares that graduated from the flight program call themselves. Sounds like a cool way to go to me. What about you, what do you do?"

"Uhhh. . . Nothing much really. I just kinda, help keep the peace, I guess." Jackson replied awkwardly.

"Oh, non-sense. Myst totally told us about how you guys kick flank."

"Well, I don't know about all that, we just do work."

"Don't be so modest," Sparks cut in, "I've seen the reports, you guys pulled off some top quality Ops."

"Cool." Jackson said, reaching for the pitcher to top himself off. However, he found it to be completely empty. "Hey, Topher. You drink the rest already?"

"I was thirsty." He shrugged.

"I got it." Myst offered, getting up to go place another order.

"So, what do you guys like to do here with your time off?" Sparks asked the two humans.

"Normal stuff." Jackson responded. "You know, just keeping in shape, readin'."

"C'mon, you gotta do more than that. The last time a human was here, we damn near demolished the town with the crazy stuff we did."

"We/" Mayfield queried.

"Yeah, but mostly it was him and Flash." Sparks said taking on a slightly somber tone. "He never really used to be such a stick in the mud, but, this job changes ponies in unexpected ways, I guess. By the way, you haven't. . . heard anything about our former friend, have you?" He asked them.

Jackson's thoughts slipped to the crumpled piece of paper now residing in his pocket, "No, can't say I have." He lied.

Myst returned then with another pitcher, Sparks topped off his mug and took a gulp, "Ah, well. How about a toast then?" He suggested, moving his drink high into the air.

Both Mayfield and Jackson put theirs up as well, "Sounds good." Jackson said. The girls joined in too, placing their glasses among those of the boys'.

"To old friends." Sparks said, the rest of the group joined in his toast and took a swig of their beverages. "Now, I'm gonna have some fun here before I go back, how about some good old fashioned drinking, you guys think you can keep up?"

"That a challenge?" Mayfield scoffed, "You best watch that tone, you're talking to a rugby champ!"

"Yeah, I seen him drink, too. This cockney sonofabitch'll give you a run for your money." Jackson chuckled.

Mayfield was taken aback, "Cockney!? I am not cockney, you Wankee bastard!" He protested.

"What's cockney?" Lily asked innocently.

"Cockney, my fair lady, is a condition where you so hate the English language that you dedicate your life to murdering it through speech. Much like the Americans these days!" He added with a grin at Jackson

Jackson returned the expression, "Alright, I'll give you that. But I ain't lettin' that Wankee comment go. How about we go shot for shot and see how eloquent you are then?"

"Three sheets, m'boy, three sheets. Mr. Sparks, what's the strongest liquor you Equestrians got?"

The unicorn began to laugh, "Now this is more like it!"

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



Jackson walked down the deserted street, his head pleasantly floating in the clouds. They had downed about two whole bottles of what he was sure was at least something somewhere between 151 and grain alcohol. The girls and Sparks had even helped out in making them disappear, though not as much as the two humans had.

As it were, both he and Mayfield were staggering down the street, doing their best to find the way back to Myst's two marefriends' homes. She had taken off with Sparks minutes earlier and suggested that he and Mayfield help them get back safely, as they seemed to be holding their liquor better than the two mares, who were having difficulty finding their way out the bar. Jackson walked with Quick Fix while Mayfield was alongside Lily, attempting to keep her from falling over.

"O-o *hic* ok, my house is just down th' road 'ere." Quick Fix slurred. "Lily can stay wit' me tonight, her place is *hic* further away. Lily? Lily, you ok stayin' at m' place? Lily?"

Lily had fallen back a bit, struggling to stand before suddenly collapsing to the ground, "Mmmm, my legs don't work!" She complained. "Hey To —Urp— Tophe- Topher, can you carry me?"

Mayfield was reluctant, but he obliged anyway, he didn't want to be rude, "Alright, but if you need t' up chuck, tell me. I kinda like these clothes." He said, crouching down and hunching over. "Ge' on with it then, up y' go."

"Mhm, my funny talking knight in armor!" She said as she crawled up onto his back and put her forelegs around his neck as he stood up, "Woo, it's tall up here! And your muscles feel good too..."

"Oi, no funny ideas now." Mayfield said hazily. She just giggled.

Jackson looked at Quick Fix with concern, "You good, right Q?"

"Yea, no, I'm fine. I jus' wanna get to bed. Wha' about you two, don't ya live pretty far from here? You can stay downstairs if ya like, I got room." She offered.

"Nah, we're fine, but thanks. We've had to do worse hikes." Jackson declined as they neared the house.

"You sure?" He nodded. "Well *hic* ok then."

In the back, Lily began heaving, her head over Mayfield's shoulder, "Oh, no. No no no! Hold 't in, we're almost there!" He pleaded.

"I'm tryin'a- I'm. . . Ohhh~" Lily groaned. Suddenly, she puked, vomiting all down the front of Mayfield's shirt.

"Ah, sod it all!" He muttered under his breath.

"Oh no!" Lily said with remorse, "I ruined you shirt! Sorry~"

"Ugh, bugger this. It's fine, let's just get you 'ome." Mayfield assured picking up the pace.

Jackson and Quick Fix reached the house and the unicorn stumbled up the short steps to the door. Drunkenly, she pressed the tip of her horn against the lock, producing a faint click before the door swung open. Mayfield hurried inside and gently placed the now dozing mare on his back on the sofa cushions before walking back out the door.

Jackson still stood with Quick Fix at the entrance, "You still sure you don't wanna come in?" She asked again.

"Yes, Q, I'm sure. Don't worry, we'll be fine gettin' back." He said assertively.

"All right *hic* then~" she replied in half singsong, entering her home. "I can see what RD liked, walk y' home and gentlecoltly enough not to come in. At least on the first one." She commented to no one in particular.

"What?" Jackson called, only hearing half of what she said.

"Nothing~" she replied and shut the door.

Jackson laughed quietly to himself, wondering what exactly she had meant and lumbered down the short steps, he felt like he was back in Brooklyn almost, before he'd joined. As he walked away back down the street, Mayfield fell into step next to him, trying to wipe as much vomit off his shirt as he could before finally giving up and taking the whole thing off. Fortunately, it wasn't all too cold out.

"At least it looks like you had fun." Jackson consoled with a chuckle.

"Jog off!" Mayfield shot back. "You don't have grassy puke all over your front!"

Jackson just chuckled some more and together they staggered on back home.

The Demon Of Everfree

Chapter 18: The Demon Of Everfree

The briefing room was dark, as it always was. A windowless tomb in the palace that didn't exist, just like the discussions that took place within it. Luna took her place at the far side of the table. Commander Sparks was at the opposite again and Howitzer stood in his customary position.

This time it was the shadowy pegasus that had the folder full of goodies, currently he had the contents spread out, explaining them all, ". . . so as you can see, not only are they still producing the energy grenades we've faced before, they are also now manufacturing their own firearms."

"About the 'grenades,'" Luna asked, "do you suspect they still possess the capacity to create the city killers discovered in the last war?"

"It's always a possibility, your Highness. We already have the chief armorer working with our most skilled enchanters on developing body armor capable of withstanding the destructive magical effects of the weapon." Sparks reported.

"Good. What about the firearms then, I was under the impression that only we had the skills to recover and maintain these terrible weapons."

Howitzer offered an explanation, "Well you see, like you said, we recover the weapons and other objects from where they have crossed into our world from some violent force. And, yes, we can improve and maintain their overall condition. Through this we discovered that some of these weapons are actually extremely simple and easily replicated with enough skill and readily available tools and materials. Honestly, it was only a matter of time."

"I see. In that case, we must make it our priority to discover the location of manufacture. Outstanding work on your collection of intelligence, Agent Howitzer."

"All in a days work, your Majesty."

"You both may go. I will summon you when I have need."

Luna then exited the room through the back door, leaving the two stallions together. Howitzer packed up his papers and walked out the door, joined by Sparks. Once out of the room, they made quick time to Sparks' office and shut the door.

"So, what do you think we should do?" Sparks asked the shady pegasus.

"I'm going to go through my criminal contacts. The weapons are getting moved around somehow, and for them to go unnoticed until we track down cache locations means some of our own citizens may be involved."

"A crying shame. I can spare three teams for the raid once you find out where these things are coming from."

"Thanks, I think we'll need 'em. There's something else I also want though." Howitzer said, "I want the humans in on the raid."

"I think we can manage that," Sparks told him, "but why do you want the humans?"

"I want them because they're pretty much the best experts we have for the situation. It is their own technology after all."

Sparks pondered for a minute before offering an answer, "I'll see what I can do, but no promises."

"Agreed."

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



It was raining, hard. Jackson trudged through the cold onslaught with determination. He had hoped that when it started raining in town as it was forecast, it would stay in town. But it seemed the forest played by its own rules. He noticed that none of the pegasi touched anything in the sky over the forest. Even here, mother nature took care of herself. At the very least, it would help conceal his movements.

He'd left alone, early in the morning hours, slipping out the door before anyone knew he was up. He was wearing the RSTG uniform he'd been given, the only low visibility clothing he owned right then. He'd also brought his M9, its weight in its holster on his thigh a comforting feeling. He hoped he would not have to use it, he only had two reloads.

Hurdling over fallen trees and splashing through mud, the large man moved as fast as he could without falling. Every once in a while, he would find a relatively dry area where the thick canopy of trees shielded the earth from the rain and stop to check a map he had. After his encounter with Ms. Dash the day before, Jackson had gone back to the library and checked out a book that detailed the history of the local area.

There had been a map inside and while skimming the pages, he'd marked off points of interest on the small map before tearing it out of the book. He felt kind of bad about damaging the book, but he would find a way to make up for it when he returned. Right now, he was focused on his goal.

On the map, there were three locations of interest he had marked. One was a hollow glade, legend in the book spoke of a settlement that used to stand there. Then there was a tall waterfall past the bog. The third he found interested him most of all. It was a large and ancient castle built over a thousand years ago and housed 'The Royal Pony Sisters.' It had long been abandoned, reclaimed by nature. If there ever was a place for a demon to reside, he thought that would be it.

Jackson folded the map into a plastic bag and slipped it carefully back into his pocket. The ruins of the castle was a long ways off, it might take him all day. Confidently, he started off again, going in what he was sure was the direction of the castle. As he went, he started getting a strange feeling, like that of being watched. It bothered him incessantly, causing him to stop and look around for his stalker.

Jackson scanned the sky, knowing that pegasi could hide in the clouds, but if it was the mare from before, she would already have confronted him. The foliage around him gave no answer. It hid all things in the deluge of rain, the bushes rustled and the trees swayed, movement from anything would be next to impossible to detect.

Because of this, Jackson kept his guard up at all times, wary of what might be around the next bend. He kept his holster open, ready to quick draw his sidearm should he need to. The book had also spoken of dangerous beasts that roamed the wilds of Everfree, many of which he thought only existed in myth. It seemed that his own world had much more in common with this one than he'd known.

Suddenly, the snap of a branch off to his left caught his attention. Jackson's hand automatically flew to his pistol, but he didn't draw it yet. It could be anything, even an animal. But then he heard the crunch of a boot on gravel and he knew he was not alone. Jackson found a stand of trees to put his back to and pulled out his sidearm, keeping it pointed at the ground.

For a few tense moments, he just stood there, ready, scanning the area for threats. The knock of a rock on wood caught his attention, his head snapped in the sound's direction. "Aye-up." Came a familiar voice from the opposite direction. Jackson spun around and snapped up his weapon.

"Whoa whoa, no need for that, mate!" Mayfield said, holding his hands up in front of him. On his face, he wore a cocky smile, "Fancy yourself a nature walk, do ya? Well why didn't ya invite me?" He said with mock sadness.

Jackson holstered his gun, "The hell you doin' out here, man? I almost shot you!"

"Could ask the same of you. What're you gettin' on about, sneakin' away like that in the wee hours of the morning?"

"It's complicated."

"Complicated my arse. You're looking for something, or someone. I can help. As you can see, I'm all decked out in nice camouflage and I even brought my own toy!" He announced, spinning his own pistol around before sliding it into a holster he also wore. "About the camouflage, who're you trying to hide from, can't be us. Me an' Flash, you know we can track you."

"I had a run in with a pegasus mare yesterday she warned me against doing exactly this. She didn't seem the type to issue idle threats." Jackson told him.

"Fair enough. Let's get on with it then. Where are we going?"

With the new member of his party, Jackson continued on. While they walked, he explained to Mayfield where they were headed and showed him the map which the Englishman studied for a moment before returning it. For hours they marched, trying to make good time through the storm. Sometime later, the rain let up, allowing sparse rays of sunlight to punch through the thick cloud layers.

At one point, they came to a rickety looking wooden bridge that spanned a large gorge. It was a long way down and the bridge was old, but on the other side, they could see tall ramparts rising above the trees. They hastily made their way across, boards creaking beneath their feet. Before they continued, Jackson took a long look down the edge of the cliff. Hopefully, the bridge would hold so they could get back. Otherwise, it was going to be a few days.

The trees in this part of the forest sat ancient and wise, old with the eons of the forest's life. Dark hollows and hideaways held whispering secrets, it was a strange and terrible place. Even so, they dove deeper into the wood, closing on their goal. Soon enough, lumps of stone and mortar could be spotted poking up through the tall grass and ensconced in bushes that had grown around and over ruins.

Not much further, larger pieces made themselves know, leading the two humans to the grand majesty of the dilapidate ruin. The castle itself was larger than it appeared from a distance. Monolithic columns and vaulted ceilings made up the place. Cautiously, the two men entered.

Along the aged walls, elegant carvings were set into the stone itself. They did not stop to admire them, though, that was not what they were there for. Jackson and Mayfield searched every room and chamber they came to, ensuring each one was empty before moving on.

Then they came to a humongous chamber, a great hall, gargantuan in size. As the walked into it, they noticed the floor was strewn with skeletons, ones that looked as if they'd gone undisturbed for years. Jackson went and examined them, meanwhile, Mayfield moved on to check the adjoining rooms.

As Jackson knelt by the bones, he noticed that almost all of them, which appeared to belong to Lotkin, had been killed by a large blade. The notches in the bones gave that much away. One was different, however. He walked over to it and saw the shoulder and hip bones were shattered, as if it had fallen from a great height. He looked up and saw that there was a stone ledge that ran the circumference of the room, wide enough for one to stand upon.

Jackson looked closer and noted what he deduced was the cause of death. A neat hole was bored into the side of its skull. On the other side was what was clearly the exit wound, fragments and flakes of bone blasted away like the shell of an egg. Jackson inserted a finger into the entry wound, measuring it. It was caused by a .45 caliber round and he think he knew where it came from.

"Hey, this place is a graveyard, nothing here." Mayfield informed him as he jogged back up. "It also gives me the creeps, let's get the fuck outta here."

"Yeah, let's go. I think I found a clue though."

"What, the bone collection?" Jackson just pointed out the bullet hole. "Oh, nice shot."

"These skeletons are old, maybe four to five years." Jackson said

"Your mate?"

Their conversation was interrupted by a shifting of rubble somewhere in the building, "All right, we're gone," Mayfield decided, "place could come down anytime."

Jackson agreed and together they left. The sound of moving stone didn't stop though and the building wasn't showing any signs of collapse. In fact, the source of the disturbance seemed to be shifting. Expecting bad news, they both drew their weapons and ran outside as fast as they could looking for targets.

Then it got quiet. Uncomfortably quiet. Jackson and Mayfield went back to back, sidearms up and safeties off. Then a sudden roar pierced the air, sending chills down both their spines. They snapped to, just in time, as a giant monstrosity lumbered from one side of the ruins.

It looked like an oversized lion, only instead of just teeth and claws, this one had bat wings and a scorpion tail, "The fuck is that thing!" Mayfield shouted.

Jackson remembered reading about something like it in the book, "I think it's called a manticor!"

"You think!?"

The beast started coming at them, great claws raised over its head.

"Well, I know it's not friendly, waste it!"

In tandem, they both opened fire, peppering the monster with rounds. It halted for a second, contemplating what had just happened. Then resumed its attack like nothing had touched it, only now it had an attitude, bellowing all the way.

"Oh, fuck my arse, we only pissed it off!"

"So what now?"

"Leg it you dim bastard!"

Both men took off, running in opposite directions with the beast hot on their heels. It considered which one it wanted to chase, eventually settling on Mayfield. He saw it coming for him and doubled his efforts, sprinting for a copse of trees. But the beast was quicker than it looked and caught up hit him, swiping with its great paws. Mayfield dodged them with inches to spare, feeling the wash of air as they passed close by.

Jackson picked up a rock and lobbed it at the creatures head, it hit dead center on the side of its skull, further enraging it. The manticore shifted its attention from Mayfield to the bald black man, maw open with a growl, revealing sharp flesh shredding fangs. Jackson picked up a thick branch, as if the piece of wood would somehow protect him from such a large animal.

The manticore slashed at him and he raised the branch to block. The beast's paw smashed into it, shattering it to pieces and sending Jackson flying through the air until he impacted a tree and crumpled to the ground. He shakily got up, vision blurry, a great shape bearing down on him.

Mayfield was now tossing rocks and whatever other debris he could grab, each one smacking into the manticore's back, but it ignored him, intent as it was on delivering the final blow to its prey. It raised its tail, preparing to strike. Jackson saw this and rolled away, the stinger of the scorpion tail thunking into the tree trunk where he had been just a split second before.

The stinger stuck there, embedded in the wood. The manticore howled with rage. Jackson looked for a way out, but he seemed to have gotten himself trapped. To his back and on either side were the bare walls of the ruin. To the front, only the fury of the manticore. Jackson drew his pistol again, determined to go down fighting, even if it was futile in the end.

He never got a chance at having his last stand. From one of the trees, a figure cloaked in dark clothing, face obscured by a balaclava, launched itself, arcing through the air. It twisted and landed heavily on the manticore's back. With a powerful grip, it grabbed a fistful of the beast's mane and with the other formed a fist. Then it began mercilessly pounding the side of the manticore's head.

Furiously, the manticore snarled, viciously ripping its stinger from the tree trunk with an explosion of wooden shards. It tried to reach up and grab its attacker, but its arms could not reach there. In a desperate move, it positioned its stinger, poised to strike. Then it thrust forward. The figure on its back jumped away, flipping through the air and rolling safely on the ground. The stinger continued unabated, too late to stop now, it pierced the hide of the manticore, at the base of the back of its neck.

The beast swayed back and forth, a sick gurgling noise bubbling out of its throat. Finally, the manticore slumped to the ground, the impact of its body causing the ground to shake a bit. The figure stood motionlessly, staring at the corpse as if it regretted what had just happened. Then it turned its head to Jackson.

Jackson raised his weapon, unsure if it was friend or foe. But then he saw the eyes. Fierce, piercing, determined, he recognized those eyes. Slowly, he lowered his pistol, though he still held it in one hand. Tentatively, he began to approach the figure, who he was sure was a man. then Mayfield ran up, shouting, asking if Jackson was ok. The figure suddenly turned and fled, sprinting off into the foliage to the south.

Jackson wasn't about to let him get away though and although he was sure he might have injured his leg, he gave chase. Mayfield caught up, clearly concerned and equally confused as to just what had happened.

"Mate, you all right? That was a nasty blow from that thing!"

"I'm fine, just some bruises!" Jackson shouted as he ran, "We need to catch that guy before he gets away!"

Mayfield instantly switched gears, tearing off in pursuit alongside Jackson. The man was fast, easily gliding over obstacles and sliding around corners, but he was no demon, even if he did look the part. For almost two miles, Jackson and Mayfield chased their quarry, until they came to a cliff that was part of the gorge further north.

"Ha! Wanker's got no where to go now!" Mayfield said triumphantly.

However, the man didn't slow down. Instead, he seemed to be speeding up. Jackson was almost afraid he intended to jump to his death, but the the man grasped something at his sides with both hands and yanked downwards. When he reached the edge, he launched himself with an extra hard push, dropping below the ridge of rock.

Jackson and Mayfield rushed to edge as well, intent on seeing the fate of the man. They were extremely surprised when they looked down and saw the mysterious figure gliding swiftly away to the south on a pair of wings that had appeared at his sides.

"Crafty fucker's got a wingsuit!" Mayfield shouted with disbelief. "So what are we gonna do now?" He asked, turning to Jackson.

Jackson watched the man glide down along the cliff's wall. He was losing altitude, fast. Soon he would have to deploy a parachute and float to the ground or risk pancaking into the earth. Next he studied the cliff itself and noted that further on, it sloped downward in the direction the man had gone.

"We're gonna go get him. C'mon, he's got to land soon. We'll track him and find his hiding spot." Jackson said with conviction.

Mayfield sighed, "Very well then. I said I'd go with you on this, I'll not back down now. Lead the bloody way."

Together they ran along the cliff edge, following a game trail they discovered. It didn't take long for the ground to slope down and join together. When it did, the two men found themselves at a bog. The ground was soft and muddy and the smell of decaying plants wafted through the air.

Jackson and Mayfield pushed on, slogging through it all. Their feet would often sink mud going halfway up their calves, producing a wet squelch with each step, but as they got further in, they could pick their way across solid masses of grass and tree roots. Every so often, they would spot a partial boot print, letting them know they were still on the right path.

Sometime later, a faint roar could be heard, though not of any beast made of flesh. It was steady, never once ceasing or changing in pitch or tone. The only thing that changed was the volume of sound which increased steadily with each step. Jackson knew what it was, they had been traveling south the whole time. He didn't have to look at the map again to know that he was nearing the waterfall that dumped into the Ghastly Gorge.

The ground steadily became more substantial, wet marshland giving way to solid earth. The air also seemed to be fresher. The soupy water of the bog hit a border of soil. On the other side was a small river. Some of the river water found its way into the bog water, but mostly they remained separate.

Seeing an opportunity to escape the depressing scene of the swap, Jackson and Mayfield crossed over to the river, walking quickly along its bank. The ground that ran by the water started widening, allowing them both to walk comfortably side by side. The roar of the falls was louder now, just around a bend and past some more trees. As they edged around the bend, a surprising sight came into view.

A house, two stories tall, but modest in size sat only a short distance away from the falls. A water wheel was half submerged into the river itself, turning a drive shaft that ran into a shed close to the trees. In the back yard of the house, was a quaint vegetable garden, many of the plants already bearing delectable morsels. On the side of the house facing them, a platform was built in, running around the other side until it went out over the cliff edge and became a large balcony.

"So it really is you. . . Funny, I thought I was going crazy for a second."

"Shit!" Mayfield shouted in surprise, snapping his pistol up and aiming at the man from before, who had materialized next to them out of thin air.

The man didn't move, completely unfazed by lethal mechanism now pointed squarely at his forehead. Jackson slowly reached forward and put a hand on top of Mayfield's weapon, pushing it gently down. Then he cautiously approached the man.

"Is. . . Is it, it it you?" He asked hopefully.

With an easy movement, the man reached up and pulled one side of the balaclava open, fully exposing the features of his face. His eyes were mostly blue, with a thin star burst of yellow and green ringing the pupil. Strands of messy dirty blonde hair fell over them, matching the dark scruff of two week old facial hair that covered his jaw. The only difference Jackson could see was a few new scars that now graced his features. One ran in a thin line from his right temple to just below his right eye, on the top of his left cheek was a shorter, but wider gouge that ran horizontally.

"Hey Jackson," James said, "long time, no see."

Jackson was overcome with a wide range of emotions going from confusion to elation to a little bit of anger. With heavy steps he walked up to James, his face blank and devoid of the roiling sensations within. Then he drew back his fist and slugged his long lost friend hard across the jaw.

Natural Born

Chapter 19: Natural Born

James stood there, massaging his jaw with one hand. He hadn't exactly expected that kind of welcome from a friend and neither did he expect what came immediately after. Before he knew it, Jackson pulled him into a big bear hug, almost lifting him off the ground.

"I am so glad to see you again, man, but if you ever pull some bullshit like that on me again, I'll cap your knees myself." Jackson said gruffly.

"Alright, alright!" James grunted as he was being squeezed, "I'll try not to, promise."

He put James down and stood back, though he left a hand on his shoulder. "Everyone thought you were dead. There was no way anybody could have survived that assault and yet we never found your body. I mean, I know why now, but what happened?"

"C'mon," James started with a step back, "let's go inside and I'll tell you everything. Who's your friend?" He asked, looking at Mayfield who had since holstered his weapon.

"Hi, I'm Sergeant Mayfield, SAS." Mayfield stepped forward and extended a hand, which James shook, "Nice to meet you. Your pal, Jackie Boy, has been looking for you for far too long."

"That so?"

James led both of them over to the house, opening the door and ushering them inside. The interior wasn't bad. It was spacious enough and well furnished. There were a couple of couches and some chairs, how his friend had gotten those so far out into the forest, Jackson didn't know. He was also surprised to see electric light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. They were off at the moment, but that was fine since the room was lit by large bay windows that over looked the falls.

"Nice place you got here." Mayfield remarked.

"Yeah," James responded from the kitchen where he was retrieving some things for his guests, "It was a pain in the ass to build, but I had some help."

"Lemme guess, about five or six individuals from Ponyville?" Jackson questioned.

James walked back in with some cups and a couple of bottles. He looked at Jackson with a look of interest with just a pinch of surprise added. "You met them?"

"Yeah, I did. I was trying to find you, but they kept dodging all my questions. And then this one pegasus with a crazy colored mane actually threatened me."

"You talking about Dash?"

"Yeah, I think that was her name, Rainbow Dash. What's up with all that?"

"Oh brother," James said with a roll of his eyes, "Here, come with me, its a pretty long story."

He gestured to the two men to follow him and they all went outside to the large balcony. They sat at a table out there, James poured water into two of the cups, in the third he poured a dark brown mixture. Jackson glanced at the label and saw it was rum, the same brand he'd found in the room back at Flash's house. For a moment, they just sat in silence, the only sound being the faint rush of the falls some distance away.

James gathered his thoughts and then dove into the story of how he'd come to this world, starting with the fateful morning in that desert so many years ago. He covered his arrival into the strange land, making friends with the locals and eventually ending up working for the royalty and founding the Royal Special Tasks Group. ". . . I woke up at the triage, they said Dash barely caught me in time. They also said I should have been dead, given the amount of serious injuries I had, but some how I pulled through. After that I just decided that I'd had enough of it. I was tired of killing, it just got too exhausting ending so much life like that, sending others to their deaths. So many died. . ." He said somberly, taking a swig of his drink. "I quit right then," he continued, "I wasn't really needed anymore. Dash and the girls helped me disappear. We found a place out here where I could just live out my days in peace and I've been here ever since. How'd you find me, anyway?"

"Shit." Jackson said as he processed the whole thing.

"Yeah. How'd you find me, anyway?"

Jackson smiled, "You aren't all that good at disappearing. In town, you are famously known as 'The Demon of Everfree Forest."

"Ugh." James sighed, "You save a few dumbass travelers from dying horribly and the next thing you know, you're some kind of mythic creature. Meh, as long as they don't know who I am though, paparazzi here is just as bad as back home. Enough about that, though. Tell me, how in the hell did you get here?" James asked with great interest.

"Honestly, I'm not sure." Jackson told him. "I was in a joint training exercise up north, Bellis paired me up with Mayfield as chasers."

"A blizzard hit in the middle of it," Mayfield put in, "and everything just went tits up. Took refuge in a cave."

"Then the cave entrance collapsed, we thought we were fucked. But then I found a way out through the back, only instead of Earth, we ended up here." Jackson finished.

"Damn, that sucks." James said with a chuckle. "How are things back on the old blue marble?"

Jackson exhaled sharply and leaned back in his chair, wondering where to start, "Well, we're finally out of Afghanistan. Al Qeada and the Taliban are still around, but they don't do much of anything anymore. No more money and the drones keep killing all their leadership before they can plan anything."

"That's good at least." James nodded.

"Yeah, but but some freaky global death cult took their place. It's a weird group." Mayfield interjected, "No demands, no agendas announced and they attack anyone and everyone. All the big governments got together and set up an international operations group to counter it, that's what we were training for up in the arctic. Almost all the countries pitched in their best; the US, my own lovely UK, France, Russia, Israel, Germany, Canada, China, Australia, even the bloody Arabs are working with us. Great to see everybody getting along for once."

"Bellis is one of the US officers in charge of the whole thing. He made Commander." Jackson mentioned.

"He's running it?" James asked.

"Naw, just part of it. Him and a bunch of other high ranking officers from every other country. It's a nice group effort, we're kind of our own little micro military, not really tied to any one nation."

"That's pretty cool. What about the old team, how they holding up?"

"Nix is doing good, been working with him a lot. Feng bought the farm though. Few years back, jumped on a grenade."

"Fuck" James whispered. What about your family?" He asked, trying to switch to a cheerier subject, "I think you had a kid coming, little girl, right?"

Jackson's head hung low, his expression becoming strained. He slipped a hand into his pocket, feeling for the photo he always carried with him. He briefly considered dismissing the issue and moving on, but James was his brother, even if not by blood. So he extracted the photo, slowly pulling it out and placing it on the table.

"Yeah, we named her Sophia. You woulda liked her."

James took the photo and looked at it. It was a little girl, smile beaming brightly on her face, even though she was missing her two front teeth. She was standing by a tree, wearing a nice Sunday dress. James smiled himself at the photo and looked back up to his friend to pay compliment, but faltered when he saw Jackson looked to be on the verge of tears.

"She, she uh. . . She was diagnosed a while back. Leukemia, doctors said it was pretty bad, that she had only a few months to live. But she proved them wrong. Held in there just over a year." He Jackson said with a faux smile, his voice shaking as he spoke. "Then she. . . Well she was just gone. . ."

"Oh shit." James muttered. He reached over and out a hand on his friend's shoulder. "I'm so sorry, man. Goddamn."

"Afterwards, Vanessa left. She couldn't handle it anymore. First I was gone all the time, and then Sophie. . ." He reached over and grabbed James' drink, taking a swig for himself. "We divorced, about four months ago."

"Holy shit, mate." Mayfield said. He just sat there the whole time, astonished at the scene happening before him.

James snatched up Jackson's glass and tossed the water out onto the deck, replacing it with rum. "Thanks." Jackson said as he did. James looked at Mayfield and jiggled the bottle. Mayfield shrugged and poured his water on the deck before leaning forward to let the man pour him some as well.

"So what 're you gonna do now? I'd tell you how to get back home, but I really don't know if you can." James said after a moment of silence.

"Yeah, we've thought about it. I met that one pony, I think Twilight, while I was going around looking for you. She said she was investigating the whole thing." Jackson replied.

James nodded, "If anyone could figure it out, she could. She's real friggin' smart, that one."

"Can she?" Mayfield asked. "This place is real nice, but I've some unfinished business back home."

Jackson picked at something on the table, "Yeah. This place is real nice. Honesty, I think I wanna—"

"YOU!" Someone shouted from overhead. Everyone looked up. A cyan blue pegasus mare zoomed down to the deck and landed with a loud thud on the wooden planks before aggressively advancing on Jackson. "I thought I told you to stay away!" She shouted angrily, "I oughta—"

"Dash!" James stood up quickly, seeing a situation about to get out of hand, "Calm down, it's ok, they're friends!"

She rounded on him with an incredulous expression, "But if they can find you, then—"

"Hey, hey, relax," James said, moving to her side and placing an arm around her shoulders. "These guys are smart and well trained for that sort of thing. They're not here to hurt me and they aren't gonna tell anybody about me. Here, I want you to meet an old friend of mine, he's like a brother to me. This is Darius Jackson."

Dash didn't look convinced, "So? I don't know 'em and I don't trust 'em!"

"Dash," James said crossly, "I trust this guy with my life. In fact, he's saved it a few times."

"But what about the other guy? You don't know him at all! What if he's an evil jerk?"

"Hey, I'm right here y' know. . ." Mayfield mumbled.

"I'll vouch for him." Jackson said confidently.

"Good enough for me." James smiled.

"But- but they have guns!" Dash protested.

"And if they really wanted to hurt or kill me, they would have done it many times since now. Now please, calm down." James chastised.

Rainbow Dash flicked her ears back in anger, but she couldn't argue with that logic. "Fine." she said in a huff. "But I still don't like it!" She stomped off into the house, slamming the door behind her.

"Well, that was a nice little scene!" Mayfield chuckled awkwardly.

James rubbed his face with a palm, letting his hand flop onto the table, "I know, sorry about that. Don't worry, she'll warm up to you soon. She's just a bit over protective."

"That's way too protective for just a friend. Almost sounded like she was kind of jealous." Gears turned slowly, but then something clicked in Jackson's mind. "Wait. . . Are you. . .?"

"Yeah, I know, it's kind of weird." James admitted.

An uncomfortable silence settled over the trio. Both Mayfield and Jackson gazed at James with a funny look on their faces. Finally, Mayfield broke the quiet between them all.

"Hey, I ain't gonna judge. Honestly, once you get past the different body structure, they almost seem human in mind. Except that they walk on all fours. And some can fly. Or or do weird magic tricks with their heads. And also—"

"Cut it out, man," Jackson interrupted, "that's not helping!" He turned back to James, "It's cool with me, brother. I might've done the same thing if I was stuck here for over six years."

"Four." James corrected.

Jackson rubbed his bald head, "Oh, yeah. The time difference thing."

"Time difference!?" James shouted in astonishment. "Wait, you mean six years have gone by back on Earth!?"

"Yeah, I guess so. Another thing, you look like you haven't aged a damn day. The hell's up with that? It looks like not a single day has gone by since I saw you. Well, except for the new scars. . ."

"I don't know, I never really noticed. Actually, now that I think about it, I kinda feel younger. Maybe it's the air here."

Just then, the door to the house swung violently open, revealing a still ticked off Rainbow Dash, "Hey, Zecora's here to see you." She she announced dismissively before leaving again.

James checked something in his pocket, "Oh, it's that day already?"

"Who's Zecora?" Jackson inquired.

"She's another friend of mine." James answered. "Lives here in the forest too. Every month she stops by and we have tea together." As if summoned forth by the use of her name in conversation, a zebra let herself out onto the deck, a bag hanging over her side. "Oap, and there she is now! Hey Zecora, how are you today?"

"Very well, my human friend. It's certainly nice to see you again." She walked over and stood by the table. "And what is this, my eyes do see? Only one human has now become three!"

"Yes, meet my friends, this is Darius Jackson and. . . Mayfield, right? They're from where I'm from. Would you mind making some tea for them as well?"

"Not at all, it's easy to do. I'll brew for four instead of two." She trotted back to the kitchen, leaving them alone on the deck.

"Does she always speak in rhyme?" Mayfield asked half seriously. "It's like being in a Dr. Suess book."

"It's something you just get used to." James replied.

"So, Kaughn." Jackson started delicately.

"Yeah?"

"You know what's been going down around here?"

"A little. I got a contact, keeps me informed. Still having some trouble with a splinter group. I take it you've been handling all that?"

"That and then some." Mayfield said. "Did some research of my own since I been here. When you fought them, they just used crossbows and swords and such. I don't know if you know, but they've graduated to rifles."

"Really?" James said, troubled and intrigued. "My source failed to pass that on to me."

"Anyhow," Jackson said, "they could probably use your help. They got a good set up, but their forces just don't have the same experience that we do."

James considered his friend's words. He had quit the business for a reason. The RSTG had been trained, its operators equipped with the best the country's minds could produce, they had even more to work with now than they did three to four years ago. He wasn't needed anymore. Still. . . "I don't know, man." He said. "I mean, I just got my own little paradise here. I got a ton of friends that care about me, every day, or nearly every one, is peaceful. . . and I don't get the nightmares anymore."

Jackson looked down at his drink. He remembered those days. The kinds of things he would mumble in his sleep, waking up in the middle of the night to fend off an attacker that wasn't there. The screams. "You know I won't force you. I won't even tell about your location. Just. . . Just remember, brother, blood is thicker than water."

"I know."

Zecora soon returned, now balancing a tray of hot ceramic mugs on her head. Carefully, she slid it onto the table and took her own seat and drink, pensively sipping the warm beverage. Everyone else took a cup, the heat of the drink warming their hands. James took a gulp, exhaling a breath of contentedness. Jackson looked into his own mug, it was filled with a murky green liquid, not at all like the tea he was expecting.

Beside him, Mayfield cringed. "Ulgh, what is this, it's all thick and goopy. Oddly pleasant aftertaste though. . ."

"It's not for your taste on the whole, but mostly good for heart and soul." Zecora said.

"Yeah, I've tried to get her to change it up," James said, "but she always insists that I drink this. It's not so bad after a while."

"Uh, why? Can I ask?" Jackson quandered with confusion.

Zecora smiled, "Only this way it must be, in order to ensure the destiny." She said cryptically.

Jackson looked at James with a questioning gaze, but he only replied with a shrug that said, 'your guess is as good as mine'.

James looked at the slowly setting sun and drank the rest of his drink before standing up, "Looks like it's getting late, you guys should probably get back to where you came from before anybody gets suspicious."

"Already? But we just got here!" Mayfield exclaimed.

"No, he's right, we should go." Jackson said defeatedly. "If we stay any longer, Flash is bound to go looking for us at some point. Wouldn't want to ruin this nice little set up." He stood and followed James around the side of the house. Mayfield reluctantly got up and walked with them.

At the front, James quickly gave them some directions to get back to town faster. Jackson raised a hand up, which his old friend grasped in a firm shake, "You change your mind, just come by Flash's place and we'll get you in gear," the big man said, "it'd be great if you had my back again."

"I told you," James replied firmly, yet gently, "that's not my job anymore."

"But you're one of the best at it." Jackson countered, looking him dead in the eye, "Natural Born Killer, Ghengis Kaughn. You can't escape that."

"Maybe not," James laughed, "but I can damn well try. Good luck, hope you and Sergeant Mayfield get back home safe."

"Yeah, not looking forward to explaining my absence to Bellis. Good-bye, brother. I'll try to visit again soon."

"I'll be here."

At that, they released, Jackson turning around and marching off with Mayfield. James watched them go for a minute before returning to his house by the cliff. With Mayfield by his side, Jackson walked grimly through the underbrush, eventually coming out onto a used, but well concealed path.

"Your reunion go as great as you wanted it to be?" Mayfield asked him. "Don't think he's gonna come back, seemed perfectly content there."

"He's not the kind to just sit around while his friend's out in danger somewhere. He'll come around. Maybe."

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


*Click*

*Snap*

A bright moon hung in the sky, lazily drifting through the night while the stars twinkled all around it like a lone ship sailing across a sea of light. Illuminated only by the moon beams, a lone man sat out on the wooden deck behind his house, listening to the rush of the waterfall, staring down at the metal object glinting in his hand. A cool breeze blew by, teasing the growth of hair on his head.

*Click*

*Snap*

James couldn't sleep. Jackson showing up out of no where had rattled him a little on the inside. He had never expected to see him again. Especially after he had opted to stay in his new adopted home, even after Twilight had offered to try and create a way back to his old land. Now the thought of his friend, his brother, getting mixed up in the trouble of this land worried him.

*Click*

*Snap*

Behind him, a door opened, the sound of hooves walking softly on the wood deck approaching him, coming to his side. There was a ruffle of feathers and he felt a wing extend across his back and gently rest on his shoulders. "You should put that away and come back to bed." A scratchy female voice suggested. "It's getting chilly in there without you."

James ran his free hand through the shag of hair on his head, noting that it was getting long enough to trim again, or maybe cut. "Yeah, sorry. I'll be in in just a minute."

"I heard what that man told you." Dash said softly. "You're not gonna go back, are you?"

James sighed, his expression torn, "I don't know. I know I don't want to. But—"

"Then stay, it's that easy!" Dash asserted, moving around to face him. "We got a good thing going here. And I don't want. . . I don't want what happened last time to happen again." She said sadly, "I almost lost you. . ."

James' expression softened, like it always did when he gazed into the big rosy eyes that stared back at him. He moved his hand forward and cupped her cheek, "I don't want to, but I'll do what I have to do regardless, if I have to. Hopefully, I won't. Jackson's a competent guy and his buddy's from the SAS, they don't fuck around." He explained kindly.

"Ok, but right now you don't have to do anything." She said decisively. "So put that thing away and come back inside with me."

James chuckled, "Alright, you're right." He lifted the revolver he was holding and placed it back in a case on the table, closing and locking it before picking it up. "Let's get back to bed. I could do with some warmth from my fiery girl."

Working In Shadows

Chapter 20: Working In Shadow

In the high throne room, mostly empty except for a few of the Night Guard, Luna sat on the regal seat of power, going through some documents. An important one was the matter of Swift Paws. The Diamond Dog had proved to be an invaluable asset, but now she was applying for full membership in the RSTG. Normally, Luna wouldn't fret over such a thing, Commander Sparks and his admin personnel would take care of admissions, but this was different given that as a Diamond Dog, Swift Paws was not exactly an Equestrian citizen.

Plus, she would still have to go through the training everypony else did and pass before she could actually be considered as a member of the elite group. Luna rolled the idea around in her head, weighing the pros and cons. Eventually, she decided to approve, scribbling her signature on the parchment and allowing the Dog to participate in the program. Now she just needed to draw up citizenship papers for her.

Luna was about to move on to her next task when dark green smoke roiled into the room from a slightly opened window down a ways from her seat. It sped to her, collecting into a tempuous ball before transforming itself with a flash of emerald into a rolled up parchment with the familiar seal of her informant.

Giddy with excitement, Luna snatched it from the air and opened it. Eagerly she read, her expression growing with surprise and wonder as she continued down the page , her eyes zipping back and forth between the edges. Once done, she rolled it back up and called one of her guards over.

"Yes, your Highness, how may I help you?" He said.

"I have an important matter that I must take care of at the moment and will be leaving my post for a brief moment. Ensure that your watch does not lose diligence, I shall return shortly." She ordered.

The guard bowed, "Your grace."

Hopping up from the throne, Luna quickly put away her papers, except from the scroll, and dashed down to the floor and out the hall's grand door. With a clacking of hooves against the rich marble floor, she galloped up to the wing that held the royal quarters and where her sister slept. Arriving at her door, the guards stepped aside to allow her admittance to her sleeping sister's chambers.

Luna entered silently, her heart still pumping furiously from her mad run through the corridors. With care, she quietly walked up to the edge of her sister's bed and gently tried to rouse her. It took some effort, but finally Celestia returned from the realm of dreams.

"Huh? Uh, what. . . Luna? What is it Lulu, I'm tired." She said, rolling back over.

"Tia! I just got the message! They found him!" Luna whispered loudly.

Celestia sat up, having suddenly found her energy and grabbed the parchment Luna held out in front of her with her magic, unrolling it and reading it urgently.

"What should we do, should we go for a visit?" Luna asked.

"Has anypony else seen this paper?"

"No."

Celestia sat, pondering for a moment. Then, to Luna's surprise and confusion, the parchment abruptly burst into flames, the ashes swiftly dissolving in the air and flying away as Celestia dismissed them from her chamber.

"T- Tia! Why?"

"Tell your contact not to move and await further instruction. We must handle this delicately, and the initial contact may have already been enough. If we're lucky, he may not even be needed."

"So what should we do then?"

"We'll wait. Ad use the skill of the humans we already have to our advantage." Celestia sat pensively, pondering something in her mind. "I have an idea." She said. "Remember when James put together the first team?"

"Yes, it was quite the success, even if he picked a few. . . unsavory characters."

"If it worked before, why shouldn't it again? Allow the Chief Jackson to construct his own team suited for the unconventional. He may choose whom ever he wishes, so long as they possess the required qualifications."

"As you wish, sister. What of Lieutenant Commander Flash?"

"Tell him that we thank him for his assistance in this matter, but his services are no longer required and he may resume training the next group of leadership candidates."

"Very well, I shall see to it that it gets done. Oh, and Tia, Howitzer has been asking some very strange questions about our guests. Sometimes, it seems he's alluding to something to do with our 'permanent' resident." Luna said.

Celestia blinked, "Are you asking what you should do about it?" Luna nodded. "He's your agent, and a very good one at that. Take the course of action that you deem most appropriate." Celestia said while stifling a yawn.

"Ok, I'll just leave you to your sleep then."

Celestia laid back down and tried to get comfortable, "Please do, I'll have a lot of work to do in the morning besides the usual routine."

Luna left her sibling alone then, quietly exiting the room. Once the door closed behind her, she galloped back down to the throne room, ideas burning in her mind. She would send a message to Flash at once and then she needed to call Howitzer back in. Not only to have a talk, but also to check on his progress. It shouldn't take long, he was due to arrive soon.

In her haste, she nearly bowled over a unicorn exiting the library. The frightened pony jumped out of the way just in time, but dropped all of his books in the process. A feeling of guilt crept up and Luna stopped to help pick them up, "I'm terribly sorry." she said as she levitated the books into the air. She noticed that a few of them happened to be of a military nature.

"Not at all your Majesty, the fault was all mine!" The unicorn spit out in a panic, swiping the books from the air and quickly shoving them into a bag. "Please forgive me, but I must go." He galloped off in a hurry.

Luna watched him flee down the corridor. She thought it odd that anypony would be in the library during this hour, except of course for Ms. Sparkle. Odder still, was the fact that she recognized him as one of her nephew's personal guards. Even so, she had work to do and pushed the incident from her mind, it was going to be a busy night.

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


Jackson sat on a bench in a park nearby, absentmindedly tapping a pencil against his notepad on his lap. Next to it was a list of names he was supposed to choose from. It had been a few days since finding Kaughn and almost immediately after he'd gotten back, he'd received a letter from Sparks telling him to pick operatives from a list for a special program.

The whole thing was stressing him out. Picking teammates from a selection of individuals he didn't know was not an ideal situation. But he got to thinking; he was told they just needed the requisite quals, it didn't specifically mean he needed to choose from the pool he was given. A few names came to mind.

"Hey, whatcha doin' grumpy face?" An energetic voice said over his shoulder.

Jackson jumped a little in his seat. It was pretty hard to sneak up on him so he was surprised when some one managed to do it. He looked over to his left to see Pinkie propped up on the back of the bench with her forelegs, peering nosily at the papers in his lap. Mechanically, he covered them up.

"Nothing really," he said, "just doing some paperwork."

"That doesn't sound very fun. Especially out here in the park on a be-a-u-tiful day like this!"

"Yeah, I know, but I gotta do it. And you're right, it is getting me kinda stressed."

"Stressed? Well don't you know that stressed is just desserts spelled backwards?" She exclaimed, producing a cupcake out of nowhere and placing it on his notepad before he could object. "Eat up, I promise you'll feel better." She told him with her trademark smile.

Jackson didn't hesitate. By now, he knew just how good a cook she was and unsurprisingly, the cupcake was absolutely delicious. "Thanks, what I owe ya?"

"The first taste's always free. You know where to come to get more." She whispered playfully.

Jackson couldn't help but chuckle a bit at her joke, "Thanks Pinkie, I'm sure I'll stop by later. How's Flash doin'?"

"He's fine. Oh! He also told me to tell you he might have found a place for you guys in town. Rent isn't all that cheap, but it shouldn't be a problem with your salary. Oh oh! Best of all, it's close to Sugarcube Corner!" She shouted ecstatically.

"That's always a plus. Topher know yet?"

"Yeah," Pinkie said, "I let him know about an hour ago. Why're you guys moving out anyway?"

Jackson exhaled, "Well, Flash's boss said he didn't need to watch us anymore, so I guess they trust us now. That and he's got his own job to worry about. Plus, we're gettin' paid, so it seemed like the natural thing to do."

"Aww~ but then our house will be empty again!" Pinkie almost whined.

"Don't worry, I'll visit every now and then if you want. You do throw some good parties." He smiled.

"You promise?"

"Yeah, 'course."

"Pinkie Promise!" She demanded.

"Uh, wh- Pink. . . Huh?" Jackson's mouth stumbled with confusion.

"It's easy, just cross your heart." Jackson mimicked her movements, "Hope to fly, stick a cupcake in your eye. There!"

"Ok, a Pinkie Promise. Gotta remember that one."

"Just remember this; nopony breaks a Pinkie Promise." She warned, "Nopony."

"Uh. . . All right. I'll remember that too. . ."

"Ok!" Pinkie said happily. "Well, I gotta get back to work now. So see ya later alligator!" She bounced off back into town, merrily humming along the way.

As soon as she was gone, Jackson uncovered his papers and began writing a few names down. A few weren't even on the list, but he was sure there shouldn't be much of a problem. If there was, he would handle it. All he needed to do now was to pull his picks from whatever they were doing and sit down for a little interview, he was sure he would have to go to Canterlot for that.

He would have to take the first train out in the morning. For now though, he would take care of his own business. Gathering up his papers and placing them carefully in a small satchel, he stood up and began walking into town. First he'd hit up the house his hyperactive friend had told him about and check it out.

The walk wasn't far and soon he'd made it to Sugarcube Corner. As usual it was always busy, with a variety of ponies entering empty hoofed and exiting with bags of goodies. Spotting the place he was looking for wasn't difficult either. Just a few blocks down, sequestered away near a few shabby store houses off the main road was a small two-story with a 'For Rent' sign out in front.

Like most of the dwellings in town, it closely resembled a big house shaped tree, with few square windows and leafy branches that acted as shades for the openings. Jackson wondered how they pulled architecture like that off, he'd have to ask Twilight some time if he ever got the chance.

Still, while it was appealing to look at on the outside, he still wanted to see the interior before making any decisions. So he strode up to one of the big windows near the ground to peer inside and saw something he didn't expect. Mayfield was already in there talking with the landlord, they were walking to the door. The door opened and they both came out laughing at some unknown joke before Mayfield shook the mare's hoof and she walked away. She went by the sign with a pep in her step and slapped a 'Sold' sticker on it's surface which Jackson found odd.

"Hey, what just happened?" He asked the smiling Englishman.

Mayfield turned to him with a triumphant grin, "We now posses a flat of our very own!"

"What, you rented it?"

"Nope, we own it, all paid for, full stop!"

"What!?" Jackson cried in surprise. "We don't exactly have the money for that!"

"No, we're good. Dunno how long we're here for and I've always wanted to actually have a house for myself. So, I wrote a little letter up to the Crown and that charming Princess we have for a boss agreed to help out with no strings." He said.

"Well you coulda at least talked to me first. I don't even know how the place looks yet." Jackson complained.

Mayfield smirked, "What are you, my wife?"

Jackson just huffed and shook his head, "Whatever. Do we at least have separate rooms?"

"'Course, come on in." Mayfield stepped aside and allowed Jackson to enter.

The interior wasn't all that bad. The front door opened up into a cozy living room with ample space for a couch, table and anything else they might want to throw in there. There was a medium sized kitchen towards the back with a small backdoor leading into a cramped yard of hard packed dirt, surrounded on three sides by the store houses.

Jackson was also surprised to find a door by the kitchen that led down to a small basement, a little dusty, but useful. Then, where the bathroom would have been at Flash's house, there was a iron wrought spiral stair that deposited them both into a short hall with two doors, each opening to a comfortably sized bedroom with windows high enough to look out over the rest of the town. The real kicker was that each room had it's own bathroom attached. All in all, Jackson thought it was a pretty good deal.

"Ah, see, look at that." Mayfield said. "No more fightin' over the loo."

"Yeah, definitely a keeper." Jackson nodded. "What are we gonna do about furnishings?"

"Took care of that too!" Mayfield said enthusiastically. "Ran into Quick Fix, that bird that been sweet on you not too long ago. Turns out she's got a whole mizer's mess of rubbish that just needs a bit of a polish. Said she'd sell it to us at discount."

"Sounds good." There was suddenly a rapid knocking down at the front door. Jackson slid down the stair and ran up to it, pulling it open only to get a face full of confetti.

"Surprise!" Some one shouted, followed by a giggle. Jackson batted the confetti out of the air and from his face to reveal Pinkie sitting there with a joyous expression. "Saw you went and got the place already!" She said.

"Uh, yeah."

"So are you gonna have some kind of house warming. . . Hm, what am I thinking of?" She scratched her head, looking pensively into the sky. "Celebration, festival, soiree, uh. . ."

"Party?"

Pinkie lit up, "Party? Great idea! I'll go get my stuff, be ready in five hours!"

Before Jackson could object or say another word, she bolted down the street. Jackson wondered what the hell he'd just gotten into. If any of the stories he'd heard were to go by, they were in for something crazy.

"Who was it?" Mayfield shouted from the second floor.

"It was Pinkie." Jackson shouted back.

"Oh yeah, what'd she want?"

"We might want to get that furniture now. We got an event to attend in five hours."

"Where?"

"Here."

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



Howitzer glanced at his watch. He was waiting on a pier down in Los Pegasus again, the stallion he was waiting for was late again. He couldn't exactly blame him. What they were doing was dangerous and it wouldn't do to just let somepony follow him there. Still, it soon became annoying.

Finally, he heard hooves clomping on the wood behind him. Howitzer turned, tense, but relaxed when he saw it was Blackjack, another folder of papers poking out from his bag. Wordlessly, they completed yet another exchange, Blackjack slid the papers over followed by Howitzer tossing the earth stallion a bag of currency.

The exchange completed, Blackjack moved to the rail, a curious expression on his face, "So tell me. After all the little secret drops we made, why are we now meetin' face to face? I'm bein' followed sometimes, y'know."

"I know, it's risky, but I got a job for you."

"A job, huh?" Blackjack said suspiciously. "What sorta job we talkin' bout?"

"There're some weird things going on with my chain of command. I tried looking into it personally, but it drew too much attention and I was shut down." Howitzer explained as vaguely as he could.

"And what? You want me to go gallivantin' around up there in Canterlot? Sorry hoss, that ain't exactly my deal."

Howitzer smiled, "No you won't be going there. I had a more. . . rural area in mind."

"Yeah, where's that? Dodge, Appaloosa?"

"Not quite. You ever been to Ponyville?"

Blackjack thought for a moment, going through all the jobs he'd done in the past, "Mmm, I think once. But only fer about a day. Why, what's goin' on there?"

"First I need to know if you'll take the job or not."

"Depends, how much it worth?"

"You'll get six thousand, plus expenses. The job is only as long as it takes for you to get what I want." The liquid black pegasus explained.

"Alright, deal. So what is it that you want? We smugglin' goods, maybe a little moonshine?"

Howitzer grinned, pulling out a folder of his own, "No, nothing material. This is more of an asset acquisition." He passed the documents on to the earth stallion, "In here are the files on two humans that have arrived here and are helping the Princesses, along with any ponies that might associate with them. I want you to get close to them and report any information you gather about a possible third."

Blackjack took the papers and began reading through them, studying all the faces in the photos. "What's so important 'bout this?" He asked. "Couple 'a big hairless apes and a few 'o the townsfolk, what they got that you want?"

Howitzer just stared blankly into the air, "Hopefully, a solution."

Bridging A Gap

Chapter 21: Bridging A Gap

"Push! Push! Push!"

"I'm trying you knob, it don't exactly fit in the door!"

At their new home, Mayfield and Jackson were busy trying to fit the last piece of furniture they needed into the house. It was a large couch that woudn't seem to fit in the doorframe no matter which way the turned it. Currently, it was now stuck half way through the portal, its edges wedged tightly in the frame.

Down at the bottom of the steps, Quick Fix was resting on her haunches, patiently chomping on an apple, "Y'know, I could get that through there with a quick alteration spell."

Jackson grunted from behind the couch, straining to pull it through, "No, it's alright, we got it. You've given enough help getting all this stuff over here fast as you did."

Quick Fix just rolled her eyes and returned to her snack. Soon, Mayfield had had enough of the frustration this lone piece of wood and fabric was causing him and stepped backwards down the stoop, gauging the distance until he felt he was far enough away. "Hey, Topher, what's going on out there, where'd you go?" Jackson said.

"Might wanna get back, mate."

"Why?" Jackson demanded, "what are you gonna do?"

"Rugby tackle it." Mayfield stated simply.

"Wait, hold on man, I don't wanna damage th—"

"Too late, I'm runnin'!"

Jackson jumped back from his end of the couch and flattened himself against the wall by the door. Just in time, too, as the couch suddenly shot forward through the frame, one of its legs snapping on the floor while the other end flipped up to put a nicely sized dent in the wall before smashing back down to the deck.

Mayfield was not too far behind, flying through the door face first and flopping onto the floor. Groggily he got up, like he'd just taken a nap and brushed himself off. "What's the matter," Jackson teased, "You gettin' old?"

"I've still got more hair on my bellend than you've on your head." Mayfield retorted.

"Hey, I'm not old yet, I shave my head." Jackson leaned out the door and turned his head to Quick Fix, "Hey Q, uh, think you could help us out? We kind of. . . broke it."

Quick Fix sighed, "All right, but you owe me one." She said, getting up and walking to the door.

"That's fine. Apparently, we're having a party soon, you wanna join us?" He offered.

"What kind of party?"

"Housewarming I guess. Pinkie's throwing it."

"A Pinkie Party!?" She said ecstatically. "Definitely count me in. When is it?"

Jackson looked at his watch, "Probably about a half hour."

"Better get fixin' then." She said. The unicorn trotted into the living room and began her work, magically materializing the tools with her energy.

Relieved that his work was finally done, Jackson trudged upstairs to his room. It was all nicely set up now, with a twin sized bed, a small desk for writing an even a dresser for his clothes. His bathroom was stocked with all the toiletries he needed. It was a a Spartan way to live, but he was content with it.

Moving quickly, he took a short shower and dressed in fresh clothes, mentally preparing himself for whatever was coming his way for the night. Downstairs, Mayfield helped Quick Fix finish up her repairs before manhandling the couch into a suitable position. As Jackson came back down from his ablutions, he was tossed a cold beer and invited to take a load off in their new living space. He sat on the end of the couch with Mayfield taking the other. Between them, Quick Fix lounged with her own drink.

"So, what is it we can expect from a full fledged Pinkie Party?" Mayfield asked the mare next to him.

Quick Fix finished taking a sip from her beverage, "Well, if I can remember the last one, which is a little blurry, you're both gonna be in for a rough, but fun night."

As if to grant her prediction true, there was a hard and impatient knock on the door. "I got it!" Mayfield called, hopping to his feet and walking to the door. He swung it open to reveal a somewhat puzzling sight. Instead of the bouncing baker he was expecting, there was instead magenta sunglassed unicorn with electrically tinged blue hair. Beside her was a considerably large stack of electronic equipment. "Uh, can I help you?"

"This is the place, right?" She said, sticking her head in and looking around the room. "Pinkie called me in as a favor, said I could set up anywhere."

"Yeah, I'm guessing you're here for the party then."

"Brother, I am the party!" She stuck out a hoof, "Vinyl Scratch, I'll be providing the beats."

Mayfield shook it, "Yeah, sure. There's some room here in the parlor I think."

"Cool." Was her short reply.

Mayfield had to step back as she levitated all her equipment and pushed her way inside, quickly constructing a formidable set up of large double stacked speakers hooked up to a couple of subwoofers and a expensive duo of turntables. He barely had time to turn around to shut the door when another pony showed up, this one in a working uniform, wheeling up a keg.

"Delivery for a. . . Miss Pie?" He spoke, reading off of a clipboard.

"I think that's for us. . ." Mayfield said quizzically.

"Sign here."

The stallion shoved the clipboard into his face along with a pen. Mayfield quickly scribbled his signature, "Just one keg? Pretty damp party." He remarked.

"The rest's by the road." The delivery stallion said matter-of-factly as he walked off, obviously glad to be done with this particular job. Mayfield looked past him and saw that, indeed, there was a whole other pile of about seven other kegs stacked by the road.

"Bloody hell, that's a lot of booze!"

"What's up?" Jackson called from the couch.

Mayfield looked back over his shoulder, "Looks like we're gonna get absolutely pissed tonight, mate!"

With Quick Fix's continued help, they moved the kegs into the house, though with so many of them, they had to place some out in the back yard and even a couple in the basement. During that time, even more guests began to arrive, only a few; like Lily, wore familiar faces. The rest were unknown to him, but he found some odd; like a stallion in a black Stetson and cream colored vest, who wore shades despite the late time of day. To Jackson's surprise, even some of Pinkie's own friends showed up; including Applejack, Rarity and Twilight.

To his discomfort, Rainbow Dash even came, followed by a shy looking mare with a buttery yellow coat and shiny pink hair that obscured part of her face. With a glimmer of hope, he half expected Kaughn to come striding through the door after, but unfortunately, that was not the case. It seemed his old friend and brother had consigned himself to the peaceful depths of his seclusion.

Mayfield relegated himself to the kitchen, trying to whip up as much snacks as he could for the party goers. Eventually, Pinkie showed up, her sides laden with all sorts of edibles and bulging packages stuffed in big brown bags. "About time you showed up." Mayfield told her as he set out a bowl of chips. "You invite all these ponies and then show up late to the party you're throwing?"

Pinkie started un packing her bags on the small counter, placing more snacks and even some liquor out to serve, "What, I thought you liked parties like this. Besides, it was your idea."

"It was not! That was base trickery. Pink, I like your style, but just not when it's on me."

"I did pay for the kegs you know." She said defensively, though not unkindly.

Mayfield thought for a moment, his mind processing the information. Then, "Ok, but next time just warn me."

"That's the spirit!"

Back in the living room, Jackson was being assaulted with questions from various townsponies he had had little interaction with before. It seemed that he and Mayfield were often the subject of gossip and other idle chatter within Ponyville. As inconspicuously as he could, he searched for an escape from the unwanted attention and loud electronic music. He did not find one on his own, but escape still came in the form of the vest wearing stallion he had seen earlier.

"Hey hey! There y' are buddy!" The brown coated stallion said excitedly, slapping Jackson on the back with a hoof. "I need to talk to you 'bout that thing we discussed earlier—sorry folks, I need ta borrow him for a minute—how 'bout we step outside?"

Suspicious of this random newcomer, but desperate for a break, Jackson followed as the earth stallion led him out into the back yard. Once they were outside, the noise was noticeably reduced and the only crowd was that of a few partiers clustered around one of the kegs. The two walked over to a small plastic table out there and sat down.

"Listen," Jackson said, "I don't know who you are, but thanks. It was gettin' a little stuffy in there."

"Oh, no worries." The stallion replied in a thick drawl. "Hey, you wanna drink? Looks like y' could use one."

"Uh, sure."

Jackson watched the stallion closely as he want over to the keg and filled two cups with frothy beer before returning and sliding one over to him. Jackson picked up the drink and sniffed it before tentatively giving it a taste. It seemed all right.

"Names Blackjack." The stallion said as he sat back down.

"Darius." Jackson leaned forward and extended a hand and shook with Blackjack.

"Nice ta meet ya, you live around here?"

"Yeah, this is my house." Jackson replied.

"Not too shabby. Nice lil' burrow ya got fer yerself here. Cost much?" Blackjack inquired.

"No, my friend took care of that, I guess."

"Which one?"

"The other human. Why, you wanna meet him or something?" Jackson asked suspiciously. This guy was starting to ask way too many questions.

"Oh, no, naw, just curious is all. Not many of yer folk around, well, as far as I know." Blackjack chuckled.

"Sure. Well, the last time I checked, we were the only two." Jackson stated solidly.

"Tsk, tsk, shame there ain't no more of ya. You sure you the only fellers 'round here like yerselves?"

Jackson stood up, "Yeah, listen, thanks for the extract and the drink, but I gotta go."

"Oh, sure, sure."

Jackson left the stallion outside and headed back in to find Mayfield. The party was getting a little wild, a few of the guests were already drunk and the night was still in its infancy. He wanted to make sure his friend was doing ok as well. Fortunately, he found the Englishman sitting by the couch, chatting up Quick Fix and Lily, ". . .really, you should re-think the whole thing. I noticed that you Equestrians don't really have any ground vehicles. We got these things called 'cars' and they're bloody useful. Wouldn't even be all that hard to make, I can construct a gear box and all you'd need to do is get your hands, er—hooves, on one o' them engines your airships use."

"Hm, it sounds enticing. I know of a few that already have such things, but they can only travel on roads and even then only barely. Oh, hey Jackson, what's up?"

"Hey. You guys doing all right?" He asked.

"Yeah, why?" Replied Mayfield.

"Thought maybe some of the guests here might be bothering you. And there's this one that's been asking weird questions."

"No worries, mate. Just tell 'em to sod off is all. It's what I do."

Jackson was glad to see that nothing was amiss with his friend, but thoughts of that one stallion kept buzzing in his mind, he didn't trust the guy exactly. Resolving himself, he left to go find and confront him about the questions. Hopefully, it was just some laughable misunderstanding and they could move from there.

He made his way back through the kitchen and out the back, searching for the thick accented pony at the tables were he'd left him. Except now, he was no where to be seen. Instead, he saw the seats had been occupied by Twilight, Rainbow Dash, Applejack and that one shy looking pegasus mare he was sure he hadn't met yet.

They all glanced over at him with suspicious faces, except for Rainbow Dash who flashed him a look of contempt and the shy one who was indifferent. Surely by now, Dash had told them of recent events. Thinking his words carefully in his head, Jackson decided to mend this problem now, rather than let it fester. So he strode over, grabbing a chair as he went and sat down at the table amongst them.

"Can we help you with something?" Rainbow Dash started off immediately with an unwelcome tone.

"Look, we need to get past this thing right now." Jackson stated. "Let's talk about this."

"We know what happened." Twilight said.

"And ya best jus' leave him be, he's earned that much." The farm mare added. Dash just glared at him as if she didn't need to say anything more than what her friends had said for her. The other pegasus just sat quietly and listened.

Their blunt approach angered Jackson a little, but he calmed himself down. Choosing his words carefully, he said, "I understand where you're comin' from, I really do, but there's something you all gotta know. That man, that's my brother. If not by the blood of our veins, then by the blood we've shed together through all the bullshit we've done. Now, I'm fine with lettin' him live in his peace out there, but that doesn't mean I'm just gonna forget all that, so I'm gonna go visit and hang with him when I can. I'm ok with it, he's good with it, I'd like you all to be good with it, but really I don't give a damn." He finished, opening his arms and letting them fall onto the table.

The group fell into a painful silence. Twilight and Applejack gave him disapproving looks, Dash looked as if she was about to explode. Before any of them could respond, however, the shy pegasus spoke, "I agree with him." The other three looked at her with shock.

Dash's voice dropped to a low tone as she leaned over to her friend, "I gotta ask, Fluttershy, why? You know what'll happen if he's found."

She cleared her throat, "Well, if what this fine gentlecolt—I mean, gentle... man? I.. I guess—is all true, then it would be horrible to keep him from his brother. I know that—" she glanced around quickly to ensure nobody else was near to eavesdrop "—James doesn't really have any family. Who are we to keep him from the only family he has?" She put extremely gently.

Dash started to speak again, "But—"

"No, Fluttershy's right." Twilight interrupted with a sigh. "That would be wrong."

"Thank you!" Jackson said gratefully to the pegasus. "Fluttershy, right? I'm Darius."

"Nice to meet you, Darius." She replied coyly. "Are you really his brother?"

Jackson thought for a minute before nodding confidently. He was as much brother to him as any of his own blood brothers back home, "Yes he is. We been through a lot together."

"It's nice that he has someone," she smiled a bit more openly, "family should always stick together."

"Yeah, and as much as I'd like him to have my back again, I'll just have to settle with a visit every one in a while." He turned back to the other three mares, "So what do you think, huh? Can we start over with this? I understand you're all his friends, one of you a little more than that," he nodded towards Rainbow Dash, "so how about we be friends?" He stuck a hand out over the table.

"Fair enough," Twilight conceded, shaking his hand with her hoof.

Applejack followed after, "Shucks, guess so. Can't deny 'Shy. 'Sides, any stallion can stand up fer himself like that is worth his salt lick in my book."

Finally, it was Dash's turn. Jackson held his hand out still, his limb hovering over the table for over a minute before she finally shook it, though begrudgingly, "Fine, we'll give it a try. But you're on probation."

"That's all I ask." Jackson said with a smile.

"All right, everypony's happy over here!" Came the southern twang of Blackjack as he crashed the group.

Jackson felt his ire rise again at the stranger's intrusion. He started to say something to the stallion, but we was beat to it from an unexpected source. "Ya got a lotta gumption comin' on back here, Blackjack!" Applejack yelled.

The sunglassed and vested stallion froze suddenly, as if he sensed a predator nearby. Still, he replied, "I uh, I'm not sure I recall—"

"Really," AJ said angrily, hopping down from her seat and confronting him face to face, "you don't recall? You don't remember the job ya took on fer us, that shipment of moonshine you was supposed ta smuggle for us, screwin' 'round with my feelings and then takin' off with with everythin' and sendin' not so much as a single word back?" She ended her tirade with a jab of her hoof to his chest.

Blackjack seemed to be sweating slightly now, but he wasn't entirely at a loss for words, "Oh, uh, that's what ya mean. Well, I can tell you that my intentions were purely. . ."

"Monetarily motivated?" Applejack finished for him in a flat tone.

"Well now, I wouldn't say—"

"Hey, hey buddy." Jackson said, stopping the Stallion's speech and getting his attention. "If I were you, I'd take off. Now ain't a good time." He said in a menacing voice.

Blackjack smiled, "Or what, we gonna brawl? Don't bother me none, I like a good drunken fight, even if it's with a human."

"What about two humans?" Said a swarthy British accent from the side. Every one turned their heads to see Mayfield casually approaching, his hands comfortably resting in his pockets while he wore a cocky smile on his face.

"Don't forget about me." Dash added.

"It seems we may have stepped off on the wrong hoof here." Blackjack calmly back peddled. "I'll just hafta come on back later when y'all 've settled down." He said as he trotted away and out the yard.

The group all watched him leave and only relaxed once he was gone. Afterwards, Mayfield strode up to the table and found himself a seat, "So what're we all up t' here?"

"Nothing much," Jackson told him, "just making some friends."

Putting Things Together

Chapter 22: Putting Things Together

A halting shift in the seat Jackson lay across caused him to start awake. He sat up and looked around with bleary eyes, the train had finally stopped. It now sat in the Canterlot station, far from his temporarily adopted home of Ponyville to the south. He'd fallen asleep during the ride up and now he stood and stretched with a yawn, joints satisfyingly popping.

As the conductor opened the doors, the tall human grabbed his luggage and walked out the car with purposeful strides, noticing a faint chill was creeping into the air. Today was an important day for him. Today was the day he would get to interview his potential subordinates, the team Commander Sparks had strangely encouraged him to create. The final list of names he'd sent in earlier had been approved, even though he had included some that were not on any of the papers the unicorn had originally sent him.

Hopefully, he could hash this out soon enough. The sooner he had the individuals he wanted the better. He would have to spend some time with the final assembly of operators to get to know them as a team and gauge the effectiveness of their skill sets as a cohesive unit, an important factor in the team's combat readiness.

It was still early in the morning, so Jackson made quick progress up to the palace so as to not get caught up in the swirling and congested traffic of the morning rush to work that often plagued most large cities. Even as he went with his large overnight bag slung over his back, the early risers of the population were already up and moving about to start the day. Finally, in a little over twenty minutes, he reached the front gates of the regal estate of his business where he presented his identification papers to the guards and was admitted entry.

Before long, he was shown to his private guest quarters where he could stow his belongings, something that he was slightly uncomfortable with as the courtesy was usually reserved for officers in his world. As he systematically packed his extra uniforms and clothing into a set of dresser drawers, he was alerted to a curt knock on his door. In a fluid movement, Jackson paced towards it and swung it open.

"Sir," said an earth stallion of the RSTG, "I hope you're finding your lodging adequate."

Jackson held up a hand and stopped him, "First of all, don't call me 'Sir', I work for a living, call me Chief. And yes, my room is very nice, thank you. Now, what can I help you with?" He put kindly.

"I was just sent to welcome you, Chief, and also to inform you that Princess Luna is waiting for you whenever you're ready."

Jackson dismissed the messenger and finished unpacking his belongings. Dutifully, he went to a mirror and ensured his uniform was in good order upon his person before going to meet the royalty. Sharp dress and military bearing had it's advantages when working with superiors.

After one last check and a few touch ups, he felt ready and left his room. It did'nt take him too long to get where he was going, he had been to the palace enough now that he could find his way without getting lost. He soon came to the room where most of his previous meetings with the dark princess had taken place. When he got there and stepped inside, she was already waiting standing near the table at the center of the room, a stoic expression on her face. Behind him, the doors swung shut on oiled hinges, sealing him inside.

"Anything I can do for you, ma'am? I gotta say, I'm kinda on a tight schedule though." Jackson said.

Her expression didn't change, "Yes, of course, you interviews. I just have but a simple request to make of you before you leave here. After you've concluded your business, naturally."

She had an angle. Jackson hated when people tried to pull angles on him. Never the less, he went along with seeing as she was his superior for the moment, "Ok, what can I do for you?"

"Your people are very skilled, with years of training in war, yes?" Jackson shrugged an affirmative. "I believe you are also somewhat proficient in extracting information from certain individuals as well."

The Statement caught him a little off guard, not what he was expecting, "Well, sure, I've had a little training. Nowhere near a professional though. Ain't really my job. We usually just use it for on site Intel gathering, but if you want info from some one, I suggest you have somebody properly trained for this do it."

"That's why I'm asking you. Our kind has never had the need for such skills before and the only experience any of our own operatives have had was from watching your predecessor when we first captured Garth. Though I guess one couldn't call that an interrogation. More of a fight, really."

The mention of his old friend grabbed at Jackson's interest. He wondered if she knew. Still, he didn't let any emotion on his face betray his thoughts. He would humor her at least. "All right, I'll give it a shot. But I want all the info you got on the detainee, everything. The more we know, the better. I'll have it after I've finished with my work here."

"Thank you."

A short time later, Jackson was on his own in another room in the complex. A classroom for the RSTG he was told. The current Officer in Charge of the building lent it to him to use. Currently, Jackson was sitting at the desk near the center, poring over a stack of papers he'd brought with him. Before him was a lone seat, all the others he'd cleared to the edges of the room. After a moment, there was a knock on the door. His first victim had arrived.

"Enter!" He called out. The door swung in and a rather large stallion trotted inside, larger than most currently in training. Without looking up, Jackson gestured to the chair, "Please, take a seat."

"If you don't mind, sir, I'd prefer to stand." A voice with a ting of something familiar replied.

Jackson glanced up. Dark steely gray eyes met his dark brown ones. He looked back down at his papers. "Fine by me, stand if you like." With one movement of the hand, he extracted the appropriate file pertaining to the individual standing in front of him. "Mr. Iron Defense. I believe we've met before."

"Yes sir, it was in Galloping Hills."

"Yes, I remember. How's your sister?"

The stallion looked a bit caught off guard by un unexpected question. Never the less, he forged ahead without missing a beat. Jackson liked that. "She's doing fine. Right now she's staying with our great aunt in Manehattan."

"Good to hear. By the way, it's Chief, not sir. I work for a living."

"Yes s— Chief."

"All right, back to business. Glad to see you made it into the program. So far your record looks great, but there are still some concerns to address." Iron Defense almost seemed to gulp, but maintained his demeanor. "Your run time on the last team run was below average, along with that of another recruit. Why is that?"

"One of my squad mates hurt his leg in a previous exercise," Iron Defense explained, "instead of going to medical, he did the run with us anyway. A few miles near the end, his leg gave out and I stayed back to help him finish." Iron Defense didn't sound like he was gloating when he said this, it was like it was just a simple fact. An unimportant incident in what would have been an otherwise routine day.

Jackson shuffled his papers before settling on another group. "Okay. Tracking scores are average. CQC's high, that's good. Ooh..." Jackson saw something that piqued his interest. "Looks like you've already done the SERE school portion of your training. The report written by your instructors is almost glowing!"

"I just did what I had to do, Chief." Defense replied modestly.

"Nuh-uh. Says here you were the last to get caught—they must've given you a hard time for that—and even then, after hours of getting stressed and beat, you still managed to organize an escape that resulted in four of your squad mates finding freedom, even though you didn't make it out."

"Chief, wasn't that the point of the exercise?" He looked confused.

"Well, when you make an escape, you're supposed to get out along with your squad mates, but still, very impressive. Most just ride out the pain, you kept fightin' back. That's nice."

"Thank you, Chief."

"All right, I think I got enough for right now, you can go." Jackson said, returning to his papers.

"Is there anything else you need, Chief?"

"No, I'm good, back to training."

After he left, Jackson cycled through a few more of his considerations, from new recruits to old seasoned vets. A lot of them had plenty of skill as operatives, but he wanted a variety, something that could be flexible to almost anything. That's why he was happy to see the next candidate to walk in. As much as Jackson had seen it now, it was still an odd sight to witness a dog walking on two legs, even if it wasn't identically the same as a dog from back home.

Swift Paws quickly covered the distance towards the center of the room, the claws on her feet clacking softly on the hard floor. She sat down without any prompting, her bushy tail sticking out under the back rest. She just sat there and stared at Jackson with her two different colored eyes, ears twitching slightly from time to time as he pulled out her papers.

Jackson cleared his throat, "Good to see you again, Swift Paws. How are you doing?"

"Well enough." She replied in her usual husky voice.

"Training going all right?"

"The use of these new weapons I find interesting, but the rest seems to be. . . lacking."

Jackson shuffled through the reports on his desk, records of the Diamond Dog's achievements and progress so far. It was all very impressive. Her combat scores were high, expert in marksmanship and her decision making skills on the LRC exceptional. What really drew his eye was the SERE report. She'd never been found. All attempts to capture her had failed and even a good number of her squad mates that had been rounded up mysteriously escaped without so much as a sound or a broken lock.

"Your scores are very promising. A lot of potential here."

"Thank you." She didn't smile, but Jackson couldn't help but notice her tail start to wag a little.

"Ok, I think I got what I need, I just want to ask you one question." Swift Paws' head tilted to the side in curiosity. How very dog like, Jackson thought. "Why are you doing this? Taking the Princess' offer to enter this program and put your life on the line for a country that's not yours?" He asked, pushing the papers back into their folder.

Swift Paws took a moment to reply, "Because I have seen what cruel things befell my own race and clan. To allow such things to happen to others simply because of imagined boundaries is as shameful as committing any foul deed."

Jackson found that answer strange, but unique and intriguing. He didn't expect it, but it was a good indication of what he was dealing with. "All right, thank you for your time, you'll be contacted. Dismissed."

As the rest of the interviews went by, picking who he wanted to work with became increasingly difficult. The training program Jackson's former squad mate had established, honed and refined by the Equestrians over the years, had turned out many promising recruits, all with great strengths in varying fields. Finally, after the last candidate was out, Jackson scribbled some notes next to his choices and packed up. Now all he had to do was fulfill his promise to Luna. With a little walking, he found one of Luna's personal guards and got directions to where he needed to go.

Deep in thought as he was walking along down the long and vaulted passageways, he wasn't particularly paying attention as he turned a corner. Because of this, he nearly bowled over three mares walking from the opposite direction. Fortunately, he stopped himself just in time. "Oops, sorry 'bout that, I was lost in my own head."

"It's fine. Oh, hey!"

"Jackson was surprised to see he had bumped right into Twilight. With her was Fluttershy and Rarity. "Hey you guys!" He said happily, "How you doin'?"

"Great. Your business trip going well?" Twilight inquired.

"Oh yeah, got a good amount of work done, I made my money here. Just a few other things I gotta do before I leave though. What about you, what you three doing here?"

"Nothing much. I'm just assisting Princess Celestia with some research of possible alternative applications of the Elements of Harmony and their powers. Fluttershy came along to visit Garth and Rarity-"

"Well of course I couldn't possibly pass on an opportunity to visit Canterlot again!" Rarity interrupted in her posh voice. "Guest in the Royal Palace, the exquisite scenery and you can get fabrics here that you just can't get anywhere else!"

"Err... yeah." Twilight said after.

"Sounds fun." Jackson said with a smile. He looked at his watch, it was getting late. "Shoot, i gotta get going. Take care now."

"Sure!"

"Oh, and Fluttershy."

"Oh, uh, y-yes?"

"Say hi to Garth for me."

"Oh, o-okay."

The directions took him deep into the palace and down an old staircase to what looked like an ancient part of the castle. Soon he realized he was now heading to to vault, the very same place he had been briefly imprisoned on his arrival in this strange land of sentient four legged beings.

Now knowing where he had to go exactly, Jackson made his way towards the back of the vault where the cells were. As he neared a heavily guarded door, he was surprised to see not only Luna, but Celestia there as well. Both had very concerned looks on their faces. From behind the cell door, he could hear yelling. Before he reached them, one of their assistants magically thrust as short, but thick, stack of papers to him and he recognized it as the information he had requested earlier. Taking it, he walked up to the princesses. "Madams." He said in greeting as he approached.

"Chief Jackson, glad you could come." Celestia said. "I trust you shall be helping us with our predicament today?"

"I'll do the best I can." He replied, leafing through the pages in his hands. "What's the situation here?"

Luna was the next to speak, "My agents finally arrested him after following a trail of very suspicious activity. He's a pegasus, a resident of Van Hoover. When they found him at his home, they made terrible discovery; a troubling amount of explosives hidden away under his house along with plans to use it. It saddens me deeply that some of our own subjects still seek to do such harm to others in our nation." She said forlornly. "Now we are attempting to reveal exactly who or what allowed him to acquire such destructive power and for what purpose. Howitzer is already inside, attempting to extract the answers we seek."

Jackson walked up to the heavily guarded cell door and slid back a small eye slot set in the door to peer inside. What he saw concerned him some. Howitzer was in there, standing in a corner with a scowl on his face while another member of the Night Guard stood at a table, forelegs up on the surface, screaming down at a somewhat smug looking dark yellow pegasus sat at the other end. Jackson didn't know where they learned their interrogation techniques, but abuse wasn't going to get them any results, that much he knew. He turned to the princesses, "Stop the interrogation."

"Excuse me?" Luna said.

"I said, stop the interrogation, you're doin' it wrong. Screamin' and yellin' ain't gonna do anything but make the situation worse. You're doing more damage than good." Jackson said seriously.

If the princess was offended by his sudden insubordinate tone, she didn't show it. Instead, she simply nodded to one of the guards who then entered the cell and retrieved Howitzer and the other Guardspony. When he emerged, Howitzer had a puzzled expression, "What's going on?" He said. Then he spotted the new arrival. "Oh, Chief Jackson good to see you. What are you doing here?"

"He's here to help." Luna explained in the human's stead. "He has some experience in this situation, if limited."

"Ah, wonderful. We haven't really been making much headway I'm afraid."

"I know."Jackson said. "You're actually kinda screwin' it up."

"So how should we do it, exactly?" Howitzer challenged.

"First, I'm gonna need to study this for a minute." Jackson waved the papers around. "In the meantime, I need you to go get some water and a plate of cookies. Bring them down here and set it on the table."

If Howitzer wasn't entirely confused before, he was now, "Huh?" He looked quizzically to Luna.

"Do as he says." She told him.

Howitzer spoke to one of the guards who promptly rushed off to complete his seemingly meaningless task. While that was taken care of, Jackson took the time to study the papers. On them was info of everything that was the pony locked in the cell; his name, where he's lived, jobs, family members, known friends, even where he went to school as a foal. While he read, Luna appeared behind him, curious.

"Just what are you doing? We already know all that." She asked him.

Without looking away from the papers, Jackson replied, "Yes, but the more we know about him the better. If we pretend like we already know everything and get him comfortable, he'll be more likely to spill. He won't think he's telling us anything that helps, but in reality, he'll be telling us everything we want to know. It's called a mind fuck."

"Hmm... interesting."

"Howitzer, c'mere, you're gonna help me out. Study this material." Jackson called over to the dark coated pegasus.

Together they went over all the information they had on their guest. It was essential they appeared to have almost complete control over his life if they were going to get anything useful out of him. While they did this, the guard returned with a tray laden with a pitcher of water and a plate filled with baked goods from the palace's kitchen and set it on the table in the cell before exiting again and shutting the door behind him.

Suddenly, their little impromptu study session was interrupted by a loud shout from inside the cell, "You're gonna have to do better than this pitiful peace offering to stop us!"

Jackson and Howitzer looked at each other. "What do you think that means?" Howitzer asked.

"It means he's not working alone and we're in for a long night."

Author's Notes:

Sorry this took a bit. Haven't had a lot of time to work on this thanks to certain people in the world deciding to get all uppity.

Falling In Place

Chapter 23: Falling In Place

The airship was still rising pretty high. Mayfield wondered just how high she planned to go. He was sitting in the main compartment of The Clipper, the first of it's kind with Rainbow Dash. Myst was at the controls in the cockpit, he was interested to learn that in addition to her duties running the flight program in Canterlot, she helped out with Dash's little skydive company on the side. Jackson was busy up in the capitol for the time being, so Mayfield thought he'd give it a go.

He'd done jumps plenty of times before, but it was only when doing his job, he never had properly enjoyed the experience. He guessed now was a good time as any. Plus he thought it'd be a good idea to get on good terms with hot headed pegasus mare across from him if they were going to be good buddies with a shared secret. His thoughts were momentarily distracted by the engine compartment door opening up. Out trotted Quick Fix with a look of content on her features. "Fancy what you saw?" He asked her.

Her head swung towards him, "Did I. I wish I could have gotten my hooves on something like that machine earlier! Just thinking of the things I could do with it. . ." She spaced out, suddenly lost in thought.

"If you want to try something, I got an old busted one back at my hangar." Myst called back from the open cockpit door. Apparently, she'd been listening in.

Quick Fix perked up, "Really?"

"You fix it, it's yours."

"Losing your touch?" Dash jibed, "Thought machines were your thing."

"And they still are. Just don't have a ton of time between this, work and my kid."

"How is little Flicker doing, by the way?"

"Great. He's doing good in school, even though he just started recently. Ms. Cherilee said she's even thinking of advancing him early." Myst said proudly. "Takes after his mom, thank Celestia..."

"Your hubby isn't that bad, is he? Bit rough 'round the edges, but he's smart." Mayfield put in.

"Oh, no it's not that." Myst replied. "I just don't want to see him jumping out of perfectly good aircraft like his father and his goofy friends."

"Come now, it's not that bad." Mayfield said defensively. "Personally, I've only actually landed in airplanes about five times. I jumped the rest of the time and I've only been seriously injured twice."

"See, that's exactly what I'm worried about."

"Speaking of," Dash cut in, "we at the spot, Ari?"

Myst checked her instruments, "Getting there. You might wanna throw those masks on, I'm sealing the cockpit door."

"Ooh, hold on I'll join ya." Quick Fix said, trotting to the cockpit.

"Not joining us?" Mayfield asked as he stood up.

"Nah, I kinda wanna check out how she steers this thing any way. Have fun!" With that, the cockpit door slid shut with a thunk and a click as it locked tight.

Mayfield turned his attention back to Dash, "So, masks. We doing a HALO or something?"

"You said you wanted the real deal and not the campy touristy stuff." She said, tossing him a mask. He noticed it was the right fit for a human, but lacked any ports for air hoses. "You're lucky I had an extra one. Make sure you put the earpiece in so we can still communicate." She ordered.

Mayfield noticed that the air was starting to get thinner and it was becoming a bit harder to breath. Dash was already slipping her own mask on, so he followed suit and was surprised that he could instantly breathe better. He'd have to ask how they managed that later. After the straps were tight and secure, he pressed the earpiece in and was rewarded with a loud crackle as some one came on the air. "Alright, we're almost to altitude." Dash said. "You good?"

"As pie, love. One question though, how'd you come about this nifty device now on my gob? Me and Jackie never got fitted for one. And why did you need and extra?"

Dash's eyes made a confused expression, "I gotta get used to the way you talk. I assume you mean the mask on your head, right?" He nodded. "It's a secret."

"Now, why's it so hush hush? You must be talking about our dear friend and I already know him now."

Behind Dash, a red light started flashing on the bulkhead, prompting them to move to the open side door. "Well, maybe it's more of a surprise." She said cryptically.

"In which bloody way is it a surprise?" Mayfield startled suddenly as music started blasting through his earpiece, making him wince. As if that wasn't enough, he thought he recognized it. "Is that... is that the bloody Flogging Molly!?" He asked incredulously as the song The Seven Deadly Sins was piped into his ear.

"What, you don't approve of my music choice you limey freak?" Said the voice of some one Mayfield had only met but recently.

"Mr. Kaughn, you cocky tit, I didn't know you'd be here! Don't worry, I've got a cousin who's half potato. Where you hidin' at?"

"Take a look outside."

Mayfield looked out into the empty air in front of him, but didn't see anything. He was about to ask what he was looking for when something sped down into his field of vision so fast that he almost didn't catch it. It was a man in all black clothing, wearing the same respiratory mask as himself. He was facing the airship upside down, legs spread out wide in front of his body, two gloved hands were over his crotch making a very vulgar gesture with the middle fingers.

The light turned green and Dash leaped out the door laughing, wings folded tightly to her sides for speed. "You cheeky little shit..." Mayfield muttered, smirking under his mask, before launching himself out into open air as well.

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


It was painfully quiet inside the cell. On the table, the plate of treats sat untouched, but the water had been divided between three glasses already, though only two of the room's occupants had drunk any of it. Howitzer and Jackson sat across from their guest, a pegasus the color of dirty mustard that went by the name Marcus.

Marcus was chained to the chair he sat on, wings bound tightly to his body by a coil of rope. Currently he was glowering at his two interrogators, Jackson had just caught him in a lie and he wasn't very happy about it. They had begun slowly, catching him off guard by making small talk about his home town of Hollow Shades where he grew up with his grandparents. Once he was loosened up, Jackson began subtly steering the conversation towards his activities during his time off work.

This had led them to this point where Marcus claimed he had never been north of the plains before, which was false because some of his friends had told investigators that he regularly traveled up to the snow fields on weekends. It was significant because there had been recent sightings of Lotkin warriors not belonging to any of the known tribes up there.

Marcus shifted uncomfortably in his chair, narrowing his eyes as he prepared to speak again, "Ok, so I've been up there a few times, so what, there's nothing wrong with that."

"Then why lie about it?" Howitzer countered.

Marcus crossed his forelegs and leaned back, "Maybe I like my privacy. What's it even matter anyway?"

"What matters is that you were found with a large amount of a very special type of explosive and you've been traveling to areas that have been noting recent enemy activity. It's best if you just came clean now, I promise this will go a lot better for you."

Marcus changed his position again, "It's not even my stuff. I'm just getting paid to hold onto it." He said as if that would somehow vindicate him of any wrong doing.

Jackson spoke next, his voice firm, but respectful, "That doesn't make it any better." Then his voice took on a slight mocking tone, "Do you even know what they're trying to do with these materials? Or do you not really rank high enough for that kind of trust?"

"Of course I know!" Marcus said, taken aback by the question. "I mean, I'm sure they're just gonna use it on the guard and stuff, right?" Jackson began scribbling notes down as Marcus spoke, he was suddenly telling them some very juicy stuff, even if he didn't realize it. "I ain't met the guy backing this, but the guys that have all tell me about how he just goes on and on, complaining about the princesses and how things are being run in this country. Says he's gonna change it and reward anypony who helps him real good." Marcus then noticed Jackson furiously writing on a notepad in his lap, "Hey! What are you writing?"

"Nothing important." Jackson said calmly. "Though I appreciate the time we've spent here, I actually should go." He stood up and motioned for Howitzer to follow. "Take care."

"Hey, wait! Oh crap. Don't tell them I said anything!"

Howitzer shut the door behind him. Out in the passageway, Celestia had gone, but Luna was still there waiting. "How'd it go, did you find anything?" She asked impatiently.

"Oh yeah, got some good stuff." Jackson assured her. He turned to Howitzer, "You said you seen those kind of explosives before?"

"Yup. Magically made. Very volatile, very dangerous."

"Can you trace it?"

"Sure can! Anything that powerful made with magic always leaves a slight trail of magical residue, especially if he kept using the same route when transporting it."

"Well, he's a low level guy so I'm sure he didn't think to change it up."

"You think he might know anything else?"

"Probably not. Keep him detained though." Jackson looked at the papers again, "This amount of explosives, can't be a small Op. I recommend you send teams to every major city, most likely there's more than one cache."

"Got it."

"What about Van Hoover?" Luna inquired.

Howitzer answered her, "I got a guy that can look into that real low key. He can snoop around without arousing anymore suspicion, it'll look like we've dropped the case in the area."

"That's absolutely perfect." Jackson said. "I head there myself and supervise, break in some new operatives."

Howitzer started to object, "Wait, that might not be..."

"What, what's wrong?"

"Uh. . . Nothing. All good."

"Sweet, let's hop to it."

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


Mayfield sat at the table on James' outside deck by the falls. Evening was quickly coming on and he was enjoying a drink with Dash and the man himself. Music was playing loudly from speakers inside the house, setting an energetic, but relaxing, ambiance for their conversation. At the moment, they were rehashing the events of the day.

"Y' know, I never thought of jumping out of planes for fun. Gotta say I quite like it, I can float around in the sky without worrying about what might be trying to kill me on the ground." Mayfield commented.

"No kidding, I didn't even think just falling could be fun when I could just fly, but I get a great rush, diving, falling, going as fast as I can. Sometimes just waiting until the absolute last moment before I hit the ground before spreading my wings shooting close along the ground!" Rainbow Dash said in agreement.

James chuckled, "Just make sure you're not too close when she goes for a speed record. If she breaks the sound barrier while you're nearby, you're in for a rough ride."

"Really?" Mayfield leaned forward in interest. "She can break the sound barrier?"

"You bet your flank I can!" Dash said confidently. "But I don't remember ever causing you trouble." She said while eyeing James.

"Sure you don't remember!" James laughed. "I bet you don't remember that one time you did it and the shockwave sent me tumbling through the air into the Ghastly Gorge." He looked over to Mayfield, "Spent the rest of the day dodging a bunch of giant ass eels!"

"Heard about those," said Mayfield, "dreadful things, eels. 'Specially giant ones."

"Oh, stop it!" Dash hit James playfully in the shoulder. He winced and pretended to rub the spot. "You were only in there for half an hour before I found you and flew you out. And I made up for it later, didn't I?"

"Sure did." He leaned over and gave her a peck.

Mayfield took a swig of his drink, a nice little mixture of gin and some kind of blueberry flavored beverage. "And here I thought retirement was supposed to be dull and boring."

"Yeah, it's weird. I thought you're supposed to slow down as you got older, but I've just been feeling younger by the day." James said. "Funny thing, the other week I was cooking and accidentally cut myself pretty good. Slapped a bandage on it and went back to cooking. Checked it a day later, shit was healed. Just left a little scar, see?" He held out his right arm, revealing a small mark about two inches long and two centimeters wide on his wrist, near the vein.

"Don't take the piss, how'd you manage that?"

"Well, I was really drunk at the time and-"

"No no, not that you knob, that shit healing in a day."

"Oh. Not a damn clue."

*Snap*

The sound came suddenly from the other side of the house, loud enough to hear over the falls. Rainbow Dash's ears pricked up, but she didn't move, to her it just sounded like somebody dropped something. However, to the trained ears of the humans, it could have been something striking the ground. It could have been a suppressed weapon. They didn't wait to find out. Abruptly, they stood up, causing Dash to jump a little in surprise, "What's wrong?" She asked, worried.

"You should get in the house." James advised her.

"What? Why?"

"We just didn't like the sound of that, love. Thinkin' about your safety." Mayfield told her.

"Safety shmafety, if it's somepony lookin' for a fight, I can take 'em!" She retorted.

Mayfield gave James a glance and the sandy haired man nodded, "Actually, she could."

"Right. Well please stay here anyway, in case it is what we think and they try to get around us. Mr. Kaughn, if you will..."

Without any further conversation, the two humans set forward. Training and instinct took over and they instantly fell into a partnership, each watching the other's back. With fluid motion, they crept around the side, careful to tread lightly so as to avoid producing any noise.

As they got around to the front, they stopped and looked around before peering around the corner. There wasn't anything on this side of the house, so they proceeded, gently edging around for a view. Mayfield—who was leading—held a hand out, "Oi, hold on. I think I see the bugger snooping around the bushes by your garden."

"What's he look like?"

"Seems to be a stallion. I can only see his silhouette, but he's got some clothing on, no bulges. He's got on a hat, but I don't think he's a unicorn."

"Might be a damn thief." James sighed. "Or worse, a reporter. Alright, let's scare him off." He started forward, but Mayfield stopped him again.

"No worries mate, this one's on me. Just sit back and watch."

James nodded and crouched by the corner as Mayfield moved forward. The man effortlessly melded with the shadows along the edge of the foliage, creeping closer to the intruder. A moment later, he emerged to the stranger's rear and grabbed him around the collar of his vest, "Oi! what you doin' here?" James heard him say as he gave the intruder a little shake.

A southern twang replied, "Oh, my deepest apologies, I must have gotten lost."

"Yeah, sure you did. Hey, I know you! Your that tosser that crashed our party!"

"I think you might be mistaken. . . Or am I? That wasn't your house, you live here?"

"Yeah, I do, alone. Now bugger off before I throw you over the falls!"

"Ok ok, shucks mister, ya don't have threaten me."

"Piss off!"

Mayfield gave the stallion a shove and watched as he galloped away. When he was sure the nosey guy was gone, he walked back to where James was crouching. "Well, that was interesting." James commented. "You knew that guy?"

"Yeah, fuckin' chav crashed in on me and Jackson's house party not too long ago."

"Probably won't be doing that again, you gave him quite a scare."

"Sure did." Mayfield agreed, but he didn't sound like he did. "Hey, mind if I stay over here tonight, I don't much care for a walk back through the forest."

"I don't blame you. Go ahead and take the couch."

"Thanks mate."

"No worries."

Mayfield decided to just duck into the house through the front door. James went around the side to the back, to let Dash know that everything was ok and also to collect the drink glasses. But when he came around the corner, the table was already clear and she was gone. He looked inside and saw the glasses in the kitchen sink.

James went in, Mayfield was already passed out on the couch. James grabbed a blanket and just tossed it on him. Dash must have already gone up to the bedroom, so that was where he went, almost tiptoeing up the stairs so he didn't cause any unnecessary noise. He found her standing by the window, looking out.

"Hey, you ok?" He asked her.

"Yeah..." She said in a tone that told him otherwise. "Who was it?" She asked, meaning the stranger.

"Nobody. Just some guy that claimed he was lost. Topher dealt with it himself." She relaxed a bit with the explanation, but she still seemed upset. James walked over and sat on the bed by her. "Something's bothering you, what's on your mind?"

Dash turned around to face him and sighed heavily, "I was just wondering how long this would last out here. I mean, you can't just hide out here forever. Somepony's sure to find out eventually. And what with all the stuff that's going on around the country, what if somepony tries to hurt you? I know you made enemies, that's why you keep that gun. What if they try to take you away from me again?" She said to him, voice thick with worry.

Touched, James reached out and pulled her in, embracing her tightly. She returned it, also wrapping her wings around him. "No one's going to take me away. And even if we got separated pr I had to go somewhere, you know I'd always come back. Besides, they'd have to deal with an angry Rainbow Dash if anything did happen, a very daunting prospect." He got a little chuckle out of her with that.

James was suddenly pitched back as she kicked off the floor and threw both of them onto the bed, embracing him even tighter, "You always did know how to make me feel better." She said into his ear. They lay there together, limbs intertwined and feeling safe in each other before drifting off into sound sleep.

New Tech

Chapter 24: New Tech

Jackson finished up his meal, a rather un filling assortment of greens and bread. He was eating in the RSTG's NCO mess. He could have eaten in his room, he almost wished he did. He learned that they had a menu for visitors and ambassadors that more or less fit his tastes. Interestingly enough, even though this country was almost entirely vegetarian, they often hosted more carnivorous clientele. He also found it amusing that an asterisk at the bottom of the pages declared that all the 'item' had died of natural causes and 'donated' themselves. Strange, actually.

As it was, even though he liked his new—if temporary—home, Jackson still yearned for some familiarity, even if it came from a military branch erected by his close friend and brother. He got up to turn his tray into the mess' scullery for washing, other NCOs giving him slight nods as he passed. He hadn't even been in country for very long and he was already somewhat of a legend. Although, he guessed that was largely due to the fact that he was a strange being from the same world as Kaughn, who had saved a few of their own cities already.

He looked at his watch and noted the time. He still had a little bit before he had to be at the armory. It was the last thing he had to do before he had to return to Ponyville for a couple days to recharge for the Op he'd scheduled. Commander Sparks wanted to meet him there. The unicorn wanted to introduce some new equipment and said he wanted Jackson and his squad to test it out in the field because 'humans tend to be a lot rougher and take more risks in his experience.'

It actually sounded about right. Mostly, from what Jackson had seen, the Equestrians were content to simply live their lives and nothing more. The fact that something was trying to disrupt that without provocation made it all the worse. Philosophical thoughts were great, but they often didn't solve much, so Jackson shook himself from it and proceeded to the armory.

The armory was a big place. It was a separate one from the Royal Guard's, it housed all the firearms, explosives and other weapons that had been adopted by the RSTG. It was also, it seemed, the location for the service's R&D lab. The clerk behind the issue desk saw Jackson coming and unlocked the door, waving him through. Sparks was already there, waiting for him in the back by a live fire range. Next to him was a pile of what looked like body armor.

"Morning!" The unicorn said. "Your visit been well so far?"

"Yes sir. What ya got for me here?" Jackson asked, walking up and examining the objects on the table.

"Just the latest and greatest in personal protection. Wanted to see if you would mind helping us test it out a little."

Jackson turned to the rusty red unicorn, "You ain't gonna shoot at me, are you?"

"No no, of course not." Sparks chuckled. "We had the mannequins for that."

"Yeah, how'd they do?"

"Well enough, no punctures."

"So why do you need me?"

"There are a few things we can't test for with inanimate objects." Said a stuffy voice whose tone said 'I'm smarter than you' without having to actually say it. Jackson looked over and saw a donkey with wiry gray hairs and a wearing a lab coat casually walking over, an assistant—a unicorn—in tow, hastily scribbling on a clipboard. The donkey walked up and offered a hoof which Jackson shook. "I am Dr. Amadeus Wright, head researcher in ballistics and applied physics for the Equestrian Royal Academy of Sciences and Magics, but I'm sure you've heard."

"Dr. Wright here has been gracious enough to help develop protective equipment for our operatives." Sparks explained.

"Quite right, though I must say that the materials provided by the previous human, a fellow like yourself, proved to be immensely helpful in that endeavor. They call you Chief, please do tell, what are you Chief of?" The doctor asked Jackson with a hint of sarcasm.

"Breaking bones, mostly." He replied. Jackson liked the smart guys usually, but there was something about this one's attitude that was rubbing him the wrong way.

"Hm, right. Let's get to it then, shall we? Please don the armor, if you will, and we will begin."

Wanting to get this over with, Jackson picked up the armor from the table and began to put it on. It wasn't much different from most of the stuff he'd worn before. The vest for the torso was made of a cloth like material, but it was thinner and more manageable than kevlar and ceramic plates. He almost thought it was like the scale armor he had worn before, but it was more like a regular garment than anything else.

The set came complete with segments that strapped onto his biceps, forearms, thighs and shins. These components were somewhat more rigid, but did nothing to hinder his movement. The only huge difference he noticed were strange metallic bracelet like things that he was instructed to wear on his ankles and wrists. They came with a matching necklace of sorts that clipped into the collar of his vest. It all fit snugly on his large frame and and was almost form fitting.

After everything was secured in their proper places, the good doctor had Jackson go through a series of movements, testing his flexibility while wearing the protective garments and ascertaining wether or not his mobility would be significantly compromised through their use. When it was decided that the armor wouldn't hamper his movement, they moved outside to a track where Jackson was asked to go on a run to measure his endurance and stamina, but the armor was so light that it barely made a difference at all.

Afterwards, Jackson caught his breath before being ushered back inside and asked to move to the range, which he noticed now had very tall, very thick transparent paneling along the individual lanes. "Very good, very good." Dr. Wright said as he studied the recorded results. "We now have but one more test. The most important one in fact. Chief Jackson, would you be so kind as to enter the range and stand as close to the center as possible?"

Warily, Jackson moved to comply, but he gave Sparks a worried look. The Commander just nodded and gave him a reassuring smile. Jackson walked into the range via a heavy ballistic door welded into one of the side walls. After he passed through, it clanged shut and squeaked as it was dogged tightly down. It was about here that he noticed the scorch and burn marks all around the floor and walls, all centered near where he was standing.

On the other side of the transparent barrier, Dr. Wright stood calmly with his assistant as if there was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary for the setting of this scene. Speakers set into the ceiling overhead crackled to life as Dr. Wright switched a small microphone on. "We will now test the effects of a high energy overpressure wave as is commonly associated with magical incendiary devices currently known to be in use among Lotkin Renegade groups on a living specimen. That would be you, Chief Jackson. Not to worry, preliminaries have all come back highly positive, I doubt you'll receive much more than slight disorientation." He looked to his assistant. "Dulce, fetch the ordinance."

"Wait, WHAT!?" Jackson exclaimed. "Aw hell naw, I know you ain't using me as a damn guinea pig!"

"Don't worry, Jackson. Mr. Wright knows what he's doing." Sparks said through the speakers.

"Doctor Wright." The donkey corrected.

The assistant shortly returned and opened a small hatch in the transparent wall, magically levitating a small device built around an object that resembled a crystal ball, only with violent swirling lights within. The device landed next to Jackson and the hatch secured shut. "Chief Jackson, just remain still and all shall be well." Dr. Wright said into the mic. The assistant resumed scribbling notes, recording everything that was happening and being said. Dr. Wright glanced at a wall clock. "Detonation, on my mark."

"Nuh-uh, I didn't travel through some freaky space and time thing for this shit." Jackson protested.

Wright began the countdown, "Five. Four. Three—Chief Jackson, please stop moving—Two. One. Mark."

Jackson was on the way to the ballistic door when the world around him abruptly flashed red and white and he was thrown forward into the wall, though not with enough force to seriously injure him. As he picked himself up, there was painful ringing in his ears, but not as much as there should have been. Jackson blinked his eyes, attempting to readjust them to the light. He could hear some one talking, but it sounded as if he was underwater. Gradually, everything came back to normal.

". . .Jackson. Chief Jackson. How are you feeling?"

"Like a million bucks, how the fuck you think!?" He replied angrily.

"Note, subject is alive and cognizant. Showing signs of intense ire, brain damage unlikely."

More sensations were starting to make themselves known to Jackson's body. Most notably, to his exposed skin. It was starting to feel as if it was on fire. Slowly, he inspect his hands, "The fuck? I'm fucking sun burnt!" He gingerly touched his face and the top of his bald head. "Fucking everywhere!"

"Subject's vocabulary is lacking, though not the focus of this test. Dulce, note that the magically reactive armor is still experiencing problems redirecting or blocking the heat. It was expected, heat takes far more energy to manipulate, but it shouldn't still be this prevalent at this stage. We'll speak with the enchanters, but it may take some time to rectify the issue. However, the test itself was an all around success."

"Can I go now?" Jackson shouted.

"Yeah, come on out buddy." Sparks answered. "Thanks for the help, I owe you some beers."

"Fucking right!"

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



Quick Fix trotted along happily, a set of bags filled with groceries and snacks bouncing on her back. She was on her way to Aria's place, specifically the large hangar nearby. It was a bit far from town—she was interested to learn that it had once been the original training grounds for the RSTG—but she didn't mind much.

A quick stop to the low built house to drop of the groceries for Aria was all she did on arrival before taking her snacks and resuming her journey to the hangar. The Clipper was parked outside it at the moment as something else had temporarily taken it's place. The metallic clicks of a ratchet could be heard echoing from inside the structure as she approached.

Ducking in through a side door, she dumped the items she was carrying on a nearby workbench and went over to the middle of the hangar where a pair of human legs were sticking out from under a large object that was concealed by a white dust sheet. "Hey Topher." She called out. "Got the stuff you asked for." A grease and oil stained Mayfield slid out from under the sheet, ratchet in hand, as Quick Fix took a can out from the bag and tossed it to him. "Beer's a little warm, about under room temp." She warned him.

Mayfield popped the can open with a hiss of escaping carbonation, "S'all right, proper temp for a good brew anyhow." He took a swig from the can and grimaced, ". . .which this is not. Sod it." He tilted the can back and swallowed a big gulp, exhaling in satisfaction afterwards.

"The gear box all set?" Quick Fix asked.

"Good as you, Quicky Q. Just needs a few more tweaks and she'll be all set." He said, shoving himself back underneath and resuming.

"I hope the parts I made fit ok."

"Neat magic trick, that. More handy than a fifty armed pervert."

"Like I said, I just need the raw material and a good sketch, I can shape it however I want."

"Any chance you could fashion me a new watch? Mine's on it's late years."

"No, sorry. Doesn't really work with complex machines."

Mayfield pushed himself back out again and stood up, wiping his hands on a small cloth as his did so. "Should be good now, why don't we switch her on?"

Quick Fix giggled with excitement and pulled out a set of keys, specially made, from her tool pouch. She galloped around the other side and Mayfield stood back as he saw part of the sheet lift, followed by a hollow thunk as a door slammed shut. With a not so loud electric whine, the object vibrated to life, it's internal workings revving a few times as the unicorn upped the RPMs. "It works!" She cried with joy.

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



Jackson stepped off the train, feeling miserable. He couldn't hold his overnight bag right because of the pain in his arms. His head was especially bad. He had it covered up as best he could; big hat, large sunglasses, colorful scarf. All borrowed from Rarity. He looked ridiculous. At least he'd have a couple days to recover.

Getting back to the house wasn't too bad. He was glad the'd picked a place in town, it wasn't far from the station. As he ambled up the steps, Jackson reached for the door knob and turned it, hoping Mayfield was already home and the house was unlocked. The knob wouldn't budge.

With an exasperated sigh, Jackson walked around back and tried the back door. It was also locked. He pounded the door a few times in frustration, hoping his friend was just in there taking a nap, but nobody showed up. It was then that he noticed a small folded piece of paper wedged up in the top of the frame. He plucked it out and opened it up to read it.

'Hey there Jacko, hope your trip was good. Got a case waiting for you, but as you can see, we're not home. Come on out to Myst's place, the hangar around back. Lady Q and myself have whipped up a nice little surprise for you during your absence.

—Toph'



With a huff, Jackson crumpled up the paper and tossed it in a nearby bush. This was the last thing he needed right now. Still, he hadn't brought his keys with him—a major oversight—and the only way into the house was through Mayfield. So, he hefted his bag again and went out to the town's main thoroughfare and hailed a cab. He'd make sure Mayfield reimbursed him.

After a graciously short, but bumpy ride out to the edge of town, the cab pulled up in front of Myst's and Sparks' residence, but no one seemed to be home. The cabbie wouldn't drive off the road, so Jackson paid him and went around back to where he thought the hangar was. He'd only been there once before.

When he got there, he was astonished to see The Clipper tied down and parked outside. That must have taken some really good convincing with Aria, the only thing she loved more than that aircraft was her son and maybe Sparks. Thoroughly tire of this shit, Jackson walked up and pounded on the large hangar bay doors that stretched across the opening and sealed the inside from the elements. "Hey, open the fuck up! I'm fuckin' tired!" Jackson could have sworn he heard giggling from behind the door. "Hey man, this ain't funny!"

The doors suddenly rumbled to life as a high pitched electrical whine revved in the air. At first he thought it was from the doors, but he knew the small motor was quieter than that. As the gap between the doors widened, bright flood lights flashed on from inside the hangar, and out from the space between the doors, illuminating a wide swath of the field beyond.

Jackson back peddled as something big and bulky shot out from the hangar, tearing around the grass and doing donuts at high speed. As it did so, he realized it was the source of the high pitched sound. Jackson was looking at a big humvee like vehicle that sat on four large wheels designed specifically for unconventional terrain.

The vehicle whipped around in a circle one final time before cannoning over to Jackson's position and grinding to a halt next to him. The door on it's front right opened up and Mayfield stepped out, coming around to greet his big friend with a big grin. "Now how d'you like this, eh? Bang up job, if I say so myself." He gave Jackson a once over, "Oi, what's with the silly shit?"

"Long story. I don't really feel like talking about it right now. What's this thing?"

"She's our new ride, yeah?" Mayfield said excitedly.

Jackson peered into the passenger side window, "Looks great, but the steering wheel's on the wrong side."

"That's because she drives on the right side of the road, the English side, the proper side."

"No, we drive on the right side. You guys drive on the wrong side."

"Whatever, Downer Danny..."

"So, what are you calling it?" Jackson asked.

A hatch set on top flapped open and a grimy, but jubilant Quick Fix popped out like a gopher, "Her name's Daisy!"

"Daisy?" Jackson said, almost baffled by the choice. The big brutish thing looked like it could dole out some hurt. Nothing like a Daisy.

"She picked the name." Mayfield said defensively.

"Ah well." Jackson said in acceptance. "Can that thing kick some ass?"

"Can it!?" Mayfield chortled. "I designed and built it! 'Course it can!" Behind him, Quick Fix cleared her throat in annoyance. "She helped." He added.

"You got any more or is this the only one?"

"You serious? I'm surprised we managed to build this one in the few days you been gone. Nope, this the finest fighting vehicle of it's kind."

"It's the only fighting vehicle here. Well, except for Myst's air ships, I think she got you beat there."

"Sure, sure. So now tell me. What is wrong with your face?" Mayfield crossed his arms.

"You really wanna know?"

"Tell us!" Quick Fix shouted from on top the armored vehicle.

Jackson sighed. Then he removed the hat scarf and sunglasses. What lay underneath set Quick Fix giggling, which she unsuccessfully tried to stifle. Mayfield on the other hand, burst out laughing without any reservation. Underneath all the cover, Jackson's skin was starting to peel, he really had gotten a bad sunburn. It wasn't too serious, but it was enough to be an annoying inconvenience.

"Blimey, what happened?" Mayfield finally managed to say after he caught his breath.

"Testing out some new tech. Was all right at first, but the eggheads didn't warn me about this" Jackson pointed to his face. "I guess it's good they didn't though, I wouldn't have agreed. Assholes." He muttered to himself.

Jackson's explanation caused Mayfield to laugh again, "Boffins made you their little bitch, did they?"

"Yeah yeah, laugh it up. And where's the beer you promised in the damn note?"

Quick Fix hopped down from the roof of Daisy to the ground, "C'mon, I got you, lizard man. I'll get you something for that skin too."

Smoke On the Horizon

Chapter 25: Smoke On The Horizon

It was unusually hot for this time of year. It was all Private Jax could think about, especially in the stuffy metal armor he had to wear. Still, he kept his thoughts to himself. His sergeant didn't think much of complainers. So he marched on with his patrol, bearing as best he could.

They were patrolling the area west of Baltimare, along a seldom used dirt track that ran though the forest parallel with the train tracks not far away. Their company had received orders from Canterlot to increase security in the cities about a week ago and his platoon had drawn the short straw and was sent out into the country side.

It was their job to inspect the area, this one in particular, around the city for anything that might be suspicious. So far, it had only been the occasional ponies traveling for business or vacation. But that was on the main roads. Which is why they were a little surprised when they came upon a small caravan of three bumping down the small road. What was peculiar was the size of the carriages. They were clearly too big to be on such a small road, their tops scraping and smashing into low hanging branches.

"Platoon, halt!" The sergeant called. "Flank orders, block the road." Private Jax hastily moved to get in position. It was his first real patrol after graduating from training and he didn't want to screw it up. His sergeant took up post in front of them in the middle of the road and held up a hoof to signal the caravan to stop, at the extreme annoyance to the stallions pulling the carriages.

"Hey what gives?" One of them complained as the caravan slowed to a halt. "We got deliveries to make, you're gonna make us late!"

"I know, I know. I'm sorry, but due to recent events we've had to raise our security. One moment and we'll send you on your way." The sergeant explained. "Corporals Lue Bline, Straw, on me."

The lead stallion huffed, but didn't protest any further. Private Jax watched as his sergeant and one of his section leaders went forward to the caravan. the two corporals continued down along either side while the sergeant stopped at the lead stallion to question him. Looking past the first carriage, Private Jax could see some of the other stallions pulling the carriages. A couple of them seemed really nervous, but he couldn't see why. It was just a routine stop.

"What are you pulling back there?" The sergeant asked the lead stallion. "Freight?" Meanwhile, the corporals continued along the caravan, checking under the carriages and inspecting the exteriors.

"Nothing important. Just soap and stuff."

"That's a lot of soap. There a shortage I don't know about?"

"Hey Serge!" One of the corporals shouted back to the front. "You want us to check the inside?" The lead stallion seemed to stiffen.

"Not unless you have probable cause, our orders are clear."

Private Jax hoped they didn't see anything worth noting, he wanted to go back home. The corporals went back along their search and the sergeant resumed his questions. It dragged on for a few more minutes, Private Jax felt like he was absolutely baking inside his armor in the hot sun.

*CRACK*

The whole platoon jumped at the sound. Private Jax glanced around, not sure what exactly was going on. He looked back at the caravan just in time to see his section leader fall backwards onto the ground with a hole in his chest where there hadn't been one before. Private Jax barely followed what happened next.

His sergeant had his sword out in an instant, calling the platoon to arms as he pulled it from its sheath. He never got the chance to use it. Tall dark figures swarmed from out the backs of the carriages, strange looking weapons raised in their hands. Private Jax knew what they were, they'd been told in briefings. Some deadly technology from the humans called guns.

In less than a second, his sergeant was cut down. Some of his platoon tried to fight back, but it was almost pointless against such weapons when they were only armed with swords and spears. In the next few seconds, more than half of his platoon lay bleeding on the ground, the weapons could punch right through their armor like it wasn't even there.

Private Jax almost couldn't move, he was frozen with fear. But a thought pushed its way in. A thought that made sense in the chaos, something he knew he had to do. He had to get back to the city or another patrol, he had to warn them. So he turned and galloped as hard as he could, leaving the equipment he carried, save for his armor.

He tried to get away, he could still hear shots coming from behind him. Then the ground around him started exploding up in little puffs and he felt something slam into his side like a hammer made of searing fire. He didn't pay any attention to it, just focusing on getting away. Private Jax kept on running even though he started feeling very sleepy.

He noticed a warm trickling sensation running down his stomach and legs. He thought he might have pissed himself, he couldn't believe it! His friends in the company wouldn't let him live it down, he was sure, but that wasn't important right now. So he kept on running.

Private Jax was getting more and more tired, but he didn't know why, he was a star sprinter back in school. His breaths became more labored, his heart started struggling, fluttering irregularly in his chest. He felt like he couldn't go on any longer. So he pulled off into the woods, hoping to evade those things. He thought they were Lotkin, but they looked different. Changed.

Stumbling loudly through the brush, his breath reduced to ragged gasps, Private Jax slowed to a trot, then a walk. Soon he was on the ground, but hecouldn't remember when he fell, desperately dragging himself through the bushes and dead leaves. He felt rediculously sleepy, trying hard to keep his eyes open. His side was really starting to hurt now, maybe it was a cramp, he wasn't sure.

Private Jax found it harder and harder to continue, every time he tried to move forward, his body wouldn't respond. He was still so very sleepy. Maybe he just needed a quick nap. Yeah, that was it. He'd just take a quick nap. Just one short one and he'd get back up and go warn the others. . .

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



Glass shards crunched under Jackson's boots. He was in the home of Mr. Marcus, a modest building near the north edge of Van Hoover. He was looking for anything Luna's intelligence operatives might have missed, something that could tell him more about whatever threat they were facing. So far, there wasn't anything else. Who ever was behind all this had a very clean operation going.

His earpiece crackled, "Aye-up Jackie Boy. I'm in route with your pick of the litter here."

"Sounds good, man. I'll meet you out in the field, nothing really here."

"All right, mate. Oh, something I need to tell you."

"Go."

"We got a tag-a-long here."

"Intel?"

"No. Apparently our dear old Princess Luna wants to give some of the new recruits a little field experience under supervised conditions. Trouble is, we got stuck with some little wanker." Mayfield explained with a hint that he wasn't getting along well with some one.

"Sorry to hear that, brother. How's the team feelin'?" Jackson asked as he jogged out into the open. He could hear the hum of a propeller approaching.

"A bit jittery, even though it's not a combat Op."

"Well that's normal."

Jackson looked up in the direction of the noise. The small Clipper Class ship maneuvered in and touched down near him, the engine dropping to an idle as it rested on the ground. The side door slid open and Mayfield hopped out to the ground with minimal kit. Just some light armor, his rifle and sidearm.

Behind him, the other occupants stepped out. First was Swift Paws, nose twitching as she sniffed the air around her. Then Iron Defense, having to duck his head through the door way due to his height. Next was a thin, almost wiry looking unicorn with the coat of a mustang. All of them were wearing light armor over the RSTG uniform. Lastly was bored looking pegasus. The pegasus sported a bright crimson coat, the color of oxygenated blood. It was mostly uniform, save for the tips of his wings which a brighter red, almost electric. He had a long tail of black streaked with yellow. It matched his mane, which was cut short and messy, even unkempt. He was a little taller than the others, but still shorter than Iron Defense who seemed to tower over everything. Although he was RSTG, his uniform differed underneath the armor. It was that of a recruit still in training.

As the pegasus stepped off, he shot Mayfield a barely concealed look of contempt, but when he saw Jackson, his eyes suddenly lit up. He moved up next to the other three and stood a rapt attention in front of Jackson. "All right, welcome to the team." Jackson started. "Mayfield, meet Iron Defense, Cray—he's our techie—and you've met Swift Paws."

"Yeah, yeah, we've all been getting very well acquainted on the ride over." Mayfield said.

Jackson looked at the pegasus. "Now you gotta help me out with this guy, who's this guy right here?"

"Oh, that? That there's Mr. Redflare. Watch it, he's not the most friendly. Not much for military bearing either."

"So Mr. Redflare, what can you do?" Jackson asked him.

The pegasus replied with a slight smirk. "'Sup Chief. Glad to actually meet you. Saw you fight in the dojo a while back, sweet moves. Much better than Buckingham over there."

"Hey!"

"Well, glad you think so kid, but when it comes down to a fight, the quicker you end it, the better."

"Sure, but you don't have to trick 'em. Be honorable about it."

Mayfield leaned over and whispered to Jackson, "See what I mean?"

Behind the group of new comers, another passenger stepped out, one Jackson had not expected to see here. Howitzer leaned out the door and looked around before half hopping, half gliding to the dirt with his wings. Jackson spotted him and brought him over with a wave. "Hey man, what you up to here?"

"Nothing much, Chief. Got my own projects to look after."

"Yeah, about that. I haven't met that contact of yours yet, when is that gonna happen?"

"It probably won't. The guy works best when we stay out it. You might get to meet some griffons though."

"Griffons?" Mayfield said. "Like big half bird, half lion blokes?"

Howitzer chuckled a little, "What else would they be? But yeah, the Griffon and Equestrian military have been working together for a while now, seeing as they have stakes in this country too. Your human friend actually enabled the set up for an RSTG/Griffon joint squad. It was pretty cool to see."

"Ok, cool." Jackson nodded.

"All right, I guess I should leave you guys to it." Howitzer wing hopped back up into the crew bay and hit the cockpit door a few times. "Whoops, don't forget your kit bags!" The black pegasus tossed out four big canvas bags to the ground. The airship's engine rose up from an idle and slowly took off into the air.

"All right." Jackson said. "I'm sure you all know each other adequately. Break out kit, let's get to it."

Cray raised his hoof, "Chief, what's the objective?"

"Nothing difficult. Our shadowy friend that just took off there has a contact of his gathering information. He's gonna make a drop in about an hour and we're gonna pick it up."

Cray nodded with a smile and joined Swift Paws and Iron Defense in breaking out their kit. It was nothing fancy. Just a cut down version of an M4 for Swift Paws. Cray packed a P90, something he had insisted on having, he said he could take care of anything else himself. Iron just had his blades since he couldn't hold a rifle or use magic, but he would be invaluable in close quarters or during a breach.

Jackson had a kit for himself, but for once it lacked the large Mk 43 he so often carried. Rather, he just equipped another old M4, this one of slightly bigger length than Swift Paws. Still, it felt ridiculously light in his hands. He could probably fire it one handed. Extremely inaccurately, but still one handed.

While they were all gearing up, Redflare glanced around, "Hey, don't I get anything?"

"Sorry kid," Jackson said, "but you're still a recruit."

"But I got all my quals, I was even in the top fifth of my melee weapons class! Out of forty! Plus I'm almost better at air combat than the Griffons. I could kick some serious Lotkin flank, just give me the chance, Chief!"

"Don't be so hasty to fight, it ain't all that great. Besides, we're just taking a little walk, nothing serious, no combat. Fact finding mission. You'll get your chance when you graduate and get assigned to your first team."

Redflare scowled and stomped away. Jackson found him a little peculiar. Everyone was always eager for their first taste of combat, if they weren't too nervous about it, but the guy was chomping at the bits for it. He looked pretty young, not much more than twenty-one, twenty-two years old. He chalked it up to youthful, naive confidence. Something he'd experienced himself. Still, he'd keep an eye on him.

Once every one was ready, Jackson ordered them to move out, they took their kit bags with them. They marched out from the house to the north road and went a ways before forming a wide search pattern and moved through the scrub that surrounded the road. Other Intel gathered said Marcus had regularly been spotted in the company of some strangers out around this area in night time meetings. None of the locals had seen the visitors before, they definitely weren't from the town.

When nothing of note could be found after several passes through, Jackson halted the search and had them continue on to their next objective. The drop point for the package was back in town, so they double timed it back down the road to Van Hoover. Jackson kept glancing at his watch. For some reason, Howitzer didn't want contact between his contact and Jackson's team, so he had timed it so that Jackson would arrive at the spot after the contact had been and gone.

While they jogged, Mayfield moved up to the front with Jackson, "Hey, you got a minute?"

"Got all day." Jackson said between breaths.

"Not to be 'that guy', but why'd you pick that little fella, he looks like he barely got past grad."

"Yeah, but he passed. Plus he's smart, real smart. Talked to one of his instructors, active mind, always messin' with equipment, adding or altering it. Took a look at a night optic he took from him. Way better. Actually has depth to the image. not all strength is muscles and brawn."

"Meh, guess it makes sense." Mayfield nodded. "But it sounds like he'd be better off in an R&D lab."

"Maybe. We'll see."

After a good half hour of jogging, Jackson had them slow back down to a walk. They were close now to the location, a rough, broke down looking neighborhood on the outer edge of the city. Jackson made his team stow their weapons in their kit bags, wouldn't do them good to be making residents of the area nervous.

They were looking for a small one story with a bright green door. The info would be in a box under a broken recliner inside. If it wasn't stolen first, Jackson thought. The place didn't look too friendly. It only took them another fifteen minutes to find the place, the directions relayed to them by Howitzer were good.

Jackson went up to the door while Mayfield and Iron watched the street behind them for any unwanted company, they were warned that there was gang activity in the area. Jackson jiggled the handle and found it locked. That was good, the package might still be there. One gesture to Swift Paws fixed the problem. He waved her forward and she knelt in front of the lock, extracting some tools from a small pocket on the ankle of her trousers.

Before long, the door swung inward with a faint click and a creak, allowing them to move inside, checking first to make sure it was unoccupied. Satisfied, they entered and closed the door. The recliner was in the corner and under it was the box, as promised. Unlike the door, it was only protected by a strip of duct tape over the top. With the flick of a knife, Jackson opened it up and was perturbed when all he pulled out was a single sheet covered in some kind of gibberish. "Toph, come take a look at this." He beckoned.

Mayfield ambled over and studied the paper as Jackson showed it to him. "Yikes. Not good. I can't read it. Looks like some one sat down with a Welshman and wrote whatever came out of his mouth, if that helps."

"It doesn't." Jackson felt his arm get nudged. He glanced back and saw it was Cray.

"Mind if I get a view?" He asked.

"Sure. Whatever good it will do." Jackson said as he handed the paper off to the unicorn who took it and glued his eyes to the paper for quite some time.

Finally, "It's smuggler's code." Cray blurted out.

"It's what?" Mayfield asked.

"Smuggler's code. It's a code the smugglers use around the country to let each other know where the hot spots for work are. And warn about local law enforcement."

"Can you read it?"

"A little. Most of it's just what it looks like, gibberish, to throw you off the trail of the real info. But there is some consistency. Here." Cray pointed to a line of text with his hoof. "The line of text is repeated multiple times, always in the same spot. Near as I can see, it says" he squinted his eyes, "well it doesn't make much sense either; 'Three deep land line, carrying dangerous goods of the flesh and blood variety'."

"That doesn't sound to good." Jackson said. "Any idea what it means?"

"It's an attack." Every one turned to the source of the voice. It was Iron, he caught them all off guard, he usually didn't speak much. "It's an attack. Land line, it's a caravan, probably got three wagons. Dangerous flesh and blood, soldiers. Or something like that."

"I'll take it." Jackson said. He switched on his radio, "This is Chief Jackson to Howitzer."

"Go."

"I know you're busy, but we got some stuff for you guys. There's an attack coming according to the drop."

"Crap. Does it have a date and time, targets?"

Jackson repeated the question to Cray, who studied the paper again, but he shook his head no. "That's a negative."

"Ok." Howitzer said in a stressful tone. "You guys stay in town, I'll pass on word to Canterlot immediately. Get the garrison here ready and alert for trouble. Hopefully we're not too late already."

Author's Notes:

OC Redflare Created by: Radical Prescott

OC Cray Inspired from an idea by: It911

At The Point Of Breaking

Chapter 26: At The Point Of Breaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Nah, it's cool."

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

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

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

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

"Sounds great to me!"

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

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

"Neat, can I try some?"

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

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

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

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

"Heh heh, glad ya like it."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Meh, never really had anything meaningful."

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

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

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

"You see the way he fights?"

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

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

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

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

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

"Dunno. Celebration, maybe?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Who?"

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

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

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

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

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

"R-right."

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

*SMASH*

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

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

"I uh..."

"In the street."

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

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

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

"RSTG?"

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

"Position and action?"

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

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

"Gotcha."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I'm going after them!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beginning Of A Plan

Chapter 27: Beginning Of A Plan

A group of Lotkin hustled down an alley, weapons cradled in their arms. They were chasing their prey. The leader of the pack ordered a halt in their harsh garbled tongue and for a few minutes they searched about, checking door ways and up turning boxes. When they didn't find what they were hunting, they moved on.

Above, sequestered in the shadows on a fire escape, a pair of glowing yellow eyes watched them go. When they retreated to the street and rounded the corner, the yellow eyes changed to brown and ice blue as Swift Paws silently removed herself from her hiding spot and shimmied down a drainage pipe to the ground. A quick sniff of the air assured her that there were no more hostiles snooping around.

Rags tied around her feet helped muffle her claws as she slunk down the alley, ducking through a now abandoned building to get to the next one. As she passed through, she saw random knick knacks, children's toys, even whole meals left untouched by the civilians that had managed to get out. The smell of some of the fresher food tempted her, but she had a job to complete and it wouldn't do to sit tight and enjoy a repast, making it easier for those hunting her.

Carefully avoiding other patrols, edging past road blocks and generally sneaking around, Swift Paws soon came to a rather dilapidated, sad looking house. All its windows were boarded up and it had a bright red CONDEMNED sticker slapped across the door diagonally. She went around to the back and carefully tapped on the door; three knocks, then four, two and then three more.

The door cracked open just a centimeter and she slowly pushed her way inside. The barrel of a gun was there to greet her, but Mayfield quickly lowered it. "Sorry love, can never be too sure."

Swift Paws gently closed the door behind her, "I understand, and you would be a poor hunter to let yourself be taken by such a deception."

"Any news?"

"Patrols are still heavy. Their main forces still control much of the city's outskirts."

"So the harbor's still the most viable for extract. Iron!" Iron poked his head around the corner from where he was sitting in the kitchen. "Any word from Jackson?"

"He called in ten minutes ago. Said he was still about seven blocks away, but there's still a ton of baddies between them and us."

"What about Howitzer, he still in the area?"

"I had a short conversation with him, but it was cut off. Most I got is that was still with the griffons, he might have made it out."

"At least word'll get around then, if this is the only city in trouble. If not, we're screwed."

"He shouldn't have left, he should have stayed and fought. There are civilians still here." Iron said stubbornly.

Mayfield moved to the dirty kitchen and pulled a oat bar from his pack for a snack, "That's all noble and good mate, but not very bright. We need shift ourselves out of here and consolidate our forces. That way we stand a good chance of pushing the buggers back out. Besides, i don't think they're here just to kill. Well, they're here to kill us, that's painfully obvious, but for the most part they've the innocents alone aside from the occasional cuff about the head. It's an occupation, not a slaughter."

"Still. . ." Iron said under his breath with a pained expression.

Mayfield took a few bites then gave the rest of the bar to Iron, "No worries, mate. I'm sure your lovely little sister is still safe as houses." He went and pulled another bar out of his pack and offered it to Swift.

She turned it down, "I can not."

"C'mon, we'll need our strength."

"I can't have... chocolate."

Mayfield looked at the wrapper, this one contained chocolate chips. "Oh right. Sorry, sometimes I forget you're still a dog, what with the two legs and all." He shoved it back in his pack.

"Should we not be conserving our supplies?"

"We can scrounge, it's a city. Besides, Jackson's getting close and we'll need to help him if trouble knocks. So eat up, we'll need energy."

She nodded and went to her own pack which had rations more suited for her. As she did though, there was a knock at the back door. Three, then four, two and lastly three. They all froze. Mayfield pulled out his pistol, "Speaking of trouble knocking, how far away you say Jackson was?"

"About seven blocks." Iron replied in a hushed tone.

"Right. Swift, ready your pistol, watch my back." Swift Paws pulled her own weapon from its holster, a nice .40 P229 and set herself up on a good angle with the door. Iron pulled out a knife and stood ready, but watched the passage the led to the front of the house, just in case.

Pistol raised to eye level, Mayfield moved up to the door in a crouch. He looked over to Swift, she gave a slight nod. With practiced smoothness, he reached out with his free hand and slowly opened the door, leading with his pistol. Then he suddenly scowled. Violently, he reached through the portal and grabbed what ever was out there. He pulled in a slightly shocked looking stallion by the vest he wore—accidentally knocking a nice looking Stetson to the floor as he did so— kicked the door shut, and shoved the pony up against the wall, jamming the barrel of his gun up against the stallion's forehead. "What in the bloody fuck are you doin' here, you dodgy little shit?"

The stallion raised his hooves, as if in defense, "Whoa, hold on there now." He said in a southern twang. "I ain't lookin' fer trouble now, just tryin' to find some safety."

"Bullshit!" Mayfield spat in his face, "You were at the party, then snoopin' around my mate's house, now you're here, what's your angle, huh?"

"I though that was your hous—"

Mayfield didn't let him finish. He tore the guy off the wall and shoved him to the floor at Swift's feet, pistol still trained on his head. Iron had come over now and was watching with interest. "No fucking games!" Mayfield said angrily. "You have something to do with this? You helping those bastards out there? C'mon bucko, you're gonna have to give me an answer or it's night-night time." He cocked back the hammer on his pistol for emphasis.

The stallion snatched the Stetson from where it fell and brushed it off before placing it back on his head. "Ok, ok, no need to get ornery now, I'll come clean."

"Too right!"

"I'm one of you guys. Well, not really one of you guys, but I'm on the same side. A little off topic, would you mind lowerin' the gun, it's a tad bit distractin'."

"No dice, keep talking."

"K then..." The stallion sighed. "I work closely with one of your more shadowy friends, goes by the name of Howitzer, you heard of 'im?" When Mayfield didn't answer the stallion continued, "I get things for him. Goods, information. . . Well, mostly goods and information. I'm the one that dropped the hint about the caravans for you folks."

"Didn't do us much help, now did it?"

"I'll admit, that piece of Intel was mighty hard for me to get. Somepony seriously wanted this kept under wraps."

Mayfield looked to his teammates for an opinion. Iron shrugged. Swift still had her pistol out, but she lowered it. "Guess we'll have to on the merit that we've still not been found out." He finally said and lowered his own weapon. But he still wasn't too trusting, "Swift, if he tries any monkey business, slot him." Mayfield then picked up their guest and shoved him into the kitchen where he made him sit in one of the chairs. "Name. Now."

"Most folks call me Blackjack. You can do the same if'n it pleases you."

"Ok Blackjack," Mayfield said it like it was an insult, "why exactly are you hear? You must've been watching a while, knowing the knock."

"And listening." He pulled one side of his vest open, revealing a small radio nestled snuggly in an inside pocket. "Thought I might offer a solution to your problems."

"Yeah, at what price?" Mayfield said suspiciously.

"Oh, no price." Blackjack smirked. "Y'see, I'm what most folks call a 'smuggler', a quite unsavory term, really. Now, this occupation business is a great opportunity to ply my craft."

"A hard thing to do with no way in or out of the city." Swift Paws commented. "I see nothing in this, what trickery are you trying to pull?"

"I get it." It was Iron. Swift and Mayfield turned to him, he didn't really speak much. "He's been listening in on our comms. He knows we want to get to the harbor. My bet's that he's got a boat and he'll give us a ride out in exchange for our protection. There's the catch."

"Now there's a smart one!" Blackjack chuckled. "Pretty much on the nose. You get me to my boat, I'll give ya a little ride, how's that sound?"

"Sounds like our only option so far." Mayfield said. He looked up at Iron, "Radio Jackson and the boys from White Raven. Tell 'em we might have a way out."

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Rainbow Dash scratched at her shoulder again, until she did it too much and elicited a sharp pain from the wound under the bandage. She'd never been shot before, it wasn't an experience she ever wanted to repeat. At least it was more or less just a graze. She'd gotten it when she'd squared off for a fight to help Garth, but got six crazy freaks with happy trigger fingers instead. Fluttershy said she was lucky. Fluttershy. She wasn't doing much better. She put up a tough front, something she'd never done before. She wasn't hurt, at least not physically.

When it all went down, Twilight had summoned up her magic and blasted them back out the door, but it didn't do much other than slow them down and make them mad. Still, it gave them time to drag Garth out the back and make their escape. Using a litter Fluttershy made with AJ, they'd all dragged Garth all the way to Myst's place to get help, but Ponyville already had it's own problems.

They all went running into the town in a frenzy, Rarity to fetch her sister, Applejack to her farm, Twilight went to go get Spike and save some of her books. Fluttershy stayed with Garth, she said her home was far enough away that she didn't have to worry too much, Angel would know what to do. They'd all gotten out just in time, before the town was overrun.

Fortunately, the guards reacted quickly and got most of their friends and neighbors out. Most of them. When they got to Myst's she was already spinning up her airship, little Flicker was sitting in the copilot's seat, asking mom what was wrong. She'd taken them aboard and now they were on their way to Canterlot where they hoped was safe. They needed to get the Elements. Then they might be able to do something.

They had to get there first. At the moment, they were still in the airship, flying into Canterlot. Rarity and Applejack were huddled in the corner with their family, trying to calm each other. Twilight was arguing with Spike over priorities. Pinkie just sat in a corner, all the fluff seemed to have fled her usually puffy mane. She didn't even know if James was ok. They hadn't bumped into him in the forest, she worried that he might be hurt somewhere, alone. Then there was Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash was most concerned about her.

Garth was laid out on the deck by the engine compartment, unconscious and breathing abnormally. He'd really taken a beating. Fluttershy was laboring over his many and varied wounds, muttering something under her breath over and over again. Dash couldn't hear exactly what, but she was seriously distraught.

Dash tried to think of what to do. These were her friends, she couldn't let them fall apart now. Something nudged her side and she looked down. It was Scootaloo, she had fallen asleep. The poor little filly, Rainbow Dash had seen her running around in all the confusion. It didn't take much thought, she just swooped down and picked her up.

Still at a loss for what to do, Dash carefully laid Scootaloo's head down so she wouldn't wake and stood up, walking over to the cockpit. Flicker had moved to the back, finding comfort with foals closer to his own age so Dash took the empty seat next to Aria. "'Sup." The unicorn said as she sat down. The gray maned pilot had her helmet on, listening intently to any comms that came through.

"Hey, I was just wondering how close we were."

"To Canterlot? Should just be another moment and it'll be in sight."

"Cool." Dash looked at the instrument panel. "So, how exactly do you fly this thing? I don't think I could handle all these knobs and dials." She wasn't really all that interested, she could fly just fine with her wings, but she wanted to do something to take her mind off what had just happened.

"It's actually a lot less complicated than it looks." Myst tapped a helmet hanging on the seat Dash was sitting in. "Here, put this on." She did. The next thing she knew, Myst's voice was coming in a lot clearer, there were speakers in the helmet. She guessed the little boom thing was the mic. "I listen to comms traffic through the helmet, it's good to know where everypony is, as I'm sure you know. The rest is just maintaining altitude and monitoring the gauges for any signs of engine trouble. For the more fancy stuff though, I tend to rely on sight and feel more."

"You ever crash before?"

"Oh yeah, a couple times. But that was when this baby was still in testing." A burst of static suddenly made them flinch. "Here we go, that'll be Canterlot hailing us now."

A familiar voice spoke through the headsets, "Clipper Class airship inbound, identify yourself immediately."

"This is The Clipper, the original and I'm Aria Myst. Requesting permission to land, we have refugees and wounded on board, repeat, we have wounded aboard, where can I set down?"

The radio was silent for a moment. "Aria Myst you are ordered to turn back now, the area isn't safe. Pegasi are being sent up to guide you into a secure location."

Myst was confused and a little angry, "Who is this? Please identify."

"Aria, it's me, Flash."

"Flash? Flash, what's going on down there?"

"Aria, it's bad, we're fighting for our lives down here. The palace is locked down, somepony let in an army up through the crystal caverns and they raided it. Captain Armor has them isolated to the palace grounds right now, but I don't know how long that'll last. There's another battalion of Renegade Lotkin and ponies at the entrance to the city, we're fighting on two fronts."

"Flash, where's Lectric, I want to speak to Lectric!" Aria demanded, her voice almost shaking.

"Aria... he was in the palace when it was attacked. I don't even know if the Princesses are ok right now. I'm sorry."

Myst almost looked as if she was about to break out into hysterics, but she didn't. No, she held it together, she was a Night Mare, the first. "All right. Flash, tell me where you need me to go. I'll drop off my current load and the help where I can, anything you need."

"There's a camp in the foothills of Unicorn Range, that's where most of the airships we could save are, along with some refugees. Follow the pegasi, they'll guide you in."

"Roger that." Myst said with just the slightest tremble.

Sure enough, two pegasi that looked like they were from the Royal Guard pulled up on either side where they could see them and signaled for them to follow. They peeled off and Myst banked the aircraft away from Canterlot to the new landing spot they would take her to. Beside her, Dash felt a new weight fall down on her, she couldn't believe what she'd just over heard.

Canterlot was under attack, the Princesses were missing and her home had been overrun by a vicious amalgamation of Lotkin and ponies. She didn't know where to go from there. She knew how to do only three things well; they were flying, wrangling the weather and fighting. She thought on the last one, fighting. Yeah, she could do that, maybe they all could. Either way, she wasn't gonna just lay down and let the bastards take everything.

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



With a bit of effort and a wet squelch, James pulled his knife from the neck of his latest kill, a stallion that had been foolish enough to charge him with just a pair of short swords. It was almost child's play to him, all he had to do was duck under his guard and it was game over in just one quick strike. He wiped the blood off on the pony's coat before sheathing his knife, no one could say he didn't take care of his equipment.

James stood up and looked around at the rest of the bodies that littered the grass, oh yes there were more. It was just as well, they shouldn't have come here, it was hallowed ground. James had arrived at Myst's little villa and had found the group, comprised of a mix of about twenty ponies and Lotkin, attempting to loot the place. He wasn't going to stand for that.

He picked almost all of them off before they realized where the fire was coming from. The stragglers finally pinpointed him and made a brave, but stupid charge for his position. He dropped four before they even got close. His heart rate didn't even elevate. The last one, well, the last one was still leaking his life's blood into the ground. James looked at the poor thing, still struggling to move, and knew what he should have felt, but it just wasn't there.

He was broken and he knew it, he knew it and he didn't care, not a feeling any one way. It was dangerous, he knew, but of course, he didn't care. They had made the mistake, that one fatal mistake: they could fuck with him all they wanted and that would be that, but they didn't. They attacked his friends, they attacked the one he loved. That could not be ignored, nor could it ever be forgiven.

As James walked among the bodies, making sure they were dead—a few of them weren't and needed that one extra little push—his eyes were drawn to the Lotkin in particular. Most of the one there were of the normal stock; big, robust, butt ugly, but a few were... different. They were smaller, more agile. Their faces smoother and thinner, eyes burning with heightened intelligence. Until he snuffed it out.

His grim task complete, James searched the small compound. No one was there, they would have been hauled out as hostages or worse. With a little detective work, he found the furrows gouged into the ground by the litter. It led right up to a pair of thin troughs that marked where The Clipper had rested on its landing skids. A great many hoof prints, big and small, marked the area round it. So they had gotten away. James found relief in that.

With that knowledge, his mind shifted on to the next thing: Ponyville. It was time to wipe out the bastards and what better place to start than there. He had found his peace, that was all he wanted. He had found his peace at last, but they just had to push it, just couldn't let him have it. Well now this was happening.

With a quick stride, James went into the old RSTG briefing room—now Sparks' personal workshop—and went straight to the back. He knew the unicorn was almost as paranoid as he was and kept his own personal armory on site, the back room. It was heavily locked, but that hadn't stopped the raiders from trying to bash it down, there were numerous scrapes and dents all over the door. James laughed to himself at their pitiful attempt, Sparks always kept a spare key hidden somewhere. After a quick search, he found it, hidden up on one of the rafters above.

He popped the door open and went in. It was an armory alright, an armory befitting the current CO of the RSTG. James refilled his ammo. Then he took a rifle off the wall, he recognized it as the old M110 he'd used before. Good, he could do with a little more range. There were some heavier weapons there, but nothing he would need or could carry in addition to all his equipment—like the MG3 and the M240B that had once been a part of Myst's airship—so he grabbed a few grenades and headed out to the hangar to see if there was any more gear he could find a use for.

The hangar was untouched, the raiders hadn't gotten that far. With a little bit of elbow grease, James got the small side door open and let himself inside. To his surprise, it was mostly empty. Empty, save for a large mound hidden underneath a stark whit dust cover on one side. James walked over and whipped the cover off, instantly delighted by what he found underneath, so much so that he actually smiled.

Oh, he could use this, this magnificent construction of high end armored machinery. Ideas already started zipping through his mind on how to better improve it for his use. James remembered his friend's little armory and spun on a heel. He was sure Sparks wouldn't mind. After all, it wasn't as if he was here to use it right now.

Familial Quarrel

Chapter 28: Familial Quarrel

*THUD*

*THUD*

*THUD*

*THUD*

Sparks stared at the barricaded doors, ready. Ready for whatever tried to get through next. He was holed up in Princess Luna's bed chamber with the princess herself. Her sister, Princess Celestia, was there as well, along with a few of their personal guards and just a couple RSTG recruits. For the third time, he checked his ammo again, just three mags, including the one in his pistol and over half of that was already spent.

He wasn't sure how much longer they could hold out. It had already been a day. They had some food and plenty of water, but even that would run out soon. The more pressing matter was the cycle of the sun and moon. With the palace under the control of the Renegades and the princesses stuck in here, they wouldn't be able to continue the cycle and change night back into day.

"Commander Sparks, if we could have a word with you?" It was Celestia, still full of poise and grace even during a crisis.

Sparks turned to the recruits. One was a unicorn, the other an earth pony. "Starlight and Stalks, stand to. Starlight, I want you on the door, nothing gets in. Stalks, watch the windows." He ordered. The recruits dutifully took up their positions and Sparks went into the back chamber with the princesses. "Your Highnesses, how may I help you?"

"Commander, we have something very important to ask of you." Luna said softly.

"We need to retrieve something of extremely high value."

"Pardon me, your Majesties, but there's not much we can do right now, but sit tight and hope reinforcements come. We don't even know who's behind all this, who let these guys in." Sparks protested. "We can't even set hoof outside right now, they're at the door."

"I know this is not a light thing to ask of you." Celestia stated. "But it is imperative that we recover it."

"This isn't a painting or a personal object, is it?"

Luna spoke next, "You know we would never ask for something so trivial, especially at a time like this."

"Then what is it?"

Luna looked to her sister, troubled by something. Celestia gazed back, then closed her eyes for a moment. Finally, she opened them and turned to Sparks, "It's a weapon. But it is not just any weapon. This is something we've designed to finally stop the source of this madness that plagues us. If we can recover it and get it to one who might wield it, we may yet have hope of restoring our land to harmony."

Sparks mulled this new information over. As the Commander of Equestria's special forces, it was his responsibility to protect his country and his leaders by any means necessary, even if it cost him his life. However, at the moment, even venturing from this room would put both of those responsibilities in jeopardy. Still, the rest of the country was still suffering out there and if he had a chance to end this once and for all... "Ok." He said with finality. "We'll do what we can. Where is this weapon?"

Celestia smiled slightly, as if she had made a bet with herself and she had won, "Commander, we must get to the vault."

"That's a tall order, but I'll see that it gets done."

Sparks left to go brief his two recruits, they had a lot of work and planning ahead of them. He would also have to include the princesses' personal guards in the chaotic equation. He was half way there when he noticed something, it made him stop mid step. It was quiet. Suddenly, awfully quiet. The pounding had stopped on the door, that could mean trouble. In a mad dash, he moved to the windows, Stalks reported all conditions normal, no change. The doors hadn't been breached either.

The Commander got his answer though. It was actually more shocking than having to face a breaching team. "Hello in there!" Said a smooth, pampered voice from the other side of the door that sounded as if it was entitled to most everything. "Would you all please be dears and surrender yourselves already? This Coup business is all so tiring and I'm rather impatient." Sparks recognized that voice, but he almost couldn't believe it. "Auntie Celly, Auntie Lulu, are you still in there? Please come out, I would hate to have these strapping lads break my new doors down."

Celestia galloped up to the door, eyes wild with bewilderment. It was the first time, Sparks thought, that he had ever seen her like this. "Blueblood, is that you!?"

A cultured little chuckle responded, "The one and only, of course!" He said haughtily.

"No. No, please tell me it's a trick. They're making you say it, right?"

"No, I'm afraid I'm here of my own free will and volition." He answered.

Celestia's mouth hung slightly ajar. She was speechless, at a loss for words. She had no idea that a member of her own royal family could—no, would—do such a dastardly thing to her, even Prince Blueblood. Luna moved to fill the gap, quietly striding up next to her sister. "Blueblood, It's Luna. Could you at least tell us why?"

"I suppose I could, like some arch-villian in a story, but that sounds just so tiring and I haven't got all night, as it were."

Sparks really couldn't believe his ears. One of the Royal Family was behind all this suffering and death. He didn't know the prince well. What little he knew mostly came from the Gala he'd attended with James and the girls. That seemed so long ago now, what was it, six years? He remembered the fight. Everypony remembered the fight, the prince had been humiliated. Still, he couldn't figure that as the sole reason for all this, though it could have played a factor. "Tick tock goes the clock, I need an answer from you soon." The prince said from the door. He was still as annoying as Sparks remembered.

"Shove it up your ass!" Sparks yelled at the door. It just kind of slipped out, he hadn't really meant to say it, but it had been said. Now it was time to act.

"Oho, how rude! I really didn't want to do this the hard way, but... Ah, well. . ."

The pounding on the door returned as the hostile force outside resumed their attempt to break through the barricaded door. Sparks took a deep breath and formulated a quick plan in his mind. It was a crazy plan, one that was sure to get them all captured or killed, but it was either that or surrender and he wasn't going to surrender to that inept fool. "Your Highnesses, I think I can get you to that vault. But you have to do everything I tell you. No questions asked, no hesitation."

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



That was it, there was the house. All boarded up and crummy looking, not exactly choice digs. But when you're being hunted in a city full of hostiles, you really didn't have the luxury of choice. Jackson glanced at his watch, 0743. Then he looked at the sky, stars still sparkled on a black back drop. That wasn't right. Something was seriously wrong.

Sun or no sun, his mission didn't change. Link up, bang out and try to find the rest of the Equestrian forces. At least the darkness would afford him some extra cover where there normally wouldn't be any. Jackson looked around. It was dark, but he didn't see any hostiles. Still didn't mean there were none out there. They'd have to risk it.

Cray and Redflare were stacked up behind him. With a quick hand gesture, Jackson ordered Redflare to move across and raised his rifle. He was the fastest and if there was anyone out there to take potshots, he was sure the pegasus could evade them. Jackson covered him as he half sprinted, half flew across the street. Silence. Jackson made another signal and Cray went galloping across, he also made it safely.

Now it was Jackson's turn. Cray posted up on the corner of the house with his weapon ready and nodded to the big human. Jackson got up and sprinted, covering the full distance in just a few seconds. No shouts, no rifle fire. They were lucky. Regrouped, the three went around the side and knocked on the back door in the sequence Mayfield had told them. It creaked open and they were admitted entry.

Mayfield was waiting inside, along with two other stallions Jackson didn't recognize, an injured unicorn and an earth stallion. They all looked ready for a fight. Once they saw who it was though, they all relaxed, Mayfield moved forward and clapped Jackson on the back. "Too good to see you, no trouble?"

"Aside from a few small fire fights, nothing to worry about. We're pretty low on ammo, you got any to spare?"

"Some. We'll consolidate. Here, meet what's left of White Raven. This is Whirl and Strake." The unicorn and earth pony nodded.

"Hey, sorry for what happened guys." Jackson told them, "Don't worry, we'll make 'em pay." He looked back to Mayfield. "So, where is this mystery guy at that says he can get us an extract?"

"Here, in the kitchen."

Mayfield led Jackson into the kitchen. In there, Iron was still going through the radio channels, trying to pick up any other survivors. He was also watching Blackjack—they were still suspicious of him—who was eating through some hay cakes thay'd manage to pilfer from an abandoned bakery near by. Jackson walked up and sat in the chair adjacent to the earth stallion. He recognized him.

"So, first you crashed our house party, now this one." He said, resting his elbows on the table, meshing his fingers and giving the stallion a displeased look. "What are you doing here, exactly?"

Blackjack swallowed what he had been chewing, "Like I told your angry amigo there, I was tryin' to help you fellas out, workin' with one of your bosses. Now, I'm just tryin' to get back to ma boat and was wonderin' if you'd all like a ride out."

Jackson thought about it for a moment, then decided it was probably the only option they had. He didn't like it, there were too many unknowns, but what else can they do? "Fine, we'll take your offer. Try and fuck us though and and you're on your own, get it?"

"Oh yeah, sure." Blackjack responded as if he'd made a casual business deal.

Jackson got back up and went back into the main room where the rest of the team was waiting. "Everyone consolidate ammo and supplies, we're moving out in thirty. Redflare, c'mere, I wanna talk to you real quick."

The pegasus looked a little worried, but followed Jackson into one of the bedrooms. "What is it, I do something wrong?"

Jackson made sure they weren't being listened to and then turned to face the young stallion, "No, you're not in trouble. I just want to talk to you about what happened back there. Is everything all right?"

Redflare's expression went neutral, "Fine, I'm fine." He said with denial.

"That back there wasn't fine, you've got some issues. I need to know what they are so I can help you."

"There's nothing wrong with me, all right! I just wanted to make sure the guy went down!" He replied defensively.

"By stabbing him in the chest twenty times. . . That's not stopping the threat, that's excess. Here's the deal, I can't have you doin' stuff like that again. Not only could you have died, but it also puts the rest of the team at risk, understand?"

"Yeah, I guess so..."

"And you need to work on you military bearing, too. I know we all pal around sometimes, it's a dangerous job in a small community, but I need to know that you'll follow orders and carry them out professionally." Jackson said, not unkindly.

"Yes, Chief." Redflare said with a little more seriousness.

"Good, thank you. I want to talk more about this with you later, but right now we have to get out of the city alive. Go back in there and get with Swift and Whirl, I want you three working together."

"Understood."

Jackson opened the door and watched Redflare trot out to the main room and report to Whirl. The pegasus definitely had potential, steady under fire, intelligent, athletic, but he had some anger issues stemming from somewhere. It was something he'd have to talk him through once they got to safety.

His little counseling session over, Jackson strode out to rejoin the main group. Swift was talking with Redflare and Whirl, no doubt giving them tips on how a to be a good hunter. Iron was with Blackjack, keeping a wary eye on the stallion, and Cray and Strake. He noticed that Iron and Cray had been starting to gel into a partnership. Mayfield was leaning against a wall and checking over his rifle.

Jackson did a quick once over of his own equipment and then walked in to speak, "All right every one." They all stopped and turned their heads to listen. "We have to get to the dockyard, Mr. Blackjack here has graciously offered his vessel for our use. Good news, it's still night so we'll be hard to spot, even as a large group. Bad news, it's sill night and it's a long way. We move quiet and we move fast, don't attack unless you are attacked or are about to be."

Cray raised his hoof, sometimes he was all questions, "What if we're about to be spotted?"

"Good question. We'll take those situations on a case-by-case basis. Any other questions? Good, let's get going. Swift, Red and Whirl you're on point with Blackjack, he knows the city better. Cray, Iron, I want you two to take up the rear with Topher, make sure we don't get run up on."

Every one knew what they were doing now and the room filled with noises of them getting ready to go; bolts cycling, zippers zipping and blades being pulled from sheaths. Even so, the mood remained somber. They were an endangered species being hunted down in an unfriendly city.

With practiced carefulness, the exited the building, eyes darting every which way for any signs of movement or combat indicators. The city was unnaturally quiet. Even at night, business was done and movement abounded, albeit at a much more reduced level. But now, there was just silence. It didn't sit right. There were still civilians here, there should be some level of noise.

The group moved fluidly, through alleys and around obstacles. Occasionally, they'd pass a body, usually one of the Royal Guard. It was all a sad sight to see, but what could they do? Either they left now and lived to make a difference or they tried to fight and almost certainly die. As it was, even if they did make it out, the rest of the Equestrian forces might be too broken to do much of anything.

Up ahead, Swift had stopped. Jackson looked and saw that Blackjack seemed to be arguing with her. He was about to go up there himself and see what the problem was when she suddenly grabbed the stallion by the shoulder and started shoving him back down the alley. He was about to ask why when she hit him up on comms, "Chief Jackson, we must go back now."

"Talk to me Swift, what's going on?"

"We can not go further. I can smell them, a trap has been set."

Jackson caught that loud and clear. There was an ambush for them up ahead. That was bad on its own, but it made something else painfully clear; their location was no longer a secret. Blackjack was in front of him now and complaining. "Hey, what's with all this rough stuff? I ain't tried to lead y'all wrong!"

"Stow it." Jackson sounded a little angrier than he had meant to. "She just saved our asses. Do you know another route to the docks that goes around this area?"

"Sure do, but I wouldn't recommend it."

"Why not?"

"Out in the open, not much cover, tons of bad guys. You guys tend to stay away from those kinds of environments, am I right?"

He wasn't wrong. The last thing they needed was to run head first into trouble. Still, if he had to pick his fight, better one where he had some element of surprise rather than the other way around. "We'll have to go with that. What's the route?"

"There's some good news there, I suppose. We're gonna have to cut through the markets. Real close to the docks."

"At least there's that, lead the way."

Jackson hoped he was making the right decision. It wasn't just his life on the line, it was all of theirs. If he messed up, he'd be responsible for their deaths. It wasn't something they could afford, the stakes high. He suddenly found himself wondering about the others. He Jackson hoped the girls were ok. And James. His buddy seemed almost normal the last time he'd talked with him. Not an easy feat for men like them. Hell, for them, normal was abnormal.

Movement around him caught Jackson's attention. His motley team was moving out, still in the prescribed formation. He'd have to stow the thoughts for later, he could think on them when he was outta here. For now, he would just have to focus on keeping his people alive.

Getting Into It

Chapter 29: Getting Into It

There was his target. Down the small rise, near the town center. About twenty of the Royal Guard, maybe a little more. They were all cooped up in a hastily constructed wooden cage like animals. Though they may resemble the equines back in his own world, James knew better.

The worst part was the members of their own kind patrolling the perimeter of the cage, jeering, sometimes taunting the captives. Then again, humans did that too, if not worse things. He was proof. He was about to prove it again. He almost felt sorry for what he was about to do, but then he remembered why he was doing it. It has to end, for her sake.

James climbed down from the roof of the armored vehicle he had borrowed from Myst's hangar. He didn't know who had constructed it, but he would have to thank them later. Right now, he had it parked on a small hill in the middle of the recreational park just outside of town. None of the Lotkin or ponies that had launched the attack had bother to go there, they didn't have a reason.

James tried to remember what this particular faction was called. He thought Jackson had said something about Renegades. It didn't matter. They were all dead to him now anyway. James stowed the M110 he had been using for recon and climbed into the driver's seat, starting the engine as he did so. The electric whine was kind of annoying, but the sound didn't carry far. It was actually pretty quiet.

He didn't turn on the lights, it would give him away. He didn't need to anyway, he could see perfectly well in the darkness of the night, another strange ability he'd developed over the last few years. It was something he wondered about, it certainly wasn't his doing, he was sure.

Still working out his plan of attack in his head, James drove as close as he dared to the edge of town closest to where the captive guards were being held. As he neared to an acceptable spot, he switched off the engine and let the vehicle coast the rest of the way there. It was a nicely concealed position behind a few tall bushes. Then he quickly got out and pulled his rifle up and waited. . .

Nothing. His arrival seemed to have gone unnoticed. It wouldn't last, he was sure. Next he checked his weapons, ensuring they were ready to go. He twisted a suppressor onto his rifle, he'd use it as much as possible next to his knife. He didn't have one for the revolver. A quick double check and he was good to go.

Walking fluid and silently up to a row of houses, James flattened himself against a wall, the wood tugging at his clothes. Right then, he decided he should have picked something more durable to wear, he was only in a T-shirt, jeans and his old boots—the rubber soles were new. Weapon ready, he moved forward to a small space between two of the houses. Not an alley, but not a full road either.

Some one stepped out from it, looking around. James slowed down. It was a stallion, earth pony, he had a blade on him. If he turned his head just a little more to the left, James would be spotted. Of course the human would never allow that to happen.

James waited just a second more before he decided that the stallion was alone. Then he crept up next to him, put the barrel against the side of the poor guy's head and pulled the trigger. There was a wet pop as the stallions brain exploded out the other side, staining the ground. His body just slumped to the ground in a heap, blood black as oil in the night pooling around what was left of his head.

Knowing he couldn't just leave a body laying around for discovery, James grabbed a pair of legs and dragged it around to a stack of hay bales behind one of the houses. He just pushed a few of them over and like that, it was hidden from sight. He returned to the gap, no one had noticed.

James went forward to the street. He scanned the roof tops, but there was no movement. There were lights on in some of the houses though. A lot of the towns folk were still there. That wasn't good. The houses were made of wood, if a firefight erupted they wouldn't know to get down and stay flat on the floor.

He'd have to play this carefully. Lure the attackers out some where safe and waste 'em there. James quietly moved down the street and spotted Sugarcube Corner. He smiled as a plan formed in his mind, he hoped Pinkie wouldn't mind him borrowing some of her things while she was out.

He went up to the front door of the store and gave it a quiet knock. A few minutes later, there was no answer so he checked the door. It was unlocked. He readied his rifle just in case and moved in. He found the place deserted. Some pastries still sat in the display case at awkward angles, but there was evidence that the Cakes had already vacated the building. Hopefully, they'd gotten somewhere safe.

Without another moment's notice, James moved upstairs, the wood creaking under his weight, to Pinkie's attic room. Most of her things were still there, but he noticed a few items missing. The Party Cannon, for one, was gone. She really didn't leave home without it. With luck she'd left what he was looking for. Some searching in the back near some old dusty boxes and he'd found what he'd been looking for.

James hefted the box, letting his rifle dangle on its strap, and went back outside. Most of the attackers were camped out in the center of town, near where the captive guards were, he'd need them to clear out momentarily. He went back outside of town and opened up the box. He grinned as he peered down at the contents. Fireworks.

James arranged some of the rockets so that they would shoot off in different directions and then went to gather a bunch of dry hay. Once he thought he had enough, he went back to the box and struck a match. He lit as much as the hay bundle as he could and then unceremoniously dumped the flaming pile into the box of fireworks.

James estimated he only had seconds, so he turned and sprinted as fast as he could back into town. He went as far as he dared without being discovered and ducked into a storage shed that turned out to be an outhouse. He wasn't aware they still had them in town, it must be an old one. It stank, but he ignored it. Better than getting caught and having to fight his way out.

The first flare shot into the sky. He saw the light from it angle through the small heart shaped hole in the door. It went off with a loud pop, casting harsh light every which way. Then there was a pause. At first, James thought that the rest of the box had failed to light, but then the night air was suddenly filled with such a cacophony and flash of light that he almost jumped.

It didn't take long for a response. Just minutes later, a great press of bodies streamed past, he heard hooves as well as the pounding of hobnail boots as a large group of the oppressors streamed past to make their investigation. He waited until they had all gone past and then some. The right decision as some stragglers came barreling by.

Another moment of caution and then he decided it was clear. James cracked the door and peered out. Still clear. He went to open it wider, raising his rifle as he did so. The clatter of metal and equipment came from around the corner, James tried to close the door again, but too late. on the opposite side, a body crashed into the door with a grunt of surprise, knocking James down to the dirt.

James scrabbled back to his feet and raised his rifle, but something kicked it out of his grip. It was a Lotkin warrior, one of the changed one and it had a pistol. It aimed it squarely at James' head. James wasn't going to have any of that. With one hand, he slapped the pistol away, it discharged into the ground. With the other hand, he pulled out his knife and slashed at his opponent, but it saw the attack coming and dodged it, countering with a hook. James ducked under it, low to the ground, and picked up some dirt as he came back up, flinging it into the Lotkin's face.

Blinded, the Lotkin started firing wildly, cursing him in its harsh language. James pressed himself against the side of the building as rounds zipped past him. Sides stepping, he grabbed the fighter's arm and drew his blade across the wrist, severing tendons and causing the Lotkin to drop the firearm. Then it was a few quick jabs to the face to disorient the bastard. Lastly, James thrust his knife up underneath its sternum and twisted, shredding its heart and lungs. James caught the body and shoved it into the outhouse, pulling his knife from its chest and closing the door.

Some one was bound to have heard all that. He didn't have much time as it was. Knowing his time had just been halved by that little mishap, James hustled over to the center of town. He spotted a few more of the ponies snooping around, but they were easily avoided. Finally, he got to his destination. There was a big roaring fire near the center of their camp. Stupid, it would be harder for them to see out, and spot him.

Avoiding some of the individuals who had remained at the camp, James snuck around behind the cage, ensuring not to startle any of the guards. Many of them were wounded. He noticed a few on the ground that were worse off than others. He also noticed one of them wasn't breathing.

With a glance around, he made sure none of the Renegades were in sight. Then he knocked on one of the wooden planks that made up the impromptu prison. "Hey, over here." He whispered to one of the guards.

With a start, the guard—a pegasus—turned around. "What the?"

James pressed a finger to his lips in a silence gesture. "I'm here to help, but I'm gonna need some of your help."

"Another human? Who are you, are you one of Jackson's group?"

The guard didn't recognize him. James looked the guard up and down, he was young, probably only enlisted in the past few years. Plus, his longer hair and scruff of stubble probably helped disguise who he was. Good, he liked it that way. "Yeah, I'm with Chief Jackson's crew." It was partially true. "Where's your CO at?"

The pegasus frowned, "He's dead. They executed him. They executed him right in front of us!"

"Shh, shh, calm down. I'm gonna get you all out of here, but I'll need some help first, ok?"

The stallion took a few deep breaths. "Ok. What do you need us to do?"

"Who's the best spell caster here?"

"That'll be Corporal Burl, I'll go get him."

James waited a few anxious seconds while the pegasus went to go get him. When he finally returned, he had a dull brown unicorn in tow. "Serge said you needed my help?" He asked.

"Yeah I'm gonna try to get you all outta here. Where are your weapons stored?"

"That'll be in some of the crates over there," he gestured with a nod of his head, "But if we try to break out now, they'll shoot us!"

"Don't worry, I have a plan." James reassured them. He took out his knife and began hacking away at some of the wood, keeping an eye out as he did so. In a few minutes, he had made a hole big enough for a pony to squeeze through, though not comfortably. He had Corporal Burl slip out and then turned back to the Sergeant. "I'm going to set off a diversion with the Corporal here. We'll lead them away from town. When we do, bust every one out and grab your weapons, hit 'em from behind while they're focused on us."

"How will we know when it's started?" The Sergeant asked.

"Don't worry, you'll know it when you see it."

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



The sprawling camp was horrible, it was a terrible sight to see so many displaced. Even more demoralizing was the state of the Royal Guard members that passed through. Many were injured, some irreparably so. Rainbow Dash wondered how many of them were from Ponyville or other cities around her country. It had only been hours since the initial attacks and refugees were still pouring in. It might not even be the only camp like this.

With a flap of her wings, Dash took to the air. The camp looked even more dismal from above. Row upon row of tents housed thousands. The reason for her flight wasn't a better view, however. She had somepony to check up on. After a few minutes flight, she reached the medical aid tent and touched down outside.

Dash trotted in and was almost pushed aside by a frantic nurse, off to some awaiting emergency. She ignored it and went towards one of the back corners through the rows of injured and sick. Fluttershy was back there, helping where she could, but she wouldn't venture far from a particular cot unless her help was sorely needed.

She was back there all right. At the moment, she was arguing with her primary patient, who wasn't enjoying lying in a bed too much. Garth was trying to get back up again, spouting lines about honor and his duty to fight for his adopted country. Of course, Fluttershy was having none of it.

"I said no." She told him sternly. "Your wounds haven't all properly healed yet, you could get an infection. Besides, teaching in Canterlot is one thing with that eye, but fighting any battles is right out!"

"But—"

"No buts!" She gave him a hard stare and he finally relinquished, laying back down with a gravelly sigh.

Her will imposed, Fluttershy turned to one of the other patients nearby, a unicorn with burns down one side, and started changing out his bed pan. Dash approached cautiously, she wasn't the same malleable Fluttershy anymore. This one was way more assertive, especially when it came to the well being for others. That's not what worried Rainbow Dash, though. It was how sudden the change had been.

Dash approached from the side and used a familiar tone, "Hey 'Shy, how are you holdin' up?"

"Fine." Was the yellow pegasus' short, almost emotionless reply. "Is you shoulder better?"

"Yeah, thanks for that. Listen, me and the rest of the girls were kind of worried."

"What do you mean?" Fluttershy asked, focusing on her task.

"Well, it's just that... you haven't been quite acting yourself lately." Dash said awkwardly, rubbing the back of her head with a hoof. "Are you doing ok?"

Fluttershy didn't answer immediately. First she finished replacing the old bed pan for a new one, then moved onto another patient to check their temperature. "Nothing's wrong." She replied robotically.

"You sure? You seemed kind of stressed. Fluttershy, we're your friends. If you need to talk about something then you just—"

The normally kindly pegasus suddenly rounded on Rainbow Dash, "I said I was fine!" She stated with a new edge to her voice. "Now if you please, I'm very busy." She then stomped off to another wounded guard and began changing the dressings on his wounds.

Rainbow Dash stood there in a shock. What had happened to her usually timid friend? She would have to talk to the others about it later. For now, she thought it best to leave Fluttershy alone and left the tent.

Dash once again took to the sky and circled around the camp a few times, thinking about what to do. Twilight was with Spike. They were trying to get a letter to the princesses, but without any success. Applejack was helping to erect more tents for the incoming stream of new refugees. Rarity had taken up repairing the clothes of the now homeless ponies with Sweetie Belle. Pinkie, of course, was being Pinkie. She was traveling around the camp, trying to bring some cheer to the displaced children.

Trying think of something productive for herself to do, Dash circled the camp another time. She wanted to fight, to punish those that had done this to her fiends, but all she really knew was the basic stuff, things she'd picked up through years of scrap fights and what James had taught her, she didn't really know how to use a weapon.

Rainbow Dash passed over the clearing that had been set aside for the airships the RSTG used. She looked down and saw Myst's ship. There, in the light cast from the cabin, she was reading a book with her son snuggled up against her side and fast asleep. She got an idea. Aria used to work closely with the covert fighting force, maybe she knew somepony that could help.

On her feathery wings, she glided down, alighting on the dark grass near the airship. Myst looked up at the soft thump of the pegasus' impact and closed the book. As Dash walked over, Myst carefully extricated herself from her son's warm side, making sure he remained comfortable and asleep before getting up and moving to intercept the air bound mare.

"Hey RD, what's up?" She said in a whisper.

"Not much, Aria. Can you help me out with something?" Dash replied in kind.

Myst nodded and motioned for the pegasus to follow her, taking her out of earshot of Flicker, but still close enough to keep an eye on him. "So what's going on?" Myst asked, picking up on the urgent tone in Dash's voice.

"I was kinda wondering how I could get in on this stuff."

Myst tilted her head to the side with confusion, "What do you mean?"

"I want to fight, like you guys do." She clarified.

"Oh. Well, I don't get into any actual fighting, not any more at least, and my Night Mares really just get the boys in to do their work and provide close air support."

"No, I meant like the RSTG guys. I want to take the fight to the saddle soap sucking cowards that did this." Rainbow Dash said with angry determination.

Myst looked uneasy, "You sure you want to do that? What would James think, Celestia rest his heart?"

Aria still didn't know that James was actually still alive, even though he'd dived right past her airship a few times—always out of sight—when Pinkie had asked to tag along on one of their sky diving activities. The pink party animal had really taken to the fun and adrenaline rush associated with it.

Even so, Aria was right. James wouldn't approve. A big part of the reason that he had gone into hiding was to help protect her from the violence that had followed him through life. But everything had changed now, the violence had searched him out and found her instead. Dash suddenly felt a pang of hurt and worry as she thought about him. Multiple times, she had considered flying back to find him, but her friends needed her help and if anypony could take care of themselves, it was James. That, at least, he would approve of.

"I have to do this, Aria. If I don't try to contribute some way, I might let my friends down. He wouldn't think highly of that. So can you help me, or not?" She countered.

Myst still didn't look convinced, but her answer wasn't one of rejection. "Have you tried speaking with Garth?"

"Fluttershy won't let him out of bed, let alone teach fighting again."

"Hmm, the only two ponies I could talk to about it are Flash and... Lectric. . ." She said with some dismay. But then something else popped into her head. "Wait. Flash's team!"

"What about 'em?"

"I know a couple of them weren't in Canterlot, they were on a training exercise when it happened!"

"Who, can they help me?" Dash asked perking up.

"Maybe. It's only two of them and one's a unicorn, but the other's a pegasus, he could teach you what you want to know." Myst said.

"Awesome, where are they?" Rainbow Dash asked in anticipation.

Myst's features became apologetic, "Well, unfortunately you're gonna have to wait a little. They went out on recon trip a few days ago, they won't be back 'til tomorrow. Or whatever constitutes as tomorrow seeing as the sun won't come up."

"Oh, ok. Who am looking for when they do come back?"

"His name's Sylver. Sylver Lyne. His spotter's name is Sumner Breeze."

"All right, thanks." Dash said as she turned to leave.

She was about to take off when Myst stopped her, "Hey Dash!"

"Yeah?" She replied looking over her shoulder.

"Be careful, ok? We never did find James' will, but I'm sure he'd have wanted us to look after you so try not to get hurt."

"Don't worry, Aria." Rainbow said as she took off. "I don't intend on goin' out that easily."

She really didn't. Now she had a couple names and they were from Flash's team. James had trained Flash and Flash's team was trained by both Flash and Garth. She would ask the Stallions to train her to fight offensively, use weapons and if need be, to kill. Although she hoped it wouldn't have to come to that. She'd seen the way it had affected James, she wasn't sure how it would affect her as well.

A Little Liberation

Chapter 30: A Little Liberation

It would only work once. If they failed, Celestia, Luna and the battle—if not the war—would almost certainly be lost. With few exceptions, entry into the palace by magical means, like teleportation, was strictly prohibited. In fact, the only two individuals who could do such a thing were, of course, the princesses themselves. However, that didn't mean that movement within the palace was restricted. The only place that couldn't be magically breeched in the palace's interior was the vault deep in its belly, protected with enchantments set by Celestia.

Thus it was Sparks' plan to have them all teleport to a location outside the bed chambers and near the entrance to the vault. As a unicorn, Sparks knew that such a spell required tremendous amounts of energy and the amount required increased with distance. Sparks didn't know how to do the spell himself, but the princesses did.

The unicorns of their personal guard—there were only four—would help provide the energy needed. Once the spell was cast, they would have to book it from where ever they ended up to the vault as fast as they could while still avoiding capture. Once inside, they should be safe for a while.

Right now, Sparks was going over the battle plan with the two RSTG recruits while the forces outside continued to break through the doors. They were close to succeeding. "Remember to keep your heads low and don't take unnecessary risks. We aren't wearing any body armor and they've got guns out there. Starlight, have you finished familiarizing yourself with that weapon?"

The unicorn levitated a .45 caliber submachine gun. Sparks had heard James call it a 'Tommy Gun' once. 'Tommy' was about to get a work out. "Should be all set to go, sir."

"Outstanding. Stalks, I want you to stick close and out of the way. You can't use projectile weapons, so do not engage unless they come to you."

"Sir, yes, sir."

"Ok, now keep in mind that we aren't going out there to fight. The objective is to reach our destination safely, not neutralize the threat inside the palace. Not yet." Sparks finished his briefing and went over to the princesses who were gathering their energy with the other unicorns for the spell. "Princesses Celestia and Luna, we're ready."

Celestia replied with obvious strain in her voice, "That's good to hear, Commander. Now, the volume of energy required to move all of us is absolutely enormous. That said, I can tell you that I can get us close to the vault entrance, but not in front of it."

"We'll make do with what we can. We always do." Sparks said reassuringly.

"I know, Commander. Thank you, you've always been reliable and an excellent Commanding Officer since James left."

"I strive for the best, ma'am."

Having gathered the required energy, Celestia and Luna were about to cast the spell. Their personal guards gathered in a tight group around them while Sparks and his two recruits got into ready positions next to them. With the will of the princesses, a swirling aura of golden light engulfed them. In a blinding flash, they were gone. Just three seconds later, the chamber doors came crashing down.

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"You know what you're doing now?"

"I— I guess." The unicorn replied with uncertainty.

James looked at the brown, burlap colored Corporal in the driver's seat of the armored vehicle from the small platform that bisected it, between the rows of seats, "We'll just have to run with that then, we're almost out of time."

"What do you want me to do again?"

"Like I said, Corporal Burl. I want you to drive straight at the camp there and swing around like you want to drive back out of town, but not until I stamp my foot three times." He held up three fingers to reinforce the idea. "Then when we pull out into the park; break, throw up a barrier that I can shoot out of with out getting shot and then duck and cover."

The Corporal took a deep breath, "All right, let's do this."

"I like the attitude." James commented, pulling himself up so he was standing halfway through the top hatch. He still didn't know who designed it, but it certainly had some heavy human military influence.

Corporal Burl started up the engine, but kept all the lights off just as he had been instructed. James noted that the whine of the engine seemed to be at a lower pitch, as if it was running out of power. He hoped that wasn't the case and moved to ready the weapon he'd mounted on the top hatch.

It was nothing big or too powerful. Just the M240B he'd found in Sparks' private little store room. James flipped open the top and fed a belt of the 7.62mm in, slammed it shut and cycled the charging lever with a satisfying chick-chack. All set, he pounded the roof and and his driver pulled away. He was a handling it a little skittishly at first, but evened out as he got the hang of it.

The main street of Ponyville loomed ahead and in short time, houses were already racing by them on either side. Some of the attackers from before spotted them and shouted alarm, but they continued to speed past. James flipped the safety and braced. This could be a rough ride.

The fighting vehicle tore into the main square and slid to a stop to the surprise of many of those camped out there. James surveyed the area before him and deep inside him, he was immensely content with what he saw. It was a target rich environment.

Rounds ripped through pony and Lotkin alike as he pulled the trigger and unleashed hell upon them all. One, two, three, four went down before any of them knew what was going on. A couple rounds smacked into the armor plating beneath James, tossing bullet fragments up into his face. He swiveled the gun and cut down a group of Lotkin that had opened up on him.

The belt of ammunition started flapping wildly on the side of the machine gun and James knew he was close to running out. Just as well, more of the warriors around him were bringing their firearms to bear. If they stuck around any longer, he'd be Swiss cheese.

James stomped his boot three times and was relieved when Corporal Burl, all too happy to be leaving, mashed on the throttle and peeled out of the town square. The vehicle sped away and to James' delight, the rest of the hostile fighters began to chase after. As they pulled off, he fired a few more bursts at their pursuers and then quickly reloaded, a difficult task as the vehicle bounced around.

Corporal Burl drove up into the park and stopped the vehicle at the top of a small rise, presenting an irresistible target. The enemies chasing them hadn't caught up yet, but James could see them sprinting towards them in the distance. A few of them took pot shots at him, the slugs pounded into the dirt around the vehicle.

James stuck his head down into the hatch, "Corporal, do it now!"

The unicorn didn't need to be told twice. He opened the door and hopped out, taking cover behind the big armored car. With a great deal of effort and concentration, he summoned the energy for the spell, horn glowing with power, and released it in a flash of light. In front of James, an opaque barrier appeared, shimmering softly in the moonlight.

James waited a little while the Lotkin and stallions that called themselves Renegades closed the gap, firing their weapons as they did so. A few bullets struck the barrier, which flashed and sparked with the impacts, but it held.

They closed in. James hoped the unicorn had done it right and the barrier was only one way. Then with a savagery he only recently had discovered, he let loose another torrent of withering fire from his mount, cutting down all before him. They fought back, but in vain, the barrier protected him. He slaughtered them with impunity, his face an emotionless mask.

Behind the Renegades, a furious cry rose up. A line of Royal Guard stallions galloped with weapons raised for battle. James stopped firing so as not to hit them. The Renegades turned about, those armed with firearms attempting to fire upon them, but to no avail. The Royal Guards charged into their ranks; cutting, slashing and stabbing the invaders until none were left standing.

The Royal Guards loosed a triumphant cry as they stood amongst their fallen captors and enemies. The sergeant who had taken charge sent a detachment back into town to round up any stragglers they might have missed. The guards that remained grouped together and rejoiced in their new freedom.

James didn't join them in their celebration. The fire inside him had no desire to. All it wanted was more blood. However, it would have to wait. Rushing into more fights would do him no good. So he pulled out his flask and took a swig, the liquor burning down his throat and the fire subsided to a dull simmer.

Down in the town, the residents were beginning to emerge, curious about all the noise and subsequent sudden silence followed by the cheering of the guards. The sergeant ordered his stallions to cordon off the main square and the hill in the park, protecting the townsfolk from the gruesome result of war until they cleared the bodies.

While they did that, James slid down into the driver's seat and started the engine back up, it definitely sounded like it was running out of juice now. He drove down into the town and took the road to the Cake's bakery. He was hungry after all the fighting and he was sure they wouldn't want the goods they'd left out to go to waste—he'd leave payment for them in the register anyway.

He was almost halfway there when there was a pounding on the driver's side door accompanied by angry yelling. James slowed to a stop and leaned out the window. What he saw was a very irate chestnut colored unicorn with an aquamarine blue-green mane and matching eyes.

"Hey, what're you doing with my Daisy?" She looked it over and gasped, "Are those bullet strikes!?" She yelled at him.

James took a look around the empty interior of the vehicle, confused, before answering her. "Sorry, no Daisy in here. Go home, it's safer there." He leaned back in and started to pull forward, but stopped when the mare ran out in front, blocking his way. He leaned back out, "Get out the way, I got shit to do!"

"Nuh-uh! I built Daisy with Topher for him and Jackson to use, you can't take her!" She protested loudly, starting to draw attention.

"Topher?" Something clicked in James' head. He didn't know this unicorn, but she claimed she had built the armored vehicle with Mayfield. That would explain the human dominated design, not to mention why the steering wheel was on the starboard side. He got an idea.

"You built it, huh? Tell you what; I'm gonna have to commandeer this for use by the RSTG. It's sounding a little sluggish. Fix it and I'll see you'rre reimbursed." He offered. He hated to have to take it from her, but he had a lot of traveling to do and he'd rather not walk if he could help it.

"No dice." Damn. He might have to do this by force. "I've got a counter offer. The engine runs off the same tech as the RSTG airships and it sounds like it's gettin' low on power. You want to use Daisy, I'm going with. I know what you're trying to do, Mr Demon of Everfree." Shit. There was the kicker. How did she know?

A crowd was starting to form around the strange sight and James wanted to move on before anyone else recognized him. "Fine, get in." He said reluctantly.

The unicorn smirked and went around to the passenger's side and hopped in the seat, slamming the door shut behind her. "My name's Quick Fix by the way. Most my friends just call me Q for short though."

"Q. No shit, how very James Bond-esque."

"Who's James Bond?" Quick Fix asked with apparent ignorance.

"He's a lot like Topher, except way classier." James joked as he pulled away.

"You know Topher?"

"Yeah. How did you know who I was?"

"Easy." Quick Fix said, eager to show off her intelligence. "There have only been three humans in Equestria—"

"Four. There've been four."

"Four? When did the fourth one get here?"

James looked at her with astonishment. How could she not know about that, the man that had launched a massive invasion against her country only four years prior? Did Celestia not tell her subjects? Maybe she had her reasons, but he didn't know them. "A long time ago." He answered, not wanting to reopen that can of worms just yet.

"Huh. So what's the plan?" Quick Fix asked.

James pulled up to Sugarcube Corner. "We're grabbing some food, making a pick up at an friend's place and then it's on to the next event. You're some kind of mechanic, right?"

"The absolute best!" She replied with obvious pride. "I can even make new parts on the spot."

James found that very interesting. She might turn out to be pretty useful. "Any experience with combat? This might get dangerous." He warned.

"No, not really. But I was trying to join the Night Mares anyway. Honesty though, this RSTG stuff looks like it's gonna be a lot more interesting."

They arrived at the bake shop and began loading up all the stuff left in the display case. Hardly a balanced meal, but you made do with what was on hand in these situations. James could supplement his meals with whatever he found on the way anyhow. Before they left, James left a bag of bits in the register containing an amount that he was sure would cover what they took.

From there, they took the road back out of town. They were just about to clear the main street when a small squad from the Royal Guard moved in and blocked their path. James narrowed his eyes as he watched the sergeant from earlier trot up to the driver's side.

"Hey, just wanted to thank you for your help. I didn't know how much more we could've taken in that cage."

"No problem." James replied. Then he thought of a question, "Sergeant, you know exactly what's going on, if anywhere else has been hit?"

"Yeah, we got a messenger almost right before the attack, flew all the way from Canterlot. Seems like they got hit pretty hard, so did everything else from here on to the north. Can't say for the southern towns though, no word."

"Is the messenger still here, can I speak to him?"

The sergeant shifted uncomfortably. "Well, uh. I'm sorry, but he really didn't make it. He was already pretty badly wounded when he arrived."

James sighed, "Ok, thanks."

He was about to take off again when the sergeant stopped him a second time, "Wait, I just want to know, who are you? What you just did for us deserves a positive report."

James looked at him, then started to pull off, "I'm just a ghost, don't worry about it." He said dismissively before driving off past the squad of guards. As he pulled away he heard the sergeant shout, "Be careful if you're leaving, theres more of 'em running around the country side!"

They drove off back to Sparks' place of residence. He had room in the back of the vehicle he was driving, why not fill it up? James' thoughts flicked to the weapons stored there and what he might need, then to his old weapon, his pistol. He actually missed it, the piece of hardware had been with him through a lot of shit over the years. An idea came to mind.

"Quick Fix."

"Yeah?"

"Are you any good a fabrication?"

The look on her face was one of vexation, "Really? That's, like, only my friggin' specialty."

"Is it?"

"Uh, yeah! Check it out. You get me a design and the raw materials, I'll make you the parts you want almost instantly."

"Instantly? How do you pull that off?" It was a legitimate question, but it came out as skepticism.

Quick Fix brushed aside her mane and tapped the horn protruding from her forehead, "Magic, duh."

James pulled the vehicle up to Sparks' place and went back into the small armory. He found a few duffle bags and started loading them up with ammunition, boxes and boxes of it. The bags were extremely heavy, but with his strength, getting them into the flat bed of the vehicle's trunk wasn't a problem. He went back inside and retrieved a few more firearms; some pistols and a few rifles, even a little submachine gun he found in a trunk. Then he grabbed some paper and a pen and got to drawing.

He remembered his old sidearm, he hoped Sparks still had it. But now it was time for a new weapon. He'd design it and Quick Fix would help him make it. It would be a weapon to see this war through. It would be a weapon to deal a deathly blow to his enemies. It would be a weapon to finally end the pain.

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Mayfield was crouched behind a stack of crates, trying to keep out of sight. Not all that hard considering it was late afternoon and the sun still had yet to rise at all. He was scouting the market and it wasn't looking good. The attackers had decided to dig in there. Not just as an occupation of space, but also into the food that the merchants had left out as they fled.

Lotkin and pony alike sat around fires built from the splintered remains of some of the stands, chewing on watermelon, apples and whatever else happened to be available. Problem was, they were absolutely everywhere. It seemed to be the main encampment.

With quiet steps, he backtracked to where the rest of his team was waiting, down a rather putrid alley that smelled as if it were the local garbage dump. Whirl spotted him and waved him over. Quickly, Mayfield ducked into the small garage they had temporarily holed up in. Jackson was there waiting for his report.

"How's it look?"

"Bad."

"How bad?" Jackson asked.

Mayfield considered how to put it, then decided simplicity was best, "Well, the docks aren't too far off and the boats look mostly untouched. That said, the market's full of the buggers, patrols are heavy all down the coast and we're strapped for ammo and manpower. Simply; we're fucked."

"That's no good. So what you thinkin'?"

"Distraction maybe? I dunno, but we need to clear the area out if we wanna get through there alive."

"I might have a solution." Cray put in.

"Yeah, what's that?" Jackson was intrigued.

Cray went and got his kit bag, bringing it back to both Jackson and Mayfield and zipping it open. "This city is newer than most of the others, but it's still old. The market is particularly dated, going back a few hundred years. Also, because of its high amount of traffic, it had to have a good sewer system running underneath." He reached into his bag and pulled out a few bundles of high explosive grenades.

"Now that's cookin' with fire, where'd you get those?"

"I pulled them from the vault when I got a small tour and slipped them into my locker. Put 'em in my bag before rolling out here."

"You know you could really get into trouble for that." Redflare pointed out.

"Doesn't matter now." Mayfield said. "So kid, what do you want to do with those?"

"Easy, install them in the sewer, blow it and collapse the market. Then we slip around in the chaos."

Mayfield laughed and turned to Jackson, "Y'know, I think I actually like 'im."

Loss And Power

Chapter 31: Loss And Power

"Stalks, get down!"

Sparks reached up and pulled the stallion down by the shoulder behind the fallen column of marble they were using for cover. Not a moment too soon as the space where the stallion's head had been was suddenly filled with whistling of bullets carving through the air and the impact of metal on stone as some hit the top of the marble, shattering it and sending shards scattering everywhere.

"Pay attention, I don't need you getting your head blown off." Sparks chastised.

"Sorry sir, it won't happen again." Stalks apologized.

"I hope not, because if it does, it might be the last time you let it."

Sparks sighed and took a quick peek over their cover before ducking back down again. The Renegades still hadn't moved from their position at the end of the corridor. This was good, because he didn't have to worry about them running up on his position yet, but bad because they still stood between him and the staircase to the vault.

The situation wasn't good. Upon reappearing in one of the passageways, they were pleased to find that they were not far from the vault itself. It only took them a few minutes to get where they were now. Of course, everything went south when they rounded the corner and ran smack dab into a patrol, the one they were currently fighting. Three of the Royal Guard had immediately been hit in defense of the princesses, sustaining serious, but fortunately non life threatening wounds.

Sparks had ordered the princesses to retreat back around the corner until he and his small team could deal with the attackers. Unfortunately, it seems they were now pinned down, a very dire situation indeed as it was only a matter of time before the sound of the skirmish attracted more unwanted guests. They had to do something drastic and fast, he and Star were almost out of ammunition. He got an idea.

"Star, cover me!" Sparks yelled.

"Covering!"

As soon as the unicorn popped up and started spraying the area with fire, Sparks sprinted back to the corner and ducked around, dodging a stray bullet or two as he did. The princesses were still there, safe for the moment. The three injured guards were lying on the ground by the wall, two unicorns and a pegasus, Celestia was currently laboring over the wounds of one, her horn glowing with a gentle golden light. Luna was standing a short ways off, looking troubled as she contemplated some unknown thought.

Respectfully, Sparks approached the princesses, "Your Majesties, a moment please?"

Celestia stopped what she was doing and spoke softly to another nearby unicorn; a lieutenant, the acting commander of their guards and the last able bodied spell caster in their retinue. She stood up and the lieutenant moved in to take over, administering aid as best he could. From where she was standing, Luna trotted to her sister's side.

"Yes Commander, what would you like to talk about?" Celestia asked kindly, given the circumstances.

"Ma'am, I'm sorry to report we're a bit stuck. Our current fire power can't cut it at this rate. I was wondering if we could borrow your remaining spell casters, maybe break the line wit a powerful magical attack." Sparks suggested.

Celestia glanced back at her wounded warriors. One of the unicorns was recovering well, but the other would need some time to heal. The lieutenant was the only other one capable. She turned back to the Commander with a heavy face, "I'm sorry, but they are far too injured to attempt such a thing. Perhaps Lieutenant Shine might be able to help, but—"

"We can do it." Luna cut in.

"Sister..."

"No Tia, we can do it." Luna said with determination. "Commander, if we can disrupt them, can you eradicate those barring our path?"

"Of course, Your Highness. We'll only need a few seconds."

"Very well."

"No, Luna—" Celestia protested, but was interrupted again.

"Tia, we must. The need is dire and our powers are great!"

Celestia's features softened as she faced her sibling, "Luna, ageless we may be, but our bodies are still vulnerable to the maladies of the flesh. I lost you once, I would not lose you again."

Luna stood firm, "Our country is in danger, sister. I'll not stand back, safe from danger, when I can help. I'm going."

For a fleeting moment, Celestia appeared downcast. But then her features resolved and she took on a hardened look. "So be it. So you go and so shall I. Commander, ready your soldiers for the attack and be swift."

"Yes ma'am." Sparks replied.

He didn't like the idea of the princesses putting themselves in danger either, but if they were confident in their abilities, then he was as well. Without a moment to lose, he galloped back around the corner and slid in behind the pillar. Stalks and Star were still there, Star was on his last few magazines.

"All right, listen up!" Sparks barked, "We're gonna get a little support here. As soon as I say go, we rush their position down the hall and take'em out, understand?"

"Yes sir!" The two recruits replied in unison.

From around the corner, Luna stepped out, walking calmly down the passageway. The Renegades at the other end turned to fire upon her. Sparks and Star returned fire immediately, but it was unnecessary. The rounds that would have otherwise struck the Princess of the Night instead were deflected by a shimmering barrier of golden light, glancing off and striking walls and shattering windows.

When she was close enough, Luna's eyes took on a sinister glow and her horn began to glow a dark midnight blue. With a yell of effort, she reeled back and dipped her head, loosing a powerful beam of swirling darkness from her horn. It impacted the ground around the Renegades' feet, erupting into a shadowy night that engulfed them all and obscured them from sight.

Seconds after the attack hit, dreadful wailing began broadcasting from beyond the veil of night. Sparks saw his opportunity and took it. "Now! Go go go!" The three of them vaulted over their cover and made a mad dash for the billowing cloud of darkness. They plunged inside and were greeted by a strange sight.

Every one of the attackers, Lotkin and pony alike, were writhing on the ground; some kneeling, others laying, all clutching their heads in pain. The spell did not affect Sparks and his recruits, however, and they moved about the group, ending their misery with a quick thrust of the blade or a bullet to the head.

As they finished up, Luna trotted up to the scene, surveying the carnage. Sparks looked up, puzzled by the uncharacteristic display of malice. "That was some show there." He commented.

"They do not call me The Princess of the Night for nothing, Commander." She quietly rebuked.

"So they don't." Sparks muttered with the fresh memory of the pain she had just inflicted on their foes still at the forefront of his mind. "Remember not to piss her off." He said to himself.

Sparks shouted the all clear and the darkness dissipated almost as fast as it had appeared. The Renegades were now all dead, there was no time to lose. The princesses' contingent rushed forward with Sparks and his stallions, the injured being carried on the backs of the able. They moved to the stairs as fast as they could and began the decent to the bottom where the vault entrance waited.

As soon as they reached the large oaken doors, Celestia unlocked them with a quick spell and the guards began to push the heavy doors open. There was a shout from the top of the stairs, followed by the twang of bullets ricocheting off the walls nearby, reinforcements had arrived. Sparks returned fire on them, dropping two, but also expending the rest of his mag, he only had one left, seven rounds.

The door was now wide enough for them to pass through and Sparks ushered them in, all the while keeping an eye on the advancing hostiles. Bullets thunked into the thick wood doors and skittered off the cold stone floor. They moved inside as fast as they could, but now the attackers at the top of the stairs had begun to descend to the vault entrance.

The guards threw themselves against the other side of the doors, trying to close them as fast as they possibly could. It was too slow. By the time the gap between the doors had even closed halfway, the enemies were almost at the gates. Sparks rallied his recruits for a stand. "This is it, they do not take a single step across this threshold!" He ordered. Together, he and them moved to the entry way and prepared to fight.

They waited, ready to fight, itching to charge into the fray. Sparks prepared to give the order, but then something else happened. A stallion galloped past him and out the doors at a furious clip. As he exited he shouted back, "I got this, you guys make sure those doors close!"

"Lieutenant Shine, come back here!" Celestia shouted from further in the vault, but her order went unheeded.

The young lieutenant charged his magic and sent bursts of energy smashing into the chests of the attackers and knocking them back, leaving some smoldering on the ancient stone steps. Sparks looked on in disbelief at the unicorns actions for the briefest moment before he snapped back into reality. He knew what he had to do next and it was something he knew he would come to regret later in life, but it was an unfortunate necessity.

Still, the Commander did what he could to help as he ran to one of the doors, emptying the rest of his magazine and taking down two more of the warriors in the process. As he reached one of the massive barriers, he shouted to his recruits to man the other and with their strength combining that of the guards, began to finally swing the doors shut.

"No, what are you doing!?" Celestia stepped forward, "You have to help him, stop closing the doors!"

"Ma'am, please stay back!" Sparks shouted back over the gunfire and whine of bullets.

Outside the vault, more soldiers of the Renegade army had appeared and were making an assault on the vault. Lieutenant Shine fought back as much as he could with his attacks, but fighting with magic was strenuous and his strength was flagging. The soldiers were closing in, the bullets striking closer to his body. Finally, after loosing yet another attack on a brace of Lotkin, freezing them in place, a round found its mark.

Celestia watched on in horror as Lieutenant Shine reeled back as if stuck by a sledgehammer, a gaping hole appearing in the armor of his shoulder. Next, a vicious burst perforated his side, weakening him and sending him down to his knees. For the briefest moment, his head turned back, looking back through the shrinking gap of the doors and he smiled, his horn charging with intensely white radiant light.

Then he was gone. The doors finally closed with a thick rumbling boom that reverberated through out the space. "Lieutenant Shine!" Celestia cried as Sparks and his recruits helped the guards heft a heavy iron bar into a cradle that spanned the doors, locking them shut from the inside. Angrily, she trotted up to the Commander, "Why, why did you do that, we could have helped him, brought him back inside!"

Sparks exhaled heavily from his recent exertions, head dipped low. He could still see that young officer, that guard, as he stood his ground at the coming advance, even as his path to salvation was sealed behind him by his own comrades. He was angry. Angry at the loss and his actions that had led to it.

In ill temper, Sparks wheeled around and faced the princess, "I know!" He said a little more gruffly than he intended. "Yes, we could have brought him inside, could have kept the doors open longer, but at the risk of your safety." Hearing himself and his bitter tone towards his matriarch, he softened his voice, face falling flat in a depression. "He did what he had to do to ensure that didn't happen. He did what any of us are willing to do. Please, don't let that go to waste, Your Highness." He finished with respect.

From nearby, Luna came to her sister's side at seeing her reaction, "Come Tia, the Commander means you no ill will. There is still much to do and like he said, we must not let the time afforded us by Lieutenant Shine go to waste."

Celestia closed her eyes and with a deep breath drew herself up. "You're right, Luna. Come with me, Commander," she said with a hint of hardness to her voice, "the object we have fought and paid dearly for is this way."

Celestia started off deeper into the vault, Luna close by her side. Sparks left his two recruits by the door to keep watch and tend to the wounded with one of the other guards. The rest followed the princesses as they proceeded down the vaulted corridor, lighting torches suspended along the pillars all the way they went.

Sparks caught up with them quickly, stealing glances at the hidden treasures squirreled away in the alcoves that dotted the passage way. There were dusty boxes and piles of old armor. These soon gave way to the more clandestine items, recovered from various locations through out the land.

He saw the bulky machinery typical of human work, rusted and beaten. Tattered bulky clothing, since begun rotting. Then came the more dangerous items; weapons. Weapons found long buried in the wilds and forests; pulled from hard rock, shifting sand or soft loam. Most were conventional, like the rifles they now used, but one caused him pause.

It was a sinister piece of machinery, one he found himself drawn to on every visit. A large boxy body with a long, heavy barrel attached to one end, a pair of vertical hard wood handles on the other. It was obviously a weapon of heavy caliber, it seemed to emanate an aura of death. Sparks wondered at it for the usual moment and then moved on with his task at hoof.

The princesses Celestia and Luna led him back to a secretive corner, one that only housed a scant few containers of useless items and metal scrap. It was an area he seldom paid any attention to, so he was surprised when he followed the two sisters into a well concealed corridor that he wouldn't ever had know was there had they not shown him to it.

It wasn't a long passageway by far and soon terminated at a rather plain and otherwise unremarkable wall of brick and mortar. This also proved to be illusion, however, as Celestia bowed and thrust the tip of her horn into what Sparks at first thought to be solid stone brick. He was about to shout warning when his voice caught in his throat at the sight of her magical appendage passing effortlessly into the face of flat stone.

There was a pulse. A pulse of light from the horn of the princess and a pulse of energy that seemed to rebound about the passage. The wall wavered, becoming as insubstantial as a wisp of smoke, swirling and fading into nothingness. In its place now stood a small set of doors, just wide enough and tall enough for the two princess to pass through. Seemingly of their own accord, the doors swung inward on silent hinges.

There, in the center of the small chamber revealed by the doors was a plain wooden box set on the top of a small pedestal. The box was half a foot in width and at least twice as long. With care, Celestia prodded the box open, flipping back the lid with a hoof. A soft, bubbling glow, born of all the colors of the rainbow spilled out, but with subdued light.

Slowly, Sparks approached the pedestal and peered into the box, laying eyes upon that which they had fought for. Almost imperceptibly, his expression changed to one of quiet surprise. "That's it? That's the special weapon you spoke about?" He asked with some incredulity.

"Yes." Celestia replied softly. "With it, there might be hope of turning back the darkness that now stalks our lands."

Sparks was still somewhat puzzled. "What did you do to it, where did you even find this?"

"If you search hard enough, there's nothing that can't be found. It was a personal project of mine and only few, aside from myself and Luna of course, have any knowledge of it. It is a weapon, yes, but one imbued with the sacred power of the Elements. It repels evil and cannot harm any innocent being. And still, we must have the wielder." Celestia explained to him.

"And what, we're gonna use this to take out Blueblood?"

Celestia sighed at the mention of her rogue nephew and turned away for a moment, but the resumed, "No, this blade is for a far more worrisome power, one that has flitted between worlds for time immemorial and has since set its sights on ours. With the one to wield this blade, one whom's reappearance I think you'll find most pleasing, we can right the wrongs turned on this land."

Author's Notes:

I know these chapters have a rushed feeling to them. I may have an opportunity to do better soon.

A Friend Far From The East

Chapter 32: A Friend Far From The East

Splashes echoed loudly in the brick encrusted tunnels that criss-crossed under the market of Van Hoover. As quickly as a pair of scampering sewer rats, Mayfield and Cray bounced from one load bearing stone stanchion to the next. They worked in tandem, Cray drilling out holes in the base of the stone pillars and Mayfield sliding the grenades in before stringing a length of line through the pin.

They had already set many such charges through out the complex, each tied to a central line that ran up the main corridor, out the exit, and to the rest of their waiting team by the market's surface. If all went well, they'd be able to simply give the main line a rough tug, setting off the charges and letting them sprint through the ensuing chaos.

"Topher, over here, last one!" Cray called in a hushed shout.

"Got ya, mate, hang on a tick." Mayfield shot back as he finished the set he was working on. Once the new trigger line was tied off, he moved on to the pillar indicated by the little stallion. "You sure this is going to work?" Mayfield questioned lightly as he inserted the charges into the holes Cray had already made.

"If you doubt my work, then I invite you to stay and watch the show down here, personally." Cray countered with a sly grin.

"No thanks," Mayfield retorted, "wouldn't want to deny the best seat to the bastards upstairs."

Up above them, the ceiling thumped and cracked with the tramp and work of the occupying force of the Renegades. Through out the sacked and generally neglected market area, they had made a camp, Lotkin and pony alike mumbling in the low murmur of boredom and sloth as they waited on further orders or to defend against an attack they were now sure would never come with the Royal Guard Garrison having been wiped out.

Though sentries patrolled their borders, none took any particular interest in the small, smelly back alley that housed the entrance to the sewers beneath their hooves and feet. It didn't hold any interest to them for either glory of the fight nor intrinsic value of goods, so it went unsearched. Good that it went unnoticed, because so too did the dark face that peered out from behind the corner from time to time and the occasional glint of crimson that fluttered among some of the roofs near it.

Jackson turned back from his recent spying just as Redflare dropped gently to the deck from the building's top. He looked at the pegasus, who nodded, their chosen route was still scant of enemies. Good timing too, as Cray and Mayfield emerged from the stinking hole in the earth just minutes later. "All set." The British man declared as he pulled himself up after the mustang coated unicorn and grabbed his rifle from where it rested. "Ready to blast the ruddy bastards when you are."

"Just about." Jackson said. Then he brought a hand up to his nose. "Make sure you two take a shower or somethin' when we get a chance, you both smell like manure." He complained.

"Oh, and you're the absolute bloody example of hygiene, are you? None of us have had a fuckin' wash in days ya moppet." Mayfield decried with a hint of good humor. "Don't worry, Your Holiness. I'll take a nice long bath as soon as we're clear of this shithouse. Right, Crazy Cray?"

"Yeah, for sure." The weedy unicorn replied enthusiastically.

"Good to here." Jackson said, becoming serious again.

Mayfield sensed the shift in mood and took up his position on the wall, firmly grasping the trip wire he was to pull as he did; pulling the slack out, but not too much. It all hinged on timing now. They had to make the run when the market's inhabitants were most distracted and disorganized, a small window to avoid detection from such a large force. Jackson was sure they would have to do some fighting, but hopefully not enough to bog them down. Speed in this situation was paramount, and any hiccups could very well spell their end.

Jackson looked back at his team one last time, they all nodded, ready. Jackson pointed back at Mayfield and the green eyed man yanked the cord. Two seconds passed. Then three, and then five. Nothing. Whirl was about to mouth a question when he was rudely interrupted by a series of staccato pops and bangs that could be felt up through the stone.

Everything froze.Jackson's team looked on with wild eyes, weapons up and ready. In the large space of the market, the Renegades stopped and looked around in confusion, some staring questioningly at the ground beneath them. The silence lasted an almost imperceptibly long time.

Finally, one of them thought to cry alarm, but it was too late. With a great groaning and rending of earth, the market collapsed, breaking and splitting into great heaving chunks. Great maws of earth and stone opened, swallowing groups of Lotkin and ponies, washing them down with a cascade of brick and stone.

Jackson saw their chance, "Let's go, stick close to the buildings!"

Together in single file, they dashed out from their cover. They ran down a narrow length of brick work between the collapse and the buildings that had held its ground. A few soldiers had taken advantage of this and stood, staring in awe at the massive destruction that kept their eyes from the real danger.

As he ran, Jackson dropped the hostiles ahead with a few well placed shots, sending their bodies tumbling into the trench. The plan had been good. All eyes had been drawn to the great gaping hole that swallowed so many and none gave the sporadic sound of gunfire any particular attention.

There was only one minor snag in their flight. One of Cray's hooves slipped on a loose piece of rubble that almost sent him careening over the edge. "I got you buddy!" Redflare cried, flying close with them overhead. Deftly, he swooped down and grabbed the terrified unicorn around the sides, flinging him to the relative safety of the ledge.

The ragged group of fighters had nearly made it to the wharf before they were even noticed. However, once they had been exposed, a rallying shout went up among the Renegades and a large brace of them closed to make the pursuit. There was sparsely any cover now between the market and the docks, they would have to cover their own retreat.

Jackson slowed, "Whirl, Cray, Topher; turn, drop and fire!" He ordered over his shoulder. Almost instantly, they followed through, spinning around and crouching to present a smaller target. In unison they opened fire, sending their pursuers into a scatter for cover against the hail of lead. "Drop back, drop back!" Jackson shouted as he himself turned and crouched low by a wall.

As soon as his three teammates ran past him, Jackson let off a few controlled bursts back at their enemies. In this way, they leap-frogged up to the docks. Some of the Renegades behind them brought more than just sword and spear and multiple times they had to press against the wall of a house or shop to avoid getting shot.

They had almost reached the start of the docks when they hit a dreadful change of luck. From behind a set of stalls, an orderly rank of Lotkin armed with rifles marched out to block their path. "Shit!" Mayfield cursed loudly, "Everyone, duck in here!" He led them to a small concave gap between two houses that was only ten feet deep and just wide enough to shield them all.

The last member of their team had barely crossed when the ground and the corners shielding them on both sides erupted in a spray of chipped stone as their enemies poured rifle fire onto their position. The moment they stopped to reload, every RSTG member with a firearm leaned out and fired, sending the Renegades diving for cover of their own. Still, the special forces operators were pinned down and reduced to trading potshots with their aggressors in a bid to keep them back.

After a searingly close salvo, Jackson slumped back against the wall they were huddled against and began reloading his weapon with tired fingers. He had less than a belt of ammo left, he could no longer afford to put down a steady stream of suppressing fire. Just as well, the rest of his team was almost dry, a condition reinforced by the actions of Mayfield and Cray who slumped down beside him and merely checked their mags rather than swap them for fresh ones.

"Think we might be done here, mate." Mayfield remarked breathlessly. "Knew I should have held onto a few of those grenades."

"Woulda, shoulda, coulda." Jackson replied without humor. "Cray." He said, turning to the unicorn. "Tell me you got another trick or something."

Cray swallowed as he caught his breath, "There's one thing I could do. I'm almost out of five-seven, but I scored high in Combat Magic. Problem is it's super energy consuming. I might not be able walk after performing the spells required to get out of this jam." He said matter-of-factly.

"Do it." Jackson ordered. "I want you to bring the house down on the street behind us, literally. Get with Whirl, have him help you."

"You got it."

Cray got up and grabbed Whirl from a corner, bringing him back to go over a plan. "One last desperate run for freedom, eh?" Mayfield commented to Jackson.

"Yeah, looks that way." He said dully as he flipped the lid on his Mk 43 down and gave it a wiggle to make sure it was secure.

"Fair enough." Mayfield grunted as he got back up. "Didn't want to die on my arse any way."

Jackson got up to join him and saw Cray and Whirl standing ready on his signal. He gave them the go ahead and moved to the forward corner. "All right, last run. Blackjack, as soon as we're at the docks, take up the lead and take us to your boat. Everyone else, pay attention and follow Blackjack close, ready on my mark!" He bellowed above the roar of gunfire.

Behind them, Cray and Whirl were bent in concentration, sweat beading their foreheads. They pooled their resources of energy and selected their target; a tall, dilapidated building that stood on the other side of the street a short distance back the way they'd come. The building took on a strange silvery sheen and it began to groan much like the market had just before its demise.

The Renegades there, now all too familiar with that sound, recognized the danger and tried to fall back. It was in vain, however, as with a shriek of metal and stone, the building's base ripped open east to west and began to tip over. Before the building was even half way down, Cray and Whirl tuned as one and aimed their horns down the street to the docks.

The beams of energy they shot from their horns melded and intertwined together, spiraling and leaping around each other before impacting the ground between the two enemy positions at the end of the street. There was a sudden and terrifying eruption of heat, light and sound that blew down the Renegades there and left them stunned, if not wounded.

Finally, the building to their rear came crashing down, burying the Renegades not fast enough to clear its way and blocking the rest off from the street. Cray started to slump to the ground in exhaustion, but was picked up by Iron who tossed the tired mustang onto his back. Whirl was able to move on his own, Cray having supplied most of the energy and structure for the spells.

"That's it, hit'em hard!" Jackson shouted over the din of tumbling and sliding rock.

With renewed energy, the team surged forward to the gap. Some of the Renegades had been thrown clear of their cover by the magical attack. They were in the process of picking themselves back up, but Jackson and Mayfield put them back down with a few quick bursts. The others were getting back up behind cover now, but in an impressive display of marksmanship, Mayfield was keeping their heads down with some carefully aimed trigger pulls.

At this rate they might actually make it and for a second, Jackson allowed himself some hope. That hope was shattered though when a bullet skipped off the ground by his feet and another grazed his face, carving a thin painful line across his jaw. He looked back and was dismayed to see that the Renegades behind them had climbed over and through the obstruction lain in their path and were once again advancing.

Only a few of them were armed with rifles, the rest just carried simple, but still dangerous, blades. While not deadly at distance, the number of Lotkin and ponies with swords would cause a major hassle to his team if they caught up with them and they were gaining fast. Jackson signaled for his team to keep moving, then stopped and turned, bringing his weapon to bear.

In three short burst, he dropped one of the ponies armed with a rifle and two of the sword wielding Lotkin, but his weapon clicked empty after that. In dire straits, Jackson let the Mk 43 drop heavy on its strap and drew his sidearm. With a few well aimed shots, he brought down two more armed with rifles and another with a pistol.

The fighters were almost upon him and he paused to reload, cursing as he dropped the fresh mag and scrambled to retrieve it. When he looked up again, fumbling with the magazine, a tall Lotkin swordsman was rushing him, blade held high. Jackson braced for what would surely be a crippling blow and reached for his knife.

There was suddenly the piercing call of an eagle directly above him and he flinched, but the blow never came. Instead, there was a sickening crunch and a spray of hot blood. Jackson stood and brought his knife up, opening his eyes to see a sight he definitely didn't expect.

The Lotkin was now on its knees, torso leaning back, arms dangling uselessly at its sides. Through the warrior's chest, a long, shining steel sword had been thrust from above with such force that the tip had exited out the small of the back and impaled itself into the stone. Grasping the Great Sword and perched on the corpse's shoulders was a tawny griffon in battered, unusual, ancient looking armor.

The griffon glanced up at Jackson with keen eagle's eyes and said but one word: "Run!"

Jackson was hesitant, but the creature's eyes said it all; he could hold the line and cover the retreat. He gave the strong beaked warrior a nod and turned to catch up with his team, just as another group of Renegade soldiers attacked once again. With another grating eagle's call, the griffon ripped his sword from the fallen Lotkin warrior and swung it in a great arc, decapitating two stallions and taking the arm off another Lotkin Renegade before crunching into its ribs and killing it.

Putting the slaughter behind him, Jackson ran to his team and soon found himself level with them at the end of the street. As he drew up, he found Mayfield and the others waiting for him, Renegade corpses at their feet. "What happened, you alright?" Mayfield asked.

"Yeah, fine." Jackson huffed as he caught his breath. He turned and looked back to see how the griffon was doing, but he was gone, leaving only a large pile of bodies where he once was. Jackson was grateful to have the heat off him and his team and he hoped the stranger had escaped unharmed.

"C'mon Jackie, let's go more'll be along soon."

Jackson brought himself back up to his full height and started forward, "Yeah, let's get the fuck outta here. Blackjack lead the way, quickly."

"Yes sir, Mr. Jackson sir!" The earth stallion replied in a semi-sarcastic tone.

Jackson still found him a little annoying but he would tolerate it for a ride out. Blackjack led them onto the docks and down between the rows of slips to the very end where a decrepit looking, but good sized boat awaited them. Blackjack galloped up and bounded onto a fifty-five foot sailing vessel with the sails still curled up around the boom. "Get on and cast off." He said as he jumped down to a hatch set in the deck of the fantail.

"Really, a bloody sail boat?" Mayfield complained as his squad mates hopped aboard around him. "The damn sails aren't even rigged, they'll ventilate us and put us under before we're even out the slips!"

Blackjack's head popped up out the hatch, "Don't be knockin' down Old Betty just yet, she's got some surprises up her skirt."

"Oh? Like what, super sinking power?"

"No, like this!" Blackjack once again disappeared below the deck. His absence was followed shortly after by tell tale high pitched revving of an electrical engine. The stallion then reappeared with a laugh, "Ya best be gettin' on board now, calvalry's a comin'!"

Mayfield swore and jumped on board, helping his teammates un cleat the mooring lines and cast them off. They were just starting to pull away when another group of Renegades came pounding down the dock and started shooting at them. Blackjack finished up what he was doing down below and jumped on the helm. "Hay and feathers, keep'em off my flank so I can get us out of here!"

Mayfield and Whirl went prone on the deck with their rifles while Jackson braced himself against the mast and stared to return fire with his pistol. Meanwhile, Iron found the door to the cabin and dove inside with a still unconscious Cray. Bullets slapped into the old wood, splintering it and bursting the paint off in flakes, but Blackjack gunned the engine and the old boat took off amidst the plumes of water thrown up by the lethal rounds and soon moved out of range.

Once they were clear, everyone on the boat finally relaxed. Mayfield rolled over and stared up at the starry sky, Jackson just slumped down against the mast. "Hooee! That was a run for the money now, wasn't it?" Blackjack hollered excitedly. "Haven't had a close shave like that since Nightmare Night a few years back! Who wants a drink?"

"You got anything good?" Jackson mumbled from the base of the mast.

"Now what kind of host would I be If I didn't break out the good stuff for my guests?" He replied. "Lemme see what I got down in the cabinet." Blackjack checked their heading out of the bay and ducked into the cabin.

The adrenaline was wearing off now and Jackson found himself moving sluggishly as he got up and found a somewhat comfortable seat by the helm, aft of the mast. A moment later, Mayfield plopped down into the seat across from him, rifle clattering on the bench as he sat down. From inside the large cabin, the ring and clash of glass bottles and cups hitting each other could be hear.

"The bugger's got a regular gin palace here." Mayfield remarked tiredly, leaning over to peer through the hatch.

"Better than a small wooden box." Jackson said, leaning his head back with his eyes closed.

Mayfield chortled, "If we even would have got that."

"How's Cray doing?"

"Fine. Little blighter's all tuckered out. Sleepin' it off on one of the couches inside, Iron and Redflare're watchin' him. Earned it after that crazy arsed light show back there!" He laughed.

Jackson mimicked his friend's laugh, "Yeah. . ." For a little while, he just sat there with his head back, letting it rock with the movement of the boat in the water. After who knows how many days without proper food or rest, Jackson just wanted to sleep. He knew he still had a large task ahead of him, but right now, nodding off into dreamless rest was all he could think about.

He was pulled out of his thoughts of rest, however, when he was pulled back to the land of the living by a harsh clatter of glass. "All right, pick yer poison, I got whiskey, I got rum, hell I even got a little gin for you fancy folk!"

"Gin palace, really." Mayfield drolled. "Pass me the whiskey, will you mate?"

"Here ya go! Mr. Jackson, what'll it be for you?"

Jackson wasn't really in the mood to drink at the moment. Be he thought he might as well share a drink with some of his team. They had pulled through a hellish escape with only a few bumps and scratches, something that was at least worth toasting. "I'll have some of that whiskey." He said, opening his eyes to reach for the bottle and a glass.

He froze. Jackson still had his head back, so he had a great view of the mast against the star filled backdrop, and the large menacing shape perched at its summit. "Toph." He said slowly, "No sudden movements. Carefully, pull out your sidearm, company over head."

Mayfield went stiff at the words, but slowly did as instructed, staring up as he did so. "Please, do not do that." Mayfield stopped. The shape on top of the mast had made the request in a soft and lightly accented voice.

"Who are you?" Jackson challenged. "Show yourself, slow. I'm done fightin' today, I don't want to start another."

"I assure you," the shape replied, "I do not wish to fight also, but to help you and your friends."

"Yeah? Prove it!" Mayfield shouted up.

At the tip of the mast, great shadowy wings flared open and the shape launched itself from its perch. Jackson and Mayfield leaped up, hands flying to their sidearms as it alighted on the rail of the fantail, the metal sagging under its weight, and entered into the light. A tawny griffon peered curiously at them in the light. He wore strange segmented armor that reminded Jackson of the ancient samurai warriors of his own world. More impressively though was the enormous sword the griffin wore across his back, protected in a wide leather sheath.

Jackson relaxed slightly, he recognized the griffon. "You're the one from the street, the one that helped me." The griffon's only reply was a quiet nod.

"He helped you?" Mayfield questioned.

"I should be dead. This guy saved my life back there."

"Yeah, sure." Mayfield said skeptically. "Aren't you blokes huge carnivores?" He asked the amalgamation of bird and lion.

The griffon seemed to grin, "Please do not be alarmed. My people do eat meat, but pony has long since left our appetites and I guess human to be not at all pleasant. Those of my clan mostly feed on fish and other fruits of the sea."

"Arsehole." Mayfield muttered under his breath.

Jackson sat down, he really was tired. "So you want to help us. Why?"

The griffon dropped down to the deck with barely a sound, despite his muscled bulk, and settled on his haunches. "Allow me to introduce myself first. I am Kai, of the Silverblade Clan. I was sent, with others of my flight, to participate in friendly drills with the Equestrians, as we have done for many years now. Fate was not so kind to us, as we were attacked by this foul army and I became separated from my flight."

"Yeah, I think I remember something like that." Jackson said. "Pegasus by the name of Howitzer said he was working with you guys, you seen him?"

"Yes, we were working with this Howitzer." Kai replied. "Unfortunately, I do not know of his fate or that of the rest of my flight."

"Well as long as you're a friendly." Mayfield conceded. "Wouldn't mind having a big bruiser such as yourself watching my back."

Jackson looked back at Blackjack, "We got room for one more?"

Blackjack huffed, "Don't look like I got much of a choice, do I? Welcome aboard big fella."

Author's Notes:

OC Kai Silverblade created by: Gale Force

Out Into The Night

Chapter 33: Out Into The Night

The fire crackled softly in the chilly night air, throwing soft light out and making shadows dance in the perpetual night. James sat on a short log with a small mirror, doing his best to clean the cuts and scratches he'd received when the shrapnel had been sprayed in his face during the raid. He was fortunate it had missed his eyes and had not blinded him.

Nearby, Quick Fix lay on the grass with a small square cloth laid out in front of her, tinkering with various parts she had shaped with chunks of metal she had recovered for use on Jame's design. Her brow was scrunched with concentration, every piece had to be just the right size and weight.

James finished dabbing the last shallow wound with disinfectant and got up, moving to their vehicle. It was a little beat up with scuffs and marks all over its previously immaculate frame, evidence of its recent participation in battle. He opened a back door and slid off his armor, letting it flop onto the seat and reached in for something to eat. He came back with a bowl, some water and a couple of compacted pucks of shredded oats. He tossed one over to Quick Fix and then sat down and crumbled the other into the bowl, adding some water and mixing it into a sort of oatmeal paste.

"Thanks." Quick Fix said, ignoring the food and remaining focused on her task.

James mashed the mixture up and licked the excess off his fingers. "You should eat up and catch some sleep. We got a long road ahead of us."

Quick Fix continued her work for a moment before replying, "It's all right, I'm almost finished up anyway. Just a few final touch-ups and this little machine should be good to go. Besides, you're the one that needs the sleep."

James unscrewed his flask and took a long pull, letting the contents burn down his throat. "I'll be fine."

Quick Fix paused and eyed him warily. "You sure? You've been drinking an awful lot of that stuff lately. My pops always said it was never a good thing to try and drown your demons in the bottom of a bottle. You should lay off it."

James grimaced and snorted a laugh, "Can't drown my demons, they know how to swim. Besides, we have an agreement, me and them. We're working together this time."

"Wow, dark." Quick Fix replied uncomfortably. "Really though, you should get some sleep."

"I said I'm fine!" James shot back a little angrily.

"No you're not fine! You've been up for more than two days straight, drinking rum and trying to kill almost anything that moves! We've been stuck out here in the wilderness, roughing it and taking our Celeatia awful time. If we'd taken the road, we could have been at Canterlot by now!" She put impatiently.

James stared at her crossly, but quickly subdued it. "One; I've gone much longer than two days without sleep, hazard of the job. Two;" he held up the flask, "I like rum, I'm gonna drink rum. Regardless. Three; the main roads are too dangerous, you heard what the sergeant said. No, we need to conserve ammo and energy for the fight at the city, not waste it on getting ambushed by random patrols along the roads. Speaking of which, do you know how to use a gun?"

"Well, no, I never really needed, or even wanted to—"

"You're gonna have to learn. Best that you be able to defend yourself, just in case." James shoveled a few more scoops of his meal into his mouth and then got up and went back to their vehicle. He opened the back hatch and rummaged around, pulling out a few small objects before returning to the fire. "This is a Glock," he said, holding up one of the objects for Quick Fix to see, "9mm, ten round mag, doesn't have much kick to it."

Quick Fix stood up and trotted over, intrigued. "A Glock? That's a funny name."

"I didn't name it." He pointed to the back of the grip. "This little lever is part of the safety. You need to make sure that's depressed before you can pull the trigger. Line up these two sights on the top to aim. You load it like this;" James slid the magazine into the well with a satisfying click and racked the slide. "You can shoot it until the ammo runs out then the slide will lock back, that means you have to put another mag in, hit this little button on the side to release the empty one. Then after you've reloaded it, hit the slide release here to feed a round into the chamber. Any questions?"

"Am I really gonna have to use this?"

"Hopefully not. One last thing; do not point this at anything you don't intend to destroy, even when you know it's not loaded." He said gravely. "Understand?"

"Yeah."

"Alright, here you go." James handed her the weapon which she levitated over to her little work space. "Don't use it unless you absolutely have to. I'd set up some targets for you but the noise could give up our position."

"Actually, about that." Quick Fix said with a smile. "I took the liberty of examining that thing you use to make your shots quieter."

"The suppressor?"

"Yup, and I think I made some improvements on it."

"Really?"

"Yeah, made it just for your new weapon over there, wanna try it out? I'm almost done."

James thought it over for a minute then nodded. He didn't want to make too much noise out here, but even if the suppressor wasn't as good as she said, it would still be quieter than a normal gunshot. With a grin, Quick Fix trotted back over to her work area and sat down, horn glowing as she made the final adjustments on the parts.

When she finished, she assembled the contraption in mid air. It was a pistol, chambered for the .45 caliber. The model resembled James' old 1911, but with a few differences. The barrel was slightly longer with a muzzle break capping the end, and a bigger magazine to compensate for the weight. It was completely matte black save for two things; the sights had small luminous red dots for use in low light and etched down the length of both sides of the slide was a lightning bolt shaded with the darkened and subdued hues of red, yellow and blue.

James got up and walked over, taking the weapon into his hands. With a finger, he slowly traced the outlines of the lightning bolt. "I know you must miss her, so I thought I'd throw in a little custom flare." The unicorn said.

James continued to stare at the image. He wondered where she was right now. Hopefully safe. He didn't dare think of the possibilities. All he thought about was how he was going to make who ever was responsible for the attack on his home, his peace and his loved one pay dearly. "Thank you." He whispered softly. Then in a louder tone, "How'd you know? I don't remember telling you."

"C'mon, give me some credit here." Quick Fix said with a derisive smile. "I figured out who you were easily enough, just built a machine I'd never seen before from your crappy drawings and it wasn't exactly hard to put two and two together when I remember all the gossip that used to float around town a few years back. You two were quite the talk of the town back then."

"That so?" James allowed himself another moment of reminiscing before returning back to business. "The weapon's good. What about this suppressor you're talking about?"

"I thought you'd never ask!" Quick Fix replied with gusto. From the square of cloth, she floated up an odd cylindrical device that didn't look like any suppressor James had ever seen. It was short, only about four inches long. Protruding from one end was a small metal tube the same size as the barrel of the gun. When he grabbed it, it was incredibly light.

"You sure this will muffle a shot?" James asked skeptically.

"Try it." Quick Fix dared. "You thread the end with the tube onto the barrel and it locks into the muzzle break so you don't have to take it off. Of course it makes the muzzle break superfluous, but you won't have to keep switching them out, less to carry and accidentally lose."

James did as she instructed and the suppressor locked in with a soft click. "Nice."

"Go ahead, take a shot."

Taking one of the magazines, James filled it up and slid it into the mag well, noting how well balanced the weapon was with the ammunition in place. With a cautious glance around their surroundings, he racked the slide and took aim at a tree nearby. He was hesitant at first, but finally he shrugged and pulled the trigger.

The weapon worked beautifully. The trigger required only the slightest of touch to fire and the recoil didn't kick as hard as he expected. Most wonderfully of all, there was barely even a sound. All he heard was the bullet striking the tree trunk with a crack and the click-clack of slide cycling back and chambering another round. A second later, the brass casing fell onto the grass with a soft rustle.

James lowered the weapon and looked at the unicorn with wide eyes. "That's fuckin' amazing! How'd you do that?"

"Easy. With somewhere for the gases to go and a little bit of magical dampening, it was just a matter of getting the thing to fit properly."

"Thanks! Really, thanks. I love it."

"My pleasure." Quick Fix yawned. "Now if you'll excuse me, I think I will get some shut eye."

Quick Fix grabbed her oats and climbed into Daisy, her fighting vehicle, and got got comfortable. James stayed up and sat back down by the fire, admiring his new weapon in the light. It turned out better than he expected it to. With it, they not only wouldn't see him coming, they would never hear him either.

He grinned, mirroring the amusement of the dark maliciousness that had taken up residence inside him. Yes, they had hurt him, hurt Dash, taken from him everything he had worked for, taken from him his peace. Now he would show them just how bad an idea that had been. His final path was set, poor luck to those that had placed placed themselves in it.

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



*CRACK*

The wooden stave broke in half and went tumbling across the pack patch of bare earth. Sumner looked down at the broken half he held and tossed it away. "You definitely have good power behind that swing." He looked up to the pegasus mare panting across from him. "But remember it's not all brute force. You have keep your opponent guessing. Constantly attacking with big powerful swings telegraphs your moves and gives them the chance to get behind your guard."

"I don't think it matters much when I can just break your weapon." Dash said cockily.

Sumner chuckled. "They don't fight with sticks out in the real world. They fight with steel."

Rainbow Dash snorted, "Then I'll just knock it out of their grip, easy peasy."

Sumner sighed, "Fine, I guess I'll just have to show you. Sylver?"

Not far away, Sylver Lyne was sitting on a small rise, cleaning his rifle. At Sumner's call, he levitated one of the many sticks they had lying about and flicked it at Sumner who caught it effortlessly. Without giving any warning, Sumner charged Rainbow Dash, brandishing his thick practice weapon high.

Lazily, Dash took to the air, easily dodging his first blow. Then, altering her direction mid-flight, she shot right back at him, charging up a good swing. When she reached him, she made her strike, aiming for his neck, but found nothing but air. Sumner ducked under her strike, sidestepped and countered. Dash felt a hard thwack against her flank and went tumbling into the dirt.

Over on the small grassy hill, Sylver let out a small chuckle. Angrily, Dash picked herself up from the dirt and shook off the dust. "You better watch it where you put that thing, buddy!" She growled.

"Just having a little fun in proving a point." Sumner mused. "You see what happened there? Your attack was too obvious, I was able to anticipate and counter it. You need to strike unexpectedly at unexpected targets, distract with pain then hit 'em in the sweet spot. Your power and speed is good, you just need to work on your delivery."

"You know what, fine." Dash huffed, "You want it, come get it." She challenged, pawing at the ground.

"All right, let's do it again."

Sumner charged at her once more, but this time, Rainbow Dash also charged at him, galloping with her wings only half opened. As they closed, Rainbow left her guard down and Sumner took the opportunity to jab at head. Before the stick reached it's target, Dash flapped her wings to the left, propelling her out of harms way and within easy reach of Sumner's flank.

With a quick swing, she sent it whistling up between his hind legs, causing them to lift in the air a little and send him sliding into the dirt on his chest. Almost immediately, Sumner balled up and began groaning in pain. On the grass, Sylver erupted into laughter at the spectacle.

"What's the matter?" Rainbow Dash smirked, "I was just having a little fun with it!"

As Rainbow stood triumphantly over her opponent, a pair of ponies trotted up. It was Twilight, with Scootaloo at her side. As they came close Scootaloo's eyes widened with wonder, "Wow, what'd you do?"

"I totally kicked his flank." Rainbow said non-chalantly, holding up a hoof to her face for inspection.

"No way..." Sumner coughed from the ground, "I'm just resting..."

Twilight looked down at the injured pegasus with some concern. "Ooh, that looks painful. Would you like some ice?"

Sumner wave a hoof at her, "No no, I'm fine."

"...ok, suit yourself."

"So Twi', what's up?" Rainbow asked.

"Nothing much, just came to see how your shoulder was doing. Scootaloo wanted to tag along."

Dash rotated her right shoulder, the one the bullet had grazed a few nights before. "Still a little sore, but it healed up good, thanks to you and Fluttershy. How is she doing by the way, she rarely speaks to us anymore and almost never leaves the medical tent."

Twilight's features fell, "I know. I don't like it, sure she was a little anti-social before, but now. . ."

"Is Garth doing better?"

"Yeah, he's out of bed now. He keeps trying to get back into fighting, but Fluttershy scolds him into helping her with the patients. It's still kinda strange," Twilight chuckled emptily, "seeing somepony that big and tough bow to the whims of our timid Fluttershy."

"Well, at least she's keeping herself busy."

"Yeah. Hey, you wanna go get something to eat? AJ said she'd cook something for us in the kitchens."

"Sure, I'm pretty hungry now. Hey Sumner, ok if I go get some grub?"

"Sure, go ahead." He croaked. "We'll pick this up later."

Together; Rainbow, Twilight and Scootaloo made their way through the camp, passing under the many lights and lamps erected to illuminate the area. It was becoming somewhat of a small city now, though the number of new refugees arriving had been reduced to a trickle. It seemed that less and less ponies had been unable to escape from the occupied cities.

Canterlot, only miles away, fared no better. Worse in fact, as reports from recons conducted by the Royal Guard and a scant few RSTG members indicated the once prosperous hub of commerce had been reduced to a blasted war zone as the soldiers still caught inside fought the invaders for every inch of the capitol. It was bad enough that the surviving Guards in the camp were recruiting and training any willing to volunteer, though what they would be able to accomplish was anypony's guess. As it was, anypony caught near the walls of Canterlot was targeted by the Human weapons toting Renegades.

What Rainbow Dash was doing worried Twilight. She had been training with those two RSTG members for the past few night addled days. She didn't want to see one of her closest friends go and fight what she was sure would be a terrible battle. Even worse, she couldn't begin to imagine what Fluttershy would do, she was already distressed enough as it is.

Nearing one of the large mess tents, Twilight struggled to push the morbid thoughts from her mind. Tonight she would try not to worry about what was in store for her country's future. Tonight she would just spend time enjoying whatever time she had with her friends.

They stepped through the entry flap and into the soft light of the lamps strung up about the center poles. In the back by the kitchens was a flurry of activity as the cooks cleaned and and prepped for the next day, dinner having just been finished. They spotted Applebloom and Sweetie Belle coloring at one of the corner tables, Scootaloo rushing over to join her friends.

Watching her go, Rainbow and Twilight continued on towards the back. When they got close, a familiar head poked out from behind one of the flaps separating the kitchen from the eating area. "Hey Twi', Dash, glad you two came. AJ said she'll be ready in a minute, we're still kinda busy back here." The small purple dragon said,

"Spike? What are you doing here?" Twilight cocked an eyebrow in question. "I thought you were busy helping Rarity."

"Well, uh, I was, but then we went to get Fluttershy and things got kind of..." Spike trailed off, looking flustered.

Twilight got concerned, "Kind of what, what happened?"

Spike stepped out into the eating area, twiddling his thumbs and looking down. "Well, you're not gonna like this, but..."

"But what? Tell me Spike!"

"Garth disappeared, nopony knows where he went or saw him leave. We found Fluttershy going nuts and trying to leave the camp to go looking for him."

"What!? Spike, why didn't you come get us immediately?" Twilight said crossly.

Spike dropped his gaze to the ground again, looking shameful, "Well, I kinda accidentally said something I shouldn't 'have which made Fluttershy go hysterical and Rarity told me to come here and help in the kitchens instead because I wasn't much helping there." He blurted out.

"Where are they now?"

"Over by the woods still, I think."

"Ok, Spike, Stay here and watch the girls." Twilight ordered as she frantically made for the exit. "Dash, go to the infirmary and ask around, see if anypony knows where Garth went."

"You got it." She said seriously and took to the night sky.

Twilight took off at a gallop, heading towards the side of the camp that bordered the forest along the foothills of the mountain range, teleporting here and there around obstacles. When she broke away from the camp, it took her a couple times running up and down the tree line before she found them. Fluttershy was staring vehemently at a stubborn Rarity who was blocking her path.

"I don't care how dangerous you say it is, I'm going to go find him!"

"Fluttershy, I can't let you. Besides, he's more than capable than handling himself out there."

"He'll get hurt again and I won't be there to help him!"

"Fluttershy! Rarity!"

"Oh, thank goodness Twilight, you're here!" Rarity said with relief.

"What's going on, is Fluttershy all right?"

"I just want to go find him!" Fluttershy protested with uncharacteristic anger, delicate face flushed.

"I told you, it's too dangerous!" Rarity replied once again.

"I don't care!" The normally shy pegasus shouted back.

Twilight flinched at her firend's unnatural behavior, "Fluttershy, Rarity's right. Garth can take care of himself, but what if you get hurt?" She put as kindly as possible. "Why are you so upset anyway?"

"I just— I just—" Fluttershy looked like she was about to break down.

Twilight stepped forward and pulled her into a hug, "It's ok, just tell us what's wrong, we're your friends, remember?"

"I know, I just don't want—" Fluttershy hiccupped and Twilight felt hot tears splatter onto her shoulder. "I don't want to lose another—" she didn't finish her sentence, her frame wracked by fresh, silent sobs.

A little ways away, Rainbow Dash thumped softly onto the ground, a ragged piece of paper in her mouth. Twilight passed Fluttershy off onto Rarity who took to consoling her and trying to calm her down. Meanwhile, Twilight trotted up to Rainbow Dash and took the paper from her.

"Is she going to be ok?" Dash asked with worry, looking over Twilight's shoulder at her pitiful looking friend.

"She'll be fine, but we should keep an eye on her anyway." Twilight said as she examined the paper. "Where did you find this?"

"It's a note, I found it in Garth's tent. It says he went to get help."

Twilight looked up from the note, her face scrunched up in confusion. "Get help? From where?"

State Of Mind

Chapter 34: State Of Mind

"I still think this idea is rubbish."

"You got any better ones?"

". . .not really. But aren't they the same guys we been fighting?"

Cray frowned. "No, they're not. True, we fought them years ago, but there hasn't been any hostility since. We even trade with them now. Besides, if I know anything about their culture, they'll despise the Renegades."

"The enemy of my enemy is my friend." Jackson mumbled.

"Sort of. They don't really have much reason to fight for us even if they were attacked."

"So, what? We just ask nicely for them to march into Canterlot with us?" Mayfield snorted, "Better chance they tell us to bugger off and go arse ourselves."

"Better than trying nothing." Cray countered.

"Cray's right." Jackson said. "We gotta try something and this is better than trying to mount an assault with just the nine of us and no ammo." He turned to Blackjack who was leaning against the helm of his boat. "You got any objections? It's your boat."

"Hmm. . . Take my boat into Lotkin territory and try to convince them to fight for the enemy that crushed and humiliated them five years ago." He said mockingly. "Yeah, sure, sounds great." He nodded sarcastically. "While we're at it, why not visit the griffons and tell them all about how clawless their nest mothers are? No offense Kai, just pushin' a point."

On the tail of the boat, the large griffon paused and looked up from his task and gazed at the stallion with something akin to indifference before silently resuming the steady, rasping rhythm of sharpening his great sword.

Returning his attention to the spec ops members, Blackjack said, "But if y'all want to go ahead and get your heads put on on spikes, I won't stop ya."

"How very generous of you." Redflare said with a scowl. "Honestly, I don't think it's a good idea, the only good Lotkin is a dead one. Maybe alive if they're screaming in pain."

Jackson shot the pegasus a look. He shrank back a little, but the scowl remained. "All opinions considered," the large man said, "it's still our best course of action. Blackjack, set course for the islands."

The earth stallion shrugged, "Your funeral," but he still moved to the helm and adjusted the boat's course.

Jackson stood up, "I want everybody rested and ready to go, check your weapons and gear and stand by." He looked straight at Redflare. "You, in the cabin, we need to talk."

The scarlet red pegasus huffed but followed Jackson in as he ducked under the low door frame of the cabin's entrance. Swift Paws was the only one inside at the moment, but Jackson dismissed her with a flick of his head and she left without complaint. Jackson gestured to a low table attached to the starboard bulkhead and together they sat down across from each other.

Jackson regarded Redflare for a moment who uncomfortably shuffled his wings in the seat. "We need to have that talk about your attitude now."

"What attitude?" Redflare replied crossly.

"Remember back in Van Hoover a couple of nights ago? When we ditched the garrison?"

"What about it?"

"There was the issue with the excessiveness in your attack and the words you were using." Jackson rested his elbows on the table's edge and laced his fingers. "You clearly have a problem with the Lotkin. Question is, will this become a problem for us?" Redflare looked down at the table surface, not meeting Jackson's eyes and didn't respond. "Redflare, why did you join the RSTG?"

"Because..." the pegasus mumbled in response.

"Because what?"

"Because whatever!" Redflare said angrily.

"Red, unless you tell me what the problem is, I can't help you. If I can't help you, then you're a liability and you'll stay here on the boat while the rest of us go out and do our job." He threatened. "Now, what's the matter?"

"I don't wan't to talk about it."

"Red..."

"I said I don't want to talk about it, my family's none of your business!" The pegasus shouted.

Jackson didn't react, but he caught the slip. Now he just needed to press it. "Family, you got problems at home?" Redflare didn't reply, instead glowering at the table surface once again. "You know, I had family problems too, everybody does at some point. My brothers and sisters fought all the time and when our parents passed, everyone kinda just drifted apart. But you gotta remember, you got family here too. In this community, everbody's got each other's back."

At Jackson's mention of parents, Redflare slowly looked up. "Your parents died?"

"Yeah, hit me pretty hard. Especially when none of my siblings would talk to each other or help with the funeral. But I always had my buddy, Kaughn. He was as much brother to me as anybody. Red, your parents still alive?" Jackson asked, picking up on a hunch.

Redflare's face darkened. "No. They're not."

"C'mon brother, talk to me."

"They killed them."

"They killed them? Who killed them?"

"They did, those rot eating monsters."

"Monsters?" Jackson was confused for a second. "You mean the Lotkin?"

"Yes." Redflare said, shaking with anger. "All Mom and Dad wanted to do was travel around the country, sightseeing and enjoying their retirement and they killed them." He said darkly.

Jackson leaned back in his seat. "So that's why you joined, try to get revenge or something?"

"Yeah."

Jackson let out a huff and wiped his face with his palm. "All right, look." He said. "My parents died of age, so I can't exactly relate. However, I do know what it feels like to have some one you love taken from you. Was I mad? Yeah. Did I want revenge? You bet. Unfortunately for me, I wasn't going to get it because unless I began beatin' up cancer patients, I wasn't going to be able to do a damn thing about it. And unless you know exactly who did it that goes ditto for you."

"So what, you're saying it's meaningless?" Redflare angrily asked.

"Meaningless? No. Futile? Absolutely. Now, I know next to jack shit about most of this world, but I did read up on some of it's enemies. These guys we're gonna go talk to, they don't just randomly kill. They only fight 'worthy opponents', ones that can kill 'em back. Who ever killed your folks, it wasn't them."

"If you say so." The pegasus grumbled.

"I do. Now, I need to know, can I trust you to keep your shit in check?"

"Yeah..." he mumbled.

"What? Say it louder, I want to hear clearly."

"Yes, ok!?"

"Good." Jackson rose from the table and went to head back outside. "Take a minute to calm yourself then get prepped, if Blackjack's charts are right we should be there in an hour or so."

"Aye, Chief." Redflare responded, still in a huff.

Leaving the pegasus to himself, Jackson returned to the weather deck and checked on the rest of his team. For the moment, all were taking the chance to unwind and relax a little; some getting in a nap, others eating what they could while they could. Mayfield himself was slumped over in his seat where Jackson had left him, letting out the occasional snort or grumble.

Jackson tried to get comfortable and get some shut eye, but he found he had too much on his mind for that. He wondered how they were all going to survive this war of perpetual night and his thoughts turned to his friend, only recently reunited, and wondered if Kaughn was ok or if he was in some kind of trouble. Not that his old teammate couldn't handle himself in a dangerous situation, but he had always worried about his buddy's state of mind.

Jackson grabbed a piece of equipment and distracted himself cleaning it, pushing the thought from his mind. Kaughn was just fine the last time he saw him, better in fact, if he really wasn't having the nightmares any more. Jackson eased back in his seat with his task, comfortable with the knowledge that at least his brother would be all right.

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




"Well, that's just not at all right!"

"I said quiet and keep your head down!" James angrily whispered, shoving Quick Fix's head back down behind the rock they were hiding behind.

The unicorn mare looked back up at him angrily, "We can't just do nothing!" She protested.

They were just off a wide trail that ran parallel with the river that came down from the mountain Canterlot sat regally on. It was a bend in the river and the road and James had had the thought to take a look around the corner before traveling it, something that had probably just saved them from a nasty encounter. "Well, what do you have in mind, run in and ask them nicely to cut it out and head back to their private hell hole?"

Near the bank of the river, a convoy had stopped to refill their water. Something that in itself would be unremarkable, except for the fact that this particular train of wagons each had a cage mounted on their backs, each one filled with miserable looking ponies. Around them patrolled a medley of Lotkin and stallions. Except for the ponies pulling the carts, all were armed dangerously.

"Screw you, we can't just let them go like that."

"Yes Q, we absolutely can." James replied matter-of-factly. "There's about twenty of them and only two of us. Even if I set up a hasty ambush, I'd be overwhelmed pretty fast and you can't shoot for shit. No, we head back and find a way around or wait until they pass." He said, turning to make for the hidden spot they'd stashed their vehicle.

Quick Fix's face wrinkled in something like disgust. "So you're just gonna leave them?"

"Yeah," James said without looking back. "They're not going to hurt them or they wouldn't be in cages. I'm not getting shot and fuckin' up my chance at killing the asshole responsible later." He continued walking for a moment before he realized she wasn't following. James spun around, "Hey you coming or..." she was gone, "Shit!"

James rushed back to the rock they'd been hiding behind and peered over. He didn't spot his companion at first, but after a bit of searching he spotted her trying to sneak up on the trailing wagon, it was the least defended. He pulled out his pistol, the only weapon he had on him at the moment besides his knife, and watched as she snuck past one of the guards and tried opening the door of the cage on the back. "Dammit.," he cursed to himself, "what do you think you're doing?"

She actually made it to the cage door and was in the process of trying to figure out how to open it when a bored guard took a stroll around the corner of the wagon. And spotted her. "Hey, what do you think you're doing?" It was a unicorn stallion, unfortunately armed with a rifle, the barrel of which he promptly pushed up against her head. "Hey boys, got a loose one over here!"

She was immediately converged upon by a couple of the Lotkin guards, thick hands descending onto her shoulders. "Hey, let go of me you jerks!"

"Shut it!" The stallion that had caught her pointed to a few of the other guards, "You guys, hit the tree line and search the area, there might be more of them around. Bring 'em back here, if they run, shoot 'em."

Three Lotkin and two stallions nodded and fanned out, heading for the forest. James cursed as he watched two of them start heading his way. A bit of ire grew at the pure stupidity of the mare's actions, but that would have to wait until later. Now, she had gotten members of the convoy hunting for him. Capture at this point was simply not an option. Silently, he melted back into the night shadows of the forest. It was time to get a little bit confrontational.



Back at the wagon, Quick Fix was kicking and bucking against her captors, but they strongly held her in place. In an act of desperation, she tried to use magic, but as soon as her horn flared up one of the Lotkin wrapped a meaty hand around it. "No, little pony, not unless you want removed." He put gruffly.

Heeding the large soldier's warning, she ceased her struggles and resigned herself as they began opening the same door she had been trying to unlock to toss her in. Meanwhile, three of the five chosen to search the area reported back to the stallion that had captured her. "You didn't find any others?" He questioned.

"No." One of the other stallions replied. "We didn't see any other tracks or signs of other strays."

"What about Lantern and Straug?"

"They didn't come back yet?"

"No, you see them—"

Suddenly a short scream split the air out among the trees, but was instantly silenced. The soldiers went tense, as well as the caged ponies huddled in fear. "What was that?" The leader demanded.

"I don't know, I think that was—"

"Shut up! Everypony spread out, weapons out, cover the tree line!" The lead stallion barked. The Renegades stood to and the night air was filled with a chorus of clicks and clacks as those with firearms readied their weapons. "We know you're out there!" He shouted into the forest, "Come on out now and we won't hurt you too much."


To the left, there was a quiet rustle of bushes. All eyes and weapons immediately trained to the source of the sound. "If that's your only offer, I might as well stay in here." A voice called back from the darkness of the wood. "Besides, your guys aren't all that great at their job. This one barely put up a fight!"

Now near the front of the wagon train, a dark heavy lump came sailing out from the forest to land on the ground near the feet of the guards there, rolling a few yards before stopping. It was a small, melon sized rock and one of the unicorns levitated it up for a closer inspection of the fluffy blood-stained mass tied to it. "Son of a nag, it's Lantern's tail! The bastard cut it off!" He screamed angrily.

Without thinking further, the unicorn gathered ten of the others, little over half the guards there, and rushed into the area where the stone had come from, a desire for blood in their eyes. The rest of the Renegades waited and kept watch and for almost a whole five minutes, it was silent. When the sounds did come, they were strange.

The crack of a branch here and there, the snick snick snick of something bladed being used repeatedly. Occasionally, there was the odd clack of a small metal mechanism. Most disturbing of all, however, was the absolute lack of any other noise. There were no shouts, no foot falls, no screams, nor any other voice save for the first initial scream.

After another moment, all the sounds ceased altogether. Tentatively, the Renegades' leader called out to his troops, "Sickle? Thakt? You guys ok out there? Did you get him?"

The voice that answered him was the one he didn't recognize, the one from before. "Nah, they didn't get me. Nice try though..."

"The hay, what do you want?" The leader said, glancing around to see how many troops he had left. In just a short time, they'd gone from a strong twenty to a mere eight. But the guy in the woods was still only one. He hoped.

"Honestly," the voice said, "if you guys just take off, that'd be it. You know what, leave the prisoners too." Back in the cage, Quick Fix smiled a little.

"Fat chance, why would I do that?"

"Because I'll kill you." The voice stated like it was a simple fact.

The leader scoffed. "Right, sure. Listen pal—"

"No, you listen, pal. You guys are holding me up here. Just fuckin' leave so we can all go back to what we were doing."

The leader now had a pretty good idea of where this guy was now from their conversation. With a flick of his head, he ordered five of his remaining guards to sneak around and try to take him by surprise, keeping two back in reserve. "Oh? And what is it you were doing out here?" He said, trying to distract whoever it was with their conversation.

"Truthfully? I was actually planning on killing you all at some point any way."

"Oh really?" The leader said in a haughty tone as he watched his soldiers near the tree line.

"Yup, and honestly, you guys are making it way too easy."

Muzzle flashes suddenly shone from the undergrowth, accompanied with the report of one of their own rifles. The leader watched in horror as his soldiers were gunned down at the tree line. In the light of the rifle fire, the leader thought he could see a crouched two legged figure smiling, no, more like maliciously grimacing. His thoughts flicked back to the unicorn they had just captured, she was in the forest with who ever this guy is.

The night fell silent again, they were the only ones left. Who ever it was in the forest disappeared again. The leader barked an order and had his two remaining soldiers grab the unicorn mare out of the cage and bring her over. Using his magic, he took out a pistol that hung from his side and pointed it loosely at her head.

"Who ever it is you are, come on out now, we got your friend!" The night remained still, there was no response. "Come out and put down your weapons or we'll kill her!"

Another moment of silence. Then, "Oh, like I haven't heard that one before, how original!" The voice came from their left.

The leader pivoted and saw standing there, gun aimed at him, a two legged creature, one of the humans he was sure. The human's eyes bothered him. They were looking in his direction, but not at him, through him, like there was something more important going on off in the distance.

The leader cleared his throat, "Original or not, I'm serious. Put down the gun or she dies, and then we pick a younger one after that."

The human looked at the brown coated unicorn, her eyes pleading help. Then he shrugged, "Go ahead."

The leader was completely taken aback by the answer, "What!?"

"Did I fucking stutter? I said, go ahead. Take her life in cold blood, you think I'm some kind of hero, gonna cooperate in exchange for her life?" He pointed his gun squarely at the leader's head. "Either way, you're all gonna die."

For a moment, they were all stunned. Then, the stallion holding Quick Fix said; "Dude, are you nuts or something? He's gonna do it!"

The human smirked, "No he's not." The barrel of his gun twitched and he pulled the trigger, blowing one side of the stallion's face away. The Lotkin holding Quick Fix down pulled out a long knife, but he took three to the chest before he could use it. The leader whipped his gun around to the human and managed to squeeze off a couple rounds, the human's clothes fluttering from the passage of the bullets through the air, but that was all he got before he dropped to the ground with a hole in his throat. The whole thing lasted about four seconds.

When it was over, Quick fix stood up, panting from the adrenaline of the situation. Her eyes briefly met those of her captor's leader. He was still alive, although sputtering and gurgling on the cold dirt while his life leaked out of his body in spasms. She would have stayed like that until he died if James didn't interrupt her then.

"Q! Get those ponies out of the cages there. You got what you wanted, happy?"

Quick Fix broke out of her trance, but she didn't do as she was told. Instead, anger over rid her actions. "YOU!" She shouted angrily, "You were gonna let them kill me, are you serious!?"

James exhaled and clutched at his side. "Not really. Are you dead?"

"Well, no, bu—"

"Then I didn't let them kill you, did I?"

"That's hardly the point!"

"Whatever," James said, "it's your fault for getting yourself caught for a stupid reason." He walked over to the leader's prone body. He was breathing, but very shallowly. He wasn't going to last long. One hand still holding his side, James used the other to put the barrel to the fallen unicorn's temple.

The unicorn's eyes opened briefly, wild with fear as they focused on the gun and the hand holding it. "Mr. Kaughn, what are you doing, stop!" Quick Fix shouted. James didn't pay attention to her and with a muffled clack of the slide, he ended the unicorn's life, the dirt beneath his head exploding out in a puff of blood infused spray.

The morbid task done, James stepped to a large rock sticking half-way out the dirt and sat down. Quick Fix approached him in a huff of rage. "The hay you do that for, he wasn't a threat any more!"

"He was going to die any way." James retorted, "Better that than a slow death. You think of that?"

"No, I..." James grimaced and lifted his hand away from his side as he looked at it. Already, a dark splotch was spreading in the wan moonlight. "You're hurt!"

James waved a bloody hand at her, "Just a scratch. Look it's stopped bleeding already. Get to the wagons, let those poor ponies out already, I bet they're thirsty."

Warily, Quick Fix left James to tend for himself at his insistence. She went and began opening up the cages, much to the occupants' gratitude. Still, she couldn't help but look back at the hunched over figure sitting on the rock as she did so and wonder just who and what she had gotten herself involved with.

Author's Notes:

Art work by: CptBrony

Sketchy Negotiations

Chapter 35: Sketchy Negotiations

The coast line was dark, with only the pale beach standing out in a thin strip of gray against the dark scrub and sparse trees of the land. Just a short ways of the island was a small, unassuming boat bobbing in the surf. The boat was mostly empty. The only sign of inhabitance was a lone earth pony with his hat tucked back behind his ears playing a game of cards with two others.

"How long we supposed to be waitin' here for?" Blackjack asked.

Whirl glanced towards the beach, "As long as it takes. Could be a while."

"Well, as long as I just get to relax here and wait." He tossed a few bits onto the portable table they'd brought up, "Raise ya twenty bits."

Whirl looked cross, "Fold!" He threw down his cards.

"Ha ha ha," Blackjack flipped over his cards, just a two and a three, and raked in the small pile of currency between them. "Pleasure doin' business with ya, who's up for another round?" The other two groaned.

Not far away, where the water met the sand, two clawed paws crept out of the gentle surf and quietly up on land. Swift crouched, her ears perked up and alert. When she didn't detect anything, she reached for her throat. "The beach is clear and the land silent."

High above, two dark shapes circled lazily amongst the moon drenched clouds. "Copy that, looks all clear from up here."

Behind Swift Paws, four more figures rose from the water; two on two legs and two on four, and waded up onto the beach. "Ok," Jackson spoke into his mic, "dry off as best you can and move up cautiously. We don't know wether or not these guys will be friendly, so don't attack unless you are attacked."

The team joined Swift Paws, who immediately shook her fur violently, sending droplets of salty water everywhere. Other than a slightly miffed Mayfield, they moved on to dry land without incident. The land itself was strange on its own, with mostly rocky outcroppings and few, if any, dense areas of foliage they could exploit for cover.

Off in the distance, a low glow on the earth could be seen. It was their destination, at the main settlement on the island. The plan was to get as close as possible without being challenged. Then Jackson, Cray and Iron would announce themselves and hopefully enter the village peacefully. Mayfield, Swift, Redflare and Kai would remain out of sight on overwatch, just in case.

They started off towards the settlement, Swift Paws leading the way with her keen hearing and sharp sense of smell. Jackson and Cray followed close behind, cautious of their rear. Jackson glanced at his watch, the time it displayed felt at odds with the perpetual night they endured. "It's 1437, we'll approach the village and try to make contact at 15. If for some reason shit goes sour and you don't hear from us by 1530, bug out and regroup at Blackjack's boat."

"Gotcha Jacko." Mayfield replied in his ear. "Got a top spot up here, setting up and keeping two on you. By the way, keep an eye out yourself, movement around perimeter, could be sentries."

"Thanks for the heads up. We're moving in, keep it cool."

"No worries there, mate. I'll just sit here with a cuppa and watch you get your block knocked."

"Just keep an eye out, will ya?"

They kept up their pace towards the village, taking it slow. Jackson briefly wondered if it might be a better idea to announce their presence and avoid spooking the inhabitants, but thought he'd rather face off with them in a place where he could grab some cover than out in an open field. Up ahead, Swift Paws signaled for a stop. Jackson and Cray halted and knelt down in the short scrub while the Diamond Dog stealthily forged ahead.

"Something the matter?" Cray asked.

Jackson briefly sighted up on the village with his optics. There was no movement, just a few low camp fires. "Probably not, but better to be safe."

"We should be really careful when we make contact in there."

"Why so?" Jackson asked, squinting into the darkness.

"Lotkin are particularly fond of testing their strength in battle, it's how they move up in their society." Cray explained.

"Yeah? Didn't notice." Jackson said mockingly.

"Yeah, well because of this, they're always looking for an excuse to fight, especially with outsiders. There's about three different ways to say 'thank you' in their language and about a hundred times as many to challenge somepony."

Jackson cocked an eyebrow, "You speak it?"

Cray's chest swelled up in pride "Well, not entirely fluently, but pretty good I guess." He gloated.

"Good, you're my interpreter. Don't fuck up."

Cray shrank a little and swallowed hard, "I'll try not to."

Then out of the darkness, they heard a short yelp. The two of them snapped rigidly alert. Jackson keyed his radio, "Swift, you ok? Swift, talk to me."

Then, his radio crackled painfully in his ear, "Jackson, you gotta move, now! They— oh, fu—" Mayfield's voice abruptly cut off.

Jackson pressed two fingers to his ear. "Dammit. Toph, what was that? Topher?"

"Hey, Chief?" Cray said nervously.

"Shh!" Jackson responded tersely.

"Chief, they're here."

Jackson rounded on the mustang patterned unicorn, harsh words on the tip of his tongue, until he looked up. They were surrounded, about eight of them. Eight craggy, chiseled Lotkin, their dappled gray and green skin blending with the scrub brush of the island and the pale light of the moon. The tips of their spears and crossbow bolts glinted in the soft light, all aimed at Jackson's and Cray's necks.

"Well, fuck." Jackson grunted, slowly raising his empty hands, letting his weapon dangle on it's strap. He nudged Cray with his foot. "Your time to shine. Tell them we mean no harm and we want to speak to who ever's in charge."

"That's not gonna sound so good armed as we are."

"Just do it!" Jackson hissed.

Cray winced and cleared his throat, "Uh...Mani afgha zabt mahmoor. Lashka, zu daski aaghah mani bas aiid."

The largest one of their group, presumably the leader, snorted angrily and jabbed his spear at Jackson's Mk 43. "Che sakht! Che sakht jra zesh dask onj aiid?"

"Chon Sojaht-ha bardem. Vali mani afgha zabt mahmoor! Lashka-"

"Cray, if you get us killed..." Jackson muttered.

The group leader shoved Jackson and held its spear point to his throat. "Zabt spak!" He made a motion to two of his subordinates and they moved forward and started taking Cray's and Jackson's weapons. "Zu Gen'da bas gohzarand!" He barked. Once stripped of their weapons, they were turned around and shoved towards the village. Jackson and Cray took the hint and started marching forward.

After a few steps, they were joined by Swift Paws, also suitably disarmed. None of them spoke and instead marched in silence, the cruel looking weapons of their captors never once pointed anywhere but at their throats. Jackson wondered at the cut-off message from Mayfield and hoped he was ok.

In quick time, they made it into the village, finding it less lively than expected. Jackson scanned his surroundings and was puzzled at the lack of activity until he saw a face dart from a window in one of the many large stone huts. It was a cramped place, many of the huts were built closely together, squished into any space or slot they could fit into. This, added to their enormous size made for a very foreboding traped-in feeling, like the entire place was a constantly a moment a way from collapsing on top of them all.

The face Jackson had seen intrigued him. It was small and rounded, nothing like the pointy, angular features of the Lotkin holding him captive. He wondered if he had glimpsed a child or maybe one of their females before he was shoved hardily forward again and the thought was jarred from his mind. He turned briefly to scowl at the culprit, but then moved on.

Their entourage brought them closer to the center of the village and eventually to a massive stone building, one much larger than any of those around it. Like most of the houses, the entrance to this one was adorned with a single cloth made of thick, scratchy wool. One of the warriors moved forward to pull it aside and Jackson and his two teammates were rudely pushed in.

They were now in an enormous rounded space, in the center blazed a fire six feet wide and almost as tall. Smoke curled up towards the conical roof and out a small hole in the very top. On the other side was a great throne, for that was obviously what it was, made of thick rough-hewn granite and sharp edges. It was sparse of any kind of cloth or padding and looked very uncomfortable to sit in, to say the least.

In fact, the rest of the room was mostly Spartan in nature, with only few decorations of painted cloth and skulls of large animals. The floor was simple packed earth and there the three of them were made to kneel, the crackling fire between them and the rocky throne. Their guards posted themselves around the room, three remained behind to stand watch over their prisoners, one went to another large doorway set in the stone wall behind the throne. The weapons Jackson, Swift and Cray had carried were dumped unceremoniously in a corner, well out of reach.

The Lotkin that had retreated to the back room returned shortly and took up a post by the throne. Then came subtle vibrations from the ground. Something massive was making its way near. In the back, a scarred and gnarled hand appeared on one side of the curtain and drew it aside. Out stepped another Lotkin, enormous in stature and certainly extremely dense in weight. Jackson put the new arrival at about ten-foot-nine, head and shoulders above the rest.

In its hands it carried something like a giant stone club. It must have been well carved and taken care of, for the weapon was covered in scenes and figures carved directly into it, it also showed signs of use in battle. Such a weapon must have been made extremely well to stand up to the stress of combat without shattering.

As large as this Lotkin was, it didn't move slowly. It had the lithe grace of a warrior and quickly reached the throne, sinking into the uncomfortable seat and looking down on them with an expression of contempt. Dark lanky hair, tied up in knots, settled over its shoulders like a royal mantle. Through jagged teeth and a voice like a grindstone, it spoke, "Raq Gen'da bard! Che jra zesh dask onj aiid?"

Jackson leaned close to Cray, "What did he say?" He whispered.

Without looking away from the large warrior, Cray whispered back, "He says his name is Gen'da and he's asking why we're here."

"Well, tell him why."

Cray cleared his throat and doing best to conceal the nervousness of his voice said, "Mani Sojaht-hai Equestrii. Raq Cray bard. Anza Swift ji Chief Jackson bardem. Mani carzj reskboden. Mani daski hilfjaht bas porsa'at."

The great big war chief snorted. Then his shoulders began to shake and he started laughing, a sound like a rock slide. "Equestri? Mani'i hilfjaht bas porsa'at?" Then suddenly his demeanor became serious. "Pas cherat aan inj bardimd!?" He spat angrily. He gestured violently towards the entrance. Jackson, Cray and Swift turned their heads and watched as three new arrivals were shoved hard onto the dirt by the fire.

It was Mayfield, Redflare and Kai. Mayfield was a little battered and bloodied, as if he had put up a good fight. The latter two had their wings bound tightly to their sides while Mayfield got up and flailed vehemently as his captors struggled to keep him down. "Oi you ugly cunts, let me up and I'll—" he was silenced as one of the Lotkin struck him heavily across the mouth. Undeterred, Mayfield sat up and looked the perpetrator right in the eye, "You're gonna pay for that one..."

Redflare stood smoldering in anger at his situation, but Kai looked at Jackson in apology. "My regrets," he said, "but they would have hurt him further had we not subdued ourselves."

"Don't blame yourself." Jackson told him. "It happens." Turning his attention to the chieftain sitting in his throne, Jackson radiated disgust. "So, is this how the mighty free Lotkin welcome guests?" He shouted angrily. Beside him, Cray quickly translated his words, though with an expression of anxiety. What he was saying was purely insulting. "We've caused you no harm and all we've done is come asking you for help. Such a strong and honorable race." He said mockingly. "I had thought much, much better of you."

The chieftan's flinty eyes narrowed, annoyance and outrage clearly showing on his blocky features. He raised a hand. Behind Jackson, one of the warriors tightly gripped a spear and began to draw it back. Then, the chieftain started to drop his arm.

"Shtlad!" The chieftain paused, his arm still hanging in the air. His eyes darted back towards the door way behind the throne. "Aan Sohjat-ha salri man bardimd!" The curtains parted and out stomped a heavily scarred Lotkin, sporting only one eye and an intricately curved and twisting mark upon his brow.

"Garthogh! Che jra zesh barda!?" The chieftain growled, slowly returning his arm to rest on his weapon. Behind Jackson, the Lotkin warrior lowered his weapon as well.

"Aan Equestri-ha zhistami." He circled around the fire to stand by Jackson and the others. "Aan Sohjat-hai Equestri rhistvati sehrst bardimd. Aans jra zesh barat aiin man jra zesh barda."

"Garth, what the fuck are you doing here?" Jackson asked in astonishment.

Garth marched around the fire and stood by him, arms crossed behind his back. "Attempting to gain what you came for." He said, glancing down at Jackson. Turning back to the chieftain Gen'da, he spoke, spinning an argument for the prisoners and their cause in the rough tongue of his people.

After a length, Gen'da growled and raised a hand, cutting off Garth's speech. "Zaal! Mani Equestri'i ra hilfjaht bas giton. Vaska dar daski sar, Garthogh. Dirst daski rhistvat-ha." He proclaimed begrudgingly.

Garth's mouth lifted in the beginning of a grin. Jackson looked towards him in askance, "What'd he say?"

"He will help, but only at the promise of great battle. And that of our lives if it should prove otherwise."

"I don't very much like the sound of that." Mayfield complained angrily, jumping to his feet. This time, his minder did not step in to restrain him.

"Do not worry much." Garth replied with a stony chuckle. "They will give you the chance to fight."

Garth's words didn't seem to put Mayfield at ease, but he relaxed a little, straightening his vest and gear. "Well, in that case, at least I'll get a chance to brain ugly here." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the Lotkin that had been rough handling him earlier.

"Hmm, maybe that you will."

"Krast bas spaktid!" Gen'da suddenly announced with a wave of his arm. "Goz bas gazind!" Around the room, the rest of the Lotkin made throaty cheers and struck their chests.

"What's that about?" Jackson asked.

Garth laughed and helped Jackson to his feet. "Now we feast!"





A short time later, they found themselves seated at a wide table, with what seemed like half the tribes warriors. All around, it was lit by flickering torches. At it's head sat Garth, Jackson and his team, as well as Gen'da. Their weapons hadn't yet been returned, except for their combat knives, and they all felt very uncomfortable sitting at the table as the Lotkin rushed about, readying the feast. Except of course Garth, who was thoroughly enjoying his time among his own people.

Cray was examining the flatware a morbid expression. Jackson took a look himself. The the forks only had two tangs and were made of iron, there was no knife. The plate however, seemed to be made of bone. He didn't want to imagine what from. One of the Lotkin marched up to the table and leaned over Jackson's shoulder. He flinched, but relaxed when he saw the Lotkin had only placed a large pot filled with some strange dark and viscous fluid in the center.

Garth glanced over and halted his conversation with the warrior next to him. "Ah! Gen'da truly honors us tonight!" He picked up a small wooden bowl and scooped out some of the liquid.

"What is it?" Redflare asked, wrinkling his nose at the concoction.

"It is sirlagh, it is for strong warriors. Drink, it is good!" He punctuated his statement by taking a large gulp from his bowl, draining it and afterward releasing a satisfied pah.

Jackson cast a skeptical glance at Mayfield. "That shit looks poisonous."

Mayfield smirked. "I"m game if you are."

Cray nudged Jackson, "you should do it, you'll insult our host if you don't." He whispered.

"How do you know all this stuff?"

"I like to read a lot. You'd be surprised at how many books on their culture has come out over the past few years. At least from those that survived their encounters with these guys."

"I know some one you might wanna meet."

"Psst, Jacko! Here." Mayfield was leaning over the table towards him, wooden bowls filled with the strange drink in his hands. He handed one to his friend. "Cheers, mate." He said. He and Jackson knocked the bowls together and took a swig.

Jackson nearly gagged. The stuff was extremely bitter with an after taste of sickly sweetness. Miraculously, he managed to keep it down. Across from him, Mayfield nearly spit his out. Watching this, Garth roared with laughter, slapping Jackson on the back with his heavy hand. "It is good, yes? Do not worry. You will get used to sirlagh. But watch that you do not drink too much, else you become sluggish and overconfident!"

"No worries there, mate." Mayfield said, placing his bowl back down by his plate. Further down the table, Iron sputtered and coughed as he tried it himself. This only elicited more laughter from the Lotkin sitting around them. Cray, watching their reactions, merely pretended to sip his, though the smell of it was obviously causing him discomfort.

Gen'da then pounded the table with a massive fist, silencing everybody. Clapping his hands together, he said, "Goz bas gerda!"

There was a flurry of activity as Lotkin rushed forward with platters made of the same dense bone. In front of the ponies, plates of scraggly grass and thin plains flowers were set. But to everyone else, including Jackson, Mayfield, Kai and Swift, chunks of steaming meat was served onto their plates. Iron, Redflare and Cray each tensed. "Goz bas essent!" Gen'da barked and all the Lotkin began digging in, pulling out small daggers and using them to cut the meat.

Mayfield sniffed the food, "I have.. no idea what this is."

"It is a type of large plains rodent." Swift said. "I recognize the scent." She began to tear voraciously into her meal, as did Kai in stoic silence. "It is prepared well."

"What is wrong, brother?" Garth said, noticing the two humans' hesitation. "Is the feast not to your liking?"

"No, it's just..." Jackson guiltily to Cray.

The unicorn sighed, "It's ok. There isn't anything we could do now and we wouldn't want to insult Gen'da."

"You sure?"

"Yeah."

"Well I'm not gonna feel bad about it. Been a good while since I've had a good roast." Mayfield said, taking out his knife and cutting into the meat. He stabbed a piece with his primitive fork and took a bite. "Mhm, this is pretty good for grass rat."

Shrugging, Jackson followed suit. He found the meat delicious, especially after so long without it. After a few mouth fulls, he turned to Garth. "So what's the plan?"

"Hm?"

"What are we gonna do with Gen'da's forces?"

"Ah. Earlier I had spoken with him. He will take his warriors to the main land and attempt to liberate the cities from under the yoke of the renegades." Garth explained, scooping up more meat and shoveling it into his mouth.

"What about us?"

"We have the privilege of attacking where ever we chose!" Garth proclaimed with zeal.

"I want to take Canterlot. We need to knock this out fast."

Garth paused in his eating. "Ambitious, it will gain us much glory. In twelve of your hours, Gen'da will gather his warriors and make for the coast. We will try to arrive in the capitol before then."

Jackson took on a curious expression. "How are we gonna do that? For that matter, how did you get here?"

Garth grunted in amusement. "When I left for this place I.. acquired one of the Clipper flying ships."

"Ha. Acquired, huh?"

"Yes, figuring out the controls was a challenge, but ultimately fruitful. Soon, we fly."

Author's Notes:

Sorry this took so long. Been doing a lot of... stuff.

A Parting

Chapter 36: A Parting

The palace was mostly silent now. No longer could the rush of attendants be heard through out the halls, nor the clash and clatter of food being prepared in the kitchens. Instead it had been replaced by the odd sounds of laughter, the racket of Renegades ransacking some of the rooms. The were the new occupants now, the rest of the Royal Guard having been killed or driven out.

Blueblood found it strangely melancholic as he made his way back to the throne room through the battle scarred corridors, but it didn't bother him much. After all, he was the ruler now. The capture of the major cities had been successful, even if there ere still some small pockets of resistance.

The civilian quarter of Canterlot was a particular headache. Off all the cities and towns throughout Equestria, it had yet to be fully conquered. A lot of the fleeing Guard and some of Celestia's pet RSTG members had escaped into the downtown area and held off the advance of his borrowed army. They had become considerably annoying in not bowing to his rule like the rest, but they were trapped there and would be annihilated soon enough.

He sighed as he pushed open the doors to the throne room and casually walked up towards the great chair on the raised dais while his personal attendants stood by for his orders. He leaned back into the throne in a huff and watched the moon beams stream through the tall windows of the room. He was starting to miss the sunlight.

He tapped a hoof on the side of the throne and one of his attendants rushed to bring him a glass of wine, from one of the bottles retrieved from the royal cellars. The attendant hurriedly ascended to the throne and retreated as Blueblood levitated the glass off the platter and raised it to his lips for a sip.

He barely had time to fully appreciate it and relax when a messenger burst in through the doors and galloped up to the base of the dais and bowed. Blueblood groaned and set the glass down beside him. "What is it?" He said.

"Prince Blu—"

"King." Blueblood corrected the messenger in a annoyed tone.

"M-my apologies, King Blueblood." The messenger stammered. "I'm sorry for the interruption, Your Majesty, but a representative from the Renegades has come to see you."

Blueblood lazily waved a hoof. "Hm, very well, send him in."

The messenger rushed back out the doors to let in their guest. A moment later, a lavishly robed Lotkin entered, flanked on either side by a squad of warriors. They stopped at the bottom of the dais, but didn't bow or otherwise acknowledged Blueblood, something that irked him some, though he didn't voice it.

"Ah, Kha'en. To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?" Blueblood grinned, though not entirely genuinely.

"I see that you are enjoying the fruits of our warriors' blood." Kha'en replied.

"Yes, indeed I am. I suppose you're here about payment? I'm sure you know your soldiers are taking what they please at the moment. If it's gold you want, I'm sure more could be mustered up."

Kha'en shook his head, "Our master does not require such things. Only that you allow the continuation of our activities and of course the eradication of the RSTG."

"I see, so business as usual. Then please tell me, why are you here?"

"I come with a message from our master, a warning, perhaps."

"So you say?"

"Yes and you should heed it. The Watcher has been interfering in the affairs of this world. Already, the stain of her meddling is apparent, it has been a much troubling pain." Kha'en explained.

Intrigued, Blueblood asked, "Really? Who is this 'Watcher', exactly?"

"You would not know her and I doubt that you could do much to stop her. But you should be aware, one who had once disappeared has returned, the Watcher's stain is upon him. It could be very troublesome for his reign." Kha'en told him.

Blueblood picked up his glass and took another sip. "Him? So it's only one poor peasant this 'Watcher' has lent her help to. Hardly a concern. I now have the most powerful army in the land! It is of no importance to me. If that is all you have come to tell me, then you may leave. I am tired and wish to relax."

If Kha'en was slighted by the unicorn's general disregard, he didn't show it. "My words have been passed." Was all he said before gathering his retinue and shuffling out the door of the throne room.

Once they had left, Blueblood drained the rest of the contents of his glass and sighed once again. Impatiently, he waved his attendant over to refill it. As the attendant did so, he asked, "Your Highness. Do you think he might have been talking about that one guy, the one from long ago?"

Blueblood huffed in anger. "You would do well to remember your place and never mention that to me again. And no, it couldn't be him, you simpleton. He died years ago. The worst he could do is molder in his pauper's grave."

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


James was jostled awake. He sat up in the back seat he was napping in and rubbed his face before glancing out the window. Low branches and thick brambles shot by. They his another bump and the chassis shook. In the driver's seat, Quick Fix was still on the wheel, navigating the vehicle through the rough terrain. She looked tired. A second later, James realized they were heading up a slope.

"We getting close yet?" James asked, peering out the windshield at the rugged old trail they were following, lit by the pallid luminescence of the head lights.

"Not quite." Quick Fix replied in an exhausted voice. "I had to make a detour an hour and a half back. Some kind of strange encampment way out in the woods. Looked like a tent city refuge, but I couldn't be sure."

"Probably for the best, no telling what could be out here at this point." James glanced at at the small clock set in the dash board. It had been almost four hours since their last stop. He looked back to the unicorn driving and saw that she looked close to passing out. "When was your last break?"

"The last time we stopped." Quick Fix said, confirming his suspicions.

James sat forward and checked his weapons, all still in good order. "Pull over at the next clearing you find, you need to rest."

"No, I'm fine." She told him tiredly. "We're almost there, just a few more hours."

"Nuh-uh, you're wrecked. Pull over." James ordered.

"Fine." She said grumpily.

A few minutes later, she pulled into a small space cleared of most of the trees and under brush. James had her park Daisy to one side and then hopped out, giving it a quick sweep with his rifle out, just in case. Fortunately, the area was uninhabited, but did possess a small stream a little ways off in the woods which he used to refill their water.

When he returned, he found the driver's side door open, but Quick Fix was still in the seat, slumped over. She had apparently fallen asleep. James let her be and instead went about gathering wood for a small fire. Once he got it going, he went back to the the armored car and took out some of the few unspoiled vegetables they had left and a small pot to make a stew.

He had already got the pot boiling and was adding the ingredients when he heard soft steps on the grass. He turned and saw Quick Fix shuffling towards the fire, the residue of sleep still upon her face. She sat down bay him and yawned. "What'cha makin'?" She rubbed one eye.

"Thought we could use a quick bite." James said as he stirred the pot with a stick.

Quick Fix sniffed. "Hm, smells kinda bland."

"Yeah, it's just some of the vegetables we had. We're pretty much out, maybe we should have stopped at that camp after all." He suggested.

"Nah. Too late now, anyway." They sat there for a moment, just listening to the crackle of the fire and the sounds of a still sleeping forest. After a while, Quick Fix got up and retrieved a couple of old cans from their vehicle and rinsed them out before returning. James accepted one of them, muttered a thanks and then started carefully pouring some of the contents of the pot into it. "So, we're pretty close now, how're we gonna do this?" Quick Fix asked.

"We?" James chuckled, "No. I appreciate you letting me use Daisy there, but you're done when we get to Canterlot."

Quick Fix snorted. "That's ridiculous. If the rest of Equestria got it as bad as Ponyville, then Canterlot was hit at least twice as hard. You need all the help you can get."

"Yeah, but remember the Headquarters for the RSTG is there. A lot of them'll have made it into the city, either fighting or laying low for their chance. If anybody will help, it'll be them. As it is, I don't want you heading into something you're not prepared for."

"Not prepared? Not prepared?" She laughed. "How far do you think you could've gotten without me, seriously? You'd still be slogging through the woods a hundred miles back!"

"That's different. I'm talking about combat here. It's either kill or be killed. You think you can handle that? You think you can handle something you've never done before?" James sighed and took a gulp of the stew from his can, chewing on the rubbery chunks of vegetables before swallowing. 'You ever hear the phrase 'What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger?'"

"Yeah, a couple times." Quick Fix answered, swirling the contents of her own can.

"Well, it's more like; 'What doesn't kill you, mentally fucks you up.' Or usually get's you the second time around, depending on who you talk to."

Quick Fix downed the rest of her stew. "Is that why you act so weird?"

"Yeah... probably. Honestly, i don't know any more." He reached into his pocket and pulled out his flask, taking a long pull off it.

"You know, you probably should stop drinking that stuff. Whatever problems you got, that isn't helping." Quick fix warned.

"No, but it's not making it worse either." He held the flask out to her in offering. "Want some?"

"Mmm. Maybe a little." She took it in her magical grip and sniffed the opening, cringing as she did. "Ugh, how much alcohol is in this stuff?"

"Only about ninety-two proof. It's rum."

"Uh, ok..." she lifted it to her lips and took a few tentative sips. She did it delicately until James reached over and tipped the bottom up. She sputtered and coughed as the caustic liquid flooded her mouth. James laughed and she shot him a scathing look. "That's not funny!"

"It was kinda funny. Try not to spit that up everywhere, I got a limited supply." James grinned.

"You really are messed up, you know that?" Angrily, she used here magic to whip the flask at James' head.

Effortlessly and to her chagrin, he plucked it out of the air and screwed the cap back on before depositing it back in his pocket. "Tell me something I don't know."

Their bickering fell back into silence and Quick Fix leaned back to stare up at the stars, still fuming in her annoyance. Then, after a moment, "What did one of the Elements even see in you?"

"What do you mean?"

"Rainbow Dash. One of the bearers of the Elements of Harmony? You know, that mare you've been living with the past four or five years?"

"Oh." James let out a humorless chuckle. "I've actually asked that question myself sometimes. Before, I would say maybe it was my charm or good looks. Of course that's a joke, I was never really sure. Now? I'm not sure she would like what she'd see..."

"Oh come on, what would be any different now? She loves you."

"Sure, but that was when I actually cared about taking a life."

Quick Fix tensed at his words. She certainly wasn't expecting that. "Ok, now you're gonna have to tell me what you mean. You remember back there at the river bend? You cared then. I was in over my head and you came back to help free all those ponies."

"Please." James said in a low tone. "I came back because I still needed you to help get me to Canterlot. Killing all those shitheads and freeing those ponies was just a bonus." Quick Fix gasped and felt new anger growing at his words. "You want to really know what's going on?" James leaned towards the fire and cradled his head in his hands. "Ever since that night in the Everfree, something woke up inside me. Something new, or maybe it's been there all along, I don't know. I hear this voice, but it's not really a voice, more like the urging of another presence, a mind telling me to maim, destroy and kill."

He sat up again and pulled the flask back out, taking a long draw and almost emptying it. Quick Fix regarded him for a moment and then stood up. "You know what? You really are messed up. And then me for actually thinking you wanted to help." Spewing rage, she stomped over to Daisy and opened the back hatch. James watched her as she began grabbing ammo bags and his weapons and began dumping them on the ground. "I just want you to know that you sound like a psychopath right now and that I'm done with this."

"Is that so?" James said calmly.

"Yup!" After dumping the last of his items she walked around to the driver's door and hopped in. "You can walk the rest of the way, i don't care. I'm going back to that camp to see if I can find somepony without your issues."

"Fine by me."

"Fine!" She started up the engine and slammed the door shut.

James calmly continued to sit there and watched her pull back out onto the trail and turn back to the way they came. A minute later, the dust cloud settled and she was gone. James let out a sigh, got up and started to kick out the fire.

Finally, he went over to the pile of his stuff and threw the bag of ammunition over his back, along with his rifle. The rest he would have to leave, it would be too much to carry. He did, however, stash it in the hollow of a tree, taking only the scope off the M110. Then he began the long walk to Canterlot, hiking up the slope of the trail.

He was kind of glad that she left, he didn't need her going and getting herself killed just to help him out. No, it was better that he went alone. It was the reason he had told her all that. Truth was, he actually had cared about the captives at the river bend and he had feared for her life then. The rest however, hadn't needed to lie about.

Soon enough, he'd make sure the sun would rise again. But the morning would be stained red.

News From Afar

Chapter 37: News From Afar

The night was starting to get cold without the sun. Just another thing to remind Twilight of her country's plight. It had been weeks now, and still there was no sign of the end in sight. It constantly ate at her, not knowing what she could do to help. She didn't have access to the Elements and she didn't know the fate of her teacher.

And still other problems rubbed in her face showing just how bad the situation was. Nopony was acting like their normal selves, for the most part. Rarity was still donating her services to those down on their luck. Applejack was now running the kitchens in full and helping set up a decent set of crops they could try to grow with the harsh light of the electric lamps. But because of that, she hardly had any time to spend with her friends.

Rainbow Dash at least hadn't changed much, but she was devoting most of her time to learning how to better fight and Twilight began to worry for her. Most worrisome though was Fluttershy. Twilight was on her way to see her now.

However, this time, instead of heading to the infirmary, Twilight was on a path through the crowded tents to the edge of the camp. Just a few days ago, her pegasus friend had found an empty tent apart from the others, gone inside and stayed there. She rarely came out and she didn't eat. This most of all scared Twilight.

Softly, she walked up to the tent, an old and ratty thing, but large enough to house a few ponies comfortably. As she approached, she heard a voice inside and paused to listen. At first she thought Fluttershy had begun speaking again, but then recognized it as the unmistakable voice of Pinkie.

"Come on, cheer up why don't ya! Look~, I made you very special Fluttercakes~." She said in a sing song voice.

Twilight pulled a flap open a little ways and peered in. Fluttershy was still sitting in her corner, silent and unmoving. Pinkie was offering her a tray of delectable cupcakes made of yellow cake, pink frosting and a small chocolate butterfly gently set into the frosting of each one. But every time Pinkie changed position to offer them to her friend, Fluttershy would turn away without so much as an utterance. The look on her face was down right tragic.

"Not hungry? That's ok. I'll just set these down right here for you if you want'em later." Pinkie told her, placing the tray by her friend. Then she spotted Twilight at the tent's opening and bounced over, still all smiles. That was, until she left the tent at which point the corners of her mouth began to droop along with her ears. "Hey Twilight, she's still not doing so well..." She said in a hushed tone.

"I know Pinkie, I'm worried too", she's really depressed. I don't think I've ever seen her like this before."

"She's been downy frowny for days now, do you think she's gonna be all right?"

"I'm not sure." Twilight said. "I think right now we should stay by her, but try to give her some space and try to get her eating again. Going this long without food is really unhealthy."

"You said it." Pinkie said, glancing at the tent. "She wouldn't even look at my Fluttercakes, she loves my Fluttercakes!" She exclaimed, distraught.

"I know, Pinkie. But hopefully she'll come around in time, we just need to keep supporting her. She lost another close friend. I'd feel the same way if I lost one of you."

Intending to leave Fluttershy to her self for a little bit, the two began to walk away, perhaps check on their other friends. Twilight thought that she hadn't seen Applejack in a while, maybe they would go pop in on their hard working friend and grab a bite to eat as well. When they arrived at the new Apple home near the center of camp, Twilight saw that a larger tent had been erected nearby. This one glowed intensely from within. Curious, Twilight poked her head inside.

She was amazed to find it filled with row after row of wooden troughs filled with soil, each also had a string of bright heat lamps warming them from above. Pinkie poked her head in underneath Twilight and gawked at the spectacle, "Aw, cool!"

At the pink mare's exclamation, a Stetson covered head popped up in between a couple of the rows and waved them over. "Oh, hey there fellas! Come on in, like our new little set-up?" Still gazing around, Twilight and Pinkie entered the tent and made their way towards Applejack. "Ah talked to one of 'em 'lectricians and scrounged up some of those lights what spit out those UV rays you were tellin' me about, Twi'. 'Course Ah'm sure little guys prefer good ol' fashion sunlight, but with a little love and care, Ah'm sure they'll do jus' fine."

"This is pretty impressive, AJ!" Twilight said, inspecting one of the lamps closest to them. "How much do you think you can grow?"

"Ah reckon it could be enough ta last us a while. More if we can make another few facilities and more ponies in on it. 'Course, we woudn't of even got this far without some good ol' Apple Family ingenuity." She boasted pridefully. "Check it out, we rigged an irrigation system for 'em too."

Even as Twilight looked around, she could spot the small pipes coming out from one side of the tent and running along each of the wooden troughs. If she had to guess, she'd say they were connected to a pump somewhere outside. At least they wouldn't have to worry about food for a while.

Meanwhile, Pinkie was bouncing with excitement, "So you mean we can have corn and wheat and apples and flowers and berries and -ooh!- strawberries and pumpkins and squashes and -ahh!- cucumbers which means we can pickle them and I love pickles!"

The farm mare regarded her with a strange look, "Uh... sure. Hey, Twi'," Applejack said, returning her attention to her lavender friend, "Any word on Fluttershy, she feelin' any better?"

"No," Twilight said with a somber sigh, "she's still depressed."


"Gosh, she's really takin' it hard. Ah mean, It's not like Garth is gone forever. He jus' went for a little help, Ah'm sure he'll be back real soon and she'll cheer right up!"

"I sure hope so..."

Just then, the alarming sound of warning bells began to clash and clang outside the tent. Twilight and Applejack stopped to listen, even Pinkie Pie paused in her bouncing at all the noise. Quickly, the three of them rushed out the tent to see what was going on. Up in the sky, a night dimmed rainbow blur shot towards the southeast section of the camp. Seconds later, Aria's airship could be seen ascending up as well.

Down the road, Twilight saw one of the few Guards that made it to the camp with them, galloping towards their interim HQ. She waved him over to get some information on the situation. "Um, excuse me, sir?" The stallion skidded to a halt by them, panting from his exertion. "Could you please tell us what's going on?"

The Guard quickly caught his breath, "Some strange lights were spotted going from the direction of Canterlot. We don't know what it is, but I need to get to the HQ and tell them what we saw. If I were you, I'd stay inside in case it's an attack." Without another word, he dashed off to his task.

Twilight heard his warning, but her curiosity got the best of her. It sounded strange for an attack. "Come on, girls, let's go see what this is all about."

The three of them burst into a gallop and started running for the scene of the alarm, running up the roads and weaving in and out of the spaces between the tents to shorten their trip. As they passed a damaged one, Spike and Rarity's shocked faces blurred by. In just a few minutes, they had almost reached their destination, marked by the silhouette of Aria's ship hovering over its position. By then, the alarms had already ceased and members of the Royal Guard could be seen streaming their way, armed and ready for a fight.

Once Twilight, Applejack and Pinkie Pie had arrived, they were treated to what was indeed a strange sight. There in the grass, now a good ways out from the woods, sat a strange, large boxy object, defining features obscured behind two bright rays of light. When Twilight listened, she could hear the low hum of what she recognized as an electric engine. Then above, she heard a faint chi-chack as one of the RSTG members in Aria's ship readied one of the weapons it had mounted in its side door and trained it on the object. Nearby, Rainbow Dash flapped in place, holding a long and misshapen piece of scrap metal, the gleam in her eyes said she was ready for a fight.

Then, the object and the area around it was suddenly illuminated as Aria flipped on a spot light and brought it to bear. It was an odd looking thing, sitting on four round tires and made almost entirely of a dull gray metal. On top was what Twilight identified as one of the strange and deadly human weapons, but it was unmanned. In the light cast from the Airship, Twilight thought she saw movement behind the large window on its front. "What d' y'all think that is?" Applejack said next to her.

"I don't know," Dash said from above them, "but it made a huge mistake if it thought it could mess with us!" Before Twilight could stop her, she flapped her wings hard and charged at the thing. "You came to the wrong neighborhood!" She shouted as she swung her metal bar at one of the windows in its side. Instead of the satisfying shatter of glass she was expecting, the bar bounced of with a thunk and rang like a tuning fork. "What the hay? Tough guy, huh? We'll see about that!" She then set to pounding relentlessly with renewed vigor on the roof and sides of the vehicle, though producing nothing but scratches on its surface in the process, adding to the scrapes, scars and pock marks that marred its surface.

Over all the racket, Twilight heard a scared voice call out from inside the thing, "Please stop, I didn't come to attack you!"

"Rainbow Dash, cut it out!" Twilight shouted. "There's somepony inside there!"

"Huh?" Dash paused in her relentless attack and fluttered over to her friends. "But what if that thing's here to hurt people?"

"Didn't ya hear the poor gal in there? She ain't here to fight anypony." Applejack told her. "Now settle down!"

"Whatever. This piece of junk wasn't doing anything anyway." Rainbow conceded crossly, tossing the hunk of metal aside.

The hum of the electric motor cut off and the lights it created clicked off. The door on its right side opened, hesitantly at first, but then wider and a chestnut brown unicorn mare stepped down onto the grass, squinting in the bright spotlight. After a short moment, the light shut off and the airship descended to the ground.

The gunner in the side door stepped back and the mounted weapon with him as Aria shut down her bird and burst out of the door. "Q? Quick Fix, is that you!?"

"Aria!" Quick Fix galloped to her friend and they embraced in a tight hug before stepping away from each other. "Aria, I'm so glad you made it out!" She said with evident joy and a beaming smile.

"Yes, a lot of us did, actually! Sorry for the rude welcome, but we've all been a little on edge lately. And then I saw your little machine rolling in and all I could think was that those horrible soldiers in Ponyville stole it and came to attack us!"

"Oh no, there's no way that could've happened!" Quick Fix laughed, but then slowly stopped and looked around at all their confused faces. "What, you guys didn't hear?" Aria shook her head. "Ponyville's fine, we managed to get rid of the Renegades!"

Aria's face, as well as the rest of them, registered shock. Then after the brief moment, smiles began to spread. In her usual fashion, Pinkie was especially ecstatic, jumping too and fro, whooping with delight and eventually galloping back to the camp to spread the good news. The assembled Guards dispersed and followed gleefully as she did so. Twilight stepped forward, questions on her features, "Excuse me, you might not know me, but I look after the library there."

Quick Fix smiled, "Of course I do, you're one of the Elements! I even fixed your fridge once when the stubborn thing decided to quit."

Realization blossomed on Twilight's face, "Oh yeah! Sorry, it's been a while..." She said, face flushing with embarrassment.

"I do a good job, don't I?" She smirked.

"Absolutely! Um, I'm sorry, but I just wanted to ask... how? I mean, the last we saw when we escaped, the Royal Guard stationed there were pretty much beaten down."

Quick Fix looked hesitant to answer the question, taking a furtive glance at Rainbow Dash, but pushed on any way, "Well, you see, they had a little help..."

"What kinda help was that?" Applejack asked, also seeking answers.

"I'm sure you probably know him... I mean, it's not like there's a bunch of 'em running around. Do the rest of you know him as Mr. Kaughn, or—"

"Hold on a sec!" Dash suddenly shouted, trotting over to the unicorn and scrutinizing here with an examining eye. "Are you talkin' about James!? Weird guy, dirty blonde, about as tall as AJ's brother, walks around on two legs!?" She blurted out in staccato fashion.

"Uh, yeah, if that's his name..." Quick Fix replied.

"Wait, James is alive!?" Aria exclaimed with incredulity, glaring at Twilight.

"I'll explain later." She whispered sheepishly.

"Are ya sure?" Applejack said with a hint of skepticism. "Ya sound like you're bein' full honest with us, but the James we know don't take too bustin' heads much any more."

"Gotta be. Not too many things that walk on two legs, and last I checked, he wasn't a Diamond Dog. As for the fighting, well; he stole Daisy over there and came tearing into town, blasting his way through all the soldiers with that gun up there." She told them, pointing to the machine gun mounted on the roof. "Then the Guards the Renegades had taken prisoner somehow got out and helped him to massacre the lot of 'em!" She recounted. "We've been traveling alone together to Canterlot since then."

Dash sat back and pondered the unicorn's description of events, but said, "Ok, so maybe it was him, but that sure isn't the same James I know. Nowadays, he wouldn't hurt a fly if he could help it."

"Then I guess he isn't the same James you know anymore." She replied innocently.

Rainbow Dash reared up in anger, "What did you say!?" She shouted, waving a hoof threateningly.

Quick Fix recoiled, but the attack never came. Applejack put herself in between her and Dash and quickly led the pegasus mare off a ways to cool down. Twilight carefully approached the now frightened unicorn with the sea-foam mane. "You'll have to excuse our friend, she really cares about him. You also probably shouldn't have mentioned that the two of you were traveling alone together, Rainbow Dash can get jealous sometimes."

"I can see that..." Quick Fix said, staring over at Applejack trying to talk a still fuming Rainbow Dash down.

Getting Quick Fix's attention back, Twilight said, "I'm sorry to keep bothering you about this, but James was- is a very dear friend to us. Do you know where he might be right now?"

Now it was Quick Fix's turn to be embarrassed. "Well uh.. a short while ago we had a little falling out. I came back here to find a safe place to stay and last I saw, he was still at the place we stopped at to rest. Knowing him like I do though, he's already long gone from there now, heading for Canterlot. Said he's going to... well, it didn't sound good."

Twilight's face became grave, "Are you sure?"

"Positive."

"If you can show me that location on a map, I can have my bird in the sky and in that area faster than a dragon digging into a gem cave." Aria offered.

"No." Twilight told her, turning it down. "You know how he is, you'd never be able to find him in this darkness."

"Where is he!?" Twilight was suddenly aware that Rainbow Dash had wandered back, though still watched closely by Applejack. "I heard you say you were going to Canterlot, I need to go get him and bring him back!"

"I'm sorry RD, but we can't know for sure. It's best you stay here until we can figure this out." Twilight explained calmly.

"But—"

"No! Aria, get with Sylver and his guys. Pool your knowledge of Canterlot and the area around it and see if you can find a way in the Renegades might not know about."

"Sugarcube, ya ain't plannin' on tryin' anythin' dangerous, are you?" Applejack cautioned.

"Maybe a little, but we can't hide here forever. Sylver's reports say that the fighting in Canterlot is spreading, that means that the Royal Guards still in there are fighting to take the city back. Now James is heading there too. We might not be able to help directly, but maybe we can do something."

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



The air hummed steadily as the airship cut through the darkened sky. Jackson sat on one of the benches inside, staring at a photograph. He ran his thumb up and down the worn edges of the picture of his daughter, a habit he developed before going on difficult operations in case he never got the chance again.

He wondered what Sophie would have thought of his whole situation, fighting in a strange world that wasn't his own. He felt a nudge and looked up to see Mayfield standing over him. "Almost time, mate. Garth's putting us in a hover over some clouds, gonna talk out a plan."

"All right, just a sec." Jackson carefully slid the photo into his left breast pocket, under his light armor and moved to the center of the cabin where the others were waiting.

All told, he and Mayfield were there with Iron, Redflare, Swift, Cray, Kai, Whirl, Strake and for some reason, Blackjack. It was already crowded enough with the ten of them in there, but a small squad of four Lotkin form Gen'da's tribe had elected to go with them, they sat in the back corner together, running rasping stones down the length of their wicked blades.

Earlier, Mayfield had tried to offer them a few rifles from the kit Garth had brought with him, but they spat at him in disgust and told him they would fight with their true weapons. Jackson was intrigued to learn that they saw killing with anything more technologically advanced than a crossbow was 'blasphemous' and 'cowardly' in their eyes.

They did, however, accept the body armor Garth had given to them, though after some debate. As it was now, the airship finally slowed to a stop and the cockpit door swung open as Garth passed through. Through the windshield, only the faint silvery haze of the moonlit clouds surrounding their craft could be seen. Jackson had everyone gather around a map of Canterlot's area, beckoning the four other Lotkin to join them.

"Ok, here's the deal." Jackson started. "From what we know, the Palace and most of the city are under Renegade control. Garth, you said the a bunch of the Royal Guards and some of the RSTG guys are in there playin' guerrilla, right?" Garth nodded with a grunt. "Then we need to get in touch with them. We still have our radios, hopefully they got theirs as well."

Whirl raised a hoof, "How're we gonna get close enough to do that?"

"Easy, Cray's gonna help us with that." Jackson said, pointing to the unicorn.

Cray moved forward and levitated a bundle of cloth into the middle of the group. "I took one of the spare radios and disabled the speakers and mic. Then I rewired it to be constantly sending and receiving without tieing up the line, like a mini-repeater." With a flourish, he undid the bundle, revealing the radio device attached to a large umbrella shaped cloth with multiple strings. "Redflare and Kai will fly ahead, under cloud cover provided by Redflare. All they have to do is switch it on and drop it over the city. From a high enough altitude, it should give us about ten minutes of talking time."

"Once we've made contact," Jackson cut in, "we'll explain our situation to who ever is in charge and organize a massive push to draw most of the fighting to them." He tapped the Palace on the map. "Gentlemen, we're going for the head of the snake. Whatever bastard organized all this is going down. Get ready to drop."

Climb And Descent

Chapter 38: Climb And Descent

James grasped the next hand hold and pulled himself up. On all sides, the wind was buffeting him, threatening to throw him from the rock face. On his back, the ammo bag and few weapons he had brought bounced as he kicked off the foot hold below him and launched up to another hand hold, just barely hooking on to it.

He was about half-way up now, the airship docks in the cliffs under the Palace close at hand. That was his current goal, making the long climb up to the one place in Canterlot they wouldn't expect an attack from. He had his old personal radio, if he was lucky, he'd be able to make some kind of contact with friendlies once he made it inside. He would need all the help he could get from the forces still in the city to get into the Palace with minimal resistance.

Of course, he had to make it to the docks first. Even with his newfound strength, already his arms ached and his legs burned. The rests he took to take in his surroundings and check he progress only served to remind him of how far of a drop it was if he made a mistake, or his arms gave out. Despite his durability and quick healing wounds, he doubted he would survive that last plunge.

Pushing such thoughts from his mind, James carried on, hand and foot, careful to maintain three points of contact when he could help it. A few more times, he had to brace as the wind picked up, clawing at his body and flinging detritus into his face. Still, he would not allow the shaking of his limbs and the grit in his eyes to dissuade him and pushed on.

Thirty minutes later, he was nearing the docks. Just a scant few meters below the southern most pier, he paused and listened. He couldn't hear much of anything over the wind, but he did detect the faint sweep of a light around the top of the pier. It was what he expected, even if they didn't see anyone trying to get in this route, they would still post sentries. Fortunately, they didn't post enough.

From what he could see, James counted one, maybe two, per pier and probably more along the docks. No matter, he would do what he had to. With a subdued grunt, he hefted himself up and made for a stack of crates lined up by the edge of the dock. Making sure he was covered, he pulled himself up, swinging a leg onto the ledge and rolled onto the cold, hard stone. He lay there for a moment and caught his breath, allowing his limbs to rest.

When he was ready, James got up quietly and peeked around the corner of the crates. He saw very few ponies milling around, mostly Lotkin, only a couple of those were of the weird human-like ones he encountered in Ponyville, but they were a far ways off. From the pier, one of the Lotkin sentries began making another round, angling towards his position.

James waited until he was closer, coming nearer by the step. When the warrior was within a couple yards, he stopped and looked around. Bending down, James placed his bag and weapons at the base of the crate stack he was hiding behind, picking up a loose piece of wood as he stood back up. Then slowly unsheathing his knife, he tossed the wood and let it clatter against the stone deck.

Almost immediately, he got the desired effect. He heard the stomp of heavy boots coming his way, the light playing all around in search of the source of the noise.when the Lotkin reached the corner of the crate, James reached around and grabbed him by the front of his armor, shoving his knife into the soft flesh of his neck. The Lotkin gurgled past the blood streaming out of his mouth, but not for long. James ripped the flashlight from his grip and, extracting his own knife, kicked the unfortunate sentry over the lip of the deck, sending him plummeting below.

James quickly shut off the light and listened. There didn't seem to be any notice of his actions. Shoving the light into his pocket, James swapped his knife for his sidearm and slung his bag and weapons over his shoulder. Then, taking another look to ensure there was nobody around to catch him, he crept from cover and towards a small utility shack set into the side of the mountain. Quietly ducking inside and shutting the door, James put his gear down and extracted his radio.

It took him a few tries, fiddling with the frequency, but eventually he found a channel with voices on it. With caution, he listened to it for a bit before trying anything, figuring out what they were saying. From what he could gather, he'd stumbled onto the channel the RSTG forces in the city were using. He was about to make a call when a familiar and unexpected voice popped on.

"This is Lieutenant Commander Flash, attention to all callsigns, there is a platoon's worth of Limas heading for the south gate, I need bodies to head them of. We've almost taken it."

"Lieutenant Almen here with the Sky Darts, I have a few Royal Guards here with me, we're free."

"Thanks Lieutenant, give 'em your worst."

James hadn't heard Flash's voice in years. He missed his old friend, one of the best he had in Equestria. In this instance, he couldn't hold his tongue and pressed the transmit button, "Glad to see you've gotten it all under control here."

"Who was that?" Flash's voice demanded. "Sergeant Drumm, is that you?"

"No, this is someone else." James responded.

"If you're civilian," Flash's voice took on a warning tone, "I advise you to get off this channel now, I'm trying to run an operation here!"

"I'm not civilian and I'm here to help. I just infil-ed the docks and I need an opening to get to my objective."

There was a pause. Then, "You sound familiar, identify yourself."

"Let's just say I'm a friend of Jackson's."

"Jackson? Chief Jackson, he's here, mounting an assault?"

"Not quite." James said. "Listen Flash, I'm trying to get into the Palace. If I can take down the big boss, we can push the Renegades in the city into fighting on two fronts, eventually that will wipe 'em out for sure."

"And what do you need me to do?" Flash questioned.

"Simple, I just need you guys to be the rabbit."

The line went silent for a minute while Flash considered James' plan. Then after a few long minutes, "Be ready to move in ten minutes."

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



"Should be around here!" Aria shouted back from the cockpit to the five occupants in her airship's cabin. "I see a wide enough ledge, I'm setting her down."

In the back, Twilight got up and went to the open side door to watch their descent onto the high mountain crag. With her were Applejack and Rainbow Dash, as well as Sylver and Sumner who insisted on coming along. After hours of going over maps and going over information Aria and Sylver had compiled from various patrols, they might have found a way in.

Long ago, there had been many mine shafts weaving through the old mountain top like a den of worms from the days it was used to pull vast reserves of diamonds, rubies and other precious gems from its bones. They knew that at least some of the shafts had to empty into Canterlot. If they were lucky, they'd find one that led to the Palace. Of course, if they did find one, it was sure to be blocked, but Twilight was confident in her magical abilities to break through.

As the ship came down, Sylver and Sumner insisted on taking position in the side door, just in case they weren't the only ones to think of this and they had a party of Hostiles waiting. Fortunately, as the craft settled down and the two of them hopped out and swept the area, their fears appeared to be unjustified. Returning to the ship, Sylver informed the three mares that it was safe to disembark and sent them over to Sumner. Then he hopped inside to gather some equipment.

"Aria," he said, calling up to the cockpit, "I'm leaving Big Ben with you, so don't let anything bad happen to her, ok?" He lovingly patted the old M82 in its rack with a hoof.

"You got it, Sylver. Happy hunting and keep those girls safe."

"Count on it."

"Oh, and Sylver? Do me a favor."

"Anything." He told her.

"Keep an eye out for Sparks in there. I need to know if he's ok..."

"You'll be the first to know." Sylver promised. Then gathering up a smaller carbine with a few pouches of extra ammo, he hopped out onto the rocky ledge. He started to go when Aria leaned out one of the cockpit windows and banged on the side of the ship to get his attention.

"And when you see James, tell him he owes me a beer and an explanation!" She shouted at him.

"Roger that!"

With that, Sylver trotted over to his group as Aria powered up and away into the cold night sky. When Sylver reached his partner and the three mares they were escorting, he could see that Sumner was already handing out equipment. "But I can just light our way with a spell!" Twilight protested as she received a pair of clunky looking goggles.

"Too dangerous." Sylver said as he joined them. "We want to keep as low a profile as possible, so NODs it is. Sumner will show you how to use them."

"If you say so..."

"Also, there's this." Sylver opened a flap in his pack with his magic and levitated a small pistol out to her. "This is chambered for the 9mm, so you shouldn't have much problems with recoil. The safety is here—"

"No thanks." Twilight refused. "If it comes to that, my magic is more than enough."

Sylver shrugged, "Suit yourself," and placed the weapon back in his pack.

It was then that Rainbow Dash approached him, "I want a knife."

Sylver regarded her for a moment. The look on her face was one of sheer determination. "Are you sure?" He said. "A gun is one thing, but trust me when I say that fighting with knives is way more personal. And a lot messier."

"I don't care. I've trained enough with you guys to know how to use one and I'm not letting anything stop me from seeing him. Ask Sumner, I'm ready." She said defiantly.

"Ok, but don't say I didn't warn you." Opening a pouch in his bag again, he lifted out a small eight inch combat knife and floated it over to her. She snatched it out of the air and pulled it out the sheath a little to inspect it, then put it back and slung it over her shoulder by its lanyard, satisfied.

Sylver then looked to Applejack, but she just shook her head and backed away, "Ah'm good. A kick from ma self is good enough ta knock out most critters and Ah don't fancy killin' much."

"I don't blame you. Ok, let's go. Sumner, you're on point. Miss Twilight, if you could please lead the way."

"O-ok." The unicorn mare said as she stepped tentatively forward after the pegasus that had gone to scout ahead.

The ledge they were on wound a ways around the north side of the mountain. They followed its path through the biting cold wind, looking for any evidence of an old shaft or a cave. It took some searching, but finally they came to a small crevice in the rocks, a narrow passage that was more a crack in the side of the mountain than anything else.

Still, it was the only prospect they'd found by far, so they squeezed through. Inside, they found themselves in a tight passage, all rough rock and loose dirt. They followed it a ways, the vein of the earth glowing green in their eyes through their optics. Then suddenly, Sumner cursed as he disappeared, abruptly dropping through a hole in the ground.

The others rushed forward, careful around the edge of the hole, lest they follow him through. Sylver pushed the three mares from the edge, making them press up against the rough sides of the walls and aimed the muzzle of his weapon down into the hole. "Sumner, you alright?" He shouted down into the hole as even with his NODs, beyond it was nothing but darkness.

After a tense moment, he could hear some faint coughing and then the rustle and scrape of someone pulling himself to his hooves. "Yeah, I'm good down here. Found the shaft!" He coughed through the dust. "I think its what we're looking for, angles down west."

"Ok," Sylver said down into the hole. "I'm gonna start sending the girls down, keep an eye out."

"Got it! Oh, hey, be careful, it's a pretty long drop!"

Sylver took a bundle of rope from his pack and tied it off to a promising looking stalagmite, giving it a few tugs for good measure. He handed the rope first to Applejack and had her tie it around her waist, gently lowering her down when she was secure. When she reached the bottom, she un-tied herself and gave the rope a tug, letting Sylver reel it back up.

Next he offered it to Rainbow Dash. "Nope, I'm good." She said and darted into the hole with a flap of her wings. He then turned to Twilight, who suddenly disappeared in a flash of light, momentarily blinding him.

Sylver cursed and removed his goggles and rubbed his eyes, trying to get the spots to fade. From to hole he heard Twilight call out, "Waiting on you!"

"Ha ha, very funny!" Sylver replied sarcastically as he ran the rope through his harness.

One quick repel down the line later, they were all assembled in the passageway below. The ceiling was high in the old mine shaft, the air cool and musty. Evidence of excavation was everywhere, even some old picks and shovels left to rot in the innards of the mountain.

Twilight walked around, examining the walls of the shaft like it was an old and dear history book. "Originally, Canterlot was founded as a mining town up on the side of the mountain. But once its vast reserves of gems and diamonds was found, the capitol in what was then a young Equestria was moved here."

Sumner wasn't so impressed with her history lesson. "Fascinating, but we really should be getting a move on."

"I only mention it because some of the shafts that were dug started out around the area the Palace now sits. If we're lucky, this particular one could lead us right to it."

"Well, there's only one way to find out." Sylver interjected. "Sumner, up front with me. The rest of you stay close and stay quiet. I don't know if the Renegades know about this place, but if I tell you to run, you run. Take the rope up behind you and call Aria for a pick up, you understand?" The three mares behind him nodded. "Good. Let's go."

Confliction

Chapter 39: Confliction

Jackson stood still as his harness jerked around him. Mayfield was behind him double checking all the straps and hooks on his pack, ensuring it wouldn't fail to open properly during their dive. Once he was finished, Jackson turned around and did the same for Mayfield. Once that was done, he said, "Go help out those guys from the tribe, it looks like they're struggling."

"Yeah, got it." Mayfield replied, moving off to go help their four Lotkin friends.

"Hey Chief!" Whirl shouted from up near the cockpit, "I got comms, somepony on the line wants to talk to you!"

"Coming!" Jackson said, weaving his way through the bustling soldiers around him getting ready. Once he got up there, he took the headset from Whirl and put it on his own head. "This is Chief Jackson, go ahead."

"Hello there, Chief. You might remember me, it's Lieutenant Commander Flash." Said the voice on the other end. In the background, Jackson could here chatter of guns and the general racket of combat.

"I sure do. Now, you might be wondering why I'm calling..."

"Oh, I already know." Flash said pre-emptively. "I have some of my best moving on the gates of the Palace now, just like you asked. Should create a fine hole for your guy to slip in."

Jackson fell silent and thought about what he was just told. Then he keyed the mic again, "Excuse me? We ain't even in there yet. Who did you talk to?"

"What do you mean? I got a call thirty minutes ago from somepony saying he was with you!"

"Aw shit..." Jackson cursed, running a hand down his face. "Ok, so what did he tell you?"

"He said he was already in the docks, but needed a diversion so he could slip through into the Palace. We started that twenty minutes ago. I haven't heard a word from him since, so either he made it or he's dead."

"No. If it's who I think, he ain't dead."

"You know him?" Flash asked.

"Maybe. I could be wrong. Listen, keep what you're doing. I got about ten bodies up here ready to dish out some pain. We'll jump down into the gardens, do you know if that area's clear?"

"I can't give you a definite answer, but looks like almost all the Renegades in the Palace came out to meet us, so I'd say you got a fair chance."

"I usually like better Intel, but that'll have to do. We'll be dropping in five, good luck down there."

"Good luck yourself. I heard that the guy behind this is Prince Blueblood. Do me a favor, when you catch him, smack him around a little for me."

"I'll see what I can do, Jackson out."

Taking off the headset and handing it back to Whirl, Jackson turned to face the rest of his team, "Everyone listen up! We're jumping in five! Iron, Swift, Red, Cray and Mayfield are with me. Whirl, after we jump, I want you to take Strake, Kai and our friends here to the docks. Have Garth provide close support and then land once you've cleared them. After that, I want you all to rendezvous with us in the Palace. Got it?"

Everyone shouted their confirmation. Jackson moved to the side door and threw it open, looking down at the scene below them. Canterlot was in chaos. Fires raged in more than one part of the city, sometimes engulfing whole buildings. The area around the gates of the palace was especially bad.

He could see in the light of the moon and the fires a great swarming mass like an army of ants. Muzzle flashes and the occasional explosion peppered the fighting below. Jackson was thankful that the Lieutenant Commander down there had managed to draw much of the fighting to the castle's courtyard. The gardens, he was glad to see, seemed completely empty.

Garth maneuvered the ship over the castle grounds in preparation for the jump. In the cabin, Jackson and his team lined up for the final go. Once Jackson was satisfied with their positioning, he took the leap. Behind him, Cray, Iron, Swift, Redflare and Mayfield followed suit, following their leader into the free fall.

The burning cold wind whipped around them as they dropped from the sky, angling for the gardens. As they neared the earth, the sounds of combat rushed up from the battlefield. The cacophony of firepower and clashing metal was almost deafening. Jackson waited until he was a mere four hundred meters from the ground before he tossed the pilot chute and brought his fall to a slow drift above the gardens. Above him, he heard the similar whumfs of chutes deploying that indicated his teammates had successfully done so as well.

On impact, Jackson hit the quick release on his harness and tucked and rolled to absorb the shock. He came up with his sidearm in hand, scanning the area for threats. Happy that his arrival seemed to have gone unnoticed, he holstered the M9 and un slung his carbine. Then he activated his comms, "Everyone check in, where you at?"

"Toph here, I'm with Swift. Moving to you."

"What about Red and Iron?" Jackson demanded.

"This is Red, I'm with Iron. We'll be there in a second, Iron hit a small... snag."

"What is it, you guys in trouble?"

"Uh... no." Iron said over the radio. "I kind of, ah... got stuck."

"What do you mean?"

"He got caught in a tree!" Redflare said, trying to stifle his laughter. "Me and Cray are trying to cut him down, be there in a sec."

"Don't take to long we gotta move." Be hind him, Jackson heard a rusting in the bushes. He brought up his weapon, but relaxed when he saw it was just Mayfield and Swift Paws.

"Aye-up, watch where you stick that thing!" Mayfield said with a chuckle.

"Sorry, just a little on edge. You guys ready?"

"Sure thing."

A moment later, Redflare, Iron and Cray materialized from the darkness and joined the rest of the group. Jackson made them check their weapons a final time. "Remember, we don't know who all's inside, so those of you with firearms, check yourself before you shoot. We don't want to kill anyone that don't need killing. Toph, I want you up front with Swift, make sure we don't run into any surprises. Cray, I need you to watch our backs, don't want nothin' sneaking up on us either."

His teammates acknowledged their roles and moved out. Mayfield and Swift went quietly forward towards a door with Jackson, Iron and Redflare following and Cray keeping an eye out for anything following them. They entered the passage and found it eerily deserted. Signs of battle were everywhere, but there were no bodies, nor anything waiting for them. They expected to be some resistance, but nothing like this. It made Jackson wonder at the situation. He couldn't see all the Renegades in the Palace rushing out to join the fighting.

Hesitant and wondering at the strange scenario, they moved on, clearing room after empty room along the way. As they neared the throne room, things change. They turned a corner and were hit immediately by a most gruesome sight. There were splashes of blood mixed with the marks of missed shots all around the walls. One wall had been almost completely blasted away, revealing the wrecked interior of what looked like a servant's quarters.

As Jackson stepped forward, his foot landed on something soft and squishy. He looked down to see a severed arm and hand, the ragged stump of stringy flesh terminating at the elbow. His eyes panned up from the grisly sight and found that most of the corridor was littered with corpses of Lotkin and pony alike. Some looked to have gone quickly, with shots to the head or chest. Others weren't so lucky. Jackson saw a Lotkin warrior with its own sword lodged in its gut, intestines spilling out in a ropy heap. A unicorn lay on his side, horn broken and lower jaw missing, seeming to have been shot off. His exposed tongue rested in a puddle of his own blood.

Mayfield looked around, inspecting all the damage. "Bloody hell. Who or what d'you think did all this?"

"I'm not sure, but I might have an idea. Check it out, they're all Renegades, every single one." Jackson said.

"Think some of our boys out there got in?"

"I don't think so." Cray said, looking up from the pile of empty shell casings he was pawing through. "Some of these empty shells don't fit with the weapons here. I'd think there'd also be some casualties from our side as well."

Up ahead, Swift Paws was nosing the air. She started wandering towards the blasted hole in the wall, following some kind of scent. Jackson noticed and and started following her with Mayfield. "What is it?" He whispered.

Swift Paws' ears twitched then went flat against her skull as she let out a low growl. "One is still alive." She pointed her weapon into the servants' quarters at a mostly intact wardrobe that seemed to have escaped the wrath of whatever had raged through their position.

Jackson pointed at Iron and Mayfield, signaling them to move forward and investigate. As quietly as they could, the crept up to the piece of furniture, weapons at the ready. Taking up position on either side, they got ready to open one of the wardrobe's doors. With his fingers, Mayfield counted to three.

On three, he wrenched the door open and jumped back with his rifle aimed at the interior as Iron lunged forward and ripped the occupant out. "No no, please don't kill me, don't kill me!" A pegasus came rolling out, cowering and covering his head.

"Shut it!" Mayfield hissed, backhanding the Renegade soldier. Iron moved forward and placed his blade against the pegasus' throat, ready to slash.

"Wait, hold it." Jackson ordered. Iron obeyed, but his didn't move his blade away either.

"P-Please don't kill me." The pegasus stammered. "Please, j-just let me go. Just let me go, I have to get out of here!"

Jackson approached and knelt down until he and the Renegade were face to face. "We can't just let you go, but we won't kill you either. If you can tell us what's happening here."

"What don't you have eyes, you idiot?" The pegasus nervously blurted out. "They're dead, they're all dead!"

"I can see that." Jackson said patiently. "I want to know how. Who did this, Royal Guard? RSTG?"

"I wish it was!" The Renegade said, shaking uncontrollably.

"Come on, spit it out!" Mayfield demanded, raising his hand for another strike.

Swift Paws wrinkled her sensitive nose in disgust, "He has soiled himself."

"Ok, ok!" The pegasus recoiled. "When the attack hit the gates, we were ordered to fall back and reinforce the entrance to the throne room. We didn't even make it there! About half-way, something attacked us from behind. We thought it was the Royal Guards or something but it was just one guy. Before any of us even turned around, six were already dead. He tore into us, just killing and killing. A few of us managed to land hits on him, but he just kept coming, like some kind of demon! After I saw him shoot Tango's jaw off, I lost it. I ran in here and hid."

"Hmm..." Jackson leaned back and considered what he had just heard. "Which way did he go, did you see?"

"N-No I didn't."

Suddenly, from down the corridor, came the echoing sound of gunshots. Jackson shoot to his feet and brought his carbine up. Out in the hallway, Cray leaned in, "Chief, the shots came from the direction of the throne room, we should hurry."

Jackson pointed at the pegasus, "Quick tie him up. Use the bed sheets."

"No way, you can't leave me here, I'll mmmfhmmhmm—" The pegasus' words were cut off as Mayfield shoved a balled up washcloth in his mouth and bound the pony's wings and legs.

They tossed him back into the wardrobe and hustled out into the dark corridor, alert for whatever danger might await them. More shots rang out, closer now, along with the clear sounds of a scuffle. They reached an intersection and paused, wondering which way to go. Swift Paws' ears twitched, "This way." She said, and started off to the left.

"But that heads away from the throne room!" Cray told them.

"Doesn't matter, this way's where the action is." Jackson said as he rushed after the diamond dog.

They double timed it down the passage, straining to get to the fight. The smell of cordite was heavy in the air as they rounded a corner and came upon an odd situation. A line of Renegades with their backs to them were kneeling some overturned furniture and firing potshots down the hall. On the other end, a few with melee weapons were rushing a group of four ponies.

Jackson was surprised to see Sylver firing back at his attackers while Twilight shielded him with magic. Sumner was fighting of some of the ponies that had rushed him with Applejack bucking the ones that moved around his guard into the walls. Overhead the entire manic scene, Rainbow Dash was trading blows with a pegasus.

Acting quickly, Jackson began firing into the backs of the Renegades with guns, "Everyone, take 'em out!" He barked.

Before the Renegades could react, Iron, Redflare and Swift Paws leapt into the fray, cutting down and shooting any that got in their way. Jackson stayed back with Cray and Mayfield, the three of them blasting any of the shooters that tried to turn their weapons on their teammates. The attack wasn't perfect, and Swift Paws took a round to the leg and Iron a cut to his face, but it was suitable enough to disrupt their enemies.

In just a few moments, the tide was turned and Jackson and his team found themselves mopping up the hostile soldiers. Above them, Rainbow dash, with the help of Redflare, sent the pegasus Renegade spiraling to the floor. As he fell, Dash pounced on him, pinning him to the ground an taking out her knife. Around her, the battle died down as the Renegades were killed or otherwise incapacitated and Jackson ordered a cease fire.

Dash panted with fatigue, her body shaking with the rush of adrenaline from her fight. She raised the knife high, ready to plunge it into her attacker's chest. Then much to her shock, his head exploded. Blood and bits of bone and brain splashed across the dirty floor as the bullet exited and skidded down the hallway. "Cease fire, I said cease fire!" Jackson bellowed. "Who was it, who made the shot?" He angrily demanded, glaring around at everybody.

"Wasn't me." Mayfield told him.

"Nor I." Said Swift.

Sylver also shook his head no, as did Cray, "None of us were firing and I didn't hear a gunshot."

Back from the way they came, Jackson thought he heard the sound of foot steps running off, but he couldn't be sure. "Shit. Cray, Mayfield and Swift, keep an eye out, we ain't alone. Iron and Red, go check on the others and make sure they're ok." Walking up gently, Jackson knelt down with a still shaking Rainbow Dash and took the knife from her now slack grip on it. "Hey, you alright? You're not hurt or nothin', are you?"

Eyes wide, she was staring down at the dead form before her, "I almost... I almost k-killed..." she managed to get out between breaths.

"Hey, don't worry about it. You didn't and you're still alive." Jackson consoled her, helping her to her hooves. He pulled out a canteen and offered it to her, "Here, have some water."

She took it from him and opened the cap, drinking greedily. After she had almost emptied it, she handed it back and seemed to calm down some. "Thanks." She muttered.

From the other group, Twilight and Sylver trotted over. "Mr. Jackson, thank you for coming when you did." Twilight said gratefully.

"Don't mention it. Tell me this though, how the hell did you guys get in here?"

"We found a back way in through some old mine shafts." Sylver answered. "After Miss Twilight cleared a blockage for us, we found ourselves in the eastern quarter of the Palace. We were searching the castle for somepony when we ran into these guys."

"Searching? For who?"

"It's James." Rainbow Dash blurted out. "He's here and he's gonna get himself hurt again. We came to get him before he does something drastic."

Jackson then remembered all the bodies, the carnage they had found in the passageway they'd passed through. "There's no way he could have done all that, that's not like him..." he said under his breath.

"Done what?" Twilight asked.

Jackson flinched, surprised that she had heard him. "Nothing. Are any of you hurt?"

"Just some cuts and bruises. Nothing serious. Are you guys here to help? There's a lot of fighting going on outside, what's happening?"

Jackson reloaded his weapon and checked his pouches. "Flash and his guys are hittin' the gates hard." He explained. "We jumped in while he drew the forces holding the Palace to him. Garth is here as well with some of his Lotkin buddies, they'll probably be joining us soon."

"His buddies? What buddies?"

"Oh yeah, you might be glad to know. He talked with one of the tribes off the coast and convinced the chieftain help liberate the cities. They'll probably attacking now."

Twilight's eyes when wide with wonder while a smile spread across her face, "Really!?"

"Yup. On that note, we should probably get on with our own mission. Sylver?"

"Yes?"

"Think you and Sumner can look after the girls for a little bit longer? We've got to get to the throne room."

"I'm going too." Dash proclaimed.

"I can't let you do that. Where we're going is dangerous and I don't have the time to be looking out for you as well as looking after my own."

"But—"

"No, you're not going and that's final. Sylver, make sure she stays with you, use magic if necessary. I'm sorry RD, but you're no killer."

"We'll head to the vault." Sylver said. "It's not that far off and we'll be safe in there."

"Sounds good. We'll come get you when we're done."

"Roger that. Sumner, girls, lets move!"

Sylver trotted off with Sumner, Twilight and Applejack in tow. However, Rainbow Dash stayed back, staring up at Jackson with anger in her eyes. "You better bring him back when you find him. You better, or..." she trailed off threateningly.

"Don't worry, Dash." Jackson assured her. "I have a feeling we'll find him where we're going. Now get out of here."

Rainbow Dash hesitated, but after a moment she relented and chased after her friends. Jackson let out his breath and some tension with it. He didn't know how James would react if he had inadvertently gotten her killed or hurt. "Everyone consolidate and check yourselves. It's time to end this."

His team regrouped around him and they headed back the way they came. In just a few more minutes, they were back at the intersection. Cray pointed out the route they needed to take and a moment later they found themselves at the great doors of the Royal throne room.

"So what should we do?" Mayfield asked with a smirk, "Try and sneak through a window or blast our way in, guns blazing?"

From the other side of the doors, they heard a trio of gunshots followed by a muffled scream. "Guns blazing." Jackson said.

Cray, Jackson, Mayfield and Swift took up position while Iron and Redflare moved to one of the doors and turned their backs to it. As soon as they were ready, Jackson gave them a nod. Gathering up their energy, the two stallion wound up and then bucked the door as hard as they could.

As the door flew open in a shower of splinters, Jackson rushed in first with his carbine up and ready. What met him inside was nothing short of obscene. The door hadn't opened fully, the corpse of a pony was blocking its way, half the poor stallion's head having been blown away. He saw another with two neat holes in his chest and a third in his head. Two other stallions lay a short distance away, an earth stallion and a unicorn. Both had been stabbed to death, but the unicorn's entire head had been removed.

Blueblood was up on the throne, freaking out and screaming at two forms fighting at the base of it. There was James. Jackson lowered his weapon at the awful sight of his best friend fighting one of the new forms of Lotkin in hand-to-hand combat. James himself was in rough shape. He was bleeding from several gunshot wounds to his thigh, right chest and shoulder and numerous cuts crossed his limbs.

Jackson watched as James ducked a swing from the Lotkin and replied with a punch to the armpit, stunning it. James took the opportunity to then grab the warrior around its neck and bring its face down to meet his knee. He kneed the Lotkin in the face over and over, only stopping once its visage was nothing more than a pulpy mess. Then he let the body go to slump onto the ground.

James coughed up a bit of blood and wiped it from his mouth with the back of his bloody hand. Then his gaze turned to the unicorn trying unsuccessfully to hide behind the throne. Step by step, James began to climb the stair up to him. "Kaughn! Oh shit, you're fucked up. Hey man, get down here, you won."

James turned his head slightly, but otherwise didn't acknowledge Jackson. Mayfield stared at the man that was still making his way to the throne, "Jackson, that's not natural, mate. Your boy's done in a bad way." He commented.

They all ran up to the base of the throne, watching as James reached the top. Blueblood panicked and cast a spell, enveloping James in a light blue aura and attempted to lift him off the ground. James simply latched onto one of the arms on the throne and pulled himself forward towards the trembling prince, fighting against the magic. When Blueblood then tried to run past him, he found himself being wrenched to the floor by his horn.

The surprise and the pain caused him to lose concentration and release the spell. James landed gruffly on his feet and pulled out an old revolver from his cargo pocket that looked strangely familiar to Jackson. As Blueblood looked up, he found he was now staring down the barrel of a very large gun.

Jackson rushed up the steps. "Kaughn! Kaughn, cut it out, don't do it!" He yelled, slowly coming to a stop a few feet away from his friend.

Without looking up from his prey, James said, "He has to die, Jackson. He hurt this country, he hurt my friends, he hurt her."

"Kaughn, the girls are fine. RD is waiting for you at the vault. Now why don't you put the gun down and come with me so we can patch you up."

"Yeah, I saw them. She almost killed someone back there, but I stopped it. I killed him so she wouldn't have to. Now I have to kill him. He sent a hit squad after me, they hurt her. If I don't kill him now, he'll do it again."

"Hit squad!?" Blueblood said, his voice cracking with fright. "I did no such thing! You were supposed be dead for years now, I didn't even know you were alive!" He pleaded.

"Sure you didn't.' James replied, cocking the lever back on his gun.

Blueblood threw up his hooves over his head in a futile attempt to block the bullet he was sure was coming. Jackson had other plans though, "Kaughn, you're not listening to me. He'll get his, don't worry about that, but we need to take him alive. I'm sure he'll go on trial and he'll go in a nice dark prison with nothing but scraps to eat and a bucket to shit in, but I need you to put the gun down."

James turned his head to face his friend and looked him directly in the eyes. "Can you promise me, Jackson? Can you promise?"

"Yeah man, I can. You heard him any way, he didn't send nobody after you. Just relax, man. Relax."

James considered Jackson's words. For a tense moment, it seemed like he was going to go through with it any way. But then he lowered the gun. Blueblood let loose a palpable sigh of relief. Then to his terror, James stepped forward with his right arm cocked back and pistol whipped the prince across the side of the face.

Blueblood spit out a few bloody teeth and started rubbing the spot profusely, "Ow, what did you do that for you oaf!? If you're trying to knock me out, that wasn't a very good job."

James huffed, "I wasn't trying to knock you out. I just wanted to hit you." He slumped down into the throne. "Now get him out of here before I change my mind." He said darkly.

"Sure thing, brother." Jackson waved over Mayfield and Iron who promptly trussed Blueblood up in restraints and dragged him away, careful not to be too careful as they bounced him down the stairs. Turning back to James , Jackson said, "You all right, man? You look like shit."

"I've been better." James wheezed.

"No shit. C'mon buddy, we got to find you a medic."

"Are my wounds bleeding?"

"What?"

"My fuckin' boo boos, are they bleeding anymore?"

"No, they're— what the fuck?" Jackson watched with incredulity as he saw that the bleeding had in fact stopped, most were already scabbed over. "Holy shit. What happened to you?"

"If I knew, I'd tell you. I'll tell you one thing though, it's pretty fuckin' helpful."

"I still want you to see a medic, it's a wonder you're still walking around. I know at least a few of your ribs are broken."

"Yeah, hurts like hell." James said, closing his eyes. "Tell you what, I'm gonna take a nap and then find something to eat and drink, then we'll talk."

"Ok man, whatever you say. At least this is all over now."

Before he nodded off, James whispered, "Not by a long shot."

Sunrise

Chapter 40: Sunrise

Jackson stretched on the balcony, enjoying the warmth of the red sun of a new day rose lazily over the horizon. It was not long ago that Sumner had come flying from the vault with the news that both the Princesses were safe, having holed up in the underground chamber with Commander Sparks and two recruits. Now, Celestia was once again fulfilling her obligation to her world and letting the sun shine bright once more.

After the scene in the throne room, Garth had come running in, looking for battle. When there wasn't one to be found there, he excused himself and his four Lotkin brethren and fell upon the flanks of the Renegades still fighting at the gates, allowing the forces from the city to move in and overwhelm the invaders. Now that all were either dead or captured, Canterlot could begin the healing process.

The damage inflicted on the capitol was even more apparent in the sunlight. Several buildings in the city had collapsed. There were still countless casualties unaccounted for. The Palace was the spitting image of a royal mess.

Jackson felt a tug at his sleeve, "Chief Jackson?" He turned to see a recruit looking up at him with a cloth wrapped bundle. "Found this for you. Pulled it off the corpse of a Renegade." He removed the wrapping to reveal a Mk 43.

It was scuffed and dinged in some places, but Jackson was still happy to see it. "Baby came home to papa." He said, caressing its familiar weight. "Any news on the cities?"

"Yes Chief, almost all have been retaken, but there are still some pockets holding out."

"Does Sparks and the Princesses know?"

"First ones to."

"Good. Hey, you haven't seen Kaughn around, have you?"

"Who?" The recruit asked, showing confusion."

"Uh. Never mind. Listen, I'm gonna go walk around. Send for me if I'm needed." Jackson ordered.

"Sure thing, Chief."

Jackson slung the battered weapon over his shoulder. He made a mental note to give his weapon the proper care it deserved later. Now, he wanted to go find his elusive friend. Entering through the balcony door, he marched down the corridor now going under reconstruction. The bodies and blood stains had been removed and master carpenters and masons were hard at work to restore the Palace to its former glory.

After the whole scenario and things had gotten under control, Kaughn had snuck off somewhere, possibly in search of food. Of course, he was acting a lot differently now, so it could be anything. Jackson thought on this, wondering what had happened to his friend and if he would recover.





"Dammit, there's got to be something here."

James was rummaging through a small bar in the lower levels of the Palace. With clinking glass, he extracted a promising looking bottle from those among the cabinet under the bar. He frowned when he saw it only contained a few dregs and tossed it over his shoulder where it shattered against the wall behind him.

The whole bar was already a mess. The Renegades had come through during their stay and completely ransacked the place. If only he could find one they missed. The sound of hooves made him pause. They came closer and finally, he figured they were at the entrance of the room. Slowly, James stood up, wincing with the pain in his side. His ribs and lung, he had allowed a healer to tend to, but the rest he was letting heal on their own.

"Howdy!" Looked as a vested and Stetson-ed earth stallion with a poker hand on his flank stepped into view.

"Hi." James said.

"Lookin' for somethin' to drink? Kinda early for that, don't ya think?"

"It's also too early to talk in rhymes. Honestly, I don't care either way." James told him and went back to what he was doing.

"Well, if I can be completely honest, the rhyme was an accident. And you're goin' about that all wrong." He said, making his way to the bar. "Every bartender worth his salt has his own secret stash of the good stuff. By the way, the name's Blackjack."

"Hi Blackjack, I'm James and I recommend you keep your distance."

"Whoa, hey now, no need for any of that!" Blackjack said as he took a seat at the bar. "Just tryin' to be a friendly fella."

"I got enough friends. Now what did you say about that stash?"

"Yes, I saw. They seem mighty worried about you too. Also, check the bottom of the liquor cabinet, should be a false one."

There was a crash as James unceremoniously swept all the empty bottles onto the floor. Then a splintering sound as he smashed through the cabinet's bottom. "Hey, good call." He said, coming up and placing a large jar filled with a brown liquid on the bar.

"Oh yeah, look at that pretty thing, home brew."

"Just a shame I had to wreck the cabinet to get it."

"Oh, there was probably a latch or something you coulda opened it up with."

"Great. Now I have splinters in my hand." James said as he pulled out a couple of intact glasses and poured each of them a drink.

"Well, thank ya kindly!" Blackjack said with a smile.

That sat there for a moment, sipping on their drinks. James sat up on one end of the bar, staring at Blackjack. Finally, Blackjack feeling nervous under his gaze said, "Uh, somethin' wrong, partner?"

James downed the rest of his drink and poured himself another. "Not really. I was just thinking about how you look like a certain stallion one of my friends described to me once. As I recall, it didn't end well."

"Oh, well that is a damn shame." Blackjack chuckled nervously. "Y'know, in my particular line of business, I often travel a lot and not everypony is happy with the deals they get, so—"

"It wasn't about business. At least, not entirely."

"Well, there's a lot of fellas out there like me, but a tad bit more unsavory. Say, tell me this, if it's alright but, why are you down here hidin' from your friends?"

"Who said I was hiding?" James asked in a low tone.

"Nopony, really. It's just that they're all lookin' for you up there and you're down here in a servants' rec room gettin' drunk with an old rogue like me."

"I just wanted some time to myself. I honestly don't know what they'd make of me right now. I did some things I'm sure they wouldn't approve of."

"Nonsense." Said a kind voice from the doorway. "You've helped bring back my subjects from the brink of abject misery."

Blackjack jumped up from his seat and immediately bowed. "Y-Your Highness, I had no idea you were there!"

"Rise, my subject. I'm told you had your own hoof in this countries salvation." Celestia said. "We owe you many thanks."

"Oh well, much obliged." Blackjack responded with a tilt of his hat. "Now, I hate to bring this up, but... I kinda lost my boat in helpin' out your boys. Then of course there's expenses. . ."

"I'm sure something can be arranged. For the moment now, would you kindly excuse us? I would like to talk to James."

"O-Of course, Your Majesty. I'll just see myself out." Blackjack said as he quickly left the room.

James didn't stand up. He didn't bow or salute. He just sat there, sipping on his drink. "I see you've found Olive's personal reserve."

"I'll pay her back later, it's good stuff."

"Yes, she's quite the brewer I'm told." She moved closer, stepping carefully over the broken shards of glass strewn across the floor. "James, I'm sorry you got dragged into th—"

"Save it. I did it because I wanted to. I also noticed you never carried out my will."

"You were never dead. I'm sorry, James, I'm not exactly accustomed to being spoken to this way from one of my soldiers."

"Then I guess it's good I don't exactly work for you anymore."

For a fraction of a second, Celestia's face seemed to harden, but it soon resumed its kind features. "I suppose that is true in a way."

"Listen. I got some questions of my own, if you don't mind." James said.

"For the moment, my time is yours. What would you like to know?"

"First, how is RD doing?" He asked, fingering his glass.

Celestia smiled, "She's fine. Still a little shaken up, but of course she would never let anypony see that. It would help if you were there for her however."

"Yes. I would like to see her again, but I'm not ready yet. Still covered in blood and all."

"You might also do with a bath as well." Celestia suggested.

James chuckled a little, "Yeah, I guess I'm pretty ripe. Definitely the next on my list to do. But I need something else." He said, becoming grave again. "A death squad was sent to my home. I can tell you it didn't end well for them, but I didn't get back in time to help my friends."

"Yes, as I recall, your actions helped to liberate the whole of the town of Ponyville."

"'Liberate' is a tame way to put it. Any way, Blueblood said it wasn't him that sent them. In fact, he seemed pretty surprised that I was even alive in the first place."

"I'm told by the detail I set to question him that he was quite terrified by your display."

"Once again, you're putting it tamely." James chuckled humorlessly. "What I want to know is... if he didn't do it, who did?"

"James, i must warn you that revenge is never the best action to take."

'I won't lie, that's part of it. I wouldn't have thought of it before, but now... I need to put an end to this. I need to do it for her sake as well as mine. I don't care if you help me or not, because either way, it's going to happen.'

Celestia thought for a moment, the sighed, "Very well, if that is your wish. I can not talk about this here. We will meet in the vault, I will send for you when it's time. For now, I urge you to rest and spend some time with your friends and loved ones... it is something you sorely need."

"I will, but you better follow through."

Celestia dipped her head, "You have my word."







The airship pulled into the final approach pattern, easing into the descent onto the tarmac used by the RSTG forces. Below, a small group waited, staring up at the battered ship anxiously. "Ya think that's them?" Applejack asked, eyes turned to the sky.

Between her and Rainbow Dash, Sparks chuckled, "I'd know that old rust bucket anywhere. Of course it is."

As gently as a ballet dancer, the craft touched down fifteen yards away from them, its engine almost immediately beginning to spin down. The side door flew open and a young colt shouted, "Daddy!" as he came bounding out into the sunlight, all smiles.

"Flicker!" Sparks said happily, beaming with equal radiance, as he galloped to his son and picked him up in a tight hug.

Back at the ship, four more mares and a small dragon stepped out into the bright sun. Aria finished her post flight checks then ran to join Sparks and Flicker in reunion while Spike, Rarity and Pinkie rushed forward to embrace their friends. Only Fluttershy lagged behind, still feeling numb.

"Oh, how absolutely dreadful the two of you look, having been through Celestia knows what!" Rarity said as she pulled back and examined Applejack and Rainbow Dash's dirty fur and mussed up manes.

"Yeah, Ah'll tell ya, it weren't no picnic." Applejack said.

"But we won, it's all over now!" Dash said with confidence.

"Woohoo!" Pinkie cried as she bounced all around them. "You know what that means. VICTORY PARTY!"

"Uh, yeah, I'm sure we'll have time for that later. Y'know, after everything's been cleaned up. The place is still a mess." Spike said. "Hey, RD, AJ, you wouldn't happen to know where Twilight is, would you?"

"Sure thing, sugarcube. She's talkin' with Princess Luna right now. Ah don't know 'bout what, but it sure must be important if Princess Luna is still up to speak with her. Oh yeah, hey Fluttershy!" Applejack yelled to her introverted friend. Fluttershy looked up dolefully, blinking slowly. "Guess who's here?"

"W-who?"

"Your big pal Garth, that's who!"

"H-h-he is!?" Fluttershy exclaimed, perking right up.

"Yup! The big lug took out a bunch of baddies himself." Dash told her. "All while only getting a few scratches t— Hey, where're you goin'!?"

Fluttershy had suddenly taken flight, wobbling unsteadily through the air as she flapped up towards the castle. "I-I gotta go see him, make sure he's ok!" She said by means of explanation. "And then I'm gonna ask why he left without telling me!" She said, a hint of anger creeping into her voice.

"Oh boy." Dash said, starting to flap her wings as well. "I'm gonna go with her, make sure nothing bad happens."

"Yes, that's probably a good idea, she still hasn't been eating well." Rarity informed her cyan blue friend.

"Actually, I'm more worried about Garth. See ya guys later!" RD told them as she chased after the butter yellow pegasus who was already half way to the castle.

"Well that's great, Applejack, but what about James, did you find him?" Rarity asked, returning he attention to the ground.

Applejack was hesitant in her answer, "Yeah... Jackson said he's here, but none of us have seen him yet. Actually, Ah don't think anypony has. He hasn't been 'round all mornin' and Nopony's seen 'im since last night. Ah tried lookin' fer him earlier, but Ah jus' can't find 'im."

Much to the farm mare's startlement, Pinkie Pie suddenly materialized beside her, "What are you talking about, he's right there!" She said, pointing to the air field's entrance with a hoof.

Much to their amazement, there he was. Bandaged up, in torn-up filthy clothing, but still standing tall to his credit. Gingerly, he raised a hand and waved. Smiles broke out as Rarity, Applejack and Pinkie rushed at him and pulled him into a large hug. "Woah, hey, glad to see you guys too." He said with constricted breath. "All of you are un-hurt, right?" He asked as the gently let go and retreated half a step.

"Well, of course, darling, all of us are fine, really. Besides, it seems you are a little worse for the wear, if your current attire is anything to go by, and— is that the pair of pants I made especially for you!?" She cried out in shock as she lunged forward to inspect the tortured garments.

"Uh, yeah." James chuckled nervously. "Sorry they got a little messed up. If it means anything, they did their job beautifully." Although, by the look on Rarity's face, she was still furious. "Hey, I'm sorry, but I hit a couple of rough spots. Uh... you guys haven't happened to see Dash, have you?"

"Ya just missed her." Applejack told him. "Poor thing's worried sick about'cha, y'know." She said accusingly.

"Yeah, sorry about that. I couldn't find you guys and sort of... lost my head."

"Well you should go see her. Right now. She went with Fluttershy to check in on Garth. If ya hurry, you can catch up with 'em."

"Thanks, I—"

"HEY YOU!" An angry voice shouted, interrupting them. James looked over and was bewildered to see a very tired looking Sparks now making his way over. James stepped away from his friends and walked slowly over to where the unicorn was standing by his family. Behind him, an equally surprised Aria waited with her foal. Sparks looked about ready to hit the human, but just raised a hoof instead. They stood there for a moment, but then James grabbed the appendage and Sparks pulled his old friend into a rough hug. "You son of a nag, you got a lot of explaining to do! But it's great to see you again."

"Language, sweetie!" Aria scolded as she covered Flicker's ears.

"Sorry honey!" Sparks apologized.

"Kid looks great man, just like his father." James said.

"Yeah, but fortunately he's got his mother's brains."

James scratched his head, "Hey, I'm sorry I hid from you guys. I just needed to get away."

"It's ok, I'm sure you had your reasons."

"I'd like to tell you all about it, got a nice little house set up in the forest. Well, it was nice. I heard Flash is in medical, but he should be out again soon. How about we all get together later, swap stories over some drinks like the old times?"

Sparks looked like he wanted nothing more than to do just that, but her looked back to aria for approval. "Fine." The unicorn mare sighed. "But not too much! I heard about what happened in Ponyville the last time you three got together."

A Deal In The Dark

Chapter 41: A Deal In The Dark

Rainbow Dash was in an awkward situation. She was sitting uneasily in a small homey room, while Fluttershy was actively chewing out one of the fiercest warriors alive in Equestria. Gone was the anti-social, heartbroken, little pegasus that was too shocked to eat or even talk with her friends. What Rainbow Dash was witnessing was the scolding of a lifetime.

To his credit, Garth took it all quietly and with patience. Every time his friend brought up a point of how terrified and absolutely distraught she had been, he simply nodded and apologized. Still, it was strange for Dash to watch somepony who she had witnessed effortlessly beat bad guys to a pulp absolutely wither under the verbal onslaught of her normally withdrawn friend.

The tirade finally ended when Fluttershy grabbed Garth around the neck and forced him into a hug. "Don't you ever do that to me again. Do you understand? Never ever!"

"Yes, Miss Fluttershy." Garth responded, suitably chastened.

"Now let's go get you something to eat. You look absolutely famished."

"Yes, Miss Fluttershy."

Rainbow rubbed the back of her head with a hoof, "So, you guys all good then?"

"Oh yes, thank you for coming with me, Rainbow." Fluttershy said. "But you really should go get cleaned up, I think we're meeting the girls later for dinner."

"Yeah, sure. I'll see you later then?"

"Oh, of course."

"Ok, see ya. Later Garth!" The big Lotkin waved goodbye to her as she exited the room.

Dash made her way down the long hallway, the sounds of construction echoing through out the corridors around her. Slowly but steadily, life was returning to the Palace. She turned down twisted corridors and smashed foundations, finally coming to a mostly untouched section of the Palace where they were notified they could make their temporary residences at.

She came to her door and went to push it open, surprise crossing her face when she found it was locked. She was told this room was hers and would be ready when she arrived. Fortunately, she was also given a key. Thinking they had probably locked it just to be safe, she inserted it and entered the room.

It wasn't a big room, like what she had had access to back in normal stays in the Palace. All of those had for the most part been trashed completely by the Renegades. This one boasted only a small bed with just enough room to stretch out on, a little balcony and a modest bathroom.

She had it all to herself. Which is why she found it odd that the shower was running. Sure she needed to wash up, but she guessed the staff had felt she'd better do it right away. An annoying thought that others had blatantly thought that way about her, but she was too tired to get angry.

She felt like taking a nap before going out later that night, but at least she would take the opportunity to wash up first. Grabbing a towel, she prodded the bathroom door open and stepped inside. She did not expect to see what she then saw.

Somepony was already in her shower. She recognized the physique as human. Great splotchy scars dotted and crossed his muscled back, arms and legs, some intersected lines that she guessed were cuts. A few of them were very recent, puckered circles ringed with jagged and tattered skin that hadn't finished healing yet.

"What the hay!?" She shouted at the man in her shower, "What're you doing in my room? Topher, if that's you, they gave you your own place and you need to get out, now!"

The man shut off the water and without looking, grabbed a towel from the rack and wrapped it around his torso. "Funny, I was told this was my room." He said as he turned around. "I think somebody might have set us up."

"James!" Rainbow said gleefully as she leapt into the tub with him and wrapped her forelegs around his neck, planting a big, messy kiss on his lips.

"Glad to finally see you too." He smiled as he pulled back and looked into her eyes. His features suddenly became serious as he asked, "You're not hurt at all, are you? You're feeling ok?"

"Yes, silly, why wouldn't I?" She responded, his expression relaxing.

"Good, good. I was worried about you." He told her, stepping out onto the mat.

"Me too, but your here now. Are you ok?" She asked, worry coming to her own face. "I was so worried when you never turned up and... well look at you now! Just covered in all those bruises and cuts and... and... I don't even know what that's from!" She said, pointing out one of the angry red puckered wounds.

"Well you know me. It takes a lot to take me down."

"Yeah... I guess so..." James started walking towards the door, grabbing another towel and drying his head off. "Wait..." He stopped at the door, turning to look at her, still standing in the tub. She flashed her eyes at him, "Don't you want to stay and join me?"

A small smile creased James' lips. "Tempting, very tempting. But I think it'd gross you out. Some of my wounds are still bleeding a little. Next time though, for sure."

"Oh, ok..." She said, slightly down trodden. "But don't think you're off the hook just yet, pal!"

"I'll keep that in mind." He said as he stepped out into the bedroom and closed the door behind him.



Fifteen minutes later, dash stepped out of the shower and toweled herself off. Then after checking herself in the mirror to make sure her mane was just the right amount of messy, she stepped into the bedroom. She saw James there, sitting on the end of the bed.

He was freshly bandaged, his torso and shoulder wrapped tightly in stark white gauze. That didn't surprise her after what she had just seen. No, what got her was what he was doing when she walked in. He hadn't seemed to notice her yet. He was facing away from her, staring distantly at the wall in front of him.

This wasn't a new thing, she had seen it before. Sometimes he would zone out, suddenly just staring off into the distance or at a particular spot in the wall or floor. This time was different though. Before, he had just been absently staring off, seemingly lost deep in thought. Now, however, his eyes weren't clear or empty, they housed something sinister. It was something like a cold, dark malice that had taken up a residence inside him.

With a quiet flutter of her wings, she landed softly on the bed behind him, leaning on his back and draping her forelegs over his shoulders from behind. She felt his body tense and stiffen, a hand shot up and gripped one of her legs forcefully, then released and fell back to his side just as quickly. As if realizing a mistake, his form finally relaxed.

Dash leaned harder against him, nuzzling the side of his face with her own. "Your face is getting pretty furry now, just like mine." She commented.

James didn't answer right away, but when he did, he seemed distant and preoccupied. "Yeah... I should probably shave it. Or at least trim it down."

"No, don't get rid of it. It looks good on you." Rainbow's hoof found a cord dangling from his neck and used it to lift up the object hanging from it. "You're still wearing it." She said as she gazed at the colorful and faintly luminescent gem.

"Of course i am. Why would i ever take it off?" He responded in an oddly flat voice.

Dash looked at him questioningly, she hadn't really seen him act this way before. "Is everything ok? You seem... different."

Unexpectedly, James stood up, gently shrugging her off. He walked out over to the balcony and leaned against the iron wrought rail, gazing down thoughtfully at the Palace gardens five stories below. Dash jumped off the bed and slowly walked up next to him, "C'mon, you're weirding me out. If there's something wrong, tell me!"

Slowly, James turned his head, looking directly into her beautiful eyes, "Honestly, I don't know what to tell you." He said softly.

"It's not me, is it?" Rainbow asked with concern creeping into her voice as she glanced away. "It's not something I did, right?"

James let out a small sigh as a slight smile touched his lips, "No, no, of course not." Dash looked back up and saw that the scary look in his eyes was gone now, replaced with the old James she knew. "How could I ever feel badly because of you." He reassured her.

Her spirits raised some at that, but she was still curious, "Well, do you still want to tell me? I might be able to help, at least."

There was a pause as he face fell some, "No... sorry."

"I.. ok then." She replied, a little put off. Then she looked up at a small clock hanging on the wall. They still had a few hours left and she still wanted to take that nap. "Well, I'm still here for you, like it or not." She told him as she retreated inside and flopped onto the bed.

She lay there for a while, not actually falling asleep. There was something a little off putting about James now, though she couldn't put her hoof on it. Rainbow Dash wondered about it for a few minutes, hoping, he wouldn't leave again.

Then there was a rustling as she felt a familiar weight settle onto the bed with her and strong arms wrap around her torso. She twisted around in the grip and came face to face with James, planting a heavy kiss on his lips. She squirmed closer to his body, pressing as tightly as she could against it as she rested her head on his shoulder. They laid there a while in each other's embrace.

Soft breath brushed her mane by her ear, "Thank you," he whispered and pulled her in closer.

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



Dinner had been a fairly sordid affair for James. Celestia had had a table moved out into the recently cleared garden, arranged for many guests the large table was set up in a small clearing, the branches of the trees around them strung with lights dimmed low for ambiance. She and her sister, Princess Luna, sat at the head, with Sparks, Flash, Mayfield, Jackson, James and the girls to be seated around them.

In addition, many members of Equstria's Royal Family had been invited as well as ambassadors to foreign parts. James didn't like the way things were feeling and exchanged his seat with a griffon so he could sit at the other end in relative obscurity. He was fortunate enough that nobody else at the table, except for those that knew him personally, recognized him for who and what he was, believing him to be just another favored guest.

It was just what he wanted. He really didn't feel like talking to any of those assembled there and resigned himself to sitting at far corner and picking at his food. Celestia didn't seem to mind it much, but he got occasional worried glances from his friends and Princess Luna.

Finally, after a load of fancy courses and a long discussion James didn't particularly care for, the dinner came to an end. As servants began to clear the table, he picked himself up and started off towards his room. He didn't make it far before Jackson came jogging over.

"Hey, Kaughn!" James turned around just in time for his friend to wrap a big beefy arm around his shoulder. "Hey man, where're you going? Me and some of the guys are thinkin' about going out and I would like if you came with, like old times."

"Ah, I don't know..." James said hesitantly. "I still have some stuff to do and—"

"Kaughn. You and I both know you ain't got shit to do right now. It's been a tough few weeks, we all need to decompress. C'mon, when's the last time you and me had a night out together?"

James considered it for a moment. For once, he didn't feel like it too much. Then again, Jackson was his friend, his brother. "Alright, fine."

"Hey hey! There we go. Listen, one of my new associates—southern guy by the name of Blackjack, he's ok—knows a place downtown he said would still in business. Go get ready, meet us there, see you in a few." Jackson told him, patting him on the chest a few times and taking off to go check with his teammates.

James shook his head as he walked away and smiled. His brother hadn't changed at all despite all he'd been through. Still, he'd be showing up a little late to the party. After all, he really did have something he needed to do first.

Watching the others from the table get up and leave, he spotted Luna making off towards her tower to continue her night's work. As quietly as he could, he followed her, sticking to the shadows. He watched her go inside, then making sure none else had followed, slipped in behind her.

He looked up the interior of the tower, listening to the echoes of the Princess' hooves striking old weathered stone. He ascended quickly, habitually careful not to make any noise on the steps. When he reached the top, he found an old wooden door, cast slightly ajar.

Edging it open, he found Luna standing regally on a wide balcony, surveying Equestria in the silent glory of the silvery moon. "Excuse me, Luna..."

"Wha—!" The Princess jumped and spun around, eyes wide. " Oh, James!" She said as she saw him standing by the door, heart beating wildly from her little scare. "You mustn't do that, you scared me quite thoroughly!"

"Sorry, but I needed to speak with you." James apologized.

"I'm flattered, but now is not the time. I must perform my royal duties. Perhaps if we met later, maybe during my midnight meal?" She suggested.

"I have to apologize again... this can't wait."

Luna was suddenly concerned, "Is it something serious? Has there been another attack?"

"No, no. Fortunately not. But there might be. When Jackson's team captured Blueblood, he said something about there being another player in the game. He said he wasn't the one who organized all this." James explained.

"If my sources are correct," Luna said, "you were the one to actually capture him."

"I wasn't there to capture him." James said, dead eyed. "That said, i need to know what he's told you so far, what he knows about this 'other'."

Luna reared back, becoming serious, "James, what are you—"

"What I need to do!" He nearly shouted. Continuing in a softer tone, he said, "I need to end this. It needs to stop at the source, or none of them will be safe again. I had a freaking hit squad sent after me, they targeted my friends when they couldn't find me. I will not allow that to happen again. Now here's what I need you to do. I need all the information you have on this, I need access to your experimental weapons—don't lie, I know you have a program, any competent leader would—and last of all, I need you to keep this between us. You can't say a word to anybody. Not to your sister, not to Jackson and his team and not to Rainbow Dash and the girls. Especially Dash." He emphasized his last few words by pointing straight at her chest. "Help me make this land safe, or end up regretting it, your choice."

Luna stepped back and considered his words, mulling them over in her thoughts. She was reluctant to acquiesce to his request, not to mention the rather rude and threatening way he had spoken to her. Still, he was right. The threat need to be stopped at the source and he was most likely the best one to do it.

"Very well." She said, though begrudgingly. "I will help you, but you must know how dangerous this task truly is?"

"No more dangerous than doing absolutely nothing."

"I shall put you in contact with one of my personal operatives. His name is Howitzer, he is very reliable and I am sure he will have no problem helping you to get the items you need. Just do me one thing." Luna said, her tone becoming grave.

"Name it."

"Do not destroy yourself in this endeavor. Do your most to return, at least for the one that cares deeply for you. I'm sure you wouldn't want to see her hurt, physically or otherwise." She said, giving him a hard look.

James raised a hand, which Luna shook. "I would never dream of it, but no promises."

Mischief Night

Chapter 42: Mischief Night

The bar wasn't exactly 'downtown'. In fact, it was closer to the outer boundaries of the city, nestled up against the wall of the mountain that loomed over Canterlot. This, compounded by the fact that it wasn't the most savory part of town made Jackson a little nervous.

Still, it turned out to be not so bad a place. Blackjack led him, Mayfield and the rest of his team to the dumpy looking building and brought them inside to a well furnished and relatively clean establishment. Sure, there were a few stray bullet marks on the walls and half the inventory seemed to have been looted, but all around it wasn't bad.

Blackjack took Jackson over to a back room where he introduced him to the owner and bartender of the place, a willowy roan earth stallion wearing a black vest, white undershirt and red bowtie. "This is Marv." Blackjack drawled as he showed him to Jackson. "He may not have the nicest looking place in town, but he sure can whip up some mean drinks."

"Interesting." The stallion said as he looked Jackson up and down. "He's a big one, but are you sure he and his fellows can handle themselves here? Now that all the fighting's died down, certain... odiferous characters have been trying to muscle their way in." He said to Blackjack in a voice with a hint of poshness.

"Oh sure, they'll hold up just fine. Hardest sons o' nags I seen in a while." Blackjack assured him.

Jackson was concerned with the roan stallion's last sentence and leaned towards Blackjack, "Hey, this place ain't gonna be trouble, is it?"

"Oh, no!" Blackjack chuckled back with a bit of nervousness. "One of the finest neighborhoods around. For the most part..."

"All right..."

"Please, gentlecolts, let us not worry about the malign, I'm sure you're all very thirsty." Marv interjected as he headed around behind the bar. "After all, a bit is a bit, and I haven't had customers in quite some time. What'll you have?"

Jackson's concerns weren't entirely laid to rest, but he and his team needed time to unwind, so he shrugged and placed his order. In no time, they were all at the bar, laughing and swapping stories. The place slowly became even more lively as other ponies, attracted by the light and the sound of revelious conversation, began trickling in and adding to the atmosphere.

Soon enough, a few more wandered in with large cases and began setting up instruments in one of the corners. They started to play and Jackson and his team were treated to the sight of a few odd ponies trying to drunkenly dance. Redflare and Cray found a dart board in the back and started trying to out-do one another with difficult shots. At one of the tables, Blackjack began a game of poker with Jackson, Iron and Swift Paws.

A short while later, Sparks showed up with Flash. They sat down with Mayfield and began asking a lot of questions about his county and the origin of his strangely similar 'Buckingham' accent, which produced a laugh from the carousing Londoner. It was something of a weird coincidence to Mayfield that this land had a country that nearly mirrored his own in the kind of citizens it produced and had plenty of likewise questions for his two interrogators.

Jackson, while having fun, kept glancing at his watch occasionally. His best friend was running late. He hoped whatever he had to take care of wasn't too troubling. Truth be told, he was beginning to worry about his friend's state of mind. Jackson had lost enough in his life already, he didn't know if he could handle losing his brother again.






In the darkness crunched a lone biped across a rubble strewn street. James hunched up in his jacket, staring up at the moon, wondering if she would really keep her promise. He had a lot riding on it, not the least, the guaranteed safety of those he cared about the most, regardless of the cost.

He tried to push such thoughts from his mind as he neared his destination. It was a run down two storey squeezed in between what looked like flop houses. In the alleyways around him, he could see shadowy figures flittering in and out of the light. He gripped something under his jacket and wondered if he might've gotten bad directions.

The building James reached was brightly lit inside, standing out at odds with it's surroundings. Still, he promised he'd go and pressed on. Taking a few cautious looks around, he opened the door and prepared himself for whatever would greet him inside.

He was immediately blasted away by the riot of noise and saturnalia that assaulted him. The amount of ponies engaging in alcohol fueled revelries was amazing. James looked over to the bar and was met with the strangely expected surprise of seeing that Mayfield was not sitting with the rest of the customers, but rather on the other side, serving drinks much to the bartender's annoyance.

James wandered over to the watering hole to see what was going on. Mayfield spotted him and slid over, "Hey! And the prodigal son returns!" He pulled up a large glass and multiple bottles of liquor. "I was just about to school the lads in a punishing round of a little game called 'Arrogance', care to join?"

James had to laugh a little, "No thanks, I think I'll pass for now. But I wouldn't mind a beer."

"Suit yourself. Ah, four bits please."

James tossed him a few bits in exchange for the bitter-sweet beverage. "You're behind the bar and you're still charging me?"

"Sorry mate, Marv'll kick me out if I don't." Mayfield smiled.

"I'll do more than that if you break anything, you lout." The roan stallion said as he bustled past with a tray off empty glasses balanced on his back.

James leaned back towards Mayfield, "Hey, you seen Jackson anywhere?"

"Uh, sure, I think he's around here somewhere..." Mayfield said, peering around the lively bar. "Wo- uh-oh, looks like some one ain't too happy to see you!" he said, looking past James.

James turned around, "Who—?" And promptly received a hoof across the mouth.

"You are such an asshole!" Spat a very tipsy Quick Fix.

"Oh ho ho!" Mayfield reeled in ecstatic laughter. "Where's she learn that bit of cheeky speak, I wonder?"

James ignored the commentary and rubbed his jaw, staring back at the angry mare. "Yeah, sorry for the shit behavior, but I won't apologize for keeping you from getting yourself killed."

"I know." The unicorn said, "and thank you, I really wasn't ready for that stuff. Now where's Mr. Jackson, I came all the way here..."

"Oh, try looking near the back, love, he's probably playing darts." Mayfield told her.

"Thanks Topher!" She smiled to the impromptu bartender and started trotting away.

"Hey, Q, try to take it easy tonight, ok?" James called after her.

"Still an asshole!" She called back with out even a glance back.

James turned back to Mayfield, "Well, I think I'll give her some time to cool off before I head over to see Jackson myself."

"Don't blame ya." Mayfield replied as he flipped a coin and the pony across called 'heads'. "Ohhhh... sorry there, it's tails." He said, revealing the side of the coin. "Drink up!" He watched with amusement as the pony knocked back the noxious mixture of liquors with a cringe.

"Better for us." A dark pegasus said as he spun around on his barstool. "You're supposed to be dead, did you know that?" With wide eyes, James turned his head to see Flash sitting there, with Sparks on the other side. "I really don't know wether I should hug you or buck you across the bar, what the hay happened!?"

Mayfield sidled in, "Lover's quarrel?"

"Not now, Limey." James snapped.

"Oooh~, touchy." He slid away.

Returning his attention to Flash, James shook his head. "Look, I'm sorry. Things got a little... complicated, after the incident."

"So you run off and let your best friends in the country think you were dead for six years?"

A tense silence hung over the three of them for a few awkward moments, even with all the noise around them. Then James sighed, "Ok, it was shitty. I probably should've let you guys know somehow, but I wanted to just get away from it all. Plus, you know how the press is like."

"Yeah, we heard about you, Mr. Demon of Everfree." Sparks put in sarcastically. "Not too subtle, ya think?"

James had to chuckle a little, "That was a accident, you gotta believe me."

"It sounds kinda douchey."

"Yeah, it sounds kinda douchey." James agreed, turning back to his drink. "But I didn't come up with it!"

"Sure, sure."

"So... you guys see Feather lately?" James let the question hang in the air.

"Yeah, yeah we did." Sparks finally answered. "Went a few months ago. Place still looks really good." He said somberly. "Flew out and put in a proper headstone. You'd like it."

"To Feather." Flash toasted. James and Sparks reciprocated the toast and clinked their glasses before downing their contents. "All right, enough catching up for now. I say we properly screw this night up, just like old times." Flash proposed.

"Screw it." James tallied. "Hey, gin drinking dildo owner!" He yelled at Mayfield.

The now much drunker and ever more jubilant Englishman tottered over. "Y'know, that's actually not quite an accurate stereotype. We drink as much rum, whiskey, vodka, and tequila as anything else and only a few of us actually own rubber slapper sticks. Unless you're referring to knobheads, in which case, that has been illegal for centuries now."

"Shut it and make us a stiff drink."

"I am going to slap your dirty mouth." Mayfield replied, though he went on mixing something up for them.

After receiving a rather cringe worthy, though not entirely terrible round of drinks, James left the bar with promises to Flash and Sparks that they would talk more later. For now, he wanted to find Jackson. He wanted to hang out with his best friend while he had the time.

Wandering around, dodging tables and bumping into the occasional party-goer, James finally spotted the big bald man engaged in a curious test of strength. Jackson was at a table, surrounded by stallions and mares alike, facing off against a very large tan coated stallion with a scarf around his neck in what appeared to be an arm wrestling match. Edging closer to the outer area of the crowd, James watched.

Jackson was gripping his opponent's foreleg just below the hoof, his elbow resting on the table. At the moment, both were still over the center of the table, but visibly straining against the other, it was a close match. Then, the stallion's hoof began to fall, Jackson steadily inching it towards the table for the win.

Just centimeters off the surface, the stallion arrested the movement and the two resumed struggling in that position. Then there was a gleam in the stallion's steely eyes and he grinned. In about an instant, the large pony arced Jackson's arm over the table and slammed it down on the opposite side. A cheer went up among the crowd and James saw bits being exchanged between some of the spectators.

Jackson hung his head in defeat, but was smiling and laughing. He clapped his opponent on the shoulder and got up to get himself another drink. That was when he spotted James through the crowd. His face lighting up, Jackson unceremoniously pushed his way through and came to James' side.

"So you finally decided to show up!" He said, pulling James into a rough hug.

"Yeah, why wouldn't I?" James shrugged. "Seems like you and Mayfield got a good thing going on here. I think you even made some of the locals here some money."

Jackson glanced back at the dissipating crowd, "Yeah, I know, right? I've bet on ponies before, kinda strange for them to be betting on me instead.then again, this ain't exactly the same as where we're from, is it?"

"No, I guess not. Quick Fix was back here looking for you."

Jackson's face scrunched up, somewhat embarrassed, "Yup, she found me. She was actin' a little too touchy feely, but I'll chalk that up to the alcohol." He started steering James over to an empty table in the corner. "So what's been happening with you, man, you been holding up all right?"

"Fine." James replied, taking his seat.

"You sure?" Jackson sat down and leaned in, his voice dropping to a low volume, "I'm just asking because of the little mess you made back there." He said, meaning the events that occurred just a few nights ago in the castle. "The way you... that wasn't really you back there, like, I've never seen you like that before. It was just..."

"I said I was fine." James said almost mechanically, "I feel perfectly normal."

Jackson wasn't entirely satisfied with his friends answer, but he decided not to push it. After all, he was there to have fun with his brother, not interrogate. "Ok the. But if need to talk, I'm always here."

"I know." He said, but he wanted to change the topic. "How'd you guys pick this place? Just seems a little... off."

"It came highly recommended by a friend. Besides, the way things are right now, it's either this or the Palace, and partying there would be a bit of a bummer, seeing as it ain't all fixed up yet. Yeah, it's not the best neighborhood and the owner's a little strange, but the place has soul."

"I guess you're right."

"Chief, Chief!" Cray came trotting over, trying to get Jackson's attention.

"Oh, hey!" Jackson waved back and said to James, "That's one of my guys, smart little bastard. Probably wouldn't have been able to do half the shit we did without him." As Cray neared, he turned to greet the unicorn, "Hey Cray, what'd I say about relaxin' tonight, you don't have to call me that. Just Jackson's fine."

"Uh, sorry, but I think we might have a situation." Cray replied, no sign of jest showing on his face.

Jackson's eyes narrowed and he got serious. "Situation? What kind, somebody get hurt?"

"No, but... maybe... look, some strange ponies showed up, acting a little shifty. They got cloaks on and ponies are starting to leave, but like, in a hurry. I tried asking around, but nopony want's to say anything."

Jackson looked up and scanned the crowd discreetly. He saw that his subordinate was right and there were in fact some shady looking characters roaming around the edges of the crowds. "Shit. Ok, I'm gonna have a talk with Blackjack and Marv, you stay here with this guy." He said, gesturing to James.

Cray looked up at the raggedy human, "Who's he?"

"He's a close friend, a brother." Jackson answered. "He knows his stuff and will back you up if shit goes down."

"Ok... hi." Cray waved awkwardly at James.

"Hey yourself."

Jackson got up and headed towards the back area behind the bar, careful to avoid the suspect ponies along the way. As he passed the bar, Mayfield noticed the serious look on his face. Jackson nodded towards the cloaked figures and Mayfield looked over, seeming to almost instantly sober up, but continued what he was doing like nothing changed. In the back room, Jackson could hear a hushed argument taking place between two people. He peeked in and saw Blackjack and Marv.

Upon hearing some one approach, Blackjack shushed the heated conversation and turned around, "Jackson!" He exclaimed. "Hurry up and git in here! Shut the door!"

Jackson stepped in and closed the door softly behind him. "What's goin' on here, is there something I need to know? There's a bunch of creepy motherfuckers out there and i want to know if my people might be in danger." He said sternly.

Marv started, "It's those disgusting—" Blackjack shoved a hoof in his associate's mouth, cutting him short, much to the bar owner's chagrin.

"Ain't no problem." Blackjack supplied instead. "Well, probably."

"Probably?" Jackson said. "These guys are trouble, aren't they?"

"I can tell you they can't play poker with a straight face. You guys are packin' right? Big bad warriors that you are?"

Jackson shook his head angrily, "No! We came out here to have fun, not fight! Aw, dammit." He placed his hands on his hips and faced away from the two ponies, taking a deep breath. After a moment of thought, he turned back around, "ok, we need to get everyone out, what do we know about these guys?"

"Common thugs." Marv chuffed. "Deal in stolen goods and rackets. They want my bar."

There was a knock at the door and the three of them went stiff. Jackson held a finger to his lips and grabbed a wine bottle from a nearby rack, much to Marv's protest, "You put that down! That is a 997 Classique Céleste, I've been saving that for a very special—!"

He stopped when Jackson shot an angry look back at him, but he remained very tiffed. Returning his attention to the door, raising his impromptu weapon over head for a strike. He eased open the door and peeked out.

"Jackson, what the hay is going on, everypony's leaving and there're these weird guys around."

"Jackson put down the bottle and reached out, "Woman, get in here!" He yanked a still very confused Quick Fix into the room.

"Hey, what gives?" She said crossly.

"You might wanna stick back here, sweet cheeks, things might get rough out there." Blackjack told her.

Quick Fix glanced at him, then back to Jackson, "Who the hay is that creep?"

"He's ok, just stay in here." Jackson said. "He'll make sure nothing happens to you."

"Oh hay no!" Blackjack said. "If there's gonna be a brawl, count me in. Marv, you take care here while we deal with the beatniks out there."

"Watch out, Marv, "Jackson warned, "she's a little feisty tonight."

"Not to worry." Marv smiled. "Mares aren't entirely my... thing."

Jackson looked at him for a minute, then shrugged, "Ok, I guess..." he turned to Blackjack, "You ready?"

"Let's do it!"

Calmly, they exited the room and shut the door behind them. Mayfield was still behind the bar, trying to shoo away some of the more intoxicated patrons, but to no avail. James was still in the corner with Cray. Iron and Redflare, sensing the situation, had moved to another side of the bar with Swift Paws.

The bar still wasn't empty, with only about half the customers there having taken the hint. Some of those wearing the shady uniform were now grouping up in front of the bar. One stepped forward towards Mayfield, who was still behind the bar. "Sorry, but we're closing." The rough human said.

"We're not here for drinks, we're here to collect. Where's Marvin?" The apparent ring leader replied threateningly.

"Look, buddy," Jackson intervened, "he's busy. The night's winding down and everybody's going home. You should do the same." He said cautiously.

The ring leader was not amused, "Don't 'buddy' me! He already owes money, now it's time for him to pony up and turn over the keys."

Blackjack stepped up with a cocky grin, "Now fella, we're tryin' to be nice here. Whatever he owes, I'm sure is plenty payable after tonight's take. Other than that, I'm not ready to let one of my old stompin' grounds go over to some two-bit hock herder not worth a bucket of saddle soap that'll let the place go under."

"Who you calling two-bit, huh? If you don't wanna cooperate, my boys are more than willing to teach you all a lesson or two. So why don't you just turn tail and take off?"

"No deal."

"Suit yourself." The leader looked over his shoulder, "Jer, Tyr and Si—" he was rudely interrupted by an errant bottle of liquor that sailed over the bar and smashed full force across his face. He went down hard. All heads turned to the source of the projectile.

A grinning Mayfield stood there, reaching for another bottle, "Any one else fancy a drink?"

"Get 'em!" One of the gang members bellowed.

"I was wonderin' when this was gonna get interestin'!" Blackjack shouted with delight as he spun and bucked an attacker into a table, reducing it to a pile of wooden shards and splinters.

Chaos erupted. In a matter of seconds, every hand, hoof and paw in the house was swinging for a target. Mayfield leaped over the counter and came down on one of the gang members with a devastating right hook from above, slamming his target to the ground. He quickly followed it up with a backhand across the face of another foot soldier who thought he could sneak up on the large human.

While Mayfield dove into the fray, the rest of the team descended on the belligerents from the sides, forcing them towards the center of the room. James stayed at his corner table sipping on a drink and observing from afar. He watched in amusement as the griffon lifted one of the ponies up into the air and dropped him unceremoniously onto a group of his cohorts.

Blackjack laughed as he was slugged in the jaw and returned in kind with a jab and an uppercut. The pony he struck went reeling back and was about to recover for another attempt when Swift Paws tackled him with a growl and slashed at his face with her claws before moving onto the next one.

Jackson held his own, picking up a stool and swinging it around like a baseball bat. He knocked out a few of the gang before it finally fell apart in his hands. Seeing this, three gang members advanced on him, backing him up to the counter. Jackson felt a tap on his shoulder and he side stepped, expecting a new threat.

Instead, he was surprised as an inferno blazed past him, blown forth by flapping wings. The ponies howled and shrank back as they frantically tried to extinguish the flames licking up their cloaks. Jackson risked a glance and saw Redflare hoof bumping Cray behind the bar, who was holding a match and a bottle of seltzer water mixed with a high proof alcohol and modified to spray mist.

In the middle of the room, the gang was packed in tightly by the ferociously provoked warriors, while others limped out of the bar or simply ran away when they could. In the center of the group, the ring leader emerged with a gashed and bloody face. "That's it! Hold it, everypony hold up!" The fighting trickled to a stop, Jackson's team carefully surrounding the group. "I tried to do this the easy way, but if you wanna make it hard, we'll make it hard!" He whistled loudly and a retinue of fresh soldiers rushed through the door, these ones were armed with knives and even a few guns carried by the unicorns.

Jackson put his hands up, "Whoa whoa whoa, no need for guns here. You don't want to do that, none of us are armed."

"Shut your oat hole!" The ring leader yelled maliciously. "I don't know who you guys are, but you had nothing to do with any of this. But no~, you just had to go asking for trouble! You wanted trouble? Here it is!"

"Why are you even doing this, man?" Jackson tried to reason. "This place can't be worth all this crap."

"Really, you want to know why, now? Fine, I'll let you in before we toss your dead flanks off a cliff," he grinned. "This ain't all about the money. What we're doing is way bigger than that. It's about the message. With the Renegades out and the Guard still recovering, we—"

There was a sharp report and the ring leader's head violently snapped back. Blood and bits of bone sprayed those behind him as his body slumped to the floor. Before anybody else could react, nine more gunshots rang out loudly and all the unicorns carrying firearms and two pegasi brandishing knives followed their leader's example.

At the sound of foot steps and the clack of an empty magazine hitting the floor, Jackson turned around with wide eyes and saw James walking slowly forward as he reloaded a M1911 model he'd never seen before. "What the fuck, Kaughn!" He exclaimed in exasperation. "What did you do that for?"

James calmly inserted a fresh mag and hit the slide release. "I don't know what you're getting angry about. They were a threat and now they're not." He lifted his weapon and prepared to fire at the remaining gang members, now huddled against each other in fear. Those that were near the exit quickly scrambled out, lest they too become targets.

As he squeezed the trigger, Jackson lunged forward and pulled his friend's hand down, causing the bullet to lodge itself in the wood floor instead of another body, though he cut open his hand on the pistol's slide as it recoiled. James shot him a venomous glance, but slowly pulled the bloodied weapon away. Jackson looked at his friend in concern, "What are you doing? I could have talked him down, or kept him going until the guards arrived. And you were still going to shoot theses guys? They're defenseless now, it's over!"

James looked back with a blank face, "So? They're thieves and prone to violence. Fuck 'em."

Carefully, Jackson put his uninjured hand on his friend's shoulder, now extremely concerned, "Are you ok, brother? I've never seen you act this way." He said in a kind tone.

"I'm fine."

"Seriously, this is some fucked up sh—"

"I said, I'm fine!" James said angrily as he shrugged Jackson's hand off his shoulder and stepped back. There was a gasp and James looked around and saw all faces focused on him with shock. He looked down and saw he had raised his weapon again, finger on the trigger. Cursing, he engaged the safety and shoved it back into the holster under his jacket, stomping off angrily towards the door.

"Kaughn, wait! James!" Jackson shouted after him, but James was already out the door and into the night.

He started after him, but stopped when ye felt some one grab his arm. "Let him go, mate." Mayfield said. "He needs to cool off. But I can see why you guys called him Ghengis."

"That's not why we called him Ghengis. Sure, I've seen him lose his shit before, but not like this. Something's wrong. Very wrong." He said, gazing at the blood dripping from the gash in his palm.

"Happens to the best of us. We'll track him down later and have a talk." Mayfield clapped Jackson on the shoulder reassuringly a few times. "Now. What should we do with this lot?" He said, hiking a thumb at the group of subdued miscreants.

Influence

Chapter 43: Influence

Jackson gingerly massaged his hand, it still sore even though he'd changed the bandage and took some pain medicine. He was still shaken a little by the other night's events. Getting in a bar fight, fine, but what his friend did... it just didn't fit. He'd been there when James had beat the shit out of the bouncer that slugged him in the face. He'd been there his friend had hospitalized a burglar in their apartment. Hell, he'd been there for James' first kill.

As vicious each incident had been, there had at least been some restraint, a sign that he cared about what he was doing. What he'd seen was nothing like the man he knew. Gone was the emotion, the guilt and the understanding of what had been done. Or maybe the understanding was there, but he just didn't care anymore.

It nearly broke his heart. Sure, everyone he had worked with had problems, all of them did, it was part of the norm. But out of everyone, out of all the shit they'd gone through, he thought Kaughn would have been the very last to crack. Maybe it was everything finally catching up to him. Maybe it was the transition into this crazy pony filled world they'd been stranded in.

No, that wasn't it. Here Kaughn had friends that actually cared. Ones that looked past his flaws. Hell, he even had a girl that understood enough to not just dismiss him as some kind of freak. Maybe it was always there, waiting, biding it's time before it finally tore out of it's cage. Honestly, he didn't know, but he wanted to find out.

After the guards carted away the thugs that night, he and Mayfield had gone looking for James, but without any results. They still hadn't found him the whole next day. They asked Dash about him, but all she could tell them was that he'd come back acting strange before taking off again. He was still missing and it worried Jackson greatly.

There was a gentle knock on his door. Getting up from the desk he was sitting at, Jackson went over and cracked it open. Outside was a pegasus of the Royal Guard. "Message from Her Royal Highness. You are to gather in the the vault along with your human compatriots in thirty minutes." He announced.

"Thanks, I'll be there." Jackson closed the door and moved to the bathroom to ensure he was presentable.

After fixing his uniform up some, he grabbed his cover and left. His room was in one of the less damaged wings of the Palace, so he had a bit of a walk ahead of him, even without the obstacles made by the ongoing reconstruction. Still, with some skillful navigation, he made good time and arrived at the vault doors in about twenty minutes.

The Guards standing watch acknowledged him with a nod and opened the massive doors just enough to allow him to pass through. As he stepped inside, the portal behind him shut with a resounding boom in the vault's ponderous space. He didn't see anyone yet, so he made his way further inward, walking into the deepest recesses of the vault.

As he neared the end, he could hear conversations and soft whisperings ahead. It seemed he and Mayfield wouldn't be the only ones in on the meeting. His prediction proved accurate when he marched into the back room and spotted not only the Princesses, but Sparks, Flash, Garth and the girls. Mayfield offered a wave from where he was standing by the back wall, near an opening he didn't remember ever seeing before. And then there, in a dark corner, he saw Kaughn, leaning against an old battered crate.

Jackson wanted to rush over and confront him about the other night, but now was not the time. So they both made do with a slight nod to each other as Jackson approached the group. While the girls were having their talk, the Princesses were having a conversation of their own. One filled with hushed whispers and secrets Jackson strained to make out.

It took a minute, but after a small lapse in time, the Princesses stopped and turned to greet him, "Ah, it appears we are all finally here." Celestia said. "I hope you are recovering well this morning?"

"Yes ma'am." Jackson dutifully replied, gingerly flexing his injured hand. "Should be all good soon. You needed to talk to us?"

"Indeed." She told him as the girls stopped talking to pay attention to the new conversation. Celestia began addressing the group as a whole, "While the threat to our nation has been surpassed, the threat to our world and perhaps many others still lingers."

"Princess Celestia?" Twilight raised a hoof.

"Yes, Twilight?"

"I'm not sure I understand. What do you mean about a threat to 'other worlds'?"

"I'm glad you asked, you will eventually have to learn this as your training progresses. As you all know, except for maybe our guest," she said, referring to the humans, "my sister and I came to be the shepards of this land through years of experience and growth, obtaining the powerful magics we have today. We use this power to help guide and shape the land, but this was not always so.

Even as our world was young and still forming, much of it's existence was governed and watched over by powerful beings of essence. They held no earthly forms and their influence was great, as was their varieties and attributes. They were not beholden to our world alone, nor the common laws of magic. As such, they were present on all worlds and could flit between them like spirits as they so chose. Most were benevolent, guiding the land and its inhabitants. Some were benign, not trifled with the affairs of mortals, choosing instead to sequester themselves in their own personal projects and whimsies.

But of course, where there were those that sought prosperity and the proliferation of happiness among those who were beneath them, there were those that did not. They were few and shunned by their counterparts for their penchant for destruction and sorrow, but their power was great. Fed by fear and woe, they ravaged what worlds they could with the pestilence of war and disharmony, furthering their influence.

Fearing the loss of their creations, the others rose up and a great battle was waged in the space between worlds as those that existed for love and peace attempted to cast down hatred and fear. The fighting was fierce and diminished both sides, reducing their influence in the universe. Weak and infirm, neither could now directly affect the affairs of the mortal worlds and retreated into the void.

However, some returned to the lands, seeking to regain the power they once had. Being unable to wield what they once had on their own, these beings attached themselves to mortal coils to do what they could with what they had. The Elements of Harmony that reside in you all are evidence of this... "

"As was Nightmare Moon." Luna added with a hint of regret. "These forces attach themselves to what resonates with their core being most. Unknowingly, they help you and work with you, influencing and guiding you. For instance, if you are naturally kind or generous, one of these beings with those attributes might be attracted to that and so chose to join you and enhance that, doing good in the world around you, through you. But should your thoughts turn to naught but darkness and despair..."

"The outcome is not often pleasant." Celestia finished.

"Wait, so yer saying' that some kinda otherly magic critter could be controlling us like Nightmare Moon?" Applejack asked.

"No, not exactly." Celestia explained. "Benevolent ones, like those associated with the Elements of Harmony, would never try to control a free being. Only those of malevolence and hatred seek to dominate their host."

Mayfield stepped forward, "So what, all the rubbish that's been happening here is the doing of some formless god-thing that hates puppies and sunshine? What do we do, find the bugger he lives in and take him out?"

"Not entirely." Celestia answered. "It will not be so easy as that. Over millennia, as these beings accrue power and if they so chose, they could manifest their presence as they are. 'Taking them out', as you so put it, could not be done through mundane means, even if you had an enormous amount of magical energy to release, it might not be enough."

"Ok," Sparks said, "so how exactly could it be done?"

"Excellent question." Celestia smiled. "Luna, if you please?" Luna's horn began to glow and a long box began to levitate out of the secret room as her sister spoke. "Traditionally, the only way to hurt one of the beings is through the powers of the others. There is nothing that I nor my sister could do to harm them. There is, however, a way."

Luna brought out the case and carefully opened the lid. Laying amongst the soft velvet lining, was a most curious short curved sword. It was made of a strange crystalline material, catching and reflecting the low light if the room, but as it was, otherwise lusterless. "This ancient blade, forged of Star Sapphire, has a potential unlike any other." She said. "For it has the ability to harness the power of the Elements."

"With it," Celestia continued, "we can cast out the dark power that threatens to engulf the land and perhaps spare the worlds of others from its wrath as well." Her horn flashed and a small ornate chest winked into existence before her. "You six, as the bearers of the Elements of Harmony, will charge the sword with your power. But that is not all. The path to the Dark One is dangerous and fraught with peril. As such, it requires one of great martial skill, along with the attributes of the Elements to carry and wield the sword." She turned to James. "As you have spent the most time living and learning with Twilight and her friends, I was hoping it could be you."

In his corner, James stood up. "Me?" He said, pointing to himself. "No offence, but I actually don't think that's a good idea."

"Nonsense. Though I know you would not admit it, you show kindness where others would show contempt, loyalty when those would flee and would rather tell painful truths than a numbing, yet destructive lie."

"He sure likes to party too!" Pinkie blurted out.

A soft chuckle arose from all the others, but James stood his ground. He glanced at Luna. She at least knew something of his problem, but she just nodded and urged him to proceed. Still hesitant, he looked over to Dash. Her expression was one of concern, but also determination and confidence in him. With an inward sigh, he finally stepped forward. "Still think this is a bad idea, but ok."

From the ornate box, Celestia extracted six pieces of jewelry, the mundane embodiments of the Elements of Harmony. They quickly floated over and affixed themselves to the girls, from Fluttershy's necklace to the crown settling softly on Twilight's head. Celestia levitated the sword out over the ground and the six mares gathered around it.

"Ok, my little ponies," Celestia said, "concentrate."

The girls focused, the jewels set in the Elements began to warm and glow. As they reached a critical point, beams of light shot forth and connected all. Twilight's eyes flew open, glowing stark white, as she cast the accumulated energy at the sword hovering above the floor.

As the concentrated energy struck, the crystal that made up the sword flashed multiple hues and colors, the crackle of energy lancing up and down its tang. In a minute, it was over, the girls slumping and panting as if they were drained. In the center, the sword continued its hover, but the once lusterless blade seemed to now contain an inner light, pulsing and roiling.

"Infused with the essence of the Elements, this sword should now be a most useful weapon, repelling and damaging any source of destruction and malice." Celestia said. "Now James, as a protector of these lands and its inhabitants, please step forth and take it."

James took one last look around the room, hesitant to follow through with the task. Jackson, Mayfield, Sparks and Flash looked on with serious features, unsure of what would happen next. Tired as they were, the girls still smiled back at him, urging him on. With one last look to Luna, who seemed as uneasy as he was, James advanced and gripped the handle.

There was a crack and a boom and a screech like tearing metal as the sword flashed an angry and scarlet. James jumped back as burning pain shot up his arm from his hand, the skin turning a mottled red. The limb felt as if it was humming with an intense electrical charge, but the feeling soon began to dissipate. Clenching and flexing his painful hand, James gazed around the room to faces of shock and fear.

"I- I don't understand, what happened, why didn't it work?" Twilight stammered.

Celestia's face became morbid and grim. With a flick of her head, she summoned a plain scabbard from nearby and stored the sword within it. "I suggest that everypony return to their quarters, talk not of what has happened here. Luna, we must speak." She ordered, her voice grave.

Still wringing his wrist, James all too happily walked away at a clipped pace. He didn't get far before Jackson and Dash caught up with him. "Kaughn, you ok?" Jackson asked seriously. James didn't answer.

"James, I don't know what that was, but it didn't look good, you need to tell us if something's wrong!" Dash told him.

"No, I said it was a bad idea!" James scowled, not looking at either of them.

Jackson had had just about enough of it. With unintentional roughness, he grabbed James' shoulder and spun him around so that they were face to face. "Ok listen. We both know that there's been something wrong with your behavior. You haven't been acting the same since we've met up again! You keep telling us you're fine, but that's clearly not the case!" He barked. "Now tell us what's been going on, or I'll beat it out of you."

James looked Jackson back in the face and knew his friend was serious. While he was sure it wouldn't be easy for Jackson to cause any serious harm to him, James didn't like the prospect of fighting the only person from home he had ever considered a close friend and brother. Then he looked at Dash, staring back up at him with such concern for him, but there was something else he saw that chilled his blood. She looked afraid. She looked afraid of him.

"Fine. You want to talk, we'll talk. Follow me."

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The doors flew open as Celestia and Luna stormed into the Royal Apartment, banging loudly as they slammed shut behind the two Princesses. Celestia carefully laid the sword down on a table and cast a spell to ward off eavesdroppers and spies. The events in the vault had taken an entirely unexpected turn and she wanted to know why.

Rounding on her sister Celestia started, "Luna, what happened back there was dangerous. I'm not sure why, but it seemed as if the essence of the Elements rejected him. Not benignly, as they should if they simply found him as incorrect for the task of wielding them, but violently, as if he were something to be purged."

"I know, Tia. It was frightening to say the least."

"What do you know of his dreams, have you delved into them recently?"

"I-" Luna had in fact tried several times to enter the strange mind of the human in days past. But it was if something was keeping her out. Each time, she met resistance, a strange anomaly that would let her go no further. All she could glean was what he might have been feeling. But what she found did nothing to assuage her. "I cannot entirely sense them, much less perceive. There is something with him, I think. Something... other."

"Luna, do you know what this could mean?"

The Dark Princess tensed, "I have an idea, but..."

"You remember how he came to be in our world? Forced through the barriers, thrown to the whims of the flow between all things. That takes an extraordinary amount of energy to do."

"What do you suppose?"

Celestia moved to the window, looking out over the sun-kissed gardens. "Dark things dwell in dark places. Travel from one world to the next is not instantaneous, that much we know. One must first cross through the space in between."

Luna picked up on what her sister was implying, "If that is the case, then he is in grave danger!"

"Yes, but it puzzles me. It has been with him for some time, since he arrived in our world. How he has been able to control it thus far..."

"...Takes great friends and greater will power."

Celestia whipped around to face her sister, "Has he approached you for anything, a favor, a request?"

The question caught Luna off guard. She was sure her sister couldn't have known about the clandestine meeting, she was hesitant to answer. Should she tell her of the arrangement? Would she approve? It was certain that the knew information brought to light changed the situation, that much she knew. But still...

"No, he has not." Luna lied.

Celestia retreated into thought, pacing back and forth across the carpet. "He should be watched, perhaps the other two as well. Closely, but not so as to interfere. We can't be too sure of this predicament and I sincerely hope we are wrong."

"I have the perfect operative for the task, he's been very reliable before." Luna offered. "What of the sword? What will we do now?"

"We shall keep it safe for now. It may not be the Elements in true form, but it holds their power. In the meantime, we observe and think. The threat is still there and we can't allow it to idle. Especially now."

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"...and so that's what's been happening to me. I'm sure why, I'm not sure how. All I know is that on that night, everything changed. It's like something deep inside was clawing to get out. It feels like there still is, urging me. Daring me to..." James didn't finish his sentence.

"Shit..." Jackson leaned back in his chair in the small room James shared with Dash and let out a long breath of air. "I mean, at first I thought you were finally cracking, I think you still are. But that... that sounds like something else."

"So far, I've been able to keep the feelings subdued. I don't particularly act out on them, only when I fight." He let out a soft chuckle, "You know, it's almost like the feelings just take over, using me to cause more harm." He became serious again, "But that's not how we do things, is it?"

"No, it's not. You know it's dangerous to get those kind of feelings involved. That's how mistakes happen and you end up hurting one of your teammates." Jackson put kindly. "How are you feeling now?"

"Ok, I guess. Sometimes it feels like they're trying to come up again, but I usually just stamp 'em back down."

"That could be dangerous too."

"So, are you at least feeling better now?" Dash asked him.

James reached over and ran a hand down her mane, "Yeah. Somehow, it's better with you guys around. Things are more calm. Especially when we were living together out there. I just wish..."

"What? C'mon, spit it out. It helps to talk about these things." Jackson said.

"Yeah, I appreciate it, but..." He stood up, "Listen, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Or knock some sense into me in your own way." He grinned at Jackson. "But I need to go take a walk, think things over."

"Sure, man. You wanna come back and talk, you know where to find us." Jackson smiled.

"Yeah, thanks."

James walked to the door and stepped out into the hall, heading down the corridor towards one of the exits. He wanted to stretch his legs and get some fresh air, they'd been talking for a while now and the sun was beginning to set. Following no particular direction, he let his legs angle him towards the way to the lush Palace gardens.

As he stepped out into the rapidly cooling air, he noticed the stars were starting to poke out in the sky as the sun dipped below the horizon. He walked among the trees and the bushes, letting his feet lead him away to somewhere secluded, somewhere he could think on things. Though the things he had to think about didn't necessarily please him.

After a while, he found himself in a wide clearing with a plethora of statues. And monuments. He recognized one of them. Casually walking up to the bottom of the dais, he scowled at his likeness in stone. A glimmer around the statue's neck in the rising moonlight caught his eye. He looked closer and recognized it as the award Celestia had tried to give him many years prior.

He briefly contemplated climbing up and taking it down, but then he heard a noise somewhere behind him. He whirled around, searching for the source, instinct taking over and putting him in a fighting stance. "Hold on there, not here to fight." A jet black pegasus said as he stepped out from the darkness.

"Oh, it's you. Howitzer, right?"

"Correct."

"What are you doing here?" James asked a little suspiciously.

"Wanted to talk about our little 'arrangement'."

"What about it?"

"Well, it seems I've been ordered to 'spy' on you. A little strange, I thought, but then orders are orders. But then I was told to talk to you. Even stranger. Didn't make sense to me, but here I am."

James relaxed and leaned up against the dais. "So I take it that they might be onto my plans?"

"I'm not sure, nothing about that was mentioned. Although, I'm sure it will be harder to execute."

"Troubling. How soon do you think you can get everything together?"

Howitzer scratched his head, "If I'm careful about it, could probably do it in two days. Why, you leaving sooner than we talked?"

James rested his chin on his chest. Personally, he didn't want to go through with his plan. But now things were seeming to be getting compromised. What was worse, the malicious feelings and thoughts were growing stronger lately, whatever he had told his friends. He didn't think it was wise to linger any longer. His worst fears might actually come true if he did.

"Tonight. It's happening tonight."

Silent Goodnight

Chapter 44: Silent Goodnight

The night still dark and starry, the moon bright and full. It was as peaceful as Canterlot hadn't seen in a long time through its recent hardships. In the refreshingly cool air, a gentle breeze blew as if to lull the fears of those that resided within. Nothing stirred in the castle grounds, save for a few patrolling guards.

Up in his room, the balcony doors open to the air, James sat on the side of his bed. Beside him, he gazed down at the peacefully sleeping form of Rainbow Dash, admiring the way the moonlight fell upon her. The gentleness of her breath rising and falling made his heart catch and it pained hi all the more, knowing what he was about to do.

She stirred slightly in her sleep, her breathing becoming irregular. James reached out and began stroking her mane and her shoulder. After a moment or so, she returned to her same peaceful rhythms, a contented smile crossing her lips.

Steeling himself, James leaned over her and placed a light kiss on her brow. Then careful not to awaken her, he stood and grabbed a couple of small duffle bags. He tread softly to the door and eased it open, turning just briefly for one last look. He mouthed, 'I'm sorry', and then he was over the threshold.

Some time later, a shadowy figure exited a wing of the castle used for powerful research in magic. It was a biped with two bags on his back, one that gently clinked occasionally as the metal items inside were jostled and another that concealed a mysterious sphere the size of a soccer ball. From shadow to shadow he crept, taking pains to avoid any eyes that would view him suspiciously.

In a round about way, he meandered down to the docks. When he reached them, he stalked to the fenced off section reserved for military operations. He strolled casually through the front gate, the guards usually on station having been mysteriously ordered to stand-down for a time by Royal Decree.

Striding towards the back, he made his way for the Clipper, now a museum piece compared to the updated models of attack ships around him. He smiled as thought of how full-circle the situation had come. From under the shadow of the ship's buoyancy bladder, another figure appeared. This one on four legs and in a coat of fur that seemed to blend effortlessly with the darkness around.

"All charged up and ready for flight, Mr. Kaughn." Howitzer said as he flitted down to the deck on his wings. "It wasn't easy, but it's done. Why do you want this old clunker anyway?"

"Sentimental value." James replied as he opened the sliding side door.

"Y'know, I know the mare this belongs to. Boy, is she gonna be mad when she finds it gone in the morning."

"Probably, but she'll just design and build better one."

Howitzer eyed the spherical sack as James stepped aboard and placed it in one of the trunks under the fold down seating, along with a liberal amount of padding and rags. "You're really bringing that, huh? I was really surprised when she said you could take that. Don't let that thing slip out of your hands unless you really want a bad day."

"So I've been told." James said as he stashed the rest of his gear away. "The Sky Patrol has been redirected just like I asked?"

"That's correct." Howitzer confirmed. "Might wanna get a move on though, those guys can get too curious for their own good sometimes. Always looking for a challenge."

"Fuckin' outstanding." Slowly, James turned around to face his one pony departure committee. "Thanks for all the help."

"No problem."

"Remember, you can't let anyone know about what happened here."

"They'll find out eventually when they find all the missing stuff and the fact you're no longer present."

"I'll be long gone by then."

"I hope so, for your sake. Well... good luck then. Try to make it back in one piece."

"No promises."

James shut the door and after a cursory check of the engine, moved to the cockpit and started it up. The Clipper hummed to life with instrument panels flashing dull lights and the subtle vibration through its deck. In no time, the ship was lifting off the pad and into the sky.

He climbed up to an altitude level with the silver lined clouds and set the course. Trusting the precision design of his old friend and teammate, James left the cockpit to navigate on its own and climbed up the small ladder in the back of the cabin to the tiny open upper deck of the craft for one last look at what he was leaving behind. He was sure at that altitude, it would be a sight to remember.

Across the panorama of the open air was a variety of islands consisting of fat cumulous and low stratus clouds, dancing though the nocturnal sky. The light of the moon painted them all with a radiant silver glow, as if they'd been bathed in quicksilver. James leaned against the railing on his elbows, enjoying the sight thoroughly, one hand clutching the pendant he still wore around his neck, now the only reminder of her he had. Then a silhouette caught his eye.

Standing amongst a bank of clouds nearly level with his ship was a tall dark mare gazing silently back at him with a sorrowful glare. Back-lit by the moon itself, Luna watched as the ship passed by, like a lonesome specter of the night. James stared back, unapologetic. He had made his choice and she had helped him do it.

But still, he stood up straight and put two fingers to his brow, flicking them away in a short salute. Luna lingered for a moment longer, watching him go. Then she raised her beautiful wings high and took to the air. She circled once, twinkling mane of peaceful night sky billowing in the wind of her flight and then she was gone.

Vectoring back towards Canterlot, Luna returned to her home, pondering what she would say once the morning came. She looked back once, hoping for one last glimpse of the man that seemed unnaturally adamant of bringing about his own doom. But by then, he too had vanished. Gone, into the vast nocturne of the night.

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Jackson awoke, refreshed and eager for the day. It was the first time in a awhile he had actually managed to sleep-in. He stretched in his bed, thinking about what he might enjoy for breakfast and got up. It took him only a few minutes to shave and get dressed, a routine he completed quickly from years of habit.

Thoughts turned to the day before and his talk with James. He felt it had been good, a step in the right direction. His friend hadn't returned from his walk the night before, as far as he knew. He had left Rainbow Dash in the room and went off to brief his teammates of the situation that had been revealed to him before the morning's unfortunate incident. He was sure James was just fine, probably even now awakening from a restful sleep.

Emerging from his quarters for the first time that day, Jackson made for the kitchens, hoping to catch the cooks making something delicious. As he walked down the passageway, he passed by the door to another room and paused. From the room, he was sure he could hear vengeful screaming and venting. It worried him for a moment, even more so when Sparks hastily stepped out with his son in tow.

"Good morning, brother, everything all right in there?" Jackson asked out of concern.

Sparks glanced away from the door with a fearful glance, a little surprised at Jackson's presence. "Oh, yeah, don't worry. She's not mad at me, but she needs time to calm down."

"If it's not too personal, what happened?"

"Oh, not at all. She went out for an early morning flight and well..." he rubbed the back of his head, "it seems as if her airship was stolen. The one she built with her own horn and hooves." There was a crash from the room as if to punctuate his sentence.

Jackson looked quizzically at Sparks, "Isn't that area heavily guarded?"

"That's the thing. Apparently, there was some weird change of watch last night—one I didn't authorize—and that's when it happened." He winced as he heard something else topple over in the room. "I've managed to convince her to not go and start tearing out throats, but I don't know how long that'll last."

"Mommy's going kukoo!" Flicker gleefully cried.

Sparks looked down with a smile and ruffled his son's mane. "That's right! And now we need to go find some chocolate so mommy doesn't go on a rampage!"

Flicker gasped, "What's a rampage, daddy, can I go on a rampage!?" He excitedly asked.

Sparks chuckled and looked up at Jackson, "He's his mother's son."

"I guess so." Jackson shrugged.

"Hey, can you do me a favor and tell me if you hear anything? A security breach like this is kind of embarrassing and I'd really like to get to the bottom of this."

"Sure thing. I'm curious myself. I'm heading to breakfast right now, you wanna come?" Jackson offered.

"Ah, no thanks. Me and Flicker have a mission to complete." Another crash from the room. "And we should probably get it done quickly."

"All right then, later."

"See ya!"

Jackson continued his walk, the sounds of an enraged mare fading in the distance. The theft really did strike him as odd, especially the circumstances in which it happened. He decided he'd think about it later, after he got some food in his belly.

As he neared the kitchens, he could smell the overwhelmingly delicious scent of baked goods wafting through the air. Following the trail, he came upon the service entrance for the kitchens. He decided to peek in and saw all manner of cooks and chefs preparing dozens of meals in what could best be described as organized chaos.

He stayed in the door for a moment, watching the goings on, until he heard a rather disgruntled 'ahem'. He looked over and saw a most comical sight. A tall griffon in a chef's hat and a long curly mustache on his beak. Jackson didn't know such a thing was even possible.

The griffon was glaring at him, arms crossed and impatiently tapping one of his hind paws on the kitchen floor. "Pardon me, missuer, but do you have any business here?" He asked in a vaguely french sounding accent, clearly annoyed.

"Oh, sorry. I was just wondering if I could get something to eat."

"Then you can wait with the others in the dining hall!" The griffon stamped. "We have much work to do here without your rude interruption."

"Oh, ok, sorry man. I'll just—"

"Mr. Jackson?" Pinkie wandered by the door, balancing a large plate of assorted pastries atop her head.

"Madame Pie, pardon his rudeness. He was just leaving." The griffon said.

"Don't be silly, Gustave, he's a friend! Oh, by the way, your souffle is burning."

"Mine souffle? Oh, non non non!" The griffon's eyes went wide and he rushed away in a panic to a corner of the kitchen, muttering obscenities under his breath the whole way.

Pinkie giggled and set the plate of pastries carefully down on a nearby counter. "So, Dari, what can I do you for?" She said cheerfully.

"Dari?" Jackson responded questioningly.

"Your name is Darius, right? I like it, it's fun to say." She opened her mouth wide, "DA-ri-US!" Jackson chuckled a little awkwardly. "Dari sounds more fun though." She smiled.

"Yeah, I guess it kinda does. Listen, sorry to bother you and all, but I was just wondering if I could score a little something to eat?"

"Oh, is that all? Here, on the house!" She grabbed a plate and flipped some of the pastries onto it, handing it over to him.

Jackson gratefully accepted it and politely excused himself. In an effort to find somewhere quiet to eat, he took his plate, filled with the delicious aroma of baked apples and cherries, and traipsed out to the gardens. He found a bench and sat to enjoy his meal in the warmth of the sun. As he munched on his food, he thought about what else he should do today.

He didn't get to enjoy himself for long though. He had only just started digging in to his third pastry when someone came running towards him. Jackson recognized the sound of boots on the grass and looked up. "Oi, Jacko!" It was Mayfield and he looked a little worried. Mayfield looking worried was never a good thing, he had learned.

"Hey, what's up?" Jackson waved a little with his free hand.

Mayfield slowed to a stop next to the bench, panting a little bit. He had to have sprinted the whole way. "Nothin' good, mate. It's the Princesses. Celestia's gone mental, full stop. Everything's gone tits up."

Jackson put down his plate and stood up, "Whoa, slow down now, what's going on?" He asked, full of concern.

"It's your boy, Kaughn. He left and he took some things with him."

"What!?"

"Yeah, you better come with me."

Jackson was furious in his own right, and he still didn't know if he could believe what he'd just heard. Still, he followed Mayfield as he turned and trotted away. They jogged together, weaving their way around servants and guards, even almost knocking over a few. After a minute, Jackson realized where they were heading. Mayfield was leading him to the R&D department.

As they neared their destination, Jackson noticed a large abundance of guards in that particular area. The was an especially heavy amount by the entrance, but they allowed the two humans to pass unopposed. Jackson recognized this area. It was the place he had involuntarily tested the strange reactive armor. He had no idea what else they could be storing there.

Up ahead, he spotted Dr. Wright yelling at a group of assistants by a large, heavily armored safe door. Mayfield was leading him there, so he caught a snippet of the verbal lashing as they passed, "...realize the unimaginable consequences of what has happened here!? That was one of the most powerful sources of energy that we had! It still wasn't entirely stable, do you know what kind of destruction it can wreak were the containment to be breached!?"

"B-but sir," one of the assistants stammered, "we swear, everything was locked down w-when we left!"

"Then explain to me how in the world he got into the Hazmat locker!" The esteemed doctor closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. "No, don't do that, you imbeciles probably have no clue. This wouldn't have happened were Cray still here." He muttered.

There was another guard, this one clearly from the RSTG, standing at the slightly ajar armored door. He saw Mayfield and Jackson approaching and waved them through. As they entered, an argument of another kind could be seen and heard. This one of a much higher caliber.

"I absolutely can not believe you've done this, sister! What in Equestria could you have been thinking?"

"You know what danger we face, Tia! I like it no more than you, but even you yourself said that he may be the only one capable of ending it!"

"That was before what we witnessed the past morning. He is a danger in itself now. You should have never allowed him to do this!"

"You think he asked permission? He could just as well have done this without my intervention and perhaps caused much damage and loss in the process!"

"I do not think he would have been able to access this place. Luna, you should have stopped him once you were aware of his intentions!"

"How, Tia? How should I have stopped him? You know as well as I of his capabilities. Even more, you know that he may have some we are not yet aware of. What would you have me do, toss him in the dungeons where he might still escape? Or perhaps use much more violent methods?"

"There was another option." Celestia said angrily, yet with hesitation. "One I was loath to perform a millennia ago."

"And you would do that to him, after all he has done for us and our home?" Luna hissed, taken aback by such words.

"Yes. If it is what needs to be done. You know well what may reside with him, even if you do think he can control it. There is no guarantee."

Witnessing the sibling conflict, Mayfield cautiously approached. "Your Highnesses, I've retrieved him as you requested."

Jackson stepped forward, "What's going on, where's Kaughn?"

Celestia turned to face him, "It seems that with my sister's help, hour friend has absconded with some very powerful technology we were developing."

"For what, why'd he leave?"

Luna came forward to answer that, "He was very secretive about his intentions when he came to me. But from the information he was asking for, I believe he has gone to complete what we spoke of yesterday."

"That mother-" Jackson muttered under his breath, but caught himself when he remembered the company he was in. "With what? We were all there, he couldn't even hold the sword."

"Which is why this is so troubling." Celestia put in. "In its stead, he took a powerful energy source being created for the intention of fueling our cities cheaply and cleanly. It uses the same magical technology applied in our small airships and the Lotkins' explosives in the last war. I'm told, while being near completion, it is still not stable yet, a hard enough impact could set it off, causing insurmountable destruction."

"Would that even work?" Mayfield asked. "I mean, from what you said yesterday, that sword you made was the only way to hurt the thing."

"There is a slim chance. Slim, but obscure, that such force could damage the being enough to expel it from our world, but it would not be the same."

The realization of what his old friend was trying to do dawned on Jackson. Acting quickly, he stormed out of the safe. Celestia saw him leaving and called out to him, "Where are you going?"

With out stopping, Jackson shouted over his shoulder, "I'm going to get him back!"

"All right!" Mayfield started off excitedly and ran to catch up with Jackson, the two Princesses followed close behind. "It was starting to get a bit boring around here."

"Jackson, I highly advise against this." Celestia warned as they exited the research lab. "The place he is traveling to is extremely dangerous."

"Then help me." Jackson countered as he made for the armory. "I'll be damned if he's gonna do this to me again! Especially now that he's at least found some happiness here, whatever his problems."

"Well, I've got your back, mate." Mayfield said jubilantly, slapping Jackson on the shoulder. "This is the kind of pear-shaped shit that usually ends up with all us dead, but then, who dares..."

The Impact On Oneself

Chapter 45: The Impact On Oneself

Armored up, sidearm on his hip, Jackson pored over the maps in the hangar. Mayfield was with him, studying the terrain marked on their target, or what little they could. The area they were heading for was largely unexplored and unknown. It was a rocky and barren land far to the northwest, most of it was made of deep ravines and craggy mountains. On the whole, a discouraging place.

As far as they knew, that was where they needed to go. The only thing now was how they were going to get there. Jackson mulled over this, wondering if he could learn to fly one of the airships. It couldn't be that much harder than a helicopter.

He looked up at the sounds of hooves echoing on the cold concrete floor. It was Aria and to his discomfort, a very angry Dash. "Sorry ladies." He called out to them, "We're a little busy right now."

"I know." Aria said in a huff. "I figured out what happened, I want to go get my ship back."

Jackson perked up, he knew she was a pilot. "Sparks ok with this?"

"No, but that hasn't stopped me before."

"Me either." Dash stated as she walked up to the crates the two humans were using as a table. "James better be ok or I'm gonna beat the tar outta him."

"Whoa, hold on." Jackson said, moving to intercept the two. "This ain't gonna be no walk in the park. We're pretty much heading to this thing's home. Aria, you know the risks and we need someone to get us there, so I'll take that, but Dash..." he paused, figuring how to put it nicely, "If he knew I brought you along and put you in danger, he'll beat the tar outta me."

"It's not like I'm giving you the option." She said defiantly. "I'm a freakin' pegasus! I'll just fly along side."

"You really wanna do this? You know this will be nothin' but trouble."

"Try me." Dash narrowed her eyes.

Jackson ran a hand down his face and sighed, "Ah, shit." He squeezed his eyes shut and pinched his nose. "Alright, look." He raised his eyes back to her again. "I'll let you tag along, but under one condition. You stay with the ship. That way you'll be close to the action, one of the first to see Kaughn when we get him back, but you'll stay far enough out of danger. Deal?"

Rainbow Dash thought about it. Ran it through her head a few times, then nodded. "Deal."

"Good." Jackson walked back to the maps with a sigh of relief.

"You sure that's a good idea?" Mayfield whispered. "No offense to Master James, but he may very well be borderline sociopathic when we snatch him, given the current track record."

"I know, but you heard her. She's just going to come anyway and I'd rather her be where she's got some kind of safety."

"This where the party is?" All heads turned towards the hangar's entrance. "I heard you were going on a trip and didn't invite me, talk about rude!" Redflare announced as he walked in.

"Yeah because this doesn't need more bodies to get hurt." Jackson replied not unkindly. "Sorry, but this doesn't concern you."

"You're right." Redflare said cockily. "It concerns all of us." He continued in, closely followed by Cray, Iron, Swift Paws and even Kai. All were outfitted in their full battle dress. Even in his outdated armor, Kai looked particularly intimidating, especially with the gargantuan greatsword resting on his back.

"No, I can't let you all get involved in this." Jackson countered. "My brother caused this problem, it's my responsibility."

Kai approached slowly and placed his sharp claws on Jackson's shoulder, "I had the honor of fighting in the Battle of the Western Coast years ago, protecting his hunt-mates and winning glory for my clan. It would be dishonorable were I not to extend my services to you, brother of far-sight and silent-hunter. My blade is yours."

"You gave me purpose and accepted me when others would turn me away." Swift contributed. "You are my pack and my alpha. Where you hunt, I shall also."

Redflare was the next to speak up, "When everypony else just wrote me off as another kid with anger issues, you counseled me and showed me a new way of looking at things, even if it was a bit harsh. I owe you."

"To my parents, and anypony else for that matter, I was just useless geek that belonged in a lab." Cray said. "But you showed me my potential. That anypony can do anything if you try hard enough."

Jackson was a bit overwhelmed by all this. Sure, people in his position made an impact in the lives of those they led, but he didn't think it would be this much. He looked at Iron, silent throughout the whole little heart-to-heart they all had, "What about you, man? You just kind of happened to get stuck with me after we met in that town."

"Honestly?" Iron took a deep breath. "I just think you're an ok guy."

Jackson let out a nervous chuckle, "All right, I guess I'll give you that."

"This is all very touching and everything, nut we're trying to plan an extremely dangerous assault here!" Mayfield said from the make-shift table.

"He's right." Jackson said. "If you're all gonna do this with me, we need to plan this out right. None of this is gonna be easy and like all things we do, most likely lethal."

"Ah, about that." Cray said with a spark in his eye. "Iron, show him what we brought."

Iron walked over to the crates and unburdened himself of the large pack he had been carrying on his back. Cray opened it up and removed a tall stack of strange looking rings of various sizes, placing them on top of the crates. He smiled as he presented his little gift.

Jackson took a look and thought he recognized them, "Are those... are those the things they strapped on me and detonated an explosive device near me to test out? How did you get those?"

"Who do you think helped design them?" Cray slyly replied. "I've worked some of the bugs out, but they're still not perfect. They should help incase we encounter the old weaponry they developed. From reports on the place, this might be the case."

"Fuckin' A!" Mayfield said, already excitedly grabbing to try on the attachments. "I always wanted to try out some kind of power armor! Honestly, I would have preferred the walking tank kind, but this'll have to do."

"There's enough for everypony and I had time to adjust them to all your individual sizes. Make sure you get the right ones." Cray told them. He waited a moment while they gathered their armor augmentations and started putting them on. "Remember, while these will protect against most kinds of magical energy, kinetic is still lethal, so keep your heads down."

"Don't I know it." Jackson muttered.

Jackson and Mayfield filled the others in on the brief, going over the maps especially closely with Aria so she could get a feel for the area. After the quick crash course, they collected their gear and headed out onto the tarmac. As they walked towards one of the airships, still talking amongst themselves, there was a commotion at the gates.

Several of the guards were yelling as a large wheeled vehicle tore through and pulled out onto the tarmac. Jackson and Mayfield instantly recognized it for what it was, though it seems a few things had been added to it. Daisy came rolling across the pavement sporting repaired armor and a little higher lift to it. Most impressive of all was probably the small artillery piece that was now mounted on the top hatch.

Everyone paused as it pulled up, tires screeching a little as it came to a stop. The doors popped open and out hopped Quick Fix, Flash, Sylver, Sumner and a recruit. "Oh, no. No no no!" Jackson said as he walked up to them. "It's dangerous enough with my team comin', but you guys gotta stay. Especially you, Q. No offense, but you don't have the necessary training and experience. And where the hell you get that old M2?"

"Oh, I'm not going with you guys. I was asked to loan you Daisy here." She said with a smile.

"Yeah, after an awful lot of negotiating." Flash said as he stepped forward. Behind him, the rest of his team was breaking out gear and getting ready. "We're gonna follow you guys in and crew it. Give you guys a little ground support, I hear the high winds are terrible for flying there. I doubt even Aria would be much help there. No offense." He added, glancing at the mare.

"None taken."

"We got a recruit that got rolled out of the flight program who says he should still be alright to fly. He was a great help to Sparks, I'm told."

"Which one?" Aria asked, quickly trotting over. She looked over at the fighting vehicle and spotted the unicorn. "Star, really?"

"He a problem?"

"Eh, he flies ok. But just ok, make sure your all strapped in before asking him to land."

"I still said no." Jackson protested. "I can't allow you to take this risk."

"Well we're going anyway." Flash calmly replied. "James is my friend too. I'm gonna help get him back, so deal with it." Turning to Aria, he said, "We'll follow behind you in another airship with 'Daisy' underslung."

"Sounds like a plan."

"So you're gonna do this anyway, huh?" Jackson said to Flash.

"Yup. Approval came from Princess Celestia herself, so learn to live with it." Flash said as he trotted away back to his team.

Jackson rubbed his bald head and thought about how he could at least use this. It wasn't in the plan and he didn't want to put anyone else in danger. "Well, shit." He said, turning back to his own team. "Looks like we got more comin' to the party," he shouted, "everybody mount up! Let's do this!"

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He had been traveling for hours now. Tired and hungry, James took a cold meal as he sat looking down from the clouds at the vast barren and rolling hills spread out before him. He sat calmly on the edge of the cabin, feet dangling out the side door. There, in the rapidly dwindling sunlight, was where his enemy hid.

Even with that knowledge, everything seemed so peaceful and clear up in the sky. His thoughts drifted as he watched the canvas of the horizon shift in color and tone, deepening from a refreshing cyan blue to a cheerful orange and finally to an angry red as it chased the sun. Absent mindedly, his hand found the pendant he still wore around his neck and fingered it as he gazed out over the harsh environment.

James wondered if he'd made the right decision, leaving them all behind, especially Dash. He asked himself if he could have just returned to the forest and resumed the peace he'd found there. Surely, some one else could complete the task, he'd trained some of them, and they in turn trained more, some of the best fighters he knew.

Then something pulsed up from within him, something dark and full of rage. New images flashed in his mind, of death and pain. He saw some of his friends faces, along with them a truly horrid feeling of pleasure that had form all its own. He'd felt it before, long ago, but not nearly as strong as it had been and it scared him. It scared him to think he had this for so long, so close was he to those he loved.

Sensing the feelings rising up, he did what he usually did. With sheer force of will, James crushed them, bludgeoning them down back into the deep, dark, Stygian recesses of his being from whence they came. He could feel them, still there, but diminished. Though he now had the familiar sensation of detachment.

He still wasn't what he used to be. The images of pain and gore were still there, but he no longer cared for them. They didn't affect him as they should be. That, most of all, caused a twinge of discomfort inside him.

A distraction ripped him from his thoughts, an alarm. He got up quickly and jumped to the cockpit where a steady rhythmic tone was blaring a warning at him. James searched the instrument panel and found an indicator that blinked in synchronization with the alarm. He cursed as he saw the charge for the engine was running out, and quickly too. Already, he could feel the craft start to dip, beginning its own fast approach to the ground below.

Mentally kicking himself for overlooking something so important, James ran back into the cabin and started grabbing his gear. He threw a parachute on, along with his rifle and ammo pouches. He tossed the rest into a drop-bag with its own parachute and tossed it out, pulling the pilot chute out as he did so.

The airship was starting to lose altitude at an alarming rate now, he didn't have much time left. He had to act fast as the deck beneath him tilted. Leaping to the trunk under the fold-down seats, he strapped the last parachute to its exterior, taking a second to ensure it was on there tightly enough. Then with a quick silent prayer that he had packed enough padding into the trunk along with the item he took, he shoved it out the side door, following it out into the open arms of the sky.

Getting his bearings, James saw that he was a bit closer to the ground than he would have liked as it rushed up to meet him. He spotted the open canopy of the drop-bag and made a note of where he thought it was going to land. Then as the Clipper fell along side him, James pulled the chute attached to the trunk.

The chute deployed, but then something went terribly wrong. The lines connected to the canopy twisted up, sending the trunk into a spin and slamming it painfully into James' chest. James tumbled away from the force of the impact, arms flailing as he tried to right himself. The pendant he wore, whipping around in the air, began to lift from around his neck.

The sight of it terrified him. Out of everything he had, he felt that to be the most valuable. His current peril forgotten for the moment, James grabbed for it as it slipped from around his neck. He caught it just as it was about to fling itself far from his body, but his momentary crisis cost him.

The rocky ground came up at him like an old abominable friend, come to do him harm. Reflexes kicked in and he tossed the pilot chute out, but too late. He was jerked up with a whumpf as the main chute deployed, but he was too close to the ground.

James flared the canopy and angled the chute towards a jagged slope in a last ditch effort to soften his landing. He hit the dirt like a sack of potatoes, bouncing down the slope as the harness snapped and sent him away with nothing to stop him. James winced as he felt his side crunch in a particularly bad bounce and pain blossomed from his ribs.

As he reached the bottom of the slope, in the shadow of a small ridge, he finally, blessedly, rolled to a stop. He lay there for a moment, getting a feel for the damage he had endured. His side hurt like hell, might be a few broken ribs. Aside from some cuts and maybe a gash or two, his arms were fine, but as he moved his left leg, he felt a lance of pain shoot up from behind his knee.

He tried again and found that the limb wouldn't unfold from its position right. Gingerly sitting up, he reached over and felt around. One of his ligaments seemed to be out of place. It hadn't detached or torn, but if he wasn't careful, he could easily do it.

Gritting his teeth, James put both hands around his knee and, using his thumbs, carefully moved the ligament back into position. It was extremely painful, but with a final pop that was felt rather than heard, it snapped back into place with a rush of relief. Slowly, he moved it, testing the range of motion. There was still a small twinge of pain from the distressed body part, but it was bearable.

With a grunt, James got up, sucking in air painfully as he agitated his side. He went over his body and checked his equipment. He still had most of his ammo and his sidearm was still there. Hardy as it was, his rifle was mostly just scuffed up and had some nicks in it, but the sight was busted. The lenses were cracked and shattered, the top mashed in where he thought he must have landed on it.

He sighed inwardly, it was a good optic. James slid it off and flipped up the iron sights. He would have to hope that everything in the drop-bag made it or that he could salvage something from the airship. He had just completed that last thought when the Clipper came screaming low overhead.

It smacked into the ridge, throwing up a shower of rocks, dirt and dust, trailing it as it went careening into the ravine. It smashed into the bottom, rolling and flipping until it finally came to a halt. James looked down at its new twisted form below.

It was totally scrapped. Most of the aircraft had flattened in on itself. That that hadn't, had been flung clear and wide into a sizable debris field. Aria was going to be pissed, James thought.

James lumbered up the slope heading for the top of the ridge. Something tickled the side of his face and when he checked, his hand came away sticky with blood. Now he was sure he had a gash up there and now, a possible concussion. He was only just out the gate in his mad adventure and already he was in bad shape.

At the top of the ridge, he scanned the area and thankfully spotted the parachutes of the drop-bag and the trunk not far off from each other. That at least had gone well enough. Willing away what pain he could, James started forward to the drop-bag.

He may be injured and doubtful of himself, but the fire still burned inside. The architect of his pain was close at hand, he could feel it, almost sense it. He had work to do before the night was out.

Author's Notes:

Art work by: CptBrony

On The Hunting Path

Chapter 46: On The Hunting Path

Jackson scanned the glowing green ground below him. He was on the upper deck of the airship, using a ghetto-rigged pair of binoculars Cray had put together that integrated components from their NODs, allowing him to see great distances at night. He had been searching for hours now and still not come up with anything. Redflare, Kai and Dash took to the sky, expanding their search area, but similarly came up empty.

Jackson rut his optics down and rubbed his arms, scolding himself for not bringing a jacket or something, just like his mother would do. It was cold up there. Not just in the sky, but on the ground, given how far north they'd traveled, to a place no one barely even knew about. It was a desert, that was given. Nothing, but cold rocks and dirt as far as the eye could see, not even snow.

A bright bouncing light caught his eye far below. It was Flash and his team, driving wildly across the ground below. They looked like they were hauling ass toward something. Curious, Jackson decided to call in, activating his radio. "Hey, Flash, you guy seem a little excited down there, wanna clue me in?"

The response took a minute, but finally the pegasus came in over the channel, the high whine of the engine coloring the background, "Sumner says he saw what could be an impact crater on a ridge up ahead. We're moving in to check it out."

"Copy that. Be careful down there and keep your head on a swivel. We're still not sure what's out here."

"Loud and clear."

Jackson radioed down to the cockpit and informed Aria of the situation. Skillfully, she angled the airship in the direction of Daisy's intended path. When Redflare queried about the ship's change in direction, Jackson decided to clue the rest of the team in too. In minutes, all of the were heading for the site.

Aria dropped to a low circle over the site as flash and his team pulled up the slope, beams from the headlights swinging over the crater. Even from the distance of his perch, Jackson could see that it was relatively recent. He called Mayfield up to the top deck, a second pair of experienced eyes couldn't hurt and the man was a sniper by trade, giving him an edge.

"Well, if that isn't a pretty sight." Mayfield commented as he surveyed the impact zone.

"Yeah, any thoughts?"

Mayfield looked over the area carefully, "I can't be too sure without hitting the dirt myself, but it looks like it had some direction to it. See how it's a bit longer going one way than the other?" He pointed out.

"Yeah, you're kinda right." Jackson hit his mic, "Flash, do me a favor and have Sylver point the lights down slope, towards the ravine. Keep going till you hit something or reach the other side."

"Sure thing." The pegasus replied.

They watched from above as the armored car backed up and turned around, now pointing down slope at an angle. For a while the dirt was mostly unmarred, but after a time, huge scrapes and gouges in the dry soil appeared. They followed them down into the ravine and Jackson realized they were patterned in a mostly straight line.

Then the beams from the headlights reached bottom and the source of the excavations was revealed. Mayfield let out a low whistle, "Would you look at that! Poor bastard, hoped he got out all right."

Jackson didn't like the looks of the wreck. It was obviously one of their airships, he could tell from the shredded buoyancy bladder tangled up in it. He needed to get a closer look. "Aria—"

"Yeah, I see it!" Her voice was hot with anger. "That's the second time he's crashed it! I was able to salvage my ship last time, but this..."

Aria began a slow decent into the ravine, aiming for a marginally flat area nearby. Jackson and Mayfield both rushed to the hatch and slid down the ladder into the cabin where the rest of the team was waiting. They were all gathered around the side door, trying to get a good look at the now derelict ship being illuminated by Daisy's lamps.

As soon as Aria touched down, Jackson hopped out and started for the wreck. His team followed close behind, scanning the area for threats. He noticed Swift Paws sniffing around and starting to peel off from the group and knew she was scenting the air for the man they were chasing. He ordered her to take Iron with her, just in case they ran into something unpleasant.

Flash was already on the scene with Sylver and Sumner, pawing through the debris. Jackson ran in to help them and together they managed to remove a section of the bulkhead, creating an access point to the interior, or what was left of it. He dropped in and steadied himself carefully as the hulk creaked and threatened to roll over.

Mayfield appeared at the access point and Jackson motioned for him to drop a light down. There was a crack and a flare of dim green glow as Mayfield activated a chem light and tossed it in. Jackson caught it and began running the light over the interior surfaces.

He cautiously searched the inside, looking for any sign of his brother. The cockpit proved to be inaccessible, having been smashed in on impact. The engine compartment also proved fruitless, though he was glad he didn't find any blood or other sign his friend had been seriously injured. He thought for a moment that his quarry must have escaped the crash.

Jackson paused as his radio crackled in his ear, "Chief." It was Swift.

"Go." He replied.

"We are on the southern ridge. We have found remains of a parachute." She reported in her husky tone.

Jackson's heart leapt, "Anything else?"

"Yes..." she replied somewhat warily, "There is blood. It does not seem as if there is enough for him to have lost too much, but enough to say that he could be seriously hurt." Jackson's heart plummeted into his stomach like a stone into a deep pool. "There is however good news. There is also a blood trail. I shall follow it immediately."

"No, stay there." Jackson ordered, he was already climbing out of the wreck. "We'll regroup on your position and move from there."

Mayfield offered a hand and Jackson used it to pull himself up and out on to the dry sandy soil. He looked around at his team, preparing to give orders, but he stopped as Dash fluttered down onto the dirt. "Did you find him?" She asked him hopefully.

"Not yet, but we know he's here. Swift found a trail and we're going to follow it."

Her face flushed with determination, "All right! Point me in its direction and—"

"No." He cut her off. "You remember our deal?" He turned to Aria, who was now going over the wreck of her old ship with a mixture of anger and sadness. "Aria, I know this isn't easy for you, but we have to leave it here. I need you to get back in the sky, take Dash with you."

Aria huffed, "Fine. I'll come back for her later." She grumbled.

As Aria headed over to her temporary replacement for the Clipper with Rainbow Dash, Jackson bent over to Redflare and lowered his tone so the colorful pegasus wouldn't hear, "Go get onboard with them, watch Dash closely. Keep her on the ship restrain her if you have to."

"Aw man, do I really have to?" He complained. Jackson shot him a hard look and the scarlet pegasus complied, heading off for the airship, though he mumbled something about 'babysitting' on the way.

Flash was already manning Daisy up with his team, having heard the exchange of information over the radio. Jackson ordered the rest of his to mount up on the vehicle where there was space as he jumped on the roof and grabbed onto something to keep steady. Then together, on the heavy armored car, they set off for the start of the hunt.

As the vehicle bucked and bounced over the rough terrain, Jackson couldn't help but to dwell on what he had heard from his scout. He was happy that James was alive, but not so much optimistic with the fact that he was mobile, especially if he was hurt. It made it all that much more important that they find him soon. He could only imagine what kind of danger James was hurling himself into.

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The small mountain loomed above, partially blocking out the soft glow of the moon. James gazed up at it from its foothills, knowing that this was the place. The evidence of activity he'd found around it told him so, though he had yet to run into any of his prey. Here was the apparent source of all his troubles here, the disruption of his peace.

Whatever this thing was that hailed from parts unknown had seen it fit to ensure James had no chance to live his life as he wanted, with those he loved by his side. It was going so well in that forest, a true home away from his own world. He thought of the night that had started his malefic journey and his mind's decent into darker things and then of the words of the prince that had tried to usurp the throne in his own foolish way.

This is where they had come from, the ones that had been sent to destroy him and threaten the only person to ever stay by him in his darkness and calm his soul, even if she was of another world. And this, he thought, was where they would learn how disastrous they're mistake had been, missing their opportunity to kill him and instead attacking his friends. It was a mistake they wouldn't even have the chance to regret. He would make sure of that.

Glancing down, he checked his weapons for the third time since he came to the mountain. He had affixed the suppressor and a sight he salvaged from the drop-bag, the one he'd taken off the M110. It barely fit on the picatinny rail, it having been designed for much smaller apertures, but it would do the job just as well. Next he un holstered the pistol the young mare from Ponyville had built for him and he admired the three stripes of color that ran down the slide, it reminded him of Dash and having her on his mind steeled his resolve. She would live in safety, even if he couldn't. He checked that the modified suppressor on the end of its barrel was secure before racking the slide and chambering a round.

The next things he checked were his ammo pouches and the revolver he had tucked into the webbing of his tac vest. He wished he could have returned the weapon to its original owner, but it would have to help him with his gruesome task. Lastly, he adjusted the straps to the small trunk that concealed his special cargo so it would better ride his shoulders and avoid agitating his side and his leg. His other injuries had since begun their strange healing process, but those two were still causing him some problems.

Assured he was ready, James put a foot forward and began the next step down the path that had been set by a dark side of his heart. He just hoped that his brother, who had incredibly arrived by his side against all odds in this dark time could forgive him. Unless he could find a way back to their world, Jackson was making this one his new home and he deserved to have the same peace James had found here.

His attention was caught as he noticed a small dust cloud puff to life in the distance ahead of him. He smiled slightly as he knew what it signified. With a deft pull of his hand, he charged the lever on his rifle with a satisfying clack. It was time for the games to begin.

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Daisy rolled to a stop. Off in the distance, Swift Paws was gesturing for them to come over. Jackson leapt off his perch on the roof of the car and started towards her, Mayfield following inn step to his rear. As he ran up, he noticed she was paying close attention to the ground before her.

"What's up, did you find something?" He asked impatiently as she rose from where she was sniffing the dirt.

"The blood trail ends, yet his paws still mark the ground."

"That's good, he must've bandaged himself up." Jackson said in a lighter tone.

"Or those weird abilities of his." Mayfield put in. "Don't remember seeing any wrappings or left-overs on the way here. Did he always heal so fast?"

"He did better than the others." Jackson deadpanned. "But nothing like this, this is unnatural. You remember what he looked like when we found him at the Palace."

"Yeah, like he ran himself through a fucking grinder. Pretty accurate analogy if you figure what we found in the corridors. Think it has something to do with his special 'condition' the Princesses were on about?"

"It's not a 'condition'!" Jackson quietly shot back. "I don't care what they said, the old Kaughn is still in there."

"I'd say the new Kaughn begs to differ."

Jackson ignored Mayfield's remarks. It didn't help him to think of what his brother might have become. The old James he knew abhorred use of force for the most part. He was always trying to talk a situation down or use a non-lethal alternative. It was only when he was given no choice, or it was explicitly stated in his orders did he elect to issue a lethal attack on anyone or anything. His friend's behavior was strange and he was sure if he asked Miss Dash, she'd confirm that his change in style was a fairly recent phenomenon.

Jackson was sure that his brother had merely fallen off the proverbial mental wagon and just needed to be helped back on. It was something he'd seen often in others sharing their line of work. Still, a small nodule of doubt gnawed at him. Pushing such unpleasant thoughts from his mind, he turned to Swift, "Which way'd he go?"

Rather than tell him directly, she merely lifted one claw from her fearsome appendage and indicated direction. Jackson followed it and saw an ominous piling of rock and dirt off in the distance. The look of the mountain didn't sit right with him. It was like an unwelcome protuberance in an otherwise unremarkable land of small rises and ravines.

"Right. Swift, continue to lead the way." Keying his mic, Jackson called to those patrolling the sky, "Kai, I want you on overwatch for swift, make sure nothing tries to sneak up on her. Sumner, you got our six." He received two curt replies from the two winged warriors circling high above them.

Jackson started off at a slow jog back to Daisy, Mayfield joined up right beside him with a curious expression, "What do you think you're gonna do when we find him? I do recall a certain threat involving bullets and knees a while back. Not sure that'll go over well with him."

"Hopefully it won't come to that. I was mostly joking, you know."

"Yes, but do you think given his current state of mind, it might be what it takes?"

"I might get Aria to put Dash on the horn. From what I heard, she was pretty successful keeping him in check over the years. Which is surprising considering what I've heard about her."

"Manipulative little shit, aren't you? But she is a fiery little filly, ain't she?"

"Whatever it takes."

When they reached the armored car, Jackson ordered the back hatch opened up. In it was several kit bags that contained all their primary weapons. As they were nearing what seemed to be the epicenter of all this, Jackson thought it prudent that they all properly arm up.

Those that fought mostly with blades, being unable to adequately operate the human tech with their given anatomy already had their weapons of choice on their person. For the most part, it was only Jackson, Mayfield, Cray and Sylver who had the requisite skills and dexterity to handle the firearms. Sylver carefully slid the huge Barrett he favored out of it's case while Jackson hefted the comfortably familiar weight of his faithful Mk 43 in his hands.

Cray kept his small submachine gun and hopped back into his seat. Mayfield had opted to stow his own rifle in a rack in the back. "I call the fifty!" He cheerfully cried as he jumped up onto the roof with a few steps and situated himself snugly in the open hatch behind the large caliber weapon.

"Try not to hit our scout if shit goes down." Jackson advised as he climbed onto the roof himself and braced into a good firing position that allowed him to still keep a secure hold on the vehicle.

"Pfft, me?" Mayfield glanced back coyly. "It's almost as if you didn't remember I'm a bloody flippin' sharpshooter. Not to mention a proud member of Her Royal Majesty's Special Air Service, the best there is around."

"Just being careful is all, Your Royal Highness." Jackson playfully shot back.

"Thou shalt not take the Queen's name in vain!" Mayfield retorted.

Sylver climbed in through the back hatch and shut the doors to ensure he could deploy more efficiently with his bulky weapon should the need arise. Seeing that everyone was in place and ready to go, Jackson pounded on the roof, signaling to Flash to start driving after their scout. The vehicle lurched forward, chasing after the hound that was already galloping far ahead on the trail of the scent.

Jackson didn't know what awaited them at that mountain in the distance apart from what little information they'd been told. All he knew was that he ultimately wished to avoid it. And he hoped he could reach his brother before he could destroy himself in it.

Canyon Sin Nombre

Chapter 47: Canyon Sin Nombre

The scene presented before them was almost gruesome in its surgical appearance. Seven bodies were laid out on the ground in various positions in the slender beams of the moon, each with a neat little hole in its head. Jackson noticed that a few of them had punctures in their chests. It seemed that after the first few went down, the rest scrambled in a panic and the shooter adjusted his aim for the change in his targets' movement. The 'follow-up' shots to the heads of those bodies meant that he had come down from his firing position to ensure the job was done.

"Relentless bloke, isn't he?" Mayfield commented as he nudged one of the corpses with his boot. "Check it out," he said, kneeling down to the lifeless body, "these are more of the same guys that look just a little too much like us." He emphasized the last word, referring to the human appearance of the Lotkin littering the blood soaked soil around them.

"Armed like us too." Jackson kicked a pistol out of the stiffening hand of one of the bodies next to him.

"So what do you think?"

"We're close!" Cray said from the corpse he was examining. "Looks like this was recent, from the amount of blood I'd say they took their last breath almost an hour ago. And look at this!" He produced a small glowing orb from the pouch on the side of his subject. "I was right to grab the armor augments!"

Jackson rolled his eyes, "Yeah, they worked so well the time I was tricked into testing them..."

"Please, have more faith in my gadgets!" Cray snorted. "Besides, I was in training for the RSTG by then, you can blame the un-orthidox procedure on the esteemed Dr. Wright."

"Seems like quite an un-orthidox career change." Mayfield quipped. "Given our current circumstance, I'd have stayed with the cushy job, mate."

"You have no idea what is was like to work with that pompous ass." Cray said in his defense. "Brilliant researcher and you can thank him for some of our recent armor developments, but too often, he'd let his interns do the work and claim the credit for himself. Much less of that...what I guess you humans would call bullshit?...working with the RSTG."

"Right you are, mate!" Mayfield gave the unicorn an approving nod. "Never had a special place in my heart for boffins m'self. But you're all right."

"Thanks... I guess?"

"Sorry to interrupt you gossip girls down there," Sumner's voice crackled over the comms, "but I thought you should know that I spotted a lone figure on the southwest side of the mountain, 'bout a few hundred feet up. Looks like there's a lot of hidy-holes, so if we don't hurry, we could lose him fast."

Jackson perked up at the news, though he didn't like what it signified. "I'm surprised you managed to spot him, he must be bookin' it for something." He said into his comms.

"Yeah, he's moving at a pretty good clip. Do you want me to engage and intercept?"

"Negative, he could view you as hostile. Keep an eye on him, we're rolling out."

Mayfield and Cray were already moving to the vehicle, Jackson ran to catch up. They quickly climbed inside, taking up their positions as Flash engaged the gears and sent Daisy rolling forward at a hurried pace. Swift, now riding inside, stuck her head out the top hatch with Mayfield, he tongue lolling out in the strange pleasure dogs received from such an activity.

One of the front tires struck a large rock, jostling the crew. Jackson almost saw himself go over, but he held on tight and righted himself, the end of the road was close at hand and he wouldn't lose it for anything. From high above, an eagle winged warrior dropped in altitude, shouting a warning into his comms, "Enemies ahead! I suspect they are searching for their missing comrades."

Jackson cursed, "Thanks for the heads-up, Kai. Any chance we can avoid them?"

"I am sorry, there does not appear to be a way. The canyon is too narrow and I doubt your strange craft can climb the sides."

"Shit, alright." Jackson pounded on the roof a few times and leaned towards the top hatch, "Flash, go dark, we got trouble ahead." The old pegasus dutifully obeyed, plunging their route into darkness before flipping down his NODs. The rest of the team followed suit, eager to catch the hostiles unawares.

Gliding high in the night sky, Kai twisted and unsheathed his massive sword. He lived for times like this, the thrill of the hunt and the privilege of fighting along side his battle mates. His keen eagle's eyes, though not as effective in the night, scanned the group of Lotkin below like he was deciding between cuts of fine meat, choosing which one would have the honor of being his first kill of the evening.

Kai chose one near the rear of the pack, it wasn't particularly paying attention and seemed to be just along for the ride. Folding his wings, the griffon banked into a steep dive, his muffled armor dully flapping against his body as he sharply picked up speed. The thrill was rising in his chest, urging him on, faster and faster.

When he was just a scant ten meters from the ground, he flared his wings open silently, just as he was taught, though it still produced a noticeable whumpf. Kai's prey glanced curiously over his shoulder at the soft sound as Kai landed in a cloud of dust. The Lotkin's face barely had time to register shock before a long silvery glint of metal sang through the darkness and delicately liberated the soldier's head from his shoulders.

The body crumpled to the pebbly dirt with a few muffled clinks of armor. The rest of the procession spun around at the noise with weapons raised, but Kai had already flapped up, diving again to lance his second victim straight through the chest. His third came at him from behind, sword raised and ready to draw the griffon's blood. Kai delivered a clawed kick, raking the attacker's neck with bloody furrows and sending him to his knees. Kai finished his third victim off with an over hand strike, cleaving the Lotkin from the joint of his neck and shoulder to the center of his belly, exposing bone and organs and quickly spilling his enemy's blood in sprays and spurts.

Kai jumped back, dodging another swing, but he was met with a new problem. The others now had their firearms leveled at his chest. Kai thought of how he might get out of this one to live, he had made the mistake of engrossing himself for too long in the heat of battle and thus exposing himself.

Salvation came in the form of a high pitched whine from further down the small, but steep canyon. "Kai, up, now!" Jackson's staccato order's spat in his ear. Some of the survivors were already turning to face the new noise. Kai took the opportunity of the momentary distraction to extricate himself with a few powerful flaps.

Daisy swung around the corner at high speed, threatening to careen into the canyon walls. Mayfield smiled as he flipped the safety on the back of the mount and depressed the triggers with both thumbs. Hell issued forth from the weapon as its fat projectiles punched fist sized holes through the unwary Lotkin. Most were still bunched up were they had tried to surround the griffon and were swiftly reduced to quivering tatters of flesh upon the cold rocky ground.

Some were brighter than the others and had dove for the canyon walls as soon as Daisy appeared and were now trying to return fire from their limited cover. As Flash slowed and turned the vehicle broadside out to provide greater cover, Jackson took the opportunity to roll off the top and lay-up behind a rounded boulder. He then went to work sending a concentrated swarm of hot death at any that were foolish enough to expose themselves.

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James paused in his climb. He set his foot back down from where he had lifted it and pivoted towards the racket that sprung up in the foothills below. He recognized the dull crack of an M-2. It went on for a moment and then a new, lighter rip of smaller caliber munitions firing in periodic bursts could be heard coming from a small canyon below.

He tensed, he knew that sound. It was the same weapon he'd heard over and over and over again throughout his past, one that had save his own life many times. His hands clenched tightly around his rifle as the significance of the sound turning up here of all places sunk in. Either Luna had betrayed him and sent his friends after him or they had figured it out on their own. Maybe it was some combination of the two, he didn't know.

One thing was certain. His friends had no idea what they were putting themselves in. They should have stayed put, that way he would be the only possible casualty, clean and efficient. He begrudgingly began to descend from his place, knowing that the earth shattering sounds of combat in their backyard would surely summon more of the fearsome warriors he sought to destroy. His friends were putting themselves in evermore danger for him, something he had an urge to protect them from.

So he walked, exchanging the mag in his rifle for a fresh one. Already, he could see a dark mass trickling out of the lower mountain entrances below, on the move for the party of would-be rescuers like an over-turned ant hill. It was turning out to be a rather bloody night. Not that he had any particular problem with that aspect.

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Shards of boulder flew out in every direction as Jackson ducked back behind cover. His position was receiving a pounding, covering him in a thin layer of rock dust that flew up in the air from the impact of bullets and settled down on his head and shoulders. Mayfield had had to abandon his spot on the mount as he found himself drawing more and more fire.

He was crouched behind Daisy's engine block, popping up occasionally to quickly pick off a soldier or two before dropping back down under a hail of projectiles. Between him, Jackson and Cray, they'd managed to take out quite a few of them in the initial attack, but Jackson swore that their numbers were growing instead of dwindling as they should. It was their fault, of course. The sonic waves they'd produced with their weapons in the firefight had brought the mountain down upon them, but what other choice did they have but to turn around and go home?

Fortunately, the shear canyon walls made for a natural bottleneck. But if the Lotkin managed to get a few shooters up top.... "Sylver!" Jackson shouted over at the unicorn trying to squeeze into cover behind one of the vehicle's large wheels. "You think, you can teleport up on top of the canyon wall or something?"

Sylver snorted, "I wish! You know how much easier that would make my job?"

"So you can't..."

"No! That's an advance piece of magic! Most I can do is physical manipulation and basic healing spells! Maybe a little combat magic."

"Shit-" Jackson winced as a bullet smashed a chunk out of the edge of the boulder he was sitting near. "We'll have to improvise!"

"What did you have in mind!?"

Jackson tapped his ear then pointed at the sky. Sylver shot him a quizzical look. While Sylver was trying to figure out what the human was getting at, Jackson placed a call up to the eagle eye flying high in the sky, well out of range of their enemies' weapons. When he finished explaining the situation into his microphone, Jackson waved over to get Cray and Swift's attention.

He held up three fingers, "Thirty seconds!" Jackson shouted over the din. "Stand up and provide covering fire! Make sure they keep their heads down!"

Jackson blindly fired a burst around his cover as he scanned the dark sky above. In no time, a black dot formed and grew broader at an increasing rate. Jackson counted down, the griffon now clearly in sight. Once he reached 'one', he shouted the order and he, Cray, Swift and even Mayfield sprung up and began firing wildly at anything that moved.

The display of force was impressive to say the least and accomplished its task at forcing the soldiers on the receiving end out of sight. With a clear path open, Kai dove from on high like an avenging angel and plucked the bewildered Sylver from the ground. The unicorn wrapped all four of his legs as Kai pumped his wings more vigorously to take both himself and he passenger high out of the canyon.

Once they were clear, the four shooters ducked back behind their respective cover as the Lotkin in return rose as one and unleashed an equally bowel loosening display of their own. Daisy rattled and shuddered as wave after wave of rounds collided with her frame. Somewhere, a window shattered. Jackson slumped down behind his chipped and cracked boulder to attach a new belt of ammunition to the one in the feed tray that had now been greatly reduced in favor of swapping it out entirely. He glanced up as he finished and was relieved to see the griffon safely deposit Sylver on the top of the left canyon wall, where he could do some serious damage to their enemies.

Mayfield, far too cautious to move from his already tenuous position, shouted into his radio, "Well, that worked! What do we do now?"

"I'm not really sure!" Jackson responded, "Kill them before they kill us?"

"That's it!?"

"I'm kinda playing this by ear!"

"Fucking brilliant, mate!" Mayfield returned, his voice dripping with cynicism.

"They're advancing!" Flash warned from his entrenched position with Iron.

"Aw, fucking bloody great news!" Mayfield leaned over and shoved his hand into one of Cray's pockets.

"Hey!" The unicorn stallion protested.

"Aw, calm the fuck down you nancy ponce, I need this!" He extracted his hand, brining with it the small orb Cray had removed from the corpse he'd been examining earlier.

Mayfield leaned away from his cover and wound his arm back, "Heads down, frag out!"

"It's not a fra—!" Cray began to correct, but his words were cut off by the ensuing explosion of heat and pressure as the orb Mayfield had launched struck a rock and obliterated everything in its immediate vicinity.

Those Lotkin that were not near the epicenter of the blast were thrown about every which way. One landed chest first with a heavy thud on top of the cover Flash and Iron were using. The two wasted no time in skewering the unfortunate soldier with both their blades. The others didn't fare much better. As some of the less critically injured wandered about in a shocked haze, Jackson and Mayfield simply cut them down with a few well placed shots.

The rest went scrambling back for cover, putting a little more distance between themselves and the RSTG members than they had before. To their misfortune, they found it still did not help them much. Three dropped to the ground like lifeless sacks of rocks with shots straight to their heads, though the report from the issuing rifle was curiously absent.

Jackson thought it odd, but knew not to look a gift horse in the mouth as it were, "Good shots, Sylver!" Jackson praised over comms, "I don't think I even noticed your fire."

The reply that came was in obvious confusion, "What are you talking about? You guys screwed up my overall sight picture with that blast, I'm still changing position!"

Jackson cocked his head in puzzlement over what he'd just heard. Then the answer to his mental question came tumbling down on him like a rockslide. "He's here!"

"Huh?" Cray glanced over questioningly at Jackson's sudden outburst.

"He's here, he just took out three of those fuckers!"

"Five- no, six now." Mayfield quipped as he peeked over Daisy's hood.

The Lotkin at the other end of the canyon were now in a slight panic. Not only were they facing a wall of fire power in one direction, but now something was picking them off one-by-one from behind. One of them made a break for where he thought the shots were coming from, only to have his chest explode outward as a loud CRACK rolled through the canyon like thunder.

"Got one!" Sylver confirmed triumphantly over the comms.

His announcement was superceded by the crackle of gunfire as the Lotkin rounded on his position and lit up the canyon wall. Sylver rolled back from the edge just in time, "I'm good, changing position." He informed his worried teammates.

Jackson noticed the Lotkin were no longer paying attention to them. Now was their chance. "Cray, jump on the fifty! Toph, cover from the hood! Swift, Flash and Iron, on me!" He leapt from behind the jackhammered boulder, his impromptu assault team following suit.

Jackson lead from the front with Swift beside him, heads low and weapons up as Cray fired over top of them. All the Lotkin saw was hot lances as the bullets screamed down the canyon, playing light along the walls. By the time they noticed Jackson and his crew, it was too late.

Jackson shouldered heavily into another outcropping of rock with a grunt and proceeded to fire on two Lotkin soldiers he now had an angle on. Swift ducked under his line of fire and swung around the other side, surprising two other soldiers. She clubbed the first with the but of her rifle, breaking his nose and sending him reeling back, the other she shot quickly in the face. She spun around to finish off the other, but he was now leaking blood all over the rocks from a small hole that went in one side of his neck and cleanly out the other. Surprised, she scanned the hills above for the shooter, but found no sign.

On the opposite wall, Flash and Iron were working in tandem, trading blows and slicing down any who dare stand in their path. They whipped through the enemy like a dervish of blades, killing or mortally wounding all they came up against. Those that did survive the vicious attack were promptly put down with a short burst from Jackson's weapon.

Another small group of soldiers came barreling down the canyon, but for the moment it seemed to be the last of them. Sylver wondered if the others were falling back to a more defensible position to lie in wait in ambush somewhere up the mountain as he lined up his next shot. He placed the reticule squarely on the leader's chest, ensuring a clean shot and a possible secondary impact on the Lotkin following behind.

The unicorn took a few breaths and slowly let his magic begin to squeeze the trigger. The leader's head snapped to the side in a burst of blood, the soldier behind him suddenly tripped up on his predicessor's body and fell to the ground. "Hey!" Sylver complained loudly to no one in particular as his kill was stolen right before his eyes. He settled with putting a heavy round through the one that had fallen before switching to another target.

He only was able to pick two more off, taking the arm off one and landing a round straight through the chest of another. The rest were already sprawling on the ground with a few neat holes bored through their sides and backs. Sylver huffed in annoyance and began searching along the canyon floor and the walls for any targets of opportunity.

Back down on bottom, Flash and Iron were finishing up the last of the Lotkin that had been sent to drive them off. With a quick swing of his blade, Flash lodged the edge into the neck of a particularly tall soldier with a thwack, who then began scrabbling at the cold metal feebly. Iron came up from behind and bucked the Lotkin off Flash's sword before drawing his own across the thing's abdomen. The Lotkin reflexively bent and tried to stuff his entrails back in, but quickly succumbed to shock. Swift calmly walked over and put the barrel of her rifle flush with the dying enemy's head, ending his pain with a muffled snap.

The canyon fell into an eerie silence. Jackson and his team glanced around for any more targets, but there were no more to be had. The canyon, now littered with the bodies of the unfortunate, began to acquire a foul stink as the smoke from the cordite intermingled with the sickly sweet bouquet of death.

Breathing heavily in the fouled air as he caught his breath from the exhausting fight, Jackson called his team, "Give me a sitrep, everyone report."

Swift nodded an ok to him from across the way, Iron close by her but limping somewhat. "I'm fine but I took a round to my wing." Flash reported and indeed his right wing was extended out at an awkward angle. "It's all right, the things have been pretty useless since the last injury anyhow."

"Sylver here, I got no more hostiles in sight. Nor any signs of the son of a nag that kept taking my shots."

From down the canyon, they could hear the familiar whine of Daisy's engine, "It's Toph! The wee boffin and I are aces, bleeding a bit, but otherwise ok. Daisy looks as though she's been run through the ringer, but she still purrs just fine. If you could even call it that, damned electric engine."

"Kai?" Jackson queried.

"All is calm in the sea of night."

"Glad to hear it." Jackson let out a tensioned breath, at least his team made it through with relatively minor injuries. "Sumner, if you're still up there, do you got a fix on our target or did he get away?"

Static flared in Jackson's earpiece for a second, but then the pegasus came through loud and clear, "Yeah, about that... I don't know if you can see, but he's standing right at the edge of the southwest wall. How he got there completely eludes me."

Jackson's head snapped up, his heart began to hammer in his chest. There at the top of the cliff, a lone figure stood framed by the doleful moon behind him. As Jackson watched, the figure turned and began walking away, disappearing behind the lip of the canyon wall.

Brotherhood

Chapter 48: Brotherhood

Weaving his way through the field of bodies, Jackson sprinted down the canyon, looking for any conceivable way he could climb to the top of the wall. He had left his team behind at their protest, but he wasn't paying attention. He'd seen his brother and all he cared about was reaching him at the moment.

Spotting a tight looking vertical crevice in the wall, Jackson wheeled around and dashed in. He placed a hand and foot on one side, the others opposite, and began to shimmy his way up. The crevice halted just a few feet from the top, opening up onto the top of the wall. Jackson braced himself and lunged for one of the edges. He landed hard on his belly, forcing the air out of his lungs with a grunt. Only half his body had made it though, and with his legs still dangling in the crevice, their weight began to drag him back down.

His fingers scrabbled for purchase in the sandy soil, but all he managed to do was leave panicked claw marks in the dirt. He readied himself for a last ditch effort to launch himself off the wall and try to catch himself in the crevice again when a hand reached down and forcefully grabbed a hold of his wrist. Before he knew it, Jackson was abruptly yanked up to the top of the wall and tossed onto the flat ground with an 'oomph'.

Jackson got up with a sore groan and started to brush himself off, intending to thank his rescuer. He froze. James was there, standing tall in the moonlight, though he seemed to be favoring one side of his body. And he was looking Jackson straight in the eyes with an accusing glare.

"Kaughn! I'm so glad I found you man, we—"

"Why are you here?" James replied in a low tone that belied anger.

Jackson himself started to get heated at the sound of the question, "Why am I here? Are you serious, I'm here for you! The hell did you think you were doing, breaking into shit and stealing unstable technology? Hijacking an airship and flying out here on some kind of fucked up suicide mission, huh?"

"Suicide mission!?" James spat angrily. "It didn't have to be a fucking suicide mission! What the hell did you think I was trying to do, run in there guns blazing and blow myself up like a fucking mad bomber!? It's called sabotage, subversion and generally fucking up their day, asshole!"

Jackson was really starting to get furious now, "Really, Kaughn? Really!? You just crashed the airship into the side of a hill, trekked all this distance with a potentially insanely powerful explosive into the very home of these Renegade motherfuckers and don't call that a suicide mission? How were you gonna get back, Kaughn? Tell me that, how were you gonna get back?"

"I don't care, ok!?" James shouted back, dropping the trunk and squaring his shoulders off. He took a step closer to Jackson, who had likewise placed his Mk 43 on the ground. "None of you were supposed to be out here, you weren't supposed to follow me! I don't care how or when I'm going to get back! I needed to be alone, to isolate myself."

"Why, man?" Jackson asked pleadingly, slumping his shoulders, "Why do you need to separate yourself from the people that are making you happy? I saw you back there, at that house. You were doin' good!"

"And the shit you been seeing in the last few weeks, huh? How was that doing? I dangerous, Jackson. Even to- no, especially to you guys. How could I live with myself if I lost it and hurt one of my friends?"

"How would they feel if you just up and disappeared, think about that?" Jackson countered. "Your friends here love you. Man, I love you, you're my brother! All the bullshit we went through, you think that doesn't count? We're here for you, man. Let us help."

"Yeah!" James laughed humorlessly, "Help me how exactly? You heard what they said. There is something wrong with me and even they aren't sure what it is. There's only two options for me. Lock me up, or send me somewhere I can't hurt anybody."

Jackson let out a sigh, "You're being overly dramatic here, too selfish. What would she think, brother? What would Dash think about you running off and disappearing without her?"

"She wouldn't have to worry about attacks. She wouldn't have to worry about her friends' safety. She'd be happier." James reasoned.

"You sure about that?" Jackson keyed his mic, "Aria, do me a favor and put her on. I got him." He then undid the clasp from around his neck and tossed the piece of equipment to James.

James snatched it out of the air with a befuddled look on his face. It promptly changed to that of cold dread as he heard the tinny voice of Dash escape from the small earpiece, "Is it really him? James? Are you there? Do you know how far I flew to find your sorry flank? James? Answer me!"

"See? Even after I told her no a thousand time, she-"

"Why did you bring her?" James said quietly, voice shaking in barely controlled rage. He was no longer looking at Jackson like he would a friend, but rather as something that had tried to do him harm.

"I didn't." Jackson repudiated in an effort to calm his friend down. "I told her not to come countless times. You know how she is, she just flew along anyway."

"That wasn't enough!" James threw the radio into the dirt at Jackson's feet. "However she figured it out, you shouldn't have let her come! You should have had Twilight and AJ or one of the princesses to hold her back!"

"You're right, I fucked up." Jackson offered and took another step forward, reaching out with one hand. He was almost there. "I should have tried harder, that's my bad. Let's say you come back down with me, we'll hash things out. It'll—"

The movement was so fast and unexpected that Jackson almost didn't catch it in time. He threw his arm up and smacked James' fist away before it could connect with his left jaw. James would not be so easily deterred. He followed up with a left hook, but then feinted and kicked Jackson hard in the knee.

As Jackson went down, he clasped both hands together and caught knee James was sending directly for his nose. Jackson slid back out of range and forced himself back up, just in time as James came running in with a fist aimed at his temple. Jackson dodged it, ducking left, the right as a leg blurred over his head.

"Kaughn! KAUGHN! Cut it out!" Jackson pleaded angrily as he blocked another attack. "I'm not your enemy!" But James wasn't listening. In fact, he didn't even seem to be aware of what he was doing. He seemed to have slipped into a trance, something else was in control now. "DAMMIT, KAUGHN!" Jackson bellowed as he caught a kick to his stomach, grabbed James' leg and threw him bodily into the dirt.

As James hit the ground, he adjusted and came back up in a roll, but with an addition. Jackson blanched and reflexively took a few steps back as James' knife was produced from its sheath. The edge of the steel glinted menacingly in the softly spun moon beams, as much so as its wielder's own eyes.

"James..." Jackson said with sadness and doubt in his voice as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing.

James stared his friend down for a moment then blinked like an owl. He shook his head as though he'd just eaten something particularly unsavory and squeezed his eyes shut. After another vigorous shake, he pressed a palm to his forehead and lifted his eyes up. Jackson was watching him intently, wondering what he was going to do next.

James raised his knife and Jackson flinched, anticipating the stinging blade. But he watched, dumbfounded as the knife instead sunk itself into the sand, also severing the mic from his radio. "Shit." Jackson cursed as he looked up again and saw that James had scooped up the trunk he was carrying and was now running at a furious clip towards the mountain. "Oh no you don't!"

Jackson took off after his friend, intent on catching James before he got away. James was already a good distance away and Jackson knew he didn't have the speed to run him down. But while James was an excellent sprinter, Jackson took the cake when it came to distance running. He may not be faster, but his stamina was exemplary.

He could already see James start to slow up ahead. Sumner began to dive bomb the runner, but Jackson waved the pegasus off, this was something he had to do. As he caught up, he could hear James' labored breaths, but the heavily laden warrior was still keeping a good pace. Jackson felt his own legs grow lead weights as they began powering up a hill. They kept at this for a good ten to fifteen minutes, with Jackson managing to get within an arm's length of his friend.

James faltered as his foot twisted on a loose rock and Jackson seized the opportunity. With a desperate lunge, he wrapped a meaty biceps around James' neck and his legs around his torso and dragged him down to the ground. The trunk went tumbling a few yards down the slope before tilting to a lazy stop.

James struggled in Jackson's grip, attempting to flip the both of them over to gain leverage and slip out of the hold, but Jackson had height and weight on him. "You don't know what you're doing!" James gurgled, "I have to do this!"

"You don't have to do shit!" Jackson countered. "Now shut the fuck up and go to sleep! We're taking you home."

"No!" James shouted with defiance in his voice and began his struggle anew.

Jackson clamped down even harder, straining to drive his friend unconscious. But then several highly improbable things happened to Jackson at once. First, he felt a painful grip unlike any other on his forearm as James slowly began to pry Jackson's arm from around his throat. James then twisted and with a powerful kick, dislodged himself from Jackson's grasp, rolling upright.

He panted for air his breath coming in ragged gasps. "I told you I have to do this, I can't let anything stop me." He choked out in a hoarse voice.

Jackson picked himself up in disbelief. Never in many years had James ever been able to get out of one of his holds. He stared dumbly at the bloody gouges in his forearm. That was anew thing as well. James tracked Jackson's eyes and found himself looking at his own fingers, now smeared with the lifeblood of his friend and brother.

"I'm sorry." Was all James could manage to say in a shocked tone of voice.

Without looking up, he strode past Jackson and gathered the trunk, hoisting it onto his back. Jackson didn't move to stop him. The last sound that was shared between the two was the crunch of boots over the uneven ground as James silently walked away.

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"That right there is a strange piece of work." Cray commented as he fussed over Jackson's arm.

He was now sitting in the back of Daisy with his legs dangling out the door while Cray worked on his wounds. Flash and Iron were likewise resting nearby, their injuries having already been dealt with in Jackson's absence. The entire team was in a somewhat somber mood, their objective having been failed. The only thing that had been improved was the location as Mayfield had pulled the vehicle up out of the stench of the canyon below and maneuvered it up onto one of the flat canyon walls.

"I still don't understand why you let him go." Mayfield said. "You had him. I mean, you literally had him. Right. There." he knife-handed towards the low hill Jackson had chased James up.

"I can't really explain it myself." Jackson said numbly. "He really is different. It was like the Kaughn I knew was there, but he wasn't."

"Nothing a little slap-around wouldn't have fixed."

"I say you did what you could." Flash put in. "It really might be time to let him go." He sighed broken heartedly. "It's just that much more painful, getting to see him alive again. And now, he's off again on his own adventure."

"Uh, sorry to poke the mood," Aria broke in softly through Daisy's comm unit, "but dawn'll be along soon and and Miss Dash is really starting to become a hoof-full. Flare's having a hard enough time keeping her onboard. We really need to get going soon."

Without warning, Jackson hopped out onto the rough dirt, much to Cray's annoyance as he hadn't yet finished the stitching on his arm. "No. We're still gonna accomplish this." Determination booming in every step, he marched around to the front passenger door and grabbed the mic, "Aria, it's Jackson. Tell Dash to hang tight, we'll have Kaughn in custody shortly." After his proclamation, he returned to the back and started gathering his gear.

Mayfield leaned down from the roof where he was sitting, "I'm not usually one to play mum, but I don't think you should be making false promises..."

"It wasn't." Jackson said pointedly. "I'm going in there. That's what brotherhood's about, sticking by your brother even when he doesn't want you to." He paused in his preparations and looked at all the members of the team assembled around him. "Anybody wanna back out and go, I won't hold it against you."

None of them elected to take him up on the offer. However, further in the vehicle, Flash let out a long and tired sigh and got out, "Well, seeing as you're intent on getting us all killed, we might as well go all out." He said, circling around to Jackson's side. "Chief, if you would please?" He gestured to the equipment Jackson had piled on the floor of the aft compartment.

Cocking an inquisitive eyebrow at the flightless pegasus, Jackson removed his gear and cleared the floor. From under his armor, Flash produced a strange flat key which he used to pry open a flap in the floor by one of the wheel wells. With a dexterous twist, he inserted the key into a small key hole that had been hiding there and gave it a quick three-quarter turn.

There was a grind, then a snap, followed by several rapid clicks as the key released whatever invisible locks had been hidden in the floor. Then, to much of the rest of the team's amazement, a concealed compartment revealed itself to all with a pop. Flash leaned inside and extracted a short sword protected be a plain-old scabbard. He cradled it in his forelegs as if it were a priceless and delicate artifact.

While the scabbard was plain and undistinguished, the handle and hilt were far from ordinary. The azure glass-like hilt wrapped in fine wire nodded towards only one possibility. Flash winced as he noticed the astonished stares he was receiving from those who had been present during the event of its creation, "It's not like I stole it. It seems Princess Celestia's clairvoyant perception is sharper than any of us will ever know."

"So what if she let you take it?" Mayfield pointed. "Who's gonna use it? We all know how that went last time."

The Englishman was right. None of them dared touch it for fear that the results of the last time one of them had would be repeated. The event was still fresh in their minds.

"She didn't say." Flash revealed. "She just ordered me to take it and to keep it hidden until I deemed it was necessary the retrieve it."

"So much for 'perception'." Mayfield scoffed.

"I'll do it." Jackson shrugged. All heads snapped to him as the last syllable dropped from his lips.

"I don't think that's wise." Cray put in. "No offense to you humans, but I heard about what happened in there. Statistically, it could happen again."

"If by statistically, you mean, fifty-fifty since only one of us have ever touched it, you'd be correct!" Jackson shot back hotly. "I'm not sure how you even know, given that all of us there were forbidden to even mention it." Jackson's eyes shot around the group as he finished the last sentence. Then his gaze swiveled up to Mayfield who had a telling grin on his face. Jackson let out a huff and shook his head.

"Listen." Jackson continued with a much softer tone. "This is not up for debate at the moment. We're running out of time." He paused and shifted his eyes around the group to let that sink in. "We'll try this here, right now. It doesn't work, oh-fucking-well. Maybe it'll work for one of you and we'll keep whoever that is covered. Deal?"

None of them responded or otherwise objected. "All right, but I'm standing far back, if you don't mind." Flash added as he placed the sword down gently on the floor of Daisy's backside.

As the rest of the team shuffled away, giving Jackson a wide berth, he leaned over and wrapped one think hand around the middle of the scabbard. Cautiously, he inched the other towards the handle like it was a venomous snake, poised to strike. Jackson's hand drifted ever closer, face scrunched in concentration. Now was the moment of truth. Would the sword accept him, or viciously cast him away like it did his brother?

He jumped and leapt back, swearing profusely as a hand unexpectedly clasped his shoulder. "Whoa, little jumpy there!" Mayfield chuckled at his friend's discomfort.

"The fuck you think!" Jackson shouted back crossly at Mayfield who was now standing by the vehicle's rear, his heart was still hammering in his chest. "The hell you do that for?"

"Sorry, mate. Just had a thought."

"What?"

"Well, suppose that it reacted the same way with you as it did with Mr. Kaughn."

"So?"

"So I've noticed that, nutty as he's become, our dear friend seems to have acquired some traits that make him just a tad bit more durable than us mere mortals."

"What's your point?" Jackson put shortly, wanting to speed Mayfield's explanation up as much as possible and move on.

"What if you ended up charred chicken? Wouldn't do too good if we went and got him and he found out you went poof and keeled over? All I'm saying, is maybe I should test it first."

"Oh so noble, just like a knight of the round table, huh?" Jackson shook his head.

"M'lady..." Mayfield bowed mockingly.

"Still, I don't want you to take that risk."

"I don't have much to lose at this point and it's happening anyway, so eat your meat and have your pudding."

"No, wait-!" Jackson ordered as Mayfield stepped forward and grasped the handle.

It was too late. The Englishman went rigid as the pulled the sword from the scabbard and its elemental energies ran through him. Jackson took a few cautious steps back, arms up incase something unexpected should happen. Something did.

Pink and white flashed within the deepest heart of the sword's structure before dulling down to a low glow. Mayfield relaxed almost explosively, spewing out a breath he had been holding for far too long. "Now, that was the dog's bollocks!" He whooped. He thrust the sword in Jackson's face, "You gotta try this, Jack-o, it was fuckin' amazing!" The rest of the group stared at the man as if he had completely lost his mind. "What?" He returned the same dumb faced stare to all of them.

"That was... interesting?" Cray squinted his eyes and scratched his chin with a hoof.

Rolling his eyes, Mayfield proffered the sword to Jackson again, "Here, mate. Promise you. Won't do no harm."

Jackson glanced at Flash who nodded a few times approvingly, watching expectantly with wide eyes. With a shrug and a deep breath, Jackson reached forward, highly anticipant of what would happen next. Gingerly, he extended his arm and removed the twinkling sword from Mayfield's grip.

Jackson's arm seized as lightning raced up the appendage and spread throughout his body, right down to his toes. He felt as something like a swarm of enraged hornets invaded his head and bounced and buzzed all through his mind. Orange and yellow lights strobed about his vision and his tongue felt as if it was encased in copper. The energy made one last circuit through his body then abruptly withdrew back to its source.

Jackson gasped as his eyes flew open after what felt like hours, but a quick glance at his watch told him it had been merely seconds. He looked at the sword and saw it had resumed its usual muted appearance. He didn't know if anything had changed, but he hadn't necessarily felt any pain, nor had there been an aggressive discharge of rejection. He took it as a good sign. Jackson glanced all around, curious about his team's reaction.

They still just stood there expectantly, waiting for him to say something. However, Sylver was the one to break the silence, "Looks good to me, what now?"

Jackson felt sluggish after the ordeal, but he shook himself out of it and slid the sword back into its scabbard, strapping it to his side. "Now, I guess it's time to bust heads." Jackson didn't know what else to say and grabbed his weapon. "Who wants to give these fuckers what they asked for?"

For Better Or Worse

Chapter 49: For Better Or Worse

James trod as quietly as he could. It was a painful task when even the smallest sound echoed like a gong in the spacious tunnels. The tunnels smelt rancid and weren't adequately lit, James silently thanked whatever was helping him to see in the darkness, but cursed his olfactory functions in the same thought. At least it wasn't stifling like he had expected, that would have been the diarrhea icing on the fecal cake.

He reached an intersection and checked it fast. There was scant evidence of it being used, so he chose the path with the most footprints in a wager that it would leave him closer to his goal. He had to get there soon. There was no sure way to know what Jackson would do, but James had a fairly good idea. He had to finish it before that happened.

His carefully placed boots making muffled crunches on the tunnel floor, James stalked the passages. After a few minutes, he heard the unmistakable sound of disgruntled grumbling ahead. He came up to a corner and peered around it. There were two Lotkin soldiers arguing with each other, evidently over the proper use of a small flame lantern.

James raised his rifle, the scope now missing in favor for good old iron sights, and prepared to end their lives. But then he thought better of it. He kept his rifle trained on the two, but allowed them to play out their inconsequential quarrel. The one doling out the lecture seemed to be in charge, the other delivering short, affirming responses as he re-lit the lumination tool and pointedly kept it well away from the walls.

Speculatively, James dragged a finger across the dry, almost powdery stone that made up the walls. He brought the digit up to his nose and took a whiff. He recoiled slightly as the acrid scent flooded his nostrils. He recognized it. It was sulfur. He had wondered how his enemy had been supplying its troops and now he had part of the answer.

James snapped from his thoughts as he heard a sound, the two soldiers were now walking away. He tracked them and watched as they moved towards another side passage, this one bigger and somewhat better lit. Keeping to the shadows as best he could, James followed behind them.

One branched off into a little room dug into the wall while the one with the lantern continued on. James followed the lecturer into the room and placed the muzzle of his rifle against the back of his head. There was a small pop and James rushed forward to catch the body and gently lower it to the ground without a sound. James then swung around and brought his weapon to bear on the entrance to the room. Nothing came to investigate.

James edged his way to the corner and took a peek around. The lantern bearer as still plodding down the passage, none the wiser for the event that had gone unknown behind him. Sticking to the wall, James accompanied the soldier without his knowledge or consent. James could feel he was getting close, very close.

James followed the clueless soldier towards a brightly lit opening. He slowed, hearing the sounds of reckless discourse that could only be either a large fight or a celebration of sorts. After the events in the canyon, James didn't think it was the latter.

Either way, he couldn't go any further without risking detection, he would have to find another way around. He began to turn, but stopped. It had suddenly become eerily silent. He heard a cup bounce off the floor and a chair fall over, but that was it.

Something was wrong. He turned and began to book it down the passage. He got maybe ten feet when there was a flash of white light in front of him that slowly resolved into sickly mist. The mist began to solidify and James heard strange echoing words in his mind, "The prodigal returns..." then the mist lunged forward and the world closed in around him.





Weightlessness, emptiness, nothingness. James floated along, aware of himself, but not of his surroundings. He struggled to make sense of his situation. A minute ago, he was creeping through the dusty halls of his enemies' stronghold. The next... he didn't know. There was some strange apparition and now he was here.

James struggled in the void. He began to feel something. He flailed around for something to grab, something to stand on. Unexpectedly, he suddenly found himself tossed onto hard packed earth. Slowly, he got up, dusted himself off and looked around.

He could see for about twenty-five yards in any direction, but after that, it was nothing but that same white haze. He heard a scuff to his rear. James whipped around to confront the noise and dropped to a fighting stance. It was now he realized he had no weapons. He was clothed, but that was it.

It didn't matter much though. What came to meet him he found rather odd and unthreatening, he relaxed. It was a man sized silhouette, made all of white, but lined around the edges with a strange blurry blackness that seemed to move of its own accord. James flinched when it spoke. A sickly sweet and malodorously smooth voice, "Glad to see you've finally returned."

James cocked his head, confused at the greeting, "I never left. I've never even been here."

The thing's head turned ever so slightly and James knew it was looking at him, even though there were no eyes. "I was not speaking to you."

"Then who?"

The being raised one immaculate hand and pointed a digit over James' shoulder. James turned around slowly and looked to where it was pointing. There was a cage that hadn't been there a moment ago aside a fully grown tree that seemed to have just sprung up. The cage seemed to be made of some strange iridescent metal. Inside, sat with legs crossed, was a red-ish black figure of nearly the same dimensions of James himself.

James approached the cage at a slow pace, transfixed on the captive inside. As he neared, the being stood up with an aggressive posture and came up to the bars, but stopped, hesitant to get closer to them. "What in the hell are you?" James whispered to himself.

The other being appeared at James shoulder. He stepped back in surprise at it began speaking again, "It is of my brethren, and of you. You should be proud! Few are strong enough to contain us for so long and use us so effectively without turning so black and brackish as ourselves. Though, of course, you did have help." It said, gliding around the cage.

"What do you mean? I haven't been controlling anything, least of all this thing." James gestured. He could have sworn it growled at its mention.

"Ah, but you have!" The white being glided up to James' face, emitting a darkly gleeful radiance. "I believe my brother here has been itching to get out for quite some time. In fact, it was one of the reasons you arrived here, we are always drawn to each other amongst the worlds we share."

"Worlds you share... you're not making any sense. Where are we, anyway?" James demanded.

"You don't know?" The being glided up and leaned its back against the tree. As it did so, James felt a strange pressure inside his own head. "Quickly, think of something, picture it, concentrate."

Cautious, but curious, James did as it suggested. He didn't like the way things were going and wanted something to give him an edge in there. So he imagined what he thought was the logical choice. He held out his hand and concentrated. Particles of light began to gather and swirl about his hand. The grouped and collided, coalescing into a single solitary form.

James' sidearm appeared in his hand. As his grip closed around it, he dropped his arm to his side and clicked the safety off. The being tilted its head and regarded him for a moment. "Hmm.... predictable.Disappointing. Still, I'm glad you chose such a destructive device."

"So what does this mean, I can do magic now or something? Still doesn't answer my question."

The being laughed, a mad and tortured cachinnation, "Magic, how droll!" It recovered and stared at him. "Can you not think of anything else?"

At this point, James didn't know what to think. He was in a strange place he'd never experienced before with a strange being he'd never met beside a strange cage that apparently held a captive of his. He thought of what his friends would think of the singular situation.

Peculiar phantoms began to flutter around the edge of the hard packed dirt. Startled by the new development, he snapped his weapon up and focused on one of them. It soon began to resolve into the tall hulking figure of his old friend and brother. "Jackson?" Others began to appear. Sparks, Flash, the girls, Dash. Even some of his old teammates from back home on Earth. Among them he even saw the macabre apparition of Feather, as healthy as the day before his untimely demise.

James looked on in wonder and bewilderment, even sadness, as he saw the faces of friends he hadn't seen in many, many years. Another thought popped in his head, wondering at what this could all mean, then they all vanished. James whipped his head around, searching for them, at a complete loss for an explanation of what had just occurred.

"Bravo! Bravo!" The being applauded, though its claps echoed strangely in the space. "It seems you are finally getting it!"

James shook his head, "No, stop it! I'm not playing head games with you!"

"The only head games here, are your own." It pointed out. "So why don't you be good and release your...darker half?"

"Darker half?' James gazed over at the blackened thing that still stood menacingly in its coop.

"Why yes! He's as much a part of you as you are of him, now. How inspiring! Just look at how similar he appears to you! You two could pass for closer siblings better than he and I at this point." The being said wistfully.

"Brother?" The darker being inside the cage shuffled uneasily.

"Yes, you really should let him out. I just can't bear to think what his isolation is doing to your relationship!"

The thought wafted across James' mind. Should he release it? What would happen. Then he thought of his friends again, the suffering they'd endured. He also thought that this thing that was speaking to him might not have his best interests in mind. "How 'bout I don't!" James shouted as he raised his pistol up and centered it on the white being's head.

It laughed again, "Really? Go ahead. Shoot."

James was all too happy to oblige. He squeezed the trigger three times in quick succession, producing an echoing report inside the space. Then he lowered his weapon, confused. The being was still there, still laughing. There was nothing to indicate anything had happened, not even marks on the tree it was leaning against. The dark one in the cage glared at it, the hatred he radiated was almost palpable to James.

"How sad. No power even in your own mind." It cackled. "Are you getting bored? I must admit, I am a little. Let's see what's going on outside, shall we?" The being strode over to the edge of the packed dirt and waved an appendage.

Colors swirled and blended together, wavy images struggled to resolve and show themselves. James soon saw that the images were trying to display what he assumed was the outside world. Finally the image cleared up and James was treated to the sight of Jackson and his team running towards the gaping mouth of a tunnel in the moonlight.

Their movements were hurried and precipitous, as if they were being chased by some great beast. "Ah, they seem to be making fine progress to the heart of things." The being commented casually. "Would you like to hear?"

Without waiting for James' response, the being lazily waved a hand again and sound popped into existence from the images, "Go go go!" Jackson was yelling, "Get in, quick! Swift, up front! Topher, grab some cover with Sylver and Flash, set up a hasty ambush and keep our tails covered!" Jackson jinked to the left as plumes of dirt spat up from the ground to his right in a long line.

They rushed into the relative safety of the tunnel. Mayfield and the two stallions ducked behind some small boulders by the entrance, spun and began to lay down fire on their pursuers as they came in range. While they held down the entrance, Jackson and the rest plunged into the darkness of the tunnel. Dull red light blinked into existence as they snapped on torches attached to their weapons and chests.

Their breathing was loud in the confined space, but they pushed on at a furious clip, intent on reaching their target. They dashed through twists and turns, heading for what they thought would be the likely center of events. On one turn, they surprised a group of defenders heading for the entrance. Jackson dropped to a knee, promptly mowed them down and then moved on.

James seethed in anger as he watched his best friend and brother throw himself into danger, regardless of how well he was doing. "That's enough!" He shouted, taking a threatening step towards his captor. The bars of the cage flickered and the dark version of himself let out a low growl. "Why the hell are you showing me this!?"

"Ah yes, there's that deliciously potent anger, mixed with a bit of real fear." It said in a mockingly dulcet tone. "Be careful, lest it get out of hand."

"Get out of hand?" James glanced over at the cage, the dark form inside seemed to be glaring menacingly at the other being. All the pieces seemed to fall into place, why he was being toyed with in this strange prison. "So that's what you want, huh? You want it to get out of hand?"

The being pivoted around without moving its legs, arms folded behind its back, "Perhaps."

The foggy barrier surrounding them flashed a dark scarlet as certain morbid thoughts flashed through James' mind. Something solid popped into his hand. He looked down and grinned as he saw his old knife. Behind the iridescent bars, his darker half seemed to vibrate with energy, though it never took its gaze from the opaque tormentor.

"You know, we have a saying back where I'm from." James said as he strode towards the cage. "Be careful what you wish for."

The being cocked its head to one side, "Curious. I thought it would take a bit more."

The dark form behind bars turned as James approached, the new development grabbing its attention. James raised the knife and savagely slashed at the bars. Each one screeched as if in pain as it was severed. Each time, sharp piercing pains blossomed in James' skull, but he kept it up. The dark form seemed to realize what James was doing and began enthusiastically knocking away weakened fetters.

The corrupted white humanoid chuckled softly at what was a delightful sight to him. Soon the darkness would be free. James hacked away at the bars and ripped them apart until there was nothing left, the remains fading into oblivion. Then he stood, staring at his mottled malicious equivalent. The dark one let out an animalistic snort and squared its shoulders, staring James down. The other being looked patiently on in interest.

The darkness across from James shifted its gaze, staring over James' shoulder. James followed it and saw the other being. He smiled and stepped to the side, turning to face the warden of this nightmare.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" It queried, watching the two of them. "Get on with it." The dark form resembling James growled and took a step forward. "Odd." The being would have cocked an eyebrow if it had any as the darkness took another step. "What are you getting at? Brother, destroy the last of your shackles!" It shouted, pointing at James.

James continued to smile with a low, pained laugh. "You said he's a part of me, right?"

"What of it?" The being replied, "He is still of my kin."

"So...he wants...what I want."

The being took a defensive stance, "No! I am master here and this is my domain!" The space seemed to tremble as its ire rose. The dark form kept advancing. "You will do as you are meant to do!"

James began his own advance, gleefully raising his knife, "He's not listening, is he?"

They inexorably advanced closer and closer, their captor taking a few involuntary steps back. It was nearing the edge of the plain they were all standing on edging towards the precipice. When it had almost reached the end of the line, it swiped a hand angrily through the air, "Enough!" It shouted.

"What's the matter, feeling a little fear?" James mocked.

"You know nothing of what you speak!" It spat.

"I know plenty."

James lunged for the being, his other side doing the same. In tandem they rushed their captor for the chance of doing it harm. But the being unleashed one final burst of energy, knocking them both back. James landed hard on his back, his world flashing with pain and light.

His eyes fluttered open and he sat up with a start, searching for his target, but it was no longer there. In fact, he was not even in the same place he was before. He looked around and saw he was now in a small rocky alcove. James wondered if what he'd experienced been real or just a dream, it was hard to tell.

No. He felt something. His insides. His insides felt like there was a raging fire burning through them. But it didn't hurt. No, it actually felt like it was fueling him, giving him strength. Then he remembered. He remembered what had happened.

James checked himself, moving his arms around and flexing his legs. He still seemed to be himself, his memories were still there and he seemed to be in control of himself. But he still sensed something, something...other.

He pushed the thought from his mind, it would have to wait for now. He had a hard target now. That thing that had trapped him, whatever it was, was certainly real. He knew that. It resembled what had rushed him in the tunnel before all that craziness in his head went down. Now he knew what he had to kill. But how?

He glanced around for his weapons, patting himself down in the process. Nothing. All his weapons had been stripped from him, even his knife was gone. The fact that all of his weapons were missing, including the special package he'd brought, worried him. Warily, James got up and scanned the room. There were drag marks leading to him from the exit. At least now he knew how he'd gotten there.

James pulled himself to his feet and dusted off a little. Then he froze and dropped to a crouch as he heard footsteps out in the corridor. As they came closer, the steps became heavier. James listened and heard the jingle of poorly secured equipment...along with the guttural grumblings of an annoyed Lotkin.

It sounded like it was approaching his position, so James quietly positioned himself against the wall by the opening and waited. It wasn't long before a disgruntled looking Lotkin soldier came stomping in and looking around. Its brutish face briefly registered shock as it scanned the floor only to find it curiously devoid of its previous occupant. That's when James pounced.

Unseen, he launched himself off the wall and quickly wrapped an arm around the Lotkin's throat, bracing against his enemy's head with the other. Its airway suddenly cut off, the soldier began to thrash around and grasp for purchase on its attacker. James held on, flexing and further cutting off air and blood flow.

Panic soon set in and the Lotkin resorted to clawing weakly at James' arms while backing up and bashing him against the wall, choking out a few gurgles and wheezes. After a couple minutes, its legs finally gave out. It kneeled to the ground heavily, tried once more to pry the arm from around its neck, then collapsed in a puff of dust on the rough dirt floor.

Slowly, James extricated himself from around the soldier's neck, wincing as his sore muscles flared in protest. He leaned over and checked for a pulse. It was there, but faint. Double checking to make sure it was still out, James gave the soldier a quick pat down and smiled as he recovered an old rusty dagger and, to his utter joy, his sidearm.

Tucking his pistol into a side pocket, James turned to leave, but stopped. The Lotkin soldier was still breathing shallowly on the ground, body struggling to restart itself. James knew he couldn't just leave it there, he had to cover his back. So, flipping the dagger in his hand, he knelt, pulled the Lotkin's head up by the forehead, and unceremoniously drew the blade across its throat, the jagged edge catching and tearing the rough skin apart.

Dark blood promptly spilled out and began to pool and thicken in the gray-ish dirt as James stood up and walked away without a glance back. His enemy was still around here somewhere, along with the rest of his equipment. He needed to find his gear and finally put an end to all this.

Out With A Bang

Chapter 50: Out With A Bang

Jackson hustled through the tunnel, paying no heed to what awaited him around the next corner. He needed to find and extract his friend while he still could. Mayfield was still fighting with the others at the entrance and he couldn't leave them there long. Soon the whole ant hill would come alive and overwhelm them all.

They passed by a dark chamber. Jackson checked it briefly, but moved on when he detected no movement inside. "Hey! Hold up!" Iron shouted, causing Jackson to stop and turn around. "There's something in here." Jackson backtracked and came up next to the large stallion who pointed to the ground inside with a hoof, "Look, somepony had a bad day."

Jackson stepped carefully in and gazed down at the body laying in a pool of slowly coagulating blood. He knelt and gently touched the fluid, noting it was still gummy, "It's recent." He remarked, then going over the body for any clues. He noticed that the dead Lotkin had been stripped of some of its weapons.

"You think it was him?"

"I do." Jackson confirmed. "Swift." He said into his mic.

A moment later, the Diamond Dog appeared at the entrance to the room, "You called me?"

"Yeah, check this out. Think you can get a scent?"

Swift crouched low and began sniffing in the dirt all around the corpse in the alcove. Abruptly, she stopped, ears pricking up and swiveling around. Then she changed course, ears flattening against her skull as she began to charge down a new unseen path out into the tunnel. Her teammates chased after her, intent on staying hot on the trail.

Through the twisting earthen corridors they rushed, heedless of danger. Their target was close at hand. Then Swift abruptly slid to a halt, rough paws scrabbling for purchase on the dusty ground. Then crept forward, slowly. As she did so, a new sight was revealed in the ruddy red glow of her battle torch.

Corpses. New ones. The dark pools of thick blood were still spreading, mixing with the dirt. Jackson moved up cautiously and knelt down by them. He noted the wounds. Some were punctures and ragged gashes of flayed flesh. However, others where clearly caused by gunshots. He could tell where the rounds had entered from the large smooth holes in the patchy armor on the bodies and when ran his hand in the dirt, he could feel the bump of the spent casings hidden there.

Swift's head jerked up, ears swiveling madly like radar dishes, and she let out a low growl. "What is it?" Jackson whispered to her.

Lifting one clawed hand towards a bend in the tunnel, she pointed, "There. He is near. But be wary, there are others and the tunnel opens."

Jackson didn't like the sound of that. Either that meant they would be stepping back outside or into some king of large space. Either way, it could mean walking into an ambush. "Anything else?" He asked, already regretting doing so even as the words left his mouth.

"He is pulling something heavy across the ground. And...I can smell his blood. It is fresh." She put gravely.

Nope, Jackson didn't like that at all. He had been hoping to retrieve Kaughn whole and healthy, even though he knew better. Now that hope had been dashed. Still, he was pulling something, so he was mobile. Though Jackson didn't like the idea he had of what exactly it was Kaughn was dragging with him.

He thought of the trunk he had seen his friend with earlier, during their scuffle, and of the research project that had been stolen from Canterlot. The situation did not bode well, but he still had to press on.

"Good work." Jackson whispered. "Swift, keep on point. Iron, stick close to me, Cray, watch our backs. We're gonna get in there, grab him and get out. Basic snatch and grab, restrain him if you have to. Cray, that means I need you ready with a stunner." He three teammates nodded.

Jackson gestured forward and they continued with the advance. As they rounded the bend, faint flickering light began to brighten the tunnel. It was opening up all right, Jackson could see the end of the passage widening into a great arch, lit with the dancing yellow flames of torches mounted on the walls. Jackson ordered them to all shut off their lights with a sharp gesture before they continued on.

Weapons up, they move in. The mouth of the tunnel widened until they could clearly see what was becoming a voluminous cavern of monumental size. All around it was illuminated with the dim glow of fire pits. Scanning ahead, Jackson spotted something that made his heart leap.

There he was. His friend and brother, Kaughn, was trudging up an earthen ramp towards a curiously conspicuous rocky platform. Jackson moved without thinking, starting forward with his friend's name upon his tongue. "Wait!" Swift cried, but it was too late.

A shadow of a figure stepped out from darkened crevice, the tell-tale glow of a dangerous orb in its hand, cocked back for a throw. Then the orb came spinning at them through the air and Jackson's eye widened with recognition. "Down!" He bellowed as it impacted the wall near them.

There was a split second of a blinding flash, followed by overwhelming heat and pressure. Jackson was thrown bodily against the wall opposite as waves of burning air washed over him. As soon as it was over, Jackson groggily sat himself up, wondering why he was still alive as ringing filled his ears and bright spots flashed in his vision. Then he remembered the armor augmentations he and his team wore, they had done their job.

Still, Jackson kicked himself over making such a rookie mistake that just nearly got them all killed. He looked around through the billowing dust kicked up by the detonation and was relieved to see his squad mates stirring and slowly picking themselves up. Then something else caught his attention.

As his hearing returned, he noticed the dust was flipping and swirling. Gradually, he began to hear the unmistakable sound of rifle fire and with it the snaps and zips of bullets as they passed perilously close by. Cray was up now, shaking his head clear, as was Iron. Swift was still pawing at her head, her sensitive ears still feeding her pain.

Training kicked in. In seconds, Jackson was up and laying down suppressing fire through the clouds of dust. Along side him, Cray did the same. Iron bit down on the collar of Swift's uniform and began dragging her back around the bend as his two teammates covered the retreat.

Cray stumbled as a round sliced through the meat of his foreleg, but Jackson was there to catch him and help him hobble back, switching to his sidearm and continuing to put rounds down range. Jackson put Cray up against the wall with Swift and went back to the corner, letting off a few long bursts from the Mk 43 to deter any ideas about following them. It was met by another withering volley of bullets, the rounds smacking into the far wall and blasting chunks of rock off the corner as Jackson pulled himself back behind cover.

Confident that nobody would be rushing their position just yet, Jackson moved over to Cray and pulled out a battle dressing from a side pocket. "Iron, watch the corner!" As the stallion moved to take his post, Jackson inspected the wound. "How you doin' buddy?" He asked as he started carefully wrapping the pressure bandage around his squad mate's leg. The round had gone all the way through, but the tissue was mushed and the skin looked like it was about to slide off like cheese from a pizza. Definitely the work of a 7.62mm.

"Shit. I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry." Cray began to whimper.

"It's ok, just hang in there, you're doing fine." Jackson reassured. He realized it was the first time the unicorn had ever been shot. "It's not too bad, we'll get you patched up right as soon as we get out of here. Can you put any weight on it?"

Cray tentatively put the appendage down and applied pressure, wincing as he did so, "I think I can, but I won't be able to run or gallop."

"That's fine, as long as you're mobile."

"We got company!" Iron shouted from the corner.

Jackson looked at Cray, "Think you can get over there and cover us?"

The unicorn didn't answer, instead just getting up and limping over to his teammate with his weapon ready. Jackson then moved over to Swift. She had calmed down now, put still seemed to be having problems with her ears. "You good?" Jackson asked loudly as the tunnel was once again filled with the roar of gun fire. "Are you injured anywhere?"

The Diamond Dog looked up at him with a confused expression then pointed at her ears and shook her head. Jackson cursed, she was deaf. He made a series of quick hand movements, <Can you fight?> she nodded and held up her firearm. Jackson threw up the ok sign, <Stick close to me. Eyes up, watch for instruction, head low.> Swift nodded an affirmative.

Jackson moved up next to Cray, "We gotta bust in there or we're dead sittin' here. Tell me you got some tricks."

"Maybe one." The unicorn answered as he took a few potshots around the corner. "Check my right vest pocket."

Jackson did so and pulled his hand out with three bulky metal cylinders, each with a small button protected by a clear safety cover. "What are these?"

"Devices developed to cause visual and aural sensory overloads." Cray answered as he pulled back to reload his weapon.

"Flashbangs?"

Cray cocked an eyebrow at him. "Uh... sure, if you wanna describe them in Layman's terms. Flip the cover and depress the button for three seconds then toss 'em. They'll discharge after about seven seconds, so get rid of them quick."

Jackson smiled, this would do just fine. He slipped one into a vest pocket and flipped the covers on the other two with his thumbs. Then he pointed at Swift and then the corner. She understood and moved up next to Cray. "Suppressing fire!" He yelled, prompting Cray to lean out and start spraying, Swift soon followed suit.

After a second, Jackson depressed the buttons, waited two heart beats, then tossed them hard around the corner. "Flash out, eyes and ears!" Jackson pulled Swift back while Cray and Iron ducked and covered their heads. A few seconds later, the insides of Jackson's eyelids glowed with painful white light and he covered his ears as a high piercing tone reverberated throughout the confined spaces. As soon as it was over, Jackson got up from his crouch and started shouting orders, "Go go go, get in there, shock and awe!"

His squad didn't have to be told twice. Jackson bolted in with Iron, Cray and Swift closely taking up the rear. The sight the met was exactly what Jackson had been hoping for. About twenty Lotkin were still staggering around and clutching their heads in apparent agony, weapons pointed down or discarded. Jackson's team made short work of them.

Iron struck first, claiming the two closest with slashes to their necks and faces with his short blades. Jackson got to work with his light machine gun, taking out the ones furthest away and pouring streams of lead into any groups unfortunate enough to be too close together. Cray and Swift picked their shots, dropping the stragglers and any that seemed too close to recovery.

It was all over in less than a minute, with the team suddenly finding themselves surrounded with nothing but bodies and an overwhelming, almost painful silence. Jackson glanced around and checked to see if his squad was okay. Fortunately, their opposition hadn't had enough time to even get one shot off, though Swift was still deaf and Cray still had trouble walking.

Satisfied his team was still in somewhat working condition, the reason he was there forced its way back into the forefront of his thoughts. Jackson glanced around wildly, Kaughn was there, he had just seen him. But now the earthen ramp was vacant. All that was there to show any sign that the man had ever been there were some drag marks and a small splattered trail of blood.

There was only one thing on Jackson's mind now. Not caring that he'd just made the same mistake before, Jackson sprinted up the ramp. "Hey, wait!" Iron called out, but Jackson wasn't listening. The stocky stallion started forward, but stopped and ran back to Cray and Swift, throwing the unicorn's injured leg over his shoulder and helping him up the incline.

Jackson reloaded as he ran, feet pounding to the top. He didn't know what he'd find up there, but he was gonna be ready to blow away anyone or anything that would try to take his friend away from after he'd gotten so close. Jackson slowed as he crested the rise and pulled himself up onto the rocky platform. Then froze, completely at a loss for words or even thought at the sight that greeted him.

Kaughn was there, standing with his back to him. But that wasn't what caught his attention. What had him transfixed was what his friend was doing. Kaughn was yelling, and yelling hatefully. The object of such hate as Jackson had never before seen his friend capable of was an intangible human figure of tainted white that seemed not to stand, but to float just off the ground.

Jackson watched the strange event for an odd minute as the rest of his squad ambled up behind him. "Chief, you find him?" Iron asked as he helped Cray up the incline with Swift.

Jackson looked back for a brief second, but then movement caught his eye. The strange otherworldly being's head tilted to the left slightly and looked past James. Its gaze affixed on something Jackson was carrying. The next thing Jackson knew, it vanished with a flash. Then reappeared just a suddenly right in front of him.

James spun around, his face a mixture of rage and fright. "No!" He shouted in alarm, "He's not a part of this!"

Jackson stumbled back as the strange thing rushed up to his face and stared down at him intensely with that odd eyeless sight. "You've got something with you that doesn't feel very good. I don't like that very much."

Jackson didn't like the way whatever this thing was felt dirty and intimidating, the words slithering through the air. But he would not be bullied and stood his ground. "Yeah, and you're fucking with my brother there. I don't like that very much." He said, frowning and narrowing his eyes. Slowly, he began reaching back for the sword.

"Oh..." the being said, Jackson got the impression it was almost smiling. "Well isn't that too bad."

Then something strange happened to Jackson. He suddenly felt an odd sensation of weightlessness. By the time he registered what was happening, he was already six or seven feet in the air. The sword slid out of its scabbard and fell, clattering loudly on the cold stone. Jackson drew his sidearm and emptied his magazine into the thing. It laughed as the bullets passed harmlessly through its torso and cracked off the rocky floor.

Behind the sadistic being, James started running, barreling towards the scene. As Jackson watched and went higher, time seemed to slow. The being was looking up at him, practically radiating amusement. Behind it, James was rushing at it, roaring in pain and anger, his face contorted by his emotions. Below him, his three teammates were going wide-eyed as they watched what was happening, a couple of them pulling weapons of their own.

Then they were all getting smaller. Further away. Jackson realized he was now flying across the gargantuan room, the air rushing past ears with a wail, arms and legs flailing out in front of him. He felt the first impact and heard a loud snap. And then he was falling and everything went dark.

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James' throat was hoarse and his mouth dry. He kept running, even as he saw Jackson get launched across the room. That thing was going to pay. It was hurting his friend and brother and it was going to pay. The being turned, readying itself for this new and futile attack. But at the last second, James juked to the side and lunged for something on the ground.

He rolled, coming almost to the edge and came back up, a gleaming blade in his hand. He could already feel it, the grip burning his hand. He ignored it, even as his arm began to shake with the pain. The being began to reach for him, but with a throaty yell, James swung and severed its arm at the elbow.

The being screamed, a horrible piercing cry that reverberated around the large, echoing space and caused all that heard it to cringe in pain. Cray and Iron flattened their ears and bowed their heads, while Swift watched in fright as the thing's arm and hand contorted and dissolved in the air before it hit the ground.

James bellowed louder and fought through the pain in is hands and ears. He took another swing, this time loping off the being's left leg. Its screaming and keening only increased as the limb dropped and dissolved, its body overcome with wracking pain. Then abruptly it stopped, the vile existence flashing away in a burst of light, its wailing cries fading away.

As the painful sounds diminished, Iron and Cray re-prostrated themselves, rubbing their heads and ears. "What is Celestia's name was that thing?" Cray asked out loud.

"Is... is it dead?"

James knelt there, huffing and panting, eyes wide and locked on the floor. He tossed the sword to the ground behind him where it landed at Swift's feet. She quickly bent down and wrapped it in cloth, tucking it away.

James brought his shaking hands to his face. The flesh of his palms was badly cracked and burnt, some of the damage extending past his wrists and up to his forearms. He smelt the pungent, but sickening odor of cooked flesh and when the muscles in his hands spasmed, the cracks wept tears of clear fluid.

From the side, Iron approached gently, "Mr. Kaughn? Are you okay?" James' head snapped up and Iron flinched, backpeddaling a bit as the expression on the human's face caught him off guard. His eyes wild and blood shot. The look on his face was one of murderous intent. "H-hey now, it's alright. It's all over now, calm down. We need to focus, Chief Jackson's hurt and you need to get those forelegs looked at, not to mention we need to get out of here."

At the mention of his friend's name, realization washed over James' face. His expression faded and he shakily stood up, painfully taking out his knife and cutting strips from his tattered and filthy shirt. "No time. It's not over. I have a feeling that thing's not dead yet." He said, wrapping his arms and hands in the blood-stained cloth, wincing as he did so.

As James tended to his appendages, Iron caught a look at what was underneath the thread bare clothing and ripped armored vest. It wasn't pretty. The stallion saw rough mottled bruises all around his torso and worse, patches of the fabric were so soaked with blood, he could almost make out the ripped flaps of flesh that lay underneath.

"Sir, you're seriously wounded!"

James just nodded, "Yep, that's what i get for wearing my old busted armor. A few got through, but didn't hit anything vital I guess." He rasped. He coughed a little and covered his mouth, but a light red stain remained at the corner. "Nothing I can't deal with right now. Where's Jackson?"

"I think I saw him land over there!" Cray called, pointing towards the back of the room, over a slight ridge of stone with his good leg.

Iron wasn't convinced. James started to walk away and the earth stallion moved to catch up with him "No, sit down sir. How the hay are you still walking?"

James rounded on him, "I don't know and I don't have time for this shit!" He growled. "Now let's go, Jackson needs our help." Iron watched as James stomped over to where his friend lie. Cray limped up next to him with Swift and shrugged. Then together the three of them followed.

They found Jackson crumpled in a heap at the base of a wall. He didn't look to be in good condition with a large gash in the side of his head and his legs twisted at odd angles. James rushed over to him and carefully checked his neck, relived when he found it wasn't broken and there was a pulse. "C'mon, wake up man, get up!" He urged, lightly slapping the side of Jackson's face.

Swift got to putting a battle dressing around her squad leader's head just as Jackson's eyes fluttered open. "Huh... wha— shit!" Jackson exclaimed, groping for his sidearm which was no longer there.

"Oh, thank whatever fucked up gods there are, you're ok!" James bent down and gave Jackson a light hug.

Jackson returned the sentiment with a pat on James' back, "Same, same." He let out a breath of air then tried to get up. He went back down and sucked air back in painfully as as a lancing shock shot up his spine. "Aw, shit..."

"Chief, what's wrong?" Cray asked, voice filled with concern.

"Don't freak out, but I don't think I can feel my legs."

James shook his head in disbelief, "No. No, c'mon... shit. Just... shit! C'mon, you can't be that bad!"

"Me?" Jackson said with some incredulity. "The fuck happened to you?" Jackson eyed James' arms, "The fuck happened to your hands?"

"Nothing." James deflected. "Listen, we need to get you outta here."

"Well all right, let's get the fuck out!"

"Swift!" James called. When she didn't respond, he tried again.

"She's deaf." Cray dutily informed him. "The blast when we came in got her bad."

"Dammit... ok." James grabbed the cloth wrapped sword from her and tied it off to his side with some loose string. Then he motioned for her to come help him. "Iron, get over here and lay on your stomach."

As Iron got into position, James and Swift gingerly lifted Jackson onto Iron's back, taking the straps from their weapons and using them to secure him to the large stallion. Then James turned to the Diamond Dog and gestured as he spoke, "Help Cray out of here, one hand on him, one on your weapon." Swift nodded and walked over to the unicorn. "Cray, keep an eye on Jackson, you guys are getting out of here."

"Got it."

"What about you, you're coming with us, right Kaughn?" Jackson said as he eyed James angrily from his position on Iron's back.

"Yeah, I am." He replied. But under his breath, he muttered, "At least to the door."

They started off to the exit, Iron going as carefully as he could. As they entered the corpse littered tunnel, Jackson was glad it was all finally coming to an end, that he finally got his friend back, regardless of his injuries. He looked over at James striding next to him and smiled. He lost his brother and took him back. Now all they had to do was leave.

They were almost to the exit when James stumbled, but picked himself up, coughing. Jackson snapped his head up and watched as his friend wiped his mouth, the bandages on his arm coming back with splotches of blood. "Dammit, Kaughn. Hey! Hey Iron, stop!"

James waved them on, "No, keep going, we can't stop."

"The hell we can't, you're fucked up too. Cray, break out some battle dressings!"

"We're out."

"Well use your fuckin' magic then!"

"No, I'm fine!" James walked up to his friend strapped back to back with Iron, "Here, take this." James reached under his shirt and and tugged something off his neck. He handed it to Jackson.

Jackson looked at the small colorful stone dangling from the string in James' bandaged fist. "No. No no no, godammit no. You put that shit back on!" He said, shaking his head, tension rising in his chest.

"Fine." James moved forward and started stuffing it in one of Jackson's front vest pockets while his friend tried to fight him off.

"No, you fucking asshole, you're not doing this again!"

James just slapped Jackson's hands away, wincing as he did so and shoved the necklace in a pocket. "You need something to protect that with and you lost your sidearm, so here..." he took out his pistol and his last magazine and shoved them into Jackson's hands, stepping back before Jackson could do the same.

"You fuckin' kidding me? Everybody stop, that's an order!"

"Belay that order!" James countered. "Your squad leader's medically unfit to command at this time. Iron, you're in charge, get your team out of here!" He told them as he started back down the tunnel.

Jackson struggled in his restraints, trying to get them off him, but he couldn't reach the knots and buckles from where he was situated. "Let me the fuck off!" He shouted impotently, but his team kept walking.

"I'm sorry, Chief, but we don't have the time." Cray tried to reason. "The others are waiting for us outside."

"Fuck that, we'll make time!"

"Chief, we can't." Iron stated with a hint of sorrow.

"Godammit Kaughn! KAUGHN!" Jackson raised the pistol and squeezed off a few shots down the tunnel, the blasts echoing down the passageway, but James was already gone. "Motherfucker!"

As they closed on the exit, Cray activated his radio, "Commander Flash, we're coming out, three wounded, what's the situation?" He got static as a reply. "Commander, comms check. Commander?"

Coughing suddenly burst over the radio, causing him to wince. "This is Toph. 'Bout time you wankers showed up. Did you get him?"

"Not exactly..."

"What the bloody hell does that mean?"

"It's a little difficult to explain right now..." Cray answered. He looked over at Iron, Jackson was on his back still ranting and raging into the darkness behind them. "Where's Commander Flash?"

Then line went silent for a moment. Cray was about to ask again when Mayfield came on comms again, "He's a bit indisposed at the moment." He said slowly. "Listen, get out here and we'll sort it all together."

"Copy. Is it clear?"

"For the moment. Aria said she spotted movement down south so we don't have much time." He paused, "Hey, why didn't Jacko call in?"

"He's a little messed up, one of the wounded."

"How bad!?" Mayfield questioned with apprehension.

"Pretty bad, but he'll live."

"Shit... Ok, I'm calling Aria in now!"

At Cray's urging, they picked up the pace, making good time to the exit. When they emerged, they found quite a momentous sight. Body upon body was piled up around the entrance. From the look of it, Flash and his team had used the burm of corpses as cover at some point as they were riddled with holes on both sides.

Mayfield was crouched at the top with Sylver and Sumner. Out in the field of sand, Kai was stalking amongst the dead, making sure that they were. He also seemed to have acquired a new weapon, a rifle was slung over his back with the scabbard of his ridiculously huge sword.

At hearing the exit of Iron and his team, Mayfield spun around, pistol up, but smiled and lowered the weapon when he saw them. "Ah, the conquering heroes return!" Then he spotted Jackson on Iron's back and frowned. He jumped down from the pile and ran over to them. "Oi, what happened to Jackson?! And where's Kaughn?"

Jackson had calmed down now and raised an arm, "Hey..." he said numbly.

"He can't walk, I think his back might be broken. Where's Commander Flash, I need to report." Cray told him.

Mayfield's expression fell further and he ran a hand swaddled in bloody bandages over his now filthy hair. "Ah, blood fuckin'..." He pressed a finger to his ear, "Aria, I'm sending Sumner up to you, he's gonna ready some stuff, we got serious wounded, T-three. Sumner!" He shouted up to the pegasus, "Get to the airship, prepare a bench to use as a spine board and break out the good meds!"

Sumner nodded sadly and took off with a flutter of feathers. "What's wrong with him?" Cray asked.

Mayfield shook his head, "Come 'ere." Cray followed Mayfield over to a corner between two boulders with the help of Swift. "First off, how's the leg?"

"It's ok. Now what's going on?" Cray asked suspiciously.

Mayfield brought them into the corner and knelt down by a rain poncho laid out on the ground with a large hump concealed beneath it. Mayfield reached for one of the sides and slowly pulled it back. Cray cursed and Swift lowered her head solemnly at what was revealed to them.

Flash was splayed out in the dirt with numerous wounds. That wasn't what caught their attention however. Where his left foreleg was, there was now only a ragged stump of torn flesh and splintered bone. The area up by his chest had been tied off with a tourniquet, but Cray could tell a lot of blood had been lost. Too much.

"Crazy bastard tried to bat an explosive away with that leg and it cost him." Mayfield explained.

"By Luna's mane..." Cray said softly. "Jeez. I didn't think he would go out like this. The guy's a legend."

The unicorn yelped and jumped back as Flash's scarred and badly burned head suddenly lifted up and his torn lips cracked a smile, "Not dead yet, kid." He said with a weak raspy chuckle.

"Mother of—! Sir, you nearly gave me a heart attack!"

Mayfield scowled and picked up a canteen from where it had fallen over on the ground and placed it back by Flash's lips. "Gave you one? After I wrapped him up, the knobhead tried to crawl back into the fight. Oi! Drink the damn water, knobhead!" Behind them, the airship could be heard touching down.

"That's still 'sir' to you, sergeant."

"Fine. Sir knobhead."

Mayfield got up at the sound of approaching hoof steps and waved as Sylver came around the boulder, "Toph, ride's here."

"Out-fucking-standing. Cray, get to the ship. Sylvie, i need your help with the Lieutenant Commander."

As Cray hobbled to the airship, he was glad to see Jackson being lifted into the side door on a bench that looked like it'd been busted of the bulkhead. After Jackson was loaded, Swift helped push Cray up into cabin, followed by Flash with Mayfield and Sylver. Once everybody was in, Aria began to take off.

"Oi. The hell is Kaughn? You didn't answer that, Cray." Mayfield asked.

Cray got nervous. He did'nt exactly know how to explain what had happened back in the tunnel. Fortunately, he didn't have to. "He decided to stay behind." Jackson croaked without emotion from his make-shift back board.

Mayfield chuckled unbelievingly, "What d'you mean he decided to stay behind? We're picking him up on the other side or something, right?" He asked, looking at Iron and Cray. All he got back was a couple of unhappy stares. "Well fuck me..."

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James put a hand on the side of the tunnel to steady himself as another coughing fit came over him. There was more blood now. One or both of his lungs were starting to fill with blood. He knew he hadn't taken a bullet there or he'd have been dead, so he thought maybe one of his broken ribs must have punctured a lung. It hadn't been easy concealing the true extent of his injuries, but it had been necessary. They might have actually come back for him otherwise.

He wiped his hand off on his shirt, already becoming stiff with the bodily fluids he'd spilt, not all of it his. Picking himself up, James stumbled into the main chamber. He had some trouble getting up the incline, but he made it, sometimes resorting to all fours. At the top, he found the trunk. He crawled over to it and undid the clasp. The interior glowed with an intense white light.

Raising his head up towards the ceiling, he shouted, "Get out here you sonofabitch, I know you're still here!" His ragged voice echoed around the room, but only silence answered him. "You think you're fooling me!?" He said, opening the trunk and revealing clear glowing sphere that shined with an interior swirling light. "Then I guess you won't mind if I do this!" He took out the cloth wrapped sword and, still keeping the cloth around the handle, unwrapped it and held the point over the sphere, ready to drive it in.

James glanced around one last time and then drew up the sword high over his head. "You don't want to do that." James paused and looked up. It was there, floating in front of him, just a few yards away. Its limbs were still missing, but seemed to be regenerating, though slowly. "If you do that, you'll be gone. I still may survive." James felt his bloodlust rise again at the sound of the thing's voice, slick like it was coated with oil.

"Yeah, sure you will."

"Oh, but I may. Besides, what would your friends think about your actions? Or your so-called 'brother'?"

"Like you care!" James scowled. "You're little back-up plan on screwing with whatever that thing is inside my head failed and now that you're about to get you're ass blown away you're trying to stall!"

"Stall?" The being looked taken aback, putting its remaining hand to its chest. "I would never! I merely wish to help you!"

"Sure, buddy. Asshole." James corrected.

"Tsk tsk tsk, no need for such foul language." It said, wagging a finger. "That thing, as you so eloquently put it, is nothing so mere as a thing. Its one of my kin, a brother of mine if you please, though I would say we represent different things. Still, we have similar goals. Why he chose to attach himself to you simply boggles me, but still, he is 'family'. You have such potential together. Even now, you feel his power working inside you, do you not?"

There was some truth to the being's words, James couldn't deny it. He should have dropped dead more than an hour ago. Still he was there, crazy ass sword in hand, about to pierce a highly unstable magical artifact with it. "Too bad." James went to follow through again.

"Wait!" The being cried. James paused again and looked up, cocking an eyebrow. "How about an alternative. We'll have a 'show down', just like the primitives of your 'old west' preferred. You can use that little meat cleaver," it nearly spat the last two words. "If you win, you can go back to your friends. Won't they miss you? This does seem a little selfish, don't you think?"

James lowered the sword and frowned. It did feel a little wrong. His friends had even come for him and he'd just turned them away, broken and bloodied. Plus, they weren't the only ones he would be leaving behind. But then he remembered what he would be taking with him. And what would be free to hurt them if he didn't go through with it. He knew it would hurt them. He couldn't let that happen.

"My friends will forgive me, and they'll be fine without me. I'm gonna rot in hell any way. And I hear you get a free drink if you bring a friend! How about it shithead!?" James raise the sword again.

"NO—!"

"Let's go out with a bang, baby!"

James plunged the point into the sphere and the shell cracked and shattered. Then there was heat and light and for an instant it was the most intense pain James had ever felt. Even as he was engulfed, there was only one thing on his mind. The swish of a mane graced with a motley of colors. The flap of cyan feathered wings in the air. And then... nothing.

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"Jesus..." Mayfield sat back down. Jackson had just finished telling him what happened in the bowels of the mountain. "Well, we gotta go back and get him, right?"

"No." Iron spoke up. "Lawful order, we're going back to base. Besides, too many of us are wounded."

"You can eighty-six that load, I'm still good to go, I'll go get him!"

"What about your hand?" Cray pointed out.

"It's just a few fingers, I can still use the other three."

"Incoming." Aria interrupted through the cockpit door. "Picking up Red and Dash, make some room back there."

All the faces around the cabin went slack. They knew what that meant. Somebody was going to have to tell her. The side door flew open and the two pegasus slipped into the cabin. Rainbow Dash entered first, looking extremely pissed off and frustrated at a somewhat cowed Redflare with a bruise on the side of his head, but her face lit up as she glanced around the cabin. "Where is he, he's here right, you got him? Mr. 'I-can't-let-you-go-over-there' wouldn't tell me." She said with disdain. She shrank a little, ears drooping, when she couldn't spot James' face among them.

"Uh... ahem..." Mayfield cleared his throat. "I- I'm not sure what to say, but—"

"Hey!" Dash started to get angry. "What's the big Idea!? You guys went down there to get him, right? Well where the hay is he!?"

"I'll tell her. RD..." Jackson said drearily from his back. He'd been dosed with some high painkillers and waved her over with a lazy arm. "Come here." Jackson waited until she stomped over into view. "I'm sorry." He said softly as he looked up into her snarling face with the most apologetic expression he could manage through the drugs.

"Sorry for what? Somepony better come up with some answers!"

Jackson reached into his front vest pocket and fumbled around for something. When it came out, he was holding the faintly glowing multi-colored gem on the necklace. "I'm sorry."

"You're kidding!" Dash shouted. "This is some kind of sick joke, right!?" But when she saw Jackson's expression wasn't changing, her own began to unravel. "No... No, I don't believe you!"

Just then, the small gem flashed and began to radiate with a new violent, swirling menagerie of colors, most of them tinged a bright red. At the same time, an intense flash of burning light filled the sky and forced them all to turn away from the windows in pain. It was followed with a violent buffering of the airship, causing it to shake and bounce in the air, making its occupants do the same.

Then the airship began to drop with a sickening lurch as it was tossed around the sky. "Everypony hang on, we're going down!" Aria shouted from the cockpit.

Equipment went ricocheting around the room as the airship began to drop like a stone in water. Everyone moved to brace, some more successful than others. Jackson reached up with both arms and squeezed Rainbow Dash to his chest, despite the pain. Then everything was slammed to the deck as the ship bounced once, twice, caught an edge and rolled for several meters before finally coming to a stop as the sudden storm passed as quickly as it had come.

A Choice

Chapter 51: A Choice

The sun was shining fiercely now at almost mid day. A man strolled merrily along, whistling softly to himself. With each step of his left foot, a light crack accompanied it as the cane came down, only a thumb and the first two fingers gripping the handle as he walked. What remained of the last two were little more than gnarled stumps, but the man didn't seem to mind.

Mayfield strode along in fresh clean clothes, a nice breeze occasionally playing with his newly washed and trimmed dark hair. He was on his way to the RSTG's hospital wing, by the main building on their palace side Headquarters. Tucked under his right arm was a small box of baked goods he'd picked up especially for a friend.

When he reached the doors of the large white building, he posted himself up on the wall nearby. Leaning against the wall for support, Mayfield carefully rested his cane against it and checked his watch. He was a little bit late, but so was his friend, so he guessed it didn't really matter. He waited a little while longer, the box under his right arm tempting him greatly with its sweet and sugary contents.

As the minutes ticked by, he nearly gave in, what harm could a little nibble do anyway? He was about to open the box when the doors suddenly swished open and the only other human being he knew in the strange jacked-up world he was in came rolling out in a wheel chair being pushed by a grumpy looking earth pony in an orderly's uniform.

Mayfield collected his things and walked himself over with the steady tap tap tap of his cane announcing his approach. "Aye-up. I'll take it from here." He said to the orderly, who just turned and marched back into the hospital, mumbling something. "Oi, what's his deal?" Mayfield asked as he put his cane and the box in Jackson's lap.

"Guess they didn't like me not eating their 'vegetables'."

Mayfield started pushing Jackson away from the hospital and angled towards the entrance to the palace grounds. "You mean that mushed up stuff that tastes like it came from a lawn mower?"

"Might as well have, it is grass." Jackson grumbled. He poked at the box, "What's this?"

"Thought you might want something better than hospital food once they let you go. Few cupcakes and a couple of muffins in there. Had a little row over the muffins with some silly cross-eyed mare in the shop. Strange, really. How's the legs?"

Jackson sighed and opened the box, taking out one of the cupcakes. "They fixed as much as they could, but the doc said my spine took too much damage. He thinks it was the crash that finally did me in."

"Guess I'll have to call you 'Wheels' now." Mayfield chuckled.

"Do it and you're a dead man."

"Whoa, calm down there, mate! Just taking the piss."

"Well, take a piss somewhere else."

They continued in silence for a moment, Mayfield grunting slightly as he pushed Jackson up a small incline with his good leg and onto the palace grounds. Then, "You see the good ol' Lieutenant Commander in there much?"

"Yeah." Jackson replied through a mouthful frosting and cake. He swallowed before continuing, "He's doing better. Still has a lot of Phys Therapy before he can get out, though, got that bum wing on top of the leg."

"At least he's still alive, crazy bugger."

Soon, Mayfield was wheeling Jackson up to a side door in the castle, on their way to what they'd hope would be the only task of a short day. They'd been summoned to appear before the princesses, though for what reason they didn't know. They'd already given their statements and reports on the incident and what had happened in that desolate land, Jackson's while he was still in the hospital.

Most of the damage in the castle had been repaired by now and the percussionist sounds of constructions had again been replaced by the hurried rush of royal aides and the flittering of servants going about their daily duties. It didn't take long for one of them to spot the duo and hurriedly escort them, not to the throne room, but to a separate wing in the palace that held the princesses' secret little meeting room. The aide left them outside the doors for a moment and disappeared inside to announce them to the royal pair.

This left them a spare moment to talk. Jackson started, "How's your hand doing?"

"Fine, really." Mayfield replied, raising his left hand to inspect the clean little stubs where his pinkie and ring fingers used to be. "Sometimes I think I can still feel them. They even itch a little."

"How'd you even manage that, anyway?"

"Stopped a sword with my rifle. The fingers kind of just got in the way. Could've been worse, though."

Jackson rolled his eyes, "And you got on Flash's case about his leg..."

"Yeah, but at least my reaction to imminent death was reasonable."

"Sure man, whatever you say." Jackson deadpanned.

The aide poked his head out the doors, "The Princesses will see you now," and vanished back inside. Mayfield took hold of Jackson's chair again.

"No, let me do it." Jackson pushed Mayfield's hands off the back off his chair and grabbed the wheels. Mayfield just shrugged and held the door open for him.

The princesses were indeed ready and waiting for them, seated behind a table set with a small pot of tea and some biscuits. Jackson and Mayfield stepped forward and took their seats, Jackson merely pushing the one set for him to the side and wheeling himself up. Without prompting, Celestia poured two cups for the two gentlemen and set them down in front of them.

"Oh, I'm deeply sorry Mr. Jackson," Celestia started, "I wasn't entirely aware of the extent of your injuries."

"No, it is my fault, sister." Luna put in apologetically, "I should have notified you of this earlier. Mr. Jackson, is there anything we might do to make you more comfortable?" She offered anxiously.

Jackson just took a sip of his tea, enjoying the cup's warmth in his hands, and waved them off dismissively, "If I can be frank, you can cut the sympathy. I knew what might happen going in, it always might happen in my job. Sometimes worse. I'll deal with it."

"Mm hmm.." Mayfield interrupted, placing his uninjured hand on Jackson's shoulder, "I apologize for my friend, Your Highnesses, I think his meds are making him a little grumpy."

"No they're not!"

Celestia held up a hoof, "It is all right, we understand."

"Well, far be it from me to turn down good hospitality," Mayfield said, helping himself to one of the biscuits, "What might we owe to Your Graces', well, graces?"

Celestia smiled and dipped her head. "To put it quite simply, we'd like to put forth to you both, an offer."

"I'm not much in good fighting condition these days." Jackson bluntly pointed out.

"Oh my goodness, nothing like that!" Celestia assured him.

Luna leaned forward and looked him in the eye, "One of my sister's brightest students contacted with a possible breakthrough in the inter-dimensional quandary that is this strange link between our two worlds."

"I'm not sure I follow," Mayfield said with a scrunching of his brow.

"We believe there is a way to remove you from here and return you to your proper place." Celestia tried to explain.

Mayfield frowned, "I'm sorry, are you trying to get rid of us?"

"They're saying that they can send us back." Jackson said, lifting his head up from his drink. "That they can send us back to our Earth."

"But, of course, entirely of you're own volition." Celestia was quick to add. "You are far more than welcome to remain here, with us."

The two men sat in silence for a moment, the weight of the two princesses' words settling steadily on their shoulders. They could go home. After all the crap they'd been through; falling into this weird alternate existence, discovering the fate of one of their own previously thought lost, coming out busted and broken after a failed rescue attempt of said one. And now, they were being offered a way out.

"Well, it's very tempting, you've got me there." Mayfield said, mulling the prospect over in his mind as he fiddled with the crumbs of his biscuit. "Plus, I do have a lot of unfinished business back home—even more so now, I think, after what I've been through here—not to mention my superiors most likely going mental over my sudden absence." He leaned over and nudged Jackson's shoulder with his elbow, "What do you say, mate, head back over and set things right there?"

Jackson was silent for almost a minute, returning his gaze back into the depths of his cup. Then, "I'm staying."

Mayfield nearly flinched. "You are? But... This isn't about Kaughn again, is it? I know you didn't see a body, you mentioned that plenty before, but you have to—"

"No! No..." Jackson cut him off. "I know what I said. And this is pretty much how he disappeared last time and look how that turned out. But, no... I don't think he'll be returning from that."

"Then for what reason, why? No offense, Your Highnesses, this place is actually very lovely—but Jackson, what about home? It wasn't the best place, but it was home. What about all your friends and family?"

Jackson sucked in a deep breath and let it out just a quickly, "The only friends I had was my team, and three of them are gone now. Can't say much about family. I haven't talked to my brothers or sisters in years now, and Sophia..." his expression fell and he quickly rubbed his face with a hand. "Besides, I don't really look forward to explaining to the Brass how I disappeared off the face of the earth for however long it's been and then suddenly returned out of no where in a shiny new wheelchair."

Mayfield rubbed his chin in ponderment, "Fair enough there, mate. I'm still going, though. You know how the situation was when we left. Plus I can't see Gary getting on well enough without me. My best mate, y'know."

"Very well." Celestia nodded.

"Just one thing if I may, Mr. Mayfield." Luna said, her voice taking on a slightly stern tone. "I do not mean disrespect, but assuming the transition goes as planned and you reconnect with the others of your kind on the other side, what exactly will you tell them? We must think of our own nation's security in this matter."

"Ah, yes." Mayfield sighed. "Well, I doubt they'd be likely to believe me at all, even if I did. But I suppose I just wouldn't say anything. Anything at all. As for the fingers,"
Mayfield said, holding up his injured hand and wiggling