Hope Dies (At) Last: Part I
The night fell on the desert and the chill once again started seeping into the Hailstorm's hull. We carefully put the tracking device down near the entrance to the underground bandit base and now we're waiting for somepony to come and investigate why we're not moving.
Sitting on the bridge with Ivan and Fail, I patiently watch the screens all around giving me view of various stretches of the desert. As the night progresses the optical sensors become less and less useful while the thermal scanner becomes our best friend.
"Got something interesting, kid," Ivan grins and hands me a pair of headphones, "Put this on."
"Hm?" I fasten the headset on my head and Ivan turns some dials on the machine it is connected to.
[...proceeding to investigate the area...]
A very official and strict voice rings through the headphones as Ivan gets two more pairs, gives one to Fail, and puts one on himself.
[No visuals yet. Over.]
One very careful red dot appears on the thermal scanner and slowly slinks towards the bandit base entrance. Two other dots appear, following the first one in a safe distance.
[A construction resembling a trap door found. Over.]
[Wait for the rest! Over.]
The two dots covering the first one get closer and run around for a short while.
[No patrols in the vicinity. You're free to move in. Over.]
"Celestia's holy balls," Ivan curses, "That many?"
I have to agree it was an extremely good idea to lure them there first and wait up here. The assault unit of twenty more doubtlessly well-armed Legion soldiers appears on the scanner. The fact that they appear only as red dots doesn't make them less terrifying.
[The rear guard will stay up here and take care of the villagers or running bandits. The others assume a one-three-one pattern and go in. Over.]
Three griffons spread out of the entrance and the remaining twenty split into a group of four going down the trap door, a group of twelve serving as a main attack force, and the remaining four covering their advance.
As they all descend we lose track of their progress since they meld into one large but weak red blob indicating the base. The radio signals are strong enough though.
[Five hostiles in the entrance guard room. Over.]
Few seconds of silence.
[Hostiles eliminated. No casualties on our side. Over.]
[Good job. Everyone split into fours and spread out, this place is a maze. Over.]
A duo of red dots appears on the scanner.
[This is rear guard. Two bandits returning from patrol. Should we take them out here or do you want them down there? Over.]
[No mercy. Over.]
Our optical feed erupts with light as three griffons shoot at the unaware nomads. They don't need to fire a second time.
[Patrol eliminated. Proceeding to remove head and limbs. Over.]
"What the hay?"
Both Ivan and Fail turn to me at the same time.
"Yeeeeah," I scratch my head and grin stupidly, "I may have forgotten to tell you that some sort of magic was involved that made the bandits rise again after they died. A survivor of the attack on Golden Sands told us and she apparently told the griffons as well."
Ivan facehoofs while Fail just shudders and returns back to watching the screens.
[Group alpha. We found what looks to be the main storage room. Guards eliminated. Precautions taken. Over.]
[Group beta. Found the armory. Guards neutralized. Waiting for orders. Over.]
[Delta here. Eliminate and cut to bits. We're not taking any risks and they'll be executed anyway for an attack on an Imperial town. Over.]
[Orders recieved. Beta out.]
[Gamma here, sir. Found the barracks. Twenty hostiles and counting. Waiting for orders. Over.]
[Do not engage. Wait until we have the rest of the place on lockdown. Eliminate anyone trying to go in or out only. Over.]
[Alpha here. Treasury found. Guards eliminated. Nowhere else to go. One member seriously wounded. These guys were much more alert than the rest. Immortality confirmed. Over.]
[Delta here. One of you split up and carry the wounded guy back to the entrance. The rest of you backtrack and keep exploring. Give me details on immortality. Over.]
[Orders recieved. Targets rise up immediately even after sustaining a normally fatal wound. Some sort of black... smoke swirls around them and they fight as if nothing happened. Removing limbs stops them from attacking or moving but as long as they have a head they'll at least bite. Removing the head in itself while the limbs are still attached does nothing, not even impairs sight. Only after the dead are completely dismembered the black smoke dissipates and they stop.]
A short break.
[You forgot over. Over.]
[Fuck this, delta. Over.]
To the griffon leader's credit, he doesn't seem bothered by his subordinate breaking the protocol. The situation is unique enough to warrant shaken nerves.
[Beta here. Found the prison with the villagers. Equestrian agents still missing. Waiting for orders. Over.]
[Delta to epsilon, go help beta with the prisoners. Beta, keep looking for the primary targets. Over.]
[Beta, orders recieved.]
[Epsilon, orders recieved.]
[Alpha split to anyone listening! Jackson woke up and attacked me, had to kill him. I'm seriously wounded and need evac. Over. WAIT NO! FUCK I FORGOT TO CUT HI-]
[Delta to alpha split! Answer!]
[Delta to alpha, how is your situation?]
[Shitting our pants but safe, delta.]
[Backtrack. Kill alpha split and Jackson. Meet us back in the front guard room. Over.]
[You think that black stuff... spreads? Over.]
[Just get back here. As soon as the villagers are outside and we find something on our main targets we're torching this unholy place with everyone inside. Over.]
[Orders recieved. Alpha out.]
[...alpha split to everyone listening, he he he... you're not leaving.]
[Delta to the rear guard. Do you copy? Over.]
[Rear guard safe and sound, boss. The hell is going on? Over.]
[Delta here. As soon as the villagers get out return back to Smith in Golden Sands. We'll be going north with the primary targets. Over.]
[Two of us can go help down there, sir. Over.]
[Negative. Just keep the civilians safe and get out. Over.]
[Orders recieved. Rear guard out.]
[...alpha to everyone listening... there's more of us now... it's all... over.]
The voice chuckles and the griffon chatter cuts off for a long time.
[Epsilon here. Coming in with the civs. Do not shoot! Over.]
[Good job, epsilon. Escort the villagers to the rear guard and come back here. Bring all excessive firebombs. Over.]
[Gamma, how are things on your end?]
[The barracks is still quiet. No attempts at getting in or out. Ove- AW SHIT!]
[Gamma retreating back to the front guard room! Alpha got here and attacked. The commotion woke up the bandits. We set off the firebombs, the barracks are on fire. Minor bullet wounds sustained. Over.]
[...he he he, just like you will...]
[Beta to delta! Primary target A found. Moving in to secure him. Getting him on comms. Over.]
[Alright, whoever is there, listen up! You gotta get out or you're fucked. The thing spreads either if you're near death or if you lose your head. It's a magical influence. As for this place, there's an escape tunnel leading east behind the leader's suite. Are you here to kill the nomads or save the townsfolk?]
[Delta here. Cromach, I suppose?]
[Yeah. Equestrian Royal Guard.]
[We know who you are. We're here to secure you, Choking Darkness, and Mistake and get you to the Holy City.]
[The Emperor and the Black Ops want to see us? I hate to break it to you but unless you really want to piss princess Luna off I wouldn't try to force anything.]
[Let me be straight for a while, soldier to soldier. I don't give a fuck about you and the others, especially after my guys turned against me. Let the diplomats sort all that nonsense out later and let's all get out of here as fast as we can.]
[Sounds cool. What about the villagers though?]
[They are already out and being led by a group of my soldiers back to Golden Sands.]
[Good. Let's get Darky and leave. Mistake wasn't captured with us, no clue where he is.]
I jump out of the captain's chair and grin, watching the thermal sensor show a large red group moving west.
"Now's out chance. The villagers are out and the Legion squad has enough trouble. Get us down there, Fail," I order and turn the ship intercom on, "Holy, Five, Skullbreaker, Void - we're moving out in a minute! Get ready to fight."
"You sure about this? Undying enemies, griffon soldiers..."
Ivan trails off.
"I don't want to give the soldiers a chance to regroup outside. The place should be full of small halls where their numbers shouldn't matter and Holy Light knows some shield spells to protect us from the bullets for a short while. Do you have some headsets like the griffons have so I can keep listenin on their comms?"
"No. Can't catch the signal up here and send it back down there. It works for them because one of them must have a mobile radio booster with them, most likely the guys around the boss. We don't have anything of that sort here so you gotta stay grouped."
I manage to catch few more things before we land.
[Beta here. Looking for the escape tunnel to cause a cave in. Target A is with us. Target B should be somewhere around. Over.]
[Delta and epsilon here. We're guarding the entrance and facing heavy opposition. We'll hold until you get back here. None of these bastards are getting out of here alive. Over.]
[...you are... correct.]
In short five minutes we're set and ready to descend to the darkness. If I understand the comms correctly than there should be a group of at least fifteen griffons soldiers holding something around thirty bandits off near the entrance.
"Alright, guys, get ready! We have to kill everypony who doesn't give up. Knock the rest out and leave. We're looking for a tall, white griffon, and a thestral mare with black coat and red accessories."
"Sure thing, boss."
"Let us not spend more time here than we need to."
Holy Light descends the short stairs first, horn lighting the area. Skullbreaker goes next, serving as a riot shield protecting me and Void. Five, capable of sniffing out and taking down any ambush first covers our backs.
This isn't right.
"Shouldn't there be torches or lights around?" Holy comments as we lurk through the dark passages, "And, you know, sounds of fighting?"
He's correct. As we enter what has to be what the griffon leader called the front guard room I'm happy for the lack of illumination because I don't have to look at the massacre. It seems like the bandits hit this place with everything they had, ignoring tactical thinking or their safety. There are bits of griffons everywhere, some with Legion armor but most just wearing white clothes native to nomads.
Thankfully, everypony in my group seems well used to the sight of death.
"Look for Cromach and Choking," I whisper.
"Mom's not here," Five immediately whispers back, "Can't smell her."
"Dad's marefriend, that's all."
Holy and Five go through the bodies while Skully checks out the hall leading deeper into the base.
"There are few white griffons but no pure white ones or too big," Holy salutes and laughs at himself, "Sorry, old habit from the army."
"Not gonna be mad at you for staying cool. Let's go on then, this place can't be THAT big."
Bodies are everywhere, charred and cut to pieces, but no fires are burning whatsoever, torches or the remnants of firebombs.
A sound of wood and metal clanking breaks the silence. Without a word I turn to Five who points to one particular passage. Holy immediately takes point and we follow him through the dark halls. The place is way too quiet considering the fight must have ended at most few minutes ago.
"AAH!" I yell out shortly as Five taps on my back, "The heck?"
"Somepony is following us," Five whispers, undisturbed by my reaction, "They aren't afraid whatsoever and I can't smell much with all the corpses but I hear shuffling and scraping of fur against bricks."
The image of the carnage in the front guard room returns. Quite a lot of the bodies weren't...
"We are walking into a trap, aren't we?"
A green gleam passes through Five's protective plating and sharp claws grow out of his hooves and in other various places.
"Cutting limbs and heads off, right?" he grins mercilessly and I can finally see the true nature of the innocent dreamling.
"OW!" a high-pitched voice curses and adds much more quietly, "Bucking door!"
"HEY, MOM!" Five yells and runs off ahead of us.
He clears the door into a wider hall and gets flung by something accompanied by a shower of sparks and a impact of steel on steel. The immediate snarling proves he's alright.
As the rest of us get through the door, we see a long hall with many wooden doors on the sides, one dreamling curiously sniffing the air, and a tall griffon standing on his hind paws and wielding a large scimitar in both arms who jumps backwards and his eyes dart from Five to the rest of us.
"Void? The hell are you doing here?"
"Apparently doing what Luna could not - saving you, Cromach," the black unicorn smiles, "Where is miss Darkness?"
"Right here," whispers an unpleasantly familiar voice next to my ear and I can feel a blade scratch my neck, "and she's pretty curious what this sack of crap is doing here."
I don't dare move a muscle. Stupid, sneaky batponies.
"MOM!" Five waves his hoof at her.
"I'm not that good at recognizing your bunch. Which one are ya?"
"The Crystal Empire one!" Five answers cheerily.
The blade leaves my neck and slides back into Choking's horseshoe. Not that her stare becomes any warmer but I feel a little better when I see how she looks at Holy Light. She hates me but the stare says Holy has to die... painfully. What interests me a little is that she has her normal bat wings back instead of the magical constructs from last time but now is not the time to ask.
"We're not enemies, guys, at least compared to the rest of the griffons here," I start bending the truth a little, "Remember the Lightbringer? I've got a ship here ready to take you back to Equestria."
"There WILL be questions later," Choking hisses.
"Calm down, Darky," Cromach nods towards the door behind us, "Let's blow this joint."
"I will have words with you as well later, idiot," she growls.
"You can't tell me anything I haven't told myself while sitting here."
"Don't worry, I'll find something."
Moving quickly, we rush through the dungeon back and pass the empty guard room.
"Aw shit!" Cromach raises his sword as we get out into the desert and spot the figures waiting for us at the edge of light cast by Holy's horn.
Every soldier, every bandit is there, dark veins throbbing on their boddies and staring at us with wide smiles.
"Those two belong to me," every beak says at once, "They've helped me break him once already and will be his complete downfall soon."
"SHUT THE FUCK UP!" screams Cromach.
Choking growls again but I can't help noticing she's looking at the white griffon rather than the horde of darkness.
Get the two... kill the rest...
Ivan and Fail have to see what's going on down here but there's nothing the Hailstorm has that can help us here. They mustn't land otherwise the helping hooves I hired will just get overrun and corrupted themselves.
"Don't hold back," I command, "They're already dead! Cut them to bits."
The wave of enemies hits us. Cutting to bits seems easy until the point where you find out the enemies outnumber you ten to one and have no trouble just piling on you and taking you down.
Cromach swings his two-hander with practiced look and cleans up the area around him. Holy blocks attack after attack with his spells and his sword, glowing golden, slices through the horde with no resistance. Five dances around me and rips anypony getting too close to shreds. It's a good effort but my weapons are useless, a gun and a lance aren't made for dismembering enemies so I'm happy when Skullbreaker joins in my defense and pulverizes a griffon to goo with his warhammer.
Fire flashes and roars and Skullbreaker drops to the ground. Something like a punch throws me a short distance as well. Everything is blurry and my ears are ringing. The desert night is suddenly much colder than before.
The revived Legion soldiers reload their guns and aim again.
Five jumps in front of me and his armor deflects the bullets. Holy's defensive spell shatters and he drops to the sand instantly. Skullbreaker's body twitches as another shot makes him stop struggling to get up. With vision swimming, I can only watch as the horde groups with me and Five in their midst.
"You have intruded upon my realm for far too long," roars a deep voice and the desert lights up with blue glimmer, "Thankfully, you chose the wrong place to defy me!"
A howl pierces the night and blue swirls engulf the enemies. Where they touch, the body rots and falls over, black smoke dissipating. Soon, everything is over but instead of getting up, I feel chill slowly seeping deeper and deeper into my heart.
Fail's legs wobble, he stumbles and falls over. I manage to turn my head.
Void is standing there, not the unicorn but the menacing presence I remember from Ponyville. An alicorn, standing a head taller than princess Celestia and almost twice as broad in shoulders with wings burning with black, purple-tipped flames. His golden, glowing eyes focus at me and he smiles.
The souls of the fallen rise and gather around him. Suddenly I know why he couldn't just do this himself, why he can't simply appear in this world like the princesses can. The sand around him turns to ash, the air becomes unbreathable, and I can feel myself knocking on the gate of the underworld. While Celestia's presence makes the world warmer, his power brings peace... and end to everything.
Launching a gold flare upwards, Void shakes his head.
"This is not over, Icy Gaze. You have one more pony to save."
He wraps his impossibly large wings around the gathered souls and burns away into nothingness with them. It dawns on me that if I ever want to defy Luna I'm going to need much more than I have now otherwise-
Let's just say that I'm now one of very few mortals who have seen a furious alicorn.
You cannot win, Void... I have agents everywhere.
The desert goes dark again but this time it's just night, nothing else...
...and me falling unconscious from bloodloss, of course.
"He's waking up, Ivan."
"I can see that. Get back to flying!"
"...'s going on?" I croak, throat parched.
"Well, kid, you tell me! We see all those griffons get out of the entrance, start bombing them, they get up again and ignore us, we clean our diapers and stay here. Then you go out, get shot to pieces, all equipment goes crazy, blue kaboom, there's only you left."
"How is... everypony?"
"The griffon, Five, and the batpony are unhurt, just tired. Skullbreaker is seriously wounded but he should get better with enough rest. Holy Light is about as hurt as you which means it's nothing serious. Void is gone."
"Don't worry about him. He's fine."
Groaning, I push myself up on the bed in Hailstorm's captain quarters. Contrary to Ivan's orders, Fail is rolling some bandages and breathing heavily. Ivan catches my stare.
"The crazy pony's a pretty good field medic. Too bad he can't OBEY!" Ivan grins, "Get back behind the control panel, kid. I need to talk to the cap myself."
"It's fine, go." I smile at seeing the reluctant batpony look from Ivan to me.
He sets the prepared bandages down and leaves.
"Good. What now then?" Ivan asks, "We've got the guys and Void paid up front. Are we done, captain ICY GAZE?"
"No," I shake my head and try few tentative steps. My chest hurts but I can move well enough, "We still have one more guy to find and I think our best bet is to follow the second tracking signal. Sorry about the name thing."
"Meh, everypony in Stalliongrad uses fake names, no problem with me. You mean the signal up north?"
"Yeah. If it's nothing then screw this, we're going home. Remind me to find a really good mage for the crew when we get back to Stalliongrad. Holy is decent but he's more a hoofsoldier with a bit of magic. We're gonna need a specialist."
"Sure. Now have a rest and I'll wake you up when we get there."
"Later. I'll have a short look at how things are going. I want to squeeze a little bit more out of this mission."
"What do you mean?"
"The targets have no idea we weren't sent by the crown. When we're back in Equestria we're gonna lock them up and make Luna pay ransom."
"She'll come personally and kill you, kid."
"That's why we'll be looking for a mage, Ivan."
"Stars above us," Ivan waves his hooves above his head, "I wish I had your kind of balls. Not your kind of brains though."
"Shoo, old stallion! I have a plan to think up."
"Yeah yeah, if you need anything I'll be on the bridge. Cromach is there and he loves talking about mechanical stuff. Finally a young mind interested in-"
He slams the door shut.
"Keep reminding me, you old bugger," I mumble to myself and head out as well. I'm not too keen on talking to Choking Darkness because she's a bitch and it would most likely be pointless but I still have to try.
I'm not sure where she might be but as I head to the common room to check up on Five and others I spot her talking to the dreamling and Holy Light.
"Captain Icy Gaze," I cringe as Choking smiles sadistically, "Not a prisoner anymore?"
"Temporarily," I nod, unpleasantly aware of the truth in my statement, "Is everypony okay?"
"Nothing serious," Holy coughs, trying to get up from the bed.
"Don't bother," I wave my hoof dismissively and turn to Choking, "We're looking for Mistake. Cromach said he wasn't captured with the two of you. Got any idea where he might be?"
Choking's physically hurt expression at hearing the name almost makes me laugh, almost.
"I have no idea where Blaze is."
"Mistake's real, if I ignore the details, name - Blazing Light. Now there's something Holy should answer. I though Blaze had only one brother, Searing Light. It's written in the official documents in Canterlot castle."
"Blinding Light, our father, was an idiot and we didn't see eye to eye much. All that Silver Sun zealotry, I couldn't take it and left home when I was sixteen and Blazing wasn't even born yet. Searing Light, unfortunately, ate all that nonsense up and when he was of age Blinding disowned me completely and stripped my name of any connection to the Light family. I met him about a month ago again and I think he got a bit wiser with age so we ended up talking and drinking. He said there was one mare who beat him hard enough to make his head work right again."
"Oh," Choking blushes, "The hospital thing?"
"You and some earthpony titan. His words, not mine."
"I'm not sure how to tell you," Choking, well, chokes, "but Searing Light is dead and so is, as far as I know, the rest of your family aside from Blaze."
"And branded outcasts for high treason, I know. One thing from which Blinding's stupidity saved me," Holy shakes his head, "Tell me the whole story, please."
"It's really long."
"I think we've got time. Captain?" he looks at me.
"We're now following a griffon tracking device that might lead us to something. This ship is really fast so with how hurt everypony is I might need the help of our... guests. When the intercom rings get ready on the upper deck and... sorry, Choking."
"For hunting you and Blazing in Ponyville. It was just a job and I am a mercenary. If I knew the truth I probably would have refused, probably."
Choking shakes her head.
"You... can't even begin to understand what you did. Nightmare Moon just used you but you still hurt us more than anypony else before. You destroyed our only hope at being together," she takes a deep breath, "Just get out of my sight."
It's not like I'm genuinely sorry. For the money I would have done it again easily. It's just that... seeing them in person... how they need to be together and what they did to make it happen.
For a second I wish some day, some time... somepony did the same for me.
Biting my lip, I leave for the bridge.
The situation there is marginally different. Ivan is listening, ears perked, to something Cromach is saying while Fail is trying to ignore the imposing griffon.
"Hello, captain!" Fail breathes out and smiles as I walk in, "Feeling better?"
"Worse," I mumble, "but that doesn't matter. How far is the signal, Ivan?"
"Huh? Oh yeah," he looks at me distractedly, "At this speed we should be there by sunrise. I advise having a rest, kid."
"Same goes for you, grandpa."
"I'll have a nap soon. This young griffon has just been telling me about the husks he saw when he was in that mirror world you talked about. Do you know they sacrifice prisoners to create them and use them for law enforcement?"
"They do all sorts of useful tasks," Cromach corrects him, "but mostly they are used in the military."
"Heh, I should go there. Perhaps finally somepony might find use for me," Fail mumbles and Cromach turns to him, "Eeerm, sorry."
Fail tries to look as small as possible as the griffon examines him.
"You remind me of a very good... friend whom I have horribly failed. He said stupid things like that quite often too. Also, he was completely wrong and so are you. I think you just need the right pony to tell you."
"Exactly," Ivan grins, "You might be weird but you learned to fly this thing way faster than I expected so you can't be that dumb. That, or I'm an excellent teacher."
"Yeah," I add, "Without you I wouldn't have found the cheapest crew I could in such a short time and I would now be lying in my bed covered in motor oil and duct tape because Ivan is better with machinery than ponies."
Fail chuckles despite being red as a tomato and his ears twitch when Cromach scratches his head.
"Trust yourself a little. Or if you can't, trust those around you and hope they don't fail you," Cromach stands up to leave, "Sorry, Ivan, let's talk later. I need a bit of peace and quiet to think about things."
"Sure thing. Don't forget to think about bombs though! I need better BOMBS!"
"You okay here?" I ask.
"Fine and dandy."
"Good, I'll have a rest then. Having one more breathing hole can't be healthy," I turn to leave.
"You go too, batty," Ivan nudges Fail, "You'll switch with me in the morning. I won't be sleeping anytime soon with all the ideas Cromach talked about."
With Fail going to sleep on the floor of my cabin, in a comfortable sleeping bag of course, I can't help thinking about what Cromach said.
"Trust those around you and hope they don't fail you."
And even more about what he left unsaid.
"Like I did."