You Can Go Home: Third Time's The Charm
The train stops just like many times before. What isn't the same as before is that the two serious-looking griffons guarding my suite enter and tell me to grab my things. Aside from the absurd amount of gold I don't have much with me so it doesn't take long to follow the duo out of the train into a large building resembling an ant heap, or a half of a watermelon.
I was running away from here not even a month ago. It feels much longer though, a lot of stuff happened. A lot that made me think during the thirty-hour ride on the train. My only real desire is to clear my reputation, to have my family accept me again, and to see their happy faces. My hometown isn't too big, at least in comparison to what is considered a large city in the Empire, but in Equestria it would easily pass as one, if Canterlot is something to go by.
What I'm not looking forward to is building a life, a social life I mean. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy spending time in bars talking to strangers, especially if our talking leads us to a private room later, but somehow I don't feel like spending entire evenings listening to kids. I'm freaking twenty, how can I be saying that? Well, maybe age isn't something measured in years but in stuff that happened to you. The image of me listening to another griffon recounting how smashed he got last night and how hot the drunk chick he banged was just doesn't fit anymore. That's a lie, I would listen to him describing a beautiful griffon, I would just have to punch him afterwards.
Perhaps I might find interesting guys serving in the Black Ops. Probably not though. From what I've heard about the secret service there are only fanatics working there. I mean the service itself is a dream with all you're entitled to but when I remember stories about the griffons themselves... they don't seem like a bunch to hang out with. I'll just have to see for myself. On the other hand, the amount of gold that will go my way should make the search for new interests pleasant enough.
The heat hits me like a hammer when I leave the train. Jones is already standing outside and smiling.
"I'll meet you at your house. I have something to take care of before that."
He must have caught the little scrunching of my face and the movement of my arm to the sword hanging on my belt because he continues.
"I must admit I lied a little," he grins, "There's a celebration being prepared for your return. The Emperor himself is in town and will give you your medal and title later at the city square."
"The Emperor... in person... here?"
That must be the greatest honor this city has ever recieved.
"Don't get your panties wet. He'll just give you a piece of metal, mumble few words, and expect perfect service from now on. Trust me, the information you gave us is more important than you can ever be."
"Way to ruin the fun, Jones."
"I just want you to live in the real world. Ideals and grandeur are for fanatics and mindless griffons. We have to keep the Empire safe by real means. We must use principles that are to die for to manipulate others but we must never fall victim to them ourselves. Consider this one of many lessons you have yet to learn."
"Fine, fine. Let me just see my parents before the ceremony."
"I will meet you there," he says and flies off.
Life is good.
I could fly home but instead I decide to take a lazy stroll through the streets to get reacquainted with the boiling heat of the Empire. It's a pretty brutal change from Equestrian winter. The streets are emptier than usual, undoubtedly because of the main attraction of today happening elsewhere. With sand crunching under my paws and talons I lead the soldiers through the narrow streets to where I ran away from a month ago.
The small brownish-yellow house is the same as I remember it. Well, why would it change? I don't know, my last time here just feels so far gone that I have to remind myself every time about reality. I must admit that griffon architecture looks shabby compared to Canterlot but home is home.
It's up to me to knock on the door. The two soldiers following me all the time just stand around, looking for potential threats. My newly found sense of reality kicks in and I try to decipher why they would do that. If Jones wasn't overexaggerating too much then I'm a symbol. Noone knows exactly what I did but they all know it was crazy important for their safety. However, being a symbol means the possibility of becoming a target for those who would want to undermine the Emperor's authority.
I shake my head. There will be enough time to worry about it later. Now it's time to sort out what has been bothering me since Jones-
A shiver runs down my spine.
-screwed me over two times.
Calm down! Everything that happened supports his story. There are sounds of a crowd coming from the distance. The soldiers could have imprisoned me on the train if this was a trap. I saw the letter.
All worries disappear when the face of my father appears in the crack of the opening door. He smiles and nods at me to go inside, completely unphased by the two griffons behind me.
"Come in, Cromach."
"Glad to be home, dad."
He twitches when I say that. He must still be worried about what he did to me last time.
"I'm happy to see you again," he hugs me.
Over his shoulder I can see my mom enter the room and open her eyes wide.
I have survived the desert. I have prevailed against the Hunters. Fighting the heroes of the mirror world didn't break me. Everything the world had to throw at me bounced back and made me stronger.
I. AM. BACK.
My sword slides out of its sheath. My dad pushes me back and jumps away with the weapon in his hand.
"NOW!" he yells.
The blow to my head from behind should have knocked me out but I've been through enough just to stagger. That doesn't really help against two sets of talons grabbing me from behind.
"W-What?" I mumble, trying to shake the daze off.
"What about our reward?" my dad asks.
Frost grips my chest when Jones walks out of the kitchen. From his expression I can easily guess he wasn't there to make a sandwich.
"Of course," he smiles and pulls out a pistol, "Here's exactly what you deserve for staining the face of the world with this trash."
"NO!" I scream. That's about as much as I can do. That, and watch my dad crumble on the ground as Jones' weapon ends his life in one precise shot.
"What's going on?" my mom tries to run to the door but two shots end her effort by shattering her knees.
"What's going on is, dear lady, that you're paying for all this filth," he fumes, pointing at me, "did. He betrayed his pony friends for the promise of gold and fame just like you betrayed him. I guess it runs in the family."
My mom's fiery stare doesn't stop on Jones but on me.
"SEE WHAT YOU'VE PUT YOUR FAMILY THROUGH? WHY COULDN'T YOU HAVE JUST DIED IN THE DES-"
"Well," Jones grins, reloading his pistol, "at least he didn't make mess on the floor like you did. Perhaps you should grab a mop and... nevermind, that would be too hard with a new breathing hole."
Even if the soldiers weren't holding me I wouldn't have the strength to stand up right now.
"Awwwwww," Jones nods to the soldiers holding me down and they drag me out of the building.
After a while Jones walks out and lights a cigarette. Taking few puffs, he throws it inside and I can see blue burst of flames such as burning alcohol would emit.
"You really ate it all up until the end, you bastard."
A silent question in my eyes is my only answer. I can't speak. I can't even move. I can't be angry. I'm just frozen and I don't understand.
"You see, I lied a little. There indeed is a celebration starting in the center of the town. That event is a public execution of the enemy of the Empire judged for high treason. At least that's the official story. The real story begins in a small port town where there was an old griffon running a grocery store. That griffon had a son who through years of effort and dedication got into the highest military position achievable and was tasked to oversee the trade between Equestria and the Empire. To be precise, he made sure no too interesting technology got into the hands, pardon me, hooves of ponies."
He kicks me as the two soldiers drag me through the streets.
"Then one day the store got robbed because a certain stupid griffon, one with no historic importance whatsoever, was too lazy to stand on watch through ONE night. The thieves didn't want to kill the store owner, one of them just hit his head a little too hard with a pipe. The old griffon is currently in a hospital, living what little remains of his golden years without being able to recognize anyone and remember anything."
"Your... dad?" I groan.
"I still visit him, you know? Even though he has no idea who I am and doesn't remember I come every week. For the past half year I used every little bit of connections and power I had to make the robbers pay for what they did more than law ever could. One killed himself after being repeatedly raped in the prison, I knew a warden there. One wasn't so lucky. He fell asleep while smoking a cigarette, also he was tied to the bed. One got a chance just like you did in the desert. The patrol found his corpse not too far from where they dropped him off. Compared to you he got a loaded gun. The last one tried to repay his debt to society by doing charity work. Well, he did become an organ donor. Lungs, heart, liver, everything was sold on a black market... while he was still watching. I made sure EVERY SINGLE ONE knew why that happened."
He is insane and it's all my fault.
"And then there was you. You didn't die in the desert. You even managed to escape the Legion soldiers to Equestria. What's worse, you killed such a badass Hunter that NOONE wanted to pick up the contract on you. In the end you've actually managed to be useful though. The information you gave me got transmitted to the Legion immediately and our submarines are approaching Equestria as I speak. The biggest seams of gems and ores in the world will soon belong to us due to your help. You should thank me, I gave your life a little spark of value. Speaking of which, the invasion will be transmitted to the big screen jumbotron in the main square. You might even see part of it before you swing and trust me, I will make sure you have enough time to kick your legs in the air and watch."
The guards pull me into the main square. All around are griffons and ponies who form a corridor through which the 'hero' of the day can get to the raised platform in the middle of the wide space. Yes, there are ponies living in the Empire in the same way there are griffons in Equestria, just a little less of them. The wind picks up to make the noose on the gallows swing menacingly.
I still keep crunching what happened in my head. That means I'm not even trying to stop the soldiers from bringng me on the platform and putting the noose around my neck. The drop is fairly low. Jones really made sure I don't snap my neck by accident. With bound arms and wings I can only watch.
The giant screen on the other side of the square lights up and the visitors turn to get the news. The feed comes from a drone flying above a coast where it has good view of some port town.
Grey tubes come out of the sea and I can easily understand this has been planned for quite some time. That's why Jones didn't need new information. The Black Ops already had all they needed, they just needed to make sure everything was still going according to their plan. Equestria can't take a force like that, not in its current state.
The submarines release landing modules, a miniature versions of themselves filled with soldiers, that hit the beach and open, releasing squads of armed griffons charging towards the town. This port city must be the spearhead of the invasion, a place where logistics ships from the Empire would be able to dock safely. The shocktroopers aren't the important part, they're there just to clean up any survivors of the first strike.
The missile strike comes. The tops of the emerged submarines open and flaring points of light fly upwards and curve down towards the city. I stop looking.
I can't even...
I can't even begin to...
All that massacre...
I deserve to stand here.
I'm sorry. I know it means nothing now but I'm sorry.
"Crying for your pony friends?" Jones chuckles, "Don't worry. They'll live. We need someone, well... somepony, to do the mining. No need to spend the entire budget on machinery when there's free work force all around. Now WATCH!"
He grabs my head and forcefully makes me look at the big screen.
The bombs fall and light obscures everything. When the smoke clears the city is still standing, untouched.
"What?" Jones asks the empty air.
A purple barrier shimmers around the entire city. Ponies begin streaming from it, ponies with cannons, gattling guns, missile launchers. I haven't seen most of the technology but the destructive power sends the attacking griffons flying in all directions. Where did ponies get that?
A squad of pony shocktroopers charges towards the heavily armed and armored griffons. Correction, pony-looking things. The answer to where ponies got the weapons is there. The robotic ponies from the mirror world don't stop firing their weapons and cleave their way through the griffon forces, supported by the fire from those protected by the barrier. After all, Sombra was supposed to unite and control the entire world which means even what was the mirror Empire. What advances in technology they must have achieved under one leader, one warlord.
A barrage of magic hits the long line of submarines, vaporizing the sea and melting steel. The last thing the drone transmits is a coastline filled with dead griffons and destroyed ships.
The screen goes black.
"What did you do?" hisses Jones.
I have no clue what's going on but somehow someone must have persuaded mirror Twilight Sparkle to lend her forces to Equestria. They also must have known about the invasion force getting ready to attack. That must be the spy capabilities of changelings.
"Well," the crazy glint in Jones' eyes is impossible to miss, "Let's leave that to the politicians. This, after all, is your time to shine!"
With that he pulls a lever, opening the trapdoor under me.
One would never guess how important air is until he has none. Kicking air and twitching, I see Jones smiling madly at me.
Sorry, Mistake. I guess I'll see you sooner than I expected.