You Can Go Home: Cromception
Well, almost. I'm on a train headed towards my hometown, sitting in a private room, drinking lemonade, and generally feeling like a winner.
Ponies had no idea what happened. Without explaining anything I just handed in my resignation to a Nightguard on duty, not that anyone really cared about a recruit leaving. I was nervous at first but since nothing happened on the train to the port I felt the tight grip of worry disappear.
A knocking on the door of the hotel room I decided to spend the night in woke me up. After almost crapping my sheets at how someone could have found me there I opened the door and let Jones in. Legion and their spies, am I right? Mere eight hours later we left the ferry that had brought us back to the Empire and boarded a train headed directly home.
Also, no pirates this time. Either my work last time sent a clear message or not even the dumbest of saltwater rats would attack a ferry boarded by a bunch of Black Ops soldiers.
So, yes, I'm sitting in a luxury suite, bored to my paws. It's not like there's anything to do. I could order the strongest wine they have or the best food but for some reason I don't feel like it. Maybe it's the aftertaste of leaving Equestria under questionable circumstances. Maybe it's the uncertainty of what awaits me now in the Emperor's service. Maybe it's something else, who knows?
My mind drifts to the scrolls Choking Darkness gave me before I-
Don't say: Betrayed all those who gave me a second chance.
-before I left.
"Ah what the hell... let's do some reading," I mumble, annoyed at the direction my head went for a second.
Unrolling the yellow scrolls again, I find the first one and relax on the padded bench. First thing I notice is that Cross is a terrible writer, confusing things and tenses, but this thing was written at least a hundred years ago if the timeframe is correct. The exact time of Cromach's death isn't a public knowledge. Come to think of it, there are a lot of details that change depending on who is telling the story. A version I was told once by an old, wrinkled, caravan guard experienced in travelling all over the Empire stated that Cromach wasn't killed by changelings at all.
It was just another day in the desert, same as most of them in past two centuries.
Shadowstep drove us pointlessly onwards, mind filled with the last order she had recieved from the high-ups. I have never met any of them. In fact, we haven't met an another changeling unit since my awakening. Alive changeling unit, to be precise. We have seen many alleys and long lanes adorned with changeling heads on spikes.
Almost every city had some. The changeling war was over, the attempt of the last queen failing miserably. Shadowstep told me during our escape from the wastelands that a new queen called Chrysalis was about to take over the nation and lead it to better tomorrow.
At that time I didn't understand but over time I got to. I was a fool, thinking that talking and understanding could solve anything. Now I know that some traits are bone-deep and too natural. Griffons have ten expressions for loyalty but only one for corruption and betrayal which they never use because everyone serves their leader unquestioningly. I guess fish have no word for water as well.
I shouldn't be the one talking though, for obvious reasons.
Oh well, time to stop overthinking things and note what happened last week. Also, writing a story about us in third person is weird but it will be worth it when I make this into a book.
[Combat Diary of Horatio Cross]
The yelling outside of Shadowstep's tent grew louder and louder, making the amethyst queen grit her teeth, stand up from the table, and put the teacup she was holding back down. The white tent was good enough to reflect desert sunlight but it was still quite hot inside despite it being late afternoon, something with which the warm tea helped as she had learned during centuries of fighting griffons.
"THERE'S TROUBLE, CHANGELING MISS!" a griffon opened the tent flap and froze mid-air as purple glow enveloped him instantly.
"Yes?" Shadowstep looked the griffon suddenly feeling as if he'd hit a brick wall up and down.
To explain things, the three changeling had been camping on the outskirts of the large city for about a week and the locals, let's say, got used to it. Even with the great war over, Shadowstep kept going after the order to take over the world. Not so surprisingly, the general population was usually hostile at the arrival of three conquering changelings. Every city, no matter the size, was the same evenually - send the army, lose the army to three attackers, agree to pay tribute and live under the changeling rule.
The small details were what made this effort a joke. Yes, the changelings had experience and immense power from feeding to their heart's content BUT... there were still only three of them. Funnily enough, three changelings devouring and feeding sort of didn't figure in any horror story ever, especially if one of them made sure the feeding was as pleasant as possible.
The point was that there was a line of adventurous griffons in front of Starlight's tent every evening. The city belonged to the changelings, the flag was planted, noone gave a damn, griffons brought food, drink, and themselves to listen to stories the handsome, skilled, and totally not thinking too much of himself Cross had to tell.
The problem with this city in particular was that the city council hadn't run away when their army failed and had retreated to a fortress protected by the majority of soldiers. That sort of helped the changelings as well. Seeing that their leaders used them as a distraction for the incoming changelings, the citizens got angry and gave up after the army had retreated.
In just a week Cross was welcome in every pub, tavern, and bar the city had to offer and griffons were lining up to buy him a drink, some ladies hoping for a 'feeding' session later. It was more a scouting mission concerning the current state of the Empire but it had its perks.
Shadowstep, not really caring about the free time of her subordinates, was planning the next step - storming the city fortress and taking over the city completely. Granted, the numbers, the terrain, and generally nothing was in her favor but she had resourceful subordinates.
Starlight, with her past as a concubine in some warlord's harem, enjoyed the attention given to her unicorn form by younger griffons and, being a magical prodigy, used the affection to grow her power on daily basis.
To be precise, out of the three changelings only one of them actually was born that way. Shadowstep, born under the rule of the old queen, had been given a high-command position just like every queen-type changeling who would have otherwise had to be killed just so they didn't pose a threat to the true queen. Cross was created as an experiment and had been taken care of by Shadowstep since the day he came out of the test tube. Starlight used to be a unicorn filly when they found her during one of their conquests. A filly who had been a toy to her griffon master when his palace fell to the massive invading force of two changelings. Under the pressure of trying not to get trampled by escaping slaves and soldiers her power had manifested and blew up most of the palace... and Starlight herself. Shadowstep had found the charred filly clinging to life via her magic alone and used an ancient spell to transform her into a changeling.
"CROSS IS IN TROUBLE, MISS! He got ambushed by soldiers when-"
"Calm down! It's not as if they could deal with him anyway."
That was partially true. Well-fed changelings couldn't reach the power level of alicorns via draining love alone, their bodies still had to have the potential to hold and use that much energy. Still, with enough energy even a normal changeling might reach resillience rivaling immortality. Shadowstep wasn't really bothered. It might take him hours but Cross would fight his way out of anything.
"There was this big guy with a phoenix who was even with him," the griffon exclaimed.
That meant magic, and magic was a tricky thing to measure and predict. With a sudden surge of interest Shadowstep allowed the griffon to move again, left her tent, and pushed past few griffons sitting around Starlight's tent eagerly waiting for their turn.
She burst through the tent flaps and arrived in a comfortable bedroom of three times the size of the tent and doors leading presumably to more rooms. Noone knew where Starlight's real mansion was but her tent was just an entrance to her personal pocket dimension.
"Mfffm mmr tffwm!" came from a white unicorn mare with her muzzle buried in a griffon's crotch.
The sudden movement of her tongue made Starlight's partner moan loudly. If he was able to think with his upper brain he would be thanking all gods for retaining his firehose and remaining a male.
"Don't speak with your mouth full," said Shadowstep coldly.
"Next time knock, bitch!" Starlight spat out.
"Cross is in trouble. Stop making the carpet wet and let's go!"
"What have you been smoking? Fed Cross could wipe the floor with a dragon."
"Magic," Shadowstep's amethyst aura enveloped the griffon and threw him unceremoniously out of the tent, still standing at attention, to the burst of laughter from the other scheduled visitors outside.
An interested humming was Starlight's only answer and she quickly flicked her horn, making a small pouch levitate to her. Moment later, the changeling queen and the unicorn ran out of the tent.
"Starlight's tent is closed for tonight," Shadowstep roared while running, "and so are her legs."
"Fuck you," Starlight hissed with wind streaking through her mane.
"Told you," Shadowstep grinned, "Closed for the day."
Starlight just grumbled and followed her commander. Shadowstep could track Cross anywhere, she could feel him due to his nature, and she took the shortest route through the city streets without slowing down for a second. They stopped at a wide road leading to the drawbridge to the city fortress. Both sides of the main streets were barricaded and handled by griffon citizens who were pushing away armed soldiers. As stated before, city residents were more welcoming to the group of changelings just wanting to slap a flag in the middle of the town than to the corrupt council that had left them to die and had hidden themselves behind thick walls.
With a green flash of Starlight's magic, both of them teleported behind the barricades and saw the two figures dancing in the middle of the street.
The griffon was huge, almost twice as tall as Shadowstep, a changeling queen, when he raised himself on his hind paws and swung his enormous double-headed battleaxe at Cross in his batpony form. Being half of his opponent's size, Cross dodged easily but the wind wave caused by the griffon's weapon knocked him off his hooves. The griffon didn't bother with his weapon and jumped at Cross, ready to rip him in half with his talons. That was a mistake. A steel spear with spiked tip appeared from nowhere next to Cross and impaled the griffon mid-air. The batpony-changeling jumped back on his hooves and the spear disappeared.
A barrage of explosions from above threw Cross backwards.
Hovering above the griffon was a large bird, all red with wings burning red and gold. Screeching at a volume rending eardrums, he sent a whirlwind of flames at Cross again.
"Starlight, stall the phoenix!" Shadowstep ordered.
"Of coooourse, because you'll be able to protect the idiots when the soldiers finally decide to stop messing around and kill them. You get the phoenix, I can do the shielding."
Shadowstep decided not to argue. Starlight rarely disobeyed direct orders after being yelled at but now was not the time to press it. Besides, her idea wasn't terrible. Calculating the path of the phoenix, a beam of purple energy hit him directly, causing sparks to shower the ground under him.
"Heh," the huge griffon chuckled, "All the bugs are out in the sunlight. Finally."
A fire of the same color as the phoenix's wings seared the hole in his chest caused by Cross' spear, leaving the griffon's brown fur as good as new.
Cross, his purple mane drenched in sweat, grinned.
"You're pretty good, birdie, for someone so young. My name is Cross and I will pulverize you into dust if you touch my commander."
The griffon looked to be in his late thirties, with scars all over his completely brown body.
"Young? Me and my friend up there have seen the birth of this Empire. We have fought your kind ever since the great war began and as such I have no need for pleasantries," he swung his axe directly at Cross' neck, "but I'll have you know my name is Cromach and the chicken on fire-"
A screech pierced the air again.
Cross dodged the wide swing easily. Cromach's attacks, while fairly slow in comparison to the overcharged changeling, were deadly and proved he knew that fed changelings could shrug off and heal non-fatal wounds in combat. All he had to do was not to get hit then.
A pair of scimitars attacked Cromach from both sides while Cross ducked under another swing and rammed his horn into the rearing griffon's stomach. Both Cross' swords disappeared after hitting the enemy just like the spear had done. What was different this time was that Cross' horn pulsed with energy in one blast.
Cromach exploded from waist down, showering Cross in blood and guts. Cross stumbled when he realized the griffon's claws stripped most of the flesh on his ribcage.
Bobo stopped in the air. Feeling the incoming loss of his friend, he focused his energy and turned into a small red sun. Cromach roared and Cross screamed when the claws buried in his sides suddenly regained strength and the griffon started crushing him. Green sparks, an effect of changeling magic, kept running through his grey fur but were slowly being outmuscled by golden-red flames of the phoenix reconstructing his buddy's body.
Cross screamed as he felt more of his bones crack. Suddenly, an even louder screech drowned every other sound.
"Got him," Shadowstep commented flatly as Bobo plunged into an uncontrollable dive and slammed into the cobblestone road, "Not so smart now, stopping in air to heal the other bird, was it?"
Cromach picked Cross up in one hand and slammed him to the ground. Picking his axe from the bloodied sand, Cromach stepped on Cross' chest with one paw and quickly scanned the area for threats. There were... none?
Starlight was just sitting in the middle of a green glowing symbol on the ground. The citizens defying the soldiers had their clothes glowing with the same color. Shadowstep was standing there over Bobo and staring at Cromach slowly picking his axe up to decapitate Cross. Cutting off a changeling's head was a sure way not to let him use his stored love energy to regenerate.
"GET THEM!" someone yelled from the ranks of the guards, "All of the monsters are weak now."
Cromach stopped his swing just to see a griffon, one of the changeling collaborators, collapse on the ground, quickly followed by the others.
A hail of arrows showered the street and the fortress drawbridge dropped, revealing a legion of heavily armored griffons marching out of the main gate.
Cromach kicked Cross away and flew upwards to avoid the deadly rain. One second later a ballista spear fired from the fortress sent him back to the ground. He landed right next to Bobo who covered him with his wing.
The shower of wood and steel was over almost instantly, most of them melting after hitting Bobo's wing covering the legendary griffon.
Cromach knew Bobo was too weak to heal him after being shot down by Shadowstep so he just turned his head to see what's going on.
He didn't understand.
It wasn't the changelings. It was the griffons coming out of the fortress who were stabbing the civillians, calling them traitors and stain on the Empire's shield. Shadowstep was sitting next to Cross, purple glow of her horn forming a bubble protecting both of them.
The last of the defending civilians scattered away, willing to rather risk a blow to the back than certain death by surrendering.
A heavy boot of a griffon soldier kicked Cromach who just bent strangely around the massive wooden ballista arrow pinning him to the ground.
"Monsters like you just need to be chained and learn to obey," the soldier raised his sword and swung down.
He, his weapon, and everyone close to him disappeared in green glow, leaving only dust slowly raining on the road. Starlight, humming a cheery tune after disintegrating the soldiers, ran past them and jumped into the shield created by Shadowtep.
"How are things?" Starlight asked Shadowstep cheerily, looking sternly at Cross.
"Give... me... five minutes alone... and we can... scrap them... no problem," Cross groaned.
Looking at the legion of soldiers streaming into the street from all alleys and the fortress itself, Starlight rolled her eyes.
"Losing to a griffon, pfff."
"Can you get us out of here?" Shadowstep asked.
"Give me a minute without griffons trying to cut my head off and I'll happily oblige."
"Fight it is then. You take that side, I'll take this one. Let's protect Cross until he's okay and then fight our way out," Shadowstep commanded.
No other soldier paid attention to Cromach and Bobo.
"Looks like this is it," groaned Cromach, vision fading.
"Sorry, bud. Can't heal you anymore," the phoenix answered.
"Pretty ironic. We've been fighting the changeling armies for over five hundred years and we've seen some serious stuff. Never thought I would be killed by a griffon."
"Noone likes the good guys, especially when the politicians need to clean up."
"Sending a message to their citizens to stay in line and do what they're told. Changelings couldn't be much worse."
"Well, I don't know. Remember-"
"That was rhetorical. I remember every city covered in green goo, every skeleton hanging forgotten in a feeding sack, and every griffon killed by an imitation of their loved one wanting escape a purge. Still, I've heard about these guys from the locals. A whore, a shut-in, and a storyteller on an unending quest to conquer the world."
"Trying to randomly overthrow a corrupt city council who drained the citizens of much more than the lovesuckers did, right?"
"Pretty much," Cromach grinned, "Care to give the bastards a parting gift?"
"Take your pick. If you blow up the castle you'll clean up all the filth around."
"And kill the changeling who would have kicked your ass if I hadn't healed you."
"If he doesn't survive then he wasn't worth it anyway."
A sigh came from the phoenix.
"I could survive this, you know? Burn and get reborn after all the nonsense is over."
"I know, bro."
"Good night, Cro."
"Sleep tight, bro."
The phoenix burst into flames that grew and grew, melting stone and steel, searing flesh and burning bones.
Only a crater remained from the center of the city. A crater full of smoldering remains of those who betrayed their own kind for promise of gold and power. The citizens had already fled, scared of the wrath of the armed forces.
Only a black crater...
...and three changelings hugging one another, glows of three horns mixing into a shimmering bubble around them.
I roll the scrolls back up.
Before I was saved from death by Zeph I didn't believe in fate. Now I'm not so sure. This getting into my hands right after I did what I did feels like a threat.
The problem is I'm not sure who's threatening me. Nevertheless, I can't stop sweating.