Gathering Storm: Black Ops
With months passing the winter was almost over.
"What are our victory conditions, sister?" asked princess Celestia over a cup of tea during one of their evening meetings.
Princess Luna though long and hard about that question. Past three months had been filled with spying, gathering information, and negotiating with any ally she could think of and it still was nowhere near enough. Equestrian military, despite calling for concerned citizens to join their intense training regime, hadn't gotten too many applicants, leaving Luna wondering about the scrapped law ordering a draft. The military forces had excellent individuals but those had no chance of standing against what Luna's scrying magic had shown was gathering in Zebrica and southern parts of Equestria.
Their main hope lay in various magical orders and institutions capable of using tactical spells - tornadoes, force strikes, meteors - anything capable of reducing the enemy numbers. Unfortunately, they didn't have the political power or opportunity to test those spells first. The Nightmare's army was still too far away to use those to test their defensive magical capabilities and using tactical spells would definitely not go unnoticed by griffons. Considering the Empire had refused any and all recent diplomatic contacts they probably knew Equestria was in trouble.
In short, a victory in a direct conflict was unlikely.
"Not dying sounds like a good one," Luna took a sip and shrugged, "I don't see any tangible goal aside from fighting Holy Light's army. If we were to do that then the best time would be when they try to land on our southern shores. I don't see a way to survive the onslaught of their force when they are at full power."
"Any help from elsewhere?" Celestia rubbed her horn, "I'm having enough trouble preventing panic in Equestria and stopping the nobles from tearing the country to pieces from the inside. Perhaps I should just kill Blueblood."
"What did he do?"
"Was born, mainly, but I can't stand his ramblings on unicorn superiority. Funnily enough, his latest idea of forcing earthpony mares to become breeding and morale-raising facilities during wartime would probably help us."
"Hmmmm... how does General Blueblood sound?" Luna grinned, "Hero of the first royal light brigade. I'm sure trying to dodge arrows from the front AND the back would help him improve his views."
"At least both armies would have a common goal," Celestia chuckled, "Good idea though. As a unicorn who is undoubtedly superior to his earthpony and pegasi brethren he would be a paragon of - damn, can't say that with a straight face. So, nothing? What about mirror Twilight Sparkle, the iron hoof of Equus?"
"They don't really call her that. She was very direct during our last meeting in saying that the only piece of advanced technology she sent here got immediately copied and she LOST her own flagship trying to help us fight it and as such she wasn't too inclined to help. When I explained who the enemy was she said she was going to close the portal as soon as things started looking grim."
"Aaaand the helping part?"
"They can't help us with any research because the Nightmare Moon on their side was killed instead of purified, thank you by the way, but she will send some of her forces to bolster ours. Her problem is that, just like on our side of the portal, as soon as she shows weakness the various unstable factions might try to break the unified world into pieces."
"Not enough although her husks make an excellent front line."
"Any word from the griffons?"
"Nothing outside of gossip. Our changeling agents claim the Emperor is dead and the Black Ops are sorting the politics out in a way which wouldn't break the Empire back into small countries and city states. We should be happy they are still trading with us at least. In short, they have enough trouble of their own."
"What about the Crystal Empire?"
"Probably our best asset, surprisingly. Crystal ponies are related to earthponies and they don't take darkness trying to enslave them lightly. Shining Armor has his hooves full with turning basically the entire city state into an army."
"How is Cadance taking it? She's never been the combat sort."
"Are you joking, sister? Shining Armor used her as a projectile during Sombra's return. Cadance is helping him by gathering mares, both in and outside of the army, willing to pose for suggestive photos to get the 'colts in uniform' to perform better."
"Stars above us!"
"Should I bring Cadance's personal edition of 'Princess of Love spread like a lotus' tomorrow? She sent me a signed copy."
"Honestly, that sounds borderline exploitive."
"No, it's not!" Luna objected hotly, "Shining is doing the same thing. His photoset of 'Defenders at arms' actually sold more copies than Cadance's. Guard mares need motivation just like everypony else."
Celestia took a deep breath and finished her tea.
"I think we need all the good news we can get. I'm surprised that Holy Light's forces are coming from only one side."
"Not exactly," Luna shook her head, "Our Twilight's research hints at something interesting. It seems that Nightmare's power grows stronger the more desperate souls accept its influence and the number of those controlled agents has dwindled in past three months. Twilight managed to create spells capable of targeting these agents and I went to visit one of the stronger points and you wouldn't believe who I found."
"Void. It turns out he's been eliminating these minor gateways of Nightmare's power into this world. According to what he said there are only two remaining but those are the main ones. One is in Zebrica which must be Holy Light. The other one is somewhere in the land of minotaurs. Both of these locations are heavily protected from scrying magic so I can't gather much more without sending somepony there."
"A two-pronged attack then?"
"Hmmm... Twilight and her friends aren't ready to face war. They are still just fillies no matter their experience with the supernatural. They might be able to face Holy Light just like they fought you but they can't use the power of the Elements against normal soldiers. Can we hide them for the time being?"
"No point. If we do that then Holy Light's army will just march straight to the Tree of Harmony and force a fight there."
"Why is that a problem? It is an area we know while the enemy won't. We can bait them there and have a minor chance against their numbers advantage. Plus, mirror Twilight's army will be close at hoof."
Luna looked at Celestia sadly.
"I've never expected to see the day you offer to sacrifice the entire southern part of Equestria. I've always believed you had all the answers and that you would never waste a single life."
"Luna, I have to protect my ponies and I ask very little of them. Sometimes though, they have to do their part. However, we still have time. Prepare the prediction of the enemy's march. Order the evacuation of danger zones and get us ready for a guerrila war. We'll need to slow Holy Light's army down as much as possible and make them lose as many poni- soldiers as we can."
"What about the northern force?"
"We'll leave that to Shining Armor and Cadance for now. I hope their porn-strenghtened forces can handle the situation. Last thing - send a team to rebuild our old castle in the Everfree and station the united forces of mages there. It is closer to the southern coast than Canterlot so we might be able to ruin a decent part of Holy's forces with some large-scale tactical spells while they are crossing the ocean."
"I don't like relying on the Elements so much," Luna frowned.
"Have you got a better idea?"
"No, sorry, sister."
"I love you, Luna. No matter what happens never forget that."
"I love you too, Tia. We stand together, we fall together."
Darkness fell and they appeared in Canterlot from nowhere. There were no traces of their progress and nopony knew about their coming. The unlucky guard currently stationed in front of the castle entrance gulped as he saw a group of twenty serious-looking griffons approach and salute. Each one of them was wearing only a black, gold-embroidered jacket, and a headgear of their choice. Some had cowls, some barrets, and some scarves, but none of them looked to be bothered by the snow coming down from the sky. The accessories seemed purely a fashion choice.
"We bring tidings from the Griffon Empire," said the group's leader when all griffons stood at attention at once, "and we request an audience with princess Celestia."
"I-it's after visiting hours. You'll have to wait for tomorrow to make an appointment."
"We... insist," the leading griffon kept staring. The others spread out around the entrance and their clothes and natural colouring allowed them to merge with the darkness.
"L-l-l-let me get my commander, sir... sirs. Stay here, please," the guard rushed inside and slammed the door shut.
"The security here is a joke, sir," a griffon turned to the one leading the group.
"It seems that way and yet no assassination attempt has ever worked."
"Definitely not because of skilled personnel," the griffon snorted and some other joined from the shadows, "The twenty of us could take this entire city by ourselves. Discounting the alicorns, of course."
"It seems that way," the leader nodded, "Don't forget the investigation of agent Jones' death and the incident in Golden Sands. We shouldn't underestimate any enemy, not even those who might be our current allies."
Few moments later the guard returned. The griffons were still there, at least he could see a few of them. He wanted his shift to be over but he shouldn't have slacked off during the surprise inspection earlier. Now he was one of the few unlucky Royal Guards on night shift.
They stood in silence and made the guard feel even smaller than he physically was compared to them. He almost soiled himself when the door behind him clicked again, first with shock and then with relief. Not that he liked batponies but right now anything was better than the creepy griffons.
A group of five Nightguards led by a red-maned mare marched out. She raised her hoof and a small ball of light appeared, illuminating the griffons hiding around. The guard didn't question a batpony using magic because his mind was in his happy place.
"The princesses will see you immediately," the mare simply said.
The griffons followed the thestrals through the empty halls of Canterlot castle. The griffon leader smiled as he watched the practiced march and the ponies ready to pounce at him at any time. The elite met the elite and both sides knew it immediately. When the door to the throne room opened his expression remained the same but his eyes betrayed him. He was relieved.
The princesses weren't alone. The griffon leader recognized the ponies around as the targets of several Black Ops operations before, unsuccessful operations.
The leader bowed curtly before the sisters but it felt more like a greeting between equals.
"What do we owe the honor?" asked princess Celestia coldly but politely, "Forgive us for being surprised at this unscheduled visit, especially after all of our diplomats being denied any contact."
"My name is Vargaz, the leader of Imperial Secret Service and a temporary steward of the Griffon Empire," the grey-coated griffon leader announced and watched the composure of both sisters break as they gasped, "I come with an offer of cooperation during the incoming crisis."
"What do you offer?" Luna recovered faster.
"A hundred fully-equipped and experienced Black Ops members."
"We were hoping for a more significant part of your Imperial Legion. The incoming enemy is stronger than-"
"Mind if I say something, princess?" a green-eyed white griffon interrupted the princess who raised an eyebrow.
"You underestimate the Black Ops. A hundred of their guys with guns, explosives, and mobile radio stations can wreak havoc behind enemy lines. This offer is better than sending few thousand Legion soldiers, if only because we don't have to bother with logistics."
"Aah, mister Cromach," Vargaz smiled pleasantly, "You spared me the trouble of looking for you."
"Not sure if I should be flattered or terrified," Cromach tilted his head, portraying neither of those emotions.
"I have an offer for you which, also, is the price for our help. We want you to become our direct link to the princesses as well as a member of Black Ops."
"Eehm, isn't this supposed to be some sort of a shady deal where you pay me and I spy on them? If so then by asking me that in front of the princesses you're doing it wrong. You might also be forgetting that the last time one of your guys offered that to me he tried to have me publicly executed."
"I am fully aware of your situation, mister Cromach, but my intentions are more practical. The Empire has, under the leadership of my brother, thrived in all aspects but one - respect for our neighbours. I am also sure that as soon as the succession rites are finished my steward status will be revoked unless the new Emperor is too young. Before that happens I would like to correct my brother's mistake and estabilish a means of contact which would, if situation called for it, bypass... politics," Vargaz scowled at the word.
Cromach looked at princess Luna who nodded and then at princess Celestia.
"We cannot afford to refuse your offer, as you undoubtedly know,-"
"-but you have to realize that your 'link' will be under heavy scrutiny from everypony."
Taking a deep breath, Vargaz looked directly at Celestia.
"I understand your concern and have only one thing to add. The more we know about one another the more we understand. Knowledge in itself isn't dangerous, the griffons or ponies determine how it will be used. You have to examine the messenger rather than the message this time."
"Do not forget our subjects have their own will, agent," Celestia looked at Cromach, "which is something I treasure the most. I could order Cromach to accept your offer just to gain access to your resources but I doubt he'd do a good job under duress. That means the final choice is yours, Cromach."
"I don't really mind arranging the occasional meeting as long as it doesn't interfere with my job. I want to ask something though. Do you have access to the files about Golden Sands investigation?"
"As a steward of the Empire I am currently the most powerful griffon alive. I'm sure I can have a look at them. What do you want to know? As the leader of the Black Ops I made sure to acquaint myself with most of the details about the incident before coming here."
"Did you... by any chance... find an unusual piece of technology inside the ruins of Emperor's Embrace hotel?"
"Unusual?" Vargaz hummed to himself, "Aah! A very advanced piece of engineering and neurosurgery?"
"Yes, I want it. No questions, no negotiating, no excuses. As soon as possible."
Vargaz went through what he remembered from various reports about Cromach ever since his escape from the desert... and smiled warmly at the young griffon.
"I shall arrange that. Do you mind if we make a copy or at least blueprints first?"
"I don't care but you aren't disassembling it or anything. I want the original."
"Deal. I'm sure we can get enough information without breaking it."
Cromach and Vargaz shook hands.