Black: They're Not The Best But Damn!
"How's it going?" I look at Ivan standing on a raised podium inside an unused warehouse owned by one of Burning Brand's many... friends.
He breaks his stare away from the blueprint copy lying on a lectern in front of him and smiles.
"Glad you stopped by, boy. I have a question before my guys start the actual construction."
"Not as such but I've been studying the blueprints and I think I've found few weak spots."
"I'm not sure how I can help you with any engineering issues."
"That's not it. The original airship the plans are for is basically a flying, heavily armored platform with these 'flak' cannons on the deck. Everything about the design tells me that whoever put that thing together didn't care about the crew whatsoever. I need you to tell me a bit more about the original. I know I said I wouldn't push you but what you gave me weren't engineering blueprints but something somepony drew based on the real thing."
"That obvious?" I nod my head in surprise at Ivan's expertise.
"To me, yes. So?"
"Okay, I'll tell you what I know which actually isn't that much. Princess Celestia is trying to build good relations with the ruler of some other Equestria called the mirror world. These plans are based on a ship of said ruler. From what I know ships like these are fairly commonly used by their military but this one is supposed to be better because it's sort of a flagship. I'm not sure in exactly what aspect because I haven't seen the normal ones."
"So it's basically a flying fortress, slow and devastating."
"Trust me, Ivan. That thing is anything but slow."
"Yeah, I can't tell how strong the propulsion system will be until the crystals arrive but there are no aerodynamic shapes in mind in the design. I think that I can improve the ship to be faster. For a small trade-off of course."
"The original was designed to be able to move in every direction at the same speed but with some rather major changes of shape I can redesign the ship's frame to fly far faster in one direction at the expense of losing some of the omnidirectional thrust."
"So it will be less agile?"
"Noooot as such. Imagine a large soup plate with five engines, one on the bottom and four equidistant on the circumference."
"My brain hurts."
"Work with me here, kid. That's how the original works, I suppose. Now if we change the shape and rearrange where the engines are we," he stops, looking at my glazed over eyes, and sighs, "Back to the soup plate analogy."
"Okay. Now imagine the deck shaped like a letter. You could now stick two engines on one long side, one on the bottom, and one on both short sides. You would lose the ability to move in one direction but you would move twice faster in the other direction."
"But aren't circular shapes more difficult to hit with long range attacks? That's why the Lightbringer was a soup plate, as you say."
"That was just to simplify it for you. There are engineering methods to keep the attributes intact while changing the engine layout."
"Why not just add more engines and turn them on depending on how fast we want to move at a given moment?"
"Hehehe. A simple reason, kid. I don't have the inventor of that thing here. As I said, these aren't real engineering blueprints which means I can build the ship, remake the ship, but not add or remove anything because I honestly don't have enough information on how the thing works. Some of the engine and cable designs are similar enough to known ones to let me improve or rework them but I-"
A string of drool from my open mouth reaches the wooden planks of the podium.
"-Nevermind. Do you want the movement changes or not?"
"It should help in case we need to run away. Go for it."
"Good. I'll have it done by the time the raw resources and workers get here. Good news, by the way, the chemistry and magic parts of the process are supposedly fairly simple so the crystals and cables I ordered from the Crystal Empire should arrive here in time."
"Nice. I'll go look for the crew and buy a fancy captain hat."
"Speaking of buying things. I built something from the second set of blueprints you brought."
"The hoof-operated gun. Overnight?" I blink.
"It was just simple metal-casting and I brought the gunpowder home from work before I sent in my retirement request."
He presents what looks like a thick bracelet with six short tubes on it.
"How does it work exactly? Wait, you've left your job? The 'I got infinite money' job?"
"Yes," he smiles widely, "Now we're in this together. Good or bad. Stand still before you shoot your hoof off, kid."
I freeze, the bracelet in my hoof.
"How... sensitive is it?" a memory of unicorns and projectile weapons invades my head again.
"Don't worry, the safety is on. Well, there are two ways to use it from what I understand. If you bend your hoof down it deactivates the safety and then you just need to hit the back of the tubes with your other hoof. There's a bullet and a firing mechanism in each one."
"So I get six shots and then I have to reload? On top of that I have to sit still or stand on my hind legs, right?"
"No. If you twitch your hoof just right and deactivate the safety quickly twice in a row one of the barrels will fire. The order goes clockwise from the top one. One more thing, the recoil is horrendous so it wil take some time to get used to and since the barrels are so short the accuracy is awful on any range longer than few pony lengths BUT you basically have a small cannon on your front leg."
"Okay, punch somepony, twitch hoof, ribcage goes bye bye."
"Pretty accurate summary, yes."
"Uhh, thanks for the gun... and everything."
"Don't worry about it. I can now fully focus on making this ship the most devastating CREATION EVER MUHAHAH HA HAH HAAAAAAA!" Ivan turns back to his copy of the blueprints, giving me a clue to stop bothering him and start being useful.
Carefully, I put the hoof gun on and bend my hoof a little. When I feel a click I point at the far end of the warehouse and tap on the back of one of the gun's barrels.
"WHOA!" the bullet scratches the floor quite a short distance away from me.
Epic, this thing can miss a building from the inside.
Ivan's murderous glare makes me back out of the warehouse into the streets of Stalliongrad.
The day passes quickly with me walking around and visiting tavern after tavern for ponies willing to partake in a venture that might end up being slightly illegial. I'm not exactly sure why yet but having an ultimate aerial force of this world has to bring attention of somepony to me eventually.
Well, ponies are ponies and finding some thugs to operate weapons and do whatever Ivan tells them to in order to keep the ship running should be simple. What I need is somepony to keep those guys in line... some sort of mid-tier officer reporting to me. Those ponies unfortunately have to be smart and skilled, just the kind of ponies who are usually taken.
"BLOODY LOVESUCKER!" yells somepony from an alley nearby.
A changeling in need of help, perhaps in need of somepony getting him out of Stalliongrad? Ask and ye shall recieve, captain Frosty.
With no ulterior motive than to help the seemingly attacked changeling I rush towards the angry voices, such a good heart I am.
"What's going on here?" I ask in the most official tone I can muster when I spot a changeling surrounded by five ponies, two of them turning to me at my interruption.
"We're just teachin' the bug a lesson that while our dear and beloved princess might be a little too soft-hearted we do not take kindly to his sort around here."
A pipe and a crowbar float through the air.
Great... there are unicorns. Damn unicorns.
I could just back away, mumble something about how changelings suck, and get away unscathed. Is the chance of having a changeling owe me enough to risk my health?
The thought is strong enough right until I look at the bugpony.
He's smiling nervously and trying to look as small as possible, all that while wearing a brown 'I luv pones' T-shirt and a matching wooly cap. They say that in moments of extreme danger the brain focuses and notices small details that would otherwise remain hidden. One of those small details is that the changeling doesn't have wings and the hue of his black chitin isn't green like most changelings have but dark blue.
I've seen a changeling like him before. It was during my parole mission aboard the Lightbringer and she was a member of the crew. These guys don't belong to queen Chrysalis but to somepony else. Also, they are the most effective killing machines I've ever seen.
"Well, I wonder how the princess would treat those who disobey the peace treaty. Perhaps she might send them to do some 'volunteer' work in the hive... broodmothers to boost the ranks or something," I take the changeling's side of the argument, hoping he's at least half as good as the one I met was. Three was her name or something?
The closest pony gives me a tired 'A hero, eh?' look and raises a brick.
Time to test the new gear out. Was it release the safety twice?
I point at the closest pony and twitch my hoof. Nothing happens. A brick flies around my head. Did Ivan build this thing wrong? He said he wasn't sure about the technology.
A quick jump backwards is enough to avoid a flying crowbar as a unicorn joins the earthpony previously throwing a brick at me.
"You look like a foreigner yourself. Perhaps a pretty face from Canterlot where they kiss the asses of their changeling masters."
The hay am I doing wrong?
Just a few more steps back and I can take flight, leave, and return after they're done with the changeling. Getting him to hospital later should have him owe me anyway...
...I must be getting rusty if five civillians pose a real threat to me, armed or not. Screw the changeling, this one is for me.
"You know what?" I rush forward and bury a hoof into the neck of the unicorn, hearing the clanking of iron pipe on the cobblestones as a reward, "As it turns out, some changelings," continuing the movement, I push the unicorn into the earthpony, "are pretty cool guys if you get to know them."
The duo ends in a tangled ball on the ground and the other three turn to me.
"Get out of here, buggy," I nod to the changeling and lock stares with the other three.
The moment doesn't last as when he picks himself off the ground a pony kicks him back down. The moment of distraction as the others chuckle is filled with me slapping one pony away with a wing and kicking another one.
*click click* *BANG*
Bits of one pony away...
Everypony stares at the one pony whose side is now decorated with a deep red groove with strands of flesh hanging out, everypony but me. Punching the wound, I make him scream and fall over.
"Anypony else?" I growl, trying to look much more threatening than I really am.
"You're dead, bastard."
I'm now in the blocked end of the alley.
Damn the too big wings.
The changeling sighs.
"I just wanted to know about your beautiful city," blue shimmer envelops his horn and the five ponies keel over, "They're just sleeping but it won't last more than few seconds. Let's get out."
"Come here," I wave at him when we leave the alley, "The noise might have alerted some guards and you don't want to be anywhere near. Hop on!"
With the surprisingly light changeling on my back I take short flight towards the closest open bar.
"Let me buy you something good for the nerves," I smile at the changeling as we sit down on the barstools by the counter and order two beers.
"Thanks. I wish this didn't keep happening in every town," the changeling sighs.
"Then you better go to Canterlot first. It's not so bad there."
"Been there, got bored, when the princess of food offered I followed her north."
"If it's not too personal, you're not a normal changeling, right?"
"The exact term is a Nightmare changeling, a name that sucks million balls."
Right, that's it. Now I remember.
"I think I met one of your kind, she called herself Three."
"Hey, nice! She stayed with princess Celestia in Canterlot after princess Luna went loco if I remember correctly. My name is Five."
Holy crap he's right!
Meeting Three aboard the Lightbringer wasn't my first time seeing the Nightmares. At the end of the mission that landed me in the slammer in the first place there was a huge fight in Ponyville between the Nightguard and possessed princess Luna on one side and a ragtag group of ponies I didn't know on the other. The Nightmares arrived with their queen to help princess Twilight Sparkle fight Luna and her guards. They would have lost anyway if it weren't for the target I was tracking in the first place, a traitor called Blazing Light, who died but stopped the insane princess from killing all of us.
"Ic- Frosty Stare," I shake his hoof, "What brings you to Stalliongrad, Five?"
"Meh, I felt pretty bad when I was the only one not called to help to Ponyville because I was in the Crystal Empire at the moment and it kept nagging me so I decided to make queen Guiding Light proud by travelling around the world and sending her postcards and letters which was what we were supposed to do before most of us settled down either in the hive in Pine Hills or elsewhere."
"Nice. So you've travelled a lot?"
"Eeerm," he blushes and scratches his head, "I got some money from princess Cadance but I took my time walking around the northern parts of Equestria through small villages. This is actually the first big city I've been to after the Crystal Empire."
"Mhm," he slurps his beer.
"Do you want to see more? I'm getting a little travelling project ready. I'm assembling a crew and I could use somepony with your sort of magic around."
"Cool! Wait, magic? I can't use any magic."
"The sleep spell."
"Oh that. That's not magic, all of us can do it to some extent, it's natural."
"Oh... I thought I've found myself a mage. I'm pretty sure I'm going to get in some danger pretty soon."
"I can take care of myself, I just didn't want to needlessly hurt those misguided ponies."
I don't think I've seen a Nightmare fight poorly, he might not be lying.
"-You know what? Sure. We might get into trouble with the law though."
"As long as it doesn't cast shadow on my queen's name I have no problem with it."
"You can always transform into somepony else, right?"
"No, I can't. My kind chooses only one transformation and then can shapeshift between that one and our original form. What if I offer you my transformation as a payment for letting me join your crew?"
"I get to choose what you turn into?"
"Deal. As for your transformation, I'll let you tag along first and if you think your desire to travel was satisfied enough I'll choose it."
Something twitches inside me at the wide-eyed look of Five slapping his hoof to his muzzle in an attempt to imitate a salute.
"Stupid Luna, worthless scheming bitch," I hear a voice grumble behind me as I go over my situation while drinking my beer.
"A likeminded soul, I see," I turn and grin into the face of a white unicorn with broader shoulders and almost alicorn-length horn, "I got thrown in prison for her failures, what's your issue?"
He bobs his head front and back to make his eyes focus.
"My name is Holy Light and Luna's thugs killed my parents and both brothers. Beat that, pretty face."
"Tell me," I smile smugly inside my head, "Are you any good at magic?"
"Protective magic only. Why do you ask?"
"I'm looking for ponies for a venture that might go against our dear ruling class. Princess Luna might be on the recieving end."
"I have no desire for revenge," he smiles and takes a gulp of wine, "My family and the entire Order were fanatics. I was happy to get out of their company. The only thing I pity is that my younger brother had to grow up in the rage after I left. Still, they were my family."
Hmmm, the guy does look to be about my age, although a little more wrecked.
"The Light family? Does name Blazing ring a bell?"
His eyes narrow when I say that.
"The little crime I got arrested for was princess Luna trying to find Blazing to kill him."
"What did you do?" his expression becomes unreadable.
"I joined the ponies who stopped her plan. I sure as hay didn't go to prison as a reward," I scowl.
It's a bit of a stretch but technically still true, motives and consequences aside.
"A mage you said?" he smiles suddenly and I spot the spark in his eyes, "How about a swordspony experienced with shielding magic who has proven himself during both mirror invasions and served with prince Shining Armor personally?"
Now here's a piece of information not everypony knows.
"That's an impressive resume," I clap my hooves, "I'm sure we'll get to meet princess Luna face to face eventually to... talk."
"I doubt it. She's the head of our true princess Celestia's intelligence service so she has enough agents to do her dirty work."
"I could find some spare time to find a way to lure her out."
"What do you need me to do and how much will you pay me?"
"Meet me back here in a week. I should have the other ponies accompanying me gathered by then. I'll tell you everything and we can talk about the payment."
Holy Light stares at his wine for a moment.
"Deal. See you next week, mister..."
"See you next week, Frosty," he performs a strange salute, "The dawn will come!"
Swaying slightly, he pays the bartender and leaves.
"HAMMER!" a roar shakes the building.
Ugh... what now?
"Waitwaitwaitwait! I was just curious about the minotaur culture up north-"
"WAT BUG SAY?" a grey minotaur shakes his warhammer at Five who has to unhealthily bend his neck to look up at the tall creature.
"-I didn't mean to insinuate you don't have any."
The minotaur's eye twitches.
Aaaaand he's dead.
The hammer breaks the wooden floor around the impact and sends cracks into the furthest corners. Not even a second later the minotaur drops his weapon and crumbles to the floor. The changeling rolls quickly between his legs.
"No need for that, no need for that. I think that tribal culture has a lot to teach us about close relationships," Five waves his hooves defensively, his wooly cap covering one eye.
"Okay okay, what's going on?" I step in the argument and on the minotaur, "You, stop trying to flatten my friend and you, Five, stop provoking the mino."
"I just wanted to talk!" Five steps away from the minotaur, "Up in the Crystal Empire there were some minotaurs but none this strong or dumb."
My world suddenly spins as the minotaur effortlessly stands up despite me standing on him and picks me up by the leg. Dangling face to face with him, I get a good look at his uneven and sharp teeth.
"Damn it, Five, shut up or you'll get us killed!" I yell.
"Oh, that's what's bothering you, cap? Sorry," he blurs and the minotaur falls to the floor again, clutching his knees, "I just wanted to get him to tell me about his home and he wouldn't so I was worried my queen would be disappointed."
"HOW BUG DO DAT?" the minotaur stands up but doesn't raise his warhammer anymore.
"That? It's easy, mister. No matter how strong you are your joints are still limited so if I hit your knees from behind you fold up like a deck chair without being too hurt."
"Hey, thanks! You're pretty cool," Five grins.
"COLD NOT BOTHER SKULLCRUSHER!"
And then it comes...
"Can we keep him, cap?" Five gives me the puppy eyes.
"What are you doing in Stalliongrad, Skullcrusher?" I ask.
Somepony will have to save us from Five's mouth.
"GOING HOME. WORK DONE. PAID SHINY COINS."
"Do you want more shiny coins?"
"SHINY MEANS FOOD."
"Keep him occupied until next week. Then meet me here and I'll see about my crew arrangement."
I need a break.
Paying for my drink, I leave the two to explain how they would pay for the broken floor and walk outside. Now I've got an insane engineer, a ninja with no social skills, a vengeance-driven paladin, and a berserker so dumb not even other minotaurs want him. On the bright side, there's always a chance they won't show up next week.
All in all, not a bad result for one day. I strongly believe I found the best of the worst possible choices. The rest of the crew should be normal ponies with slightly negotiable morals whom I should be able to switch from time to time. I need a quiet place to think, relax, and actually plan what to do with the airship.
Perhaps the service of... professionals?
The evening is slowly passing so I look for the discreet signs of decent whorsehouses. Not too high-class where the price may be too steep but a good-looking low-class one where there are almost no taboos whatsoever for the right price. That's where one can find the most willing and experienced... sexperts.
I may have caught idiocy from Skullcrusher.
One such estabilishment doesn't stay hidden for long and I enter a carpeted, dim hallway with a counter on one side and doors leading to the main stage with dancers on the other. There is a staircase going upstairs at the end of the hall for customers like me who want a little more hooves-on action.
"What'll it be, sir?" asks a young mare wrapped in see-through silky robe working the counter.
"How much is it for room service here?"
Room service is a griffon special that has found its way to Equestria in recent years. You're not buying an exact service but more like time spent with an 'employee' assigned to a certain room who will do anything you want as long as it's within limits of the whorsehouse. Also, it contains the element of surprise as you have no clue who will meet you there. Not that I'm looking for anything special or downright disgusting but I want a bit of me time with somepony who knows what they're doing. No insult intended for Dawn but a mare who only lies there like a plank just doesn't spark it in me.
"Thirty bits for an hour," she says sweetly and I pull the requested amount out of my money pouch, "Thank you for your patronage, sir. Room eleven, up the stairs and to the left. Have a nice time."
"Thanks, my lady," I wink at her but she's too experienced to fall for my face and just smiles back.
The doors of the rooms in the long hall on the first floor are well soundproofed but as I reach for the handle I hear an angry voice from the inside. I can't really make out what it's saying but I knock on the door anyway.
Well, I can understand THAT. I don't really intend to bother anypony here but I paid for my service and taming an angry mare through charm or diplomacy might prove a wanted distraction from thinking about my not-so-epic crew. Simply for that reason I push the handle and open the door.
"I'm not done here!" a pegasus roars at me and swipes the air with his wing. He's smaller than me but obviously furious about something. For various reasons I fail to believe he is the 'content' of this room and I look around.
A split second later I punch the pegasus so hard his head breaks the large mirror attached to one of the wardrobes. I don't wait for him to recover and slam downwards hard again. A crunch of bones later he's lying on the carpet, bleeding out of his temples.
Kicking him for good measure, I walk over to the limp thestral mare he was apparently beating before I came. A thin trickle of blood from her muzzle makes me want to kill the bastard. Abusing a weak and defenseless pony is too much even for me. Hey, I'm a mercenary, not a criminal, Luna did that to me.
Good, she's breathing.
"What's going on?" a large earthpony runs into the room. It seems that the pegasus' angry yelling attracted some attention when I opened the door.
"This asshole," I point at the unmoving pegasus, "was beating her, Brick. Don't know why, don't really care."
"Have we met?"
"You have a familiar face. Now help me get this girl some attention before the guy gets back up."
"He's not going to," Brick the omnipresent bouncer leans to him and then looks at me, "You did this?"
"He's dead?" it clicks to me.
"Broken neck. Stay here!" he scowls at me and leaves the room followed by the click of the heavy door.
Seeing no obvious way out, I sit on the floor and look at the mare. Her coat is dark grey and her mane silver where it's not stained by blood. The choker on her her neck says 'Fail'. Even with blood slowly crusting on her head she seems to be breathing and I can't find any serious wound. There are some wet wipes on the table nearby so I start cleaning her. Her muzzle is longer than normal but I haven't met enough batponies to make a clear judgement about thestral standards. She's slim with decent rump so I don't really complain as I run my hoof over her back just in case she wakes up and needs a warm touch.
The door clicks and the bouncer returns accompanied by the receptionist from downstairs and an older mare in a fancy outfit who must be running this entire place.
"Your story?" she asks, looking at the mess around.
I'm not too fond of her cold tone so I keep to the facts.
"Heard yelling through the door, went in, got attacked by that guy, defended myself."
The mistress looks at the receptionist.
"He came in few minutes ago. He can't have done it," she shrugs.
"Get rid of this trash, Brick," the mistress nods towards the dead stallion and turns to me, "Well, if we report this to the guards we'll get blamed for this entire thing."
"I can easily testify in your defense," I shrug.
"That is very... noble of you but the mark on our reputation would stay anyway. Now, since you're the one responsible for this I'll give you an option."
"Responsible? He attacked me!"
"You don't seem to be from around here. The local guards aren't too keen on... complicated crimes. The chances of them bothering to look for a foreigner are fairly slim. The most obvious thing that's going to happen is that they'll assume that poor thing," she looks at the unconscious mare, "killed him in self-defense. Unfortunately, nopony in this city will bother with defense and one fairly innocent life will be lost."
"That's pretty crap, if you don't mind me saying."
"Such is the life of those lost here in the north. The second possibility is that I let the two of you go and hide the presence of the brutal pig who will thankfully not bother anypony anymore."
"I can bring her to her family or something if you tell me where they live."
"Her? There is nopony who will miss 'her'," she snickers, "It's not your problem anyway. You can just leave and all your problems will disappear, I'll take care of the rest."
I look at the unconscious batpony.
Damn this... an unwanted hooker would be a GREAT addition to my supercrew. At least the day can't get any worse.
"I'll take her off your hooves for tonight and explain things when she wakes up," I hoist her on my back and feel a pressure where it really shouldn't be. Suddenly, the mistress' snickering becomes crystal clear.
"It's a dude, right?" I facehoof.
"Have fun!" she smiles widely and Brick escorts me outside.
Ivan will kill me when he finds out who he'll be flying with.