Slipping Through A Sideways Door

by hornethead

Chapter 50: Out With A Bang

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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.


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.


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..."


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.


"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.


"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.

Next Chapter: A Choice Estimated time remaining: 31 Minutes
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