You Can Go Home: Loyalty
"Tell me one reason not to slam your face into the mirror and grind it around a little bit!" I grab Jones by the neck with one hand and stop his hand which is crawling to the dagger on his belt.
I guess hanging around a titanic earthpony like Heavy Hoof gave me the strength to almost crush Jones' windpipe with no effort.
"Got... an... offer," he groans.
One hand, just one hand is all it would take to end this asshole's existence. Twisting the claws holding his hand, Jones' face goes white as a crunch resonates through the bathroom.
"That should stop you from trying to stab me. Now speak while you still have a head!"
I release the grip on his neck just enough to allow him a choked groan.
"Your... freedom... and," he drops on the ground as my hand weakens on its own, "complete, uh, absolution."
"I-I could go back home?"
That can't be. The Legion has never let anyone back. He must be lying.
Jones hisses as he fails in standing back up.
"Yes. Not back to the Legion of course, it would raise unnecessary questions, but your killing an infamous unicorn Hunter and getting into a position useful for us proved your worth for the Black Ops."
"The Intelligence Service?"
"You would come back a hero and be honored by the touch of the Emperor himself."
My eyes go wide. I'd see my parents again. They would be told... what?
"What do you want from me?"
"Information, that's all. The Emperor and the Black Ops are worried about pony ability to gather information now that they employ changelings. We need to find a weakness to exploit and get our agents into the command structure. All you have to do is to answer few very simple questions for me and you'll get a pass back to the Empire. Your family will be told you had to be banished to infiltrate Equestria and you were on a mission issued directly by the Emperor. You would get money, prestige, and everything else tied to serving in the Black Ops."
"That sounds like a lot to give only for answering some 'simple' questions."
"Money is not important. Prestige can be arranged for ANYONE. Your name, in reality, means nothing to the Emperor or us. What we need to keep the Empire safe is information about our enemies. We need to be a direct threat just so the need for us to act never arises. What we are offering you has no value to us but what you have to offer is priceless. You will understand the true meaning of things once you decide to agree."
"IF I agree."
"Once you do," Jones looks straight at me, completely sure of himself, "It is an offer you can't refuse. Being chased by Hunters and assassins who will know where exactly you are for the rest of your short life or being awarded the greatest honor a griffon can get. THAT is your choice. By the way, the contract on your head is temporarily suspended."
"Thanks, I guess?"
Like I'd believe that.
"You don't have to answer immediately, just look at this," he hands me a letter.
We write to inform you that our previous report of your son's behaviour was fabricated to lighten the risks of his mission. Said mission was issued by his Holy Highness himself and included deep infiltration of enemy territory. We are sure you can understand the need for temporarily cutting your ties with your son to ensure his safety and give him a believable reason to leave the Empire.
With the mission crucial to the survival of the Empire over, we invite him back with open arms and award him the title of Imperial Protector.
- Sgt. Jones Fergusson, G.I.L. -
"You can keep it," Jones continues, "It is a draft of what will be sent to your family after you do what we want. The real thing will also include the details about your new title, the awarded land and money, and the time of the award ceremony."
This... is real.
I'm not exactly too inclined to believe Jones but I have an official letter signed by the guy who sent the one about my desertion. Even if all this is a ruse I can get my parents to see this and explain things. I might be in danger back in the Empire but my family would be at peace. This is worth it.
On the other hand, let's say Jones isn't lying. The standing offer is something very few griffons have ever recieved. Money? Yes. Land? Yes. Titles? Yes. Peace from the Hunters? No, absolutely never. The choice is clear as things stand, right?
What awaits me here? A career as a Royal Guard compared to service to the Emperor. Heavy is a lovely guy but he's taken and... Mistake is dead.
Nothing. Nothing awaits me here compared to going home.
"What do you want to know?" I ask.
Jones pulls out a small notebook from a bag on his belt. I lower my claws ready to slice his throat in case the bag contained anything even remotely dangerous.
"The details are there. Not everything has to be filled out but add anything that might help the Empire. The lives of our citizens depend on it."
Once again the griffon paranoia.
"I'm not sure Equestria has any plans to endanger the Empire. Ponies are pretty peaceful."
"Naive. They might not want to ATTACK the Empire right now but politics hinge on building a long-term advantage over the enemy. With us in danger of losing the information war at the moment we might be put in physical danger in few years."
I skim through the notebook. Most of the things I could answer on the spot just after a short training. Pony combat preferences, training styles, innovations in comparison to Legion training, current military force and deployment. This is a free ticket home. Aside from the deployment details I'm home and dry and Jones said not everything had to be filled.
"I could anwer most of this right now but I'll try to find out what's missing. I think I have an idea where to do so," I nod. It never hurts to make a good impression.
"You've grown up, kid," says Jones.
"You taught me a harsh lesson."
Jones smiles strangely.
"Just one of many. Once you're done with your job you can just ask for me in the guest wing of the castle. The guards will know where the griffon delegation is."
"How much time do I have?"
"The ambassador leaves tomorrow but I can stay until the end of the week if need be."
"You will have this," I wave the notebook, "ready before the ambassador leaves."
My fate is sealed. In the good way I mean. Now just not to fuck this up.
I salute to Jones who tries to answer but groans as his broken hand dangles uncontrolled.
"I'm just going to get this patched up," he leaves.
Just like that, I return to the ballroom, the finality of Mistake's death mixing with the euphoria of Jones' offer.
The deployment of military forces within Equestria is information out of my reach but I can at least find out current plans of the Royal Guard and the Nightguard if I get to Darky- Choking Darkness' office. She said the orders were officially sent out but she must have a copy somewhere. What Jones can't know is any sort of information about the mirror world and it might tip the scales even more in our favor. Let's just take it as a backup plan in case Choking's office proves empty.
The guard duty lasts until a group of guards comes to switch with us two hours later which, to be honest, I spent by stuffing my face again with meat. In no immediate danger from the griffons it's much easier for me to stay calm and pretend to actually give a crap about the duty I'm doing.
Normally, I would go home and probably visit a bar to pay respect to Mistake via a toast but right now my steps lead me to the highest floor of the castle where Choking's office is.
"Surprise seeing you here."
Speak of the red-maned devil.
Head on duty! Credible bullshit department working overtime.
"I just didn't feel like going home to the empty apartment."
Choking nervously stomps her hoof on the floor.
"I understand. Come with me for a second, will you?"
It seems like I won't have to break into her office after all. It's a nice room with two doors, presumably to the kitchen and the toilet. What's not too normal are the walls completely invisible behind posters of what I presume are pony music bands.
"Heavy brought this for you but he didn't know he'd be on duty tonight so he gave it to me to give to you," she pushes an unremarkable scroll sealed with purple tape.
Scroll? Who in this day and age uses scrolls?
"What is it?"
"Something about your name. Heavy said his coltfriend liked writing stuff and he had something for you."
"How should I know?"
I break the purple seal and unroll the scroll which reveals it's more a set of scrolls with a note written on normal paper in the middle of them.
Tio told me he remembered the hero Cromach because he was there when he was killed. He also told me he wrote some notes on how it happened. Perhaps it might mean something to you.
- Heavy Hoof -
"Heh, I know the legend. Cromach got overwhelmed by a changeling army while single-handedly defending the citizens of whatever the city was called. In the end the changelings pulled their entire force towards him and his phoenix friend which he used to set up a fire trap to blow up the entire changeling army and stopped the southern invading force, saving the citizens from being fed on and tortured."
"Maybe a changeling's perspective might be interesting to read?"
"Meh. Hey, I wanted to ask something about the mirror world, seeing I didn't understand much that happened there."
"I don't really know anything myself," Choking shrugs.
"Well, maybe you could just put my mind at ease. Do we have enough forces to deal with them?"
"No way. They have proven twice we don't stand a chance. On top of that most of our armed forces aren't in a fighting state. Truth be told, most of the time Equestria relied on being protected by the princesses and the Elements of Harmony but with the Elements gone due to something happening with the Tree of Harmony we're trying to bolster our forces... which you can see how it works."
"Not at all."
"Pretty much. The best of the best are in the Everfree Forest but those in reserve force are mostly ex-mercenaries or young ponies who have never seen blood. Honestly, it would take years for us to be able to withstand a third invasion even with all four princesses working together. The possible reinforcements from the Crystal Empire are something but nowhere enough."
"That's not good."
"It's probably not THAT bad. Unless your outburst when that thing attacked Mistake pissed Twilight off too much we should be fine."
"Thanks," I take the scrolls and get up to leave, "I might not have nightmares tonight."
At least not over that.
"Cromach," Choking pats my shoulder, "I'm sorry for your loss."
I remember Mistake's entries and the bile at knowing how indifferently she acted towards him rises again. She could have prevented all this.
"It is your loss more than anyone else's," I spit out and leave.
Careful about being seen, I walk steadily to the guest quarters and ask for the griffon rooms.
"Can I answer the things here and now? I would like to leave as soon as possible," I hand Jones his notebook.
He nods and we sit down to the table in his room.
I tell him all I know. Every insight, every detail, everything I know about the mirror world. After about an hour Jones is done writing and nods approvingly.
"Aside from this 'mirror world' you don't give us much new information but you give us a confirmation on a lot of things."
"Oh," I say dejectedly.
"Heh," Jones chuckles, "It is more than enough to warrant your reward. New information is valuable but confirmed and absolutely correct information doubly so."
I don't want to seem unpleasant but being around Jones is making me tense.
He tosses a heavy bag towards me that clanks when it hits the wooden table. Upon opening it reveals what I would roughly estimate at somewhere around five hundred gold.
"Buy yourself a ride to the port where you arrived in Equestria. I will get the proper documents signed and sent and the delegation will pick you up tomorrow evening. In case ponies find out where your loyalty lies you should leave immediately."
"What if they try to stop me?"
"We will make sure you get home safely. We care for our own."
Saluting once again, I leave the castle and fly directly home. Correction, to my apartment. I pack all necessary things, thank the landlord, and fly to the train station to catch the overnight train to the coast.
Now I'm going home.