Grimmus blinked a few times, but the white dot floating in front of his eyes wouldn't disappear. He shook his head, looked around: the room he was in was dark (not the cavern-black darkness of an Inquisitorial holding cell - he could just about make out details by a dim light filtering in under the door) and plain. There was a raised platform to his left and a toilet and sink attached to the wall to his right; in front of him was a large door.
He twisted his hands around a few times for the sake of blood circulation: the rope was still tight. I could chew through it... - his teeth had been replaced twenty years ago with ceramite dentures. He looked around again, then nodded to himself.
"Hey!" he shouted, doing his best to sound terrified and desperate; "Help! Hey, anyone!"
He listened for a reply, but there was no sound. He closed his eyes and concentrated, activating his aural enhancements: there, in the distance he could hear a clip-clop sound getting closer.
"Hey! Anyone, please, I really," he sobbed; "-h-help, p-please-"
The clip-clop sound was moving slightly faster now. Grimmus suppressed a smile: amatuers. A high-value suspect of the Inquisition could be left for days in the cold and the dark. He thought about the best course of action: once he was untied, he could kill the guard and escape to... where? Alone in some prison, somewhere on a world full of hostile xenos without any means of escape, he'd not last long.
He remembered the curious, unafraid faces. Soft faces. Soft eyes: and that had been some kind of military rally. The clip-clop sound stopped, just outside the door. A hatch slid open on the door, letting in some more of the weak light. A beam of light shot in (an electric torch?), dazzling Grimmus. He squinted and cowered.
"H-hey you there, p-please- help me-"
The light disappeared. There was a scraping sound of bolts being pulled back, then the door swung outwards to reveal one of the aliens - a large one, grey, and without a horn. It was wearing a bronze helmet and armour; in the low light Grimmus couldn't quite tell if it had wings or not.
"What are you-" it's voice had the quality of a human male; "how did you get down here!?"
Grimmus raised his arms slightly, as if shielding himself. He made his body tremble.
"I- I don't know, I was on my- on my ship, and then one of you- p-please don't hurt me, I..."
His body shook with a sob. He was not sure (one never can be with aliens), but Grimmus thought that the xeno's body language indicated empathy. It stepped forwards, and again. Grimmus flinched visibly.
"Don't be scared," it spoke, softly; "I won't hurt you. Where are you from? You mentioned a ship - are you a sailor, from a foreign country?"
Grimmus looked up into the creature's eyes: it was only three feet away. The eyes were so large, and concerned, and friendly. Shifting backwards, feigning fear, he composed a story in his head.
"...okay, you're scared," the alien sat down on its back legs; "but at least tell me your name. I'm Prison Gates."
"I ... I am Grimmus Darkium, of the Inquisition. My ship, it's ... up there," he gestured up to the sky, "in space. I'm from another world."
Prison Gates nodded slowly. Grimmus let a little confidence into his voice, as if he was reciting rote-learned prose.
"The Inquisition, we seek out new worlds. New life and civilizations - we meet in peace, in the name of the Emperor."
"Oh, he's a great man. A visionary. He united so many worlds in common purpose," Grimmus thought back to what his kidnapper had said; "In the cause of friendship."
"Ah. Like princess Celestia."
Is that her name?
"Is that your leader?"
"Yes. She makes the sun rise every morning and rules over us. Along with her sister-"
"Is she ... big? White, with a horn and wings..?"
Prison Gates nodded enthusiastically, smiled.
"Yes, that's her!"
"She- attacked me, on my ship. She kidnapped me and put me here."
The pony's brow furrowed.
"Well, I'm sure she had a good reason-"
"There is no reason! And if I can't get back to my ship, my people will come looking for me. Prison Gates, she could start a war!"
Lieutenant Sal Del-ban-Barley took another drag of his cigarette and looked down at the shuffling mass of people making their way onto his transport. As he blew a smoke-ring he heard the clanging of his co-pilot walking up behind him.
"Those'll kill you one day, you know."
Sal waved away the words, spreading thin smoke overhead.
"Emperor willing!" he chuckled; "I'd rather these things kill me than some xeno filth."
His co-pilot snorted.
"I'm going to double-check the instruments before launch."
Sal ignored him, looking down at the pinched, hungry faces lined up around the room. He'd seen Cadians and Mordians and soldiers from dozens of worlds: but regiments like this, prisoner-regiments, were the worst. He could smell the fear and barely-repressed desire roiling off of them.
The Blessed Communications Device attached to his belt crackled into life.
"Kfft- hello? Is there anyone there?"
Sal flicked his cigarette away, down to the slow-moving mass of humanity below, and grabbed the radio-transmitter.
"This is Liuetenant Del-ban-Barley."
"This is commander Kat-ban-Ocean. How is progress going at launch bay secundus?"
"The Valkyries are mostly filled up. The landing ship should be ready within half an hour."
The landing-craft were huge: easily as big as Ponyville's town hall (maybe even bigger? - it was hard to tell from the distance), and obviously dangerous; covered in gun-turrets. There were five of those that Rainbow Dash could see, plus some other, smaller machines.
"Rainbow Dash!" - she recognised the voice as Spitfire's; "Come on, stick to the plan!"
She steeled herself, tore a chunk off of the cloud she had been clinging to/hiding behind, and started flying upwards to meet the Imperial craft. Glancing quickly around, she could see dozens of ponies and griffons; the first wave. Most were carrying clouds; some carried blankets treated with tree-sap. There were so many of them - how could it go wrong?
Then she looked ahead again, and saw the behemothic flying-machines bearing down on her. Rainbow Dash almost stopped where she was; but then she remembered Spitfire's words: keep moving, don't stay in front of their guns. She dropped her cloud right in front of the oncoming craft and kept on flying; there was a warmth in the air just behind her, and a sizzling sound. Rainbow Dash curved around (slowing no more than she had to) so that she was flying towards and above them.
Th guns were firing out at all the ponies; there was a sinking feeling in her stomach as she saw a dozen points of fire falling from the sky. She glanced left and right: everypony in her team, the first of the first wave, had made it through. Spitfire waved to her, and then exploded into a cloud of pink vapour.
"NO!" shouted Rainbow Dash; another pony's head exploded into a fountain of gore. A beam of red light, a pillar of heat, appeared just above Rainbow Dash's head. She could feel the hair of her mane sizzling, but there was no real damage done. Tears already building up in her eyes, she screamed, dipped down low, and then flew in a loose arc towards the Imperial craft - one of the little ones, that had escaped the blinding attentions of the first wave.
Something scraped her right foreleg; she could feel the cut, but didn't care. She built up as much speed as she could and smashed into the bottom of the thing.
She forced herself to stay level with it, scrambled along and found something to cling on to. The guns on this craft were all facing forwards: one on each wing and one on the nose. She had caused a dent where she had impacted; she pounded at the metal with her hoof a few times before realising that this was having very little effect.
Someone else hit the craft, behind Rainbow Dash, causing it to shake, nearly causing her to come loose and fall off. She shuddered, her bowels shifting like jelly. Slowly, she turned her head. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the second (or third?) wave - there were a few little points of fire visible, falling out of the sky.
"Hey, Rainbow Dash!" - the voice was familiar. Gilda. But the face looking at her was caked with blood.
"G-gilda, are you- are you alright!?"
"What? Oh-" she reached up with one of her talons (Rainbow Dash glanced down briefly and saw that the claws were dug into the metal) and brushed off a piece of gore, flinging it into the air; "Don't worry, it's not mine!"
The plane shook from side to side, and one of the guns fired in a rattle as loud as anything Rainbow Dash had ever heard; she flinched and lost her grip, started tumbling backwards, but Gilda caught her and pulled her in.
The griffon smelled foul - smelled of blood. Rainbow Dash's face was shoved right into Gilda's neck, and the stench was overpowering, and she could feel vomit working its way up her gullet, and then she threw up over her friend.
"Oh, Dash, that's just gross..."
Gilda swung around and pinned Rainbow Dash to the side of the craft.
"We've gotta take this thing out-"
"What? But, G, these things are made of metal, how-"
Gilda smiled (a terrifying sight with her features picked out in red).
"Oh, but they have glass canopies. Are you okay now?"
Rainbow Dash squirmed around, balanced and braced herself against the bulkhead. She nodded.
Twilight looked down the row of unicorns. Most of them were standing to attention with determined looks on their faces, and she tried to copy that. She turned her attention to the sky, gulped - any moment now...
With no warning, there was a blinding white light - it was as if the sun had appeared on the ground. In a sense, it had - princess Celestia and two dozen pegasi appeared. Several of them were injured - one had a whole wing burned off, though the little blackened stump that remained was moving jerkily, by reflex. Twilight's eyes widened as she saw that Celestia herself was hurt - there was blood on the princess' front hooves and horn - and she rushed forwards to help.
"Princess! Are you alright!?"
The other unicorns followed Twilight's example; they galloped to the wounded and started healing with their magic. Celestia looked disoriented; she blinked a few times before answering.
"Twilight. Yes, I'm fine - where is my sister?"
"You don't look fine - how's it going up there?"
"It-" Celestia hesitated; "It's going better than I expected-"
"BUT IS IT GOING AS WE HAD HOPED?"
Twilight turned around; Luna landed softy on the ground. A look passed between the princesses that Twilight couldn't decipher. Luna lowered her head slightly. Celestia spoke:
"Is the final wave ready?"
"Yes, sister. We only await thy presence."
"Then let's do this-"
"Princess!" pleaded Twilight; "You're covered in blood!"
Celestia glanced at her student and breathed out through her nose.
"And yet I am not injured."
After a few seconds, Twilight nodded, understanding.
"You healed yourself?"
"Y-" the princess stopped in her tracks and turned around to look at Twilight, studying the unicorn's face for a second; "Sometimes I forget how young you are. No. It is not my blood. You must have read books about war, Twilight Sparkle."
Twilight took a step backwards.
"Y- you mean-"
"My sister, time is of the essence."
Celestia nodded and turned away from Twilight.
"Get in position. Things are about to get..."
She opened up her wings and started flying. With a force of projection from over a thousand years of rule, she called out:
"EVERYPONY, PREPARE YOURSELVES."
Lieutenant Del-ban-Barley sat back in his seat. He couldn't see a thing.
"Well, this is new."
He reached into a pocket to fish out a cigarette; his co-pilot waited until he had it to his lips and was about to light it up before objecting:
"That's against regulations, Sal."
Del-ban-Barley fixed his co-pilot with a venomous look for a few seconds before continuing to light up.
"How about you keep your eyes on the instruments, Rikyard. Wouldn't want us crashing into any mountains."
"Please don't joke about that..."
This earned a raised eyebrow from Del-ban-Barley.
"Are you scared? On a milk-run like this?"
"We've lost visuals, Sal."
The pilot shrugged. He looked to the front of the cockpit, coated as it was with blankets and... clouds? No, that's stupid, clouds aren't sticky, and mused to himself that this was, indeed, a unique situation. The communicator flickered into life.
"AAGH! EMPEROR PROTECT-" - and then white noise. Del-ban-Barley sat up.
"One of the Valkyries, I - oh, no, what-" the co-pilot slapped the side of the radar system; "Uh, Sal, there's ten - no, twenty... things, they just appeared. They don't read like fighters, they look... I don't know-"
"They're organic. Like on Caligulon V. By the Throne, they're coming-"
There was a sound of metal bending, and the landing craft shook to the side.
Rainbow Dash had blood on her hooves. Human blood. The look on his face flashed through her mind - no, can't think about that! She looked at Gilda, flying parallel - they'd known each other practically their whole lives, but Rainbow Dash had never seen the griffon so happy as she was now, with gore caking over her face.
It was scary.
A beam of red light passed over Rainbow Dash's head, burning some of the hair off of her mane; she dipped down and glanced behind her. It was another little one, almost identical to the one they had just destroyed.
Rainbow Dash tilted her head to indicate what she was thinking about. Gilda's grin widened.
There was a loud, sharp crack and two giant spheres of light - one white, one dark purple - appeared in the middle of the sky; after a few moments they both faded to reveal a dozen dragons of various sizes and shapes. They hung in the air for a second, and then swarmed forwards. One of them - a red, sleek, huge and angry-looking monster, flew between the pegasus and the griffon and sent Rainbow Dash tumbling in its wake.
She managed to right herself and saw it grabbing the craft that had just fired on her; it tore off one of the wings, breathed red fire onto the remains, and then dropped it like a pebble. Then it changed direction and flew onto one of the three huge craft.
"That's pretty impressive," said Gilda, hovering next to Rainbow Dash.
"It looks like they're going after the big ones. Plenty left for us. Look! There's one!"
"Uh, Gilda, I think maybe we should go now..."
"What!?" Gilda flew around in front of Rainbow Dash; "You scared, Dash!?"
"No! I just-"
"Last one there's a gnarly dragon egg!" the griffon shouted as she sped off in a line straight to the human craft. Rainbow Dash hesitated for a second - there was nopony else in the sky, only dragons, so far as she could see - but I can't leave Gilda alone...
The pegasi bolted off after her friend. The sky was much clearer now - all the humans seemed to be shooting at the dragons. Gilda had already grabbed onto the front of the human craft, and was smashing away at its cockpit with her free talon. There was a loud sound from behind Rainbow Dash; she glanced backwards to see a pair of dragons holding a large landing craft upside-down; then she turned back and could not see Gilda.
She panicked; an image of Spitfire flashed through her mind; she shook her head. Another beam of light flashed above her head - as she swung away, Rainbow Dash could see that the cockpit was shattered - and the craft flew just under her. Rainbow Dash looked down, and could see in the distance, a flailing, falling brown-and-white figure - Gilda! She must have been hit!
Mustering all of her strength, Rainbow Dash dived - I can do this, I can do this! - she'd done it before, but that had been in a clear sky... she felt an ache in her overly-taxed muscles, but pushed through it; she could feel the air warming around her and forming a cone around her downward-pointed front hoof; the air pressure was pushing back against her, but she remembered Spitfire and her friends back in Ponyville, and found an extra reserve of energy...
Del-ban-Barley flicked on the internal communications system.
"All right, this is going to get bumpy, but we should be fine."
He flicked it off again, then ripped the receiver out of its socket - he needed to concentrate, no time for questions frgom a bunch of groundpounders.
He tried to ignore the gurgling sound of his dying co-pilot and concentrated on the view in front of him; with the glass from the cockpit mostly gone, he could see a lake. He glanced at the instruments in front of him: half the engines were out, and the remaining ones could go at any time.
Bumpy, he thought grimly, is one hell of an understatement.
He was still flying by wire, for the most part: the clouds and the smoke only parted occasionally. He turned the landing-craft (one more of the engines exploded from the strain) and started the descent. A dragon - a different one from before - started flying straight towards him. The readouts showed that all his weapons were destroyed, but he tried pulling triggers anyway - and one lascannon cut a gash across the beast's wing.
Del-ban-Barley smiled to himself.
There was a flash from below, and a multi-coloured explosion. All his dials and screens went wild and died.
He was flying blind.