You Can Go Home: Lightbringer
Unfortunately, kicking of legs isn't the best way to stay floating in the air and the rope around my neck tightens.
Some of the spectators in white robes push through the crowd to get better view. Ponies, I see. Maybe it's more entertaining for them that way.
Black smoke starts rapidly coming from the middle fo the crowd. It takes mere seconds for the crowd to burst out of the square with screams. The news of a failed attack on Equestria and the unexplained events here make everyone want to be back home and shake in anticipation of pony counterattack.
A large pony with features covered by white robe runs up to the stairs leading to the gallows. The griffon guards take out their weapons, not knowing what's going on but prepared for the worst. Their only reward is being charged by the pony who seems to be about Heavy Hoof's size. Without apparent effort he parries their attacks with a sword... sticking out of his leg?
A quick movement of his head as he dodges drops the cowl from his head. The first and only thing I can focus on is the eyepatch.
"Mistake?" I groan through neck muscles tightened as much as possible.
That's silly. I must really be running out of air because the metal construction on the pony's leg with a sword sticking out and the eyepatch bring the impossible conclusion.
And it is an impossible one. The pony, the earthpony, is twice Mistake's size and sports a grey coat with light grey mane. His surprise attack worked at first against the guards and he quickly dispatched one but with two more joining the defenders he's getting pushed back.
Something black and seemingly on fire slams into the griffons from upwards. My vision is fading quickly and I can't be sure whether to believe what I see. The city square is completely empty now aside from some twenty soldiers who were on guard and are now running to the gallows. Suddenly, one of them swings a sword, stabs the closest one, and taunts the others while running towards me.
When the guards seem to almost catch him a shadow hits the group from the side at the speed of a comet.
I must be going crazy.
It's Shaky who drops his griffon disguise and starts screaming while the group behind him has trouble dealing with blue and black shadow tearing them to pieces, armor or not.
"You will NOT live through today!" yells Jones and points a gun at me.
The weapon gets knocked out of his grasp by the grey swordspony while someone pulls the lever that closes the trapdoor and cuts the noose around my neck. Two cuts later my wings and arms are free as well. Turning around, I see Choking Darkness, sheathing a short blade back into her elaborate horseshoe.
"Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeelp!" screams Shaky and flies up to the gallows as well.
He gets outrun by the shadow that doesn't have wings but jumps to the raised platform without help.
"Wouldn't let you get hurt anyway, dummy," says Three, grinning at him.
Jones gets kicked down from the platform by the earthpony who turns to me and salutes. I'm pretty sure it's a force of habit more than a sign of respect. After all, if they knew about the planned attack and where to find me they must know about my role in all this.
"Solid Steel, Equestrian Secret Service, combat division. Follow miss Darkness and Shaky into the air. Me, Three, and some other associates currently causing distractions will meet you at the extraction point," he pauses as a bell starts ringing in the distance, "Well, the reinforcements from the fortress will be here soon. That might make things interesting."
More guards rush into the square and I have serious doubts that Solid Steel can get out of here, no matter Three's magic and changeling hunting skills.
"I can help you get out of here. I know the city," I try to help. It is the least I can do even if it puts me in danger.
"No can do, kid. We're here to pick you up and that objective is done. Just follow miss Darkness. We'll be fine."
The dozens of griffons group up in front of the gallows to take the stairs up. The lucky thing is that they're all in heavy armor preventing them from flying. The bad thing is that fighting them with melee weapons is more than unlikely to work.
Their ranks shatter as a firebomb hits them as soon as they group up and scatters bodies into all directions.
I look up.
A massive shadow high above us gets lower and peppers the ground with more grenades.
"Let's go!" Darky points up, "And stay behind me. If they see a griffon they'll shoot him down."
I stretch my wings and follow the batpony upwards. Even if I wanted I wouldn't be able to go faster than her. I grin as the reason for her going first hits me. Her fire wing is visible like a small flare and I should be safe if I keep my distance. Shaky buzzes close to me. Changelings are incredibly agile in aerial combat but they can't fly too fast with those wings.
Looking down, I see Solid Steel and Three make their way to meet some other robed ponies and disappear into the narrow alleys. I can also pick out Jones in his black uniform flying towards the city fortress in the distance.
We have to get out before the Legion sends out griffons with thrusters and bombs. I'm pretty sure our luck will run out as soon as someone is able to tell the guards on duty what exactly is going on.
Darky tears through the clouds and we follow in safe distance.
"CEASE FIRE!" yells a voice as soon as she corrects her course.
The thing hovering hidden in the cloud mass is an airship. Correction, a warship. That name might evoke a faulty impression. It is an oval flying multi-layered platform kept in the air by rotors on its sides. The deck is made from mix of wood and metal and there's a dozen of ponies running around in what seems like controlled chaos. There are also some of them who are sitting still, watching the area around the warship through the aims of cannons of strange design.
As soon as the three of us touch the deck the ship changes direction and picks up speed. It might be faster than a flying griffon but not by much and I'm hundred percent sure that as soon as the Legion sends soldiers with thrusters they will catch up easily.
I don't recognize any of the ponies around but some of them are wearing the same little pin on their clothes that Solid Steel had.
I just sit down, having no idea what to do. It seems everyone around is waiting for something and both Darky and Shaky are gone.
I sniffle a little.
My claws are trembling, my legs are weak as noodles, and my breathing is ragged, BUT I'm alive. Even if the ponies know what I did they wouldn't try to rescue me from the Legion just to cut my head off back in Equestria, right?
How did they know Jones was lying?
I shake my head at my stupidity. The bastard hasn't said a true word in his life. The amount of forces and resources spent on saving me is... surprisingly low, now that I think of it.
About twenty ponies, some of them my friends and supposedly friends of my friends volunteering to help.
Yeah, and the massive airship of a design never seen before.
I stand up, lean over the railings and look down.
"Ah, here you are," says a pleasant voice behind me.
That guy is gorgeous!
Darky comes accompanied by a pegasus and she scowls as if his very presence was an insult to her. The only pony I know that got a similar treatment from her was Valiant Charge.
The pegasus' coat is pure white, his long, golden mane reflects the sunlight almost painfully, but all those features combined with the soft, yet still masculine, lines of his muzzle ensure me that mares must faint the second they see him. Heck, I almost did.
"Captain Icy Gaze," he doesn't salute but just nods, "Welcome aboard the Lightbringer."
"Prisoner on temporary release program Icy Gaze, more like," Darky snickers as Icy winces.
"Temporary release? I wasn't the one begging for somepony who knew enough about the Empire to plan this thing. Face it, doll, I'm the captain here. Aside from few secret service ponies the entire crew is here on my recommendation as well."
"And you are also still alive only because I didn't want you dead for whatever reason, even if you sure as hay deserve it. That might change if you piss me off enough to take my chances and start studying the maps myself."
"Blah blah blah," Icy slaps Darky's butt with his almost griffon-sized wing.
His smug grin gets smeared all over his face when she punches him so hard he rears on his hind legs. Lucky guy. With how Darky is fuming he must be thanking heavens she didn't use the hidden dagger.
"Now get navigating, buddy. Let's pick Heavy and Solid up and head back home."
"Ehm," I cough, "When the Legion gets wind of us up here we won't be able to fly away. This thing is too slow."
Icy, stopping the blood flowing from his nose with a hoof, smiles confidently.
"And why do you think that's the case? Trust me, when they come we'll be ready."
Another glare from Darky sends him skittering back down to the lower decks where presumably the command post is.
"I- thanks," I just say, "You had no reason to come for me but you did."
"I have my reasons," Darky looks into the distance, at this height there is only the blue sky as far as the eye can see, "Besides, this wasn't my idea."
"The boss will explain things when we pick up the rest."
"The," I visibly cringe, "boss?"
"Hey, you are technically a prisoner yourself right now. Don't make me smack you."
"Sorry," I breathe out.
"No problem. If we wanted you dead we could have just watched you dance the hemp fandango so if I were you I would like my chances."
The Lightbringer descends on a plain outside of the city where a group of ponies is already waiting. I can't shake off the feeling that the Legion must be planning something. Leaving an attack of this scale unanswered is unthinkable, obvious invasion failure problems aside.
Waiting few griffon heights above the sand, the crew unrolls few ladders over the side railings and five ponies climb on board. I recognize Solid Steel, Three, and Heavy Hoof. The other two look gruff and, for lack of a better word, pirate-y. The bandanas on their heads don't really help in improving the first impression.
I hang my head when we start rising again. Somehow it's hard to start talking to Heavy now.
"Sorry," I mumble as he passes me.
The punch makes me wish it was Darky. Even with the horseshoe blade it would have been less painful then Heavy's bare hoof.
"SORRY?" he roars, "Do you have any idea what would have happened if we weren't ready? Everypony, stallions, mares, foals would work for you meat-eaters. Well, those who would have survived the first wave. Sorry doesn't cut it."
"I know... but saying it is the only thing I can do right now."
He stops with his hoof ready to mash my head into the deck and then he shakes his head.
"I know you aren't a bastard," he says, "I know you made a mistake... but just thinking about how close we were to failing-"
He helps me stand back up.
"-Let's get out of here. We can talk later."
The ground is flowing under the airship again and noone seems to care about me. Understandable, especially when I notice most of them are looking in the direction of my hometown.
With a black cloud rising over the town the thing all of us were worried about comes. The cloud are griffons, about a hundred of them rising to cruise height and starting their thrusters. The entire garrison must be after us and with the speed they are closing in we definitely can't escape.
"Battle stations!" someone yells and the crew members presumably know what they're doing.
I run to one of the cannons on the sides. It has some sliders and it can't be that difficult to operate, right? Point at what needs to blow up, push the button. No need for a science degree to do that.
Solid Steel taps my shoulder.
"Ever used these?"
"Never seen one before."
"These are called flak cannons. They fire explosive or shattering charges. You set the predicted flight distance on the dial and then fire. It needs good distance guess but we have enough ammo. I hope."
"What was the last bit?" I can't help asking.
"That was," he sets something using the slider, aims vaguely, pushes the button, and a griffon disappears in a cloud of blood and feathers, "the order to start firing. We have only shattering charges right now which means you have to aim a bit better. A direct hit is unnecessary as the explosion releases a cloud of shrapnel at high velocity. Now, if you excuse me, I have to deal with the ones boarding us."
A quick turn of my head shows that the lightest and fastest of griffons are almost here. My job then is to take care of the slower ones who must be carrying the weapons capable of shooting us down.
The approaching cloud of griffons disperses as they have to avoid the shots and have no time to counterattack. The ones that slow down... end up as a shower falling on the sand deep below us.
After not even ten minutes I realize why Solid was so sure of himself. It was almost too easy to get rid of the flying artillery and even the bravest griffons set their thrusters to maximum to board us rather than start a firefight they couldn't win.
A shot rings close to my ear and someone falls over. I jump away from the cannon just to see a griffon's life end. Heavy Hoof shakes his front leg with some large metal ring on it. A hoof-operated gun? How does that work?
With a mix of pride and sadness I notice how little the amount of griffons that made it here is. The number of the lightly armored attackers drops drastically with every burst of unicorn magic, every gunshot, and every swing of a blade.
Come to think of it, trying to get on board from one direction as fast as possible was a dumb idea.
"YOU!" a familiar scream comes from the group of survivors.
"You again, Jones?" I sneer at the brown griffon.
"The Emperor will not take this lying down," he threatens the ponies around.
"I'm pretty sure he will explain this to the princesses as an action of a separatist military movement and you will be the sacrificial lamb," says Solid Steel, "I'm sure you know how politics works."
The wheel in Jones' head turns as he growls at his Equestrian counterpart.
"What will you do with the survivors?" I ask Solid.
"Disarm and release. They have no value."
"Good. Can you release Jones, please?"
I must be stupid but this is between the two of us.
"Why?" Solid asks patiently.
"This... all of this is my fault. I hurt this griffon by my incompetence and I want to end this once and for all, fair and square. He plotted all this just because of me."
"Give him the chance to find peace. Either I will pay for what I did or I will finally be at ease. He won't be able to threaten all of you if he wins anyway."
"Do you want to risk our effort going in vain?" asks Darky, watching the sitting griffons.
"Yes. This is personal. It has never been a thing between the Empire and Equestria. Well, it happened to be because of Jones' authority as a Black Ops member but mainly it's between the two of us. My best chance to end it is right here and now."
Solid nods to Darky who untangles the knots on the rope binding Jones.
"Finally found courage, kid?" Jones grins, cracking his talons.
I just wave to the endless sky around us.
"I won't run and if you try I will shoot you down."
"I'll make sure you'll never do anything again. Running will be the last of your worries. Sword, please. I will rid this world of this trash and we'll let the politicians handle the incident. You have my word as a Black Ops member."
"We both know your word is worth less than the air you breathe while say it," I comment to the chuckling of both ponies and griffons.
One of the crew members gives me a sword as well. I would have preferred a battleaxe but that weapon is almost never used even among unicorns because the agility of a flying sword is unparalelled.
Jones lunges at me, quickly slashing directly at my neck. I can only dodge. His technique proves this is his weapon of choice and he knows the ins and outs of melee combat BUT I'm younger, faster, and bigger. That means that as long as I don't take the challenge of skill and fight on my terms I can win.
Another slash, this time unpleasantly closer than before. He is improving with every strike and my counterattacks get parried easily. Using a system of quick moves similar to Heavy's style, Jones inflicts cut after cut on me. Nothing too dangerous but it will tire me out eventually.
I grab the sword in both hands and swing like a complete amateur, putting as much strength into the movement as I can. I know what he will do, Heavy punished me that way enough times to get it burned into my head, even if the weapon is different.
There it comes, the quick sidestep and the stab aimed at my heart. Even with the weight of the sword tilting me I can twist my torso to make Jones' stab just scratch me and put his head directly in the way of my slightly shifted swing.
Or not. Jones manages to duck and redirect my swing with his sword. The blow makes his weapon fly away from his grip though.
Even if he's unarmed and kneeling before me, I raise the sword to cut his head off...
...and freeze as his lightning-fast hand moves and pulls out a hidden gun from his boot. Staring into the barrel I realize I've made a final mistake.
"I have a one last lesson to teach you, kid. Only idiots fight fair and square."
His talon on the trigger moves impossibly slow but I can't move whatsoever.
"Indeed," says a familiar voice behind me.
The gunshot rings through the air but no impact comes. Instead I'm enveloped by a circle of golden-red flames looking like wings.
"Darky?" I ask quietly, knowing it's impossible. She's standing there, right next to the griffon prisoners and smiling. Plus she only has one phoenix wing. Also, the voice definitely wasn't hers. It was a voice I had no right to hear ever again.
The flames disappear and a drop of molten lead remaining from the bullet sizzles on the deck. Where Jones' hands were, pointing the gun at my head, are now just two charred stumps.
Legendary hero Cromach and Bobo, the phoenix watching his back.
Nothing. Not even Jones' angry screams can stop me from crying and smiling like an idiot at the same time when a black unicorn with blue mane and tail walks past me, fire wings slowly fading on his back and the orange glow around his horn disappearing in sync.
"I know what you did to him in the desert but I'm not that heartless," Mistake levitates a bag and puts it on Jones' back over the bound wings, "This is a parachute. If you manage to open it without your hands you might survive the drop and get another chance to live."
Jones, growling incoherently, wobbles as he stands up only on his hind paws without the help of his wings but he manages to get to the railing and jump over.
I have to see this. All the unaswered questions will come later. I have to know what happens now.
My heart skips a beat and I shiver when I see the parachute open. Jones in his insanity is still a threat to be remembered.
Or is he?
The white cloth of the parachute detaches from the figure without slowing the drop whatsoever. When someone asks me about this day I will say I felt the crunch of the griffon hitting the rocky wasteland even up here.
"What?" I mumble.
Mistake looks down and then at me. The expression on his face is colder and more judging than anything I've ever seen. It's nothing though compared to the tone of voice that almost makes me void my bowels.
"I remembered what he did with your gun in the desert and I cut off the tethers of the parachute before giving it to him. Let's just say I lied a little."
I don't know how he is alive and I don't care at this exact moment. He will explain everything later. Right now I need to get rid of the burning desire growing in my chest and fighting the chill of realizing how cruel the unicorn can be.
I pick Mistake up like a stuffed animal, force his mouth open with my beak, and tongue-wrestle him while the crew breaks up in cheers.
His going limp in my talons doesn't stop the kiss until I run out of breath.