First Mission: Desert Trail
"Landing might not be the smartest idea," Ivan looks at the screen in front of him showing griffons digging through rubble, "unless you want to take those guys on which, funnily enough, we probably could."
"Yeah, while I was aboard the Lightbringer the flak cannons ripped a hundred flying griffons to pieces. Too bad we can't aim them down."
"We have some bombs but nothing too effective. You don't, by some strange chance, have some notes on making a really big bomb, have you?"
"No, the engineers were keen on sharing the mechanics details but the only weaponry my friends managed to get plans for were the flak cannons."
"Well, we're not going to do any carpet bombing anytime soon, kid. The gunpowder charges we have are standard griffon issue, nothing for large scale operations."
"It doesn't matter. Killing defenseless griffons aside, we'd lose any chance of finding clues about the guys Void wants us to find."
"Speaking of the creepy unicorn, you haven't talked to the crew yet."
"I'm paying them, isn't that enough?"
"You've never led a team, Frosty?"
"No. Hired lance, caravan guard, prisoner."
"Then take it from me, you want to get to know them even if it means knowing whom you can sacrifice if need be. Ponies won't follow you just for money."
"Eh, whatever. I'll go ask Void what he wants us to do here. Perhaps he'll think of a way to get through the griffons. Is there any chance of them spotting us up here?"
"No way. We're hidden in the clouds and the only way we can scan the area under us is thanks to these pretties," Ivan taps on the machine with the screen, "Unfortunately, if you want more detail in the picture we'll have to go lower and risk the soldiers looking upwards."
"Maybe later. See you, Ivan."
"One last thing, Frosty. Seeing as we've found out we're going to need some real weapons. This ship is insanely fast and well-equipped against airborne attackers but in case we have to siege a fortress or something we have nothing. Perhaps you could tell me where you dug up the blueprints for this beauty and we'd go get something more, hint hint?"
"Unfortunately, that would mean attacking a heavily fortified fortress in the first place. Can't you think of something, mix some chemicals to blow stuff up?"
"I have my hooves full learning how to operate this thing effectively and teaching the random ponies you grabbed off the streets."
"Hmmm, what if I got you somepony smart enough to fly this so you can focus on the exploding part of our project?"
"Got anypony in mind?"
"Yeah, either Five or Fail."
"Whaaaat? Sorry, Frosty, but I'm not comfortable with the bug around and the whorse freaks me out with the way he talks."
"Come on, Ivan, Five is absolutely fine. From what I've seen the Nightmare changelings are way friendlier than the guys who used to hunt us for food under Chrysalis' rule before the peace treaty. As for Fail, to be honest, as little as he talks about himself he's smart as heck and never talks back. Or would you prefer me telling Skullbreaker to help you here?"
"I'll murder you in your sleep!"
"That's captain for you, Ivan."
"I'll murder you in your sleep, captain," Ivan grins, "Now do your job and get to know your crew."
With a deep sigh I leave the bridge and trudge through the bowels of the ship, admiring the design again and again. The halls are low but not small enough to be too uncomfortable and the walls are paper-thin just to lower the weight and offer as much space as possible. Surprisingly enough, the Hailstorm is big enough to have three decks. The lowest one - engineering deck with machinery and a general cargo bay, the middle one where the bridge, communal sleeping area, and few rooms, are, and the top deck which is outside. Knowing there's nopony I want to talk to on the machinery deck, I return back to captain's quarters, the only double room on the ship.
"Hey, Fail!" I look at the batpony brushing his mane, "Ivan wants to make you a new pilot so he can have some free time with inventing his end-of-the-world nukes."
Back in Stalliongrad I sort of got used to Fail sleeping in the same room. It wasn't too different from sleeping in one room with soldiers around me after I got over the 'he blows other ponies for living' thing. Right now I have no reason to not believe his act to be genuine and while he might be touched in the head I think he has potential.
"M-me?" he hiccups, "I've never done anyhing like this! Isn't there anypony better?"
"Point taken, sir. Should I go now?"
"Finish whatever you have to and go. The sooner you start the sooner you'll be at the helm. I know you can do it."
"I-I'll try my best, sir."
I've been around enough guards and soldiers to recognize Fail must have had some sort of training. Perhaps a recruit who failed to get into the ranks and had to find a job elsewhere? The body and habits tell a tale even if he doesn't. To be honest, I don't care that much. He's obedient and that counts for more than real skill for now, not that I have a choice of crew members anyway.
The communal sleeping area is just a large room with about twenty bunk beds, barrels of dried food serving as tables if necessary, and real tables screwed into the floor. Contrary to most of the Hailstorm's design this room looks like one from the movies about pirates of old times. Aside from the nameless helping hooves there's nopony here.
Walking outside to the main deck, it soon becomes obvious why.
We're not in Equestria where pegasi control the weather and so the winter is gone. The golden light of the sun bathes the deck in its glory and the warmth seeps into my entire body even through the thin cloud we're hiding in. Most of the crew is here, standing around and chatting. I would smile at the ponies marvelling at Hailstorm's existence if I wasn't in wonder myself. It's one thing to be able to fly using wings but it's quite something else to KNOW the sky is yours and that you decide who else comes up here.
Taking a deep breath, I know that, at least for now, all I can see belongs to me.
"Hey, cap!" Five waves at me, "We've been hovering here for an hour, what's going on?"
"Hey, Five! Hey, Skully! We're above the town we were looking for. I'm thinking about how to get down without getting swarmed by Legion soldiers. Griffon xenophobia is bad enough even without having a Nightmare changeling and a minotaur on board."
"Well, about that," Five blushes, "You know they call us like that only because we used to be, well, evil. I've thought of a new name for us."
"Like, ehm, we can put ponies to sleep, right?"
"And we used to feed on fear but we can feed on love as well, right?"
"And we can't actually change that much, right?"
"Just spit it out!"
Looking at the nervously smiling creature covered in black-blue chitinous plating, I'm not sure I can see it. Maybe it's the mouth full of sharp teeth capable of biting through plate armor, maybe the fact that I've seen Five take down Skullbreaker without any effort, who knows...
"That's not terrible," I pat Five's head, "Not sure that would solve our catbird problem though."
"No, Skullbreaker. We can't take a full garrison of soldiers on. How's your training going on anyway?"
"BUGGY GOOD! HARD TO SMACK!"
After the misunderstanding in the bar the minotaur became interested in Five's predator-like combat and the... dreamling in turn loves to hear stories from different parts of the world the minotaur travelled. I'm not sure what went on during the week before we were ready to depart but the duo is inseparable.
"You can't let the big guy catch you," Five scratches his head, "otherwise he'll rip you to bits. He's a bit slow but you can rely on him."
"ME GOOD RUNNER!"
"See what I mean? Don't worry about it. Is there a reason for you coming up here, cap? No offense but you've spent the entire trip locked with the batty guy."
"Meh, Ivan wants me to talk to all of you and see how you feel about what we're doing."
"I'm fine with all of this. I mean, I'm not going to start biting heads off at your word but if somepony attacks us they'll see what Guiding Light's hive is capable of. I don't like to say it but I'm not sure about Holy Light though. He smells a little like dad but feels different."
"What do you mean by that?"
"How much do you know about our history?"
"Erm, nothing? The first time I saw your kind was during the fight in Ponyville."
"What about the names Blazing Light, Guiding Light, Holy Light. Something in common?"
"The family name?"
"Yep! Holy Light is definitely related to dad but his mind feels completely different. It's weird."
"Have you talked to him? He's looking to find out what happened to his brother Blazing."
"Dad's his bro? Wow, I had no idea. I thought it was some distant cousin, he looks completely different. Thanks, cap!"
With Five running off, I shake my head. Everything revolves around the unlucky unicorn but unfortunately my experience with him is too limited to use to my advantage. Avoiding Holy Light now being pestered by Five, I walk to our 'employer' who is standing by the railings and looking into the distance.
"Any ideas on what to do now?" I lean on the railing myself.
"I am not sure. I feel the presence of several entities who might be the key to our hunt for information."
"Can't we just sweep in, grab them, and leave before the griffons mount a counterattack?"
"No. You are not equipped enough to fight. The entities I mentioned are not simple ponies."
"I'd like you to be straight with me. I remember you from Ponyville and I know you're not a unicorn. The last time I got dragged into things concerning an alicorn it ended up really bad. I want to know what we're dealing with and why can't you deal with it yourself, Void."
Please don't turn me into a frog.
"Our goal remains the same, a rescue mission. If I was not sure before about the need for our involvement then I am sure now. I sense four entities who are tangled in this event but I am not sure what their role is. Before I know I do not want to act."
"What good are we, normal ponies, here then?"
"You have allowed me to get close enough unnoticed, that is already an achievement," Void waves his hoof and a swirling circle appears mid-air, showing a very similar sight to Ivan's sensors, "This was impossible to do in Equestria but since I do not have to use blanket spells I can focus on an unprotected area and I have a theory."
"Care to explain?"
"I will share with you as much as I can. One of the entities is definitely Mistake himself. I cannot track him but," the vision in the magic circle moves, blurs and distorts, "his magic breaking is still in effect which means he cannot be too far. The second entity which is undoubtedly our enemy and which we must avoid at all costs-"
"You do realize this ship can blow up an army, right?" I say, not adding that it would work only if they were flying.
The vision in Void's scrying spell shifts again and a black smoke fills it. After few seconds it's possible to make out the shape of the mist.
"I do believe physical damage would be mostly useless against a shadow dragon, although there is always a chance of harming the host serving as a core."
"Is there a mage controlling it or something then?"
"No, that is the work of the third entity involved in this and no, I cannot show or tell you who it is without alerting it to our presence."
"What's stopping anypony from doing what you just did?"
"I am. My power shields us from any unfocused magic in a way similar to Mistake's trail. My current form is incapable of using strong enough magic to teleport here by myself and if I went in my alicorn form I would have been discovered immediately. That is why I need you and your group."
"You said there were four entities..."
"Yes," says Void with a much darker undertone, "and he might already know we are here. If it is so then he has not acted yet which surprises me and gives me a little hope that he is just watching instead of working against us."
This got really bad really fast.
"I hate to break it to you but I don't know what to do. Especially now that you've scared me even without really telling me anything. I mean, I just have few ponies with me only one of which knows some sort of magic and this STINKS of the damn thing."
"Do not be afraid too soon, young one, and trust the ponies around you. Fate has thrown you together for a reason even if it might be temporary and I believe you are the ones I need to solve this situation. First of all, we still need to find out what happened here and that is your job. For that I think we need to go down to the town ruins. You are a very resourceful pegasus, Icy Gaze, and you think in a way very different from mine."
"Thanks, I guess."
Void makes the scrying spell disappear and returns to gazing into the distance. Apparently it's up to me to do the job even if it has way too much fine print.
Well, Void is our powerhouse and he thinks I'm the one to do this. What am I good at?
Talking... and melting the hearts and crotches of ladies.
We don't have to sneak in. We don't have to attack anypony. This town was a well-known holiday resort for both Imperial and Equestrian customers which means we can just bluff our way in. No guarantee we'll get anywhere but we shouldn't get shot on sight.
Now, who should I take? I'm going to need Ivan and Fail inside the ship in case we have to leave quickly. The rest of the crew has to be ready to cover our potential retreat.
"Void, do me a favor, please!" I raise my voice to get his attention.
"We're going down. Tell Holy Light, Five, and Skullbreaker to get ready and I'll tell Ivan to land."
"As you wish. I will stay out of sight though while you do whatever you plan to."
"We might need to get out fast."
"That poses very little trouble to me."
I leave him with a nod and head back to the bridge where Ivan, trying to avoid touching the batpony, teaches Fail how to operate the 3d scanners and each individual motor to maintain fluid ship movement.
"Guys, drop us off and then hide back here. If you see us running back just get everypony behind the cannons and hover right above the sand so you can shoot."
"You're just going to WALK into the town through the front?" Ivan facehoofs.
"We can't fight and we have no clue what to look for, perhaps the griffons know something. I think we can pose as Equestrian agents."
"I don't even... just don't get killed too soon, Frosty."
"I'm not planning to."
Rushing back to my cabin for a lance, I return on the top deck just in time to jump off and with a quick flick of my wings land softly on the beach. Five does the same although he doesn't even need wings to deal with the drop distance. Looking at us in utter disgust, Holy Light climbs down a rope ladder followed by Skullbreaker and Void.
"Showoffs," he mumbles, taking few practice swings with his levitating sword and tightening the straps fastening a round shield to his front leg.
Skullbreaker makes a small crater in the sand as he lands, warhammer of my size propped on his shoulder.
Don't look too nervous. We're here for an official reason and we've been sent by an alicorn although not the one we'll be pretending to work for. Every lie needs a grain of truth to work.
I might need diapers soon as a group of griffons surround us, led by an official looking guy in a black jacket.
"And who might you be?" smiles the leading griffon and asks.
Quickly looking around, I see Void is gone.
"Frosty Stare, Equestrian air force. We're working for princess Celestia," I hazard a guess, "agent. You know, the white, horny pony capable of dropping the sun on the surface of the planet. Well, not that she'd need to do it here anymore."
"BOSS IS BLACK-"
"Shut up, agent Skully. What happened here?"
"Equestrian agents, you say? Good to know," the griffon smiles widely, "My name is agent Smith and I'm in charge here. Truth be told, what happened here is very simple. Nomads attacked the town and took the inhabitants and visitors away. Their trail leads to the desert but not far enough to let us estimate the hideout."
"We could help you, agent."
"How, may I ask? Even our soldiers equipped with thrusters weren't able to spot anything from high up."
So at least some soldiers here have rocket boots to enhance their aerial chase capabilities. Good to know. Time to get me some gravitas.
"As I said, we're the air force," I wave at the clouds few times, "and we have the supplies to follow the trail and the equipment to find even the smallest of details."
The horror in the eyes of the griffon soldiers is priceless as the Hailstorm slowly descends and casts a shadow on the entire group. Smith recovers quickly though.
"I see. Well then," he unpins a small silver ornament from his jacket and gives it to me, "here's something in case your... ship catches the attention of my soldiers patrolling the desert and you need to persuade them you aren't enemies."
"Thank you for your help, agent," I nod, "So the faded desert trail is the only clue you've got?"
"The one and only, unfortunately. Feel free to have a look around but don't bother the soldiers in the large tent to the north, please. We've been here for days and they need their rest."
Leaving the agent to his business, we pretend to look around in the most official way possible. There are buildings that look as if a massive explosion wrecked them and there are bits of broken armor and weapons here and there but that's about as much as I can tell. The griffons have an equipment tent situated in the southern part of the town square, an air-conditioned mortuary in the shade of a destroyed hotel, and the northern tent where the resting soldiers must be. Come to think of it, the tent is almost as cold as the mortuary... probably to fight the heat stroke.
"Anything suspicious?" I ask the group standing around. I mean, none of them's a freaking detective but they might have noticed something.
"Aside from the catbird being way too friendly?" Holy Light frowns, "Nothing. The bodies in the mortuary were stabbed and slashed, nothing unusual about them."
Five mumbles something to himself.
"What is it?"
"I-I'm not sure," he sniffs the air, "Something feels off... that way."
We follow the increasingly focused dreamling through the town ruins until he stops in what seems to have been a gift shop but now is just a heap of charred wooden beams and building materials.
"It's under the debris. I... feel a source of fear."
I experimentally push into the heap just to see if anything moves. Not even close. Realizing the futility of any attempt at removing the pieces of the fallen roof myself, I give an order to our hulking minotaur.
"Skully, you have a go at it."
Displaying a surprising amount of intelligence, he knocks at few pieces of rubble with his warhammer and then shatters a block of broken wall. Repeating the process few more times, we're now able to move few pieces of wreckage and are rewarded with the sight of a sturdy metal trap door.
"Perhaps somepony survived in the cellar?" Holy Light asks and his horn lights up.
The door isn't locked and a second later Holy's magical flare drops down the stairs leading down. A choked gasp answers. Able to see in the shadows cast by the flare, Five descends first and, sword ready, Holy follows. Skullbreaker is too tall to fit easily so he stands on guard upstairs with me.
A high-pitched squeak from downstairs is quickly cut off and the duo returns, leading a female griffon and who probably is her young daughter.
I bow deeply before her.
"I realize this must have been terrible for you but you're safe now. We just need you to tell us what happened before we escort you to the Imperial garrison."
The mother's stare darts between Five and Skullbreaker.
"Leave us alone, guys," I wave them off.
"It happened five days ago," the mother takes a deep breath and begins, "Legion soldiers arrived and started patrolling the city the day before as if they knew something would happen. It was of no use. The bandits attacked in the evening without warning, no sound or anything, just firebombs suddenly coming through the windows."
"The soldiers didn't see them coming?"
"No," she ruffles the feathers on her daughter's head, "The bandits just cut through them without any concern for their health. I saw one jump into three soldiers and..."
Her beak starts trembling and her eyes glaze over. I wrap a wing around her.
"Please, I need to know."
"He-he got stabbed but then... then he just got back up and tore the guard's necks open."
"You've got to be shi- nevermind. Go on."
"I followed my husband through the town square. There was this tall, white griffon who just kept slicing the bandits to pieces, cutting off their arms and legs, but eventually they overwhelmed him and tied him up. They did the same to the mare he was with. She was one of the winged ponies but not like you, the featherless ones."
"Is that how they're called? Fitting," she chuckles, still looking into the empty air, "The bandits killed whoever was resisting but they wanted to capture those two no matter the cost."
"They just tied everypony up and left?"
"No, they didn't have enough time. My husband told me to run back home to hide and went to help the white griffon. I couldn't just run away so I stayed and watched for a while. When the bandits overwhelmed the white guy the black unicorn appeared," she shivers, "I saw the three of them wandering the town. They even visited our shop once and I think the unicorn was blind. He was only walking through the fires and calling for someone when a bandit came and just cut him down with an axe."
"Black fur, blue mane, pink eyes, blind?"
"I don't remember the eyes, sorry, but yes. Was he your friend?"
"I knew him. Is he dead then?"
"I'm not sure. It sort of became strange after that. He suddenly grew wings and some black things started impaling the bandits. The ones who were hit didn't get back up anymore. That was when I started running. A moment later I heard a screech from behind and the shockwave threw me through the street. I managed to get inside, grab my little treasure," she pats her daughter, "before the second tremor came and hide in the cellar. Fortunately, we had some canned food down there so we just waited for someone to come. Thank you."
"Follow me then, I'll take you to Legion soldiers."
I wait for her to get her bearings in the sun and join the others on the way to agent Smith. At least that's the plan until something I definitely didn't expect to hear here comes - a quiet amused chuckle.
"Make sure she's safe, guys. I'll have a quick look around here before we get back to the ship."
Careful to make as little noise as possible, I sneak to a destroyed building with my lance ready. It's Void talking to somepony. I'm not sure what worries me more, hearing Void's voice with barely controlled anger in it or the fact that the other guy is apparently amused by it.
"If you are behind this then-"
"Then what, little pony? Last time we met you failed miserably if I remember correctly."
"I was supposed to just waste your time, spirit! I can show you what it means to have me as an enemy."
"Heh heh heh, all bark and no bite, so boooring. Speaking of wasting time, how is your dear marefriend? Also, speaking of your marefriend, if you dare to threaten me again I might just remember how fun mental patients are to mess with."
Void's low growl makes me shiver but only serves to amuse the other listener who laughs to himself. Only until Void says just one word.
The drop in temperature is almost physical.
"Say that again?" hisses the other voice.
"You laughed at me talking to you as an equal back in the underworld but let me remind you again - everyone dies, even you, and now I know how to make you suffer before you do. I will not warn you again so leave my friends alone."
The next laugh comes but feels rather forced.
"I think you've got it the other way around, my little creation. I have nothing to do with this. Well, that's not exactly true but you'll just have to believe I am on your friend's side."
"You have the audacity to say that after what you did to him?"
"What I did? How about what YOU did? Take a guess which one of us hurt him more, Void, I want to hear it from you. I know you almost never lie."
"I did," Void whispers after a while, "Why are you here then?"
"Let's just say that this world is much more interesting with all the little races alive and struggling rather than as an empty rock which is what it will become if your friend fails."
"So are you going to help?"
"Now that I know you, Luna, and Tia are involved? Heh, no. It's going to be so much more fun watching you win... or lose."
"I guess that is the best I can expect from you."
"Give me a good show, Void."
"Do not push me, agent Pranks."
I hear a sigh and somepony sitting down on the sand and I take it as a sign to leave. No matter how serious the implications of what the other voice said are all I can do is focus on the task in front of me.
Returning back to the Hailstorm, I sit down into the captain's chair on the bridge. Ivan holds his breath and grits his teeth as he watches Fail get us back into the clouds but when we're safely hidden he turns to me.
"Found anything, kid?"
"That I need a drink," I mumble.
To my surprise Ivan offers me a flat bottle of something that feels like molten iron and goes down like a lead ball.
"Holy hellfire," I groan between coughs, "Why don't you make bombs out of THAT?"
"Stalliongrad lemonade. Smoooother than a filly's belly."
"Bleh! Sure wakes one up though," I shake my head, "There should be a path leading from the town into the desert but the bandits seem to have cleaned up behind them rather well. The griffons have no clue where exactly the trail goes."
Ivan plays with the screens for a while.
"What do you mean?"
"Look here," he points to one screen which zooms out, "There's a clear path of hoofsteps leading north. How it is possible in the desert I have no idea but it is there. The second thing that could be called a path is this stretch of sand."
I'm done with supernatural things for today.
"The desert path. Let's find out why the griffon agent wanted to send us that way so badly."
The desert flows under us as me and Ivan keep staring at screens in various stages of zoom.
"Got something!" Fail breaks the silence, "There's unevenly disturbed sand in the distance. I doubt the griffons flying high would see it with their eyes and the ones flying low wouldn't have the field of view to notice unless lucky."
"Hmmm, follow it," I say, "We can always go back and try the other trail leading out of the town. What do you think, Ivan? Ivan?"
"Sorry, kid, are you using a radio?"
"Strange. One of the machines here picks up a signal being broadcasted from this room. It's weak but the range is massive."
A signal that anypony can pick up but it's weak enough so only somepony who knows what to look for will find it. Griffons, heh.
"Is it this?" I present the ornament given to me by Smith, "The leader of the rescue unit gave it to me in case we met his soldiers in the desert. He was a Black Ops agent."
"Yes," Ivan waves it in front of a machine that starts buzzing a little more, "Hmmm... I wonder what will happen if I do this. HEH!"
"This thing isn't the only source of a signal of this sort around, there's one more."
"You mean the agent gave one more to somepony?"
"Yeah. It's coming from the north. Do you want to investigate?"
"No, not now. Let's follow this path first. How far do you think you can track the signal?"
"Now that I know what to look for... half of the continent, give or take? Should we break your tracking device?"
"Not really, I'll just tell everypony to get ready for night patrols. Let's see what our griffon agent really wants."
The night falls on the desert and the cold up here starts to seep through the armor plating as we slowly follow what could be the remnants of a sandstorm or a fairly well covered trail.
"What are the red things on this screen, sir?" Fail asks Ivan.
"Heat signatures. This thing should be useless in the des-"
"At night?" I grin, watching the red blob on the monitor, "Ivan?"
"Maybe. The sensors on this thing are pretty sensitive."
"How about we drop the tracking device there and prepare the fireworks?"
"You don't mean-"
"Let the Imperial Legion deal with the bandits and then jump in to grab the targets."
"I'll get the gunpowder charges ready. They should be enough against lightly armored enemies."
I really hope that's the case. I'm not going to assault the base of possibly undying enemies by myself, especially if our smartass agent gives me a better opportunity.