Gathering Storm: Days After
The desert wasn't searing considering the time of the year but it definitely was still hot. Scorpions scuttled into the shade of any occasional rock and cacti spent their time catching as much sunlight they possibly could. This particular stretch of desert was in the western part of the massive hegemony called the Griffon Empire not too far away from the ocean and the most visible nearby landmark was a small town about which noone could say anything other than that it was a train station.
A griffon as common as sand walked through the dunes, looking for something. The feathers on his head were white, the fur on the rest of his body would not be noticeable when surrounded by sand. Aside from a black jacket he was wearing there was nothing unusual or memorable about the griffon... if one didn't count the small snowflakes falling around him and melting as soon as they touched the sand.
The griffon put an arm to his eyes and pulled an old-fashioned sailor's spyglass out of nowhere. Grunting in obvious disappointment, he flew upwards to get a better view of the area. When he was high enough the spyglass turned into a high-tech griffon Black Ops binocuars and he smiled.
With a burst of speed not even Rainbow Dash on crack could achieve the griffon dove towards a small crater in the sand with something black in it. His spread wings stopped the fast dive so quickly that if the griffon bothered obeying the laws of physics the wings would have been torn off from air friction and he would have made a second crater in the area, although much bigger one.
Agent Pranks, as the griffon ironically called himself, was not one for obeying rules though. Landing easily near the anomaly in the sand, he sighed and shook his head. There was a black unicorn lying in the middle of the crater, shards of something black and shiny scattered in a wide circle around him, with a gaping wound in his chest. His blue mane shifted in a random gust of wind but his open eyes, pink and faded, didn't even twitch.
"Knock knock, anypony there?" Pranks asked playfully.
The unicorn didn't answer. He couldn't. Considering his limbs were sticking out in weird angles and his chest wasn't moving there was no way he was alive.
"Not in the mood for talking, eh?" Pranks scratched his head nervously, walking in circles around the body, "I thought you wouldn't be. You know, being kicked away by everypony around you and, particularly that, dropping from the clouds. Heh, from cloud nine right on the hard ground. Well, soft ground in your case. Not that it helped."
The body didn't move. Neither did the half-open mouth with tongue sticking out of it.
"Still giving me the old silent treatment? Hey, at least I tried to help, right?" the griffon frowned, "I mean I couldn't act directly. Well, I COULD but where would be the fun in that? Mortals fighting gods, standing against impossible odds, and finally getting the love of their life... it is so much fun to watch. Yet, the catch is that sometimes they fail, I guess. Books don't end that way though."
The broken neck of the unicorn disagreed with agent Pranks.
"You see, I could revive you... again. Heck, I could do it again and again but you know the drill - you do it for one pony and then you have to do it for everypony. Heh, just like you. You got lucky and got rid of an almost unstoppable threat from the mirror world by yourself and suddenly, when it reappeared, all of them looked up to you to do it again as if it was now your responsibility."
The body did give Pranks the silent treatment again. It didn't have much choice.
"And you know what I liked the most? No spouting of that friendship nonsense, no 'love will conquer all' pink goggles, and the best thing - you paid for it. For EVERY step of the journey you paid and now... now it seems you are out of things to give."
The corpse agreed by not moving a muscle.
"I had high hopes for you though. You ALMOST made my victory complete. Harmony put her trust into the Element bearers and the Elements are gone for now, locked until the little fillies become older and more powerful. Nightmare was almost nonexistent until Luna went bonkers a millenium ago and allowed it to overcome the Pact of Harmony. Celestia thought she was doing a good job by sealing Luna away but she only gave Nightmare time to grow and the hate to fester."
The broken body and the shards of black ice listened to the history lecture without interrupting.
"You might think I'm evil or whatnot but I like Equus. I like all the races no matter whether they walk on four, two, eight legs, or no legs at all. Oh, right. You've never seen snake ponies. I like how life develops and, most of all, I like the STRUGGLE. Nightmare wants to end it all. But look who am I talking to, you know all that... you SAW what's going to happen if it wins. You unknowingly brought the last remnants of the race Nightmare used to wipe a world out here and you made this place a home for them. Yes yes, I'm sure the 'dreamlings'," Pranks' claws made a set of air quotes click in the air, "will fight to their last breath but they will fail. Your daughter will die."
Pranks stopped and looked at the dead unicorn questioningly.
"Nothing? You're a bad, bad father. Can't blame you though, your father isn't the cream of the crop either. Let's take it from a different perspective then. Your lovers wil die. Probably as one of the last victims but the rest of their life's not going to be much better. One might say they'll be jealous of the dead. I think the griffon will be the last unless he kills himself after seeing what his failure led to. Wanna know the funny part? He actually blames HIMSELF. In a conflict of a griffon and a god, albeit a quite gutted one, he blames himself for losing. Talk about an oversized ego, heh. Speaking of oversized, that bat of yours must have taken a telegraph pole during her wilder days, am I right?"
Half of Blazing Light's corpse suffered the stab at his friend's life without twitching. The other half had been devoured by a shadow dragon days earlier so there was no angry retort there either.
"The thing is that you made Luna more determined than ever to resist Nightmare's influence and thus closed the biggest gateway it had to this world. If only you held on few weeks longer and absorbed its power completely things could have been so much more neat. Few emo souls here and there wouldn't have been enough for Nightmare to give anypony the power to, well, corrupt a dragon and raise an undead army. Oh well, that's why I can't have nice things, I guess."
For some strange reason being this close to victory and failing didn't phase Blaze. Maybe it had something to do with him being beyond first aid and, coincidentially, also last rites.
"Still not moving, eh? You know what? I'm tired of trying to persuade you to get back up. I need a rest," Pranks stretched his arms, dropped on the sand, yawned, and fell asleep.
When he woke up, Blaze's body was still there.
"Come on, at least this one has to make your blood boil," Pranks looked around, "if there's any still around, that is. Your father is still alive. He was pissed at the fake, or real, you in Manehattan and left for a fishing trip with your butler. I know, I know, fishing is boring as heck but ponies get strange when they get old. When he returned he found out he had no family anymore and no upper class 'friends' to help him. He's currently hiding in Manehattan. Anypony related to your family and the Order of the Silver Sun is branded a traitor and to be executed upon capture. Not you, of course," Pranks poked the body, "Come ooooon, wake up! You can watch the old bastard die in horrible agonyyyy. I'll even resurrect him for you two or three times so you can kick the stool from under him when they hang him over and over."
As tempting as the offer was, Blaze was in no position to accept. What position he was in was one that would make a trained yoga instructor go green with envy... and probably nausea.
"Screw this, I'm reviving you!" Pranks stomped the sand annoyedly and snapped his talons, "You can thank me later."
"Come on, Void isn't powerful enough to render all necromancy worldwide ineffective... yet."
He snapped his talons again with the same result.
"No way! Magic resistance so high even I can't get you back up? That's so cool!" Pranks nodded his head approvingly, "And so is your body. Get it? Cool! Ha ha ha."
Pranks focused his will. There was nothing, NOTHING he couldn't do even despite the Pact of Harmony disallowing him to do everything everywhere at once. Harmony had sacrificed herself to stop him playing with his creations too carelessly. Nightmare could only interact with the world through an agent. He... he could do most of what he used to be able to, only in a small area, and he was also subject to the Elements being usable against him if he crossed the line. NOTHING could stop him from forcibly bringing a single soul back to life if he wanted to... aside from Void.
His second creation had somehow over eons gained enough power to rival his. Yet, he didn't feel the alicorn of Death interfering.
Strangely enough, a totally random griffon's snapping of claws for the third time didn't bring dead back to life.
"FINE, be that way!" he sulked, glaring at Blaze's body, "I don't have time to be talking to you the whole day, Fluttershy's making cupcakes."
Agent Pranks snapped his claws again and disappeared in a flash of blinding white light. When he reappeared in a small wooden cottage he muttered to himself in a vastly different voice:
"Well, that could have gone better."
Princess Luna's face twisted into a grimace of pure horror as she listened to a report given by four ponies - one mech, two earthponies, and a thestral - and one griffon.
It wasn't the fact that an escaped prisoner SAVED both groups just to hold them hostage and make Luna pay a fairly insignificant, if she had to be honest, sum of money. It wasn't the fact that said prisoner had at his disposal a warship never before built in Equestria, her Equestria. It wasn't the regrettable death of a unicorn who fascinated her and had on occasion helped her immensely. I wasn't even, very surprisingly, the coming end of days.
No, it also wasn't the bill from Golden Sands that somehow managed to get to Canterlot despite the entire town being levelled. Mere death was but a nuisance to accountants apparently.
It was the fact that three out of her five subordinates looked completely dead inside.
Luna knew grief. Every alicorn knew grief so deep mortals couldn't even begin to imagine. That's what she believed until the point when Choking Darkness, Cromach, and Heavy Hoof walked into her office. In their faces there was the knowledge that there was one true chance in anypony's life to find happiness and meaning... and their one chance was gone, leaving the rest of their days an empty existence.
"Anything else?" Luna asked.
"I request a temporary leave of absence in order to get my armor repaired," said Bucket, the mechanical pony, whose steel armor plates looked as if he had spent a night in a blender.
"Request accepted," Luna nodded and looked at a brown earthpony mare covered in bandages and barely standing, "First escort Dawn to the castle infirmary though."
The duo left and Luna sighed.
"The rest of you..." she started.
"I assume full responsibility for everything that's happened," said a green-eyed griffon whose body was completely white, both feathers and fur. He didn't make eye contact with the princess and the tone of his voice made it clear he wasn't saying it out of some royal responsibility. He wanted to suffer the consequences.
"Cromach, you are hereby promoted to the rank of drill sargeant. That, coupled with you being directly under my command, makes your rank even with Heavy Hoof," Luna nodded towards a white earthpony with light blue mane and patches of long blue fur on his legs just above his hooves, "You will also join him, Rising Thunder, and Choking Darkness in training new recruits."
"I have a request," said the red-maned thestral mare whose coat was black as charcoal. She was still wearing the thin red-rimmed glasses she'd worn in Golden Sands but there was nothing carefree about her. A new addition to her arsenal was a strange bracelet with tubes on it that Cromach knew was a mirror world hoof-operated gun, a short-ranged and inaccurate cannon capable of blowing a hole in an armored knight. How she'd managed to get Icy Gaze to give it to her was beyond him but he suspected it had something to do with them not trying to run away during the ransom dealings.
"Yes, miss Darkness?"
"I want magic. Sharpie was able to use magic to a limited degree and I want to know how. Blaze told me once ya knew how to make enchanted horseshoes."
"Ah, the horseshoes serving as a magic focus akin to unicorn horns. That is... correct. I can have them made for you but I cannot teach you to use them outside of some basic rules."
"That'll be enough, princess. I... I've never felt so useless in my life. Too bad that now I realize it it's too late," Choking bit her lip and sniffed.
Luna had nothing comforting to say. Anything she could say now seemed trite and pointless. She turned to business.
"Heavy, got anything to say?"
"Nothing, your Highness, at least not to you," his eyes darted from Cromach to Choking. Luna understood.
In any normal case she would give all of them some time to recover but neither of them could be left alone in their state. What they needed was to put some distance between what happened and themselves.
"All three of you," Luna ordered, standing up from her desk, "take an evening off. You have lessons tomorrow and I'll expect you to be there. After I talk to my sister about our next step you'll be in charge of telling our military about the situation. Dismissed!"
The trio saluted and left. Luna regretted putting three ponies in their early twenties in such position but she didn't have a choice. It was also the only way to help them deal with their loss.
After all, diamonds were created under pressure.