Light At The End Of The Tunnel: Sigh
[Linked Book Entry]
Well, I got caught rather quickly.
Apparently, the other Element of Betrayal still possessed by Rainbow Dash was somehow drawn to Betty and Rainbow and Applejack still have stewardship over the entire area between Ponyville and Appleloosa. It ended up pretty well though. Applejack tentatively believed my explanation of what I was doing there and both of them still owed me for saving Rarity and, of course, getting rid of Sombra.
Speaking of which, I'm currently being held in Canterlot by Rarity herself who is Twilight's head diplomat and the steward of Canterlot while Twilight herself resides in the Crystal Empire. She had apparently forgiven Spike for his raping her under Sombra and the Element of Greed's influence and he is guarding Canterlot from his cave on the top of the mountain. Yea, the guy's pretty huge and their filly, or whatever the little hybrid should be called, looks pretty funky. She's only over a month old and she looks like a little pony blob with still soft dragon scales instead of her mane and covering her thick tail.
She is just another reminder of why I'm not allowed to fail this time.
I also visited the graves of Pinkamena and Fluttershy with the other Bearers. I can't say I'll ever find it in me to forgive them but I had to see the faces of the living ones when faced with those who died because of me. Pinkamena tortured Chokey and cut off her wings, taking away the greatest pleasure she had in life, and I killed her for it... and I don't regret anything. Even if it wasn't in self-defense I would have found her and murdered her. Fluttershy took even more away from me and I would shake the hoof of everypony who stormed the Crystal Castle after my 'fight' with Sombra and ripped her to pieces.
It was only thanks to her that I killed Sharp Biscuit, that Luna went crazy, fell to Nightmare Moon again, killed me and all that resulted in me losing Chokey forever. No, I will not forgive and I will not forget as long as I live because she stole my only reason to keep going on.
Enough of that. There was one thing that... helped. Before I fought Sombra Twilight wanted to know how I broke free from the Element of Imprisonment to help her find a way to piece princess Celestia's mind back together. Yesterday I was able to see the results for myself. The princess has none of the presence of our Celestia but while she doesn't remember or recognize anypony she can at least move now and is slightly aware of her surroundings. I think that on some subconscious level she knows what's going on and even when she can't speak she can feel. It's hard to explain so I'm not going to bother. I remember her state from before I fought Sombra and her recovery is revitalizing.
While I'm welcome at the castle I need to talk to Twilight and find a way to end this.
I left Darky in the morning, saying I needed to get ready for the morning practice. Truth be told, I could have easily stayed with her and we could have gone to the castle together but I didn't want to risk her finding out I stole Mistake's journal. Well, more like I was way too curious and wanted to read a bit of it before duty called.
The entries themselves tell a tale of a young unicorn terrified of the world and the one batpony who for reasons beyond his understanding didn't kick him away like everyone else.
I smile a little. Mistake might have changed a lot but inside he's still an insecure idiot, in a good way.
Unfortunately, I didn't have enough time to go through the entire book so I just skimmed the entries for anything related to the mirror world or Sombra and got a dose of confusion enough to take down a dragon. Jumping through dimensions, dealing with alicorns and, most of all, losing all hope in the future give me a little insight into the head of somepony I've until now considered a cute, although a little too gloomy, unicorn.
On the other hand, now I believe that even if I hadn't stopped him from jumping down from Canterlot walls he would have probably just landed in some really deep bog. Mistake seems to have a habit of laying down his life and then picking it up again. Too bad I have almost no real understanding of magic aside from basic methods of fighting against spellcasters because, despite from what Heavy said, the journal didn't help me in any way in deciding what to do now.
Maybe it wasn't supposed to, maybe Heavy just needed someone to talk to about all this. After all, right now he knows the most about the situation and I've been ready to go help Mistake anyway.
I can't say I was expecting visitors. Perhaps Darky found out the book is gone? Throwing the black square under the bed, I go open the door.
"Good morning, Cromach," says Heavy Hoof.
"What's going on, sargeant?"
"The portal in the Everfree Forest has been opened again. Princess Celestia ordered every able soldier in the vicinity to take station there. We're leaving in an hour."
"You don't seem surprised."
"Yeah, that was Mistake. He opened it yesterday evening."
"Another journal entry?"
"Mhm," I point at the table where my linked book is lying and pull out the one from underneath my bed, "Also, look what I have!"
"Good job. I hope Darky is all right."
There's just the tiniest hint of a threat in his voice.
"Last time I saw her she was grinning like a madpony so... I guess I didn't disappoint."
"Hmmm, I'll have to ask her later for details. You know, just in case."
"You imitating Darky's forward approach is like a beaver trying carpentry. The resemblance is there but you might find a log too big for your taste."
"My current coltfriend is a changeling, you know? I doubt you can surprise me in any way. Back to business though - what's your take on things now that you know almost as much as I do."
"Honestly, I haven't read the entire thing but I get the feeling that if the portal stays open we're screwed. On the other hand, we know how to close the portal and bring Mistake back at any point so why not risk it?"
"Good thinking. All we have to do is find the magic crystal and keep an eye on it. I'll report the news to princess Luna and you get to the the train station on time."
"With all due respect-"
"Ehm, I know what that phrase really means. What's the problem?"
"First, why princess Luna? I thought princess Celestia ordered the relocation. Second, you're not just a sargeant, are you?"
"Princess Celestia has to stay here and deal with the matters of government. Princess Luna is... involved in this personally. I've already told her some of what we know. As for the second thing, I have ties with princess Luna through Darky and thanks to having been involved with Mistake almost from the very beginning. She's not a stickler for protocol, well, anymore and she prefers listening to those who actually know about things instead of those of high standing."
"By the way, why are we going? And by 'we' I mean us - recruits."
"Ever since the last invasion ponies are turned off from joining the military or even the Guard and there isn't too many ponies capable of combat this close to the Everfree."
"I wouldn't consider most of the guys capable of combat. Yes, they can swing a weapon without hitting themselves with the wrong end but they have less than two weeks of training."
"Truth be told, you are just the fodder. Sad but true. You're, not you personally but the new recruits, mostly there just to look dangerous and pray to the heavens that the mirror world is in better hooves than Sombra's now."
"At least you're honest..."
"Let's just see where this leads. I'll tell the princess about the crystal so we can minimize risks. See you in the forest."
"You mean the train?"
"No. Princess Luna will be teleporting a squad of Nightguards and few specials like me directly there."
"Okay, see you on site. In the meantime try to think of something to say to Mistake to-"
What? Make him stop trying to kill himself? If he fails to find a way to get rid of Sombra it might be us who'll have to get rid of him. That or he might end up in prison for the rest of his life only because he DIDN'T fail at stopping Sombra like everyone else and paid for it.
Oh hey, buddy! Remember the pony you take every breath for? Yeah! She might have forgotten you but screw that, there are other fish in the sea.
It's just like the thing about a real suicide attempt breaking a natural instinct. At a certain point even the noblest and truest of words fail to be enough.
"-to make him feel better," I end lamely.
Heavy smiles bitterly.
"I wish I knew, Cromach. You have no idea how much I wish I knew what to say."
The door closes behind him and with a bit more free time I return to reading the journal.
There must be something for me to do but for the life of me I can't think of anything. It all depends on whether Mistake succeeds or whether we'll have to pull him back by closing the portal. I think neither of us is the right guy for the big talk.
Perhaps princess Luna will bring her bodyguard with her.
The more I think about it the more sure I am the only pony able to change Mistake's outlook is Darky. The problem is that he knows that as well and he believes she's out of his reach forever. From his journal I can see his viewpoint. I don't agree with it in the slightest but I can see somepony with complete lack of confidence thinking the way he does. Therein lies the catch that makes every bad choice an unchangeable finality.
Now, how to persuade someone whose 'special talent' is making correct assumptions based on extremely little evidence that he's making the biggest mistake of his life?
The only answer I see is Darky giving Mistake another chance...
...something he won't accept as long as he might put her in danger.
Damn it! It's all going in circles. This is probably the same result his twisted mind came up with and he can't escape. I won't be able to solve this by myself. All I can do is make sure he gets a chance he deserves. I need to get Choking Darkness to talk to him before he makes his final choice and she has to know who he is... was to her.
Well, I might find something to help me on the train. There will be enough time to read the journal in more detail and maybe find something Heavy missed.
Time to go.
I meet up with some of the others from our recruit group and we board the train. Contrary to Heavy's explanation there isn't everyone I see daily on the training grounds. There are only the best. meaning that from our group of twenty there's only few of us - Me, Three, Valiant, and the military academy cadet who seemed to be skilled enough to at least provide some help. Not that they'd provide any entertainment. Three, while infinitely curious about everything, isn't one to start a conversation herself. Valiant doesn't give a crap about anyone around him and I'm not too interested in talking myself. The cadet seems so nervous he might actually lose his breakfast if he opens his mouth. The possibility of facing a real invading force as soon as we arrive is chilling.
The linked book entry comes when our group is almost in Ponyville. This time I have something to compare it with though. I don't know why it feels important but the little semblance of victory is somehow an accomplishment.
A Nightguard salutes when we get off the train and tells us to follow him.
It takes about an hour to get to the portal site surrounded by heavily armed batponies, a ton of changelings, and a small group of ponies inside what looks like a command post which is basically a large tent surrounded by a palisade and various crates of weapons and other instruments.
I must admit I feel pretty nervous with changelings saluting me but when I get used to it it's pretty awesome. I might be the first griffon ever to tell the tale about being in the middle of a friendly changeling army.
Being ushered into the tent, I feel a tingle through my feathers and suspect magic at work.
Yep, pretty much spot on.
The inside of the tent is about ten times larger than its outside and seems to host few cooks, rations and emergency supplies of everything that might get lost from the boxes outside. It also hosts few ponies I'm familiar with. There's Heavy Hoof and, thank heavens, Darky talking to an alicorn I haven't seen before but from the insignia on her armor must be princess Luna. The second group sitting at the table covered with a map consists of Cross, Heavy's changeling coltfriend, some unicorn mare who looks quite stunning but doesn't seem to fit here in the slightest, and a being I recognize as a queen-type changeling very resembling queen Chrysalis but in a purple-ish color scheme.
"Your Highness," I bow when a Nightguard ushers us to the main table.
"Greetings, young griffon. From what we have heard you and the rest of your group are the finest recruits our sister has to offer at the moment. Have a look around while we discuss the course of action with general Shadowstep here," princess Luna nods at the changeling leader.
"Any luck finding the catalyst keeping the gate open?" asks Shadowstep.
We salute the princess and spread out to check out the improvised barricades and defense structures surrounding an unremarkable clearing on the edge of the Everfree Forest. Well, completely the same as any other damn clearing aside from the fact that this one has a shimmering circular hole seemingly filled with mist hanging in the air in the middle of it.
Something catches my eye when a batpony I thought was going to take a leak in the bushes just stops few steps away and looks into the shadows. Unwilling to bother him but curious nonetheless, I creep behind him and see a life-sized statue of a batpony holding a spear and a shield.
A memorial of someone?
The batpony paying respects to the statue gives me a knowing stare, salutes, and leaves so I can have a proper look. There are some flowers laid by the base of the statue, obscuring a small plaque.
Here lies Sharp Biscuit, the guardian of peace between changelings and ponies.
I don't know what to say.
I've heard the story about him laying his life for queen Chrysalis during the second invasion and thus giving her a solid foundation of trust to build upon and that seems like something he should have been honored more for. This is all he got though - a little statue in the middle of nowhere and a steel plaque.
I'm sure Mistake must have stopped here on his way. If there's something I understood from the journal entries it's that he's very sentimental, too much in fact.
The statue seems pretty well-kept considering it's winter, snow is lying everywhere, and there can't be anyone taking care of it daily. Maybe it's been recently cleaned or it might be some sort of magic keeping it shiny and clean like the most expensive marble.
Hmmm... princess Luna's troops haven't found Mistake's crystal yet. There might be a spell keeping this thing clean and the linked book said keeping the portal open was really easy. Maybe they're looking for something too big? Or maybe he would have hidden it in the one place where visitors would have something completely different on their mind. Princess Luna might be an excellent mage but even she would get distracted by seeing the memorial of somepony so important to her.
No reason not to have a look around the statue, right?
The bushes and shrubs surrounding the cleared up area yield nothing of interest though. Have I guessed wrong?
The amount of fresh flowers at the statue's hooves is pretty amazing, especially since quite a lot of the offerings are expensive bouquets obviously made by a flower expert.
Looking around not to offend anyone, I squeeze the bigger ones curiously in hand.
Nah, Mistake didn't have enough money to waste. With that in mind I find a very simple one, bound in clean, white cloth.
An angular crystal drops out of it when I shake it vigorously. It's small, about the size of a pocket watch, and glimmers without any apparent light source shining on it. Suddenly, it stops sparkling. It might be because of some fluctuation in magic or it might be because I've just put it into the pouch on my belt. Who knows...
Whistling innocently, I return back to the command post.
"Any report from the scouting party?" I tap Heavy on the shoulder.
He looks up from some drawings resembling ponies in strange armors.
"Hm? No, the princess hasn't sent anypony through yet. She doesn't like suicide missions. The other side is probably heavily fortified and we don't know how much trouble Mistake has caused there after opening the portal."
"Who does, eh? Wanna volunteer?" I scratch my head and look at the ceiling.
Heavy narrows his eyes and looks straight at me.
"I don't think you are an idiot so... care to tell me more?"
"Sure. We're going to need Darky with us if we want to bring Mistake back alive. At least I think so. Besides, you can just tell the princess that as soon as she finds the crystal Mistake wrote about she should just break it and bring us back."
"That should work unless whoever is on the other side kills us as soon as we pass through."
"Killjoy," I grin.
Heavy grinds his teeth.
"One day, Cromach, I will choke you to death."
I look straight at his crotch, lick my lips, and leave my gaze there long enough to make him shift uncomfortably.
"I think I've taken bigger," my grin widens as he blushes, "And this, dear sargeant Heavy Hoof, is how you make a sexy remark. So... you in?"
"Grab a weapon and anything you might need from the supplies outside. I'll tell the princess we're volunteering."
"Don't forget Darky."
His gaze turns to cold steel.
"I hope you've got a really good reason for wanting her to join us."
"I think so. Before you start yelling at me," I interrupt the 'you THINK so?' Heavy's so obviously drawing breath for, "I have literally no reason to wish anything bad for her and I want to get a really freaky foursome with you, her, and Mistake so I need all of you alive and not pissed at me."
He opens his mouth few times but immediately closes it again.
"In front of the portal in ten minutes."
"Ready to rumble, sarge!" I salute.
I'm not able to fully understand his mumbling as I leave the tent but the word murder seems to have been thrown in there somewhere.
Armed with a battleaxe, a set of wing razors, and wearing light chain armor, I wave at the two approaching figures.
Heavy nods back.
"Now, the deal is that there will be no big briefing in case they have some spell keeping tabs on us. The princess thinks her presence might alert such spell that something big is happening so we're to just slip in and assess things on the spot. As you said, Cromach, when the crystal is found the princess will reconsider our mission and most likely will bring us back. That said," Heavy slips into the shimmering oval, "let's roll."
Not waiting a second, I jump in straight after him.
Tingles a little and feels like a cold, morning mist.
Feels like I've just tripped over something and landed on Heavy's back. Second later, someone does the same to me. The red shimmer of her phoenix wing in the air illuminates a small, dark room completely void of anyone besides us.
Oh yes, there's also no portal leading back anywhere in the vicinity.
"Well, that could have gone better," I mumble.
"No big deal," says Heavy, "We can hide here, get our bearings, scout ahead, and, if necessary, stay here until the catalyst is found."
"Yeeeeah... about that."
"Why do I get the feeling I'm going to have to kill you for high treason when this is over?"
"I may have found the crystal before we went in and I may have, sort of, kept it on myself to give us enough time to look for Mistake."
"Funny, my ears must be acting up. I would have sworn you've just said that you took a griffon, an earthpony, and a batpony somewhere they can get away from only by breaking an item so filled with magic it's impossible to destroy via normal means. Tell me that was just my ears ringing after a teleportation, pretty please."
"Your ears were just-OW!"
I rub my so obviously punched face.
"Darky, any ideas?" Heavy asks the weight on my back.
"Find the nearest unicorn, tell him he's fat, throw the crystal at his face, kaboom?"
I think I may have overestimated the abilities of my elders and betters just a liiiitle bit.