First Mission: Golden Sands
The trip to Golden Sands resort was nothing if boring. We couldn't do much and aside from Heavy Hoof sharing the mission budget with us I just kept going over my combat recordings in an attempt at finding some small grain of understanding to what I was missing. The problem was exactly the same all the time - Heavy Hoof knew precisely what I would do at any given moment.
Heavy was silent during our train ride from Canterlot to the coast, writing something into a small, white book. Aside from Dawn asking about it and finding out it was his diary, a habit he learned from his old sargeant that helped sort out thoughts, we just sat there and watched the landscape go by. I mean, there surely was something to talk about that would help me grow even a little but since I had no idea what to look for I couldn't just start a conversation.
It was Dawn who remembered a very important thing while we were crossing the ocean in a ferry.
"Hey, sir-Heavy," she looked up from a magazine as we were getting ready to shut down for the night, "I know we're supposed to go to Golden Sands and look for somepony and that me and Bucky here are just, well, baggage but can you tell us some details?"
Spitting a pencil out of his mouth, Heavy yawned.
"Sorry about that, I was just thinking about what we might find there. Our goal is simple... in theory. Three of my friends went on a vacation three weeks ago and nopony has heard of them since so we're trying to find them."
"That doesn't seem like something that would make princess Luna involve herself personally and give us an unlimited budget and time for. Who are these friends?"
"My old sargeant and a pony who for all means and purposes is a very deserving hero - Blazing Light. Princess Luna's personal bodyguard and Blazing's on and off marefriend - Choking Darkness, don't laugh, it's a family thing from what little I heard! And a griffon Royal Guard recruit Cromach who somehow got stuck with them. Ask him about the whole story one day, he loves to tell it just to embarrass Blaze."
"Do you think they'd even talk to me?" Dawn yawned as well, "I mean I'm not a high-profile pony like them."
"Blaze probably wouldn't. Nothing personal but he's kinda shy around other ponies. Darky would love a new face to mess with and, if you're into that sort of thing, she'd probably invite you to her place for drinks and then buck you senseless."
Dawn's face burst from brown to bright red at Heavy's lack of tact.
"Well, ehm, maybe... experiment?" was the only thing she managed to stutter out.
"It's sort of a greeting to her, long and a very personal story, don't worry about it. As for Cromach, he's a Guard recruit just like you, only while you were training under Rising Thunder before you got suspended he was in my group."
"OH! The completely white griffon? Wow, now I feel bad. While I was cleaning the prison cells he became a legend just like the others?"
"Heh, he got involved in things that shouldn't have concerned him and he got out alive. Maybe you'll slay some big, bad, ancient evil on this mission and become even more recognized than them."
"Don't even joke about that, I can't even hold a staff properly," Dawn groaned.
"Why did you think I gave you the chance to get out of this back in Canterlot? Blaze has a tendency to get involved in more danger than a normal pony should. Plus, if something is preventing princess Luna herself from finding them with magic there has to be something big going on."
"Now I'm scared."
"Just get some rest. Perhaps we'll be lucky and the problem is only a broken railway track or something."
"What's the chance of that being the case?"
"Exactly zero point zero percent," I smiled. I was useful for a moment!
The withering looks of the other two made me let out a distorted groan.
"I have a short entry for each of the targets in my database," I continued, trying to improve our chances of success, "Blazing Light alias Mistake. A possible unicorn ascendant with an unknown role, past host of mirror king Sombra's soul until he destroyed him completely in the mirror Crystal Empire, alternate bearer to the Element of Betrayal, part-necromantic zombie construct, capable of dissolving and stealing magic power to fuel his own magic, incapable of using spells otherwise under any circumstances, very high threat to princess Luna and any other magic user, low threat to those using only alicorn power such as Void and princess Celestia, will survive a tactical magical strike alongside cockroaches, duality. I am not sure what the last one is supposed to mean."
"That's not correct but close," Heavy snorted, "Blaze taught me hoof-to-hoof combat and the basics of staff techniques. I'm pretty sure he'd wipe the floor with you, Bucket, if he didn't lose his sight during the raid on Order of the Silver Sun in Manehattan. The part about being low threat to princess Celestia is completely untrue. I had a chat with Cromach and I read a lot, that's one good thing about being a special agent for princess Luna - I have unrestricted access to any library in Equestria. Blaze's anti-magic ability is devastating to unicorns and alicorns with weak natural power like princess Luna who have stunning magical talent to balance it. Alicorns with powerful special ability like Void or princess Celestia aren't as good with magic because they have to focus on controlling the natural force in their bodies. Unfortunately for whoever told you about Blaze not being a threat, Blaze's magic assumed similar form to Void's power after stealing a bit of Nightmare's power when princess Luna got possesses during the Ponyville incident. Thus, Blaze would be a deadly enemy even to alicorns if he wasn't the kindest soul I've ever had the pleasure to meet."
"Erm," Dawn mumbled, "What if something changed?"
"We run like heck as far as we can," Heavy said in complete seriousness.
"What about the others, Bucky?"
"Choking Darkness, princess Luna's bodyguard, thestral. Lost her wings during the second mirror invasion and is currently using a pair of magical ones created by Void, sex addict, average combat ability, cold relationsihp with Luna. She doesn't seem to be anypony special," I pulled a much shorter entry from my memory.
Both me and Dawn looked at Heavy who shrugged.
"Pretty much. She's just a normal batpony who seems superficial and airheaded at first but... no, she actually was that way years ago but Blaze changed her a lot. Believe one thing though - you don't want to make her mad. Thankfully, that's very difficult."
"Speaking from experience?" Dawn smiled.
"Yes. I got involved in the Ponyville incident while she was hiding from princess Luna. She almost killed me."
"Wow! Didn't Bucket say she was average?"
"Well, I didn't want to fight her at the time. I just didn't think she'd go that far for Blaze. Later, when I found out the truth about Blaze's involvement in the second invasion, I understood. She cares, a lot, but she hides it under the party mare mask."
"What about Cromach? Most of the mare recruits in my group shared some gossip about him being banished from the Empire. Well, when they weren't obsessed with shower fantasies about him," Dawn scratched her head, "Can't really blame them. The guy is gorgeous."
"Very handsome indeed," Heavy nodded, "Unfortunately, while I've known Blaze and Darky for years Cromach came to Canterlot only over a month ago. You can tell your friends to cool down though. While Crom is into ponies, both mares and stallions, he's currently engaged in mortal combat with Darky for Blaze's heart."
"Awwwww," Dawn pouted, "Cute and disappointing at the same time."
"Cromach, Royal Guard recruit," I said to complete my database exploration, "Used to be an Imperial Legion soldier, had a contract on his head for leaving the Legion until he killed an extremely sadistic bounty hunter, excellent physical shape and griffon weaponry training, talent for understanding mechanisms."
"So, all these guys, a magical enigma, a griffon warrior, and a batpony bodyguard, went to the place we're going, didn't return, and WE are supposed to find them, possibly dealing with whoever spirited them away?"
"Well, it's not like we're hopeless either. We have a robopony stronger and faster than anypony alive-"
"I can also cut, peel, juice, and do your taxes at the same time."
"-We have me.-"
"A pony with the physique of a god whose body is rivalled only by his weapon skills and knowledge about everything," Dawn got into the spirit of things.
"-I just like to read. And last but not least we have you, Dawn."
Me and Heavy exchanged glances, unsure what to say about the last member of our group. In the end both of us came to the same conclusion.
"Buck both of you!"
"Pleasure appendage engaged."
"Grrr... I'm going to bed."
With a thud Heavy closed his diary and shut the lights off.
- Griffon Empire
- Golden Sands town ruins
- Look for clues
- Overload 5%
- Damage 1%
- Energy balance -3%
- Heavy Hoof
Note: Sand and heat decrease efficiency of both physical and mental processes.
There's no way around it, the problem definitely isn't a just broken railway track. As we get out of the train that carried us here it's easy to see the devastated town ruins and griffon soldiers crawling all over the place.
The small city itself is a collection of hotels, souvenir shops, rent-a-boat places, and houses of griffons and ponies running those services. In short, a town living fully off fishing and tourism. Even shorter, a burned down desolation.
"This can't be good," Dawn comments.
"No, really?" Heavy mutters, looking at a griffon soldier striding towards us.
"From what I can see there are bullet holes in the walls, bloodstains of both griffons and ponies, and imprints of armor in the sand. Most buildings seem to have been barged into and torched from the inside. There are no traces of artillery strikes visible from here," I finish my analysis of the rubble.
"Hmmm," Heavy looks around, "You see way more than I do. How did the buildings get destroyed so thoroughly then? There's little more than few walls still standing and a ton of wreckage."
"An explosion seems to have occured, all bricks and remains are spread out in a circle," I point in one direction, "The center is that way."
"How do you know it wasn't griffon artillery then?"
"There are no scorch marks aside from those left behind by the fire raging inside buildings. The walls are scorched mostly on the inside. The buildings were destroyed by pressure, not thermobaric effects of an explosion."
"Thermometer what?" Dawn smiles nervously, trying to look as small as possible.
"Thermo - heat, baric - pressure," Heavy explains.
"That was quite the analysis, friends," says the approaching griffon wearing a black jacket, something very unexpected in the desert heat, and nods, "What are you doing here?"
"My name is-"
"Heavy Hoof, secret agent of Equestrian princess Luna. We know who you are."
"The Black Ops information sources are quite something then," Heavy grins.
"Not enough to know the mare by your side and to know that Equestria started a husk project apparently," the griffon clicks his beak disapprovingly but stretches out his taloned arm, "Agent Smith."
"Dawn, Royal Guard recruit and my temporary assistant," Heavy shakes the griffon's arm, "and Bucket, our analysis expert. We're here to find out what happened to three of our friends who were here on a vacation."
The griffon pulls a small notebook out and flips through few pages.
"Noone, noone, noone, ah, these guys probably. The ex-wanted griffon soldier, princess Luna's bodyguard, and their blind friend. Am I correct?"
"Once again I have to commend the Intelligence Service for their skills," Heavy nods his head, "Is there a problem with us looking around?"
"Keep this between me and you, friend! Normally we'd arrest you just for being ponies after an event like this but ever since the Jones incident your princesses hold way too much sway with the Emperor so feel free to look around. You might actually help us."
"Care to share what you've found out?"
"In a moment," the griffon waves at us, "Follow me!"
Shaking the sand out of my armor, I keep examining the area while we follow the Black Ops agent.
Anomaly detected: Temperature dropping
Bloodstains - pony
Bloodstains - griffon
Broken weapons and armor
Anomaly detected: Unknown cause of destruction
Anomaly detected: ?
"What happened here?" is the best I can do.
The center of the 'not explosion' that must have devastated the town is not a crater but the garden of a random hotel. That in itself is not the important thing. The reason for my, no way around it, discomfort is the large steaming pool of black ice I remember from Twilight Sparkle's laboratory. It seem that an agent of princess Luna managed to get a sample from here before the griffon forces arrived.
"Well, that's what we'd like to know as well," agent Smith snickers, "The material doesn't abide the laws of physics so we suspect magic. DON'T GO NEAR - fuck!"
A griffon soldier trying to look helpful in front of an agent went to bring us a small shard of the black crystal for examination and when he got close to the frozen pool he collapsed and broke into uncontrolled sobbing.
"Hrmph!" snorts Heavy and, running as fast as he can, pulls the griffon back to the safe zone. Two medics immediately get him on a stretcher and carry him off.
"I believe you have some explaining to do," Smith narrows his eyes, "Everyone who touched whatever it is suffered the same mental shock as the idiot."
"Tell me what you know about it first, agent."
"Nothing, literally nothing. A unicorn told us it wasn't magic but I think he was wrong. We have no clue what it's made of, just that it freezes and breaks every material it touches, and that it seems to make the place cold and griffons uncomfortable."
"Not that we know of. The signs point to there being a nomad raid at the town, we found tracks leading into the desert but they didn't last long enough for us to find out where they led and searching the desert in a spread formation is like looking for a needle in a haystack. If it was a normal raid then the attackers would have stolen valuables, taken the inhabitants for ransom or as slaves, and left the city without causing so much destruction. I think something the attackers didn't account for happened and it's tied to the black crystals here."
"Any... casualties?" Heavy asks and holds his breath.
"Yes. Twenty seven griffons, four ponies," Smith shakes his head as Heavy grits his teeth, "None looking like your 'friends'."
All three of us breathe out.
"Cause of death?"
"Have a look yourself," Smith shrugs and leads us to a large shiny tent with machinery running around it.
- material: heat reflecting aluminium
- machinery: cooling units, solar panels
- purpose: temporary morgue
"Are you sure you want to go in?" Heavy asks Dawn.
"Yeah, I can't be just a filly," she says as we step inside, "Besides, how bad can it really be? BLUHRRG-"
Dawn runs out of the tent.
- wounds: slashing, piercing
Unexpected result detected!
- remnants: dried blood, sand, black crystal
"Do sand raiders use large dogs or wild animals?" I ask.
"Not often, no. Plus, we haven't found any droppings or anything. Why do you ask?" Smith tilts his head.
"Something seems to have torn a piece of this griffon's side off and it looks like bite marks left by sharp teeth."
Heavy explores the body I'm describing thoroughly and clicks his teeth, looking at the griffon's arm.
No unusual result.
No trace of black ice/crystal
Suspected weapon: shortsword/dagger
"Sharp teeth? Hmmm..." Smith shakes his head, "Nothing comes to mind. Perhaps a really well-trained dog whose tracks got stomped into the sand in the melee?"
"The marks are too big for a normal dog. The closest species I can find is an Equestrian crystal warhound but the marks aren't erratic enough. This was just one bite, not a dog tearing somepony into pieces. The cause of death is the piercing wound through the chest," I explain.
"It can't have been done with a sword, it's too wide. It looks more like a thin spike."
"The sides of the wound are covered in shattered crystal, like the substance outside."
"So something created the ice outside and used it to impale the invaders? A unicorn mage then?" Smith asks.
"Yes," Heavy says loudly, "Is there more of the black stuff around?"
"Smart pony," Smith grins, "There indeed are hoofsteps leading into the desert, each one marked with small pool of the black ice. You know what you're looking for, I take it?"
"No, I just want to know who or what tried to protect the defenders and where it went after the raid."
"You can borrow some of our spare desert equipment if you want to follow the tracks. My soldiers are on it as well but they can't get close to the crystal without suffering an episode like the one you saved so they travel in a safe distance and alter their course periodically. Speaking of which, why weren't you affected?"
"I was. The effect breaks down morale and resolve but I have more than enough reason to keep going. It's very simple."
"Thank you for the help," Smith smiles and gives Heavy a small silver ornament, "Show this to my soldiers if you meet them while following the trail and they'll know to obey you."
"Thanks, agent. We better hurry."
"I'll try to find out where the captives are. If I succeed I'll tell the soldiers patrolling here to tell you if you come back."
Back out in the desert sun, we approach Dawn whose legs are still shaking and who is staring blankly into the distance.
"Are you okay?" Heavy asks.
"Do you need a rest?"
"Out... of... here..."
"Good, we have a lead to follow."
We equip ourselves with water bottles, supplies, and white clothes to reflect sunlight, and follow what seems to be a set of four horseshoes clearly defined by the black crystal outline around them. When we're out of sight of the town I turn to Heavy.
"What made you lie to agent Smith?"
"The dead body. I've seen a scar like that once and the puncture wounds on the arm were a clue. Was it that obvious?"
"Very. Who are we looking for then?"
"Damn! I believe Blaze is behind this somehow. The black ice is the sign of his power. It's not magic, it's more similar to alicorn abilities. He used it to protect us during the attack on the Order of the Silver Sun in Manehattan where he got blinded. The five deep puncture marks are from his mechanical griffon arm prosthesis he got when his left front leg got ripped off in a fight."
"What if the griffons find out?"
"They won't, probably. It's a secret between me, Cromach, Luna, and Darky."
"But he's your friend, right? So... we're okay then?" Dawn tries to smile but it does come out extremely forced.
"He left the town without saving the citizens. That to me spells two things - either the nomads had somepony with them who he wasn't able to deal with and had to run away or, the worse case, he became more dangerous to them than the attackers. The lasting marks of his power make me thing the latter is the case."
"How is that possible?"
"It's his ability to steal magic. I don't exactly understand it myself but during the Ponyville incident he stole the power of Nightmare Moon controlling Luna to fight her which changed the way his magic worked. Plus, he had mirror Sombra inside him at the time who let him use his magic as well.-"
Heavy stops when he sees the lack of understanding in us. We weren't there and we didn't have the chance to talk to all involved parties like he did.
"-Nevermind. All you need to know is that he was able to fight Void, the alicorn of Death, in his pocket dimension and go even. Blaze has too much power to control is what I think."
"That's not all, is it?" Dawn sqeaks.
"No. Considering how much dark magic he stole I think he might be fighting for control with... something else."
"And you want to FIND that guy?" Dawn facehoofs, "WHY? It's better he's gone somewhere deep into the desert where he won't cause damage!"
"Because I owe everything to him," Heavy grinds his teeth, "and he's been there for me whenever I needed it. I will be there for him when for once it's him who needs help even if I have to be the last one on his side."
His tone clearly spells that the conversation is over.
Add note: Heavy Hoof; possible enemy