First Mission: Big Guys, Big Guns
Carrying the unconscious batpony back to my 'hideout' at Burning Brand's bar, I wonder about what to actually do with my 'crew'. The idea of having an advanced warship at my disposal looks nice up to the point where I'm going to have to pay them... with money, money I'd rather keep to myself. Not that I'm a greedy bastard but all the bits invested in this little venture either belonged to Ivan or me and it has to return in some form which means we're going to need an employer. Now, what are the chances of somepony giving us a job and not trying to steal my secrets for himself? Pretty slim.
The second option is to find a way to turn profit by myself. That would require thinking of a goal which is easy - money and anything that's not boring as heck. Getting money for nothing counts as stealing or being a lawyer though and I'm not too happy about the idea, not to mention normal ponies don't have the bits to make this worth it.
Who says I have a problem with normal ponies? Why bother with stealing pocket change when I can now strike into the heart of Equestrian power? Hmmm, how pissed would Luna be if, let's say, her shipment of cakes was late or didn't come at all... or even better - came empty with a ransom note? That should teach her not to imprison innocents. An action like that would require a real base of operations though because casting shadow on Brand's estabilishment would make way more enemies than I can handle now.
So, step one - ambush something small and not too showy. Airship lumber transport? No, too much haul. Cross-ocean passenger ferry? Too well-guarded. The problem isn't sinking or destroying the target, it is getting enough gold while causing minimum damage and getting away. Some sort of tourist airship seems like the best idea. Airships aren't usually too protected and those who can afford the airship travel usually are nobles or rich ponies looking for new sights. The barrel of a flak cannon seems new enough to me.
No, step zero - look around Stalliongrad for somepony in need of firepower, preferrably as a threat rather than a real attacking force.
"Hey, Brand! Know a doctor around these parts?" I enter the bar and go straight to the counter.
"How badly did you get your balls kicked today, Frosty?"
"Not for me, I'm staying away from trouble as much as I can although it seems to find me rather easily. It's for the bat on my back."
"Hmm? Dude seems fine enough to me, bruises at worst, but I'll check him up myself. No need to bother anypony at this time of night. I've had to stitch ponies back together in here way more than I've ever hoped to."
Am I the only one who thought the bat was a mare?
"Thanks. I'll bring he-him to my room."
"I'll be up there in few minutes."
After today, even the flight of stairs is tiring me out way more than it should but soon enough I just lower myself over my bed and let the batpony slide on it. Now that I have time to examine him carefully I have to admit that even with the bruises and small cuts all over he's an amazing looking guy, sort of like me but smaller.
I'm not into stallions but I can easily appreciate somepony's looks, especially when I often get interested offers myself from both sexes. Aside from the dried blood his grey coat is silky smooth, his silver mane even more up to the point it seems to flow like water, and his hooves are in such a good shape he can't have stepped on anything aside from a carpet for days. What does bother me are the holes in his wings with various ornamental rings inside preventing them from healing and probably serving as something exotic for the brothel customers. That's something I can't even imagine, most pegasi love flying and their wings are more important than their life... perhaps it's different for thestrals?
The door clicks and Brand comes in with a small suitcase in his mouth. Few minutes of patient examination pass and he turns to me.
"I suppose it wasn't you who mutilated him so where did you find the poor wretch?"
"Huh, a pony almost beat him to death in a brothel. What's wrong with him?"
"Ooooh. Well, you see... sex trade in Stalliongrad is sort of unregulated which means some self-proclaimed surgeons get a lot of money to perform things that are illegal in most of Equestria, even when requested by the customer himself or herself."
"Not just that," he sighs and starts moving various parts of the thestral's body, "Burn marks on the underside of his hooves for increased sensitivity, a fairly common method to increase responsiveness to stimulation, painful or pleasant. Repeatedly broken and poorly healed bones, once again for increased sensitivity at the broken spots although unless he's an extreme masochist I have to assume this is just to make him more screamy for the rather brutal guests. Do you want me to go on? There's a lot."
"From what I was told he has nowhere to go so I thought I'd keep him around until he woke up. Is he some sort of a cripple then, like he can't walk properly or something?"
"He's not going to be flying anytime soon and I wouldn't count on him ever having foals."
Brand spreads the stallion's legs and I notice that two important things are missing. I cross my legs in the shadowed pain.
"I've seen griffons after the same treatment in the Empire."
Brand grins but there's no amusement in it.
"Yes. Those guys have it good though - no balls, no real sex drive. Unfortunately, the treatment in these parts where there are unicorns with skill and without morals comes with potions and magic making sure the desire in the stallion isn't gone. It's sort of the ultimate slavery. The desire is still there but goes away only if the customer is satisfied enough to bother with giving the servant his release."
My stomach revolves but aside from a hoof in front of my mouth I don't let it show.
"I don't think I want to hear anything more."
"Too bad because there IS something more I have to say. His body was basically remade to be a toy... I can't even begin to guess the state of his head. Buuut that's your problem now," Brand's grin turns way more sadistic than it should, "I can wake him up if you want me to."
"Yeah, better to get through this quickly," I sigh, "If you hear screaming that isn't mine just don't even bother."
Snickering, Brand stuffs his nose with cloth, uncorks a bottle, and waves it under the thestral's muzzle. When the bat begins coughing Brand hides the bottle and leaves.
Blinking few times and hissing as he tries to sit up, the batpony looks around the room, at me, and then hangs his head without saying anything.
Is he... waiting for something?
"So, yeah, ehm... you got beat up pretty badly," I decorate the truth a little, "I saved you so the guy didn't kill you but the brothel owner said the incident would cast bad light on them and you had to go."
Still just sitting on the bed and looking at the covers. No movement or emotion whatsoever.
"Eeeeh... what's your name?"
"Fail," his voice isn't as high-pitched as I expected but it's completely calm, almost detached.
"I don't have any."
"Okay then, Fail. What were you doing at the brothel?" I say, knowing it's dumb, but I just want to hear it from him.
"Yes," a little hint of pride shines through the empty voice.
"Hmm," I huff in frustration, "I'm too tired to deal with this. Do you have someplace to stay, somepony to call?"
Crap. Kick him out? Yeah... no.
"Damn. I'm going to take a shower. Stay here!"
"Yes. Do you require my presence?"
"What? Wait! No no no. I'm fine. Just stay here and... don't do anything dumb."
What did I do to deserve this? I could have found some experts on machinery, military strategy, and combat. Granted, I would have had to pay them crazy money but everything from now on would be so much easier. On the other hoof, the changeling will owe me personally, the unicorn thinks I know something about his brother, Ivan wants to build a doomsday machine and I'm the only pony who knows where to get more mirror blueprints, and the really weird whorse seems to be pretty obedient.
It's gonna be a miracle if the warship doesn't burn down the second we take off.
Speaking of which, I still need the real crew to do the hauling and whatever they'd have to do.
"Hey, Fail!" I turn the water off and yell outside.
His pretty but expressionless face and purple eyes simply waiting for another command are creepy. The fact that he just walked into the bathroom is even worse. Knowing his last 'job' I have a sudden urge to wrap a towel around me.
"What can I do for you?" he asks, seemingly unconcerned by the entire situation.
"How long have you been in Stalliongrad?"
"Two years, give or take."
"In the brothel?"
"No, doing odd jobs. When nopony hired me for a long time I found my way there."
"So you know your way around."
"Can you help me find some ponies interested in a simple job who wouldn't mind it possibly turning out slightly illegal?"
"Great. Now get out, you're staring."
"Sorry, sir," he backs away as if the words themselves hurt.
"No problem, just wait for me in the main room."
Weird, plainly weird. Do I have to care? No, not really.
When I dry myself off and walk out of the bathroom, Fail is sitting on the floor, head hung low again. An idea I seriously contemplate crucifying and setting on fire enters my mind.
"Do you do massages?"
"How much should I pay you?"
"I don't understand... you own me now."
"I can't go back. I have nothing. I am yours to use as you see fit."
"Buck this. Too tired. Massage now, not the weird kind, go have a shower afterwards. Don't bother me at night. Understood?"
I flop myself on my belly and let Fail do his job. Aside from his slightly uncomfortable moaning thanks to the burned underhooves he doesn't say a word. Not that it bothers me for long. With how good he is I drift off as my sore muscles slowly lose all stored tension.
As I wake up my first thoughts are concerned about nothing hurting anymore. Did Fail slit my throat at night and I'm now in heaven? Soft breathing nearby tells me that probably is not the case. Getting out of the bed, I almost step on Fail sleeping on the carpet next to it. As much as I believe he deserves some rest I'm going to need his help today.
"Wake up!" I nudge the batpony who has to have some sort of insane reflexes because he immediately assumes his 'normal' sitting position while probably still asleep.
"Sorry, sir! I'll get breakfast ready, draw you a bath, and-"
"Shut up, calm down, and listen! First of all, why do you sit like that? You look like you're talking to the carpet."
"Customers like to feel superior to me. Some of them like to hurt me and it's the shock when I can't see where the blow will come from which pleases them."
"You seem awfully alright with that."
"It's the only thing I'm useful for."
Not a hint of remorse or anything in that voice, just cold, hard facts.
"Ehm, well, right. Back to business, you said you knew where to get the ponies I need."
"Bars, employment agencies, dark alleys, low-grade hostels."
"Okay, let's do this."
Followed by the crazy batpony, I hope to find some normal hard-working ponies for a change.
Days pass and my mood improves dramatically because thanks to Fail I now have a group of desperate ponies willing to do pretty much anything for very little money. I even paid each one ten shiny bits just to show up at the warehouse when I need them. Students fresh out of school, season workers down on their luck, few mercenaries like me who just want to do something inbetween real jobs.
Well, 'my' batpony still creeps me out but from what he's done he seems more than trustworthy, albeit reluctant to talk about himself. I wasn't just aimlessly walking around looking for ponies though. Few quick questions and a clever disguise as a rich and young noble looking for excitement up here in the north revealed that ponies of 'my kind' often enjoy airship trips around the Crystal Empire with the sun shining even in winter and pretty crystals and sparkly ponies (not my words, just quoting my source).
Step two - find somepony to buy the loot we get from the raid. That should be simple enough. With the black market contacts and a hefty comission fee for Brand he should remember some more of his friends who deal in stolen jewellery.
Step right the heck now - go have a drink. Too much work and no fun made Icy a dull captain.
And, out of nostalgia sake, I'm sitting at the bar where I met Holy Light and Skullbreaker, sipping beer and thinking about airship piracy.
A cowled pony in a brown robe sits down at my table and looks at me across it.
"Can I help you?" I ask as friendly as I can, nursing my drink, focusing on the hoof gun, and feeling a satisfying click as the safety catch comes undone.
"Captain Icy Gaze?" a very deep and self-assured voice asks as the unicorn draws his hood back. His coat is pitch black and his mane is the same color but each strand seems to be tipped with purple.
Looking into the yellow eyes that seem to glow in the dim light of the tavern, I narrow mine. There is nopony that should know my name in this city.
"You must have got the wrong guy, mister."
"I am in need of a pony willing to find another pony for a reasonable sum of money, two ponies and a griffon to be exact. Do I still have the wrong pony?"
The last time I was asked to find somepony by a stranger in a bar stuff got REALLY bad. This guy doesn't seem to be Luna's messenger though as if he was I would have a group of Nightguards behind my back by now.
"First of all, how do you know my name?"
"I have been watching your efforts ever since you met one of my friends during your trip to the Griffon Empire a month ago."
"Must have been pretty boring then, watching me sit in prison."
"Not exactly, Icy Gaze. Resourcefullness is something I enjoy seeing grow although your using the earthpony mare was excessively drastic."
Magic, no way around it.
"Look, friend," I angle the hoof gun at him, not as sure he won't know what it is as I was a moment ago, "One wrong word and your head goes boom before your horn even lights up. Are you working for Luna?"
He smiles as if he wasn't a step from death.
"No, the young alicorn has her own goals while I have mine. Trust me when I say I have no malicious intent towards you. In fact, I really need your help."
Time slows down as the bullet leaves the short barrel and I can see the sound waves go through the air like rings on water, only in all directions. Suddenly, they stop, the bullet disintegrates, and reality returns. The gunshot should have alerted the entire bar but nopony seems to be paying us attention.
All that remains is the smiling unicorn.
Heck, I wanted excitement in my life, didn't I?
"I want to know who I'm dealing with first," I bark, still shaken by the event.
"Of course. My name is Void and I very much doubt you have ever heard of me. The ponies you will be looking for, however, you know quite well. They are the source of your current predicament after all."
No... please no. Not the crazy bat bitch and the traitor unicorn.
"Money! A lot!" is the only thing that might save me at the moment. I need something ridiculous, "Ten thousand, cash."
"Your payment will be done tomorrow."
"Alright," I hang my head in defeat, "Tell me the details."
"A unicorn named Mistake whom you have met aboard the Lightbringer, an amusing pun. A batpony with magical wings going by the name of Choking Darkness-"
"Indeed. The last one is a white griffon named Cromach, the target of your previous rescue mission. I fear they might be in mortal danger... again. I request you allow me to accompany you on the journey as well."
"Why me? Not that I don't like money but can't a unicorn with your kind of magic just, I don't know, get his crystal ball and look for them? I've never even heard of somepony capable of slowing down time."
"My powers are greatly diminished in this form so I have to travel in the usual way. Unfortunately for your highly educated magical solution, a phenomenon in the Griffon Empire is distorting all scrying magic. My guess is that someone or something is using Mistake's natural ability to cover its tracks which leads us to the last reason I do not want to go there on my own. My full power would undoubtedly attract the attention of said... something or someone."
"You cannot even begin to understand how."
"So we go there, shoot everypony stopping us, grab the targets, go home?"
"Exactly, although I would prefer avoiding conflict as much as possible."
"Deal! Remember not to call me Icy Gaze though."
"Oh? What is your current alias then?"
"Captain Frosty Stare, ruler of the skies!"
"Fitting," he says, looking at my wings, "When are we leaving?"
"Good. I will find you."
I blink and before my eyes open again he's gone.
Yeah... if that guy's a unicorn then I'm a Scoota-, ehm, chicken.
For some strange reason I have no real desire to finish my beer so I just go back home, cursing my fate. Still, I had the chance to refuse... in the same way I had the chance to serve the rest of my sentence peacefully and return to a mercenary life.
It clicks inside my head.
Void must think I don't remember him but I do, at least somepony VERY similar. The colors were the clue but I just couldn't place it at first because he was so small. In Ponyville, when Five's queen wanted to kill crazy Luna, an alicorn came and stopped her. The same eyes, same colors, only without wings and much smaller.
An alicorn in disguise accompanying me on my first trip. What could possibly go wrong?
An alicorn who is scared of going there alone.
"Is there anything wrong?" asks Fail when I get back home.
"I'm not sure. We'll see tomorrow, I guess."
Maybe, just maybe, I'll wake up, go to the warehouse, Ivan would not have added an experimental beam cannon to the ship, my 'better' crew members wouldn't be outcasts of society, and the damn unicorn-whatever wouldn't be there.
Unfortunately, my luck ran out the second I successfully got out of Canterlot castle. How do I know that? Because when me and Fail enter the warehouse right before noon everypony is already there... and so is the warship.
It's actually smaller than the Lightbringer but its triangular shape makes it longer and much more sleek. The hull is painted silvery grey to make it invisible in the clouds and the entire shape makes it look more like a real ship rather than a flying platform.
"Is it ready?"
"Been ready since yesterday, waiting for you. I guess these guys are yours, right? Not somepony sneaking inside here to see what's going on."
Workers, unicorn Void, Five, Fail, Skullbreaker, Holy Light, a group of corporate engineers crawling over my ship... well, maybe the last one isn't really there.
"Seems fine. Is there enough space for them?"
"Yeah. The entire outer shell is hollow but armored as heck. There's a general sleeping area with bunk beds where they'll fit, captain's quarters, and the bridge where I'll be watching over the technical stuff. The rest is a storage space for ammo, reserve power crystals, spare armor plates, and long-lasting food."
"Quite something, isn't it? Still missing one thing though."
"A name. Also, a group of mares to enjoy during the trip."
"Fail can do the sexy dancing if really necessary."
"Celestia protect us!"
"What? He's really good!"
"No temptation during the trip, eh?"
"Bleh, next time grab a mare as well. At least there would be somepony to rest my old eyes on. Also, the unicorn is really weird."
"The black one or the white, blonde one?"
"Both! When the black one is around I feel like an inexperienced little foal and the white one keeps scowling at the walls and grumbling something about princess Luna."
"At least they have personality, right?"
"I'm not even talking about the changeling and the idiot. Speaking of which, NEVER let the minotaur into the machine room again."
"Well, the group seemed interested in the ship so I gave them a tour before you came. Unfortunately, the mino thought one of the oscillator machines was scowling at him and threatened to eat its family."
"We're gonna die pretty soon, right?"
"Yeeeah... but don't let it bother you. So, where are we going?"
"The Griffon Empire. Void will tell you the details, he's our employer."
"Good. Now the name. Having a nameless ship is bad luck according to sailors."
"So is having a mare on board."
"Don't push me, kid!"
The original was called the Lightbringer so... Icebringer, as in carrying me? No, that's dumb. What does this ship stand for? Freedom... my freedom. Freedom I gained by escaping Canterlot. Freedom that started with me jumping in the middle of a blizzard from Canterlot castle airship landing pad and landing, cut and tired, in the city itself.
"-how does Hailstorm sound, Ivan?"
"Pretty cool, get it?"
"I'll have my crew shoot you out of a cannon."
"Not until I teach them how to use those."
"Do it soon. I'm afraid we're gonna need it."
"Yeah. Let's go!"
I cough loudly and watch the entire crew focus on me.
Well, that's unnerving.
"Get on board, Ivan will tell you what to do."
In mere half an hour the engines of the Hailstorm rumble and the entire thing starts rising vertically through the opening roof of the warehouse. The details of who is useful for what will be sorted later. Right now, standing in the command room, I can watch Stalliongrad get smaller and smaller until the clouds envelop us.
"Plot a course for the Imperial coastline, Ivan."
"Aye aye, captain!"