Disclaimer: My Little Pony is owned by Hasbro. Warhammer 40,000 is owned by Games Workshop. I’m not making any money from this anyway, so why sue me?
As much as I strive to post only “complete” chapters, the entire story is still a work in progress, so anything may be changed at any time. Proofreading and reviewing acknowledgements to Kim Fluttershy Dykas, Present Perfect and Nick, on Ponychan.
The heavy rain beat rhythmically against the windows of the Lazy Saddle Tavern. It was the last stop on the road from Holy Canterlot before reaching the sprawling cityscape of Hippopolis, only a few hours walk away. Outlines of the city’s majestic spires could be seen on the horizon with every flash of lighting.
Knowing of the scheduled thunderstorm beforehand, much of the townsfolk from the surrounding farmland came to the tavern to wait out the rain with good company and a tall glass of cider. The crowd was earth-pony gardeners and farm-hands mostly, but a couple unicorns sat together with a table to themselves, and one pegasus Meq-Adept discussed a new thresher design with a few interested buyers. The air hummed with their cheerful chatter, until the door swung open.
For a moment all eyes turned to the open door, and the room fell silent. A pony strode in, wearing a leather cloak and a hat with a brim that obscured his eyes, but not his salt-and-pepper coat. The garments were soaked, and a puddle began to form on the floor where he stopped just inside the doorway.
Another, much larger figure dressed much the same followed behind him. He was a light shade of brown, built like a draft horse, and sported a small goatee. The first gave a slight nod, and the bulky companion found his way to an empty table against the wall. Then the stranger approached the barkeep.
“My friend and I will have two glasses,” he said quietly. The barkeep blinked for a moment, but nodded and went to fetch the tall mugs. Murmurs of conversation returned to the room, though with a more guarded tone than before.
“You two aren’t from around here, I see,” said the barkeep when he returned with the drinks and a somewhat forced smile. “We get folks passing through here all the time on the road to Hippopolis, but most of ‘em check the weather forecast beforehand. Did you forget we were getting a storm?”
“We have pressing business,” the strange pony replied. “It couldn’t wait.” He took both glasses back to the table where his companion was, and both drank their ciders without so much as a word between them. They surveyed the room, just as several patrons around it eyed them back nervously. When the stranger finished his glass, he brought it back to the bar.
“Another, please,” he said.
As the barkeep refilled his glass, he turned to the stranger. “Is there anything else you need? A place to spend the night, maybe? The rain’s supposed to let up, but not until late. Everypony else will head home once it does, but Hippopolis is still too far to make it before nightfall.”
“That won’t be necessary,” replied the stranger. Then, as he was about to leave again, he leaned in. “Actually, perhaps there is something else you can help us with.”
At this, the barkeep cocked his head. “You name it, friend. Whatever we can do. We here at the Lazy Saddle pride ourselves on our hospitality.”
“We’re here on behalf of some market vendors from Holy Canterlot, and we’re supposed to meet a supplier from around here tomorrow. Since we got here early, and everypony seems to be here right now, maybe you could point him out for us.”
“Uh, sure,” the barkeep said, “who are you looking for?”
“A pony by the name of Seedy Core, owner of Malus Orchards.”
The barkeep seemed suddenly relieved. “Oh, everypony knows Seedy around here. His is the biggest orchard in town. Let’s see… Yup, there he is, with some of his buddies over in that corner.” He pointed to a table where several ponies were huddled, apparently playing a card game. The stranger thanked him, paid for the drinks, and strode across the room toward Seedy’s table
“Excuse me, gentleponies,” he said as he approached them, “but I’m looking for Seedy Core.”
The ponies at the table all stopped and turned to face the stranger. The one directly opposite, a stocky pony with a wiry, unkempt mane and a plow harness spoke up. “Well, you found him. Something I can do for you?”
“My name is Caballus,” he answered, “and I’d like to discuss a shipment from your Orchard that arrived in Holy Canterlot a few days ago.” Caballus reached into a saddlebag under his cloak and set a bright red apple on the table.
The orchard owner inspected the fruit for a moment. “Could be one of mine… Is there some sort of problem with it?”
“Actually, there is.” In a burst of motion, Caballus dove across the table, tackling Seedy and pinning him against the wall.
Seedy’s friends around the table all jumped to their feet. Before any of them could intervene, however, Caballus’s companion was amongst them. Though outnumbered, the massive stallion had little trouble keeping the disorganized group at bay while Caballus held Seedy.
“I’d call this a problem,” he growled, smashing the apple and holding up the mashed fruit to Seedy’s face. The pulp was writhing with ugly, bloated worms. “Your whole shipment was infested with Cheat-worms.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” cried the squirming pony. Others, many of whom worked for Seedy, were getting up at other tables. Soon there would be more than Caballus’s brawling companion could handle. A couple had drawn slingshots, pulling them back with their teeth and pointing them menacingly at the pair.
But none of them fired. Everypony who was holding a slingshot suddenly felt something pressed to the back of their own heads. A half-dozen pies floated in mid air, each suffused by a green glow. A female unicorn of the same green hue strode nonchalantly into the middle of the group, her horn giving off the same green glow. “I thought it looked like you could use a hoof, sir,” She said with a casual tone.
“Much obliged, Mystic,” said Caballus. He shoved Seedy over to his large ally. “Roughshod, take him outside. We need to talk to him privately.”
“Sure thing, boss,” Roughshod said with a grin, manhandling Seedy toward the door. Some of the farmhands began to protest.
”I suggest you all stay out of our business,” Caballus announced, holding up his hoof to the mob. In it was a stylized F with three bars behind it, and the symbol of his absolute authority.
The several ponies in the crowd gasped and others staggered backward. None challenged him. They simply watched, eyes and mouths wide, as the Inquisipony dragged their friend and neighbor away.
Once the group was outside, Roughshod shoved Seedy into the mud.
“Cheat-worms are an exotic and very, very illegal species, Seedy,” Caballus said, talking over the downpour with an authoritative tone. “Fruit contaminated with Cheat-worm eggs are almost impossible to detect because they look perfectly healthy. Better than perfect, in fact, because the eggs cast an illusion that makes them even more enticing to pony eyes. That’s why they’re called ‘Cheat-worms.’ Because an unscrupulous businesspony can infect his crop, sell it at a premium, and skip town before everypony gets sick.”
“Please!” Seedy cried, his tears invisible in the rain, “please, I-I had no idea about the worms. Please don’t-“
Roughshod lifted Seedy up by his harness again, until his hind legs flailed around trying to reach the ground.
“Unfortunately for you,” Caballus continued, “one of your crates was delayed long enough for the worms to hatch before they could be eaten. It had already made it past two magical inspections before it was discovered.”
Caballus stepped in close to Seedy’s face. His eyes narrowed. “That shipment was to be delivered to a garrison of Holy Canterlot’s Equestrian Guard. Not only are you dealing in dangerous and forbidden wildlife, but you threatened the security of Princess Celestia Herself.” By now his voice seethed with barely-restrained anger. “Tell me where you got them.”
Seedy began to tremble harder, less now from being cold and wet, and more from sheer terror. The Friendquisition weren’t known for their mercy. Nor did they deal with crimes that carried anything less than the harshest punishments.
“It-it’s not m-my f-fault,” he pleaded, “I s-swear I didn’t know! There was this… this strange blight going around the orchard this season. I-I lost my entire crop! Then some merchant came through town, and offered to sell me whole cartfuls of his apples. I knew the price he gave me was too good to be true, b-but I was desperate. I never thought they’d be wormy!”
Caballus glared silently at Seedy for a moment. “I believe you,” he said at last, “so if you tell us anything you know about this merchant that will help us find him, I’ll hand you over to the local sheriff. If it turns out to be a dead end, I will come back here, drag you to a Friendquisitional dungeon, and you will never see Celestia’s shining daylight again.”
From a dark second story window of the Lazy Saddle, two pairs of eyes watched the scene below through slightly parted curtains.
“You know,” said one of the watchers, her voice like soft velvet, “With the Friendquisition involved, our plans are a bit more… complicated.”
“My plans,” the other scoffed, “are perfectly fine. I’ve considered every possible contingency, especially the Friendquisition. They’re already playing their parts perfectly.”
“Hmmm, I hope you’re right,” purred the first, leaving the window. “From the look of him, I wouldn’t mind doing a little ‘playing’ with him.” She giggled to herself at the thought. “We should return home soon, though. I’ll inform the others, and we can leave as soon as the Inquisipony is gone.”
“If you must…” the second mumbled after her. His gaze remained fixed on the scene below. The sheriff had arrived and Seedy was being loaded into a paddy-wagon. “She is right, you Equestrian fool…” he muttered to himself.
Then he smiled.
Rows of sharp, misshapen teeth glistened in the darkness. “Toying with you will most assuredly make things much more interesting...”
Caballus impatiently paced the passenger compartment of his prop-balloon, Her Solar Majesty. Flying had never felt quite right to him, no matter how many times he did it. If Celestia had wanted Caballus to fly, he figured he would have been born a pegasus. He poked his head into the cockpit. “How soon can we land, Fyz?”
A pony who had been born a pegasus, one wearing a rust-colored robe that matched his oil-smeared coat, glanced back. “Relax Cab. We’re only a few minutes from HQ now.” Fyzzix, a Magosus of the Adequus Mequestricus, responded in the somewhat nasal voice that was actually projected through the speaker-box affixed to his neck. Most Meq-priests underwent similar “improvements” as they rose through the ranks of their mysterious order, slowly replacing their organic systems with stronger, mechanical ones. By now, both of Fyzzix’s eyes and hind legs were entirely metal.
Caballus let out a resigned sigh. “Sorry, Fyz. You know how I get.”
Fyzzix smiled back with the fleshy half of his face and replied without even moving his lips. “I do know how you get. I know that no matter how many times I don’t crash the balloon, you’ll always remind me of the once or twice that I have.”
It was Caballus’s turn to smile now. “It was actually three times. The first time that rampaging hydra dragged us down. And the second time you rammed that hijacked snow-delivery cart, and the damage caused us to crash-land into the main snow manufactorum of Nimbostrata.”
“Those last two still only counts as one crash though,” Fyzzix said with a chuckle. He returned his gaze to the balloon’s instruments and a mechanical claw emerged from beneath his robes, giving Caballus a dismissive wave. “Now I’ve got to begin the Rites of Safe Landing, so stop distracting me, or we might all experience crash number three… or four, if you’re determined to maintain that delusion.”
Caballus returned to the passenger compartment in better spirits. Fyz had always had a knack for easing his nerves, almost as well as he rattled them with his reckless piloting. The joke often told was that his cutie mark, a winged wrench painstakingly restyled onto his artificial flank, meant that Fyzzix’s special talent was fixing the vehicles that he himself had damaged with his over-enthusiasm. It was a charge the pegasus always laughed off, but never denied.
The compartment he returned to was mostly just a space that contained all the team’s gear and had a few seats to spend the ride in. Roughshod was dozing off to one side, and Mystic was sitting in the far back corner, staring out the window.
For his part, Roughshod seemed quite comfortable. The pony was reclining in his seat, head down and snoring a little. An old Guard habit, he would always tell Caballus, of getting sleep when and wherever he could in the field.
Every aspect of his appearance was similarly practical. His mane was a darker brown than his coat, and trimmed short to prevent enemies from grabbing it in a brawl. His hooves, despite his name, were all shod securely with horseshoes designed for grip and durability, and custom fit for his large proportions. Caballus glanced down at Roughshod’s cutie mark, a shield with a star on it, and remarked to himself how it had once again proved fitting on their latest outing.
He wasn’t going to wake the former soldier just yet, but somehow Roughshod always knew when they were on final approach, and he sat right up.
“We almost there, boss?”
“You’re awake, aren’t you?” replied the Inquisipony. “When we arrive, I’ll be delivering my report and receiving orders from Lord Banehoof in person. You’re in charge of resupply while I’m gone. Have Mystic help you.”
“You got it, boss.” Roughshod looked back over his shoulder and grinned at Mystic. “You hear that, Sweet Pea? I’m in charge.”
She rolled her eyes and sighed. “Which means I’ll be doing all the lifting. You know, just because I can lift things with magic doesn’t mean it’s easy.” The younger unicorn had never cared for the nickname Roughshod had given her based on her coloring, so naturally he ribbed her with it at every opportunity. Her irritation was further expressed by impatiently blowing away the lime green forelock that hung past her horn, between her eyes. It was a highlight that ran up into the otherwise dark blue bun she tightly kept her mane in, and it was symbolic of her magical talents, in a way; precise, deliberate and carefully maintained, but betraying something… caged, something straining to escape. Many enemies of the Princess had mistaken the slender, frail-looking pony for helpless. But the sparkling lightning bolt on her flank spoke to the swiftness with which she brought them Celestia’s justice.
“I expect you both to be lifting. We won’t be staying in HQ for very long.” Caballus turned his attention out the window, toward the cityscape below. Great spires of polished white rose above the drab sprawl, remnants of a more glorious age standing defiant against the encroachments of the modern. The edge of the urban area stretched nearly to the horizon, dotted with parks and ponds and spacious squares in some parts, and crowded high with tall buildings in others. Above the bustling streets, the sky was thick with pegasus traffic. Carts, chariots and balloons of every shape and size ferried goods to and from the city below to their floating communities that drifted above the city, and off to the far corners of Equestria. Hippopolis had been one of the shining jewels of Equestrian trade and industry for hundreds of years, and was the regional capital of the Palomyna Sector.
Her Solar Majesty banked as it began its descent. One of the smaller towers started to loom larger in the windows. It stood out from its brethren, not for its size, but because instead of being pristine marble, it was obsidian black. The Friendquisition favored an intimidating presence. Soon, one of the large landing pads on the top of the tower filled the whole view, and the prop-balloon came to a jolting halt on its surface. A dislodged crate tipped over, and would have landed on Caballus, had Roughshod not yanked him away by the collar of his leather armor.
“Sorry!” Fyzzix yelled from the cockpit. “Must have been… the wind… or something.”
The ramp lowered and the team disembarked. Crews scurried around the craft, checking various systems and instruments. Fyzzix was already leading a few other Meq-adepts in maintenance rituals. His apprentice, a maroon Tech-pegasus named Wingnut rushed out to greet him. Roughshod conferred with a quartermaster over a list of needed supplies, and Mystic was already levitating the necessary crates across the loading area. Caballus descended into the tower alone.
The polished, black, stone corridors echoed with every fall of Caballus’s hooves. Even though it was smaller than many other such buildings in Hippopolis, this tower was still immense. Had he not memorized the structure’s layout in his years of training here, he would have been hopelessly lost after only a few minutes.
Finally he entered a large, vaulted hall. On either side stood grand statues of Friendquisitional heroes and murals depicting their legendary exploits. All of it was inlaid with gems and precious metals, so that the dark walls gave way to a bright, glittering display. The Hall of The Honored still filled Caballus with awe no matter how many times he saw it. He had an appointment to keep, however, so he couldn’t afford to stop and admire the sight, as much as he would have liked to.
At the far end of the Hall stood two gigantic doors displaying ancient symbols that marked them as the Friendquisitional Court. Just as Caballus approached, they opened with a loud groan. Another Inquisipony walked out, flanked by two guards who were dragging another thrashing pony with them. Caballus nodded to his colleague as they passed one another, and didn’t even spare a glance to the ragged, gibbering prisoner. He didn’t need to know the wretch’s verdict or sentence. If a pony was brought before the Tribunal, he was already guilty. Caballus stepped through the doors.
The chamber was circular, ringed with seats like an amphitheater and lit with flickering torches. Opposite the entrance stood the Tribunal bench, and atop it, towering over the Inquisipony, sat the judges.
The pony in the center seat scrutinized Caballus below with the one eye not covered by a patch. His ancient gray hide, crisscrossed with scars, wrinkled as he squinted. After a moment, he spoke. “Ah, Caballus, my faithful student, there you are. It is good to see you again.”
With a smile, Caballus bowed. “And you as well, Lord Banehoof.”
“No need for formalities, Caballus. You know I have no patience for them.” Banehoof chuckled and waved his hoof. Then he cleared his throat, saying, “but we must get to business. I trust you have something to report?”
“Yes, Lord.” He glanced toward the judges on either side of his mentor, addressing them with courteous nods. “Lord Inquisipony Stallius. Lady Inquisipony Vigilant. As you know, I’ve been following the trail of the Cheat-worm infestation since they were discovered by the Canterlot Guard. I may have finally found a lead to their source.”
“Yes...” Banehoof said, “the Cheat-worms are a grave affair. It’s serious enough whenever they turn up, but to slip past our defenses? Only stopped on the doorstep of Holy Canterlot just weeks before the Summer Sun Celebration? It’s most troubling.”
“Indeed,” Lord Stallius agreed. “When we received your preliminary field report, we did some searching of our own about this ‘merchant.’”
“And you’ve found something?” asked the Inquisipony.
“As a matter of fact, we have,” replied Lady Vigilant. Her horn glowed softly in the dim chamber, and several scrolls deftly floated into the space in front of Caballus. “There’s been a recent surge of activity in the illicit animal market. It seems the individual believed to be largely responsible matches his description. We believe he’s a Rogue Trader, one who is slipping through our border patrols to collect exotic creatures from the Everfree to sell them here in Equestria.”
“Unfortunately,” said Banehoof, grimly “that’s all we have. Whoever he is, his tracks are well covered.”
“Forgive me lord,” Caballus ventured, skimming the scrolls before him, “but isn’t that a task better suited for a member of the Ordo Zoonos? Dangerous and foreign beasts are their jurisdiction, not the Hereticolt’s.”
“Normally, yes. But much of the information we’ve gathered has been from intercepted communications between cells of a cult I believe you’re rather familiar with…”
“The Children…” the Inquisipony said when he reached the end of the report. “So… they’ve returned?”
Banehoof nodded. “Indeed they have. According to intelligence gathered by Hereticolt and Zoonos agents, the Children are active in Equestria once again.”
“It’s been so long...” Caballus was still struggling with the revelation. It had been decades since the Friendquisition had vanquished that vile cult, putting its members to flight and its squalid nests to the torch. “Are you positive it’s them? I was sure we had destroyed them last time…”
“All evidence points to it,” said Lord Stallius. “This time, the Holy Ordos will need to be more thorough.”
“We defeated them once, by the Princess’s grace,” Lord Banehoof said with a glimmer of the old warrior’s fire in his eye, “and by Her grace we’ll do it again.”
“Yes. Of course, Lord. By Her grace.” Caballus bowed again, turned, and left though the Court’s gigantic doors.
“What do you mean, ‘the Children are back!?!’”
Roughshod paced the flight deck back and forth, fuming.
“I mean exactly what I said. The reports indicate that the Children are once again operating cult cells on Equestrian soil.”
“No!” Roughshod reared up and stamped the floor. The impact left a spider-web fracture in the stone. “They can’t be back! After all we did? After all they did? They were gone for good, you said that.”
“You know I wish this weren’t true,” Caballus said, trying to calm his friend down, “that it was some sort of mistake, or a rumor drummed up by some two-bit amateurs trying to make a name for themselves. Celestia knows we get that sort of false alarm all the time. But the intel is solid. They’re back.”
“Forgive my ignorance,” Mystic interrupted, “but whose children?”
“Before your time, kid,” said Roughshod, “Something that should have stayed in the past, dead and buried.”
“The ‘Children of Liberation’ were- are a heretical cult that Roughshod and I had a hoof in purging several years before we met you.”
“So?” she said, “I bet you’ve dealt with tons of cults. It is your job after all. What’s so special about this one?”
Caballus sighed. “I suppose you’re too young to remember the Skyroan Crisis. The Children, as far as we know, started off like any other cult. The Hereticolt would uncover an isolated coven and stamp it out, only for another to crop up elsewhere, as they often do. But around the time I was elevated to the rank of Inquisipony, something changed. They became better equipped, better trained, and better organized. Isolated attacks became a full blown campaign of terror and insurrection across the entire sector. At the height of the fighting, Governor-Mayor Skyros declared himself independent of Equestria, and most of the MDF followed him. It took the entire Ordos Palomyna, five regiments of Equestrian Guard, and three companies of Apple Fists to restore order. We later learned that the Governor-Mayor and his advisors had been funding and supplying the Children for quite some time before they made their move.”
“Fat lot of good it did him, though,” Roughshod snorted.
Caballus nodded in agreement. “Lord Banehoof personally delivered the pie to Skyros’s face that ended the mad affair. We spent countless weeks tracking down every last heretic who’d taken part. Once they make their move and reveal themselves, cults don’t tend to last long. But someone must have escaped, hidden under some rock, and now they’ve returned to rebuild the Children.”
“But without a benefactor like Skyros…” Mystic ventured, “the Children can’t be that much of a threat anymore, right?”
“I would dearly like to think that, but we won’t underestimate them again. We’ve got a lead on the Cheat-worm dealer, and with some luck, he’ll lead us to whoever is employing him.”
Roughshod turned to head back to Her Solar Majesty. “Then what are we waiting for?”
“Actually, we won’t be taking the ship. Too big and too conspicuous. Besides, we’re not going that far.”
If Hippopolis could be said to have a slum, though nopony in the Governor-Mayor’s office would ever admit to such a thing, the Stabledregs were it.
The buildings weren’t as tall as elsewhere in the city, but their decaying, ramshackle edifices still managed to give its streets a feeling of claustrophobia. Said streets were usually teeming with the lower classes that lived there during the day, but roaming them after dark was considered by most to be a categorically bad idea. The poorly lit alleys that crisscrossed the neighborhood were notorious for accumulating filth of both the normal and criminal varieties.
Because it lay downwind of the city’s ground-based industry, the Stabledregs were also perpetually shrouded in thick smog. Urban legends claimed that the Weather Service pegasi had once tried to clear the skies above the crowded tenements, but even they had choked on the gloomy haze and had given up. Nowadays, nopony even bothered. It was just something they had to live with, and a hacking, smoky cough known as “Dragon’s Snore” was an all too common malady among residents.
Caballus and his team picked their way through the crowds. According to the Friendquisition’s informants, their Rogue Trader had been spotted several times in this area in recent weeks, meeting suspicious individuals and conducting business of doubtful legality. Even so, it was beginning to seem like an impossible task. One pony was a needle, and the ‘dregs were a formidable haystack.
“We’ve been out here all afternoon,” complained Roughshod, “and not a single pony has seen anypony that looks like our guy.”
Caballus sighed. “I was afraid of this. In places like these, folks won’t answer questions from strangers. They all assume we’re after somepony in trouble with the law, a Guild, or a rival gang. Even if they have seen him, they don’t want to get involved.”
With another sigh, the Inquisipony turned and headed back down the street. “Come on,” he said, “let’s find somewhere to stay tonight so we can regroup and try again tomorrow.”
Roughshod followed, but after a few steps, Caballus paused and looked back to find Mystic standing still, staring up into the air.
“Our Rogue Trader supposedly trades in exotic animals, right?” she asked, without looking away from whatever it was she saw.
Caballus followed her gaze skyward “Yes, that’s right…”
“Then maybe that can lead us to him.” She pointed to a tiny orange-red splotch above them.
Caballus reached into his saddlebag, and pulled out his magnoculars. They stained to pierce the smog and give a clear picture. The shape was roughly the size of a pegasus, but its wingspan appeared far larger. “What is that?”
“I think it’s a phoenix,” was Mystic’s matter-of-fact reply.
At this, Roughshod started to chuckle, but his laughs soon turned into a coughing fit. After a few moments, he cleared his throat. “How do you know it’s a phoenix, Sweet Pea? You’ve never seen one. There are probably only a handful of ponies outside of the Princess’s Palace who’ve ever seen one. And if our guy could afford one, he wouldn’t be skulking around a dump like this.”
“You underestimate how much money there is to be made on the black animal market, my friend. And a neighborhood like this is the best place for illegal deals; they’re easy to hide and unlikely to be reported.” Caballus put his magnoculars away and took off after the distant shape. “It’s the best lead we’ve got. Let’s try not to lose it.”
For nearly an hour, the team managed to stay on the bird’s winding trail. All the while, Caballus was sure they had managed to do so undetected, until the phoenix suddenly dove like a comet behind the skyline.
“Do you think it saw us?” Roughshod asked. His voice was almost a cautious whisper, as though he was afraid the phoenix was somehow listening in.
Caballus shrugged. “I don’t know, but it landed somewhere in this block. We should take a look around.” The team proceeded around the corner, inspecting the buildings until they came across one shop that stood out. Unlike the nearly every other structure in the Stabledregs, this storefront didn’t appear to be in any significant state of disrepair, nor was it caked in soot. The paint was new, the windows were clean, and the sign out front read “Ver Kaufer’s Fine Pet Emporium.”
As the trio entered the store, a yellow pony behind the register jumped to alertness. He was clothed in a dark blue dress uniform, trimmed with yellow epaulettes and gold buttons. His flowing, sky-blue mane was topped by a broad musketeer hat, sporting an orange-red plume. The thickly mustachioed smile of a consummate salespony greeted them. “Velcome, my friends, to my establishment. I am Tier Ver Kaufer, at your service.”
He appeared to be from the nearby Lipizzan sector, Caballus guessed, by his name, style and accent. Yellow pony, flamboyant attitude, swashbuckling outfit; he fit the profile both Seedy and the Zoonos agents had given.
“That has to be him,” Caballus whispered to the others “I want both of you to search for evidence and keep an eye out for any other exits. I’ll keep him busy.” The pair broke off and Caballus approached Tier.
“Is zere something I can help you und your friends with?” asked the yellow pony hopefully.
Caballus returned the smile. “Oh, they’ll just be browsing. That one is my niece, you see, and for her birthday I’ve promised to buy her a pet.”
“Vell, you’ve come to ze right place! I have personally collected ze widest selection of animals from across Equestria. All of zem healthy, well trained und well cared for.”
“I can certainly see that.” Looking around, Caballus noted the variety of animal life the shopkeeper had on display. Birds of all kinds sat in cages of all sizes. Cats and dogs watched the ponies intently from their kennels, as did countless ferrets, rabbits, mice and other cute, furry rodents. On the back wall, he even noticed separate containers for lizards, snakes, frogs and the like.
Tier led Caballus on a leisurely tour through the aisles of pets, food and accessories, elaborating on each in turn as they passed it. Despite the salespony’s obvious passion for the pet trade, Caballus found his attention wandering. That is, until Mystic interrupted.
“Uncle,” she said, playing along with the Inquisipony’s cover story she overheard earlier, “I can’t find anything I like. You said I could have something extraordinary, that nopony else has! All these pets are boring!” Mystic whined like a spoiled aristocrat, a brat long accustomed to getting her own way.
The yellow salespony seemed absolutely mortified at the allegation. Mystic’s acting had certainly improved, Caballus remarked to himself.
He leaned in close to Tier. “You see, my friend; I was referred specifically to this shop by an associate of mine. He told me I would be able to treat my niece to something especially unique if I came here. Are you not the Rogue Trader he described?”
“Of course I am!” the pride-wounded pony retorted. “Ze one und only Tier Ver Kaufer, third heir to ze Ver Kaufer Trade House, ze most respected guild in ze entire Lipizzan Sector!”
“Then may I see your Warrant of Trade?” Caballus asked politely.
Tier deflated. “My… my what? My varrant? Oh… um… of course… Just a moment.” He fumbled around a bit with the pockets on his coat, finally fishing a small piece of paper out of one. “Zere you are,” he said, handing it promptly over to Caballus.
The Inquisipony scrutinized the document. Tier was indeed a Rogue Trader of the Ver Kaufer House, but it wasn’t a Warrant that Caballus held. It was a Letter of Marque, a much less empowering license issued by the Admanestratum, this particular one granted only for trade within his home sector. Tier was doing business outside of the lands he was permitted to, another likely reason for such an otherwise affluent pony to be hiding in the Stabledregs.
“Alright,” Caballus said, handing the paper back after a moment. It would have been obvious to anypony who often dealt with Rogue Traders that Tier was trying to pass off his inferior papers as the ones he needed, hoping Caballus didn’t know the difference. If he was third heir as he said, the current head of the Ver Kaufer Trade House, and not Tier, would hold the true Warrant.
But the Inquisipony was impersonating a blue-blooded pony from the city’s social elite; wealthy and privileged, but sheltered, and typically ignorant of matters concerning faraway places. So he acted the part and pretended to be fooled. “You’re in luck, young lady. I’m sure a pony of such skill and pedigree will be able to provide any pet your heart desires. And of course…”
Roughshod produced a sack of coins from his saddlebag. It jingled and drooped heavily in his teeth before he put it back.
“Money won’t be an object,” Caballus finished.
Tier, believing the three had bought his lie and were now well-paying customers, smiled broadly. “Certainly. Ze lady has a fine eye for animals, I see. Und such exquisite tastes would not be satisfied without an equally exquisite specimen, true? Zen allow me to show you to ze more ‘exclusive’ merchandise.”
At an excited trot, Tier ushered the trio through the door behind the register. The room was dark but for an open skylight. “Vogel!” Tier called out, “we have guests!”
In an instant, there was a blinding light. A fireball with wings spiraled down from the rafters, lighting lanterns all around the room as it went. Finally its flames died down enough to land on Tier’s back.
“May I introduce to you my own pet und assistant, Feuervogel.”
The red, orange and yellow-plumed bird bowed gracefully, and then flew back up to its perch, now visible near the skylight.
“He is quite impressive, is he not?” beamed Tier. The team continued to stare for a moment longer, unable to conceal their amazement at the mythical bird. “Unfortunately, he is not for sale. He was… a gift, und I am quite fond of him.”
A gift? Even with the nigh-unlimited resources of the Friendquisition, Caballus could scarcely imagine the effort it would take for him to acquire a phoenix, and then give it away.
“Not a problem. It was a pleasure just to have met him. Now… if you would excuse me,” the Inquisipony said, turning back toward the door, “there is other business I need to attend to for a moment. I expect you will have found something you like by the time I get back.” The message to Roughshod and Mystic was clear: keep Tier busy.
“Of course, sir. You have my guarantee zat ze lady will leave happy,” Tier assured him once again, and directed the other two through the twisting maze of crates and cages in the small warehouse tucked behind his storefront.
“Zis way, you will see ze adolescent manticore,” their host said, as though they could miss the carriage-sized monster pacing its cage up ahead. “Note ze clean teeth und shiny coat. She is sometimes… a bit moody, but she is sure to give any rivals you might invite over to dinner quite a scare!”
Ignoring it, Mystic stopped at an open-topped crate where the heads of six puppies yipped with enthusiasm over the box’s edge. When she looked in, to her visible surprise there were only two bodies between them, three of the heads on each.
Tier chuckled at her reaction. “No reason to be alarmed, my dear. Zey are perfectly healthy. Ze breed displays natural aptitude as guard dogs, if you were to require one…”
“They are quite adorable…” the younger pony conceded, “but I already have a capable guard,” she said, indicating Roughshod.
Tier thought for a moment. “Aha! If it is something cute you desire, zen allow me to show you ze modest herd of Jackalope I have managed to breed in captivity,” he said, leading them deeper into the storeroom.
Back near the entrance, Caballus had not left, but rather was investigating the rest of the warehouse alone, away from Tier’s attention. Stack after stack and crate upon crate turned up nothing, just litter and pet food. He scoured the aisles, looking for something, anything to connect the Rogue Trader to the Children or the Cheat-worm sale. But all the supplies were frustratingly mundane.
Beginning to fear he might be missed, Caballus was about to turn back empty-hoofed. But as he did, he inadvertently kicked something. There, all alone on the floor, lay a single apple. A crisp, red, shiny, perfect-looking apple. His mouth watered. They’d been so busy investigating all morning that he’d skipped lunch, something he was suddenly reminded of by an insistent growl. And if Tier had just left this single apple lying around, surely he wouldn’t…
No, he though, something wasn’t right. Caballus was never one to think with his stomach. He tore his hungry gaze from the apple, and tried to find where it had come from. Scanning the floor, the Inquisipony noticed what looked like hoof prints, where somepony had recently disturbed the thin layer of dust by passing through. The trail led to a rack fixed on the wall, empty but for one pet leash hanging on it.
Going with his instincts, Caballus pulled on the leash. With the click of some heavy mechanism, the wall behind it swung away to reveal a hidden door. “Now we’re getting somewhere,” he mumbled to himself with a smile.
Beyond the door was another large room. The air was musty and stale, holding an odor that took some effort to ignore. Along the walls were several large vats, each as wide around as a small swimming pool, and taller than two ponies. Seeing nopony else around, Caballus climbed the stairs that jutted from the nearest vat to peek over its rim.
It was filled with apples, all of them just as ripe and delicious as the one he had found outside. A pang of hunger struck him, almost like a real blow to his gut. He wanted one, so very badly. Just one, out of the whole pile, couldn’t possibly be missed, could it?
But even as he reached out, Caballus was again struck by a pervading sense of wrongness. Pulling back, the words of his mentor came to mind. Discipline and self-control, Banehoof often told him, are the armor of the soul. It was advice that had served him well on long and difficult missions before, and he wasn’t about to do something stupid for mere food.
The Inquisipony got down, still needing much of his willpower to do so, and picked another vat. He silently hoped this one didn’t contain any more of the tempting fruit. Even with discipline, a pony could only take so much, after all. But there was only one way to find out, so he lifted his face over the edge.
The stench was overpowering, nearly throwing him off the platform. The space reeked of spoiled meat and decaying plant matter. When he had finished coughing, Caballus held his hoof over his nose to look inside again. The whole surface rippled and undulated with the wriggling mass of Cheat-worms it contained. It was horrifying. And it was beautiful.
Caballus stood transfixed by the sight, unwilling to continue looking, but unable to look away. The unsettling feeling grew the longer he stared, making him feel faint and sick to his stomach in a way that had nothing to do with their abominable stink. All the apples had been contaminated, infested. How could he have failed to realize that before?
“Admiring my little ones, are we?”
The sound of another voice was enough to break whatever hold the writhing mass had on Caballus, and he expected to see Tier catching him in the act. But instead, it was somepony else entirely.
The voice’s owner was a pale green pony, a sickly and emaciated thing. His skin drooped and hung over his visible skeleton, and the pallid coat was spotted with lesions, sores and patches of mange. Whatever mane he might have had before had long since fallen out, as if left a ruin by some terrible war with the army of fleas and flies that yet remained. But this newcomer’s most prominent feature was a shiny, dripping layer of mucus issuing from his warty nose. He snorted repeatedly, in what seemed a constant but pointless struggle to keep it in.
Caballus balked as he realized the full extent of this new pony’s repugnance. His stomach wretched again, bringing him to his knees on the verge of vomiting. In all his years as an Inquisipony, he had fought heretics of every stripe, degenerates given to any number of dark powers or unseemly corruptions. But none had ever been like this.
“I often come here just to watch them dance. The same spell that makes their apples irresistible doesn’t wear off once they hatch, you know. It’s still quite mesmerizing, isn’t it?” the pony rambled in his stuffy, nasal voice, as if unaware of the effect his presence was having on his guest. “But where are my manners?”
The prospect that this pony might approach Caballus to introduce himself threw the Inquisipony into a momentary panic. “Stay back!” he groaned, shakily getting back to his feet. “This whole place is… is… an affront to The Princess. And I’m shutting it down.”
The other pony frowned, a mildly perplexed and disappointed expression crossing his milky eyes. “Oh, you must be the Inquisipony. Are you sure you want to do that? We could be such good friends instead. My name is Sniffles.” He smiled and took a few steps forward, extending his hoof.
Caballus recoiled from it. “I said stay back, you filthy monster! You’re clearly involved with this illegal and heretical operation, and as much as I’d like to put you down right here,” he said, drawing a pie from beneath his overcoat, “I have to bring you in to be questioned.”
“So you don’t want to be friends?” Sniffles pouted, but then shrugged. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Closed-minded Equestrians, so quick to judge.”
“Yes, it will be quick to judge you guilty of heresy, I can already tell. Then I can burn this whole accursed place clean of your taint and find out who’s truly responsible.”
Sniffles’ mood darkened. “Nopony threatens my babies,” he said.
Caballus heard a loud fwoosh! coming from behind him, and he instinctively ducked. A searing gout of fire passed just inches over his head, singing his hat to a crisp. Then, just as suddenly, there was a piercing screech.
Across the warehouse—after just finishing a lengthy, mostly one-sided discussion about the differences between dragons and the drakes and wyverns on display—Tier, Mystic and Roughshod all took notice.
“Vogel?” Tier’s eyes darted back and forth in the direction of the screech, his sales pitch instantly abandoned.
“That was probably just the sound of our cover being blown,” Roughshod replied. Before Tier could realize what was meant by that, the larger pony tackled him against a row of shelves.
“As a duly appointed Throne Agent, I’m placing you under arrest.” He gave Tier an extra shove for emphasis. “So just sit tight and don’t do anything stupid.”
Tier went pale. “Th-Throne A-Agent? Zen z-zat means…”
“Indeed,” said Mystic, “Friendquisition. And as soon as the Inquisipony returns-”
Before she could finish the threat, Feuervogel came arching over the crates and slammed into Roughshod. Had he not been holding the phoenix’s master at the time, he probably would have been incinerated by the enraged bird. Even so, the intensity of the heat sent him to the ground, rolling in pain. Mystic rushed to his side.
Finding his footing, Tier took off toward the front entrance. He galloped from cage to cage, flinging open the latches on every one he passed to cover his escape.
“Gah! Forget me,” Roughshod yelled when Mystic tried helping him to his feet. “Don’t let that scumbag get away!”
The unicorn nodded, but as she made to pursue, her path was barred by Feuervogel. Every flap of its wings seemed to fan its own magical flames, turning the passageway into an impassible inferno.
Horn glowing, Mystic narrowed her eyes. Several nearby pens and cages had water bowls and bottles for their occupants, and these began to levitate and swirl in the air above her. One by one, she flung them at the phoenix.
Feuervogel dodged this way and that, unable to get any closer to the ponies. But every swoop he made to avoid the water ignited whatever he passed over. In a matter of moments, half the room was ablaze, and the other half soon to follow. All of the released animals were now running wild in panic, adding to the pandemonium.
One of the thrown water bowls did manage to douse the phoenix, and his feathers guttered and sizzled. The bird shrieked and searched the room frantically for his master, until he realized Tier had already fled. With a mighty flap of his wings, Feuervogel took off like a rocket through the skylight, leaving a pillar of flame and smoke in his wake.
By now, Roughshod was back on his feet, and the two were trying to navigate their way out the burning building. Several times they were nearly trampled by some of the larger creatures, or crushed by falling crates and burning debris. The thick, black smoke began to obscure their vision and fill their lungs.
“We’ve got to get our flanks out of here before this whole place collapses!” Roughshod yelled over the roaring flames.
Mystic looked around. “But what about Caballus? And all these animals?”
“I’m sure the boss is fine. And all these critters are tainted anyway. Let ‘em burn.”
“No, I won’t leave them. They’re still living creatures, and besides, they’re evidence.” Mystic pointed her horn toward a nearby wall. With a grunt of exertion and an incandescent flash, the barrier was blown open by a shock-wave of concussive force, creating a large, obvious exit.
The blast also rattled everything in their immediate area. Some shelves beside them gave way and in an instant Roughshod was buried under a pile of kibbles, cans of cat food and bird seed.
“Shod!” Mystic cried. “Hang on; I’m going to get you out of there!” The unicorn dug at the mound for all she was worth, but she could barely even breathe, and there had to be nearly a ton of animal feed on top of him. She’d never be able to get him out in time. As if to illustrate her fears, a burning rafter swung down, almost crushing her as well. She had to think of something, fast.
There was one thing she could do, she realized. But it was risky.
“Roughshod? If you can hear me, brace yourself!” The unicorn took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Her horn glowed and hummed with power. An unearthly wind whipped up around her and the air crackled as it saturated with magic. Sweat beaded on Mystic’s face. She groaned and gritted her teeth.
It was a simple thing to make something explode. Many inexperienced unicorns trying to perform their first spells often had the results—quite literally—blow up in their faces. It was the “not exploding” part that took time to master. But something about it was just so natural to Mystic. She had been able to detonate small objects with a mere thought since she was a little filly.
This was different, though. She couldn’t be careless, couldn’t simply throw the magic around like a toy. She had to concentrate. One mistake, one second too early or late, one inch to one side or the other, and she was just as likely to vaporize the friend she was trying to save as the massive weight crushing him.
With a silent prayer to The Princess, Mystic aimed her spell. Her vision blurred as the energy drained from her and gathered at the tip of her horn. First her legs, then her whole body, began trembling with fatigue. Her head started to spin, and she thought she heard voices on the edge of her hearing, whispering to her. Finally she released it.
A jagged arc of green lightning impacted the pile of dried pet food. The blast shattered the cages and glass display pens in the pet store, freeing the remaining animals. It splintered every box in a five meter radius. And it flung Mystic’s limp body through the air. Her world went white, and then there was nothing.
The first thing Mystic became aware of was the painful throbbing in her head. It took her a moment to realize that the fact she had a headache meant she was awake. She attempted opening her bleary eyes, only to be blinded by the light directly above her. Covering her eyes with a hoof, she tried sitting up.
“Easy there, kiddo. Just lie back. That was quite a stunt you pulled. Took a lot out of you.”
“Rough… Roughshod? Is that you?”
“Well it damn sure ain’t the Governor-Mayor,” the brown pony laughed.
Mystic laughed weakly too, until it hurt in her chest a little too much. Once her eyes adjusted, she looked around, recognizing the interior compartment of Her Solar Majesty. She was on her simple cot back on board the airship.
“And you’re… alright?” She was hesitant to ask, lest he confirm the terrible damage she imagined she caused him with her spell.
Roughshod laughed again. “Oh, I’m a little crispy, but that’s from the fire, not you. No, that little trick of yours seemed to work like a charm.” He took her hoof in his. “You got me out in one piece, kiddo. Thanks.”
“What about Caballus?” she asked.
“Right here, Mystic.” The Inquisipony appeared next to Roughshod, smiling. “I even got to see that ‘little trick’ when I came looking for you two. Very impressive.”
“What… what happened?”
“I found the Cheat-worm breeding vats in Tier’s warehouse,” the Inquisipony explained. “That and I met a rather unsavory heretic guarding it, too. The phoenix discovered me, tried to torch me but missed, and left to warn Tier about you two. Then, from the sound of it, he set the place on fire.”
Mystic felt a pang of guilt. “It was my fault. I just started throwing things at him, and… and… I blew out the wall and… it was all my fault”
Roughshod placed a reassuring hoof on her shoulder. “No, it wasn’t, Sweet Pea. That crazy bird was trying to destroy the evidence. He would have done it anyway. And you stopped him.”
“Evidence? You mean the animals? What happened to them? Are they all right?”
“Almost all of them were rounded up by the fire department. A few of the larger ones couldn’t be contained until the Ordo Zoonos arrived, but it seems all of them have since been accounted for.”
Roughshod grinned. “There were enough freaks and mutants poached from the Everfree to get Tier put away for at least a few lifetimes. That is, if we can catch him.”
“So he got away?”
“Yes,” Came Caballus’s blunt reply, “he did, and his accomplice as well. The responders were too busy fighting the fire and catching animals to search for him. But we think we know where he’s going. After he left the scene, Tier was spotted at Hippopolis Central Station. He’s fleeing, so he’s probably going to ground somewhere he’s operated out of before, somewhere far away from strong Equestrian authority. And there’s only one place like that you can still reach by train, and where you can also catch wild Jackalope like the ones he had…”
The train came to its stop at a dusty station, the end of its line. The sun beat down unrelentingly on the wooden platform, and the air was stiflingly hot. The platform itself was old and worn, suffering from years of abuse and neglect, and fairly indicative of the town it serviced, as well as the welcome any newcomers were likely to receive there.
The brakes finally released with a pneumatic hiss, and the metal doors parted. Tier was tossed unceremoniously through them onto the ground. Behind him, Sniffles also disembarked, shambling off the train.
“Ah, my esteemed associate, Mister Ver Kaufer,” said the pony at whose feet Tier had landed. “I’m guessing something went wrong?”
Tier moaned and looked up through a swollen black eye. “It-it was ze Friendquisition! Zey tricked me, und… und zey attacked me und my animals. It was dreadful!”
“It most assuredly was,” the pony replied, a hint of mocking in his voice. “And I’m to assume the Inquisipony is on his way here right now?”
A smile cracked the pony’s lips, revealing a mouth bristling with fangs. “Then we’ll have to prepare a surprise for him. Oh, I do so love planning surprises,” he said, already walking away. “You can do whatever you like with this one, Sniffles. I’ve no further use for him.” Then he paused, looking back. “And Tier? Welcome back to Applemattox.”
“Welcome to Applemattox.” Fyzzix called from the cockpit. Her Solar Majesty had just crossed into what was vaguely considered the township’s limits. The Magosus checked his instruments again; they and the moon were the only sources of light in the cockpit. Fyzzix didn’t really need either of them, however, as he was always directly interfaced with the craft while he piloted. The data fed through his uplink cable directly into the back of his head told him more than his eyes could ever hope to. “According to the most recent records available, there isn’t anything resembling an aerodrome for us to land in. What would you like me to do?”
“Cut your running lights,” Caballus said as he poked his head in. “Then set us down outside the town proper. After that, land somewhere out of sight, like a nearby ravine or valley, if you can find one. Keep a low profile. If we need you, we’ll call.”
Fyzzix didn’t even look up. “Scanning geography. Don’t take too long, Cab. My atmospheric data indicates this region is very prone to sandstorms.”
“Will that be a problem?”
“I’ll say!” Fyzzix laughed. “Have you ever gotten sand in your servos? I tripped and fell at the beach once, and my machine spirits still haven’t forgiven me for it. There aren’t enough Sacred Oils or Catechisms of Cleaning in all of Cloudsdale to get a sandy mechadendrite with cracked enviro-seals working again. Then again, if I were to remove the enviro-seals and replace them with a next generation anti-particulate casing…”
Ignoring the rambling Meq-priest, Caballus returned to the crew compartment with a smile, where the rest of the team was suiting up. The Inquisipony had been unable to relax at all on the three-day flight, and had spent the sleepless hours checking and rechecking his equipment to take his mind off his flying phobia. He couldn’t even keep himself occupied by looking out the windows, as there was nothing to see but stars.
Even if it were daytime, there would still be little point. The landscape surrounding Applemattox was scrub-country, an arid wasteland able to support cacti, rock farms and little else. The town itself was on fairly flat land, and it effectively marked the farthest reaches of Equestrian civilization on the edge of the Palomyna sector. Beyond it, the terrain became increasingly broken, the environment increasingly hostile, and the locals increasingly unpleasant. Mequestricus Explorators had taken surveys from the air of these “Rocklands,” as they were known, but few ground expeditions had ever been launched, and fewer still had ever returned.
It strained Caballus’s imagination to understand why anyone would choose to live in such a place. Roughshod’s answer had suggested there would always be folks seeking a place to live free, away from the constricting social rules and oppressive toil of life in developed society. Mystic had bluntly called them all yokels and fugitives, as though only the foolish or desperate would willingly subsist in such a backwater. There might be some merit to both theories, Caballus pondered.
“So what’s the plan, boss?” Roughshod asked, breaking the Inquisipony’s reverie. “Find the local watering hole, ask the bartender about Tier, maybe pick a fight with some shady characters, and have Sweet Pea wait outside in case we need backup?” Fastening the last strap of his flak armor, he stretched and flexed until it sat just right on his frame, then slipped his overcoat over it.
“I always have to wait outside,” Mystic pouted. She puffed her loose forelock in protest, and then swung her cloak over her saddlebags.
“Hey, if the plan works, why change it?” Roughshod countered with a smug grin.
Caballus raised an amused eyebrow. “I don’t know, Roughshod. I think she did rather well back at the Pet Emporium. Maybe it’s time to switch things up.”
“Well... maybe something a little different, sure,” the larger pony said, gazing out the nearest porthole at the mote of light on the horizon. It had been steadily growing as they neared Applemattox. But after a moment, Roughshod’s eyes narrowed. “Wait a second…”
“I didn’t mean that I wanted to wait outside!” Roughshod complained.
The three approached what could charitably be called a drinking establishment. As best they could tell, it was the largest and most popular of the half-dozen or so saloons in Applemattox, and was still barely more than a dirty hole-in-the-wall wedged between two storefronts on the main street. Bright lights and raucous music spilled out onto the streets all around it, and a sign hung over the swinging doors identified it as “The Hitching Post.”
“Oh quit whining, you big baby,” Mystic teased, “The Princess only knows how much smoother this will go without you looking for extra trouble. We might not even need backup this time.” She knew that Roughshod relished his frequent opportunities to indulge in a little “self defense,” and was annoyed at how he took for granted that her magic would always carry the day when a fight got out of his control.
“I wasn’t whining,” Roughshod grumbled under his breath. The kid was still too inexperienced, he thought. This wasn’t some sleepy tavern in the heartland; it was a breeding ground for criminals and outlaws, the kind who shot first and didn’t ask any questions at all.
Then again, he thought, she had been excelling in her combat training, having all but mastered the basic hoof-to-hoof techniques he’d taught her. Not to mention she was one of the more powerful unicorns he’d ever seen in a fight, in terms of raw abilities. I’m sure the kid can handle it, Roughshod decided, and I’m just worrying too much.
“You still sure about taking her in, Caballus?”
The Inquisipony had to stifle a chuckle. “We’ll be fine, Roughshod.” He had expected the big guy to get a little overprotective. It was his job after all, and it was those protective instincts that Caballus had come to rely on ever since Roughshod had joined his retinue. “It’ll be good practice for her. Heck, maybe someday I’ll get to wait outside and let you two get beat up by the bad guys.”
Roughshod gave a begrudging shrug of concession as the three had arrived at the saloon doors. He leaned against the wall outside, where he was to stay until he was needed. “Watch your back in there, kiddo.”
Mystic paused, and gave him a solemn nod. Then she followed Caballus through the swinging wooden doors.
The interior of the Hitching Post seemed surprisingly spacious to her, larger than the front of the saloon had suggested. Even still, that space was packed full, ponies surrounding every table and jammed into every nook and cranny. Mystic scanned the herd, trying to take in as much as she could about these frontier folks. As far as she could tell, they were all Earth ponies, without a single horn or wing in sight. Most were dressed either in the leather getups of ranch-hands or the plow harnesses of farmers. A few others had the slightly finer vests of businessponies, shopkeepers and bankers, while those huddled in the less well-lit corners bore bandoliers and bandannas. But almost all of them, nearly to a pony, were wearing those ridiculous Western-style hats.
The space in the room was equally crowded with noise. Ponies laughed and joked, all trying to talk over one another. Many tables played host to some form of gambling, where every turn of the card or throw of the dice brought new cheers and moans. Some of the less well-mannered and more intoxicated of them hooted and hollered at the waitresses roaming the room, refilling their drinks. A piano somewhere in the back belted out a merry ragtime tune, adding to the cacophony and further drowning out individual voices. Several times, Caballus had to stop to make sure that Mystic was still behind him. She seemed a little… overwhelmed by all the bustle, bumping into chairs and tables as she followed his weaving course toward the bar on the back wall.
Mystic noticed Caballus’s concerned look, and tried to compose herself. It wasn’t the crowds or the noise that was bothering her, though. Those were nothing new. It was the glares she was receiving from ponies that she passed by. It seemed as if everypony she passed stared accusingly at her, making her more uncomfortable with every passing moment.
So distracted, she almost jumped when Caballus was suddenly standing next to her. “Put your hood up,” he said, leaning in close enough to be heard over the din. “They’re looking at your horn.”
Mystic realized he was right, and quickly drew the hood of her cloak over her head. The unicorn spent so much time in the company of friends that she had forgotten how most of her kind were viewed by the Equestrian masses; with suspicion, sometimes even outright revulsion. Even in the cosmopolitan society of Hippopolis, she’d sometimes caught disapproving glances, and heard fretful whispers behind her back. Those she had learned to shrug off. But stories of “witch-hunts” by superstitious mobs in less-civilized areas started to worm into her thoughts, and her imagination did little help to ease her fears. She kept her head down, and tried to avoid drawing any more attention.
After what seemed to Mystic like an eternity, but was likely only a minute, the pair stood at the bar. It took a few moments—and eventually showing a few coins—for Caballus to get the bartender’s attention, but the old grizzled pony nodded in their direction as he finished up pouring another group’s round.
Another pony sauntered up to the bar just next to Caballus, between him and the bartender, and also signaled for service. The dusty, striped poncho he wore appeared to be draped over a couple saddlebags on his back. He was turned away from Caballus, so the Inquisipony couldn’t see his face, but his neck was orange and the end of his tail that hung below the poncho’s hem was striped black and red. The mane that wasn’t covered by his black-felt gaucho hat had identical stripes.
Just as the bartender made his way over and Caballus prepared his questions, the new pony interrupted. “Excuse me partner,” he said with the local drawl, “but I’ve got me a couple things I’d like to ask you.”
The old barkeep gave the pony a leery look until a few coins appeared on the counter.
“I’m looking for somepony,” the stranger said, just loud enough for Caballus to eavesdrop, “a Rogue Trader, yellow fella, been seen ‘round these parts every so often.”
The bartender’s neutral expression didn’t change, and though Caballus’s interest had been violently piqued, neither did his. “There’s lots of folk who pass through here. Some of ‘em are yellow. Most don’t say whether they’re Rogue Traders or not.”
“His name’s Tier,” the pony specified, “Tier Ver Kaufer. Mustache, fancy-pants Lipizzaner. I’ve got a powerful need to get a hold of him. Been told somepony around here might know how.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen him before.” The barkeep’s answer was given with a carefully practiced shrug. “Not for a while, though.”
The stranger dropped a small coin purse on the bar and slid it across. “Well, why don’t you go ask if anypony’s seen him lately?”
The older pony gave a slight nod, picked up the bag in his teeth and walked through the doors behind the bar. The stranger turned and leaned his back on the counter while he waited, and let his eyes wander the room. Caballus was surprised to see the pony looked quite young, probably only a few years older than Mystic. But the side of his face that had been turned away from the Inquisipony was revealed to be covered in scar tissue, and the left eye replaced by a large augmetic lens.
While the stranger quite literally scanned the crowded room, he suddenly paused and frowned. With a snap of his neck, he stared straight at Caballus, meeting his gaze as if he had sensed he was being watched. It startled Caballus, but he held in his surprise, betraying nothing to the stranger.
For a tense moment, both ponies glared at one another. The orange pony’s real eye narrowed, and his biotic one adjusted, the lens focusing on the figure before it. He took one step backward, then another. Tipping his hat to Caballus, he began to slowly, cautiously, make his way toward the front, giving the Inquisipony a wide berth. He glanced back every few paces, every time meeting Caballus’s unwavering stare.
“What are you-” Mystic began, having missed the entire silent exchange, but she was cut off when Caballus grabbed her. They were halfway across the saloon by the time he slowed down enough to explain.
“That pony, the orange one in the poncho. He was asking about Tier, and I want to know why. Come on.” The Inquisipony’s tone and face made it clear that he wanted to move quickly, without discussion.
“Which pony?” Mystic asked, looking around. Caballus turned back around to find the stranger gone. His eyes darted across the room, searching for him. There were so many ponies in the crowd, so much activity, he couldn’t discern any trace of his target. Finally, he glimpsed a striped pattern disappearing through the doors the barkeep had used behind the counter. The slippery bastard must have doubled back to take the employee exit, Caballus cursed to himself. And it had almost worked.
He pulled Mystic back to the bar, taking less and less care not to disturb the ponies they passed by as they played catch-up. With a bounding leap, he jumped the counter, to the dismay of the waitress behind it. “He went this way,” the Inquisipony told Mystic, who had just cleared the bar herself. The two barged through the doorway, entering the Hitching Post’s cramped kitchen. In seconds they dashed to the back door of the saloon and burst out into the night.
Eyes and ears no longer accustomed to the dark and quiet of the outdoors, it took Caballus a moment to get his bearings. But once the ringing died a little, he picked out a voice.
“That’s him. That has to be the Inquisipony.”
In the gloom, Caballus could make out a number of figures surrounding himself and Mystic. As his vision adjusted, he could see they were a mismatched group of bandit-types, probably from some local gang. But they aren’t looking at us, he realized. They haven’t even noticed us.
They were all looking at the stranger.
“Inquisipony?” The mysterious orange pony sounded as confused at this as Caballus was. “Now I reckon y’all have the wrong guy. I ain’t-“
“Shut yer trap!” the voice interrupted. It belonged to the apparent leader of the gang, a leathery stallion with a bushy mustache and the largest ten-gallon hat they’d seen yet. It was then that he finally noticed Caballus and Mystic standing in the doorway.
“Who’re they?” asked the desperado next to him.
“Witnesses,” he grinned. “Looks like we can add two more to the tally.”
In an instant, a dozen or so gangsters charged Caballus, Mystic and the stranger all at once. He reached into his greatcoat, but the nearest bandit tackled Caballus to the ground before he could draw a single pie. He bucked the assailant off, but another lifted him up and delivered a punch to his gut. Caballus doubled over, and then pushed back up, using his weight to knock the other pony off balance. The three tumbled to the ground, scuffling while still more closed in.
Only a few of the attackers broke off to surround Mystic, apparently assuming she was the easiest prey. But as they approached, her hood was lifted up by the magical power gathering beneath it, revealing her glowing horn. The bandits hesitated, giving each other reluctant glances.
“What’s the matter?” she mocked. “Never seen magic before? Well then let me show you my favorite trick.” Mystic aimed her horn at the nearest gangster, and a blinding spear of lightning blasted the ground at his feet. It erupted in a geyser of gravel and dirt, throwing the terrified bandit high into the air. His comrades coughed on the dust at first, but they recoiled in horror when he landed in a limp heap in front of them.
“I swear if you yellow-bellies turn tail,” their leader bellowed, before any had a chance to do so, “it’ll be ten times as bad as that! You’ve all seen what happens to job-botchers. Now get in there and grab her!” And to Mystic’s surprise, they gulped down their fear and started advancing again. If that threat was still scarier than her magic, it was her turn to be afraid.
Even though Caballus and Mystic both had their hooves full, the stranger had it worse. Still mistaking him for the Inquisipony, he had gotten most of the gang’s attention, and was bearing the brunt of their attack. And yet somehow he seemed to be faring better than either of them. For every punch and kick thrown at him, there was a bob or weave to dodge it. Every bandit that grabbed him was flung away with ease. The orange pony delivered a sweeping kick, simultaneously ducking under a jab and tripping the pony that threw it. Then he sidestepped a tackle, the counter to which sent its owner stumbling into some of his companions. But this fight wasn’t over yet. There were still plenty of gangsters to take the place of each one he laid out.
By this time, Caballus was in poor shape. Two of the ruffians were pinning him down, while a third repeatedly stomped and kicked him. He flailed out with his legs, and caught the third right in the shin while he was rearing up again, making the pony howl in pain. Grabbing hold of the left bandit’s bandanna, the Inquisipony pulled him down into a solid head-butt, and then kicked the last one off to roll out from under the trio.
He was on his feet again, but he was panting, felt light-headed, and his vision was fuzzy. Caballus saw the bandits regrouping, but his confidence didn’t really sink until a huge brown figure came up from behind to join them. But as he blinked the spots from his eyes, he realized that it was Roughshod, who proceeded to lift two of the bandits by the scruffs of their necks and bash them together.
“Nice of you to join us,” Caballus said.
“Just doing my job,” Roughshod cheerfully replied, picking up the other ganger, striking him senseless, and tossing him away like a sack of oats.
Caballus draped a foreleg around his friend for a moment to recover from his beating. “I didn’t get a chance to call for you. How did you know we needed backup?”
“Just got that feeling, I guess,” the stallion shrugged. “You know how my punching hoof gets a little twitchy whenever there’s a good fight going on without it. I figured you ran into some trouble, so I came looking.”
“Well you’ll have to thank your punching hoof for me,” Caballus laughed. And with that, the two charged back into the fray.
On the far side of the brawl, Mystic had been separated and cornered. Recognizing the threat she posed, more and more of the gangers had turned their attention to her. In an effort to blitz the unicorn before she could use any more magic, one bandit came at her in a screaming lunge. She closed her eyes to concentrate, and her horn flashed with a teleportation spell. But it was neither her, nor her attacker that she transported. It was the dirt in between them, and it reappeared several feet straight up. The bandit clumsily tumbled into the brand new hole, and was instantly buried by the earth that had just occupied it.
Still, the desperadoes closed in from all sides. If they couldn’t rush her, they would surround her, wait for an opening and maybe bring her down through attrition. Mystic recognized this too, and started to backpedal, searching for a weak point in the tightening noose. Instead, she backed too far, right into an enemy. The burly bandit wrapped her in a less-than-friendly bear hug, and seeing their chance, the rest mobbed her.
“No, no, no, no,” Mystic squealed as she thrashed. The pony struggling with her suddenly burst into green flames, letting go of her and screaming just as the rest of the gangers dog-piled her. It was a desperate tactic, but it seemed to be working. Under all the weight, Mystic could barely breathe, let alone focus on a spell. It forcefully reminded her of Roughshod’s similar experience in Tier’s warehouse. And how she saved him.
A blinding green light presaged the explosion that sent all the bandits flying. The gang’s leader gave an irritated look as he witnessed his cronies flung like twigs in a hurricane. “This ornery little varmint ain’t worth the trouble of takin’ her alive,” he muttered, removing his pie from its holster. “Reckon I have to take care of her myself.”
He took a few steps toward the cloud of dust left by Mystic’s last spell. In the gloomy haze, he made out a tell-tale glow, and readied himself to throw.
Suddenly, the shine intensified tenfold, and the dust was cleared by a furious cyclone. In its center, stood Mystic, eyes closed and breathing deeply. The lead bandit hurled his dessert at her with all his strength.
Mystic faced him and opened her eyes, revealing two radiant beacons of green. The pie halted in midair, and with the slightest glance, Mystic reduced it to ash.
Eyes and mouth wide, the gang leader finally appreciated his peril. “No! Leave me alone, ya horned freak!” he yelled, stumbling over himself trying to put any distance between him and the enraged unicorn, now entirely suffused with an ethereal light and slowly floating toward him.
Before the bandit could scramble very far, he started to feel strange. He looked down and found himself glowing, levitating up into the air as well. Arms and legs flailed wildly, searching for something solid to grab, but came up empty.
Mystic sneered maliciously, and her horn brightened. The helpless stallion noticed a new sensation; his clothes felt tighter. A look down confirmed it; his leather vest and bandanna were magically shrinking. In seconds, the pressure on his chest was excruciating. He couldn’t breathe.
Caballus, Roughshod, and nearly everypony else in the fight had all stopped to gape at the sight unfolding. Most of the henchponies broke into a run, while others cowered in abject terror.
Caballus paled, realizing exactly what he was witnessing. “Oh no.”
The Inquisipony sprinted toward her, desperate to get her attention. “Mystic, stop! You’ve got to get a hold of yourself!” he shouted. If she heard his pleas over the high winds and pitiful screams of the constricted bandit, she ignored them.
Caballus came a few steps closer. It was now hard to stay steady, as the supernatural tornado surrounding Mystic threatened to carry him away. He saw the choking criminal gasp and claw at the bandanna strangling him, his face turning blue. “This isn’t who you are! For Princess’s sake, you’re better than this! Listen to me, dammit! STOP!”
The lead gangster finally drooped lifeless in the air. Seeing his struggles cease, Mystic’s expression suddenly lost its cruel edge and she blinked a few times. She drifted back to the ground, her incandescent aura dimming and her eyes returning to normal, and she collapsed. Once again, all was quiet and all was dark.
Caballus knelt down to his friend. “Mystic? Are you… alright?”
The unicorn lifted her head, looking around. “I… think so…” She didn’t sound very confident in her response. “What… what did I do?” she asked hesitantly, but found her answer in the gang leader’s form lying motionless in the dirt.
Tilting his head, Caballus put his ear to the bandit’s chest. “He’s alive. Barely. Another few seconds, and he might not have been so lucky.”
Unable to bear looking at either her friend or victim any longer, Mystic turned away, quivering. “I… I’m sorry,” was all she would say.
“It’s alright,” he said as supportively as he could. The whole display had left him a lump of concern and unease in his stomach that refused to settle. “We can talk about it later. Right now, we have a more pressing concern to deal with,” said the Inquisipony, glancing back over his shoulder. There stood the stranger, surrounded by a score of unconscious bandits.
“It seems we haven’t been properly introduced,” said Caballus walking up to him. There was no cordiality in the statement, but neither was there hostility. Roughshod fell in behind him to add his intimidating presence, though there had been little evidence all night that anything was capable of intimidating this pony in the slightest.
“And I reckon it’ll stay that way, s’long as I take exception to your own anonymous manner.” The stranger’s reply was equally neutral and matter-of-fact. His stance was almost nonchalant, but poised for action at the drop of a hat.
“Usually when I ask a second time,” Caballus growled, “it’s with an excruciator. So here’s your chance to answer correctly the first time: who are you?”
The stranger tensed, eye narrowing. In the blink of an eye, he flung the poncho off his back, right into Caballus’s face. The Inquisipony quickly swiped the garment away, drawing a pie and training it directly to the spot where the stranger stood. Only he wasn’t standing there anymore.
Caballus looked left and right, but the orange pony was gone. He turned to Roughshod, and found his right-hoof stallion looking up. Following the gaze upward, Caballus finally found his target, hovering in the air above him. The lumps under the poncho had not been saddlebags; they had been wings. The wings of a pegasus aiming a loaded slingshot right at Caballus’s head.
The Inquisipony glowered. I can’t believe I fell for that, he scolded himself. A single wrong move and he would have a face full of cupcake before he could even adjust his aim.
“Say,” said Roughshod curiously, “is that a Truesling Peacekeeper 580?”
The orange pegasus cocked an eyebrow. “Uh… well, it’s actually the 560 model. It’s just got the look of an 80 on account of the extra hickory-carbide reinforcements.
Caballus shot Roughshod a quizzical look, as if to ask just what he thought he was doing. The brown pony just shrugged. “What? They’re easy to mix-up. Especially since he replaced the targeting array with that elastic autoloader.”
“Didn’t need it anymore,” the stranger replied, still holding the weapon taut. “Had the optics fully integrated into the ole peeper here. Multi-spectral scope, automatic rangefinding and reticle compensation. Took ‘till the cows came home to calibrate, but now I can cake a hummingbird at 50 yards.”
Roughshod whistled his amazement. “And the ammo?” he asked with genuine interest.
“Double chocolate, with a caramel swirl-“
“And fragmentary nut-clusters!” the two said in unison. Both burst out laughing.
Caballus looked back and forth at the pair, dumbfounded. Was Roughshod making friends with the pegasus holding them both at slingpoint?
“Come on Cab,” Roughshod grinned, slapping him on the back, “this guy’s got great taste in weapons. How bad could he be?”
“Can’t be too bad, I reckon,” said the stranger, holstering his slingshot, and swooping down, “seein’ as how I’m the ranking officer of the Adequus Arboates in these parts.”
“You? An Arbitrotter?” It finally made sense to Caballus. The disguise, the questions, the getaway; he was working undercover. Indeed, with the poncho gone, Caballus could see his cutie mark: the Scales of the Arboates, overlaid by cross-hairs.
“Name’s Hairtrigger,” he said, shaking both of their hooves firmly, “and I’m Marshal of this here sub-sector.”
“Caballus,” the Inquisipony said, flashing his rosette, “of the Ordo Hereticolt. And these are my companions, Roughshod and Mystic.”
“So you’re the Inquisipony they were after, huh? Been wondering when one of you might show up.”
Caballus frowned. “And why is that?”
The Arbitrotter’s own face turned grim. “On account of our mighty powerful need for one around here, that’s why.”
Maintaining anonymity is paramount to anyone working undercover, no matter whom it is they are working for. That’s why, like Caballus, Hairtrigger had kept his transportation far from prying eyes. Having left the scene of the fight before the potentially angry mob inside could investigate, the pegasus led them to where he had stashed his air-wagon in a ditch south of town. It was a lightweight cedar model, designed to be pulled by a single pegasus travelling with only the barest necessities, and had been camouflaged beneath a pile of tumbleweed and prickly pears.
“I’m afraid I don’t have much for y’all in the way of accommodations,” Hairtrigger said as he struck his survival flint against a rock, trying to light a fire, “but if you want to stay here tonight while the ruckus in town dies down, the lady is welcome to use my bedroll if she likes.” He kicked a few more ineffectual sparks into the waiting bundle of tumbleweed.
“Here,” said Mystic helpfully, “let me try.”
Caballus and Roughshod both warily took a step back, prompting a mildly confused look from Hairtrigger. With a tilt of her head, a fireball erupted from Mystic’s horn. It impacted the tinder violently, throwing flaming twigs into the air and producing a puff of black smoke that rose lazily into the night sky.
The soot-blackened Hairtrigger blinked in surprise, Roughshod and Caballus sharing a quick chuckle at his expense.
“Oops,” Mystic said sheepishly, “I meant for it to be… more manageable.”
The Arbitrotter blinked again, but merely shrugged. “It… got the fire going, I guess.” He put a few more pieces of dried wood on the fire, and soon its flickering light was dancing across their faces.
“So,” Caballus said, sitting down at the fire across from Hairtrigger, “in town you said that an Inquisipony was needed around here. What did you mean by that?”
The pegasus sighed. He stared at the flames, thinking about how best to explain it, before again looking Caballus in the eye. “I joined the Arboates just shy of ten years ago, not much more than a bright-eyed, fire-bellied little colt. I’ve roamed the sub-sector up and down, ‘laying down the Lex,’ as we say out here, and I reckon I’ve seen it all: Rustlers, bank robbers, train highjackers, wagon-choppers. You name it, and I’ve been its judge, jury and executioner.”
He paused, staring into the campfire for a moment. “But lately, something… else, something different has been going on. Ponies have been disappearing.”
Caballus raised an eyebrow. “Disappearing?”
“Yup,” Hairtrigger said simply, “gone. Poof. Like they weren’t never there. Some towns, folks’ll wake up in the morning and their neighbors next door have all up and gone overnight. I’ve stopped at small outposts one week and found them completely empty the next, not a pony in sight. Food still on the table, clothes still on the line. Like they just… vanished.” He shuddered.
“No ransom notes?” Roughshod queried. “No calling cards? Not even any tracks?”
Hairtrigger shook his head. “I know crime around these parts. Heck, I grew up with it. But this ain’t normal kidnappers or gangers clearing folks out in a turf war. These settlers didn’t have much worth stealing and couldn’t afford any ransom. Nothing was taken from the crime scenes anyway. Only thing besides vanishing that they have in common is sometimes I’ll find a strange pile of dirt or two, but you can imagine that doesn’t turn up much in the Precinct records.”
“Do you know of anypony who would do something like that?” Mystic asked Caballus.
The Inquisipony sat in thought for a moment. “No,” he finally said, “but it doesn’t sound like heretical activity, though. Cult-related kidnappings tend to be ritualized; they leave behind lots of clues, sometimes intentionally… and often a mess, too. But Friendquisitional records might be more complete, or at least less… censored, than those of a subsector courthouse. I’ll have Fyzzix do some searching when we rendezvous with him.” Caballus returned his attention to Hairtrigger. “What I’d really like to know, is what does Tier Ver Kaufer have to do with this? Why are you interested in him?”
“His name came up in a smuggling investigation,” Hairtrigger explained. “Didn’t mean much to me at first, just some two-bit poacher that comes by to trap Jackalope when they migrate through here. Illegal, sure, but not that high a priority for me. But that was before I compared the smuggler’s trail with the disappearances. It seemed like wherever this here Rogue Trader went, vanishing ponies were none too far behind.”
“All the more reason to find him then,” Roughshod said, to everypony’s agreement.
For a while, nopony said a word. The only noises were the crackling of the campfire and the chirping of insects. Somewhere in the distance, a coyote howled.
“We’d better hit the hay,” Hairtrigger finally said, “if we’re going back into town tomorrow. Like I said, I ain’t got much for you. I usually just sleep on the ground.” He wandered around to back of his air-wagon to search for his bedroll.
“So,” Caballus whispered, once the Arbitrotter was rifling through his belongings out of earshot, “what do you think of him?”
“I guess I like him well enough,” Roughshod replied casually.
“Okay, but do you trust him?”
“I don’t trust anypony but you, Sweet Pea here, and the Princess herself,” Roughshod chuckled. “But I suppose I’d trust him a little if I had to, which is more than most.”
“What about you, Mystic?”
The unicorn looked up from the fire as if roused from a deep thought. “Oh, Hairtrigger? I… um… he’s… nice, I guess?” It was impossible to tell in the dim firelight, but she almost looked like her face had reddened, ever so slightly.
But then the pegasus in question returned with his bedroll, and he laid it out for Mystic. “Ma’am,” he said politely, offering her the only opportunity to avoid sleeping on the hard ground. It wasn’t much better, but it was something, and Mystic just as politely accepted.
The other three made themselves as comfortable as possible on the rocky soil, using their coats as blankets, and went to sleep.
Mystic walked down the deserted main street of Applemattox alone. Where had everypony gone, she wondered. For that matter, there was no sign of Roughshod, Caballus or even Hairtrigger either. They had been right behind her, hadn’t they? But now they were gone, like they had just… vanished.
The plan was to go into town to search for clues together. It simply wasn’t like Caballus to split up without telling her. Something must have happened. Something went wrong. That was the only explanation.
The sun was too bright, its oppressive heat beating down on her and making her squint. The dry, dusty air parched Mystic’s throat and irritated her eyes further. She rubbed them.
When she opened them again, she saw a dark figure, like a fleeting shadow, on the edge of her vision. She spun around, but found nothing. Only more empty street.
The unicorn took a wary step backward. Sweat beaded on her forehead that had nothing to do with the hot sun. Somewhere beside her, a loud creaking noise nearly made her jump out of her skin. She jerked her head in the direction of the sound, eyes landing on a simple wooden door. The front door to a structure that looked like it could have been the Applemattox town hall. It was slightly ajar, creaking irritably as the wind moved it back and forth.
Against all rational caution, and against every instinct that said she shouldn’t, Mystic approached the door. Try as she might, she simply couldn’t resist whatever force directed her leaden legs to gently step over the threshold. The structure’s main hall was dark but for slivers of light that came in through gaps in the shuttered windows. All that was in the room was a desk, some upturned tables, and a slightly elevated podium on the far end. Some cabinets had been left where they’d tipped over a long time ago, their contents strewn and shredded all across the floor. The air smelled musty and stale, and everything appeared to be covered in a layer of dust and grime thick enough to suggest it had gone unused and unoccupied for quite some time.
The hairs on Mystic’s neck stood on end. The room was unoccupied no longer. The shadow had returned, and faster than she could follow, it flitted across the empty space. Something was stalking her, and it wasn’t a pony; no pony could move like that.
The door behind her slammed shut. Immediately she pulled the knob, kicked at the wood, but it wouldn’t open. There was no escape now. Mystic tried to scream, wanted so desperately to make any noise at all, but her voice wouldn’t allow it. All that came out was a strangled peep.
She took off galloping. There was another door across the room, and she willed her stubborn, terror-frozen muscles to carry her toward it. The shadow-beast was right behind her. She could hear its eager panting; feel the hot breath on her neck, though she dared not look back. I’m not going to make it, was all she could think.
But she did. She bolted through the lightless opening and threw the door closed behind her, bracing it with all of her strength. The door rattled and shook, the sound of scratching claws on wood drowning out Mystic’s whimpers, sobs and half-uttered pleas for help.
It took the unicorn a moment to realize that, in the next moment, the only sounds she could hear were her own thundering heartbeat and ragged breathing. Whatever was outside was gone. For now. Her legs were weak, trembling from fear and adrenaline, refusing to pick her up. Propping herself with her back against the door, she lit her horn. It cast a faint green light across her tiny refuge, and she had to hold back a gasp at what it revealed.
The walls of the tiny room, devoid of shelves or windows, were covered in writing. Mystic recognized some as heretical icons from the books Caballus let her read. Some were blasphemous verses scrawled in High Equestrian that made her sick to her stomach trying to translate. There was script in some other, alien tongue that seemed to shift and writhe across the wall’s surface, defying her attempts to make sense of them. There were runes that shimmered with such tangible malevolence that they burned her eyes whenever she glanced at them.
And looming large in the center of the wall was the eye.
The pictograph was a crudely drawn, though no less nightmarish for it. It depicted an eye about the size of Mystic’s head, gouged deep into the wall. Not a pony’s eye, if the vertical-slit pupil was anything to go by, but whether it was reptilian or perhaps feline, the unicorn couldn’t say. Neither could she say exactly what it meant, as she had never encountered such a glyph in all her studies or missions.
The longer Mystic stared at the eye, the more she got the unnerving impression that it was staring back. It hadn’t done anything to cause the notion, exactly, but once it was in her head, it refused to go away. Perhaps if she would just stop looking at it, she thought, maybe she could get a hold of herself. But try as she might, Mystic found herself unable to tear her own eyes away. It held her as firmly as iron shackles in its unflinching gaze, and Mystic could feel an intellect… an interest pressing at her mind, scrutinizing her very soul. The eye wasn’t just looking at her, it was looking into her.
As the symbol continued strain Mystic’s sanity, she began to hear whispers. At first they were quiet, a hum that floated in and out of her consciousness. When she finally noticed them, she wasn’t convinced that they weren’t her imagination playing tricks on her. But as she listened, she began to make out some of the words.
Weak… Slave… Hate…
The voice, it was so familiar to her, like it had been with her forever, but she just couldn’t place it. At the same time, the very sound of it made a feeling of profound dread well in the pit of her stomach.
Mystic’s eyes finally broke away from the eye’s grip. Before her, in the middle of the floor, lay a wooden hatch. Had it been there a moment ago? She didn’t notice it when she came in, though she had been a little busy. It was the only other feature in the room, besides the symbols on the walls, so how could she have missed it? But there it was, and something was trying to open it from below.
The impact set her body trembling even harder than before. The whispers also increased in volume and their tone became threatening. She was sure they were coming from below as well. Before long, they were shouting, taunting and jeering at her with their ceaseless, profane chatter. It was too much.
In a blind panic, Mystic scraped at the exit she had previously held shut with her hooves, trying to get back out. Whatever was under that hatch, she would rather face the shadow-thing outside. As if in answer, the door was flung open with tremendous force, hurling the hapless unicorn right into the middle of the room. She landed at the hatch’s edge, and before she even had time to crawl away, it too opened wide.
Underneath, there was darkness. Darkness and claws.
Dozens of shadowy arms reached out, grabbing her, clutching her cloak, her mane, her tail. They dragged her down, the dim light of the hatch’s opening fading completely, until all she knew was oblivion and a chorus of blood-curdling laugher.
Mystic returned to the waking world the same way she had left her dreaming one: screaming bloody murder.
It took Caballus, Roughshod and Hairtrigger a moment to determine that the commotion wasn’t from an enemy ambush, and another to restrain Mystic, who was still thrashing in the throes of her half-waking nightmare.
“She’s a wily one, ain’t she,” Hairtrigger grunted while holding down her legs.
“Only when she has bad dreams,” Roughshod replied through gritted teeth. They had her pinned, but her magic was wildly pulling at them, still struggling to get free. Fortunately, she wasn’t focusing enough to cast any real spells, or the team might have been hard pressed to keep her down without actually hurting her.
“Mystic!” Caballus shouted at the stricken unicorn, “It’s just a nightmare. You’re safe.”
Immediately her shrieks died down to a frightened panting, and a spark of recognition returned to her eyes. Once Mystic stopped struggling against them, the three released her.
“Alright,” panted Caballus. “I thought we had put this behind us, that you weren’t having that dream anymore.”
“N-no,” Mystic said, still shaking a little, “n-not that dream.” She tried to look Caballus in the eye, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. Instead, she curled up in her borrowed bedroll and did her best to go back to sleep.
Having nothing left to say, Caballus returned to his patch of dirt, with Roughshod and Hairtrigger reluctantly following him. Once the three stallions had bedded down again, Hairtrigger whispered to the Inquisipony. “Y’all care to explain to me what that was all about?”
“I wish I could,” he replied curtly, “but I really don’t know the slightest thing about it.”
Roughshod saw that the pegasus wasn’t satisfied with that answer, so he piped in to elaborate. “There are two things that we’ve never gotten Mystic to talk about: her past, and her dreams.”
“When you work with somepony long enough,” he continued, “you get a feel for ‘em, you know? Like in the Guard: you get to know the guy you’re sharing a foxhole with inside and out, and they know you. Same with us. Little Sweet Pea over there has spent almost every day with us since we met her, so she’s an open book as far as we’re concerned. But when we ask about what happened to her before then, well…” He trailed off.
“Not a word, I take it,” Hairtrigger said.
Roughshod nodded. “Same with her dreams. When we first took her in, she’d have these horrible night-terrors. Screaming, thrashing, flinging the furniture around with her magic. But when we woke her up, she’d never tell us what she dreamt about. Only that it was the same nightmare each time.”
“I hear a unicorn’s magic sometimes lets them see visions of the future,” said the Arbitrotter. “Y’all think it could be that?”
“Maybe…” Roughshod conceded. He’d heard of that too, but he’d always thought of it as a superstitious rumor. “But the way she’s so tight-lipped about it, I’m guessing it’s something from way back that’s haunting her. Something bad, too. Anyway, over time, it seemed to get better. She didn’t have it as often, or as badly, and it’s been quite a while since the last time. I almost thought she was over it until just-”
“Except,” Caballus said, cutting him off, “she said that this wasn’t that dream. This one is new. Given her reaction, though, it must be just as bad.”
His tone was grave, and his expression stern. “And if it is, I just pray to the Princess she really can’t see into our future.”
Huddling away from the others, pretending to have fallen back asleep, Mystic shuddered.
The four entered the town mid-morning, striding resolutely down the main street of Applemattox. This time, they didn’t even bother with disguising who they were, or what they were doing.
“It’s obvious that Tier allied himself with the gangs long before we arrived here,” Caballus had reasoned before they had set out, “and he was expecting us. So if we can’t use the element of surprise, we might as well try using intimidation.”
With that strategy in mind, Caballus led their formation wearing his rosette on the lapel of his greatcoat for all to see. Atop his head sat his favored capotain, stylized with the skull motif that the citizenry usually associated with the Friendquisition. Roughshod followed close behind him, the large stallion dressed in his full combat fatigues and flak armor, and making no effort to hide the arsenal of pastries on his person. On the Inquisipony’s other flank, Hairtrigger had his worn black, Arboates-issue carapace armor, but had also elected to wear a worn, leather duster over it. A bandolier of cupcakes and muffins was draped around him, and fastened to it was the golden badge of his station: the Marshal Star. However, despite this show of force and authority, the pony who seemed to be commanding the most fear from the townsfolk was Mystic. She had worn only her cloak, but with the hood down, leaving her horn on full display.
Most of the settler ponies gave the team a wide berth as they walked down the street. Those that stopped to stare were encouraged to move on by a stern glance from the Inquisipony or by Hairtrigger brandishing one of his slingshots. When those proved insufficient, as in the case of a small posse of thug-types they passed, some sparkles from Mystic’s horn were enough to convince them to stay out of the way. The horror stories told to them by their bandit friends the night before clearly preceded her.
“Our first stop will be the town hall,” Caballus told the others, “to see what sort of records we can find of Tier’s activities. Even if his business was off the books, his visits won’t be. Then we’ll go to the Sherriff’s office and gather any intel on the bandits that attacked us.”
Mentioning the town hall brought all-too-fresh memories of her dream from the night before to Mystic’s mind. “So, uh, Hairtrigger, do you know the Sherriff here?” she asked, to take her mind off them. “I mean, have you ever worked together at all?”
“Nope,” the pegaus shook his head. “Though if I happen to make his acquaintance, I might have to haul him off for incompetence, the way he’s letting the gangers have their run of the place around here. For all we know, he could be on the take.”
“Well, please be sure to do so only after we get a good picture of what we’re up against.” Caballus said.
“A’course,” Hairtrigger agreed. “Still, it just steams my saddle to think of those bandits that tangled with us last night. It’s like they think they’re beyond justice, just because they’re way out here in the sticks. Well, I tell you what: nopony’s above the law.”
“Actually,” Caballus said, “the Lex Equestrialis doesn’t apply to Inquisiponies and those acting on their behalf. So I am above the law.”
“Fine, but nopony else-“
“And technically,” Roughshod interrupted, “the Equestrian Guard fall under the jurisdiction of the Ponnissariat.”
Hairtrigger rolled his eyes with a sigh, and looked back at Mystic, waiting for her to chime in.
She just shrugged, and the four of them continued down the street. It was only a few minutes later that they arrived, and Caballus led the way into the town hall. Hairtrigger went in after him, and Roughshod was about to follow, but he paused. Looking back, he found Mystic standing stock still, staring at the door.
“Something wrong, Sweet Pea?” he asked.
“It’s… it’s not squeaky…” she said.
Roughshod cocked his eyebrow, and gave the simple swinging door an experimental push. It silently swung open and closed, obviously well oiled. “You feeling alright?” he asked, concern creeping into his voice.
“I… uh…” She shook her head. “Yeah, I’m fine,” she said, and pushed past the stallion through the door.
Inside, Caballus was staring down the clerk behind the desk. Before he had even said a word, the Admanestratum flunky was already shrinking away in fear.
“By the authority of the Goddess-Empress of Ponykind,” he declared loudly, slamming his rosette on the desk, “I hereby invoke the Friendquisitional Remit. As a loyal citizen of Equestria, you are compelled to my service, until such a time as it is no longer required. Should you be found wanting in your new duties, I will not hesitate to dispense the harshest punishments available.”
The clerk’s jaw dropped, and her eyes went wide. She hadn’t even had a chance to stammer incoherently before Caballus also dropped a notepad down in front of her.
“This is the information I need. Bring me any and all records with these criteria immediately, and you may return to your duties unhindered. If I suspect any records to be missing, omitted, incomplete or tampered with, your innocence or guilt in the matter will be determined by a full data-audit. Posthumously.”
By then, the clerk had turned almost completely pale and was cowering beneath the verbal assault. As soon as Caballus was done, the hapless file-jockey scampered off to the file room to fulfill his request.
Once he was gone, Roughshod burst out laughing. “That’s my favorite part of the job, right there. Poor sap nearly pissed herself!”
Caballus couldn’t help but giggle a little himself. “It does cut through the red tape, doesn’t it?”
“I’ll say,” added Hairtrigger with an impressed smile. “Even with the proper warrants, it woulda taken me hours to get them authenticated, and maybe days to search the archives myself, even in this little backwater. Boy howdy, I got into the wrong business.”
As they laughed together, Caballus noticed that somepony hadn’t joined in.
“Mystic?” he asked, watching her look around with a perplexed look on her face. “Everything alright?”
“Oh… yeah,” she replied absentmindedly. “Say, does this place look… cleaner than you would have expected?”
Caballus surveyed the main hall, noting the carefully organized front desk, the uniform stacks of filing cabinets along the walls, and the podium at the far end for giving the occasional speech to the townsfolk. “About as clean as most Admanestratum offices, I suppose. That clerk did seem like she might have been the fussy type.”
“Downright persnickety, if you ask me,” Hairtrigger added, walking around the desk and flicking the writing quill off of it, just because. “All them bean-countin’ scribes are like that, no matter where you roam. Everything’s gotta be just so for them.”
Mystic couldn’t argue that the interior, despite the dusty climate and general shortage of modern amenities, was in near-pristine order. Perhaps she was worrying about nothing. Maybe it was just a silly dream. Sure, the room was like what she had seen last night, but it wasn’t the dark, dirty death-trap from her nightmare.
“Say, Sweet Pea,” Roughshod said, bringing her out of her thoughts, “what are you casting?”
“Your horn. It’s glowing. Are you casting a spell?”
She looked up, and saw that the protrusion on her head was, in fact, giving off its tell-tale light. “I… Uh… I’m not… I mean, I didn’t think I was… W-woah!” Mystic dug her hooves in and braced herself as the invisible force of magic pulled at her horn.
The appendage lurched violently around the room, back and forth, dragging the hapless unicorn attached to it along for the ride. She zigzagged around the main hall, plowing through the tables and sending them tumbling. At her horn’s whim, Mystic was swung wide around into the filing cabinets. She tried to grab one after another as an anchor, but succeeded only in capsizing each one she passed. All the others could do was stand back and let it, not willing to risk injuring Mystic by trying to get her under control.
With one final zip across the room, a baffled Mystic finally came to a halt. The unicorn looked behind her, seeing the mess her unexpected spin around the room had made. Now the place looked like it had in her dream, missing only the dust. This, however, was a less disturbing revelation than what she realized she was standing in front of.
It was the door. The one she’d taken refuge behind when she was attacked in her nightmare. The one that led to the walls covered in writing. And the darkness.
The three stallions rushed over to her. All at once, they assailed her with questions about her well-being and what she had done.
“I’m fine everypony,” she reassured them, cautiously trying to edge away from the door. “My horn just… went off for some reason, but it stopped now. I think it’s over.”
“But why did it do that in the first place?” Roughshod wondered.
She glanced nervously at the door again. “I don’t know. I guess sometimes magic can be just… well… chaotic.”
Hairtrigger seemed skeptical. “I don’t know, little missy. It almost looked like that horn’a yours was… searching for something.”
“Or leading us somewhere,” Roughshod added.
The green pony didn’t even want to think about what might happen if they were right. “What? No. That’s not it. My magic just got out of control and took me on a joy ride. There wasn’t any rhyme or reason to it at all.”
“Unicorn magic doesn’t happen without a reason, Mystic,” Caballus said. “Not like that. I think it was leading us to this door.”
Mystic’s blood chilled. “Th-this door? No, no I don’t think so. There’s nothing special about it.”
“Well there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?” Caballus said, putting his hoof on the knob. Mystic cringed and looked away as he turned it, unwilling to look inside.
“Huh,” she head Roughshod say after a moment, “I guess you were right Sweet Pea. Just a janitor’s closet.”
Mystic peeked with one eye, and saw that he was right. It was just an ordinary janitor’s closet. There were shelves full of cleaning supplies, brooms and mops along the walls and other tools and equipment needed for the building’s upkeep. She finally let out the breath that she hadn’t realized she was holding. “Yeah,” the unicorn laughed with relief, “See, I told you it was-”
“Wait a second,” Caballus interrupted. If her blood had been chilled before, the way he had said that made it freeze in Mystic’s veins. “There’s something else here.”
All eyes were on him a he kicked aside a pile of rolled up carpets in the middle of the floor. “It looks like some sort of… trap door. Hmmm, not original,” he said as he examined it, “it was installed sometime after the structure was built.”
“Looks an awful lot like somepony’s trying to hide something in here,” said Hairtrigger, putting his hoof on the latch. “I say we take a look-”
Everypony looked at Mystic. She hadn’t meant to say anything, but it had just burst out. “I mean… it’s just that…” she stammered, struggling to come up with a reason for them not to open it. “What if there’s something dangerous down there?”
The three seemed unimpressed, and unsympathetic. “That’s our job, Sweet Pea,” Roughshod said plainly. “We can handle it.”
Mystic gulped down as much of her terror as she could, hoping he was right. It was quickly becoming clear to her that there was no way she could avoid it. All she could do now was try to muster up enough courage to go through with it.
“Here, I’ll do it,” Roughshod said. Hairtrigger and Caballus stepped back, one aiming a slingshot, and the other a pie. Mystic tilted her head and readied a spell.
With a nod from the Inquisipony, Roughshod flung open the hatch. Beneath, there was a long, dark staircase leading deep underground. Even without knowing what to expect, that wasn’t entirely unexpected. Caballus slowly, cautiously started down the stairs. “Mystic. Behind me. I’ll need the light.”
The unicorn hurriedly caught up to Caballus, holding onto her spell, keeping it primed and ready in case of an ambush. It also doubled as the only illumination in the stairway, pushing the gloom back with each step. After a minute or so, the wooden planks lining the walls gave way to solid rock. Every sound was lent an echo by stone: the soft clops of their hooves, the hum of Mystic’s magic and the laborious whirring of Hairtrigger’s eye.
“I’ve got nothing showing up on the ole peeper yet,” he said. “Having a helluva time with some sort of… interference, though. Gonna give me a headache somethin’ fierce if I can’t get it to focus soon.”
Caballus glanced back over his shoulder and shrugged. “Could be any number of underground phenomena. I can have Fyzzix take a look at it for you when we see him.”
“That’d be awful kind of—hey! What was that?” the Arbitrotter exclaimed. Everypony’s attention snapped forward again, down the dark incline.
“What? What did you see?” whispered Mystic nervously.
“Not sure… mighta just been the interference. Infrared picked up a big, fuzzy… shadow, I guess. Probably nothing.”
“Let’s keep moving,” said Caballus. “If there is something, I’d rather go find it than let it find us.” He paused a moment, peering forward. “I think I see a light down there at the bottom.”
Sure enough, after another minute’s slow descent, they reached the bottom of the stairs. It widened into a large rectangular room, carved from the very bedrock. Even though it was empty, there were several torches lighting the room. All along the walls, there were other entrances, each leading to a stairway just like the one they had come down.
“What do you reckon this place is?” Hairtrigger asked.
Caballus frowned. “I don’t know, but it looks like there are tunnels leading to places all over Applemattox.” He trotted over to the one stretch of wall in the room that lacked a doorway. “Here. There’s something written here.”
The others sidled up to him. Roughshod brought over a torch in his teeth. When the flickering light brought the carvings into clarity, everypony but Caballus immediately recoiled.
“I was afraid of this,” he mumbled.
Mystic knew the symbols. Many she had seen on a different wall the night before. Apparently, Hairtrigger and Roughshod were having a reaction similar to hers.
“Jeez, Cab. I’ll never understand how you can just look at it like that,” Roughshod said, averting his own eyes.
“Years of practice, my friend. Inquisiponies-in-training are required to study the Malign Text so that we can ignore the… ‘side effects’ when we see it in the field.”
“What… what does it say?” Mystic asked, not sure if she really wanted to know.
Caballus scrutinized the symbols. He read them slowly. “‘Here shall the Children find refuge…’”
“And all others shall find only death,” a voice behind them finished.
“You should not have come here, Inquisipony,” Sniffles said with smile. “This is a sacred, secret meeting place, and I’m afraid you aren’t allowed.”
The vile pony was taller than the last time Caballus saw him, a full head taller than Roughshod in fact, by virtue of his outfit. Except for his head, Sniffles was encased in bulky, olive green power armor. Hissing slime oozed from every joint, corroding metal that was forged to resist the weathering of millennia. Tubes running from the backpack gently pulsed as they pumped something best left unknown between its plates. Even if it hadn’t been decorated with the putrid iconography of the damned, especially the tissue box cutie mark painted on the flank, it was unmistakably the ancient, pockmarked suit of a Traitor Marine.
The others staggered backward. Caballus alone managed to hide his shock, but made no such effort to hide his disgust. “This is the sovereign soil of Equestria, heretic. You’re the one who’s not welcome.”
Sniffles’ roaring laughter echoed in the chamber, raspy and hoarse. Eventually it ended in a coughing fit that was somehow no less jovial. “My little Inquisipony, I never said you weren’t welcome!” He paused to rein in his dripping nose with a wet snort. “I only ask that you resign your offensive occupation and renounce your False Princess before you try to join our humble ranks. Our recruitment policy is quite clear about that.”
“Join you? I’ve heard enough.” Caballus drew a pie. It was dense, baked with fresh pumpkin. He would need the extra stopping power.
“Boss,” Roughshod whispered nervously, “You sure we can take him? I mean, he may be ugly heretic scum, but… but for Celestia’s sake! He’s a Goddess-damned Pony Marine!”
“We outnumber him,” Caballus replied, “and he’s not even armed. Just stay sharp and we’ll be fine.”
“Outnumbered?” The Marine laughed again. “Oh dear, what a notion. Since you’ve stumbled upon our church, perhaps it’s time to meet the congregation.” He stamped his hind leg once on the stone floor, causing a loud metallic clang to reverberate throughout the stone chamber.
The tone faded, and was answered by a new sound. The sound of shuffling hoofsteps. A diminutive, robed figure appeared from the entrance directly behind Sniffles, descending the staircase that led up to somewhere else in town. It cowered behind the armored giant, until the Marine bowed his ear down to it.
“I’ve gathered them, lord, just as you asked,” whispered the Admanestratum clerk from before. At the sight of Caballus, she gave a frightened peep and scurried back behind Sniffles.
“Come then, my children,” Sniffles called out in a jolly, nasal bellow that boomed in the stone hollow. “Come meet our new friends!”
The sound of shuffling returned, but much louder this time. First one set of hooves, then another, and another. In moments, dozens of ponies began filing out of each of the entrances. Except for the space given to the Inquisipony’s team, the whole room was soon packed with ponies standing shoulder to shoulder. Caballus recognized faces in the growing crowd: the old bartender, bandits from the gang fight, a respectable-looking couple he had seen on the street, and many others; ponies from all walks of life. It looked like the whole town had answered Sniffles’ summons, and they were all staring accusingly at the four of them.
“Hairtrigger?” Caballus calmly inquired, “I’m not familiar with how things are typically done out here at sector’s edge, but is it normal for the entire population of a settlement like Applemattox to be at the beck and call of a renegade Marine?”
“Er… Not typically, no,” the Arbitrotter said. “I reckon this one slipped through the cracks.”
“Ya think?” scoffed Roughshod.
Sniffles smirked at the Inquisipony. “The haughty powers of ‘mighty’ Equestria don’t reach here, friend. They won’t. They can’t.” He nudged the clerk forward again, stroking the unfortunate pony affectionately. “These ponies were loyal Equestrians once. They prayed to a False Princess who doesn’t listen or care, and tithed to a bureaucracy too bloated and corrupt to protect them from the horrors that lurked beyond the edges of the known world. They cried out for help, and in our infinite beneficence, we answered.”
Even though she was beginning to pale and tremble from her proximity to Sniffles’ gut-wrenching stench, the clerk smiled contentedly at the attention she was receiving, like an adoring puppy. At least until her eyes rolled into her head, she vomited, and collapsed in a convulsing heap.
Sniffles grinned. “See how grateful they are? Without our help, they would be helpless, easy prey to the monsters that steal ponies in the night. But now they live free of fear and oppression. All they had to do was see Equestria for the lie that it is, embrace the truth, and be liberated.”
“Liberation!” the gathered crowd cheered in unison.
Caballus sneered at them. “I’d wager my rosette that this abomination and his ilk are the very ones responsible for those disappearances,” he announced. All he got in return were their blank stares.
“No it weren’t! It were the Grabbers!” came a decidedly uneducated-sounding voice from somewhere in the back. There were several murmurs of agreement.
“Yeah, the Deep-Grabbers were taking ponies, but then the Children came and they stopped!” an old farm-mare yelled. “They’ve done more for us than Equestria ever did!” Several more cheers supported her.
The Inquisipony raised his eyebrow and glanced back to Hairtrigger. “What are they talking about?”
“Why these ignorant, backward…” the pegasus said with disbelief. “The Deep-Grabbers are an old legend told by the settlers. They’re bogeys, spooks said to live underground out in the Rocklands, lurking and such. But there ain’t no such thing,” he said aiming his comments at the herd of townsfolk. “It’s just a story! Just something you tell your misbehavin’ foals; that the Grabbers will snatch them up if they don’t listen. Nopony in their right minds actually believes it!”
Caballus held up a hoof. “Don’t waste your breath on them. Everypony here is clearly too tainted by the traitor’s lies to listen to reason. Words won’t change any of their minds now. The only way to save them is with purifying flame. A flame I will be pleased to deliver.”
“An impressive claim, Inquisipony,” Sniffles wheezed. “Only I wonder; how then do you intend to make your daring escape, cut off and surrounded on all sides as you are?”
“Been a mite curious on that score myself,” Hairtrigger muttered.
“Don’t worry,” said Roughshod, “Cab always has a plan to get out of fixes like this.” The brown stallion turned to Caballus expectantly. “Right?”
Caballus shrugged. “I’m open to suggestions.”
“Ha! This is Equestria’s best and brightest, sent to foil our glorious plans?” the Marine mocked. “You four couldn’t foil your way out of a hole in the ground. Which is convenient, because that’s where we throw the unbelievers around here.”
His voice lost its friendliness for a moment, becoming cold. “Then you’ll pay for hurting my poor baby worms, Inquisipony.”
The ponies surrounding the team slowly closed in, forcing them up against the wall, step by step.
“Can you get us out of here, Mystic?” Caballus asked, trying to keep the concern out of his voice as the space between them and the heretical mob disappeared.
“You mean… as in teleporting?” she said anxiously. “I… I’m not very good at using that spell on ponies. And it gets exponentially more dangerous with each passenger you try to-”
“As long as the odds are better than certain death,” Roughshod said impatiently, “I’d say it’s better than staying here.”
“Alright…” Mystic said, closing her eyes. Magical power began to gather around the unicorn. A chill filled the rest of the room as her spell drew even the heat from the air into itself. Some in the heretical herd hesitated as their breath fogged in the air right in front of their muzzles. Aim for the surface, she told herself. I just have to get us to the surface.
“Don’t let them escape, my Children!” Sniffles shouted with delight, like a coach chiding a team of foals playing some field game. “We wouldn’t want them to miss all the fun!”
The tainted ponies all roared and charged at once. Caballus dropped one screaming heretic with a pie, and struck down another before the masses were upon him. Hairtrigger brought down three with quick shots from his Peacekeeper, and tried to get clear of the heretics by flying above them, but somepony grabbed a hold of his leg and he was dragged down. Roughshod reared up and slammed the first attacker in reach down into the ground, then kicked a second back into the oncoming tide, bowling many over. But he too was quickly overwhelmed by their sheer numbers.
Finally, the mob reached Mystic, who was still trying to finish their magical escape. One bandit lunged forward and tackled her, slamming her into the wall. Her head collided with the stone and her eyes snapped open. With her concentration broken, Mystic’s teleportation spell began to destabilize. The ball of energy swirled violently around the tip of Mystic’s horn for a moment, before it imploded to a single speck of light.
The unicorn stared at the speck, blinking, oblivious to the violence all around her. A split second later, it burst in a blinding nova.
Mystic awoke with a start. She would have yelped had a hoof not immediately covered her mouth.
“Hush, little lady,” said Hairtrigger’s voice in the pitch darkness, “you’re fine.”
“What happened?” she whispered, cautiously standing up. The floor still felt like stone, but it was uneven, not the smooth floor of the heretical shrine. The air had an iron taste to it. “Where are we? Where are the others?”
“Not sure,” he replied, “but I reckon that little trick of yours worked after all. Seems your aim was a mite off, though. Can’t tell which direction it sent us, but probably no more than a few dozen meters or so, right? Lucky for us, those heathens seem to have dug their little chapel near this here cave. If your spell scooped up the others, I’m sure they’re around here somewhere too.”
Mystic’s head throbbed from the effort, but she lit her horn to look around. The pegasus’s face appeared in the gloom, the soft light reflecting back off his augmetic lens. He was covered in soot, singed black by the teleportation’s side effects.
“Are you okay?” the unicorn asked.
“Fine, thanks to you,” he said. “Compared to the fix we were in, getting out of this cave should be easy.” Hairtrigger reached into a pocket on his armor and produced a luminator. Reciting a quick prayer to awaken the machine spirits and fireflies within, the Arbitrotter was rewarded with a beam of light revealing the cave tunnel before him. With the luminator affixed to his duster, he led the way forward.
The pair walked the narrow cave tunnel for several minutes in silence, following its twists and turns until it began to widen. Before they even realized it, they had walked right into a much larger cavern, one filled with a forest of stalactites and stalagmites. In every direction, stone spikes jutted from the floor like the trunks of trees, and others hung down from the impenetrable darkness high above. With every loudly echoing hoofstep, it was becoming even more apparent that it was a massive space.
Mystic tried to brighten her horn, to see if there were any clue that might lead to an exit, but it seemed the harder she tried, the harder the darkness fought to keep its secrets. It was as if the light itself was afraid to stray too far, lest it too became lost in the cave forever. “So…” she said, “which way should we go?”
“Beats me,” the Arbitrotter replied with a shrug. “Being trapped underground ain’t nowhere in the Arboates training manual. Wouldn’t suppose there’s some sort of spell you could just whip up to figure it out the right direction, is there?”
“I’m afraid not.” The unicorn thought for a moment, rubbing her chin. “But I think if we keep close to the wall, we’ll either come to another tunnel or at least we’ll know when we’re going around in circles.”
The pegasus mulled the plan over. “That’s actually darn clever,” he said, keeping the cave wall on his left as he set off into the dark. “Let’s go.”
After another couple minutes of walking went by without conversation, Hairtrigger spoke. “Say, you seem like an awful smart little filly. Did you go to some sort of fancy school or something?”
At first, Mystic said nothing, responding only with stony-faced silence. “I read a lot of books,” she finally said.
“Ah… right, sorry. They told me you were all hush-hush about things like that.”
Just then, the pair approached a massive stone column that lay across their path, one that was too long to simply walk around without straying away from the wall. Hairtrigger almost simply flew over it before he remembered that Mystic didn’t share the ability. With a polite gesture, he offered her a lift, which she accepted.
“It’s just that I got to wondering,” he continued as he picked her up in his hooves, “being the sharp, talented thing you are, maybe Caballus plucked you out of some sort of fancy school for pretty, gifted unicorns.” His mouth curled in a debonair grin.
Mystic wasn’t entirely sure what to say to that. She was unaccustomed to being flattered. Thankfully, the dim lighting helped obscure the blush on her face. “Well, I promise you, he didn’t.”
Hairtrigger gently set the unicorn down on the other side of the column, where they resumed their trek. “You just seem kind of young to be doing Friendquisitional work, is all.”
“I guess… it’s all I have,” was Mystic’s blunt response. The thought was a somber but familiar one, and she pushed it aside. “Besides,” she said, perking up a little, “I’m not much younger than you are.”
“No ma’am,” Hairtrigger chuckled, “I reckon you’re not. So, it’s books then, huh? Never been much for ‘em myself. Only one I ever really read is the Lex, and let me tell you something, little missy: it is dry. What sort of books are you keen on?”
“Whatever Caballus has on hand. There’s not much space on the ship for them, but he keeps a rotating library for the both of us while we travel. Mostly grimoires and spell-books for me to study, but others too: books on Equestrian history, sector culture and politics, classical literature. He often reads with me, especially theological texts for our regular devotionals. A couple times Fyzzix has even loaned me one of his sacred Technical Tomes. They’re almost impossible to understand for anypony who’s not a Meq-Priest, but the diagrams are still rather…”
Mystic paused when she noticed that Hairtrigger had fallen behind a few paces. “What is it?”
Hairtrigger had stopped to glare irritably into the darkness. “Daggum interference again. Can’t even see as good as my real eye anymore.” He tapped the side of the metal casing jutting from his eye socket, to no effect.
“What do you think is wrong with it?”
“No way to know,” the pegaus shrugged. “I try to look out into the dark, but I’m still seeing these big, fuzzy… shadows everywhere.”
A knot of unease filled Mystic’s stomach. She wasn’t sure what caused it in that particular moment; maybe the gravity of being lost in the cave had finally caught up with her. Maybe it was her worries about what had happened to Caballus and Roughshod. Hairtrigger talking about all the “shadows” around them certainly wasn’t helping. But whatever the reason, Mystic was all of a sudden very anxious about something. She began to trot a little faster. “Could we pick up the pace a little? I’d like to-“
“Get down!” Hairtrigger shouted.
Before she could even comprehend what had happened, Mystic found herself pinned on her back, the Arbitrotter on top of her. There was a dreadful, screeching whistle, accompanied by a sound like the shattering of glass. Looking past the pegasus above her, Mystic saw the stone pillar she was just standing beside had been riddled with crystal shards. Its whole surface glittered in the dim light with jagged-edged rubies, emeralds and sapphires, each embedded in the rock by a tremendous force. The unicorn could only gape in shock as she realized that, but for Hairtrigger’s quick actions, those razor-sharp gems could have just as easily been embedded in her.
“Quit your gawkin’ and run!” Hairtrigger yelled as he heaved her back onto her hooves. There were large, ragged holes in his duster, but the rest of him was miraculously unscathed.
Mystic didn’t need to be told twice. She took off at a full gallop, weaving in between the mineral columns, trying to get away from whatever was attacking them. Hairtrigger was right above her, doing his best to cover Mystic from the air. But with all the stalactites hanging down, and his malfunctioning eye hampering his depth-perception, the pegasus could barely keep pace with her without risking a collision.
“I can’t see nothing,” he yelled. He swung his gaze and his slingshot this way and that, but the targets refused to show themselves. “Gimme more light!”
Mystic brightened her horn, pushing the shadows back. Most of them, at least. The light revealed shapes all around them, chasing them as they fled through the cave. Their pursuers were amorphous, shrouded in a cloak of impenetrable darkness. Whether by sorcery or artifice, the shadows themselves flowed around them like a thick, billowing smoke. At least a half-dozen of the fiends were after them, bounding easily around any obstacles between them and their prey. The shadow-beasts of her nightmare, Mystic thought in horror.
“Duck!” Hairtrigger screamed from above.
The unicorn did so, throwing herself to the ground a mere instant before one of the creatures released another hail of gem-shards at her. As it did, the flowing veil around it waned for a moment and Mystic caught fleeting glimpses of teeth, claws, and murderous yellow eyes. She started running again.
Overhead, the orange pegasus had himself just managed avoid a shot from their attackers, darting behind a stone spike for cover. As soon as he flew out from behind it, he launched a cupcake in the direction the shot had come from. The sweet struck one of the shadow-beasts mid-leap, and it tumbled to the ground. He saw the cloak begin to melt away, but there was no time to get a good look before the remaining threats demanded his attention again.
Another barrage of twinkling crystals rushed up to meet Hairtrigger from below, with only an instant to react. Banking sharply and executing a quick roll, he managed to dodge most of them. But not all.
The few that didn’t miss sheared a clump of feathers cleanly off his right wing. The sudden pain and loss of flight stability sent him into a sharp dive, and he glanced off a stalactite before crashing the cave floor.
Mystic heard the impact, looked back, and spotted the Arbitrotter’s crumpled form on the ground behind her. She skidded to a stop. “Hairtrigger!”
The beasts were closing in on both of them. She could hear their excited panting, their frenzied snarls. Mystic rushed to his side. “We need to move! Now! I’m not going anywhere without you.”
More screeching signaled another volley of incoming shards, with no time to move the stunned Arbitrotter. Mystic’s horn flared and she tore a slab of stone from the cave floor, holding it up as a shield. The projectiles harmlessly peppered the rock, and with a desperate cry, she flung the whole slab back at the shooter. It, whatever it was, had been caught in the path of the sailing boulder, and the impact scattered its shroud in a puff of smoky shadows. The rock kept flying, carrying them both into the dark beyond Mystic’s vision. A violent crash assured her there would be one less threat to worry about.
Hairtrigger grunted as the unicorn propped him up. “Don’t… don’t you worry your pretty little—gah!—head none, missy,” he said, testing his injury, “just—argh!—just clipped my wings, is all.”
He had landed on his wings rather hard. From the shooting pain he felt when he carefully folded them to his sides, the pegasus knew he probably wouldn’t be able to fly for some time. He shook the spots from his vision and looked a trembling Mystic in the eye. “I’m gonna lay down some cover,” he said, “and you’re gonna keep your head down, and keep moving. I’ll be right behind you.”
Mystic nodded. The tense confidence with which Hairtrigger spoke was probably the one thing at the moment keeping the unicorn from paralyzing in fear. She had seen her share of scary as a Throne Agent, but having to fight off her own nightmares-come-to-life set a new bar.
Two cupcakes in quick succession sent the closest of the shadowy attackers back behind cover. Mystic lowered her head and charged toward the largest gap she could see. As she gained speed, she charged a little magical “covering fire” of her own. Crackling electricity discharged from her horn at random, turning her into a galloping lightning storm. One of the fiends, lacking the good sense to keep his head down, tried to bar the unicorn’s path. It was instantly fried.
The orange pegasus fell in directly behind Mystic, galloping along in the one spot that was spared from the electric assault. Together, they broke free of the tightening circle, and the chase began anew.
Unfortunately, this only seemed to encourage their pursuers. Despite the apparent losses they had taken, the shadow-beasts no longer had to contend with Hairtrigger’s air-support. They didn’t even appear to be putting much effort into attacking anymore, merely matching the exhausted ponies’ pace. Their shots became lazy, aiming only enough to force their targets dodge them.
Repeatedly, Mystic tried to break one way or the other, only to be rebuked by incoming fire. Every attempt that the ponies made to navigate out of the cavern’s maze of stalagmites found an ambush already waiting in their path. They’re toying with us, Mystic concluded as she veered away from another scattershot of gem-shards. They’re corralling us like animals.
The obvious question was where were they being corralled? She didn’t have to wait long for the answer. As the green unicorn peered into the darkness before her, she found that suddenly there were no more obstacles in her path. And no more floor, either.
She buckled her knees, dug her hooves into the ground, and skidded to a stop. Hairtrigger wasn’t prepared for her abrupt deceleration, and almost tackled Mystic into the gaping chasm in front of them. The two had nearly run straight over the precipice.
Even when Mystic lit her horn as brightly as she could, neither of them could see either the bottom of the great subterranean abyss, or even the other side. There was nothing but a void. A void they were now cornered against.
The two turned their backs to the empty space. Having no place else to run, there was no choice but to face the enemy head-on. Mystic prepared her magic, and Hairtrigger loaded a fresh cupcake into his slingshot.
One by one, five shadow-creatures appeared before them, like circling predators. A single shape approached, the creature stepping out of the black cloud that cloaked it. For the first time, Mystic clearly saw the face of the monsters that had been hounding her since her dream the night before. She almost wished that she hadn’t.
It was a hideous thing, proportioned like some sort of freakish ape: bipedal, but with almost comically short legs and long, massive forearms that could just as easily reach the ground for walking on all fours. Though hunched, it was still taller than either of the ponies. The head had vaguely canine features, floppy ears, bulging eyes and a pronounced underbite. Yellow fangs glistened with its saliva in a sinister grin.
One by one, the shrouds concealing the other zoono-beasts evaporated as well. Suddenly the interference afflicting Hairtrigger’s bionic eye was gone, and he could see them all plain as day. Each was clad in thin, hard plates that interlocked into suits of dull, grey armor covering their chests. He wondered if the various spikes and blades protruding seemingly at random were purely ornamental, or if they were intended to be used. Their wiry fur had various earthy tones of brown, tan and grey, though the pegasus couldn’t tell if that was their actual colors, or if they were simply encrusted in filth.
The one standing before them, apparently their leader, fixed his gaze on Mystic. “You magic pony,” it said in broken Low Equestrian. Its voice was bestial and grating to the ponies’ ears. They gave it no response.
Its grin widened. “Magic pony is good,” it said, turning to its comrades. “Magic pony can find gems! Very precious.” The other dog-creatures’ short, spiked tails wagged with excitement. “We bring to Bismutt.”
Hairtrigger planted himself firmly in front of Mystic, fuming. “Ain’t gonna happen, partner. Not a goldfish’s chance in the desert.”
The leader lifted a weapon, a device very much resembling a crossbow. It dropped a handful of colorful gems into the top of the weapon’s mechanism. Then with a quick look up, it aimed and fired at the cave ceiling directly above the ponies. In an instant, the shot disappeared into the darkness, the faint sound of its impact echoing back down a moment later.
Hairtrigger took a step back. “What in tarna-“
Before he could finish, he was drowned out by a deep, ominous groan and a loud cracking noise overhead. Straining his enhanced vision, the pegasus saw fractures threading across the damaged stalactites hanging above. Dust and pebbles rained down, followed immediately by several tons of stone.
“Look out!” he shouted. Unable to see as well as him, Mystic couldn’t tell exactly what was coming, or where it would land. And backed up against the precipice, she had hardly anywhere to go.
The rocks fell.
For the second time, Mystic found herself with Hairtrigger on top of her. She was lying face down, and could sense his body standing above her. When the dust cleared, she looked back to where she had been standing just seconds ago. It was a huge pile of debris.
“Th-thanks,” she said.
He shook the chips of stone from his back. “Somepony’s gotta take care of you.”
The green unicorn smiled weakly and attempted to stand up. But when she tried, a searing pain shot up her leg. She looked back again and saw that it was pinned under one of the huge boulders. “I… I’m stuck.”
“Hang on,” Hairtrigger said, already trying to free her, “we’ll get you out of there, quicker than you can say ‘Golden Throne of Canterlot.’”
No stranger to combat injury, Mystic was about to just grit her teeth and levitate the boulder herself. But something else landed in front of her. A small, metal orb clinked along the ground before rolling to a stop right before Mystic’s face. With a click, it opened, and it sprayed out a cloud of noxious mist.
Hairtrigger reared back to avoid the gas, but trapped as she was, Mystic couldn’t help but breathe in a lungful. She coughed and in seconds she began to feel dizzy, her vision blurring and her pulse quickening. It had been a big dose; whatever it was supposed to do, she was going to find out.
Hairtrigger turned to face the lead zoonos who had thrown the gas grenade. He stamped the ground and snorted, head down, ears back. The leader stood back, and the other beasts reactivated their cloaks, once again disappearing from the pegasus’s vision as the shadows enveloped them. They charged from every direction.
On the ground, Mystic could only watch her companion take on the creatures alone. The poison, rather than dull her senses as she might have expected, actually seemed to make them sharper, more acutely aware of every sound and movement. In her eyes, tricks of the light became new horrors prowling for her. Echoes of her own fevered panting morphed into the tortured screams of invisible victims. Pain and panic consumed her reality like a wildfire, fuelled by the psychotropics coursing through her veins.
When she looked at the shadow-beasts, she saw them as demons. Her hallucinations blended their real forms with her nightmares, combining the worst features of both and magnifying them a hundredfold.
She also saw Hairtrigger differently. His luminator was still on, its bright beam flashing in all directions as he fought. In her impaired state, he appeared to Mystic as an avenging angel, a shining incarnation of the Princess’s divine fury. It was only slightly less terrifying a vision than the enemy he clashed with.
The Arbitrotter was losing ground to the beasts. They were faster than any pony he had ever fought, and stronger too. They were so close, their shrouds so thick around him, that he was completely blind. He thought about breaking away, engaging them at range where he might have an advantage. But that would leave Mystic exposed, and that was unacceptable. So he tried to hold them back
Finally, a clawed fist caught him in the muzzle and he went reeling. Another sent him to the cave floor. Two of the creatures picked him up by his elbows, dragging the struggling pony over to their leader.
“One-eye pony fights hard,” it said with a self-satisfied smirk. Then the zoonos barked something in its own crude language to its minions, to which they cackled in delight. “But pony’s wing is hurt. Hurt pony can’t work. And pony that can’t work is no good.”
They carried the beaten pegasus toward the cliff’s edge.
Mystic couldn’t bear to watch, covering her eyes. “Please,” she whimpered, “please no…”
“S’all right… little lady,” Hairtrigger said between heaving breaths. “Ain’t nothing’s… gonna happen to ya… and that’s the honest truth. Promise.”
They cast him over the edge.
Silence filled the long moments that followed. She was glad he didn’t scream; it would have been too much for her. She was also spared the sound of him hitting the bottom, so deep was the chasm. The quiet was instead broken by her muffled sobs. When she finally lifted her hooves from her eyes again, the shadow-monsters were standing around her. The leader crouched down to look her in the face.
“Is magic pony’s leg stuck?” it taunted melodiously. The rancid stench on its breath made Mystic gag. She looked into its eyes, and in them saw reflections of her own wildest, darkest fears. A dagger made of serrated diamond appeared in its paw. “Good thing magic pony doesn’t need leg to find gems.”
The green unicorn’s eyes went wide and her sobs became a wail. She thrashed against the boulder, like any wild animal caught in a trap. The artificially-heightened fear and despair had taken away all rationality, and kept her from concentrating on even the simplest of spells.
The minions held her down. Mystic cringed, waiting for the cut.
Instead, there was a furious gust of wind. In the blink of an eye, two of the creatures went flying, hit by something too fast for Mystic to follow. They sailed over the edge of the abyss, their shrieks echoing long after they disappeared into the void.
An orange blur swooped in and tackled a third zoonos. It was flung back into a stalactite with such force that it demolished the pillar, and was buried under its rubble. The remaining dog-monsters stepped back in alarm. The hovering figure of a pegasus confronted them. It was Hairtrigger.
He fluttered laboriously to the ground, favoring his clipped wing. “Y’all thought you could take me by the horns, huh?” he said, panting with rage. “I reckon y’all weren’t ready for the ride.”
Having seen more than half its group decimated in mere seconds, the last minion lost its nerve and tried to run. The enraged pony pounced on the fleeing creature, pummeling it with his bare hooves. He kept hitting it, even after the body under him had gone limp.
A huge paw seized the pegasus’s injured wing. He was instantly blinded by the pain, long enough for the zoonos leader to throw him to the ground. With a huge claw around his neck, the creature held him there. Every time he struggled, the monster stomped on the wing, making him howl in agony.
“One-eye pony doesn’t know when to die,” it hissed, bringing its shard-weapon to bear in the other claw. He aimed it in Hairtrigger’s face.
There was a loud splat noise. The dog-monster’s face went slack, and he slumped, falling face-first into the cave floor. There was a mess of pie all over the back of his head.
Behind him, stood Caballus.
Hairtigger yanked away the lifeless claw still clutching his neck. “Not saying I’m ungrateful or nothing, but did you have to cut it so close?”
“You’re welcome,” the Inquisipony said with a hint of amusement. He bent down to tend to the Arbitrotter’s injuries.
“You know what?” the pegasus said. “I think I might owe the good folks of Applemattox an apology.”
Caballus’s amusement grew. “And why might that be?”
“I reckon the Deep-Grabbers might be real after all,” Hairtrigger replied, nodding toward the grotesque body.
Roughshod appeared beside his employer, out of breath. When he shined his own luminator down on Hairtrigger, he gave the pegasus a quizzical look. “There you are. We’ve been looking all over for you. Damn, you look like somepony worked you over good.” He started looking for a med-kit in his saddlebags.
“Don’t fuss over me, you idiot,” the Arbitrotter said irritably, “see to the filly.” He pointed a hoof in Mystic’s direction.
Roughshod did just that, and rushed to the unicorn’s side. But she recoiled from him, not even recognizing her close friend. In her toxic haze, everypony was an enemy, and every movement was an attack. She pulled so hard trying to get away, Roughshod was sure he heard a sickening snap.
“Relax, Sweet Pea! It’s me,” the stallion said in dismay. He tried to get a look at her leg, but she snarled at him. “Jeez, what’s the matter with you?”
“The Grabbers used some sort of gas weapon on her,” Hairtrigger explained. “Looks like it spooked her clean out of her wits.”
“Give her a sedative,” said Caballus. “The poison will have to run its course, but we need to keep her from hurting herself while it does.”
Roughshod nodded, and procured a needle from his med-kit. With some difficulty, he managed to inject his uncooperative patient with it. At the same time, Caballus prepared a painkiller for Hairtrigger, and gave it to him right at the base of his wing. Both of the wounded ponies started to relax. Mystic soon stopped struggling enough for Roughshod to roll away the boulder from her leg so he could set about binding it. “It’s definitely broken,” he reported.
“So is this wing,” said Caballus, “and probably a few ribs. How much Bone-Mending Brew did you pack in there?”
Roughshod rifled through the med-kit, pulling out a small vial filled with a purple liquid. “Not enough for all that, I don’t think.”
“Give it to her. I’ll be fine,” Hairtrigger insisted. He tried to stand, but a sharp stab in his side proved him wrong.
Caballus frowned. “You’re both dead weight if you can’t travel. Give Mystic enough to walk, and the rest to Hairtrigger. We can get them patched up properly once we’re back on the Majesty.”
Rolling Mystic onto her back, Roughshod poured a little more than half the potion into her mouth. With a little coaxing, the torpid unicorn swallowed it. A dim glow suffused the flesh of her fetlock. The joint stretched and twisted as the bone set itself back into place, popping and cracking as it went. By the time the light faded, it had fused back into working order.
Hairtrigger drank the remaining potion. His chest and right wing shone with an inner light as the fractures in his hollow bones sealed themselves. Once it was finished, he gave his wings and torso an experimental stretch. They still hurt; the bones may have been repaired—for the most part, anyway—but the scrapes and bruises still remained.
While Hairtrigger got shakily to his feet, Caballus kicked the creature’s body onto its back, examining his kill.
“What in the wide, wide world of Equestria is it?” Hairtrigger asked. “Besides ugly.”
Caballus shook his head. “Your guess is as good as mine. The Ordo Hereticolt usually hunts heretics, not zoonos. You probably know more about ‘Deep-Grabbers’ than I do.”
“All I know are the stories, the tall tales about them. They say ever since the first settlers came out to the edge of the sub-sector and put down roots, they were raided by monsters that lived out in from the Rocklands. Strike without warning, disappear without a trace; all the spooky story clichés. For as long as anypony can remember, they’re sort of just what folks blame when anything bad happens. If something breaks right when you need it, you’ll say ‘the Grabbers must’ve broke it,’ or whenever somepony would go missing and never come back, folks would say ‘the Grabbers must’ve got him.’ Whenever I took to bickering with my dear old Ma, she would tell me to cut it out or the Deep-Grabbers would come drag me underground, and make me work in their mines forever, never to see sun again.” He shook his head. “And to think, eventually I stopped believing her.
Caballus shrugged. “You’d be surprised how often legends from the past contain a kernel of truth. The archives of the Friendquisition contain a number of accounts from Inquisiponies who found themselves investigating entities that were supposedly fictional.”
“Oh yeah? Like what?”
“Nothing I’m at liberty to discuss,” Caballus said with a smirk.
By then, Roughshod had joined the two stallions again, with Mystic draped over his back. With the tranquilizer finally overpowering the poison, the unicorn had fallen into a fitful sleep. The drug couldn’t end her nightmares, but it had returned them to where they belonged. “Looks like we can move her now,” he said with some relief.
His weak smile belied the stress visible in his eyes, however. Caballus had seen the look before. It was one his companion often wore after he had finished administering first aid; the point at which nothing more could be done. All he could do now was wait for her to get better, and waiting made Roughshod feel helpless. Not to mention distracted. Then we won’t wait, Caballus decided.
“Right then,” the Inquisipony said, “we should get moving. Roughshod and I had just discovered a tunnel that appeared to lead out of this place when we heard the commotion you two were making. This way.”
It took a little bit of searching, but Caballus managed to backtrack to the place where the cavern wall opened into a narrow passage. It was even narrower than the first one Hairtrigger and Mystic had landed in, wide enough for one pony to walk comfortably, but not two. It was also tall enough for even Roughshod to have no lack of headroom. Caballus went first, followed by the hobbling Hairtrigger, and Roughshod bringing up the rear with Mystic on his back.
“So what now?” Hairtrigger asked after a few minutes.
“Huh?” Roughshod asked.
“What do we do now?” the Arbitrotter repeated. “Things ain’t exactly been going according to the plan we set out with this morning. The heretics are running the town, the ground beneath their hooves is crawling with Grabbers, and we’re trapped down here, cut off from help by both of them. I’m wondering what we’re fixin’ to do once we get out of this cave.”
Roughshod cocked his head, as if he’d never even considered the plan at all.
“The plan,” Caballus said confidently from the front, “hasn’t changed. Find the enemy, and destroy the enemy. It’s just our luck that there’s quite a bit more ‘enemy’ than we anticipated. Not only do we have to contend with Sniffles and the Children, but we’ve got this new zoonos threat to worry about, too.”
“Sniffles?” Roughshod asked, eyebrow raised.
“Yes, that’s the name of the Traitor Marine. He… introduced himself to me—though without his armor on, mind you—back in Tier’s warehouse. Right before that damn phoenix tried to kill me. He was the true Cheat-worm supplier, and I suspect he’s the one who’s behind the Children’s resurgence. He must have fled during the first purge, and hidden out here in Applemattox, eventually spreading his influence throughout the entire town.
“Anyway, what has changed is the scale of the plan. This is no longer small enough to contain ourselves. Once we reach the surface, we’ll signal Fyzzix for extraction, and then requisition some more firepower. I should think a full regiment of Equestrian Guard will be enough to take care of the townsfolk. And my counterparts in the Ordo Zoonos will certainly be interested in the Deep-Grabbers. If anypony knows how best to deal with hostile creatures, it’s them. With those reinforcements, we can purge the taint from this town, and the infestation beneath it.”
“I can’t wait,” Roughshod muttered. “Maybe we can round up some of those cultist scumbags for some good old-fashioned Friendquisitional ‘interrogation’ while we’re at it.”
There was a certain edge of… contempt in the stallion’s remarks, the likes of which Caballus hadn’t heard from him in a long time. Roughshod was usually the most easygoing of the team, even in combat situations. Especially in combat situations, actually. But ever since receiving their current assignment back in Hippopolis, the Inquisipony had noted a few times when his bodyguard hadn’t quite been himself. And always when the topic was the Children, which Caballus supposed wasn’t really surprising, all things considered.
Satisfied with the plan, Hairtrigger simply nodded in assent. Having little else to discuss, the team fell into a careful, deliberate pace through the tunnel. Though it snaked left and right, it did appear to generally slope upwards, providing the ponies cause for cautious optimism.
“I think it’s time for a rest,” Caballus suggested, after a couple hours of hiking.
Both of the ponies behind him agreed, and they all set their burdens down on the tunnel floor. Rations and a small canteen from Caballus’s saddle bag were passed around for the three to share, and some were saved for Mystic when she woke up.
Without the noise of clopping hooves bouncing off the walls, it was suddenly very quiet in the tunnel. Quiet enough for Caballus to hear a faint mumbling.
“Does anypony else hear that?” he asked.
“Oh, that? That’s Sweet Pea,” Roughshod replied, gesturing to Mystic lying on the ground in front of him. “She’s been talking in her sleep on and off for a while now. I can’t really tell what she’s saying, but it sounds like she might be coming out of it soon.”
Caballus got up and squeezed past Hairtrigger to where she lay. He knelt down, scrutinizing her face, and straining to listen. The green pony had stopped grappling with her phantom attackers an hour ago, but she still looked so scared, so fragile. Her eyes darted wildly under their lids, and her expression shifted back and forth between cowering and pleading.
“And… and yea,” she murmured, “though I stand as b-but a candle before the darkness, I… I have no fear, for thou art with me. My f-faith is my strength, and it shines as though the sun at dawn…”
Caballus pulled the hood off her head and stroked her blue mane. In his most reassuring tone, he recited with her. “As surely as the day scatters the night, with faith in my heart, I shall vanquish any foe.”
Beneath his touch, her trembling eased, and her own voice grew in confidence. “Sustain and protect me, O Princess, that I might carry your light wherever evil dwells, and bask in your glory eternal.”
The young mare’s face became serene, and her eyes fluttered open. “C-Caballus?”
“That was from The Psalms of Champions, wasn’t it?” he said, smiling down on her. “By Saint Radiance? It’s one of my favorites.”
Mystic returned the smile “Yeah, it was. I say it sometimes when I feel… ahem… when I feel scared.” She looked around, seeing the rest of the group as well. “Was… was I asleep? I feel like I’ve been...” She trailed off as she finally noticed her surroundings and realized where she was. Her smile soured slightly. “I almost thought that being chased by those… those shadow-dog-monsters was all a bad dream.”
“’Fraid not, missy,” Hairtrigger sighed.
“Here,” said Roughshod, handing her the food and water they’d set aside for her. “Let’s get you back on your hooves. Not to mention off of my back. I’m not an ambulance, you know.”
The stallions collected their equipment while Mystic inhaled the provisions. It took a little teamwork, but they helped her up into a standing position, where she tested the injured leg with a little weight. It hurt, but she could travel mostly unaided.
At a pace that accommodated their walking wounded, the team returned to their journey through the passageway. At the back of the procession, Roughshod’s mind began to wander. The monotonous march provided little in the way of distraction, so he found other ways to occupy himself. First he counted his ammunition, so he knew exactly how many pies he had left, and in what flavors. He double checked them, and then triple checked just to be sure. He refitted his flak armor, loosening and retightening straps that had shifted while they walked, until they once again hugged him properly.
Roughshod repeated simple diversions like these until even they became as tedious as staring at the omnipresent, rough-hewn tunnel walls. Turning his luminator’s beam to the wall, the brown pony silently cursed them for being the only thing to look at. But actually looking at them, something piqued his interest.
“Check out the walls,” Roughshod said. “They’re all scratched.”
The other ponies stopped and shined their lights on the wall as well.
“You’re right,” Hairtrigger said, his eye magnifying the texture of the stone. “It’s not smooth like the rest of the cave, not natural. But what’s that mean?”
Roughshod scratched his chin. “Well you got a look at their claws, right?”
The Arbitrotter gave him a deadpan look. “Yeah, I got a good look at their claws. Especially when they were wringing my neck all homicidal-like.”
“Well,” Roughshod elaborated, “with claws like that, I’m guessing they can dig their own tunnels like this one with their bare paws. Might be how they got a reputation for attacking out of nowhere, and vanishing afterward: find a cave under the target or make your own, then pop up, snatch up everypony in sight, and you’re gone.”
“I’d have never pegged the disappearances on the Deep-Grabbers if I hadn’t seen one with my own eye,” Hairtrigger shrugged. “That explains the dirt piles at the crime scenes. They must fill their holes in after they leave.”
“But why?” Mystic said, giving voice to the next obvious question. “Why do they take ponies?”
As if in answer, a noise echoed from up ahead of them. It was faint, but it sounded very distinctly like a scream. A scream of agony.
“I have a feeling we’re about to find out,” Caballus said.
The Glücksritter may have been a small airship compared to other cargo carriers, but it was an ancient one. As much an heirloom as an aircraft, it had seen service under the command of countless generations of Rogue Traders. And being at one time among the premier merchantmen of the esteemed Ver Kaufer Trade Fleet, it was well-maintained despite its age.
The interior of the captain’s quarters was a match for any vessel in terms of opulence, save perhaps those of an Admiral of the Equestrian Navy. The walls were paneled and trimmed with exotic hardwoods, giving the room a warm, inviting atmosphere. Several bookshelves stood floor to ceiling, stacked with rare volumes on a variety of subjects. Fine tapestries and oil paintings adorned the walls, and a modest fireplace crackled quietly off to one side, adding its flickering light to the decor. One could easily believe that they were standing in the study of a noblepony’s manor house, rather than on a ship.
In one corner, Feuervogel perched on a bejeweled roost engraved with his name in flowery script. He preened himself lazily, occasionally plucking a worn feather from his plumage, which would ignite and burn to nothing before it even touched the floor.
A large, oak desk stood in the center of the room, a stack of parchments and data-scrolls scattered on top of it. There were cargo manifests, accounting ledgers, regional charts and the like, all haphazardly piled on one another. An ink jar and a few quills lay at the ready, under the watchful gaze of a glass bunny-shaped paperweight and a small, marble bust of an old, bearded captain.
Several increasingly loud footsteps preceded a knock on the heavy wooden door.
“Come in,” called the pony sitting at the desk in a tall-backed chair, facing away from the door.
Sniffles entered, only barely fitting through the normal pony-sized frame. He came to a halt a couple paces before the desk, and snorted sharply. It still wasn’t enough to keep the slime on his nose from dripping onto the plush carpeting. The spot where it landed hissed and smoked.
“Do try not to damage our accommodations too badly, if you can help it,” the seated pony said without even turning around. “We are only borrowing them, after all.”
“Of course,” Sniffles replied. He wiped his nose on his power armor.
A book on the shelf, titled the Bestiaria Prohibitae, began to radiate a twinkling blue light, and it gently floated off the shelf over to the desk. “It’s a shame Tier couldn’t have been more useful. He has fairly good taste in proscribed texts.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Sniffles chuckled, “Last I saw of him, he was getting along with his new friends quite swimmingly.”
Somewhere belowdecks, a loud, heavy clang reverberated up through the bulkheads. For a moment, the whole ship vibrated like a tuning fork. Feuervogel squawked his displeasure.
“Is everything prepared?” the other pony asked, when the noise subsided.
“The Children of Applemattox are all in their shelters, in expectation of another Grabber raid.”
“And our associates?”
“I was just about to complete our transaction with them,” said Sniffles. “Once I return, we can depart.”
“Excellent. Make sure you get what we came here for. This is a very critical juncture for us, and I don’t want any mistakes.”
The screech and groan of twisting metal rang beneath their hooves. Several crew-ponies ran past the doorway, yelling and hauling firefighting gear.
Sniffles ignored them, and snorted back his runny nose once again. “Don’t worry, my friend. I don’t foresee any complications whatsoever.” He turned to leave.
“What about the Inquisipony?” the other said, stopping the Traitor Marine in his tracks.
“He… got away…” Sniffles wasn’t particularly upset to deliver the report, but he did sound a little disappointed. “I had him cornered in one of the shelters, but the unicorn with him managed to teleport them all away.”
“Did she?” the pony mused. His grin bared his needle-sharp fangs. “Splendid! I must admit, I was beginning to worry that these Equestrian lapdogs would be the usual crew of flunkies. I can’t wait to see what they’re truly capable of. Keep an eye out for them. We’ll be seeing them again very soon. Most assuredly.”
Sniffles bowed, and turned back to the door.
An explosion rocked the Glücksritter, sending dozens of books tumbling off the shelves. The entire ship filled with a bellow of primal, unbridled rage. Feuervogel hid his head under a wing, and Sniffles winced. The glass paperweight rattled off the desk and shattered into pieces. Echoes of the roar lingered in the corridors of the ship like a vengeful spirit, for far longer than seemed natural.
“Sniffles,” the seated pony called after the Marine, “why don’t you bring Brass Bit with you. He’s getting a little stir-crazy down there in the hold.”
“Come on,” Caballus whispered urgently. He dashed ahead to the next bend in the tunnel, taking point. There was a weak light around the corner, suggesting that they might finally have reached the end. The unintelligible shouts seemed to recede from them, until there was a loud clang, and it was quiet again
Roughshod pushed ahead of the others and took up a position right next to the Inquisipony. Hairtrigger and Mystic limped behind them as quickly as they could. Both were panting from exertion by the time they had caught up.
Caballus edged forward, hugging the wall and peeking around the corner. A long hallway lay beyond. He looked back at Roughshod, and the two nodded to one another. They both drew pies and stealthily crossed the threshold.
Caballus scanned the hall in an instant. Left. Right. Up. All clear.
The corridor was empty of dog-monsters, but the ponies kept their guard while they advanced. At irregular intervals, large gems protruded from the walls, which gave off a cold, pale light, not quite like any magic the ponies had ever encountered before. At the far end stood a rusty, heavy-looking door, and in between, the hallway resembled a prison block. Numerous cells were cut deep into the rock and covered with iron-barred hatches.
Roughshod cautiously approached the first cell. The dim gem-lights penetrated only just beyond the bars, so he shined his luminator inside.
“Sweet Throne of Canterlot!” he gasped.
Caballus appeared beside him, as did Hairtrigger and Mystic a moment later. They too turned their lights to see what was inside. Huddled against the far wall of the cell were three shapes. At a glance, they could have been mistaken for some kind of wretched animals being held in captivity. Cuts, bruises and scrapes covered their entire skins. They were dirty, mangy, and looked dangerously malnourished. But when the trio saw their quivering, terrified faces, there was no question: they were ponies.
Caballus walked to the next nearest cells, and found more of the same. Some still had rags of clothing, while others barely had any fur left at all. Each was pale, skeletal, and looked too weak to stand. The stench was horrendous.
Roughshod called to them. “Hang on. We’ll get you guys out of here.” He found the lock on the door and began trying to force it open. But rather than greet him as a savior, the imprisoned ponies began to shriek and moan.
Hairtrigger stopped him with a hoof on his shoulder. “Look big guy, I’m thinking we should let them be. They’re makin’ an awful racket.”
Roughshod looked at the pegasus like he was crazy. “What? No! We can’t just leave these ponies in this zoonos-infested hell-hole. Just look at ‘em, for Celestia’s sake!” He turned around and bucked at the bars with all his strength. Each loud strike bent them a little further, and drove the prisoners into even greater fits of panic.
“Hey,” Hairtrigger hissed,” we can’t afford to go letting every damn Grabber in these caves know we’re here just to haul these ponies around. We’ve got problems aplenty on our saddles without picking up any more.”
“Oh, don’t give me those horse-apples,” Roughshod snapped. “We can help them. I know we’ll find a way.” The stallion turned to Caballus. “What do you say, boss?”
The Inquisipony answered Roughshod with sympathetic eyes, but also a shake of his head. “The mission comes first, Shod. You know that. I don’t like it any more than you do, but we don’t have the resources to rescue them right now. It won’t matter if we break them all out if we’re captured in the process. The best way to help them is to get out of here as fast as we can, and hope they’re still here when we return with reinforcements.”
Roughshod’s frustration started to cool, if only slightly. They were all making sense to him, but that still didn’t make him feel any better about it. “I… I just hate leaving ponies behind,” he said, hanging his head.
“You know what’s at stake,” Caballus said grimly. “If we fail, the Deep-Grabbers and the Children will have free rein to cause even more harm than they already have. If it were you in there, you would tell us to go without you.”
The brown pony considered the thought, and finally relented. He managed a half-hearted smile. “Yeah, I would. And you’d do it, too.”
Caballus smirked back at him. “For you… I might have to mull it over.”
The team made their way down the hall, passing dozens of darkened hollows, each holding at least a few unfortunate prisoners. Caballus and Hairtrigger kept their eyes on the exit, hoping that nothing came through the door, but prepared if something did. Mystic just tried to look anywhere else, avoiding the anxious, pleading eyes that followed them as they walked by.
But Roughshod looked. He shined his light into every single miserable pen. Maybe he couldn’t save them, but damn it if he didn’t look somepony in the eye when he had to abandon them. They deserved that much, at least.
As they approached the broad iron door at the end, he found a pony in the last cell staring back at him. They had all stared of course, but this one didn’t hide in the back like the others, didn’t have the same look of feral desperation. This prisoner simply sat there by the bars, a tired, bitter look in his eyes.
Roughshod paused to give him a second look. Yellow coat, sky blue mane, thick mustache…
The rest of the group perked up, and when they followed Roughshod’s dumbfounded gaze, they recognized him too.
“I was expecting to see you again, Inquisipony,” said Tier Ver Kaufer, “only I thought zat it would be when you were thrown in here with me.” Even in filthy cage, the Rogue Trader talked with the lofty air of a nobleborn.
“So this here is the Rogue Trader?” Hairtrigger said, unimpressed. “He don’t look so tough.”
“Without his phoenix, he’s not,” Roughshod replied.
“So what are you here to do, Inquisipony?” Tier asked. “Vill you break me out of zis dungeon just to drag me to your own? I imagine it would actually be an improvement.” The disheveled merchant appeared as though he wished to laugh at his own joke, but lacking the strength, he just moaned instead.
“How about we skip a few steps and I just interrogate you right here?” said Caballus, impatiently.
“And if I cooperate, will you help me?”
“We’ll see,” was all the answer Caballus was willing to give. He wasn’t about to start making deals with traitorous lowlifes. It would set a bad precedent. “How did you get here?”
“Ze same way everypony gets here: My leg is broken. I cannot work.”
“Ponies that can’t work are no good,” Hairtrigger muttered, recalling the words involuntarily.
Tier nodded. “So you’ve met zem, have you? Ze ‘Unterhunde?’”
Ignoring his question, Caballus continued with his own. “How were you captured?”
“After I fled from you,” he said accusingly, “Sniffles claimed I had failed ze Children by leading you to zem. Zose who fail ze Children, or who resist zem, no longer receive zeir ‘protection’ from ze Unterhunde.”
“The gangsters out behind the bar,” Mystic interrupted from over by the door, “the ones I… the ones that attacked us, they were more afraid of ‘botching the job’ than they were of my magic. And they were terrified of magic.”
“And Sniffles mentioned that they threw ‘unbelievers’ into a hole in the ground,” Caballus said. “I bet it was a hole that led straight to the Grabbers.”
Roughshod grabbed the scruff of Tier’s tattered uniform through the bars. “What work do the Deep-Grabbers make you do?”
The battered pony shuddered. “Zey send us into ze gem mines. Some are forced to pick at ze rock with zeir bare hooves. Others must haul cartfuls of gems ten times zeir own size. Everypony is starved und beaten, until zey eventually break. Zen zey are brought here, to ze torture pens.”
He gestured with his eyes back down the hallway. “You’ve had a proper look around already, so I think you are familiar with zeir… handiwork.”
“Well, you don’t seem much worse for wear,” Hairtrigger sneered.
“I’ve only just been here a few days. I think. It’s getting harder to tell. Ze lucky ones die in ze mines. Ve weren’t so fortunate, so we must wait—perhaps weeks—for madness und death to finally claim us. Ze Unterhunde prefer to… get ze most out of zeir victims,” he said coldly.
Tier gave the orange pegasus a once-over before addressing Caballus again. “I don’t remember zis one. Is he new?”
“Indeed,” Caballus said. “He’s an Arbitrotter I met here in Applemattox who’s been tracking your activities for some time.”
“And now that I’ve finally got you cornered,” said Hairtrigger, taking over the interrogation for a moment, “I can find out why the Grabbers seem to be hitched to you like a horse-drawn carriage.”
Tier sighed. “At ze behest of ze Children, I would mark out ze homesteads und outposts zat had ze strongest, healthiest und most defenseless residents for ze Unterhunde to raid.”
“Why you low down, dirty…” Hairtrigger seethed. “You… you just sold out unsuspecting pony folks to these zoonos freaks! To be worked and tortured to death in a sunless hole! How could you even sleep at night?”
“Atop a mountain of gemstones” Tier mocked. “You can’t accuse me of being corrupt und zen act surprised when I do… unscrupulous zings. I am a Rogue Trader whose business is animals, und I know zat any creature can be bought for ze right price. Zeese… uncouth settlers are hardly better zan beasts zemselves, und ze price zey fetch is quite good.”
Roughshod had to release Tier just to keep Hairtrigger from assaulting the yellow pony through the prison bars.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Mystic said. “The Children have been protecting Applemattox from the Deep-Grabbers. Why would they ask Tier to work for them?”
“It’s a lie,” said Caballus as he pieced it together. “They create a threat by bribing the Grabbers with easy targets, and then convert the entire town to the cult by pretending to keep them safe.”
“I told you,” Tier chuckled with some effort, “Zeese Applemattox ponies are morons. Sniffles convinces zem to dig ‘shelters’ to hide in, und zey scurry und hide at ze slightest rumor of danger. Zen, when I point ze Unterhunde elsewhere for prey, zey sing his praises.”
“If a pony’s faith in the Princess and his fellows is lost,” Caballus said, “the Great Darkness will cloud his mind with fear and doubt.” He leveled a scornful glare at Tier. “Or greed. I need names, places, plans, everything you know about the Children of Liberation. Then we’ll see what your cooperation buys you.”
“Quiet!” Mystic whispered sharply. She had her ear up to the large door. “Something’s coming!”
In an instant, Roughshod was beside her, listening for himself. “She’s right. Two contacts approaching.” Outside the door, a pair of crude voices barked and cackled, slowly growing louder.
Tier paled. “What? Zey can’t be back already,” he muttered frantically, “It’s too soon! Ze last one must have died too quickly. I’m next! You have to help me!”
Caballus said nothing, only drawing a pie and covering the door beside Hairtrigger who was doing the same. Mystic and Roughshod took up positions on either side of the door, and everypony held their breath.
The door swung open, and two gangly, spiny-armored Grabbers walked through. They had hardly stepped over the threshold when they stopped and saw two ponies in the middle of the hallway. Their confusion only registered for a second before the ambush was sprung.
Roughshod leapt on the first Grabber, locking it in a chokehold. The second felt the shard-thrower in its hands suddenly yanked away, and its chest enveloped in a sparkling green glow. Mystic’s magic slammed it into the bars of the nearest cell hard enough to bend them inward, and the last thing it saw when the stars cleared from its sight was the barrel of its own levitating weapon.
Despite Roughshod’s firm grip, he hadn’t counted on the Grabber’s freakishly long arms, which managed to reach back and snag his armor. In a flash, Roughshod was on his back, the Grabber holding a diamond blade to his throat.
Caballus’s arm tensed. He didn’t have a clean shot, not with Roughshod being held as a shield. The Grabber grinned maliciously at the Inquisipony’s hesitation, and then threw its head back in a bestial howl. But both of them were equally surprised when a high-velocity cupcake cut the noise short by filling the Grabber’s open jaws with sugary death. Hairtrigger lowered his empty slingshot.
Echoes of the howl gradually died in the depths of the tunnels beyond the door, one by one, until all was silent again. Even the sniveling prisoners held their breath. After a long moment, Caballus finally exhaled.
No sooner did he relax, than a chorus of howls answered back from the depths.
“Time to leave,” said Caballus.
The others hastily agreed and gathered at the door.
“What? No! You can’t leave me!” Tier cried. The last shreds of his haughty attitude were finally unraveling. Being abandoned again so soon after a hope of escape had appeared was just too much for him to take. “I… I’ll tell you whatever you want to know! Just don’t leave me here!”
“No time,” Hairtrigger said with a hint of satisfaction, and he was right. The sound of slavering zoonos approaching could already be heard in the distance.
Tears welled in Tier’s eyes. He beat on the bars of his cell futilely, before ending up in a sobbing heap. “Please… please!”
A feeling flickered in Caballus’s heart in that moment. Sympathy? No, he thought. Traitors didn’t deserve sympathy. Pity, then. Not a pity for Tier, but a pity that anypony could fall so far from Celestia’s light. A pity that he had seen it happen before, to better ponies than Tier, and that he would undoubtedly see it again.
As fitting as it would have been to leave the Rogue Trader to the same fate he had doomed so many others to, Caballus couldn’t risk it. Tier hadn’t given away much, but it wouldn’t take much more torture for the Deep-Grabbers to find out what the Inquisipony had learned from him. And if word got back to the Children that he had figured out their little scheme, it would make life as difficult above ground as below it.
There was only one way to prevent that in the few seconds he had, and it didn’t involve breaking Tier out of his cell. His hoof crept toward his saddlebag as he contemplated it.
Tier’s eyes followed it, and as he realized what it meant, rather than protest, he gave Caballus an approving nod.
“Tier Ver Kaufer,” the Inquisipony finally announced, “you are guilty of treason against Equestria, the Princess, and all of Ponykind. There can be no forgiveness for such a crime, and only one punishment for such a criminal.”
The sentence was a formality, one Caballus had scarcely any time for, but he wanted it to be clear he wasn’t doing Tier a favor. Even if he was. Caballus held up a pie above the prisoner’s head.
“If you ever have ze chance,” Tier said, “could you just tell my Father zat I’m sorry I didn’t return his ship to him myself.”
“Perhaps I will,” Caballus replied, and he carried out the sentence.
“Come on!” Roughshod yelled. He had already swung Mystic onto his back, unable to wait on her limping pace.
Caballus caught up to the others and let Hairtrigger hang a foreleg over his shoulders for support. As quickly as they could, the team left the torture pens behind and charged off into the tunnel beyond.
Almost immediately, the passage led into a large room. The roughly domed space appeared to be some sort of hub, an intersection where countless other tunnels branched out in all directions.
“Which way do we go?” Mystic said.
Caballus looked back and forth at all the potential exits. “I don’t know. If we pick the wrong tunnel, we could end up getting hopelessly lost.”
“We’ll end up hopelessly dead,” Roughshod countered, “if we don’t pick one soon.” The braying of the Grabbers seemed to be right on top of them, threatening to turn the nearest corner at any second.
“Hold on,” Hairtrigger said, “I have an idea.” He began to adjust his augmetic eye with his hoof.
“What are you doing?” Caballus asked, both impatiently and curiously. Despite the hurry they were in, their lack of options had given him a certain willingness to try anything.
“Going blind,” said the pegasus. He looked down one tunnel for a moment, then another. “Their smoky cloaky… things play all manner of monkey business with my optics. So whichever door doesn’t give me any fuzz… should… be…” He stopped at a tunnel entrance slightly smaller than most of the others. “Ha! This one!”
The four ponies took off down the passage as quickly as their legs could carry them. It seemed to twist and turn more sharply and more often than the ones they had previously explored. As they galloped, Caballus also noticed that the light-giving gemstones studding the walls appeared with diminishing frequency and strength. That could be a good sign, meaning this particular burrow had fallen into disuse. Or it could mean the opposite, in the not unlikely event the Deep-Grabbers happened to prefer darkness. But since they had yet to meet any of the zoonos coming to intercept them, it seemed Hairtrigger’s hunch had been right.
After a few minutes, they slowed to a trot. Up ahead, there was a fork in the tunnel.
“I think we’ve made some distance on them,” said Roughshod, panting.
“That’s not a theory I’d like to test,” Caballus replied, coming to a halt. “These are their tunnels, and you can’t evade a predator in its own den for very long.”
Hairtrigger looked backward, then down both of forward routes. “Eye says all clear. Which way, you reckon?”
Mystic scrutinized both options. “They both look pretty much the-”
“Quiet.” Caballus interrupted. They all paused for a moment, holding their breath until the cave fell into silence.
“Is it them?” Roughshod whispered.
Caballus had closed his eyes. His ears twitched. “Yes. That way,” he said, pointing to the right.
Hairtrigger started toward the other passage. “I figure that’s all we need to-”
“Hold on,” Caballus said, stopping the pegasus. “They’re… they’re not howling.” He swiveled his ears down the right tunnel. “They’re… cheering?”
The Inquisipony took a step into the right tunnel.
“Whoa whoa! Where do you think you’re going?” Hairtrigger protested. “First of all, going toward the Grabbers sounds like an awful mess of stupid. And if there’s something down there giving them something to cheer about, I don’t think I rightly want to know what it is.”
Caballus could see on Mystic and Roughshod’s faces that they had similar concerns.
“It could be important,” he said, continuing in the direction of the sounds. “We know next to nothing about these Grabbers. Maybe we can learn something we can use, or something that will help the Ordo Zoonos later. Just a quick look. Come on.”
Caballus knew it was dangerous, but something had piqued his curiosity. And as Lord Banehoof had taught him, it was just as important for an Inquisipony to trust his curiosity as any other instinct. It was one of the many traits that separated the members of the Holy Ordos from the ordinary masses of Equestria.
As the four of them crept down the passage, the cheering grew steadily louder.
“What kind of intel are we looking for?” Roughshod whispered, his voice just loud enough to reach Caballus from his place at the rear.
“Well, the size and disposition of their forces, for one thing,” Caballus said. “We don’t even know how many of the damned things there are down here.”
“How many could there be?” Mystic said.
Hairtrigger shrugged. “Out in the Rocklands? Who knows. The stories make ‘em out to be pack hunters, so I reckon that might be what we have here: a small hunting party come to our neck of the woods for some poaching. Any more than a couple dozen, and they’d have a tough time hiding as well as they did, even in a subsector as wide open as ours.”
The pale light of the wall gems appeared to get brighter further down the path. As Caballus rounded the next corner, he found the tunnel ahead ran straight out into the air. The last few steps formed a ledge that jutted out into another huge cavern. Unlike the last cavern, however, this one was open, well-lit, noisy and thoroughly occupied.
“You may want to revise your estimate, Hairtrigger,” Caballus said, still looking over the edge. Far below their outcropping, stood rank upon rank of Deep-Grabber soldiers.
“Golden Throne, they’ve got an army down there,” Roughshod said in horror and awe. There was no longer any need to whisper as the excited yelps and cheers of the gathered zoonos nearly drowned him out.
“There’s got to be at least a few thousand of them,” said Mystic.
Fortunately, their unassuming balcony appeared to be on the back wall, near the ceiling, because all the Deep-Grabbers were facing away from them, toward an elevated platform at the other end of the cave. It gave the cavern the appearance of being part military staging grounds, part amphitheater.
After a moment, one of the beasts strode out of a tunnel on the far wall, and stopped at one side of the platform. Even at a distance, it stood out—by its ornate armor—as some sort of leader, perhaps a chieftain or warlord. Though as far as Caballus could tell, “ornate” to a Grabber simply meant longer, sharper and more plentiful spikes. That, and instead of the drab grey, its armor was a lustrous, polished purple.
A pair of Grabbers in the same color, wielding wicked-looking spears, flanked him on either side. Quite different from the barely-disciplined rabble that constituted the rest of the Deep-Grabber host, these four moved as one, gracefully, purposefully, and poised to react to any threat the instant it appeared. Caballus wondered if the bodyguards were a response to the alarm from the torture pens, or if this Grabber was expecting something else entirely.
The Inquisipony pulled out his magnoculars, and zoomed in on the leader. He used the device’s pict-corder to take a snapshot of the creature, in the hopes that the Ordo Zoonos might find it useful.
In the background of the scope, a large, green, out-of-focus figure approached. Caballus lowered the magnoculars, not even bothering to adjust.
The Traitor Marine strutted out just as confidently as the Grabber lord before him, stopping a short distance opposite it on the stage. Looking again through his scope, Caballus could see a smug smile on Sniffle’s slime-encrusted muzzle.
More quadrupeds appeared behind him. The first looked like another Pony Marine. This one’s power armor was a dark red, like the color of a scab, and trimmed with brass. Black stripes had been painted across the back and neck, broad on top and tapering as they reached the belly. Caballus wondered if the markings signified anything. His only guess was they marked allegiance to a particular renegade warband.
The suit’s helmet was a brass-plated mask, the grotesque skull of a pony frozen in a snarl of rage. On top, a crest in the shape of a Mohawk swept forward between the ears. In front, two large tusks curved from out of the mask’s cheeks, like those of the fabled loxodonts said to roam the lands beyond the borders of Equestria.
But by far, the Marine’s most striking feature was that his entire right foreleg had been replaced by a massive mechanical claw. At the shoulder, a bulky engine was bolted to the rest of the armor, which fed the hydraulic pistons that bent the elbow and snapped together the three scissoring blades where the hoof would be. Many parts had been coated in a brighter red than the rest of the armor, and smeared with glyphs that were sloppy even by heretical standards. Being so much larger and bulkier than his other leg, and not quite jointed like a pony’s hoof, the claw caused the pony to walk with an awkward gait.
Taking a position just behind Sniffles, the red Marine appeared slightly taller than his fellow, but far more thickly muscled, if the shape of his armor was anything to go by. Being generally thicker, much wider in the shoulders and bulky on the back, Caballus suspected he was wearing a suit of legendary Termaneator armor. The warrior came to a halt, and was angled to where Caballus could make out the Cutie mark emblazoned on the armor’s flank: A yellow horseshoe with protruding spikes. The Inquisipony snapped another picture for later study.
Finally, the newcomer was himself followed by two more hulking monstrosities. These, however, weren’t ponies. But even though they weren’t wearing any armor, they were still larger than either of the Pony Marines, and easily twice as tall as Roughshod. Their hunched backs rippled with thick chords of sinew, and the cave resounded with every step of their cloven hooves. Both had ruddy hides, but were so covered in ritual scars that they had a pinkish tint. The long horns that protruded from the sides of their heads had been fitted with jagged blades that matched the nose-rings looped through their broad, snorting snouts.
“What the hell are they?” Hairtrigger said, disgusted with what his biotic eye was showing him.
“They look like Bullgryns,” said Roughshod, squinting. “But they’re bigger and uglier than any Bullgryn I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something.”
“You’re right,” said Caballus. Bullgryns were a bovine race, one of the inferior ungulate species still tolerated in the lands of Equestria. Possessing great strength and a weak intellect, Ponykind had allowed generations of Bullgryns to make amends for their heresy of being non-ponies by performing menial labor or serving as shock troops. But even the brawniest of them that Caballus had seen would have been dwarfed by these two. They took up positions right behind the second Marine.
For a few moments, the Marines and Deep-Grabbers silently sized one another up in front of the crowd. The Grabber’s bodyguard seemed especially tense, even with reinforcements all around them. Caballus could hardly blame them, considering the giants standing across from them.
Then Sniffles took a step forward, making an exaggerated bow. “Most esteemed Bismutt,” he announced, loud enough for even the Equestrians to easily hear, “exalted Barkon of the Kennel of the Black Paw, scourge of the wastes and taker of many trophies, I bid you greetings.”
The Grabbers in the audience cheered at hearing the mighty pony pay their Barkon such homage. Bismutt held up a paw, and the applause petered out.
Sniffles continued. “I cannot express my delight at seeing you and your noble brethren gathered here on this auspicious occasion. I trust that the tender soil of Equestria has been adequately-”
“Sick pony wastes time,” Bismutt growled, his voice deep and raspy. “We wish to hunt.”
Sniffles’ grin only widened. “And you shall, great Bismutt, you shall. But I’m afraid I must insist on first settling the matter of your final piece of the bargain…”
The Zoonos lord gave a sharp bark, and a single, runty Grabber scampered into view, carrying a small chest. The creature tentatively placed the container at Sniffles’ feet, and then scurried away as fast as he could, holding one paw over his nose. The Traitor Marine gently lifted the lid and scrutinized its contents.
“What do you reckon he’s got there?” Hairtrigger wondered, his fleshy eye clenched shut as he tried to focus in close enough to see inside.
“I don’t know,” replied Caballus, doing the same with his magnoculars, “but I want to find out.”
“Could it be more gems?” Mystic asked.
The Inquisipony shook his head “Tier may have been exaggerating a little, but even as a middlepony, he was earning far more than a little chest of gemstones.”
Satisfied, Sniffles took the chest’s contents and transferred them to his own carrying case. Caballus still couldn’t see what it was, but he managed to get a quick snapshot of the container.
“Excellent! Excellent! ” the Marine laughed. “You’ll find everypony right where I described, completely defenseless. I’ve even taken the liberty of posting ‘sentries’ outside. They’ll probably flee at the first sight of you, but it should provide you and your… friends with a little sport.”
From their whoops and hollers, it was clear the Grabbers endorsed the idea.
“If there is nothing else, I’ll be taking my leave. I wish you good hunting, great Barkon. May you take many slaves.” Sniffles bowed once more, before departing the way he came. The red Marine and his two Bullgryns, none of whom had said a word, or even moved at all since arriving, silently followed.
As soon as they were gone, Bismutt addressed his army in the guttural yelping of his own language. Despite the brevity of the speech, it riled up the Grabbers more than anything before. The Barkon pointed toward the back of the cave, and all the Grabbers did an about-face. For a moment Caballus feared they’d been spotted, but it became apparent that their ledge was directly above a larger exit, one that the Deep-Grabbers used to march out of the cavern.
Amidst the sound of tromping paws on the stone below, Caballus took a data-scroll out of his saddlebag.
“What’s that,” Roughshod asked.
“I’m writing a letter,” the Inquisipony replied, a quill in his teeth.
Hairtrigger cocked his head. “Right now? Don’t you think we have more important things to worry about? Besides, how do you figure you’ll send it?”
“If we don’t get word out, every stallion, mare and foal in the subsector will be defenseless from a Deep-Grabber invasion. Reinforcements are at least days away from here, and I doubt Applemattox will last even an hour. But if we can alert the sector fleet, they can begin to organize a response for the surrounding towns. Maybe even track the Grabbers down and destroy them.”
Finishing the note, he rolled the scroll up, and Mystic levitated a red ribbon tightly around it. Caballus pressed the back of his rosette against the ribbon, and when he lifted it there was a red wax seal bearing the Friendquisitional ‘F.’
“My rosette can dispense an emergency seal, addressed to the nearest pony with Friendquisitional clearances. It has enchantments that mimic the effects of dragonfire without the need for a fully trained Dracopath.”
“Beggin’ your pardon,” said Hairtrigger, “but if you’ve had that all along, why are you only using it now?”
“I was hoping to use the Majesty’s transmitter once we reached the surface. But now…” Caballus looked each of them in the eye. “We can no longer assume that any of us will make it out of here alive. The rosette can only hold enough magic for one seal at a time, so they’re only used when there’s no alternative. A small town full of heretics is a problem, but a rampaging zoonos army is what the Friendquisition qualifies as an emergency.”
Mystic held the data-scroll in the air in front of her and concentrated. The paper ignited in a brilliant ball of yellow flame. The ashes formed into a twinkling green cloud, which zipped away toward the tunnel that Sniffles and his entourage had used.
Caballus watched until it slithered out of view. “It’s also a tad conspicuous, but the Grabbers already know we’re here. Since Fyzzix is authorized to receive such messages, it will go to him first. It might give away his position, but he can relay it to headquarters, and then come looking for us.”
“Luckily,” he added, nodding toward the route the magical smoke had taken, “it’s just conveniently showed us the fastest way out of here.”
He pointed to several other holes like the one they were standing in along the cave walls. “This is probably a ventilation shaft. I bet if we double back, the other tunnel will curve around and bring us to the same exit Sniffles used.”
“Um…” Hairtrigger said as the Inquisipony walked past him, “are we sure we want to use the same door as ol’ crusty-nose?”
Caballus didn’t even look back. “Positive. In fact, I’m hoping to run into him.”
“But… why,” Mystic asked, dumbfounded.
“Because I need to know what’s in that box,” he said.
With Caballus leading the way, the team returned to the fork in the tunnel. After only a few minutes going the other way, it appeared that Caballus’s guess was right: several other holes branched out in the direction of the cavern.
“I hope we get out of here soon,” Hairtrigger grumbled under his breath. “I don’t know if I’ve ever gone this long without the sky over my head.”
“Or nice soft, dirt under my hooves,” Roughshod agreed.
“Not until we find out why Sniffles would be willing to ally with the Grabbers.” Caballus said. “Even a traitor and a heretic should know better than to make deals with such disgusting animals.”
Grabber howls echoed from somewhere up ahead. The hairs on each ponies’ neck stood on end.
“Sounds like they saw the letter pass by,” Caballus concluded. “It won’t take them long to track it back here.”
“Then let’s not be here when they show up,” Roughshod suggested. It met with unanimous agreement.
The tunnel curved gradually to the right, then downward, before intersecting with a much wider passage. The Inquisipony held up a hoof, signaling the others to halt. Voices emerged from up ahead, and the ponies darted across the hallway into a small annex cut out of the stone. Everypony crouched down, pressed against the wall, and covered themselves with whatever cloak or coat they had with them. Mystic hastily wove an illusion that gave the coverings a texture identical to the stone behind them.
The sound of paws on stone filled the cave as a half-dozen or so Grabbers raced by the hidden ponies. They all held their breath; even Mystic, who struggled to maintain the disguise. The illusion was a spell she had always found difficult, and holding it steady four times over—even for just a few seconds—was taxing her to her limit.
As soon as the noises—or rather lack of them—indicated that the last Grabber had gone, the ponies’ coverings returned to their normal appearance. Mystic splayed out on the ground, gasping for air.
“They were probably following the smell of the letter’s ashes,” Caballus whispered. “They’ll turn around when they pick up our scent in a minute or so.”
“Look,” Roughshod said, pointing to the middle of the floor. There sat a small puddle of mucus. A few paces further down there was another, and many more lay further along the path. “I’d say we’ve picked up Sniffles’ trail.”
They followed the repulsive breadcrumbs at a brisk but cautious pace. Mystic and Hairtrigger were now both walking on their own, albeit still with difficulty. Even so, they couldn’t afford to make much noise with reckless galloping; the Grabbers didn’t appear very bright, but that didn’t mean they were deaf.
Up ahead, the exit tunnel ran into another large space. As they approached, it became apparent that this wasn’t just another cave. Rather than the shape of a natural formation, or even the rough edges of a Deep-Grabber burrow, this grotto was a relatively cleanly excavated, rectangular room.
If anything, it looked like an aerodrome hangar. This might have been due to the docking scaffolds, the loading equipment, floodlights, generators and the hoses for refueling that lay on the ground. Or it might have been the giant retractable doors that made up the ceiling, with open air likely just on the other side. But it was mostly the fact that there was currently an airship docked in it.
The ship itself was probably a hundred meters long, about twice the length of Her Solar Majesty, and maybe three times as wide. Having two cylindrical balloons arranged side by side, it looked like a civilian heavy cargo lifter, though still quite small compared to some of the bulk landers employed by the Admanestratum or Adequus Mequestricus. The balloons and the superstructure that hung between them, however, were not typical of the boxy, utilitarian design most transports favored. The elegant craft was more reminiscent of a luxury air-yacht, with gleaming chrome trimming its ivory-white paintjob. Glücksritter was stenciled in gold across the slanted prow.
And at the far end, leisurely strolling up its extended loading ramp, was Sniffles.
Caballus had noticed the traitor so quickly, that he had neglected the rest of his surroundings. As he bolted out of the tunnel and into the hangar, the mistake nearly got him killed.
Directly above his head, he heard the roar of a revving engine. Before he could even look up, Roughshod bucked the Inquisipony forward, sending him sprawling.
The claw he had previously seen at a distance came smashing into the ground where he had just been standing. Even though it missed, the impact had enough force to throw Roughshod back into the others, all of them tumbling into a pile. Caballus rolled back upright, and saw the red Pony Marine with his robotic fist buried in the stone floor.
“Spread out!” Caballus yelled. The other three ponies disentangled themselves, and put some distance between themselves and the warrior.
If the Equestrians had thought that having his arm elbow-deep in solid rock would slow the Marine down, they were sadly mistaken. He yanked it out as though he was pulling up a carrot, tearing a massive chunk of the floor away with it. With a flex of his claw, the chunk crumbled and fell away.
Seeing his quarry start to take cover amongst the hangar equipment, the giant gave an earsplitting war cry and charged at the closest one, the pegasus. It was made all the more terrifying by the unnatural distortion of his helmet’s vox-amplifiers, giving it a hollow, artificial screech. The ground trembled with every thunderous gallop. A less hardened pony might have panicked at the sound.
Instead, Hairtrigger loosed two cupcakes from his slingshot. To his dismay, they merely glanced off the power armor, completely unnoticed, and at the last moment, he had to dive from behind his cover, which happened to be a loading crane. The Marine slammed into it at full speed, demolishing several of its support beams. Groaning metal and snapping cables heralded the structure’s collapse, and the crane began to lean in the Arbitrotter’s direction. Hairtrigger scrambled again to avoid being crushed, but he wasn’t fast enough.
“Hold on!” Mystic called out. She braced herself, gripped him with her magic, and wrenched her head to the side. The pegasus was thrown from the path of the crane the instant before it landed. He sailed through the air, and crashed upside down into a crate beside the unicorn.
“Oh, sorry,” she said, cringing a little as Hairtrigger dug himself out of a pile of splintered planks and aircraft parts.
“Not a problem… little missy,” he groaned. The landing certainly hadn’t made his wing feel any better, but given the alternative, he wasn’t about to complain. “I’m losing track of the times you’ve saved my sorry hide today. I reckon I’ll have something to cry about the day I don’t have your pretty little self to back me up.”
“This is… three,” she replied with a blush. “I think. For a while there, we were even.”
Before either could double-check the figures, they heard another furious bellow. Tons of twisted scrap shook violently as the Pony Marine kicked himself free of them.
“Keep him busy,” Caballus said. “I need to get on that airship.”
Roughshod shot him an incredulous look. “Are you loco in the coco? You can’t go in there alone. And even if you stay and help, this guy is still going to beat us all to a pulp. What we need to do is get the buck out of Dodge!”
Caballus looked up at the ship, whose loading ramp was already lifting up, and back at the Marine, who was throwing off the last of the debris. He hated to admit it, but it was starting to look like a lost cause. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much in the way of escape routes at the moment either.
The red monster charged again. Mystic cast a spell on the various chains, hoses and cables on the ground. They sprang to life, and like writhing snakes, they ensnared the armored juggernaut. The first few failed to hold him, but as more and more coiled around his limbs, he slowed to a halt. He thrashed against them, growing more infuriated with every passing moment.
Using the opening Caballus scanned the room. He spotted a flight of stairs on the far end of the hangar, a possible exit. “Move!” he said, running toward it.
But as the ponies broke for the stairs, there were several snapping sounds in quick succession. Caballus turned back and saw Mystic limping, falling behind just as the Marine tore free.
In a flash, the unicorn was lifted off her hooves into the air. She felt cold, metal pincers close around her neck and found herself face to face with the traitor’s brass helmet. The others stopped in their tracks, horrified.
For a moment, the inscrutable skull simply stared at her. Though he panted with rage, he otherwise didn’t move a muscle.
“Put her down!” shouted Roughshod. He barreled headlong into the Pony Marine, unconcerned for his own safety. Without even really looking, the beast swatted him away with a blow that threw the stallion back several meters into a crumpled heap.
Mystic gaped in dismay at her friend’s unconscious body. The pincers around her neck tightened. If striking Roughshod senseless had been so easy, it would have been a trifle for the Marine to shear the head from her shoulders. This is it, she thought, this is the end. She closed her eyes and braced herself, hoping that it wouldn’t hurt.
But somewhere amidst the sea of panic and powerlessness, Mystic heard another voice. This is no way to die, it said. Your friends are counting on you. This is the time to fight.
Fear blossomed into anger. The voice was right, she thought. Her hair began blowing in a breeze that wasn’t really there, and her eyes started to glow. “He said,” she growled with a supernatural echo, “put. Me. DOWN!”
The traitor’s entire arm started to sparkle. The engine in the shoulder chugged louder, belching thick, black smoke. Hydraulic pistons hissed. The pincer-blades began trembling with the opposing forces exerting on them.
Seconds seemed to stretch into hours as the two struggled for Mystic’s life. Sweat beaded on the unicorn’s face. But to her surprise, the Pony Marine started to chuckle. It was a sadistic laugh, twisted by his armor’s amplifiers into deep, cruel mockery. The same kind the Deep-Grabbers had enjoyed as they had taunted Mystic, and it only made her angrier.
“Stop it!” she screamed. “Stop laughing at me!”
The claw creaked open the slightest bit.
And suddenly, the heretic did stop. For a moment, Mystic dared to hope that she’d actually frightened him. But instead he cocked his head toward the ship, as though listening to something. When he looked back down, he gave a disappointed grunt. Almost casually, the Marine wound back and pitched Mystic like a baseball towards her friends.
The hangar roused to life. Huge gears in the ceiling began to turn, and the massive doors above them cracked slowly open. As the crack widened, it became apparent that the desert above ground was in the midst of a sandstorm. Howling, gale-force winds gusted down on the ponies, sand stinging their eyes and throats. Adding to the whirlwind were the propellers of the airship, accelerating to launch speed.
Mystic brought herself to a halt in midair. Crackling with magic and rage, and ignoring the maelstrom all around her, she narrowed her gaze on the Marine and floated back toward him. Passing by a generator the size of a carriage, she picked it up and lobbed it at the red-clad warrior.
He didn’t even bother to dodge the incoming machinery. A shining blue light enveloped the Marine, and with a crack of thunder, he vanished. The generator passed right through empty space, plunging into a stack of shipping containers.
“Mystic!” yelled a familiar voice behind her. Caballus struggled through the wind toward her. “Come on! We’ve got to get out of here!”
With the object of her frustrations gone, and Caballus’s shouting bringing her back to her senses, Mystic’s anger bled away. As she watched the airship disappear into the storm, her hooves once again settled back to the floor. Immediately, she too was assaulted by the sandstorm, forcing her to clutch her cloak tightly over her muzzle.
It was a struggle for Caballus and Mystic to link up with the others. The blowing sand was so thick, even with the ceiling open, it was impossible to tell whether it was day or night, and their luminators could only reach a few paces ahead of them. They eventually found their way back to where Hairtrigger was tending to Roughshod, who was recovering on the ground.
The few moments’ respite, if it could be called that, ended with the first glimpse of hazy shapes skulking just out of view. Roughshod was the first to see them, staggering to his hooves in alarm. The others immediately snapped to alertness and took defensive positions, back to back with one another.
The shapes surrounded the ponies on all sides, inching closer with every passing moment. Caballus shined his light into the storm and dozens of pairs of yellow eyes reflected back at him. The Deep-Grabbers had caught up with them.
The standoff seemed to stretch into an eternity, neither side making a move. Try as he might, Caballus didn’t see a way out of this one. Even if they could break out, he couldn’t tell which direction the exit was anymore, and he didn’t even know if it led to anywhere safer.
Through the wind, Caballus heard Mystic shouting something. “… be my shield, O Princess, and I shall be Thy holy sword,” she chanted.
It was the Litany of Deliverance, Caballus realized. A prayer learned by all Equestrian servants, said when the situation seemed bleak and hope was fading. Very fitting.
“Though the Darkness may descend,” he answered, “and the weak of heart forsake You, no evil can overcome they who stand firm in their faith.”
By then, Roughshod and Hairtrigger had recognized it as well, adding their voices to the defiant litany. “For even in the depths of night,” the four shouted in unison, “I am clad in the armor of Thy favor, until You overturn the heavens themselves once again in victorious day!”
And as far as anyone watching was concerned, the Princess did just that. A blinding ray of light pierced through the storm, down into the hangar. Everyone, pony and Grabber alike, looked up in awe at the brilliant beacon, completely forgetting each other.
The light steadily grew brighter and brighter, and it soon became clear that whatever it was attached to was descending at high speed toward them. Some of the Grabbers tried to run, but by the time the bottom of another airship appeared through the sand, it was too late for the ones caught in its path. They disappeared in a deafening crash as the craft executed what could charitably be described as a landing. The rest scattered.
The four ponies could only stare in astonishment at the side of the airship as it came to a rest, missing them by only a few meters. A side hatch opened right in front of them, and they were met by a Meq-priest who looked almost as surprised as they were.
“Oh, there you are,” said Fyzzix. “That didn’t take long at all.”
Still the team said nothing, as if unsure their friend was really right in front of them.
“Well don’t just stand there,” he said. “Get in! I’m getting sand in my servos! I told you how irritating that is!”
The complaints broke them out of their stupor, and they clambered onto Her Solar Majesty, eager to get out of the wind.
“Who is this?” Fyzzix asked when Hairtrigger climbed aboard. It was more out of curiosity than hostility, as he started poking intently at the pegasus’s augmetic eye with a mechadendrite before the question was even answered.
“It’s a long story,” replied Caballus. “Don’t worry about him right now. Focus on getting us airborne and we can fill you in later.”
Returning to the cockpit, Fyzzix revved the propellers back up to launch speed, and the Majesty lifted once again into the sky. For a few tense minutes, the ship was buffeted by the storm’s turbulence, forcing everypony in the crew compartment to strap into whatever they could reach. As his stomach did a greater variety of acrobatics than usual, Caballus wondered if being on the ground with the Grabbers had really been so bad.
But it wasn’t long before the shaking stopped, and they could all breathe easy again. Caballus unbuckled himself, took an extra second to be sure of his footing, and walked up to the cockpit. “Thank Celestia you showed up when you did, Fyz. If you hadn’t gotten that letter, we might have never made it out of there.” He sat in the co-pilot seat, removed his capotain, ran a hoof through his black mane, and sighed with relief.
“I didn’t get any letter,” the Meq-priest said, raising his organic eyebrow. “I got bored sitting in the ship all night, so I started cross-modeling meteorological and seismographic phenomena in the area, and I found some interesting but quite anomalous data in one specific place, so I-“
“Wait,” said the Inquispony, “What do you mean you didn’t get my letter? I used an emergency seal. It should have come straight to you.”
Fyzzix shrugged, and pointed out the cockpit window. “Maybe they got it.”
Below, the dusty-brown clouds of the sandstorm blanketed the land all the way to the horizon. To the east, the morning sun was rising into a red sky, as though cutting a bloody, ominous swathe.
But Caballus followed Fyzzix’ hoof even higher. Several splotches of color hung in the air above, made tiny by their distance, but the Inquisipony recognized them all the same.
The Equestrian Navy had arrived.
Caballus was speechless.
“What… what are they doing here?” he finally said.
“Couldn’t tell you,” Fyzzix said nonchalantly. “They rolled in about midnight, no lights, not even any comm traffic. Kind of like us. I probably wouldn’t have even noticed them if I had had anything better to do than stare at my auspex all night. Didn’t see any reason to hail them without you.”
Caballus surveyed the cluster of craft hanging in the air over Applemattox. They had been gradually growing in the window, one large ship, and about five smaller support craft surrounding it.
“There,” he said, pointing at the flagship. “I’d like to have a little chat with them.”
The Inquisipony returned to the rest of the team, where Roughshod was helping Hairtrigger get his wing into a proper sling. Mystic’s leg was already in a brace, and she was rummaging through the Majesty’s medical supplies.
“What’s the good word, boss?” Roughshod asked cheerily. “Is the cavalry on their way?”
“That’s the thing,” Caballus replied. “They’re already here. In fact, Fyzzix says a navy flotilla arrived last night while we were down in the caves.”
All three of them were visibly surprised by this, Roughshod and Mystic going over to the nearest porthole. Hairtrigger seemed skeptical. “Why would they be moseying around these parts? Applemattox ain’t nowhere near regular navy patrol lanes.”
“That’s what I intend to find out first.” said Caballus. “Then maybe they can make themselves useful and help us capture Sniffles.”
A beeping noise rang from the cockpit. “Incoming transmission, Cab,” Fyzzix called.
The Inquisipony returned to the Meq-priest’s side. He gave a nod and Fyzzix opened the channel.
“Attention, incoming aircraft,” droned an artificial voice, “you are ordered to break course immediately and proceed to the following coordinates.”
Caballus pressed the vox transmitter and leaned in toward the microphone. “This is Inquisipony Caballus, of the Ordo Hereticolt. I am requesting a meeting with this battlegroup’s commanding officer.” He fitted his rosette into a socket on the transmitter, to verify his identity, and to ensure his request was understood to be mandatory.
After a minute or so, the transmitter chimed again. “Request granted. Continue on your present course.”
“You may not want to be too pushy,” Fyzzix said, surveying his instruments. “That flagship is a Pony Marine Strike Cruiser.”
“Now you tell me,” said Caballus. A member of the Inquisition might have the power, on paper, to command any individual in all of Equestria if they deemed it necessary, but there were still those whom it paid to ask nicely. The Pony Marines tended to take direct demands by any other organization as an unacceptable infringement on their autonomy, so a certain level of tact was usually required to secure their cooperation. The poor manners of one headstrong Inquisipony could set off a feud that might end in the excommunication and annihilation of an entire chapter. And that was only if they didn’t escape into the wilderness, where they might turn to the powers of Darkness just to survive. It was not without precedent.
Thankfully, Banehoof had taught Caballus the proper manners for dealing with Pony Marines: treat them as equals, be polite and brief, and ask, rather than tell. If you can manage not to offend them or convince them you are wasting their time, he had said, they could actually be quite pleasant.
By the time the Majesty passed between the nearest escort ships, the Strike Cruiser filled the entire window. Skimming the readout automatically displayed by the ship’s instruments, Caballus could see it was Destrier class vessel, nearly 700 meters long, and armed to the teeth. Like most airships of its size, its superstructure was build mostly inside the rigid balloon, rather than attached underneath, with six huge propeller engines ringing the aft portion, evenly spaced apart.
The entire front end of the Cruiser was hooked like the beak of a gigantic bird of prey, and feathers had been stylized onto the hull to add to the intimidating effect. Much of said hull was the usual gunmetal grey, but even more was painted a pastel yellow, with occasional sections of light pink. Gothic steeples—which in reality were communication arrays—rose along the spine of the ship, and the sides were lined with vaunted archers that contained the launch bays. To call it a “flying fortress” would have been less than metaphorical.
Following the automated instructions, Fyzzix brought the Majesty up beside the Cruiser, like a fish swimming up alongside a whale. “A shuttle will be with you shortly,” the voice assured.
A few minutes later, the instruments alerted of an incoming craft, and Fyzzix opened the rear cargo ramp. A pair of Tech-pegasi pulling a chariot backed up to the ramp, and Caballus climbed aboard, careful to mind the gap and not look down. With the wind nearly whipping the hat from his head the entire time, it was a miracle Caballus held onto his lunch as they brought him over.
The launch bay interior was cavernous, and bustling with activity. Tech-pegasi flew from deck to deck, some tending to dozens of dropships and ground vehicles, while others busied themselves blessing hundreds of weapons and support systems. It certainly appeared as though they were preparing for war.
The chariot set down on an empty landing pad, where somepony was waiting for him. Caballus took a moment to become steady on his legs once again before he disembarked and approached his host. The Pony Marine waiting for him bore a suit of power armor the same yellow color as his ship, with pink butterflies on the left shoulder pauldron. He wore no helmet, which revealed his coal-black coat, his stony, hard-set face and piercing eyes.
“Greetings, Inquisipony Caballus,” the Marine said. His voice was remarkably soft and tranquil for such a giant. “I am Brother-Captain Steel Rein of the Fluttermanders’ sixth company. Welcome aboard the Merciful Judgement.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Caballus replied, giving a courteous bow. “I am here to speak with you about-”
“Come then,” interrupted Captain Rein, “we can speak on the bridge. This way.”
A little surprised, Caballus merely followed as the Marine led him out of the bay, down a series of winding corridors. He held his questions for the moment, leaving only the clang of the Marine’s heavy boots and hum of the ship to listen to. Even though they were spacious enough to easily accommodate the enhanced frames of the supersoldiers that used them, the halls still made him feel… claustrophobic. Perhaps he’d spent too much time underground.
Finally, the last bulkhead door parted and they entered the ship’s bridge. The semi-circular room was separated into three rings of control panels, each stepping up as one moved inward. Scores of Meq-priests, naval officers, mindless servitors and a few more Pony Marines manned the stations, handling the myriad of technical and military tasks required to run such a vessel. Caballus craned his neck upward and beheld a massive mural, painstakingly hoof-painted on the ceiling, of a yellow pegasus battling a dragon on a mountaintop.
On the highest platform in the center, where Captain Rein came to a halt, stood a crimson unicorn in a black cape, facing away from them.
“Your colleague has arrived,” the Captain said to her.
The unicorn turned from the holo-table she was surveying to Caballus. On her necklace was a polished silver “F.” A rosette.
“L-Lady Inquisipony Vigilant?” Caballus stammered.
She smirked at him. “Hello, Caballus. I must say, hearing your voice on the vox was a very pleasant surprise.”
It was unusual, though not unheard of, for the Inquisipony Lords sitting on the Tribunal to continue with their usual field work. Some viewed it as an honor and a duty to help coordinate the Ordos’ activities across the sector, while others treated it as a sabbatical. But either way, they rarely left Hippopolis, or even the Black Spire.
Caballus cleared his throat. “I… I’m here on the Cheat-worm case. You were there when I delivered my report, remember?”
“Of course,” she said casually. “I was also there when my Ordo cleaned up the mess you left in the Stabledregs. But by then you were already gone.”
“I… had to follow an important lead.” said Caballus, a little hesitantly. “It led me out here, to Applemattox.”
“Well if you couldn’t guess, I’m here on business as well.” The unicorn gestured to the viewscreen beside her. “I’ve come to watch Applemattox die.”
Outside the town hall, the sandstorm finally seemed to be petering out. Which was a good thing, because it had been one of the worst Bucky Roo had ever seen.
It hadn’t been easy to sit around waiting for the storm to pass. The boys always got fidgety when Papa Sniffles sounded a Deep-Grabber alert and put them on guard duty. Being cooped up inside the entire time only made it worse.
“Looks like you win again, boss,” said the beige-coated bandit across from him, tossing his cards down onto the table. He had been the last of the four other players to fold.
“I always win,” Bucky said with a cigar in his smiling teeth, “and don’t you boys forget it!” He leaned in and scooped up the pile of bits on the table. “Say, now that the dust has settled, why don’t you go out and tell them boys holed up in the general store to get their flanks back out on patrol.”
“Sure thing, boss,” said Wrangler, another one of the losers.
Boss. Bucky liked the sound of that. It had only been the night before last that Sniffles had put Bucky in charge of the gang. Before then, the Marine’s right hoof in Applemattox had always been Red Bandanna. Only Red Bandanna had let the Inquisipony and his friends get away. Turns out they’d had a unicorn with them, and she’d whooped Red and his boys something fierce. Sniffles hadn’t seemed that mad at the time, but then again nopony had seen Red since. Oh well, thought Bucky, it turned into a tidy little promotion for me.
“Hey boss,” said a bandit at the window, “Wrangler’s hollering for ya.”
“What? Did he forget how to get there? It’s right across the dagburn street!” Bucky pushed himself away from the card table and poked his head out the window.
The volunteer stood in front of the store. “There ain’t nopony in here!”
“What?” Bucky yelled. “You sure they’re not just out back?”
“Lemme see,” Wrangler called back. He trotted around the side of the store, at one point nearly tripping over a pile of dirt in his way. A moment later, he came back around. “Nope. There ain’t no sign of ‘em.”
Bucky frowned. “They probably snuck off to the saloon during the storm,” he grumbled to the pony beside him. “Let’s go. Sniffles’ll have all our skins if he hears there were slackers on Grabber watch.”
Leaving two of the stallions behind at the town hall, Bucky took Wrangler and a wiry, burgundy-hued desperado named Tumbleweed with him down the main street. When they turned the corner a few minutes later, they saw a solitary figure slowly walking down the middle of the street.
“Hey there!” Bucky called out. Getting no response, so the trio trotted over. It was Rudy Begga, one of the bandits they were looking for.
“What’re you doing out here, Rudy?” Bucky demanded. “Where’s Rustler and Whiskey Barrel?”
Rudy didn’t answer, didn’t even look at him. She just kept walking, shivering as if she were cold, and mumbling to herself.
Bucky got in front of her, forcing the mare to stop. “What’s the matter with you, Rudy?”
She looked at him with wide, dead eyes. “In-Into the d-dark. They grabbed ‘em. G-Gotta get away. Gonna… gonna grab me too.”
“She’s gone moonbrained,” Bucky concluded. “Let’s get her back inside, so we can go find the others.”
After a minute or two of gentle coaxing, they managed to convince the mare to turn around and follow them back to town hall. A few times on the trip back, Rudy shrieked and tried to run away from some imaginary attacker, forcing them to chase her down and hold her until she returned to her prior daze. At first it was simply irritating, but every time Bucky looked into her eyes, the obvious terror rattled his nerves a little more. So much so that he even found himself turning phantom noises and tricks of the light into lurking Deep-Grabbers.
Not that he’d ever seen a Deep-Grabber. Nopony in living memory had seen one in Applemattox. Before, that was because the Grabbers never left any witnesses, but nowadays it was because of “Papa” Sniffles and the cult keeping everypony safe. There hadn’t been a disappearance for years, and Bucky knew that as long as they did what Sniffles said, it would stay that way.
“We found Rudy out in the street,” Bucky announced as he strode through back into the town hall. “Don’t know why, but she…”
He looked back and forth. There was no one there. The room was empty
“What in tarnation is going on?” he wondered aloud.
Behind him, the pair of bandits exchanged nervous glances. “Hey boss, where’s Six Shooter and Sundance?”
“I… I don’t know,” Bucky answered. “Let’s… let’s go back outside. I gotta find Papa Sniffles. He’ll know what’s going on.”
“Into the dark,” Rudy muttered. “They grabbed ‘em. Gone forever. Gotta get away.”
“But we haven’t seen him since he called the alert.” Wrangler said. “We don’t know where he is.”
“He’ll… he’ll be back soon,” said Bucky. “Then we’ll get this all figured out.”
There was a crash on the other side of the room. In an instant, all eyes locked on the source, slingshots pulled taut in the bandits’ teeth. The room was dark from the windows being shuttered from the sandstorm, but not completely. Still, the light they did have revealed nothing. The head bandit cautiously approached the area the noise had come from, over by the card table. A chair was now lying where it had fallen.
Bucky’s hoof bumped against something on the floor. He glanced down, then slowly bent over to pick it up, but dropped it again as soon as he recognized it. It was Sundance’s lucky hat.
He took a step back, his voice low and even. “Everypony out. Now.”
The dust hung in the air, twinkling in the shafts of pale light that peeked through the shutters. Every creaking floorboard was deafening to the ponies as they all fought the urge to flee out the door.
Although it might have been Bucky’s imagination, the light in the room seemed to dim further with every passing heartbeat. Shadows pooled in the corners of the room, spreading out across the floor like a tide. More and more of the room was being engulfed by impenetrable blackness, and imagination or not, the outlaws weren’t going to stick around to find out why or how.
Somewhere in the shadows, the wooden floor creaked. Bucky jumped, and fired wildly into the dark. Wrangler and Tumbleweed immediately joined in, unloading their slingshots in the same direction. Over and over, the three ponies blasted the area with cupcakes, until they each had emptied their first saddlebag.
Long moments stretched on without a reply, without any indication whatsoever that they had hit anything, or that anything had even been there in the first place. Bucky might have breathed a sigh of relief, if the light in the room didn’t continue to fade.
He turned around and waved his companions to the door. They beat a hasty retreat back into the road, dragging Rudy with them. Her tremors had gotten much worse during the one-sided firefight.
“Grabbed ‘em! Into the dark!” she wailed, eyes darting and limbs flailing. “They’re coming for us!”
“Would somepony shut her up!” Bucky hissed. “She’s starting to damage my calm.”
He opened his other saddlebag and reloaded his slingshot, keeping his gaze fixed on the town hall door. By now he couldn’t even see past the threshold, and smoky tendrils were beginning to creep beyond that, too.
“What are we gonna do, boss?” asked Tumbleweed. “It’s gotta be the Grabbers. It’s just- whoa!”
The ground underneath Tumbleweed exploded, throwing dirt into the air and the stallion off his hooves. Long, grasping arms shot out of the new hole, clutching his vest and his legs, dragging the kicking pony down. Bucky and Wrangler grabbed his front hooves, pulling back as hard as they could, but they were losing their friend inch by inch.
Another pair of claws lifted a rusty, iron yoke over Tumbleweed, and slammed it down on his back. The chains attached to it instantly snapped tight and the screaming bandit was yanked away from the ponies. Before they could even get a look into the hole he disappeared down, a fountain of soil filled it in, leaving a mound as the only evidence anything had even happened.
Bucky stared at the dirt pile, panting. Tumbleweed had just been standing there, and now he was gone. Forever.
“Boss,” said Wrangler softly, “I reckon we got ourselves a Deep-Grabber problem.”
“It can’t be. Sniffles… Sniffles said that if we… he promised…” Bucky sputtered. He had believed the Marine for so long, believed that everything would be fine as long as he did what he was supposed to. The decidedly not-fine turn events had taken was still sinking in, and it wasn’t settling well. Only the example of Rudy, who was now sobbing in a ball on the ground, kept him from cracking.
Laughter rang from the town hall’s interior. It startled Bucky and Wrangler to their hooves, and the pair took off down the street, leaving Rudy behind. Glancing back to see a shapeless mass of shadows slither out of the building and swallow her was the last they saw of the mare.
The stallions galloped past every storefront on main street, but every door and window was black as night, forcing them to keep running. Terrified shouts and bloodcurdling howls carried over the dry desert breeze from other parts of town. Nowhere was safe.
Bucky, getting ahead of Wrangler as they ducked into the alley between The Hitching Post and the town’s farrier, heard his friend yelp and crash to the ground. He skidded to a halt, and found the pony with a claw around his ankle, a claw belonging to a snarling, billowing void.
Wrangler scraped at the dirt, frantically struggling. “Help boss! Don’t let ‘em grab me, please!”
Bucky froze. Two more of the… things were coming up behind them. He looked into his friend’s pleading eyes, and without a word, or ever looking back, he fled. His whispered apology was drowned out as the bandit’s screams faded into the distance.
He ran and ran, even as it became all too clear there was nowhere to run to. They were everywhere, coming out of every building, ever corner, out of the very ground. No matter where Bucky ran, they followed, hunting him. He tripped, and by the time he was on his hooves again, he was surrounded.
This was it. The once proud pony sank to his haunches. He looked up into the clear, blue sky, praying desperately. The wispy clouds parted, and through his tears he thought he saw something looming abve. But the sky disappeared behind a pall of liquid darkness, and Bucky found himself face to face with the first Grabber he had ever truly seen.
It was a big, ugly creature, clad in purple and spines. He tried to bring up his slingshot, but the beast caught his hoof in its paw, and plucked the weapon away.
“Sick pony was right,” it said. “These ponies make good hunting.”
It pushed him into its fellows, who held him down and locked his own yoke around his back. He’d been grabbed, and thanks to the stories, he knew exactly where he was headed.
Into the dark.
Caballus watched the images on the viewscreens with awe. Using the ship’s powerful auspex and pict-cording arrays, they could see individual ponies running for their lives in the town below. Dozens were being chased out into the street, or snatched by the Grabbers who popped right out of the ground. He was silently thankful the array wasn’t quite powerful enough make out their faces.
“The Ordo Zoonos designates them Canis rhombus,” Lady Vigilant said, without looking up. “More commonly referred to as ‘Diamond Dogs,’”
“I had never even heard of them,” said Caballus. “The locals were calling them ‘Deep-Grabbers.’”
“How quaint,” she replied, “but rather accurate, I suppose. They haven’t been seen in this sector for generations, but small raiding parties have been striking villages in sectors to the north and west for hundreds of years. Their territory has been expanding lately, but even so, it’s thankfully rare to see anything quite like this.”
She panned one viewscreen to a battle that had broken out around a building that Caballus was fairly sure had been the town’s bank. It appeared as though some of the remaining bandits had barricaded themselves inside, and were managing to keep the zoonos at bay. Caballus’s estimate of Applemattox not lasting an hour was beginning to look like a slight underestimation.
That is, until the Diamond Dogs pulled back out of the range of the ponies’ pies. A few minutes later, the entire structure began to quake, before it collapsed into a giant sinkhole. The beasts then clambered over the splintered timbers to dig out any survivors. For what, Caballus was positive he didn’t want to know.
“There’s a certain beauty to it, isn’t there?” said Lady Vigilant.
Caballus didn’t answer. His gaze remained glued to the spectacle happening below.
“Seeing the death-throes of an entire town,” she continued. “It’s like watching some great, wounded animal fight its last, noble struggle. The way it convulses, clinging to life even as life slowly bleeds away. It’s almost poetic.”
“Forgive me if I don’t share your enthusiasm,” Caballus replied. Her description of the sight had been sickeningly accurate. Applemattox was bleeding out, and it was bleeding profusely.
“I forgot, Caballus. You mostly roam the inner sector, don’t you? I imagine your work for the Hereticolt never takes you very far from civilization. And rarely near any war zones.” Lady Vigilant gave him a smirk. “I hope it’s not making you squeamish.”
Caballus stiffened at the remark. “Heretics and traitors are just as dangerous in our midst as on the battlefield. There are no ‘easy’ tasks in any Ordo.”
Seeming satisfied with the answer, she returned her attention to the screen. “True enough.”
“Inquisipony,” said Captain Rein behind them. Caballus turned around, only to realize the Marine had been addressing Lady Vigilant. “My brothers are loaded into their drop-pods, and the Guard transports are standing by for launch orders. They await your command to commence the counterattack.”
The Lady Inquisipony gave a dismissive wave of her hoof. “Tell your Marines they may stand down,” she said, “and the Guard as well.”
“What?” Caballus and the Captain asked in unison.
“There’s been a change of plans.” The Lady Inquisipony went over to the holo-table. She lifted the rosette hanging around her neck over her head with magic, and pressed it into the console. The seal of the Friendquisition appeared above the table, along with new orders for the fleet.
“You can’t be serious,” Caballus said once he finished reading them. They were bombardment coordinates.
“I am very serious,” the unicorn replied. “My Beastwatch kill-team has been following these Diamond Dogs for months now, and we have precious little to show for it. Their movements have been uncannily elusive; they somehow seem to know every hole in our defenses, and how to slip through them. We didn’t even know how many there were, until I received this.”
A data scroll floated out from under her cape. It was Caballus’s letter.
“Plotting their trail, I had narrowed down the next likely target to Applemattox, so I requisitioned some ships, enlisted the aid of the Captain here, and came here to intercept them. I was expecting to face a raiding party on the ground with overwhelming force, and fight them back into their burrows where we could exterminate them.”
The console before her beeped repeatedly with the acknowledgements of the other ships in the fleet.
“Imagine my surprise when a letter arrives, bearing an emergency seal of a fellow Inquisipony, and telling me that not only do the Dogs have an entire army below Applemattox, but that all the townsfolk are conspiring with heretics as well. Now, instead of rescuing a tiny town from a small threat, I find myself watching one enemy destroying another. Quite frankly, I don’t see the point of going down there anymore. Not when your letter gave me a better idea.”
“You would deprive my brothers of meeting the foe in battle?” Captain Rein said. Though such an accusation was likely a grave one for a Pony Marine to make, it came out as serenely as everything else he said.
That didn’t stop Caballus’s hair from standing on end.
“I would,” she said bluntly. “But this isn’t about winning a single battle anymore. If we met them on the ground, we would probably defeat them-”
“We would definitely defeat them,” the Captain interjected.
“And our victory would cost us dearly.” The mare sighed, pacing back and forth in front of the holo-table as if giving a lecture to a class of foals. “At the first sign of defeat, the cowardly beasts would break and scatter, and we’d have not just one army to track down, but ten, or twenty. Protecting the entire frontier from such a threat would stretch our forces to the limit. For all their prowess, even the Astrotes can’t be in all places at once.
“But if we strike them here,” she said, pointing at the holographic representation of Applemattox on the table, “with all their forces committed in one place, at one time, we will accomplish with a single blow what might otherwise take years and waste thousands of lives.”
The Captain weighed the options carefully. His displeasure at being robbed of a chance for glory was obvious, but Lady Vigilant’s reasoning and expertise were unassailable.
“So be it,” he said. With a few purposeful strides, he came up behind a Meq-Priest manning the ship’s internal communications and gave the order. “All ordinance, arm and prepare to fire on these coordinates.”
The party cannons of the Merciful Judgment groaned as they angled themselves to match their downward firing solutions. In the hellish, poorly ventilated decks deep below the bridge, sweaty teams of ponies pulled the chains that loaded the ammunition. Cakes the size of carriages were lowered into each breech, and a Meq-Priest blessed each mechanism in turn as it swung closed and locked like a great vault door. In minutes, the preliminary salvo was ready.
But it was in the belly of the ship that the true death-blow was prepared. Even with a crane aiding them, it took forty ponies just to bring the weapon to its torpedo tube. The hardened dessert represented the terrible pinnacle of Ponykind’s military technology, the single most destructive force Equestria could unleash: the Cyclonic Fruitcake.
“You have to wait,” Caballus implored, seeing the batteries report their readiness. “I need more time.”
Lady Vigilant cocked an eyebrow. “Whatever for, Caballus?”
“The Children of Liberation are up to something,” he said, struggling to put a case together. “The cult was in league with these zoonos, and I’m sure they’re the ones who brought them here. Their leaders have already escaped and I need to find out where they went. If you would hold off the bombardment for just a little while, I… I could… capture a cultist for interrogation, or… get their travel logs from the town’s archives, or… something! Please, just give me more time.”
The crimson unicorn shrugged. “We were holding here the entire time, and we saw no trains, no wagons, no airships in the area at all, except for yours.”
“But…” Caballus was at a loss. How could they not have seen the other airship? Shouldn’t their sensors have been able to see it, even in the sandstorm?
“But if you read my letter,” he continued, changing the subject, “then you know that there are prisoners down in the caves,” Caballus argued, “some of whom are there because they stood up to the cult and stayed loyal to the Princess.”
“And theirs will be a tragic but necessary sacrifice,” the Lady countered. “You’re welcome to go down there and try rescuing them, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I’m sorry, but time for you to go down and gather clues to track down a couple of heretics or save a handful of innocents is a luxury we simply don’t have. The Diamond Dogs won’t stay put for very long.”
“These aren’t just backward frontier cultists,” Caballus insisted, “they’re Traitor Marines!”
Before he could even see the Lady’s reaction, Captain Rein was in front of him.
“You saw Traitor Marines?” It was intoned almost like an accusation, and the sudden intensity of the supersoldier’s gaze nearly made Caballus flinch.
“I… Yes. In the caves under the town,” he said, regaining his composure. He reached into his saddlebag and produced a data-scroll containing copies of the picts he had taken. “There were two of them.”
The yellow-clad Marine fed the scroll into a cogitator. He ordered a diminutive, hunched Meq-priest to guide the machine through its analysis, and the images were displayed on the viewscreen above. The first was of Sniffles.
“I recognize the markings on this one,” Captain Rein said before the computer had even finished matching them. “Almost two hundred and fifty years ago, a full company of Marines from the Rainbow Scars chapter were en route to the Rabbat Towns Crusade when a freak storm blew them into the Everfree. They were declared Lost in the Woods for an entire century before they reemerged as a warband called the Apostles of Smooze.”
The scorn was almost tangible in the Captain’s words as he spat the name. While hatred of all foes was deeply ingrained in every Marine, they held a special contempt for the enemy who had once been their brothers.
Then the screen changed to the red Marine with the skull mask. Captain Rein said nothing, scrutinizing the image, but not recognizing anything from it. He finally turned to the Meq-Priest, who reported a similar failure to identify any patterns or heraldry.
“All I can say is that this one is in Termaneator armor, though I can’t tell you where it’s from.”
Lady Vigilant stepped forward. “This,” she said, pointing to the Marine’s large, mechanical limb, “is Griffin technology, a Power Klaw to be precise. Though I can’t imagine how he might have come by such a weapon.”
“Does any of this give you any idea where they went?” Caballus asked the pair.
Both shook their heads. “For all we know,” Lady Vigilant said, “they’re still down there. Like I said, we didn’t see any other cargo ships leaving the area, just you. It’s all the more reason to strike now.”
Looking up at the Pony Marine, Caballus could tell he agreed.
The Inquisipony sighed. There was no more delaying it. “Would you allow me to call my team, first?”
Lady Vigilant nodded, and Caballus brought up the Majesty’s communication channel on the vox-console.
“Fyzzix? It’s Caballus. Come in.”
“I-I’m here,” replied his friend’s voice tentatively in the speaker, “and, I… um… I couldn’t help but notice a minute ago, that all the warships… they… well, they brought their weapons systems online. All of them. You know I’m not one to worry, of course, but… uh… the others are a little concerned back there and… What I mean to ask is…”
“Yes, Fyz,” Caballus said slowly, “it’s exactly what it looks like.”
Even though Fyzzix had long since replaced his throat with augmetics, Caballus thought he heard a gulp. “Oh. Okay. I… I’ll let them know. Fyzzix out.”
When the transmission ended, Caballus noticed new activity in the town below on the ship’s tactical display. Ponies were now streaming out of one of the structures near the center of town.
One of the underground shelters, Caballus guessed. This group must have overpowered the Grabbers sent to abduct them, and now they were fleeing for their lives.
It was futile, though. Already Diamond Dogs were recapturing some, and others were moving in to round up the rest. It seemed as though some of the ponies had spotted the ships above, as they were waving their hooves up at the sky, or falling to their knees, silently pleading for help. Apparently, they were willing to take their chances with the very Equestrian forces they had claimed to despise.
“Help” is coming, Caballus thought morosely, though not the kind you’re hoping for.
“There’s only one thing left to do, if you’ll indulge me,” said Lady Vigilant. She levitated a microphone over, and signaled the tech-pony to prepare for broadcast. He opened every frequency, civilian and military, on all levels of encryption and clearance. Even huge loudspeakers on the ship’s exterior came to life, screeching with feedback for a moment. Everyone below would be able to hear her.
She cleared her throat.
“I am Lady Inquisipony Vigilant, of the Ordo Zoonos,” she announced, “and know that I speak with the voice of the Princess.”
Everyone below, pony and Diamond Dog alike, stopped what they were doing and stared up at the airships above, most of them just realizing they were there.
The Lady continued. “By the authority of the Immortal Goddess-Empress of Ponykind, as vested in Her Most Holy Friendquisition, I have the judged the Equestrian municipality of Applemattox beyond the ability of Her servants to save. It is then, with a heavy heart but unwavering resolve, that I condemn it to confectionatus.”
She let the word hang in the dry, desert air for what seemed an eternity. A word known and feared throughout Equestria and beyond. It was the ultimate sanction, the destruction of an entire city, and every living thing in it.
“Loyal ponies rejoice, for your tribulations are at an end. She in Canterlot will welcome you into her embrace with wings spread wide. Enemies of Ponykind despair, for your wickedness shall now meet its due retribution. May Equestrian justice account in all balance. The Princess protects.”
The Lady clicked off her microphone, and the town fell silent.
Then it erupted once more. The zoonos scurried around, trying desperately to escape back into their holes. Most of the townsponies took the voice’s advice and wept, repenting in their final moments. But it was too late for all of them. The end was here.
The party cannons roared. Each shot that rained down smashed several buildings at once, and threw up great gouts of debris and crumbs. The impacts rocked the ground like the hooffalls of a vengeful god, and the noise vibrated the ship like thunder, even at its high altitude. The settlement, little more than piles of wood, stood no chance against the firepower brought to bear on it.
And it was just to soften up the target. After a few salvoes, the torpedo tube on the Merciful Judgment opened and discharged the Cyclonic Fruitcake. It fell to earth like a comet, penetrating deep into the crust. Whatever tunnels weren’t outright obliterated by its impact were collapsed by its final detonation.
It was said by residents of the next nearest town that the sky darkened and the horizon glowed for three days and nights afterward. The ultimate aftermath of the confectionatus was a scorched crater of blackened glass that ringed the original city limits. Nothing inside it had survived.
When the guns were finally silent, the Lady turned to Caballus once more. “A great victory was won by Equestria today, and if not for your help, it would not have been possible. Remember that.”
It wasn’t as comforting as she probably intended.
Caballus said nothing in reply to Lady Vigilant, or to Captain Rein. There was nothing else to say. He simply walked off the bridge, and was soon shuttled back to Her Solar Majesty.
The faces that greeted him back on board were all pale. It took Caballus’s entire recounting of the events aboard the Strike Cruiser for the shock to wear off enough for any of them to speak again.
“You were right,” Fyzzix said weakly, “it was what it looked like. I’ve seen a great many things in my years as an Explorator, but I… I never thought…”
Caballus put a hoof on his friend’s shoulder. “Let’s hope it’s the only time.”
“Can’t say I’m surprised,” Roughshod said bitterly. “She took the easy way out. Didn’t give a flying feather about those prisoners. They deserved better than that.”
While Caballus agreed with Roughshod on that point, he wondered: would he have decided differently, in the Lady’s place? He didn’t have the heart to tell Roughshod that he wasn’t sure he would have. Instead, he moved on to Hairtrigger.
“That… that coulda been anywhere in the subsector,” the pegasus muttered. He was clearly the most affected by the carnage, sitting on his haunches, staring at the floor in front his hooves. “I grew up in a town like that. Folks had roots there ten generations deep. All that work… all gone. Just going about their lives one day, and… and the next…”
Mystic sat down beside him. She didn’t know many words of consolation, so she didn’t say anything, merely showing the Arbitrotter her support by her presence. It seemed to help; Hairtrigger looked up from the floor, and gave her a smile of thanks.
When she met Caballus’s gaze, her eyes reassured him that, despite the others’ reactions, she was relatively fine. He was just thankful that nopony had watched Applemattox burn with a truly personal connection to it. That wouldn’t have been quite so easy to cope with.
“So, what now, boss?” said Roughshod.
Caballus realized that they were all looking at him. Unfortunately, he didn’t have an answer.
“We’ll return Hairtrigger to his Precinct Courthouse on our way back to Hippopolis, but-”
Actually,” said Hairtrigger hopefully, “I was figuring… if it’s all right with you and all, that I’d stay on and help catch these bastards. I reckon you need me more than the frontier needs another Marshal.”
Caballus shook his head. “That’s the problem. The trail’s gone cold. Sniffles got away and I have no idea where he went.” It pained him to say it, but the investigation had nothing to go on.
“So we’re just going to give up?” Roughshod said. “Let them get away with it? There’s got to be something we can use.” He thought for a moment. “Did Tier say where they might have gone?”
“No…” Caballus said, straining to remember his conversation with Tier. The Rogue Trader had been so insistent on securing his own release that he had refused to tell Caballus the Children’s next move. Once he’d explained his own part in the scheme, Tier hadn’t given up much of anything at all.
“His last request was that I… I should tell his father that he was sorry he wouldn’t return his ship himself,” Caballus said.
“And what the hay does that mean?” asked Hairtrigger.
“It means he was expecting somepony else to do it. Fyzzix, do you have the files on the Ver Kaufer Trade House we pulled from the archives before we left?”
The robe-clad pegasus dug into a crate of requisitioned data-scrolls, and fished one out with his robotic arm. “Right here. What do you want to know?”
“The craft that Sniffles boarded was called the Glücksritter. Is there an airship by that name in their merchant fleet?”
The text on the scroll flashed by faster than an ordinary pony could hope to read. But only a few seconds later, Fyzzix said “there is, registered to the current owner of the Trade House, Meister Ver Kaufer. According to records, its home port is the Trade House headquarters in Pferdian.”
“Then we do have a lead after all.” Caballus dipped his head into the same crate and found a navigational chart. He unrolled it on the floor, and began tracing a route with his hoof, once again in his element. “Pferdian is here, in the Lipizzan sector. With favorable winds and Fyzzix’ lead foot, we should be able to make it in about five days.”
As Fyzzix returned to the cockpit and laid in the new course, Caballus prepared a blank data-scroll and a quill.
“What’s that for,” asked Mystic.
“Clearly we’re outmatched in terms of firepower,” the Inquisipony said with the quill in his teeth, “so I’m arranging for some help to meet us there.”
The other stallions looked over the chart. “Who?” asked Roughshod, “Equestrian Guard?”
“Doesn’t Pferdian raise its own regiments?” Hairtrigger said, “or what about Kriegburg?” He pointed to the mark near their destination representing the ruin of that infamous city.
“Aw, not Kreigburg,” said Roughshod, shaking his head. “The Pony Korps give me the creeps. Them and their gasmasks…” He shuddered.
“Actually, I want somepony I know,” Caballus said, rolling up the letter. “Somepony I can trust. That’s why this is headed for Ofillia VII, just over the next border into the Fance sector.”
Roughshod frowned. “Ofillia VII? Isn’t… isn’t there a-”
“Yes,” replied the Inquisipony, “there is.”
“But you’re not talking about-“
“Yes, I am.”
Mystic perked up. “Who are you talking about?”
Caballus glanced at Roughshod, who simply rolled his eyes and walked away to find his cot.
“An old friend,” said the Inquisipony.
The sun was had already disappeared behind the smoke plume of Applemattox by the time the Glücksritter finally emerged from the sandstorm rolling across the plains. Almost as soon as the airship rose above the squall, it melted away. In a matter of seconds, there was no trace of the storm at all, save a dusty breeze.
In the captain’s quarters, there was a knock on the door.
The handle on the door sparkled, turned, and the door swung open.
Sniffles stepped inside, ducking through the threshold once again. The room was dark this time, lit only by embers in the fireplace and a few candles on the desk.
“I want to see it.”
Without a word in reply, Sniffles gently took the chest he had been given by Bismutt off his back and placed it on the floor. Magic lifted the lid open.
A tattered, ancient fragment of parchment floated out of the chest, trailing twinkling blue light as it drifted over to the desk. Sniffles held his breath, as though the document might somehow realize how old it really looked and disintegrate, even under his friend’s soft, telekinetic touch.
Sniffles exhaled. “I should hope so, for what it cost us to-“
The parchment burst into incandescent blue flames. In an instant, the paper became ash, the ash became dust, and the dust vanished into nothing.
The Marine could only gape. “But… but all those Children…”
“Oh, they were most assuredly lives well spent. I have exactly what I needed. Now we move on to the next step,” the pony said. “Is there anything else?”
“Um… yes. Brass Bit… he’s still angry that you called him away from his fight with the Inquisipony.”
The other pony chuckled. “He’s always angry. But I’ll make it up to him. Next time, they’ll be much more of a challenge for him.”
“What makes you so sure?” Sniffles asked.
“That there will be a next time? This Inquisipony was clever enough to find us once, I’m confident he’ll do it again. He’s probably already picked up our trail. How do I know they’ll be a better challenge? They’ve got quite a bit of potential.”
Sniffles gave the other pony a skeptical look.
“Take the unicorn, for instance. Did you see the fight she put up?”
Sniffles snorted. “But for your intervention, my friend, I would have seen her beheaded.”
The other pony grinned wide in the candlelight. “She’s not as helpless as you think. None of them are. She just needed a little… push, that’s all.”
When Sniffles had left, the pony chuckled again. “That’s right, just a little push.”
By all accounts, it was a beautiful day.
The sun shone brightly over the fields of the Stablea Progenium, and a spring breeze carried it’s warmth across the green parade grounds. Birds perched on the high brick walls, chirping and watching the cadets below as they ran their laps around the inner perimeter.
A grizzled, old earth pony stallion was watching them as well.
“Are we not blessed, cadets?” he called out to them. “Does the Princess not smile down on us with Her glorious sun today?”
“Yes, Drill Abbot!” the group yelled.
“Of course She does,” the Drill Abbot, one Hickory Switch, said with a smile.
He had them run another couple laps. It was supposed to be a thirty mile run, but he’d lost count around forty eight.
“That’s enough! Bring it in, cadets!”
Around two dozen of them, mostly earth ponies and a few pegasi, formed ranks in front of Abbot Switch. The foals—though only barely so, as most of them were already sporting cutie marks—stood at attention. They were all breathing heavily, but otherwise said nothing. The stern-faced Abbot paced back and forth, inspecting them, looking for any reason to make the whole group start their little “morning jog” over again.
Finding none, he finally said “at ease.”
All at once, the cadets fell into the grass, panting and heaving. A trio of Novitiates hurried out from the Sororitrots chapel across the courtyard and brought them all some water. The Abbot didn’t stop watching his cadets like a hawk, though, lest they get a little too comfortable during the break.
“As much as I know you’d all love to keep running,” Abbot Switch said, “Abbess Marm complained to the Headmaster that I have been taking too much time away from her curriculum for ‘pointless track and field,’ and that it was compromising your education.”
He came to a stop. “That’s why sparring is to be scheduled before weapons training. Starting today.”
Had any of the cadets groaned, sparring would have had to wait for another thirty miles of running. Fortunately, complaining had been disciplined out of this class years ago.
They stood up and broke off into twos, and found enough space to begin their matches. It was a familiar practice, each cadet having fought every other in hoof-to-hoof training innumerable times in their years together.
Soon the air was filled with the sound of ponies grunting, scuffling, and hitting the ground hard. Abbot Switch paused to observe each fight, ready to correct any mistakes he saw in their technique. This close to graduation, there were few new things to teach, so the time was spent mostly perfecting what they’d already learned. That didn’t mean they could coast, however, and it was the Drill Abbot’s prerogative to punish any lack of effort.
After a few minutes, he approached one pair of combatants. “Mind your footing, Cadet Barrage,” he said. The colt was stronger than his opponent, but had a tendency to overextend his reach, and it had made him easy to topple. Taking his Drill Abbot’s direction, the cadet finally started to hold his ground.
The next case was a filly. At first, he had thought of her as timid, always letting her opponents make the first move. Ultimately, he remembered that they didn’t send him the timid cadets. Instead, it turned out she was merely calculating.
“Planning too far ahead into the fight can be the same as hesitating, Cadet Moxie,” Abbot Switch said. “And hesitation will get you killed.”
“Yes Drill Abbot!” the filly said. He noticed her throw herself a little more enthusiastically into her match after that.
Finally, Abbot Switch came to the true thorn in his side.
Not that this cadet was the worst troublemaker Switch had seen by any stretch. On the contrary, the grey colt was always eager to learn, and quick on the uptake.
He just… lacked focus was the way Switch thought of it. The cadet’s attention often wandered, and he asked too many questions. Like at the moment, he seemed at least as interested in impressing a flirtatious Novitiate as he was with actually winning his fight.
“For the Princess’s sake! How many times do I have to tell you, Caballus? Pay attention!”
Unfortunately, distracted as he was, the cadet instinctively turned his head toward the sound of his name. No sooner did he do so than his opponent, a blue pegasus filly, swooped behind him, threw him down, and pinned him.
“Yes, Drill Abbot,” the embarrassed colt groaned.
Abbot Switch just shook his head and moved on. As he often told his cadets, pain and experience were the best teachers, so he was just going to let that particular lesson sink in.
“He’s right, you know, Cab,” said the pegasus as she helped him back up. “Landing flat on your back probably isn’t the best way to get Sera to notice you.”
“C’mon Blitz,” Caballus replied, flashing a grin, “I thought fillies liked scars.”
Cadet Glory Blitz failed to stifle a giggle. “Only if you get them doing something cool. Getting beaten up during sparring doesn’t cut it.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” He said. Sera Phim, the Novitiate he had been trying to show off to, was giggling as well. Mission accomplished, then, Caballus thought to himself.
With the Novitiates called back to the chapel and the distraction now removed, he had much less difficulty staying on his hooves in the matches that followed. After hitting the showers, Caballus caught up with Glory again on their way to afternoon classes. Just as he got her attention outside the lecture hall, a shadow passed overhead.
Both of them looked up to see a black air-carriage, pulled by a pair of pegasi, descending towards the Stablea’s landing pad.
“Who do you think that is?” Caballus wondered.
Glory shrugged. “I heard some of the Scribe Abbots talking about a VIP coming to visit.”
“That doesn’t really narrow it down.”
Indeed, it wasn’t uncommon for officials of rank to visit the Stablea Progenium. One of many such facilities, it was part orphanage, part boarding school, and it supplied a number of institutions with competent adepts, instilled from an early age with an unswerving loyalty to Equestria and an unshakable faith in the Princess. While most graduates went on to positions in the Heliarchy or the Admanestratum, there were also programs to train officers for the Equestrian Navy and Guard. Some organizations, like the Adequa Sororitrots and Ponnissariat, took only progena, as the graduates were often called.
“You know,” Glory said after a moment, “I bet it’s an Inquisipony.”
Caballus rolled his eyes. “It’s not an Inquisipony.”
“How do you know?” she snapped back.
“Because,” he said with a sigh, “Inquisiponies only want the most experienced, battle-hardened veterans they can find to work for them. Not progena fresh out of the Stablea who’ve never even seen real battle.”
The pair followed the carriage’s descent, until it disappeared behind the hedge wall that surrounded the landing pad.
“I know you’ve convinced yourself that you’re going to be one someday,” Caballus said, “but it’s never going to happen. You can’t choose to join the Friendquisition. They choose you. Besides, what about training to be a Storm Trooper?”
“Duh, Cab. Who do the Friendquisition call when they need the most elite firepower around? They call up a Storm Trooper regiment. Some regiments are even attached to Inquisiponies full time. I just have to get into an outfit like that, show them how awesome I am, and then bam!” said Glory, flashing her most cocky smile, “they’ll have no choice but to make me an Inquisipony.”
As if to prove her point, she brandished her cutie mark, a lightning bolt over crossed swords. Glory often touted it as proof of the inevitability of her ambitions, and her undeniable skill as a warrior. But all it usually served to do was give Caballus a pang of self-consciousness about his own blank flank.
“Oh,” she quickly said, seeing her friend’s frown, “sorry. You know, you’re pretty good at just about everything. Sometimes I forget… you know…”
“Yeah,” he said, “‘pretty’ good. Good enough to get in. Good enough to pass, even.” He forced a smile, and nudged her toward the door. “Look, don’t worry about it. It’ll come.”
The abbots had always told them that the Princess’s plan was as mysterious as it was vast, but every pony had a part in it, and it would be revealed to them eventually. Usually, a foal discovering their talent determined which course of study they would pursue at the Stablea. Caballus certainly didn’t question the Princess’s will, but he had nearly completed the Storm Trooper academy and still didn’t have a mark to show for it. What the mark eventually turned out to be almost didn’t even matter to him anymore. What he really wanted was some sort of confirmation, something that told him he was on the right path.
Putting his personal musings aside, Caballus had to admit, despite its astronomically small chance of success, Glory’s plan was probably as good as any. But as it was, the chances of a normal citizen even meeting an Inquisipony—or at least being aware of meeting one—were remote. Unless, of course, said pony was involved in something that might draw the Friendquisition’s attention. And from the stories and rumors he had heard, Caballus was confident that would be a very unwise thing to do.
He was about to follow Glory into the lecture hall, when he saw activity by the landing pad. Two ponies, one in a black cloak and the other in a red one, walked out of the enclosure toward the administrative building, flanked by two armed guards. At that distance, Caballus couldn’t make out any more details, though he could see that they were greeted by the Stablea’s Headmaster himself.
From the Headmaster’s exaggerated body language, Caballus assumed it was somepony important. Whoever they were, they gave him an unsettling feeling.
Who in their right mind wears a cloak these days, he thought.
The night was cool and crisp, with clear skies and a bright half-moon hanging high over the Stablea grounds.
The bushes outside the colts’ dormitory rustled gently as a figure crept out of them. It approached the corner of the building, and glanced around it.
A luminator swung around just as the figure ducked back. Moments later, the security servitor on the other end of that luminator turned the corner.
It found nothing. The servitor, a donkey, looked back and forth, slowly, robotically, scanning the darkness. Then it continued on its pre-programmed patrol, unaware of the infiltrator that had just slipped past it.
He was getting better at this, Caballus remarked to himself as he tiptoed up to the side of the Sororitrots chapel. At first, his little “midnight walks” would take him twice as long to get from one side of the grounds to the other, and never without a few close calls. Security servitors made little distinction between a hostile intruder and a student out past curfew when determining the proper force to use, and the Headmaster seemed to consider that a feature of their programming, not a bug. So far, Caballus had never been caught, and it was a streak he was determined to keep. And now that he knew all the little tricks to it, it was almost too easy.
A sudden breeze rustled his mane. He spun around.
And found nothing. Only the empty night was behind him. He breathed a quiet sigh of relief, and turned to finish his journey.
The colt nearly jumped out of his own skin. “Blitz? What are you doing out here?” he hissed at the pegasus hovering in front of him.
“Ah, ya caught me,” she said, jokingly. Glory dropped gracefully to the ground, making barely a sound when her hooves touched the grass. “I looked out my window and saw you sneaking around outside, so I thought I’d come see what you were up to.”
Caballus turned red. “I… um… well…”
Glory raised an eyebrow at him, but then her face lit up. “Oh, were you trying to find out if the VIP really is an Inquisipony? I want to come too!”
“Hello?” called another feminine voice. “Caballus, is that you?”
A white earth pony in a white robe came around the side of the chapel. The faint light from the front of the building gave her tall, lean shape an imposing shadow at first. But when she saw the two cadets, she froze as though she were the one caught. “Oh. Hello, Glory.”
“Sera?” said the pegasus. “What are you doing out here?”
“I… well, I was out tending the chapel braziers tonight, as I was assigned to by the Mother Superior,” said the Battle-Filly-in-training, “and I… uh… heard a noise and…”
Glory’s brow furrowed. “But you knew it was Cab out here before you-” Then it finally dawned on her why that might be, and it was her turn to blush. “Oh my… I’m so sorry, Cab. I just thought… and I didn’t know… and you and her-”
Before she could stammer any more, something passed in front of the moon. All three of the ponies reflexively ducked, pressing themselves against the chapel wall. Against the night sky, a shape could barely be seen overhead, visible only by the stars it blocked out.
“What was that?” Sera whispered.
“I don’t know,” Caballus said, “but it was headed that way.” The colt started off after it. “C’mon.”
Glory bit down on his tail before he could follow. “Are you kidding? Do you know how much trouble we’ll get in if we get caught?”
“I cannot leave my post, Caballus,” Sera agreed. “Tending the chapel braziers is a sacred duty.”
“Fine,” he said, with a hint of a grin, “I’ll go find out what it is alone if you two are too scared.”
“Scared?” said Glory. “As if!”
Likewise, Sera stamped the ground in objection. “A Filly of the Sororitrots fears nothing!”
“Good.” Caballus said. “Let’s go.”
Fortunately, the trio didn’t meet a single servitor patrol as they followed the mysterious object. After a minute or two, they came up on the Stablea’s library. Caballus steered them into the bushes lining the building adjacent it.
“There,” Caballus said.
On the library’s brick wall, two stories up, hovered the vague shape of a pegasus. It was clad entirely in black, even on its wings, making it hard for Caballus to even be sure of its exact size or gender.
“What’re they doing?” Glory asked her fellow cadet.
“I don’t know,” was Caballus’s honest reply. The figure had its hooves on the wall, but what it was doing with them was impossible to tell.
“Whatever this miscreant is doing,” Sera said, “they don’t want it known. Which means it’s something sinister.” She tried to push her way past the other two, but Caballus stopped her.
“Sera, wait,” he said, stopping her. “Look.”
The mysterious pegasus drifted away from the library wall, and took off. In seconds, it disappeared into the night sky.
“Way to go, Cab,” said Glory, “they got away.”
“Yeah, but they were doing something up there.” Caballus walked up to the library, craning his head upward toward the spot the trespasser had been. “See if you can find out what it was, Blitz.”
The blue pegasus floated up the bare brick wall, running her hooves over its surface. “I don’t think there’s anything… wait a second.”
The earth ponies below heard the sound of stone scraping against stone. Glory had found a loose brick, and was slowly pulling it out with her teeth. She fluttered back down a moment later, with a small piece of paper.
“They were up to something alright,” she said, handing it to Caballus. “Probably a secret message to somepony.”
“What does it say,” asked Sera, leaning over Caballus’s shoulder.
He unfolded the note. The paper was covered in twisted runes and arcane symbols. Though none of them had ever seen it themselves, they had heard enough whispers and rumors about the Malign Text to recognize it now.
The text began to glow and move on the page. Both Glory and Sera jumped back, startled by what they saw, and Caballus himself felt dizzy and nauseous just looking at them. The glyphs defied every effort to make sense of them, writhing and changing shape whenever he gained the slightest idea of what they might mean. Still, Caballus felt compelled to keep trying; he had to know what it said.
Sera tore the note away from him. The Novitiate threw it on the ground and began trampling it with her hooves.
“No!” the colt cried, “what are you doing!”
“Destroying this abomination,” said Sera, who only stopped when the paper was torn to dirty shreds. “It’s heresy to even let it exist, let alone read it. Who knows what kind of corruption you would have been exposed to if I hadn’t?”
“But now we’ll never know what it said or who it was for.”
“Maybe we will,” said Glory, pointing behind him.
Coming around the corner of the library was a new figure, a pony in a black cloak. As soon as the foals saw it, the newcomer stopped in its tracks, and took off back around the corner. Without hesitation, the trio pursued.
In the seconds it took to reach the corner of the building, Caballus’s mind raced with questions: Who was this stranger? Who sent them the message? What were they planning? And could there really be a heretic among them in the Stablea?
But all these thoughts were obliterated as he rounded to corner by a blinding white light. All three came to a skidding halt.
“What the Tartarus are you cadets doing out here?” roared Drill Abbot Switch.
“Sorry to wake you, Calligraphus,” Abbot Switch said politely, “but I thought this needed to be brought to your attention.”
The Drill Abbot stood behind the three progena in the Headmaster’s office. Caballus and Glory exchanged nervous glances, while Sera just stared at her hooves, shuffling anxiously. When the Abbots could beat students back into line at their own discretion, going before the Headmaster himself spoke volumes about the kind of trouble they were in. It had been its own brand of torture, just waiting for him to answer the midnight call. They could do nothing but stare at the walls.
Though he had only occupied it for just a few months since taking the post, the Headmaster had wasted no time with the room. The walls were practically plastered with various certificates, all showing off his administrative credentials. Other portraits and heirlooms boasted of him coming from a long line of effective and diligent bureaucrats in the service of the Admanestratum.
“Honestly, Hickory, are you sure this couldn’t wait until morning?” The silvery, bleary-eyed, bespectacled unicorn finished heating himself a cup of tea and—still in his sleeping robe and slippers—took his place behind his large oak desk, leaning back in his chair. “You seem to handle other disciplinary matters on your own just fine. Why was this so urgent?”
The Abbot looked at Caballus. “Go ahead, cadet. Tell him what you told me.”
Caballus took a deep breath, and then began. He told the Headmaster about his sneaking around, though he didn’t tell why. He told him about Glory coming after him, and later Sera too, though he emphasized that they were just following his lead. Which was true enough, as far as he could see it; he was the one who wanted to chase after the mysterious pegasus. He told him about the message they’d found, and the pony who had come to retrieve it. When he had told the entire story, Caballus braced himself for his inevitable punishment.
The Headmaster stared gravely at the three for a long, agonizing moment, contemplating. “I say, Hickory,” he finally said “I certainly hope you’re not the one filling these cadets’ heads with all this ‘spy game’ nonsense.”
“I tell them nothing of the sort,” replied the Drill Abbot, who then frowned. “I take it you don’t believe them, then?”
“Certainly not,” said the unicorn. “Quite frankly, I’m surprised you even entertained the idea, Hickory. Midnight couriers and secret, heretical dead-drops. Sounds to me like the overactive imaginations of a few progena caught out after curfew trying to lie their way out of punishment.”
“But it’s not a lie!” Caballus blurted.
Though well within his authority to chastise the cadet for speaking out of turn, the Headmaster instead leaned calmly forward on his desk. “Do you have any proof? Where then is this ‘heretical’ message you found?”
“We… uh…” Caballus looked back at Sera, who only gave him an apologetic shrug.
The colt hung his head. “We… don’t have it.”
The Headmaster smiled. “There, you see? Just a fanciful story, nothing more.” He reclined once again in his chair. “Though falsifying a report is a serious infraction—especially allegations of heresy—I’m willing to be lenient and only put breaking curfew on your records. It would be a shame if we couldn’t put this little incident behind us before graduation.”
His eyes narrowed behind his glasses. “We certainly wouldn’t want anything you jeopardize your completion of the Stormtrooper Academy, would we?”
Caballus froze. Could he just let this slip through the cracks and be forgotten? Could he knowingly ignore such a crime in his midst? It would be wrong. It would go against everything he had been brought up to believe about his duty to Equestria. But if he didn’t, everything he’d worked for his entire life would be at risk.
Before Caballus had a chance to answer, Abbot Switch stepped forward. “Actually Calligraphus, I think they may be telling the truth. I’ve been noticing some… irregularities with the security servitors. Their patrol routes have been rotating at strange intervals, and it’s leaving holes in our-”
“Yes yes, you’ve brought up the servitors before,” interrupted the Headmaster. “And for the last time, we just don’t have it in our budget to upgrade them right now.”
“But I believe that somepony has been-”
“Enough of this rubbish!” The Headmaster slammed his hoof down on the desk, hard enough to rattle his teacup on its saucer. Then he cleared his throat, and levitated the cup to his lips. “Now,” he said, once again composed, “if any of you have any evidence to support your claims, something that I can pass on to the proper authorities, I would be happy to do so. But as it stands, repeating such wild, baseless stories will only reflect poorly on the Stablea. I’ll hear no more of it,” he said, leveling a deadly glare at Caballus. “Is that clear?”
Caballus glanced back over one shoulder. Sera puffed up her chest, and gave him a nod of support. He looked over the other. Glory pleaded to him with her eyes. Don’t do something stupid, they said.
Sorry to disappoint, he thought.
Headmaster Calligraphus raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
Caballus stood up tall. “I can’t ignore it. I can’t do nothing. If I won’t put a stop to an evil plot right in front of me, here and now, what’s the point of graduating?” His eyes flashed. “Especially when I already know who it is.”
The room fell silent for a moment.
“Very well,” said the Headmaster mockingly, “let’s hear your brilliant theory.”
“It’s likely that the drop location had been used before,” Caballus said. “The intended recipient of the message was already well versed in both the time and place of the delivery. That, combined with the tampering to the security systems, leads me to believe the traitor was somepony from the Stablea.”
Snorting, Calligraphus said, “perhaps, but that could also be-”
“However,” Caballus continued, throwing off the older stallion’s train of thought, “the traitor needed a way to reach the loose brick that high up. When I saw them flee, I didn’t see any wings or climbing equipment. That leaves only magic. And you, Headmaster,” he said with a growing smirk, “are the only unicorn at this Stablea.”
“What!” cried the Headmaster. “This is outrageous! For you, just a cadet, to accuse me of being party to some sort of… conspiracy! It’s ridiculous! It’s slander! It’s-”
“It’s true,” said a new voice.
All eyes fell on the office’s entrance. There stood a pony, the VIP in the black cloak from the day before. The other pony, a red Meq-priest was behind him, as were the two guards. In an instant, those guards were in the room and dragging the flustered unicorn out.
“No!” he yelped, “you can’t! I’m innocent!” His voice receded into the distance, making many such pleas before it finally faded away.
The strange pony took the seat behind the desk, where the Headmaster had sat just moments ago. With his hood down, the progena could see that he was an older stallion, with fur beginning to grey and skin beginning to wrinkle. He wore an eye-patch, which hid only one of his many obvious scars.
“You are the cadet who intercepted the heretical message, correct?”
Caballus nodded slowly.
“And you read it? You looked upon the very language of the Tenebrae, the words of the Archenemy?”
Again, Caballus affirmed.
The pony’s remaining eye narrowed. “Without training, even a glimpse of the Malign Text carries a risk of corruption.”
He swept aside his cloak to display a small icon affixed to his chest. A gilded “F.”
A Friendquisitional rosette.
Caballus’s blood chilled. The last thing many a damned pony saw was that very symbol.
I told you he was an Inquisipony, Caballus could imagine Glory saying. As it was, however, she was just as afraid as him, far too afraid to speak.
“Do you know what this is?”
The colt slowly nodded, not even daring to breathe.
The Inquisipony grinned broadly. “Would you like one?”
“Whuh?” said Caballus, his jaw dropping to the floor. The sentiment was shared by Sera and Glory as well.
“My name is Inquisipony Banehoof, of the Ordo Hereticolt,” the old pony said. “I’ve been tracking a cult in this area for some time, and the trail led me to this Stablea Progenium. I arranged a visit, ostensibly to find an Interrogator, an apprentice, but only so that I could watch the faculty more closely. I even managed to capture the courier who brought the message tonight. She named Calligraphus as her contact rather quickly, so I was just on my way to arrest him as well, and that would be that. But I’m glad I decided to wait and listen first.
The Inquisipony reclined in the chair. “You see, outside I read your file, Cadet Caballus. I know that you score average in nearly everything they measure in a Storm Trooper.”
Caballus almost winced at the reminder.
“But,” Banehoof said, “you showed qualities here that cannot be trained. You showed courage and conviction. You showed that you will defy authority when it is wrong, and that you will trust your own instincts. You even displayed a knack for investigation. These are traits of a good Inquisipony.”
The Inquisipony walked around the desk and stood before the colt. “Caballus, I would like to make you my own personal protégé. You may decline, and finish the Storm Trooper Academy. I’ve no doubt you’d make a fine soldier for Equestria, if that is your wish. But if you accept, you will come with me to be trained, and one day—Princess willing—to be inducted into the ranks of the Friendquisition.”
He waited a moment to let the offer sink in. Caballus didn’t need it.
“Of course I will!” he exclaimed. Never once did he imagine he would get such an opportunity to serve the Equestria and the Princess. He was about to start bouncing around the room.
“Oh, and Caballus?” Banehoof said.
“More?” the colt wondered. What else could this Inquisipony possibly offer?
The stallion gestured behind him.
“Caballus, your flank!” said Sera with awe.
He looked back to his flank and found new shapes and colors there, where none had ever been before.
“My cutie mark!”
Indeed, his flank was now adorned with a mark of his own. It was a magnifying glass, crossed with a torch. Investigate and purge. Search and destroy, in the Princess’s name.
He embraced the two fillies, his fellow progena, with tears in his eyes. Sera pecked him on the cheek, while Glory—still stunned—could barely even hug back.
Behind him, the Inquisipony and the Drill Abbot shared a hoof-bump.
“It’s good to see you again, Hickory,” said Banehoof. “How’s retirement?”
The Abbot laughed. “Now you’ll never know, one-eye. Looking after that one will be a full time job.”
“My lessons didn’t always stick,” Abbot Switch chuckled, “but he does have quite a bit of potential. I’d bet if you set him in the right direction, all he would need is… a little push, is all.”
“That’s all for tonight, Tally. You may go.”
The sun had set hours ago, and the guildhouse was empty but for the two earth ponies. Most everypony else had left around sunset at shift’s end, perhaps to enjoy a quiet evening at home, or to partake in a bit of the Pferdian nightlife. The few others had trickled out as the hours wore on, until only two remained.
“Are you sure, Seneschal?” said the Scrivener with some concern in her voice. “I could always wait here with you. It’s no trouble.”
Seneschal Abacus looked up from his pile of ledgers at the young mare. The older pony gave her a smile barely visible in the candlelight as he shook his head. “Please Tally, you have friends, right? A life outside of work?”
The assistant nodded reluctantly.
“Well go live it. Go hit the town. At least then, when the both of us come in exhausted tomorrow, one of us will have had a good time to show for it. Meister’s not paying you enough to keep you here until the wee hours dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t.’ That’s my job.”
“When you put it like that, it hardly sounds fair at all,” said the mare.
“Bah,” he replied dismissively, “there are plenty of perks to being personal Seneschal to the head of the Trade House and the Plutarch of all Pferdian.”
“But you’ll never get to use any of them if you never take a vacation.”
The Seneschal laughed. “I haven’t taken a day off for nearly ninety years. I wouldn’t even know what to do on a vacation if I did take one. If it keeps you from feeling guilty, though, there’ll be sizable stack of approved cargo manifests for you to file tomorrow when you get in. So go out and party, and then get a good night’s sleep. Don’t you dare get in any earlier than I do tomorrow.”
This time it was Tally’s turn to laugh. “How can I? I don’t even think you go home anymore.”
“One more thing,” the Seneschal said, pressing a button on his desk. “Let me arrange for House security to escort you home. It wouldn’t do to let a young lady like yourself walk the streets alone.”
“Thank you, Seneschal,” said Tally with a smile. Outside the window behind the Seneschal’s desk, the lights of downtown Pferdian called to Tally; the glittering skyscrapers and the bustling streets of the entertainment district. She left his office to gather her things at her own workstation, excited at the prospect of being among them.
She was also relieved to have the escort. Though normal crime was rather rare in Pferdian as compared to other cities, the streets—especially in the business district—were by no means safe.
Competition between the great trade houses of Pferdian was, to put it simply, cutthroat. Long ago, the lines between business, organized crime syndicate and political entity had blurred beyond recognition. The most prosperous merchants were also the local nobility, and all too often they were crime bosses as well. The guilds and trade houses had been the de facto rulers of the city for so long, that traditional governance was judged impractical. As long as the city paid its tithes on time, the higher Equestrian authorities didn’t care who called themselves Governor-Mayor. The office itself, now called the Plutarch, was a commodity to be bought and sold.
Simply being employed by the current ruling house made Tally a target. The local police—the Constabulary—could be counted on only until the sun went down. After that, the private armies and thugs employed by rivaling guilds were the law. And they would do whatever they could get away with to hurt one another’s bottom lines. Fortunately, Tally was a small target, and a few armed guards would make “inconveniencing” her more trouble than she was worth.
By the time she was ready to leave, the Scrivener was almost bouncing with anticipation. If she could get home quickly enough to call her friends, she could be downtown with enough time to actually enjoy herself. She just had to let the Seneschal know she was headed out to meet her escort at the front door.
Her hooffalls echoed loudly in the otherwise empty guildhouse. She reached the office and raised her hoof to knock, but as the stillness settled once again, she thought she heard something new. The young mare pressed her ear to the door.
It was a voice, quiet and muffled. Tally couldn’t hear what it was saying through the thick oak door, but she could hear how Seneschal Abacus reacted to its owner.
“I have to say, I wasn’t expecting you to come yourself,” he said angrily. “If you think I won’t go to Meister with what I’ve found, you’re wrong. In fact, I suggest you skip town right now, if you want to save yourself. Once he finds out what you’ve really been up to, I doubt he’ll show any mercy.”
The voice responded, speaking even more softly. Tally pressed her ear even harder against the door, trying in vain to make out the words.
“You wouldn’t!” she heard the Seneschal say raising his voice. “Why, if you so much as… what is that? No! Ahhh-!” The cry was cut off abruptly, and followed by a loud crash.
“Seneschal!” Tally yelled. She rattled the handle with her hooves, but it was locked.
In the office, she heard hooves tromp across the room, and then the creaking of old hinges.
Behind her in the guildhall, Tally heard the voices of the guards sent for her. “Help!” she said, “come quickly!”
Unable to budge the door’s handle, Tally turned around and bucked at the heavy wood with all her might. The ancient door cracked, and after another buck, it splintered around the lock. Tally burst into the room.
There was virtually no light in the room. The candle on the desk streamed its wispy smoke, just recently blown out, and the overcast moon outside the office’s open window was of almost little use.
She made out a pony-sized shape in the Seneschal’s robes lying on the floor just beside the desk. Tally rushed over, and put her hooves on it. It was cold and stiff to the touch.
“Seneschal, are you alright?” Tally asked. To her relief, the guards had finally reached the office. Whatever had happened, thought the Scrivener, he was safe now.
Out the window, the clouds parted, and moonlight streamed into the room once more. Tally looked down at the shape beneath her and screamed.
It wasn’t Seneschal Abacus at all.
“Wait for me!” called Fyzzix.
He trotted crisply across the flight deck where they had parked Her Solar Majesty. The Pferdian aerodrome crews could finally begin refueling the ship, now that the Meq-priest had finished the blessings necessary to entrust her to their care. He still cast one last fretful glance over his shoulder before catching up to the others.
“How is the wing treating you, by the way?” Fyzzix asked Hairtrigger.
The other pegasus stretched the appendage out to its full length, and with a few flaps, rose into the air. “Just dandy, I reckon,” he said, landing again. “I don’t rightly know how you did it.”
Fyzzix beamed. “While it wasn’t ultimately my calling, I wouldn’t call my time as a Magosus Biologis a complete waste of time. I certainly never get rusty in the Medicae, tagging along with this bunch.”
“And we appreciate it,” said Mystic. Her leg was also healed; a few surgical scars under her fur were the only indication that it had been broken just days ago.
The five of them headed across the aerodrome to an area reserved for much larger craft than their own. They stopped at one landing pad, one used to accommodate heavy lifting vessels. It was currently empty.
“Where is she?” Roughshod said impatiently.
Caballus shrugged. “She was due to arrive the same time we were. I’m sure she’ll be around any minute now.”
“You still haven’t told me who we’re meeting here,” Mystic. When she’d pressed Caballus for more details during their flight, he’d been evasive.
“You’ll see,” was all he had said.
Roughshod and Fyzzix hadn’t given up much either. Both had remained disdainfully silent on the subject.
They only had to wait a few more minutes—just as Caballus predicted—before the sky over the landing pad was filled with metal. Jet wash whipped at their clothing and hair, and the sound of turbines winding down deafened them. When the troop transport touched down, the ground shook for a moment.
“The Nonpareil,” Fyzzix read off a data-scroll he had gotten from the port authority. “Rouncey-class personnel transport, support vessel in the Heliarchal fleet based at the shrine-township of Ofillia VII.”
The ramp to the boxy craft opened and lowered directly toward the ponies. It touched the flight deck with a loud clang.
Two ranks of ponies marched down the ramp. They were Battle Fillies, resplendent in their sleek, ebony-black power armor. Red cloth fluttered from their suits, inscribed with holy verses and blessings in silver thread. The rows of warrior-nuns came to a sudden halt on either side of Caballus and his team, their lines extending back into the transport. A second later, they stepped in perfect unison to face one another. The white, pointed visors over their faces betrayed nothing but stony, impassive silence.
Between these assembled rows of Battle Fillies, a new armored pony stepped onto the ramp. Her suit was also polished black, but it was bedecked in glittering gold. Strips of parchment boasting her righteousness were pinned to the breastplate by wax seals of purity. A hoof-rainer hung from her croup, its tank sloshing with multicolored fuel.
Darting around behind her was a small, cybernetic pegasus foal, a vat-grown cherub carrying a scroll listing the battle honors of its Order. It recited them over and over in a squealing chatter.
The gilded Battle Filly came to a halt right in front of the Inquisipony. She looked down at him through her visor, a full head taller than the stallion in her armor. A hoof came up and lifted the helmet off her head, revealing a cream coat and a snow-white mane in a bob cut. A small Fleur-de-Lis had been tattooed on her cheek, a cheek which was currently drawn back in a warm smile.
“Caballus!” she said, embracing him. “It’s so good to see you!”
“You too… Sera,” he grunted. He suspected she wasn’t fully aware of how strong of a hug somepony in power armor could give.
She released him. “I can see you’re none the worse for wear, after all these years. How has the Friendquisition been treating you?”
“Quite fine,” Caballus replied, and then looked Sera up and down once more. “But not as well as the Sororitrots has been to you. Last I heard, you were a Palatine in some backwater convent outside of Hippopolis. Now look at you.”
The Battle Filly puffed up her chest. “Standing before you is the Canoness Commander of the Order of Our Martyred Mare at the Ofillia VII shrine-hold.”
“It seems you’ve earned it. You have more scars than I remember.” Indeed, two jagged lines traced across Sera’s neck, and another went from her left eyebrow up into her maneline.
“Oh Caballus,” she said, batting her eyelashes, “you always were such a sweet-talker.”
Mystic saw Caballus’s own grin as he bantered with the Filly of Battle. It was rare that she saw him so… happy. It was a shame his work was so cheerless, she thought. The smile suited him.
Then Sera turned to the Inquisipony’s first companion. “Roughshod, it’s been too long.”
“A matter of opinion,” he muttered with a polite nod. If Sera took offense, she didn’t show it. Instead she moved to the next Throne Agent.
“And Fyzzix, how have you been?”
The Meq-priest put his front hooves together in the Sign of the Cog and bowed. “I continue to receive the blessings of the Lunassiah, Canoness.”
She shook her head in amusement that seemed to Mystic to be somewhat patronizing. “Still spouting your nonsense, I see.”
Hairtrigger was the first to require an introduction. “And you’re an Arbitrotter?” Sera said, after the pleasantries were exchanged. “I like this one already, Caballus. We’re both keepers of the Princess’s laws, after all, be they laws of government or doctrine.”
Finally she came to Mystic. With the way Roughshod and Fyzzix refused to talk about her, Mystic thought, I didn’t expect her to be so nice. But as soon as she saw Mystic, Sera’s attitude changed. She raised an eyebrow. “Caballus, she’s a unicorn?”
The Inquisipony cringed, ever so slightly. “Er… um… Yes. She’s been in my service for many years, now.”
“Oh,” said Sera, nodding thoughtfully. “Very well.” She started to turn away, but paused.
“Might I see your brand?” she asked Mystic casually. Out of the corner of her eye, Mystic saw Caballus tense even more.
“M-My… brand?” the green unicorn stuttered.
“Yes,” Sera said, “your Brand of Sanction. The one you received once you completed your magical training.”
Mystic’s heart skipped a beat. “I-I… don’t have one,” she said.
It was almost too quick to follow. The nozzle of Sera’s hoof-rainer was suddenly pressing into Mystic’s nose. Her tone was cold.
“Suffer not the witch to live.”
Mystic held perfectly still, staring down the barrel of the hoof-rainer. Not even her heart dared to make a move. At any instant, it could unleash a searing torrent of Ponythium, the spiciest substance known to Ponykind. In a matter of seconds afterward, she would be incinerated by the burning liquid rainbow.
A brown mass pushed Mystic back, shielding her. “Don’t point that at her,” Roughshod said, deadly serious.
“Step aside, Roughshod. This must be done.”
Hairtrigger also put himself between the Canoness and Mystic “Whoa whoa, hold on here! She hasn’t done nuthin’ wrong!”
“That she draws breath is crime enough,” said Sera. “She is a rogue unicorn, a witch. If she never received a brand, she was never soul-bound to the Princess. Without the Princess’s protection, she is vulnerable to the influence of the Tenebrae, and she will damn herself and everypony around her.” Sera was nearly shouting by the time she finished. “Now step aside!”
“Stand down, Sera,” Caballus said in a firm voice. “She’s not a rogue. Unicorns who are strong-willed and faithful can be trained to resist the Darkness without the soul-binding. Mystic has proven her loyalty a hundred times over.”
“But you can’t be sure, Caballus,” said Sera, glancing over him to her target. “You can never be sure. Magic is dangerous, and trusting it is folly. All it takes is one mistake, one lapse, and she will fall to The Darkness. Better that I end the threat here, before she has a chance to betray you.”
Caballus himself stepped in front of Sera, pressing his chest into the rainer. The two stared at one another for a long, agonizing moment.
“If-” he said, but paused, and repeated the word with emphasis. “If she ever falls from the light, I will deal with her as I would deal with anypony who does so. But that will be my judgment to make. She answers to me, and since I asked you here as the Chamber Militant of the Ordo Hereticolt, so do you.”
Sera regarded Mystic with contempt for another moment, but she finally holstered her weapon. “Fine,” she said after a deep breath, “I will trust you Caballus, as I always have. I will trust you to do what is necessary, when it is necessary. Or I will.”
The Canoness turned abruptly, and walked back up the ramp in a huff. Caballus waited until she was all the way back into the transport before he let out his breath.
“Roughshod, take her back to the ship. We’ll come get you once we’ve arranged our accommodations in Pferdian.”
Roughshod nodded and ushered the shaken unicorn back across the aerodrome. She would be fine, Caballus was sure, but it would help if he could keep her out of sight until Sera cooled down.
“Your friend seems a mite… ornery,” Hairtrigger said once they were out of earshot.
“She always has been something of a hardliner,” Caballus replied. “Tolerance isn’t a trait the Heliarchy holds in high regard. But she’ll cool off. Besides, we’ll need her help to flush out the Children.”
They observed more Battle Fillies marching out of the transport ship. Sera had brought her full Commandry, two hundred strong. Caballus would not be caught outgunned by the heretics again.
“And what she said about Mystic?” Hairtrigger asked.
The Inquisipony shrugged. “What about it?”
“Is she right? Is Mystic the some kinda ticking time-bomb of evil?”
“Of course not,” said Caballus, leading the Arbitrotter and Meq-priest toward the exit terminal. “She’s been receiving the best training available since the day I took her in. She is in control.”
“Except when she’s not,” countered the Arbitrotter. By the surprise on the Hairtrigger’s own face, Caballus knew it had come out harsher than intended, but he quickly continued. “I’ve only known her a week and I’ve seen her fly off the handle twice.”
“Twice?” Fyzzix said, with evident concern. “In the two days you were gone? That’s… well… anomalous. The only pattern I’ve been able to discern in her episodes is their infrequency. Of course, they’ve always been triggered by high-stress situations, but which ones qualify seemed to be chosen at random. Which is part of the reason my deterministic models have thus far been inade-”
“Don’t get me wrong,” said Hairtrigger, interrupting the Meq-preist, “she’s a sweet filly and all. But some folk just ain’t made of leather like us. They can’t take the tough jobs, day in and day out. If you keep putting her in fixes where she has to let loose, well then… maybe one time she’ll stay loose, if you catch my drift.”
The Inquisipony did catch his drift. His entire profession revolved around ending such “loose” individuals, the weak souls that gave in to the influence of the Archenemy.
“She won’t,” Caballus said. He said it as confidently as he could, hoping to end this unsettling line of conversation, but Hairtrigger’s look of unease spurred him to elaborate. “Mystic may be… unpredictable at times, but she is as strong-willed and devout as anypony I’ve ever met.
To Caballus’s relief, Hairtrigger shrugged. “I s’pose I’ll have to trust you on that,” he said. “I’m just glad that if it comes to it, I ain’t likely to be the one to ‘deal with her,’ like you said.”
To which Caballus had no reply.
The pacing troubled Mystic. Usually when Roughshod was upset, he would find a firm bag of oats in their supplies and buck at it until he got tired. It was thankfully rare that he ever got so upset, as the bucking would keep her up well into the night. But she’d never seen him pace before. He’d been at it for hours.
“Shod?” she finally asked.
The stallion’s short tail swished. “Yeah, Sweet Pea?” he replied without stopping.
It took Mystic a moment to gather the question together. “Who was that?”
Finally Roughshod came to a stop, and he sighed. “Her name’s Sera Phim. She and Caballus go way back, back even further than he and I do.”
Something about the idea was foreign to Mystic. Caballus and Roughshod had been together—inseparable, actually—since the day she met them. They had been that way for most of her life, and the unicorn had sort of assumed it had always been like that, since the beginning of time as far as she was concerned.
“It seemed like she knew you,” she said. “How come I’ve never heard of her before?”
“She was on Caballus’s crew when I first met him,” said the stallion, looking at the floor. “We… uh… we didn’t exactly get along. Don’t think we ever will.”
Mystic snorted. “I can’t imagine why,” she said sourly.
For a while, the two had a silent moment of shared antipathy toward the Canoness. When it passed, Roughshod went over to his cot and laid down, his back to Mystic. Another few minutes passed before Mystic spoke again.
A second passed before he stirred. “Yeah?”
“Did… did Caballus mean what he said?”
“About… about ‘dealing with me?’ Would he really do that?”
The stallion took a deep breath and rolled over to face her. “Listen, Sweet Pea-”
The Majesty’s hatch flew open, startling the ponies. “We’re moving out,” called Caballus as he stepped inside.
Roughshod sat up and Mystic rose to her hooves. “Where we going, boss,” asked the former as he stretched.
“Boy howdy, are you gonna like it,” said Hairtrigger coming in behind the Inquisipony. He held a document under his wing, offering it to the two with an excited grin.
Mystic levitated the paper and read it. “A reservation for three luxury suites at the Grand Pferdian Hotel?” she said, growing more excited herself with every word. “That does sound pretty nice.”
“I thought it would come in handy in case I needed to impersonate someone rich and powerful,” said Caballus smoothly. “No expense is too great in the pursuit of the Princess’s enemies, after all.”
“Heh, so what should I pack?” asked Roughshod. “You know, we don’t exactly fit in with the swanky crowd.”
“We can worry about that later,” the Inquisipony replied, turning around. “There’s something else we have to do before we can check in. Take what you need and we’ll send for the rest.”
Mystic raised an eyebrow. “What is it?”
“After we made our reservations, I had Hairtrigger check in at the local Arboates Courthouse,” said Caballus.
“It ain’t my Precinct, per se,” the pegasus said, “but I still got into their files. Being a Marshal means I have a bit of heft when it comes to a badge-flashing contest.”
Roughshod looked up from the personal effects he was packing. “Why didn’t you just flash your rosette?” he asked Caballus.
“It’s safest to assume that the Children know we’re here,” Caballus said, “but that doesn’t mean I want anypony else to know it. Officially, Sera and her Fillies are here on a pilgrimage to the Pferdian Basilica, Hairtrigger is on a classified investigation for the Arboates, and the rest of us aren’t here at all. I’d like to keep it that way as long as possible.”
The Inquisipony opened a crate of his own equipment. “Anyway,” he said, rummaging through it, “there’s been some interesting criminal activity recently, and we’re going to check it out.”
“Interesting how?” Roughshod asked.
Caballus slung his saddlebags over his back. “You’ll see,” he said nonchalantly, and walked out of the ship.
Mystic looked at the other two ponies. “I don’t think I like it when he says that,” she said.
The crowd around the guildhouse was large, but no larger than Caballus expected. Some of them were ponies who had missed the announcement to take the day off, on account of their workplace becoming a crime scene. Others had gotten it but came anyway, having nothing better to do than gawk. Many were reporters covering the event, clamoring for details from beyond the cordon, and there was a small circle of mourners holding vigil with a priest from the Heliarchy.
“Cut it out,” Caballus said, admonishing Roughshod for fiddling with his disguise. Hairtrigger had lent everypony but Fyzzix his spare Arboates uniforms.
“I can’t help it,” his friend replied, “it’s too tight.”
Caballus rolled his eyes. “So is everything else you try to wear. Just pretend like you belong in it.”
Hairtrigger led the rest of the team and their equipment through the crowd to the cordon. At first, two officers in royal blue tried to stop him. But after he showed them his Marshal Star, they begrudgingly let him through.
They ducked under the tape and entered the guildhouse’s huge doors. In contrast to the noise and bustle they had left behind, the interior felt like a tomb. The desks in the main hall, where all the activity would normally be, were all eerily empty. Beside the din of the circus outside, the only noise was the angry hoofsteps of the stallion walking out to meet them.
“And who do you think you are?” he said, on the verge of yelling. The earth pony was middle aged, thickly built and the same blue color as his uniform.
“Arboates,” said Hairtrigger, doing his best to sound unflappably authoritative. Even though he outranked any local authority, the pegasus was still somewhat new to throwing that weight around. “I’ll be taking over this here crime scene temporarily. Would your officers kindly assist my Berrispex Adepts, officer…?”
“Corpus, Chief Constable Habeas Corpus,” the stallion said, “and no, I won’t be assisting you until you give me some answers! The Precinct Judge assured me that this would be left to the Constabulary to sort out! We don’t need the Arboates’ help!”
Hairtrigger weathered the verbal assault before holding up a wing. “Certain details of this crime appear to be related to an ongoin’ investigation in the Palomyna Precinct. My team and I are here to see if that’s true.”
“Fine,” said the Chief, turning around, “but I can assure you, Arbitrotter, that this is an entirely Pferdian matter. You’ve been sent on an inter-sector goose-chase.”
Hairtrigger caught up to Chief Corpus. “And how’re you so sure of that?”
“Follow me,” the blue pony replied, “and I’ll show you. Then you can leave and we can both get on with our jobs.”
Caballus picked up his gear and motioned to the others to follow Hairtrigger to the far end of the guildhouse. The Chief led them down a short corridor, to an office. Two blue-clad officers stood watch outside the door, which appeared to have been broken open.
“Forced entry?” Hairtrigger asked. Now that he was at the crime scene proper, his whole demeanor had become uncharacteristically clinical.
“No,” said Chief Corpus, sounding calmer and more professional himself, “that was the secretary. She was outside the room, heard an altercation, and busted in. By the time she did, the perp had fled.”
Hairtrigger nudged the door open. Entering the room, the first thing they all noticed was the sheet-covered lump on the ground, peeking out from behind the desk. The team gathered around it.
Caballus put a hoof on the sheet, and looked up at Hairtrigger. The Arbitrotter nodded, and Caballus drew it back.
“The victim is a statue?” Mystic said quizzically. Now exposed on the floor was the stone likeness of an old stallion, one whose face was frozen in an expression of alarm, and whose hooves were up in a defensive stance. Its head had also been broken off, lying beside the rest.
“He didn’t used to be,” the Chief said.
Roughshod leaned over to Caballus. “I can see what you meant by interesting.”
Fyzzix set down the large metal container he carried beside the stone pony. At the press of a button, the spacious office filled with the clanks and whirs of the box unpacking itself, deploying a number of instruments that began their automated analysis.
The Meq-priest plugged his mechadendrite into the device’s interface port. “Brown marble, with a seven percent quartzite impurity. The fracture would have required a force of approximately-”
“We get it,” said Hairtrigger, failing to reign in his unease. “How in the good Princess’s name did this happen? What was the murder weapon?”
“Magic,” Chief Corpus said matter-of-factly, “Cockatrice magic, specifically.”
Roughshod and Mystic looked at one another, then at the Chief. “A cocka-what-now?” they said in unison.
He rolled his eyes. “The cockatrice. It’s a mutant species from the Everfree. Head of a chicken, body of a snake, beady red eyes that can petrify whoever looks into them.”
“It sounds like you know a bit about these cockatrices,” Caballus said.
“Yeah?” said the Chief, with a glare. “What’s it to you, Adept?”
The Inquisipony-in-disguise shrugged. “The Everfree is pretty far from here. I don’t know why you’d need to know about a dangerous creature like that, unless you were an Inquisipony of the Ordo Zoonos or something.”
Chief Corpus snorted. “I wish I didn’t. Unfortunately, it’s not the first time I’ve had to deal with assassination by cockatrice. I’ll forgive you out-of-towners for having never heard of the ‘Stone-Cold Killer.’”
“And what might an out-of-towner need to know?” Hairtirgger asked warily.
“He’s the deadliest assassin in the history of Pferdian’s criminal underworld,” said Corpus. “Has been for the past six years or so. Nopony’s ever seen him, and the only evidence he leaves behind are the statues.”
Hairtrigger glanced down at the petrified body. His biotic eye scanned it up and down. “So who’s he workin’ for?”
“Don’t know,” the Chief shrugged. “We’ve never caught anypony who’s ever hired him. There’s no pattern to his targets either, other than that they’re usually higher-ups in the trade houses. Never a Seneschal before, though…”
Corpus cast a somewhat anxious glance at the statue. “Every major guild has been targeted, so we assume he’s freelance. What I can tell you for sure is that all his hits have been here in Pferdian, so if your case started elsewhere, it wasn’t him. ”
“Look, I have to go handle the press,” he said, headed toward the door, “I think you can handle a crime scene without me, right?”
Caballus gave Hairtrigger a discrete nudge. “Oh, uh… thank you kindly Chief Constable Corpus,” the pegasus said, “but I reckon you’re right. I can see this ain’t got nothing to do with our investigation after all. We’ll see ourselves out.”
The Chief gave a brusque nod, and left them to pack up what little gear they had actually used.
“So boss,” said Roughshod, as they walked back through the empty guildhall, “what’s this got to do with the Children?”
Caballus frowned. “I’m not sure. Though a cockatrice is exactly the sort of dangerous Everfree creature that I would have expected Tier to be supplying the cult. Also, the most recent target was a senior member of the Ver Kaufer Trade House. I’m guessing that if we can find this ‘Stone-Cold Killer,’ he’ll lead us to the Children.”
“But how will we find him?” Mystic asked.
“First,” the Inquisipony replied, “I think we need to find out more about Teir’s family business. It’s time we met the real Rogue Trader: Meister Ver Kaufer.”
“Come in,” called Fyzzix. He had been expecting the knock on the door, ever since he heard the hoofsteps in the hallway 18.7 seconds ago. From the direction they had come from, he knew it was Caballus.
The door to the luxury suite swung open, and the Inquisipony strolled inside. “How is the transfer coming?” he asked.
“I should be done soon,” Fyzzix replied cheerfully. “It would have been done a while ago, but this hotel has some of the most bewildering protocols on its data-link that I’ve ever encountered outside of the Black Spire itself, or perhaps on a Forge Cloud. I had to evade thirteen separate crypto-sieves, each one with a completely different primary key. A few of them might have even made a dent in the Friendquisitional cipher, if they had gotten a chance to see it transmit.”
“I had a feeling the guilds would have every terminal in Pferdian wiretapped,” said Caballus, taking a place beside the Meq-priest’s equipment.
It seemed terribly out of place: a large stack of cogitators, all gunmetal gray, with their wire-bundles draped over the elegant, ivory-inlaid courtesy terminal that came with the room. Countless tiny lights flashed and blinked as it received and reconstituted the files Caballus required.
“It wasn’t anything you couldn’t handle, I’m sure,” Caballus said after watching them quietly churn for a few moments.
The speaker in Fyzzix’ neck made an uncanny approximation of a chuckle. “You wound me, old friend. At best, these spying programs might have been written by a retired Adept of the Logis Strategos, or maybe a moonlighting lexmechanic. I was tiptoeing around sharper eyes and ears than this long before I even made the rank of Magosus.”
“Good. Hardware this sophisticated would be sure to raise some suspicions if it was traced back to a hotel room, but it’s the only way to get the level of detail I need. If anypony in Pferdian catches wind that I’m not who I say I am, the Children could go to ground. Then we’d be up a proverbial creek.”
Caballus glanced at the cogitators one more time. His understanding of the symbols streaming across the terminal’s display was better than most ponies, but only those ordained into the Priesthood of Cloudsdale had any hope of truly appreciating it. He likened himself to a foal trying its hoof at advanced calculus.
Looking up before his head started to hurt, the Inquisipony’s gaze landed on Roughshod, who was sharing the room with Fyzzix. The brown stallion was sleeping on top of the soft, white comforter on his own king-sized bed. A faint smile hinted that it was truly as comfortable as it looked.
Caballus found a discarded pillow on the floor and bucked it at his friend.
“Whah? Huh?” said Roughshod, bolting upright and shaking the pillow from his face.
“What’s my name?” Caballus demanded.
For a moment, Roughshod stared at him, disoriented. “Oh right,” he said suddenly, “you’re… uh… Captain Swift Corsair! Rogue Trader, um, explorer and businesspony… uh… ex…”
“Businesspony extraordinaire,” Caballus finished for him.
Roughshod blinked, and then yawned. “Yeah, I knew that,” he said, laying back down to resume his nap.
“How will I get anypony in Pferdian to believe my identity if my own staff doesn’t seem to believe it?” the Inquisipony protested. The only answer he got from his friend was a snore.
“Fine, we can work on it later,” Caballus mumbled.
Fyzzix’ cogitator stack made several loud buzzing, beeping and grinding noises for a few seconds, followed by a final ding. “It’s ready,” the Meq-priest announced.
“Here.” Caballus handed Fyzzix a data-scroll. It was blank, but it appeared old and tattered, almost deliberately so. Gently, Fyzzix fed it into a slot on one side of the stack, beginning a whole new slew of churning and whirring sounds.
“It should be ready in another 4.53 hours,” he said, “give or take.”
Caballus turned to the door. “Until then, I suggest you brush up on your trade regulations. I’m going to go check up on the others.”
Those others were currently in the suite across the hall. Caballus knocked on the door.
“Come in,” said a muffled voice on the other side.
Upon entering, Caballus found Hairtrigger lying face down on a massage table in the middle of the spacious room. A professionally-dressed masseuse was standing over him, firmly kneading the muscles between his wings. Every few moments, something beneath her hooves would snap or pop, making the Arbitrotter grunt at first, before he sighed in relaxation.
Caballus approached the table with a smirk. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
“I hope you aren’t neither,” said Hairtrigger, not even looking up.
“I take it you’re enjoying the amenities, then?”
“I reckon ‘enjoying’ ain’t strong enough a word,” the pegasus groaned contently.
Caballus looked around the room. “And where’s Mystic?”
“Did somepony call for me?” The suite’s bathroom door opened, releasing a billowing wave of steam. Mystic, wearing a fluffy white bathrobe and with a towel wrapped around her wet mane, stepped outside. Seeing Caballus, she grinned sheepishly, until she realized the masseuse was still standing there. “Oh, ah… hello Captain. There haven’t been any letters for you. Did you need to send one?”
“No, Mystic,” he said, pleased that she remembered her cover in front of a stranger. “But if our guest is done, I wouldn’t mind having a chat with you two. In private.”
The masseuse wordlessly bowed, helped Hairtrigger off her table, packed it up, and carted it out of the suite.
After a moment, Caballus’s eyes scanned around the room. It was laid out exactly the same as the one Roughshod and Fyzzix were staying in: two large beds, a courtesy terminal, tasteful paintings, ornate couches, tables and chairs, and a door to the balcony overlooking downtown Pferdian. The greatest difference was that, instead of Fyzzix’ piles of technical equipment and Roughshod’s bags of weapons, these two had packed light: just a few choice books for Mystic, and whatever Arboates gear Hairtrigger could comfortably fly with.
“Where did she put it?” he finally asked.
“One in the lamp on the nightstand, where she set her oil,” said the Arbitrotter, “and another she kicked under the bed, there on the left.”
Green sparkles appeared in those two locations as Mystic plucked the tiny listening devices from their hiding places and held them in the air. Caballus spoke directly into the microphones. “No hard feelings,” he said, before Mystic vaporized them.
“Now that we’re actually in private,” Caballus said to Hairtrigger, “you look like you have something to say.”
“Aw, c’mon Caballus,” the pegasus whined, “did’ja have to stop her right in the middle? I haven’t never had a massage like that since… well… I ain’t never had a massage ever, but that one was probably the best I’ll ever get!”
“Sorry, but I’d hate for you to get so relaxed that something… compromising… might slip out,” said Caballus fighting back a smile.
Mystic blushed as she levitated a mirror over and unwound her towel. “Don’t worry. I could hear them from in there, and he didn’t say anything you didn’t tell him to.” In a matter of seconds, her dark blue mane was once again secured in its bun. A second after that, the lone lime lock escaped and flopped down in front of her face.
“So,” Caballus said, “besides running up the room service bill, how else have you been spending your evening?”
Hairtrigger scooped some data-scrolls off his bed. “I’ve been pokin’ around these files about the Stone-Cold Killer all day. These ones,” he said, holding up a thin folder, “are everything collected by the Arboates Precinct of this sector. Every victim, every crime scene, every piece of hard evidence they have.”
Caballus took the folder, flipping through the scrolls, and occasionally stopping to activate one’s contents. “There’s not much here,” he said, frowning.
“Not really. The Arboates tend to focus on the crimes that threaten the stability of their Precinct. Rioting, sabotage, terrorism, that sort of thing. Well in Pferdian here, that sort of lawbreaking is stability. The cartels are dug in so deep, giving them the boot would cause more damage than just leaving them be. As long as they’re mostly feuding with one another, the Arbitrotters in these parts just turn a blind eye to the whole mess.”
“And here I thought they were supposed to be the good guys,” said Mystic sarcastically.
Hairtrigger nodded. “I hear ya, but that ain’t a problem little ol’ us can just up and solve ourselves. The real trouble is that they seem to consider Mister Stony to be a two-bit hitpony. Sure, he’s got himself quite a high body… er, statue count, but he only seems to go after the small fry. Lesser nobles, distributors, gang lieutenants. Nopony that rocks the boat too much if they turn up stiff. These guys knocking each other off is business as usual to the Arboates, so they don’t even give them a second glance. Just pass the cases right down to the Constabulary.”
He produced a far thicker stack of data-scrolls, all bearing the stamps and stationary of the Pferdian Constabulary. “Chief Corpus was kind enough to send me this. Not sure if he’s taken a shine to me after all, or if he just wants to make darn sure he don’t have to see me again.”
“You do have knack for recovering from first impressions,” Caballus said as he leafed through the scrolls. Some of them were direct copies of the Arboates reports, but for each case, there were many more additional files appended to them.
“The Arboates documented all the hard evidence they could find,” said Hairtrigger, “but they can’t figure out nothing from it. Then, the Constabulary investigators put together these case files on the victims. Background, activities, associates, the works.”
Caballus noted that many of the dossiers were quite extensive. At a glance, it seemed that most of these ponies had been functionaries of their gangs or guilds for long periods of time. Nopony rising through the ranks, nopony causing a stir. None of them seemed like high-priority targets. “Did the Constabulary identify any patterns among the victims?” he asked.
“The only pattern is that there ain’t no pattern, and no real reason these folk needed killing,” Hairtrigger replied, echoing the Inquisipony’s intuition. “The Chief set out a lot of pieces to the puzzle here, but ain’t none of them been fit together yet.”
“Maybe that’s why he sent you the files,” said Mystic. She had hung up her robe, and was now curled up on her own bed, listening to the stallions talk while she absently leafed through one of her books. “Maybe Chief Corpus thinks a fresh pair of eyes might see something they’ve all missed.”
“Maybe,” Hairtrigger admitted, “but it’s a real doozie of a pickle. Ol’ Stony is like a doggone ghost. He don’t leave no fibers, no hoofprints, no nothing. I almost don’t blame the Arboates for passing the buck on down. There ain’t no solid ground here. Not to mention some of the cases in here are downright spooky.”
Caballus raised an eyebrow. “Spooky how?”
“Like some of these hits were impossible.” The pegasus took the stack from Caballus, flipped through the files, and pulled a few out. “Or damn near. This here mare was a steel magnate, and a small-time noble ‘round these parts. She left her office in a carriage one evening, headed to her estate. The carriage arrived nine minutes later, and when the driver went to let her out, she was stone. Neither he, nor any of the pulling team, saw or heard nothing.”
“And here’s another,” the Arbitrotter said, flipping to the next case file, “an Admanestratum tithe-collector on the take with one of the guilds. He was last seen with his two bodyguards, leaving City Hall. They woke up in an alley across town that evening, with no memory of what happened. He was found in City Hall’s private courtyard three days later. Well, he’d been there the whole time, but it took the employees that long to notice how much the ‘new sculpture’ looked like him. There was no sign of how he got there on any security footage.”
Caballus took the scroll and skimmed it himself. “Impressive… Disturbingly impressive. This level of skill is something I’d expect from the Officio Assaddlenorum.”
“This one’s my favorite. Three of Meister’s own mid-level smugglers were put up in a safe house downtown. The Arboates estimated there were ten armed thugs outside looking after them.”
Caballus’s eyes narrowed. “They estimated?”
The Arbitrotter shrugged. “They’d all been petrified, and smashed to rubble in a big pile in the middle of the room. Couldn’t tell heads from tails. And afterward, the Killer still managed to get into the panic room.”
“After all that,” Mystic said without looking up from her book, “wasn’t the panic room the easy part?”
Hairtrigger shook his head. “Not likely. It was void warded.”
Mystic stopped right in the middle of turning her page, and turned her head. “V-void warded?”
“Yep. One of the smugglers was a former ward technician for the Equestrian Navy. It says here that he was a little paranoid, so he usually warded whatever room he was staying in.”
“But no… that’s impossible,” Mystic said, flabbergasted. “Void wards are the strongest protective spells known to ponykind. It’s what they use on battleships and… and titans. I mean, it usually takes entire teams of unicorns to maintain them but… but… for anything short of a… a party cannon, even one ward would be impenetrable!”
Hairtrigger shrugged. “Not for Ol’ Stony here, apparently.”
“Do you mind if I borrow these?” Caballus asked, as he gathered up the stack of scrolls. “It should make for some good bed-time reading, and I’d like to get an idea of what we might be up against.”
“Sure, I could use a break. Been readin’ through them all day, and it’s starting to make my eye sore,” the pegasus replied, smirking. “Frankly, I don’t know how the little lady can do it so much.”
The comment nudged Mystic out of her shock, and she blushed. “Lots of practice,” was all she said.
With the files in his bag, Caballus bid the two goodnight. “Tomorrow, we’ll begin looking for ways to get close to Meister,” he added. “Be ready early.”
Both of them made the obligatory promises that they would to go to bed soon, and he returned to his own room. Caballus knew that he should get some sleep himself, but it was probably inevitable that he would read through at least a few of the cases before he did. He had never been able to resist a good mystery.
When the door of his personal suite shut behind him, the only illumination in the room was from the moon, partially shrouded by the wispy Pferdian clouds outside. The Inquisipony could see just well enough in the darkness to reach his bed without colliding into any furniture, and he set the bag of scrolls on the floor beside it.
It was strangely… quiet in the room. Not even the din of downtown outside his window dared to intrude on the stillness. It was a stark contrast to the constant noise of the Majesty’s engines keeping him awake the past several nights. The silence that now surrounded him felt… foreign. It made the hair of his neck stand on end.
Caballus reached for the lamp on the nightstand. As he did, the clouds outside let slip a single moonbeam, revealing a metallic gleam right in front of him.
Instinctively, Caballus dove away from it. Images of knifes or pie tins flew through his mind. It wouldn’t have been the first time somepony had ambushed him in his own room. By muscle memory alone, he rolled across the floor and drew a pie to face the threat.
But the attack never came. There was nopony there, and there never had been. All this talk of assassins has made you jumpy, he told himself. At least now he had his own panting and the thumping of his heart to listen to.
With a slightly shaky hoof, Caballus flipped on the bedside lamp. Beside it, he found the source of the startling shine. It was a small scroll, one made of gold leaf, and wrapped in a lace ribbon.
Carefully, the Inquisipony pulled the ribbon off with his teeth, and unrolled the note. His eyes panned over every intricately engraved letter. It took only a moment to finish, but he stared at it for several minutes afterward. Finally, he picked up his room phone, and dialed.
“Fyz, it’s me,” he said calmly. “Get everyone and bring them to my room. Right now, please.”
A couple minutes later, Caballus was looking at four concerned ponies.
“What is it, boss?” a bleary-eyed Roughshod asked him. “What’s wrong?”
“Meister Ver Kaufer hereby cordially invites you to the Plutarch’s Palace to celebrate the traditional Pferdian festival of Macsnacht,” Caballus read aloud. “Transportation and refreshment will be provided for yourself and an entourage.”
“So…” Hairtrigger said after a moment, “the fella we’re here investigating, a stallion we think has ties to cults, heresy and all manner of unpleasantness, just invited you to a party in his very own home?”
“That seems to be the case,” Caballus replied.
“But why?” asked Roughshod.
Caballus held up the lace ribbon that had bound the invitation. Mystic levitated it over to the rest of them.
“To: Captain Swift Corsair,” she read. “It’s addressed to your cover name.”
“My guess is that when Meister’s cronies here at the hotel ran the name, they matched it to its original owner,” Caballus said. He scrutinized the invitation once more. “They bought it, so now I’m getting Corsair’s junk mail.”
Fyzzix snatched the golden sheet away with his mechadendrite. A tiny sensor array in the arm swept across the invitation over and over. “According to the archive’s entries about Pferdian, Macsnacht is an important holiday in this city,” he said as he waited for the array to reach the end of its analysis. “The reigning Plutarch is expected to host some kind of event, and invite the city’s elite.” Once complete, the sensors retracted, and he handed the note back to Caballus. “It was etched by an industrial mass-engraver. They could have easily printed hundreds of them, and probably did.”
Roughshod tapped a hoof, anxiously. “It’s gotta be a trap, you know. I mean, the one lead we have in this investigation is the Ver Kaufer family, and suddenly, the day we show up, you literally get an engraved invitation? It doesn’t sit right with me.”
“I know,” said Caballus, “but that’s why you’re all coming along. Everypony get some sleep. We’ve got a party to prepare for.”
True to the invitation’s word, Caballus received a call around dusk from the hotel’s concierge telling him that a carriage had arrived for him. It was a bit later than he had expected, but Fyzzix assured him that it was tradition for festivities on Macsnacht to last well into the night, so a late start was to be expected.
The five of them stepped out onto the street, and found it already busier than during the day. By the time the sun was completely set, and not just hiding behind the city’s skyscrapers as it was now, the streets would be packed with revelers. On the curb, three identical carriages were waiting for guests staying at the hotel.
They were limousine-coaches, whose cabs were each twice as long as a typical stage coach. Each was sleek and white, and prominently bore the Ver Kaufer family crest and corporate logo, an antiquated cash register. Three coachponies managed their pulling teams, teams of four matching white pegasi. Not that they needed much managing; the pegasi were all cybernetic servitors, standing stock still until their driver issued a command.
“That’s us,” Caballus said, nodding toward the one where the driver held a sign saying “Corsair.” They approached, and she asked to see his invitation. When Caballus handed it to her, she waved the golden ticket over the console beside her seat, and it blinked green. The five of them had permission to pile in.
If anything, the interior was even plusher than the exterior. There was enough room on the long, velvet-lined seats for each of them to lie down, with space to spare. Tinted windows ensured that the carriage’s occupants would be protected from the prying eyes of the public, though Caballus was sure that Ver Kaufer had plenty of ears all around them. Conversation would have to be limited to topics consistent with their cover stories.
Not that they had much of a chance to talk. No sooner than they were all seated, than the carriage took off. After the initial jolt of acceleration, the city street outside the windows fell away, becoming a growing carpet of glass, steel, concrete, and lights.
“The city is beautiful from up here,” said Mystic, her face pressed against her window.
Caballus glanced uneasily out his. “I’d much prefer to admire it from solid ground. But I suppose you’re right, even though I’m still partial to the spires of Hippopolis.”
“It’s just like every other big city,” Hairtrigger said, “when you’re far away they look awful pretty, but then you look close enough and… well, then they all tend to look pretty awful.”
After a few minutes, the sea of city lights below began to thin, becoming sparser as they left behind downtown. Beyond the discernible edge of the city proper, there were scores of tiny islands of light, all isolated from one another.
“This region is known as the ‘Palace Quilt’ by the lower classes,” Fyzzix read off of his data-scroll, “for the patchwork of distinct residences belonging to the Pferdian nobility. Each of those is a separate estate, surrounded by acres of gardens, orchards and secondary structures.”
Roughshod leaned over the report, which included maps, blueprints and tactical analyses. “Talk about your ‘gated community.’ These Pferdian bigwigs build their houses like fortresses. High walls, state-of-the-art security, their own private armies and arsenals.”
One of the light-islands grew closer and brighter as the air-carriage descended toward it. As they approached, the palace became more distinct. It was huge, covering the area of several city blocks, not even counting the dozen smaller buildings around the central palace. A minute later, they could make out the illuminated shape of a gothic castle, situated on a rolling hill. Tall, buttressed towers overlooked lush courtyard gardens, and a massive glass dome stood in the center, blazing with light from within.
“They need strong houses,” Caballus said, surveying the residence. “Their neighbors might as well be hostile nations. If a cartel shows any weakness, they’ll be… They’ll be…”
The carriage’s deceleration jarred his train of thought as the landing pad below rapidly rushed up to meet them. He braced himself, turning away from the window until they finally came to a rest. “Ahem. If they show any weakness, they’ll be muscled out.”
Without a word, the coachmare opened the carriage door, and the five disembarked. The landing pad was only one of several, all of them with causeways leading to a single broad, red carpet. Many other well-dressed ponies were arriving, a few in white limo-carriages like theirs, but most in their own personal craft. The carpet led them from the arrival area toward the main gate, an arch ten meters high.
Ver Kaufer House guards in professional, white uniforms attended the entrance. The rest of the team fell single file behind Caballus when they were stopped. “Invitation, please,” one guard said—firmly, but respectfully.
Again, the ticket was scanned, and again it was approved by a green light. Only this time it was followed by a short series of tones, to which the guard frowned. He punched a few keys on the device.
Caballus glanced down at the ticket scanner. “Is… something wrong?”
“Of course not, Captain Corsair,” the guard answered politely. “I’ve just sent for a servitor guide. Every VIP is assigned one for the duration of their time here.”
Caballus somehow managed to hide his surprise. He had considered his invitation to be a fortunate oversight, a courtesy unwittingly offered to him because of the title he was using as a disguise. He certainly looked the part, wearing a blue, vaguely naval-style dolman jacket, with yellow epaulettes and a black pelisse slung over one shoulder like a short cape. “I’m a VIP?”
“According to your invitation,” replied the guard, a little confused by the question. “While we wait, I’ll need to document your guests.”
The rest of the team produced their forged identifications. First was Roughshod.
“My Head of Security,” said Caballus, as his friend was scanned and patted down for weapons. Several pies and cupcakes were found beneath his grey vest and confiscated.
“Your guide will return these to you when you leave,” the guard assured, in response to Roughshod’s grumblings.
“My Seneschal,” continued the Inquisipony, referring to Fyzzix. Having spent the day downloading as much information he could about running a business, Caballus hoped the Meq-priest would be able to pass himself off as his chief financial assistant in a conversation.
Then Mystic stepped forward to be scanned and photographed. The guard eyed her horn warily, as well as the forest green robes of the Adeptus Draco Telegraphica she was wearing. “This is my personal Dracopath,” said Caballus quickly, before the guard might come up with a reason to turn her away. “I’ll need her by my side the entire night.”
It was partly a demand that she be let though, but also it was an assurance; an assurance that he would be responsible for the unicorn he had brought along. Dracopaths were known to often be eccentric.
Lastly it came to Hairtrigger, the only one using his actual identity. The guard scrutinized him as well, somewhat offput by the presence of a dress-uniformed Arbitrotter at an event attended mainly by crime bosses. “He’s a friend and client,” Caballus explained, “and since we’re both new in town, I thought I’d let him tag along… off duty.”
“He just thinks I’ll order too much room service while he’s out partying,” the pegasus grinned as his badge was verified. The guard forced a polite smile in return, and finally allowed them through.
Once inside, the main gate gave way to a long hallway, lined with ornate sculptures, paintings, and other flashy signs of wealth, status and pedigree. Every step resounded loudly off the polished marble floor.
“Rather martial,” Mystic remarked, looking at a one painting of some illustrious Ver Kaufer ancestor. He was wearing in an antiquated, medal-laden general’s uniform, and posing boldly at the helm of an equally antiquated airship.
“It’s all calculated,” said Caballus, himself admiring an ancient suit of armor standing sentry over the hallway. “Every last piece is a show of force. Ver Kaufer wants his rivals to know just how rich, powerful and ruthless he is. Everything they see and hear on their visit is deliberately put there to give them that impression.”
“Sounds like you’re the one who’s impressed,” Roughshod said.
Caballus only shrugged. “It’s a method I can appreciate. After all, we” he said, seemingly about their group, but really in reference to the Friendquisition, “accomplish as much by our reputation as we do by the actual work we do.”
“Greetings. Lord,” declared a heavily synthesized voice ahead of them.
The group turned to find their guide. It was a servitor, consisting mostly of a silver-coated earth pony mare. It wore a golden silk gown, simple in design, and it gave the cyborg’s rear half the appearance of floating smoothly across the floor. There was a slight bulge on its back, where engraved brass clockwork was exposed. An ivory masquerade mask made its entire face, even its eyes, perfectly smooth and inscrutable.
“Greetings. Lord,” it repeated in a staccato, causing the team to realize they had been staring.
“A positively exquisite specimen,” Fyzzix said as he circled the guide, looking it up and down. “It’s a luxury domestic servitor, heavily customized, and very well programmed it seems. By the engraved patterns and composition of the metallurgy, I’d guess it was manufactured at Forge Cloud Zirruswolke, not far from here. They’re a smaller forge, but they’ve elevated many of their products, including servitors it seems, to an art form.”
The servitor quirked its head. “Do you require refreshment. Lord?”
“Yes,” Caballus said, looking to each of his companions. “A sparkling punch for myself, and your finest cider for Roughshod.”
“Make it two,” Hairtrigger added.
Serving trays and mechanical arms unfolded from the servitor’s back, dispensing the beverages. Roughshod and Hairtrigger quickly downed theirs, while Caballus took a sip and placed his glass back on the tray.
The Inquisipony knew Fyzzix didn’t require anything, as he was hydrated by a cooling unit somewhere in his abdominal cavity. Not to mention, his idea of a stiff drink was usually something with high octane. “Mystic? Anything for you?”
“No…” she said, eyeing the servitor suspiciously, “I’m fine.”
“Very well. Lord,” it said, bowing. “This way to the party. Welcome to Kaufschloss.”
It led them down the hallway at a meandering pace, taking every opportunity to give some factoid or another about the items they passed, and the events and ponies they depicted. Fyzzix took it upon himself to add some historical context to the commentary, usually revealing the whole truth to be somewhat less flattering to the Ver Kaufer regime. After what seemed like miles of walking, they finally reached the main hall.
Even before they stepped over the threshold, the subdued melodies of a classical ensemble and the fragrances of flowers and perfume wafted over the din of many voices conversing. Once inside, the team found itself in the midst of a great herd of Pferdian aristocrats.
“This is the main hall,” the guide droned. “Please remain here. And enjoy the amenities provided. If you require anything. Do not hesitate to request it.”
Caballus scanned the crowd and sighed. “I suppose we should make an effort to mingle until Meister shows himself. Maybe these ponies won’t be the usual lot of air-headed bluebloods.” In previous undercover operations at events like this, or even when he was attending openly on behalf of the Friendquisition, Caballus had come to dread talking to the upper classes. He usually found them as vapid and poorly-informed as they were arrogant and egotistical.
“Speak for yourself,” Roughshod smirked. “My job is to stand next to you and look tough.”
“And mine is to quietly follow you around pretend you could receive an important letter at any moment,” said Mystic.
Caballus looked to Fyzzix, hoping he wouldn’t have to brave the conversational tedium alone. “Of course I’ll engage the locals in appropriate discourse,” the Meq-priest said. “Lunassiah knows how many missions I’m stuck tending the ship while you get to go out and meet all the interesting ponies.”
Roughshod chuckled. “Usually, those interesting ponies are trying to kill us.”
“Aww horseapples!” Hairtrigger cursed suddenly.
The rest stopped and turned to him. “What? What is it?” Caballus asked.
And indeed it was the Chief Constable. He appeared to be just finishing a conversation with somepony about ten yards in front of them. Then, in spite of Caballus’s silent prayers, Corpus spotted them. Even at a distance, the Inquisipony could see his brow furrow in confusion as he started in their direction.
“What do we do?” Hairtrigger whispered.
“Stick to our new covers,” Caballus answered, “and then… improvise.”
Before Hairtrigger even knew it, the Chief’s face was right up to his own. The earth pony’s face was unreadable, though his eyes flashed with… something. Anger, probably, though it could have been something else; curiosity perhaps, or amusement. A servitor guide, almost identical to their own, followed closely behind him.
“My my, Arbitrotter, it’s quite a surprise to see you here,” Corpus said in a way that betrayed he wasn’t very surprised at all. “And how, might I ask, did an out-of-towner and a keeper of the Lex manage to find himself in this den of thieves?”
The orange pegasus laughed nervously “Heh, wouldn’t you believe it, I’ve… uh… made some friends in high places. I’d like to introduce you to him. Chief Corpus, this here is Captain Swift Corsair, Rogue Trader.”
Caballus stepped forward to offer his hoof. “Chief, good to see you again.”
Corpus regarded Caballus and the rest of them, before he turned back to Hairtrigger. “Your Berrispex Adepts?”
“Sure shooting. I needed a ride here for my case, and the good Captain was moseying through my sector on to this one. So I hitched up with him, and wouldn’t you know it, we get along like belts an’ buckles.”
Caballus nodded in agreement. “It’s true. I was so curious about the Arbitrotter’s duties that I asked him if my team and I could… ride along, as it were. You know, live a day in the life of the Arboates.”
“That’s… unorthodox,” Corpus said, but he finally accepted Caballus’s hoofshake. He was still talking to Hairtrigger while he did. “I never took the Arboates to be so lax with their regulations.”
“Aww shucks, Chief. Lighten up!” Hairtrigger slapped the stallion playfully on the back, causing Corpus to stiffen, clearly unused to such familiarity. “Ain’t no law in the Lex says we can’t show some hospitality on the job.”
“No law like ‘impersonating an Equestrian agent, officer or official?’” Corpus countered, a little puzzled. The last thing he probably expected to hear from the mouth of an Arbitrotter was “lighten up.”
This seemed to stump Hairtrigger, until Caballus stepped in. “Not to worry, Chief Corpus. We were all properly deputized and cleared with the Courthouse for our little visit,” he lied. “In exchange, I agreed to bring the Arbitrotter out to the party, to get a taste of what being a Rogue Trader can be like.”
“Er… right, exactly,” Hairtrigger said. “Uh… say, Chief? I know I stick out like a carrot on a beanstalk, but why were you invited? Aren’t you the sheriff around these parts, so to speak?”
Corpus sighed a weary sigh. “Yes, but the Chief Constable answers to the office of the Plutarch, even if that office sits on a foundation of crime and corruption. And our dear Meister Ver Kaufer makes me attend these little soirees, just to prove he can. If I could, I’d tear up my ticket every year and avoid the whole lot of them, but I don’t have the luxury.”
“You could always tag along with us,” Hairtrigger offered.
“We’d be grateful to have somepony around to help show us the ropes here in Pferdian.” Caballus said in agreement. “I don’t know if it’s obvious from just looking at them, but this group isn’t the most socially graceful.”
For the first time, a faint smile flickered across Corpus’s lips. “I might just have to take you up on it. It would be nice to have someone to talk to who isn’t boring as dirt. Or who isn’t implicated in at least a half dozen unsolved crimes. I’d bet my badge that you five are the only ponies in this room who don’t fall into one group or the other. Or both.”
At some unheard signal, Corpus’s and Caballus’s servitors both interjected themselves into the conversation at the same time, with all the grace of something that was half-robot. “Excuse me. Lord,” they said in unison, “The traditional Macsnacht evening banquet. Is about to begin. Please follow me. To the VIP dining area.”
Caballus’s guide then cocked its head in that way it did when it was processing additional programming. “My apologies. Lord. Only invite recipients. Will be permitted to attend the private banquet. Your guests must remain in the main hall. And may enjoy the amenities provided.”
“My favorite part,” Chief Corpus said sardonically. “Come on. If you want a chance to meet the Plutarch—and I assume that’s why you’re here—you had best not be tardy. He can be… an exacting stallion” He turned and followed his guide back into the crowd, threatening to disappear if Caballus didn’t catch up quickly.
Caballus gave his team a hard look. “I want you to stay focused in here. You’re here to gather whatever intel you can about Meister, and anything that might tie him to the Children. Not to have fun.”
Two pairs of natural eyes, Hairtrigger’s mismatched one, and Fyzzix’ red, goggle-like implants all silently pleaded back at him.
The Inquisipony rolled his eyes and cracked a smile. “Okay. You can have a little fun.”
“What now?” said Hairtrigger bluntly.
With Caballus gone, the rest of the team found themselves somewhat aimless.
Fyzzix spoke up first. “As Caballus said, we are to investigate Meister and uncover any-”
“Yeah, we heard him,” Roughshod said. “Problem is, where do we start?”
Hairtrigger scratched his chin. “When I’m on a case and I need some beans spilled, I go where the tongues are loosest: the bar.”
Roughshod’s ears perked up. “So the usual plan, then? What are we waiting for? I thought I saw drinks being served over there,” he said, pointing toward the far wall, where the crowd seemed thicker. “Cab almost had me worried, taking that serving servitor with him.”
Fyzzix and Hairtrigger made to follow him, but Mystic eyed the herd congregated around the bar with doubt. “I’m not really thirsty,” she said. “I think I’ll wait here.”
“You sure, Sweet Pea?” Roughshod said. He gave her a concerned look, but seeing her rooted to the spot she stood, he just nodded. “We’ll be right back, okay?”
She rolled her eyes. “I can take care of myself. Just go ahead.”
Her larger friend simply shrugged and headed toward the bar, Fyzzix in tow. Hairtrigger lingered a moment longer. “Don’t fret, little missy, I’ll bring you something,” he said, and before she could decline again, he lifted off into the air and disappeared over the throng.
Now alone, Mystic took a deep breath and closed her eyes. The air had the sweet tang of exotic fruits and the sharp scents of spiced vegetables being served as hors d'oeuvres. There were ponies walking all around her. She could hear their hooves. She could sense them with her magic; when she focused this way, her horn tingled a little whenever somepony came near.
Not that they came too close; her green robes and the horn on her head ensured that. While all magic had its risks, summoning dragonfire was among the most difficult, even for those trained specifically in its art. Without the soul-binding ritual, performed in the presence of the Princess Herself, the mere attempt usually drove a unicorn mad. Even then, a lifetime spent sending letters across Equestria strained a Dracopath’s sanity, and generally their manners as well. The nobles around her gave her a wide berth, assuming her to be just as unstable.
Except one, a tall stallion in a finely tailored suit, who didn’t seem to have noticed her standing there alone. Instead of watching where he was going, he was making a joke to the mare walking beside him, and walked straight into Mystic. Red punch splashed his evening wear.
“What in the name of Tartarus?” he exclaimed, straightening the splotched vest. Seeing who it was that had gotten in his way, his teeth gritted with anger. “Mind your place, you horn-headed oaf!”
Apologizing profusely, Mystic’s eyes frantically searched for something to help fix the situation. A few ponies were already starting to notice this little scene, and that was the last thing she wanted. She felt their disapproving gazes even through her robe, making her skin crawl. Worst of all, it could blow the whole mission if things got out of hand. And it would be all her fault.
Finally, she spotted a servitor gliding by with a tray of hot towels, and she deftly plucked one up with her magic. “I’m so sorry, sir,” she said, trying her best to keep her composure. “It was an accident. Please, let me help.”
The gentlecolt shied away from the glowing towel. “You’ll do nothing of the sort! Keep your witchery away from me, unicorn!” he said, trotting briskly away.
Mystic hung her head, and pulled the hood of her robe as far as it would stretch to hide her face. She heard snickers nearby, and through watering eyes, she glanced up to see other ponies watching her, turning up their noses and smiling smugly. She hung her head even lower.
They’ll never accept you, an inner voice told her, and she saw no reason to disagree. They hate you because they’re afraid of what they don’t understand, and can you really blame them?
No sooner did she wipe the unshed tears gathering in her eyes than she felt a gust from up above. Hairtrigger landed gently beside her, holding a drink.
“I brought you this,” he said, smiling and offering the glass. It smelled of pineapple and coconut. “I don’t rightly know what your poison is, but I’ll be darned if the fillies don’t all seem to… Uh… Hey, are you alright, little missy?”
The unicorn collected herself as best she could, and looked up. “I-I’m fine. And thanks but… I don’t drink.”
“Come on,” the pegasus said, insisting, “you look like you could use one now more than just about any time I’ve ever seen you.”
Mystic looked down at the beverage, and back up at Hairtrigger. She took it and downed it all in a single draught. Afterward she wiped her muzzle on her green robe, and a second later she teetered backward. Hairtrigger caught her. “That… was a bit stronger than I expected,” she said sheepishly.
He grinned. “Ma always said, sometimes to see things clearly, you have to make ‘em a little blurry.”
As Mystic found her footing again, Hairtrigger’s ears perked up. The band had begun a new song, a tango, light and upbeat. Several couples were already dancing in the in open space in the center of the ball room, in front of the ensemble’s elevated stage.
“Let’s go dance,” Hairtrigger blurted out.
The green unicorn sputtered in surprise. “Are you… you’re serious? I’ve never danced in my life. I… I don’t know how…” She’d only ever seen it done in books and holo-vids.
“And I look like I’m the two-steppin’ type? You don’t have to be good at it,” he said, drawing her hood back down, “you just have to get out there and show the world that pretty face of yours.”
Mystic blushed and looked away. “But… what about the mission?”
“What about it? We ain’t going nowhere. And if there’s heretics here, then they’ll be here five minutes from now.” Hairtrigger flashed his most devilish grin and held out his hoof. “Caballus told us we could have a little fun, didn’t he?”
Mystic cast a forlorn glance at the ponies dancing. Maybe it was Hairtrigger’s confidence rubbing off on her, or maybe it was the liquid courage, but it did look rather inviting. She placed her hoof in his, and they hit the dance floor.
Despite truly not knowing much about the subject, it was Hairtrigger’s responsibility to lead, and he took to it with gusto. After only a few moments to learn the beat, he took after the other dancers and held his left hoof out. Mystic put her right hoof on it, and they began.
At first it was just the steps. Step two, step four. It was easy enough, she thought, if she concentrated.
“Hey, why you looking down?” Hairtrigger asked.
The question almost threw off Mystic’s careful rhythm. “So I can watch your hooves.”
“That’s not how it works,” he chuckled. “You have to look up.”
“But… then I’ll…”
The orange stallion shook his head. “No buts, little missy. Here, just look me in the eye, and I’ll take care of you. Trust me.”
Mystic let him lead, and for a moment, it worked. The two of them were moving smoothly and she could finally see herself having fun. But as soon as she stopped focusing on her feet, she stumbled.
Immediately, she felt eyes on her again, heard the hushed voices—real and imaginary—quietly scoffing at her. Her ears flattened against her head, and she pulled up at her hood. Hairtrigger stopped her.
“Nope,” her friend insisted. His words were gentle but firm. “Can’t let you do that, little missy. You can’t worry about them. Focus on me. I told you, I’ll take care of you.”
Taking a deep breath, Mystic hesitantly gave Hairtrigger her hoof again. She shut out the herd around her, and fixed her attention on him. His gaze held hers, as securely as his hoof did, and her concerns over what was being thought or said about her receded into the background. Only one eye mattered to her in that moment.
They moved together, one step at a time, finding the beat again and letting it carry them. Hairtrigger’s natural pegasus coordination meant he could lead the dance without much effort, which put Mystic more at ease herself. It wasn’t entirely unlike her hoof-to-hoof combat training with Roughshod, the green pony remarked. Her drills had had a certain rhythm to them, and the movements were so ingrained that she could perform them without breaking her concentration. Before long, she was adding simple spins and kicks to their steps.
“I can’t believe it,” she said after a minute, “It’s almost like I’m having… fun.”
“Yup,” Hairtrigger agreed with a smile, “I reckon you are.”
“Well there’s something I never thought I’d see.”
Roughshod took a final swig from his glass of cider and leaned on the bar. It wasn’t nearly as tall as he would have liked, but he suspected a drink large enough to match his thirst wouldn’t have been considered ‘proper.’
“Another cider here, and a… uh… motor oil for my friend,” he called out. The bartender shot him an odd look, but sent a servitor assistant to refill his glass.
“And what would that be?” Fyzzix swiveled his head in an attempt to see what his friend had been talking about. It was in vain, though; only Roughshod was tall enough to see over the ponies crowded at the bar. After giving up on straining his neck, he lifted himself up with a few brisk flaps and hovered just above head-level.
“Little Sweet Pea, shakin’ her groove thing.” The stallion said it as though he didn’t quite believe it, even though he was watching it with his own eyes.
The Meq-priest was mildly perplexed. “Is there a reason she shouldn’t be? She’s in more than adequate physical condition. The activity doesn’t hold any particular hazards to speak of…”
“I just never figured her for the type, you know?” Roughshod answered with a shrug.
“And what type is that? There is nothing preventing unicorns from dancing like any other-”
“No, not like… I mean she’s never showed any interest in… that sort of thing.” After all, since the day they’d met, Mystic had been a part of the team. They were hunters, fighters, killers. Not… dancers.
“Perhaps she has simply never been presented with the opportunity,” Fyzzix said helpfully.
That made sense to Roughshod. For all he knew, Mystic might have loved to dance, or maybe it was something she’d always wanted to do, but she’d never gotten the chance. The team found itself in some underspire back-alley brawl far more often than at a gala event like this.
“She also seems to be socially bonding well with Hairtrigger,” Fyzzix said, continuing to document his observations verbally.
Roughshod chuckled. That was putting it lightly. The whole journey from Applemattox, she had spent quite a bit of time with the Arbitrotter. First, it had been to make sure he was alright, after the confectionatus had shaken him up. Once he convinced her he was fine, Mystic took it upon herself to bring him up to speed with the rest of the team; protocols, codes, equipment and the like.
By the end, she was reading to him. Just reading from her books, out loud, like she used to do with Caballus. He hadn’t pegged him for the literary type, so that meant there was something else that had held Hairtrigger’s attention.
Fyzzix hadn’t seen much of that from the cockpit, but he saw what was in front of him right now. “Her morale has been rather good lately as well, all variables considered. Improved posture, higher rates of eye contact. Instances of smiling have increased by 340%.”
“Yeah, that pegasus is a regular Roaneo,” said Roughshod, ambivalently. This kind of thing always seemed like a needless complication to him, and a risk that could cost a group like theirs dearly. Maybe he was being overprotective of her, but Roughshod really didn’t know how to be any other way. She was his family.
But still, he couldn’t deny that Hairtrigger certainly seemed to be a positive influence on Mystic. Normally sullen and quiet, here she was dancing and smiling. And if she was happy, well, then Roughshod supposed he was happy too.
“The unicorn, is she friend of yours?”
The question startled the great brown pony, and he almost reached for a pie that he was no longer carrying. Behind him, he turned to find a crimson earth pony, a lean stallion with a pencil mustache and a sharp, navy blue tuxedo. His black mane was slicked back, glistening with oil, and a wry grin creased his carefully groomed muzzle. The stranger brought a delicate glass of punch up to his lips.
“She’s an associate,” said Roughshod warily. He didn’t like being snuck up on, and as a policy, he took an immediate dislike to the rare pony who managed it. “Can I help you with something, mister…?”
“Remarque,” the stallion said, holding out a hoof, “Snidely Remarque, Representative of the Preakness Consortium, at your service.” His accent flowed like a fine cider vintage, smooth and sophisticated, and the scent of expensive cologne filled Roughshod’s nostrils as the stranger stepped forward.
“Roughshod,” he replied, accepting the shake reluctantly and reciting what Caballus had told him to say, “attending with Captain Corsair, Rogue Trader.”
“Excellent. It’s quite refreshing to meet somepony new. After a few appearances at events like this, it starts to become the same old herd. All rather droll, I’m afraid,” Snidely said, his smirk becoming toothy, “though don’t tell anypony else here I would say such a thing.”
Roughshod briefly wondered why anypony would show up to a party when they didn’t enjoy the company of anypony there. Then again, the upper class did quite a few things that made Roughshod wonder, and he didn’t like to waste time wondering about things he wasn’t likely to figure out.
“And her partner? Do you know him as well?” Snidely asked him. Roughshod realized that he had taken too long to say something, so the dapper stranger had ventured ahead in the conversation without waiting for him.
“Yeah, he’s… he’s a… uh,” Roughshod said, struggling to remember exactly
“A passenger of our Captain,” Fyzzix finished for him. Roughshod felt a wave of relief as the Meq-preist came in to back him up. He was more comfortable in a foxhole, pinned by enemy fire than he was trying to make small talk with fancy folk. “I am Fyzzix Engine, Seneschal to the same. What precisely, may I ask, is your interest in our associates?”
“Oh, nothing,” the red pony said innocently, “merely that they’re interesting. An Arbitrotter and a Dracopath? I must admit, they make a rather… striking couple.”
Roughshod couldn’t quite tell if Snidely had said “striking” with a hint of morbid amusement or smug derision, but either way, it gave him the slightest urge to whip around and buck his pearly teeth right in.
If Snidely detected Roughshod’s violent impulses, he showed no sign of it. “However my true interest would be with your employer. I’m afraid I’ve never heard of this ‘Captain Corsair,’ and should like to meet him. We at the Consortium are always looking for new partners in trade.”
“I would be happy to give any proposals you might have a preliminary review,” Fyzzix said, trying to be polite, “but I will be unable to make any final decision without consulting the Captain. He is currently seeking an audience with the Plutarch at his private dinner.”
“The Plutarch!” roared a new voice, one like the grinding of rusty gears. The air filled with the sound of metal clacking on marble, the hissing of hydraulics, and the cries of indignant ponies clearing the way. When the last few had parted, a peculiar shape marched forward. “Lunassiah damn the Plutarch!”
It was a pony, though just barely. Only the shape of the head and body, covered in the red robes of the Mequestricus, indicated it had ever been equine at all. The two front legs hung just off the ground, because behind them, the entire underbelly and hind legs had been replaced by six robotic, segmented legs. It looked more like a giant brass spider than anything else, an illusion further complimented by the four glowing green lenses that looked out from beneath its shrouding hood. Where the muzzle should have been, a mess of hoses and wire bundles spilled out and ran back into the robes in numerous places. Two wings clung to his back, shriveled with atrophy.
“You’ll have to forgive him,” Snidely said nonchalantly, as though the monstrosity weren’t worth a second glace, “he’s a bit cranky today.”
The Meq-priest’s neck and forelegs twitched and seized in an unnatural and profoundly unnerving way. “I’m in no mood for your fl-fl-fleisch-bag humor, Remarque.” He stuttered as his vocal synthesizer struggled to simulate the full extent of his anger. “Meister will not get away with this.”
Roughshod’s ears perked up. “What won’t he get away with?” he asked.
“Only the la-a-atest in his slights against my Forge and I, out-towner,” the Meq-priest snapped.
“My word, Uhrwerk, where are your manners?” said Snidely, feigning protest. “You’ll have to excuse him; he’s having a bad day.” The merchant pony introduced Roughshod and Fyzzix to the Meq-priest. “And this is Magosus Urhwerk, of Forge Cloud Zirruswolke.”
Fyzzix inclined his head to his fellow Meq-priest and released a burst of electronic chatter. Uhrwerk faced him and replied in kind, the two having a high-bandwith chat and seeming to forget their other company.
“He’s got some kind of beef with Meister?” Roughshod said, aiming the question at Snidely while the red-robed pegasi ignored them.
“You might put it that way,” said Snidely. “I understand many of his shipping and distribution contracts between Zirruswolke and the Ver Kaufer trade fleet were up for renewal recently. The Forge Cloud accounts for most of the heavy industry in this sector, but they can’t transport it all themselves, so they rely on private merchant fleets to pick up the considerable difference.”
He cast a glance toward Uhrwerk. “He arrived to the party furious, so I assume he lost out when our illustrious Plutarch renegotiated with his compatriots.”
“You’re not a fan of Meister then, I take it?” Roughshod said, noting the sarcasm.
Snidely scoffed. “Hardly. For the past hundred years, the Preakness Consortium has been the Ver Kaufer Trade House’s chief competitor. In recent decades, Meister’s cronies in the Admanestratum have been enacting increasingly stringent regulations, trying to force us away from the Pferdian hub. But we won’t give in.” The defiant words had curled Snidely’s frown into a smirk. “Thanks to some deals with a few new… outside backers, we hope to reclaim that lost market share. I hope your Captain doesn’t get too attached to the Plutarch. I fear he’s not long for the post.”
Silently, Roughshod wondered if there was anypony in the room who Meister Ver Kaufer hadn’t made into an enemy yet. But if Meister really was the bad guy, did that make them allies? Roughshod wasn’t so sure.
Be careful, Caballus, he silently implored. This whole place gives my hoof the twitches.
The servitors guided Caballus and Chief Corpus out of the ballroom, past another pair of guards who verified their identities, and down another grand hallway. Around the corner they passed through a second checkpoint, which led to a huge red-carpeted stairway.
“This way. Lord,” the servitors said in perfect unison, neither bothering to look back. They glided up the stairs as effortlessly as if they were floating on a cloud. Caballus found the climb only slightly challenging; it seemed to go on for several stories, switching back a few times, but an Inquisipony had to be strong in body as well as mind and soul. Stairs were an unworthy foe.
Chief Corpus, on the other hand, was huffing and puffing by the time they had reached the top. Thankfully it was also the end of their journey. At the top of the stairs, through a pair of tall, oak-panel doors, the servitors ushered them into a large dining room.
Round tables surrounded them, each seating about six, and the majority were already filled. Ponies in suits and dresses, uniforms and ballroom gowns. And everywhere, the ivory-masked servitors wandered the floor, serving drinks and plates of food. At the distant end of the room, the entire wall was absent, giving the head table a commanding balcony view of the ballroom from opposite the stage. Caballus and Corpus, however, were seated at one of the tables furthest from it.
Just behind them, in a shrine-alcove that almost took up the entire wall, stood a huge statue. The stallion was easily ten meters tall, carved from red marble, and had been polished until it seemed to glow hot in the bright lights of the great hall. The golden suit of armor it wore gleamed even brighter, the double-headed Equila wrought on the breastplate, and an equally resplendent gold laurel wreath sat on its head. In one foreleg, it cradled an ivory rod the size of a lamppost. Eyes fashioned from emeralds the size of Caballus’s head gazed toward some distant horizon beyond the other end of the room.
Their servitors poured the two each a fresh glass of punch, and disappeared to fetch the first course. Once they had left, Caballus craned his neck to get a look at the head table.
It was rectangular, as opposed to the rest, and slightly elevated above them. A few ponies sat there already, but there were also a few seats vacant, most conspicuously the throne-like chair at the end.
“It seems Meister isn’t here yet,” Caballus said.
Corpus shrugged. “It’s his party. He arrives when it pleases him to, usually once everypony else already has.” The servitors quickly returned with alfalfa salads and mixed fruits arranged in a sculpture of a pony. The Chief plucked an apple slice from the sculpture’s ear and popped it in his mouth.
“What about the rest?” said Caballus. “There are a few empty chairs up there.”
“There’s one I suspect will stay empty,” Corpus said through a mouthful of apple, “but then again you already met the late Seneschal Abacus. Another was probably for Meister’s partner from Zirruswolke, but word is they’ve had a falling out.”
“Oh?” It was the sort of thing that undoubtedly happened all the time in the business world, but the timing piqued the Inquisipony’s interest. “Why is that?”
“Nopony but Meister and the Meq-priest could tell you.” Corpus took another bite off the fruit sculpture. “Some say he profaned the Lunassiah right to old Uhrwerk’s face. Or that he smashed some unruly kitchen appliance, which might be the same thing.”
Not quite, Caballus thought, but he kept it to himself, and picked at his salad. By the time he had finished, two new ponies had entered the room to trumpeting fanfare. They made their way to Meister’s table.
The first was a broad-chested, copper-colored stallion about Caballus’s age, with a spiked, black mane and a heavy-hoofed stride. He wore a white suit with the Ver Kaufer crest on the breast, as well as a fierce, grim scowl. The second was a petite mare, azure of coat, and with her platinum mane done in the elaborate beehive that the upper classes seemed to favor. Her gown was equally white and equally adorned with Trade House’s emblem, encrusted head to hoof with sharp, clear diamonds. She glittered like a snowflake as she passed by.
“Who are they?” Caballus asked.
“Huh,” Corpus replied in mild surprise, “Meister’s brood actually decided to show up this year. Usually they can’t stand to be in the same room. The mean-looking one is Waffen Ver Kaufer. The sparkly one is Juwel.”
Tier had mentioned that he was third heir to the Warrant when they first met, Caballus remembered. Here were the first two, it seemed. “So I take it there’s not much sibling love between brother and sister,” he remarked, noting how they had taken places at the table as far away from one another as possible.
“Half-brother and half-sister,” Corpus corrected, “and the other son was a half-brother to the both of them.”
“So Meister’s had his three children by three different wives?”
At this, Chief Corpus burst into raucous laughter. It was so loud that ponies at nearby tables stopped their own conversations to glare at him. If the blue pony noticed, he didn’t show it.
“I’m sorry,” the Chief said as he brought his laughing fit under control, “but that’s the most out-towner thing I’ve heard in a long time. Meister’s had three children, yes, but three wives would be off by a far cry. He’s an unrepentant serial monogamist. It’s rare that a wife of his makes it seven or eight years without leaving him over stress, neglect, or becoming collateral damage in the latest assassination attempt. And then it’s right on to the next one.”
That was a fascinating tidbit, to be sure. Caballus spent most of his time leading up to the mission scrutinizing the Trade House’s business records; details of Meister’s personal life were sparse in the archives. He needed to gain a better measure of just who this stallion was.
“And you said he has another son?” Caballus knew full well about Tier, but he had an act to keep up.
Corpus frowned. “Had another son. Tier Ver Kaufer has been presumed dead since they found his ship abandoned and adrift in Pferdian airspace a few days ago. It won’t be announced publicly until the port authority has conducted an investigation on how it got there and where the crew went, but it seems less and less likely that he’ll ever come home.” He sighed and reached for another fruit. “It’s a shame, too. Tier always seemed like a nice colt, at least compared to his siblings.”
That was something Caballus hadn’t known. Now there could be no doubt: Sniffles and the Children were in Pferdian. The Glücksritter turning up right where he had predicted was the smoking pie, all the proof he needed.
“I take it the remaining two are trouble?” he said, playing down his interest in Tier’s ship. He would need to visit it himself soon.
Corpus grinned like a filly with a juicy morsel of gossip. “The both of them are real pieces of work, and that’s saying something in this room. Meister has been pitting them against one another their entire lives, to determine which should earn the right to succeed him as head of the Trade House. When they came of age, he put Waffen in charge of arms dealing, and Juwel got the luxury goods department.”
“Tier struck out on his own,” Corpus said, shrugging. “He was always the black ovid of the family. Never really wanted to play the big-shot Rogue Trader like the other two, except to travel the world and collect exotic creatures.” He shook his head and chuckled. “That colt, always showing up to these parties with a new pet, each weirder than the last. And he loved them all, too. Adored them. That’s the real tragedy of Tier: he was the only Ver Kaufer that ever loved anything besides power.”
Caballus wasn’t about to tell Chief Corpus the real story of Tier’s demise, and how much less fond of zoonos the trader-turned-traitor had likely been. Maybe the pony Corpus described—one with a kinder heart and a love of animals—had existed once, but the one Caballus had executed was a pitiful, twisted thing. That pity welled up again, as Caballus once again lamented just how far a pony could fall into the clutches of the Archenemy.
“But I suppose he’s the one you’re least interested in,” said Corpus, taking Caballus’s quiet reflection for boredom, “seeing as he’s no longer involved with the Trade House. I’d keep my eye on those two, if I were you. They have their own ideas about how they’ll run Meister’s empire, and I don’t think those plans involve any friends Meister makes in the meantime.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Caballus said.
Any further questions he had were interrupted by the blaring of trumpets. A herald in all his ridiculously antiquated finery trotted through the oak doors and stood at attention.
“Presenting,” the herald shouted, “his illustrious Excellency, holder of the Ver Kaufer Warrant of Trade and head of that esteemed House, Governer-Mayor and Plutarch of all Pferdian: Meister Ver Kaufer!”
More trumpets drowned out the modest applause that greeted the Plutarch as he made his entrance. Everyone stood, and Caballus had to crane his neck to get a good look.
Meister strode into the room as though he owned the place, to which Caballus had to concede that he did. The stallion was the same ivory white as the uniforms of the guards that flanked him, and his short, dark mane had streaks of grey running through it. He had elected to wear a relatively simple suit, though even at a distance, Caballus could tell it was made of the finest materials: silks, velvet, and gold for the trim. An ornate scabbard hung from his belt as well, the hilt made from woven threads of silver and platinum. Meister made his way to his seat at the head of his table.
Corpus leaned over to Caballus. “Would you believe he’s almost two hundred?”
Caballus would have pegged him in his mid fifties, and still quite vigorous at that, but he was well aware of how deceptive such looks could be. The immensely wealthy could afford to visit their spas and receive age-defying Juvenat treatments, extending their vitality for a few extra centuries. It was quite common among highly ranked ponies in the Equestrian government and military as well, and even expected for Inquisiponies who survived into old age, to prolong their service.
A slew of new servitors swarmed amongst the tables. They brought each table a huge roasted pumpkin, stuffed with peppers, mushrooms, and cabbage. A traditional Pferdian delicacy, and one of the most delicious, Corpus assured him.
“Honored guests and loyal subjects,” Meister said with a rich baritone and not a hint of sarcasm, “tonight is a night of celebration and remembrance. Tonight, we honor the courage and heroism of our forebears, who wrested this land from heathens and zoonos against impossible odds. We commemorate their victory, and the founding of beloved Pferdian by the invincible conqueror, liberator of a thousand towns, greatest of the Lords Solar: Saint MacIntarius.”
The Plutarch gestured to the gold and red statue towering behind Caballus. The Inquisipony turned around to find servitors unfurling ancient tapestries on either side of the shrine, and lighting hundreds of candles at its hooves. They depicted scenes of beleaguered Equestrian forces standing their ground against an unspecific horde of darkness, and eventually overcoming them.
“Now feast, brothers and sisters. Enjoy the bounty the Princess provides, but never forget the blood and toil and glory it took to win it. Ave Imperatrix Celestialis.”
“Ave Imperatrix Celestialis,” the guests answered, completing the prayer.
His traditional duties performed, Meister seated himself and the rest of the room followed. The sounds of revelry and consumption soon filled the air, and the stuffed pumpkins at each table started to shrink with every bite.
Although he did partake in the feast, Caballus always kept one eye on the Plutarch’s table. At different intervals, a servitor would approach a table, and bring one of the ponies over to Meister. He greeted them all amiably, and spent a few minutes talking and listening to each before sending them back to their seats. With all the ponies in the room, it was a couple hours before most of them had been given their due time, and many had already returned to the ballroom, including both the Ver Kaufer siblings.
Only scraps of the main course remained when a smooth-faced servitor appeared beside Caballus.
“Captain Corsair,” it said, “the Plutarch has requested your presence. Lord. Please come with me.”
“Here’s your chance,” Corpus said, toothpick working out bits of pumpkin from his teeth. “Maybe I’ll see you around… though I hope it’s not while I’m on duty.”
“Thank you,” Caballus replied. “I’ll do my best to stay out of trouble.”
Then, briefly considering all the possible outcome of his meeting with Meister, he looked over his shoulder one last time.
“But no promises.”
Caballus took a deep breath to steady himself, and straighten his jacket. How he handled this meeting could determine the course of the entire investigation. Oblivious to him, the servitor led him around the edge of the dining room at a brisk pace toward Meister’s table.
The Plutarch was sitting in his throne-like chair, facing away from Caballus, who was approaching him from behind. He was talking to a middle-aged mare who had been at his side the entire meal. By her monastic garb, stiff posture and stern demeanor, it was clear she worked for the either the Heliarchy or the Admanestratum, and from the portable stenotype slung around her neck, he guessed the latter.
“Captain Swift Corsair. As you requested. Lord,” the servitor announced with a bow.
“Ah, there you are, Swift,” Meister said before he had even turned around, rising from his seat, “it’s good to see you.” He dismissed his Admanestratum companion, saying “we can continue this in my office later. Right now, I have a ghost from my past to attend to.”
Meister’s familiar tone gave Caballus pause for a moment. It almost sounded as if the Plutarch knew the real Swift Corsair, but that was impossible. Caballus was very careful when it came to picking disguises, and he knew that the real Rogue Trader Swift Corsair had spent his entire career on the other end of Equestria, often out of contact with civilization for months at a time. Furthermore, he had disappeared almost a year ago, declared Lost in the Woods somewhere beyond the edge of Segmentum Forestus. The glacial pace of Equestrian bureaucracy, and the sheer scale of the land meant that such reports were sometimes lost altogether, or easily buried by those who knew how.
“I’m sorry, your Excellency,” Caballus said, hoping he hadn’t made a critical mistake, “but I don’t believe we’ve met…”
The older stallion shook his head and laughed. “Oh, no no. But I knew your father, Valorus Corsair. We became Rogue Traders at about the same time, he and I, and we had a brief partnership and a few adventures together in our youth. I heard some time ago that he died, and his son had claimed his Warrant, so when I saw that a Corsair had checked into the Grand Pferdian Hotel, on the eve of Macsnacht no less, I had an invitation sent straight away.”
Caballus was nearly dumbfounded by the coincidence. The identity he had borrowed to surveil Meister was a descendant of somepony he actually knew. “My apologies, lord. I had no idea. My… my father… I didn’t know him very well. I never knew you two had history.”
It was probably true enough of the real Captain Corsair. The archives had said that Swift spent his early life in boarding schools and naval academies while his father explored and plundered the sky-lanes beyond the edges of civilization. Fortunately, Meister seemed to buy it.
“I imagine you wouldn’t. Valorus wasn’t the type to stay at home and raise a foal, I’m afraid. My dynasty is ancient, and well-established, but he was a first-generation Trader; he needed to build his own business empire from scratch, and that left little time for family, I’m sure. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was something of a stranger to you. Never father material, that one.”
“And what about your family?” Caballus said, before he could stop himself. It had rubbed him in a surprisingly bad way to hear Meister talk down on another stallion’s parenting—even one he never knew—when Meister’s own son had died a traitor’s death. What little he had heard about the others wasn’t exactly glowing either.
The older pony seemed unperturbed, merely shrugging. “I’ll not deny it. Things… haven’t turned out as I’d have liked. I don’t know what they’ve told you about my children, but it’s likely true.”
Meister’s lip curled as if he had tasted something bitter. “All I wanted was one worthy heir, one child who could run the Trade House when I’m gone. Waffen is strong and ruthless enough to oversee one division, but he’s too much a brute; he lacks the grace and business instincts necessary to manage the House and the city. Juwel is just the opposite; she has tact and keen management skills, but she’s all too often vain, flighty, and refuses to get her hooves dirty. The other guilds and houses know it, too. If either were made Plutarch today, Pferdian would be at civil war within a month.”
“And Tier?” Caballus asked. Maybe if he steered the topic toward the heretical son, he could glean some clue as to whether or not Meister himself were part of the Children’s schemes. He watched for any reaction to the name.
A single twitch of the ear was the only one Meister gave, though it spoke volumes. “Tier’s name has scarcely been spoken here since he left. Why should you bring him up?”
“I met him,” Caballus said, hoping the truth might get him more than a lie, “in Hippopolis. Just over a week ago.”
“Is that so?” The Plutarch’s face was as unreadable as the servitors’ ivory masks. “And what did you think of my son?”
“He… had a thicker accent than you do, your Excellency.” Strangely, it was the first thing that came to the Inquisipony’s mind. Most of the ponies Caballus had met in Pferdian only hinted at the dialect associated with the Lipizzan Sector.
To his surprise, the elder stallion gave the faint wisp of a smile. “In the city, we strive to be more… modern. Tier spent too much time in the lowlands, talking with farmers and skyborn ship ratings. I suspect he did it just to spite me, rebellious colt as he was.”
As quickly as it had appeared, the smile was gone. “When he took one of my best ships and abandoned his family for his own petty wanderlust, I was so furious that I vowed he would never show his face in Pferdian again. When the ship returned without him a few days ago, I found to my sorrow that I had gotten my wish. I see now that he might have succeeded me, if only he had wanted to. He had every trait a Rogue Trader needs except the most important one: ambition.”
Meister fell silent for a moment, eyes staring at the table. Then he sighed, and his focus fell on Caballus again. “Come,” he said, and he led the Inquisipony over to the edge of the balcony. “Tell me, what do you see?”
Caballus wasn’t sure what the old stallion was getting at, but he played his game, and looked out across the ballroom below. “I see… aristocrats, industrialists, merchants…” He thought he saw one couple on the dance floor that looked like Mystic and Hairtrigger, but dismissed the thought as absurd.
Meister swept a hoof over the view. “I see sycophants, indolent fools not fit to rule a shed in the forest. They bicker and they scheme and they eat one another, with no regard for anything but meager scraps of power.” His smile had become a mask as impassive as his robotic servants, but the contempt in his voice was plain to hear. “Worthless, all of them. And I’m the pathetic king of these pathetic subjects.”
Caballus had never thought he would need to come to the upper class’s defense. In fact, he mostly shared Meister’s opinion of their usefulness, but he didn’t want the Plutarch in such a sour mood so soon after meeting him. “Your trade fleets—and others like them—are the mortar that holds Equestria together. Without you, towns would starve on one end of the sector while crops rotted on the other, forges would fall silent for want of materials, and soldiers on the front line would run out of arms and armor. You may not be the strong legs or keen eyes of Equestria, but you’re like its veins, which are just as important.”
“Perhaps…” Meister replied. His eyes softened when he looked at Caballus again. “When I was a colt, you know what I wanted to be one day?” Getting only a shrug from Caballus, he told him: “A pirate.”
“It’s true,” Meister said to the bemused look on the Inquisipony’s face. “A foalish fantasy, I know, but that’s what everypony thinks being a Rogue Trader is all about: discovering new lands and vast treasures, fighting villains over the lawless frontier for the glory of Equestria.”
He sighed, and a bit of the twinkle faded from his eyes once again. “The truth of it is much different than I imagined. With the Warrant came the House, and with the House came many, many obligations. Too many to live the pirate’s life. Besides, there is no frontier left, not in this sector, not for a millennium. Greater ponies than any of us won all the glory there was to win long ago.” The white stallion glanced back at the statue of the Lord Solar.
“You have great reverence for Saint MacIntarius, your Excellency,” Caballus said, not really a question.
Meister faced the shrine across the room. “I do. He is a personal hero of mine, and I owe him all that I have. He was one of signatories of the Ver Kaufer Warrant, after all. And if not for his victories, there would be no Pferdian for me to rule.”
“There was a reason they made him a Saint,” Caballus agreed. “The MacIntarian Crusade was nothing short of a miracle.”
“A thousand towns.” Meister’s tone had almost a foal-like wonder. “Can you imagine? Not since the Golden Age, when the Princess still walked among Her people, had Equestria been so powerful, so prosperous.” The Plutarch paused, as he could see faint glimpses of glorious battle before his own eyes.
“But no longer,” he said, the enthusiasm becoming a frown. “His crusades are long over, and his empire is growing old. All we do now is maintain it, hold it together. That’s why I envied your father, and still envy you, Swift.”
“Me?” Caballus said. “You’re the most wealthy, most powerful pony in the sector. I… I command a single ship.”
Meister waved a servitor over, and had it pour them two glasses of punch. Caballus could tell this was a far finer vintage than what he had been drinking earlier, smooth and sweet and strong. “But on that ship, you speak with the voice of the Princess. You hold your own destiny in your hooves. You can claim new lands, and lay the cornerstones of great cities. You can build something new, something great. Like he did. Mark these words well, Swift: nopony will remember the one who held a thing together; only the one who built it.”
Caballus quietly reflected on the thought, or at least he appeared to while he worked on his psychological profile of Meister. It took him a moment to realize that something had changed; the band had stopped playing and the lights in the ballroom were dimming, until the entire room was dark.
A spotlight somewhere overhead pierced the darkness, falling on the stage, where the band was no longer sitting. In their place, alone in the shaft of light, was a ball of pink feathers.
Somewhere in the darkness, the music began to play. It was a slow, mournful tune, classical in style and heavy on the strings. Caballus was fairly sure he didn’t know it, but he was too focused on the shape on stage to be sure.
Two great, pink wings unfurled from the shape, which was revealed to be a pegasus. Even if not for the color, Caballus could tell at a distance that it was a mare, and as lithe and graceful a mare as he had ever seen. She wore a red sequin cocktail dress that held closely to her figure, and her long, lilac-and-fuchsia-striped mane hung closely over one eye, curling at the ends ever so daintily.
Cradling a microphone in one wing, the mare opened her mouth, and a song unlike any Caballus had ever heard flowed out. Like the accompaniment, it was ponderous and melancholy, slowly dancing from his ears and down his spine in tingles. Though the words were in High Equestrian, Caballus didn’t bother trying to translate most of them; he was much more fixated on the singer.
She walked—though flowed would better describe the motion—around the stage, more smoothly than even the servitors. Every step, every note of the song was accompanied by a sway of her croup and elegant swish of her curvy tail. And when she batted her huge violet eye, it was enough to make the heart race. Though he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t the dress, something about this mare seemed to sparkle and glow in the spotlight.
“Quite lovely, isn’t she?” For a moment, Caballus had forgotten that Meister was still standing right next to him. The Inquisipony only grunted his agreement, too engrossed by the beauty pacing the stage below them.
“Her name is Velour Caress. She’s prima donna of the Pferdian Royal Opera,” the Plutarch continued, “and she does a bit of modeling as well. A mare of many talents, I’m pleased to say, not the least of which was convincing me to marry her.”
Those words managed to pierce Caballus’s reverie. “She-she’s your… ahem… your…” he sputtered.
“Yes, she is my wife.” Caballus could almost hear the smile in Meister’s voice, even if he couldn’t see it in the dark. “Do try to remember that Swift, if you would.”
Caballus nodded, not daring to say anything that might be taken the wrong way. This could complicate things, having this creature in the equation. He could be confident that Fyzzix wouldn’t get distracted, and he trusted Roughshod implicitly with nearly anything, but Hairtrigger was still a wildcard, and truth be told, Caballus wasn’t quite sure of himself in that moment. High-class etiquette was not counted among any of the team’s strong suits. If Meister was the jealous type, one wrong step around his wife could bring their investigation to a swift—and possibly fatal—end.
At the end of her song, as the last few chords dwindled in the ballroom, Velour smiled demurely and bowed. The herd before her almost forgot to applaud, as enrapture by the performance as Caballus had been. But when they did, it was thunderous. She waved to them graciously with hoof and wing, turned, and left the stage.
The lights returned to their normal levels after that, as did the conversation in the ballroom. Meister stepped away from the balcony and returned to the table. “Well, Swift,” he said, taking his seat and beckoning Caballus to do the same, “it seems I have shared much with you already tonight, perhaps more than I should have with somepony I have just met. Now it’s your turn: tell me what it is you are doing here in Pferdian.”
Caballus was about to say something a Rogue Trader might say, something about tapping in to new markets, or looking to spread his name, influence, and brand. But before he could begin, a servitor bearing a pie on a platter interrupted him.
“Dessert is served. My Lord,” it said, and placed the platter in front of Tier. The old pony waved it away. “Dimwitted cyborgs. Always in the way. Now, about your business here-”
“Hold on,” Caballus said. Something here was... awry. The hair on his neck was standing on end. “What kind of pie is that?” he asked the servitor.
“Apple. My Lord,” it replied, expressionless.
“Don’t try to change the subject, Swift,” the Plutarch said testily. “I think my hospitality deserves some answers.”
Ignoring him Caballus stared at the servitor closely. “Cut the pie.”
The ivory-masked cyborg’s stare was unreadable. “Error. Please repeat instruction. My Lord.”
There it was again. “Get a knife, and cut a slice of the pie to serve to the Plutarch,” Caballus said. He was careful to speak clearly and evenly, to leave no room for misinterpretation.
“Captain Corsair,” Meister said, growing angrier, “I am fast approaching the end of my patie-”
Caballus wasn’t listening. He was watching. He saw the servitor tilt its head, ever so slightly.
In an instant, instincts took over. Time seemed to slow. The Inquisipony whirled around and dove, tackling Meister Ver Kaufer from his tall chair. If he was wrong, he could say goodbye to any cooperation from any level of Pferdian authority.
But he wasn’t. The platter holding the pie released its hidden springs, flinging the pastry forward. It struck the back of the chair, where the Plutarch had just been sitting, splattering all over the wood. The second it was free of its container, the gooey filling began to crackle and spark. A second later, it went up in a loud whump! and sent splinters, shredded cushion, and smoke everywhere.
Blackened and coughing, Caballus made to help Meister to his hooves. He thought he heard shouts and screams, but his ears were ringing too badly to be sure. A figure emerged from the thick, black smoke: the servitor that had served the pie. When it spotted Meister struggling to stand, its head tilted even further, almost sideways. It was processing its new instructions.
The simple gown it wore fell away in pieces, torn apart by the mechanical limbs hidden beneath, each brandishing sharp blades instead of drink dispensers. Without the gown, the thing’s cybernetics were plain to see. Its hind legs were long and skeletal, bare metal and hinged joints. Most of the hindquarters and ribcage had been hollowed out and replaced by gears, beverage tanks, hoses, and more gears. It lunged at Meister with unnatural speed.
Caballus shoved the white stallion out of its path, narrowly avoiding the attack. The Inquisipony was thrown backward, tumbling into the balcony rail. He looked down with blurry eyes, finding his jacket in tatters, but his body otherwise unscathed.
The servitor prowled around the prone Plutarch, bladed appendages twitching, calculating the best angles to eviscerate him in the most efficient manner possible. Meister gritted his teeth and stood to face the assassin, seeing his own reflection in the shiny ivory mask. On the table beside him, he found an unfinished pumpkin, and flung it at the servitor. It deftly sliced the fruit in twain, both halves flying harmlessly to either side. Mechanical limbs tensed once again to strike.
Caballus leapt on its back, raining blows with his hooves. The servitor hardly noticed, advancing implacably toward the Plutarch, sightless eyes never leaving him. The bladed protrusions twisted and jabbed, trying to dislodge the nuisance, but Caballus managed to dodge them all.
“Guards!” shouted Meister, moments before one scalpel-sharp blade swung down in a high arc. The stallion ducked and rolled under the table, narrowly escaping the servitor’s reach.
Reassessing, the cyborg appeared to decide that Caballus could be tolerated no longer. Like a contortionist, it rotated its entire torso until Caballus found himself underneath it. Bending the wrong way, one hind leg pressed down on him, and succeeded in prying him off. He clung to one limb with his teeth, and with a loud grunt, he managed to deliver a final buck into its back. The arm dislocated in its metal socket, and he wrenched it free.
Unfortunately, the faceless assassin was free of him as well, and had several knives to spare. It jumped up onto the table to reach Meister on the other side. But with its back turned, Caballus plunged the severed blade into the clockwork behind its shoulder. Gears crunched and churned, and the servitor’s steps ground to a tentative halt.
It was then that the guards finally arrived, putting themselves between Meister and the servitor. It was a sitting duck on the table, taking two pies right away in the chest, and a third in the side. Gears slipped as crumbs and whipped cream jammed them. It fell to one knee, still not giving up on its single-minded pursuit.
Another pie struck it in the neck, and the blow knocked off its ivory mask and sent it tumbling off the table. Hanging limply from its body, the head was revealed to be a grotesque, shriveled thing, with eyeless sockets and wire bundles in place of a lower jaw.
It lay on the floor there for a moment, twitching and sparking from the pie filling in its machinery. When Meister stood over it, it swung its blade arms ineffectually at him once more, but he was just out of reach. One of the guards had fetched the Plutarch his sword, which had come loose in the explosion, and he drew it in his mouth. At the flick of some small switch in the hilt, the thin rapier blade hummed to life, a thin blue field of crackling energy enveloping the steel. Deftly, Meister lopped the ugly creature’s head off, and the rest of it finally fell still.
“Clean this up.” He said to his guards, almost casually. In seconds, the servitor’s oily fluids on the energized power sword sizzled to nothing. Meister deactivated and sheathed the immaculate blade. “Are you alright?” he asked Caballus, helping him up.
“I’ve been worse,” the Inquisipony replied. The servitor had been a luxury model after all, smarter and more agile than most, but fragile, not designed to fight. It would take more than a knife to stop the likes of Sniffles, or his big red friend. “You don’t seem… rattled at all yourself.”
“Dodging assassins is something of a hobby of mine,” Meister said wryly. “I must apologize, Swift. It’s a poor host who lets his guest get caught up in an attempt on his life. How did you know I was in danger?”
“The servitor,” said Caballus. “It said ‘my lord.’ All the others had just said ‘lord.’ It… it just caught my attention.”
“Then I thank the Princess it did, and that you have courage as well as intuition. Else my poor Velour would be a widow right now. I confess, I’m not familiar with that variety of pie. Have you ever seen anything like it?
Caballus nodded, picking up a fragment of the pie tin, inspecting the blackened residue. “The servitor was telling the truth; it was a kind of apple. Specifically, it was zap apple. Delicious, but also highly unstable. It’s a very rare type of pie weaponry, and one of the most potent.” He looked back at the older stallion. “Who do you think sent it?”
“Oh, I have my suspicions,” said Meister, “chief among them my own flesh and blood. But it hardly matters. I’ll not be pursuing them, or anypony else.”
Caballus could hardly believe his ears. “But… why not? You were nearly killed. This won’t be the last time they’ll try.”
Meister sat back down in the ruin of his chair, where the seat was largely intact. Caballus slipped the shrapnel into his ragged coat pocket while his back was turned. “And it wasn’t the first time, either. It’s easier to keep the familiar, predictable enemies right where they are than remove them and shift power to somepony new, somepony I might not be able to anticipate. It’s easier to let them plot; plotting keeps them busy. And if someday my offspring can outwit me, then perhaps it will finally prove them worthy to inherit my Warrant after all.”
With a glimmer of mischief in his eye, he added “it’s become something of a family tradition, and every so often I return the favor and put a modest contract out on them as well. Just to keep them on their toes.”
Caballus could only marvel at the sheer dysfunction of this Ver Kaufer family. It almost made him grateful to be an orphan.
A short, plump medicae wearing a nursing cap trotted in with a trauma kit in her mouth. All the damage done had been superficial, so she only needed a few minutes to take care of them both. By then, new shouts arose at the dining hall’s entrance.
“Darling! Darling, where are you?” The voice was no less beautiful when it was filled with concern. “Let me through!”
Meister chuckled and bid his guards allow his wife to pass. She rushed to his side, pushing the medicae out of the way and doting over every cut, scrape and hair out of place. “I was so worried. I heard a loud noise, and then there was such a commotion, and… and… I was so frightened!” She pressed her head into his chest and wrapped her forelegs around him, on the verge of tears.
It took nearly a minute of Meister’s reassurances and consoling before Velour was fit for introductions. “My dear, this is Captain Swift Corsair, a new friend of mine. He saved my life tonight.”
Velour performed a perfect curtsy. “Oh, thank you Captain, thank you so much. I am in your debt.” The brilliant violet eye that wasn’t covered by her mane met his when she rose again. “Meister has mentioned the Corsair name before. The stories of his days with Valorus are among his favorite to tell.”
“Please, it… it was nothing, really,” Caballus said, bowing awkwardly in reply. At a distance, he had thought Meister’s wife might have been a distraction. Up close she was intoxicating, scented with a perfume that made him recall the lilacs that had grown on the Stablea’s grounds all those years ago. It took him a moment to realize that he was had been staring into her deep doe-eye.
“Nonsense,” Meister said, sidling up beside his wife, “The one thing in this city that I value above anything else is also the only thing that can’t be bought here: loyalty.”
Velour ran a hoof under tenderly over a bruise on her husband’s cheek. “It’s supply and demand, darling. There is so little of it in Pferdian that it’s become priceless.”
That made Meister laugh. “Very true, my dear. Swift, I owe you my life, and I repay my debts. Come.”
He walked Caballus out of the dining room, arm-in-arm with his wife. At the bottom of the massive, red-carpet staircase, they waited for the guards to collect the rest of Caballus’s companions. When they arrived, Caballus introduced them all, one by one to the Plutarch and his wife. As expected, Mystic was resigned, Roughshod was stoic, and Fyzzix was friendly and forthcoming with pointless trivia.
“Your performance tonight was excellent, my lady,” the Meq-priest said after kissing her hoof with his hard, metal lips. “That rendition of ‘Of Their Lives, In The Ruins Of Their Stables’ never strayed more than 3.6% standard vocal deviation from the written acoustic frequencies. Accounting for artistic flourishes, of course. Magnificent! Are you sure you still have all your organic vocal chords?”
Caballus feared his friend had made some kind of gaffe until Velour giggled. “You are bold to pry into a lady’s secrets, my good Magosus, but I shall take it as a compliment. And I would thank you to tell that to the ponies who write the reviews of the Royal Opera.”
The Inquisipony was glad for the banter with Fyzzix because it gave him a chance to nudge Hairtrigger out of his slack-jawed stare before it was his turn. Thankfully, he managed to tip his hat and give a polite “Ma’am.”
Names and pleasantries exchanged, Meister sent Velour off with a quick kiss. “I will see you later, my dear. I have a bit of business to discuss before the party is over.” She curtsied again, and made her way to the ballroom, hips swaying as she walked.
Meister ushered them in the opposite direction, down the vaulted hallway. At the other end stood a huge wooden door, ornately carved with scenes of Meister’s ancestors performing heroic deeds, and a great shield bearing the Ver Kaufer crest wrought in gold.
“My office,” Meister said, pressing his hoof onto the shield. A hidden reader scanned his hoofprint, and the door swung open with a heavy clunk. Before anypony could walk inside, Meister paused and turned to Caballus. “This is where I prefer to conduct my more… private affairs.”
It took Caballus a moment to realize what the stallion meant. He glanced back at Hairtrigger. “Oh, I see. Arbitrotter Hairtrigger is a guest of mine, as well as a friend. I promise he’s not here in any official capacity.”
“Yep,” the pegasus chimed in, “my investigation here was a dead end, so I’m not on duty anymore. Right now, I’m just a tourist.”
That seemed to be enough for Meister, who led them into the darkened room. When the lights raised automatically, the room was revealed to be spacious in size and lavish in furnishing. Tall bookshelves lined the walls on either side, filled with countless ancient tomes. More tapestries, paintings, statues, and sculptures hung or stood on every wall and in every nook. The desk in the center of the room was broad and covered with scrolls and parchments, organized in neat rows and stacks. A huge window filled the wall behind the desk, its pane slightly ajar, letting the fresh, cool evening air inside to mingle with the scent of ink and paper.
There was also a pony standing there, in front of the desk.
Though her back was turned to everypony, Caballus recognized the white robes as those of the mare Meister had been seated next to at the banquet, the Admanestratum adept who left just as he had been introduced to the Plutarch.
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry, Admanestrator,” said Meister. “There was an attack, and I’m afraid I forgot all about asking you to wait here.”
If she heard him, she gave no sign.
“Are you alright?” Meister asked, concerned. “Ponderosa?” He placed a hoof on her shoulder, causing the white hood to slide from her head. Beneath it was stone.
Meister took a calm step back and scowled. Immediately, Roughshod stepped in front of Caballus, his eyes darting to the corners of the room. Hairtrigger flew straight to the window and poked his head outside.
“All clear,” the Arbitrotter announced. Roughshod relaxed, though only slightly, and kept a wary eye wandering around the room.
“This is… unfortunate,” said Meister. “Admanestrator Ponderosa was a talented adept. I had just named her my new Seneschal this very evening.” He sighed. “She and Abacus had been good friends; I thought she could pick up where he left off. Instead it seems they’ve shared the same fate. I assume you’ve heard of the infamous ‘Stone Cold Killer’ already, even in your brief time here in Pferdian.”
Caballus’s investigative instincts took over, though he was careful to maintain the tone of a concerned friend, rather than an Inquisipony with his own agenda. “Why her? Why now?”
“At the banquet…” Meister said. “She told me that she had something urgent I needed to know. Something that Abacus had found right before he was killed. I thought it could wait a few minutes…”
“Looks like it’s going to be waiting a while longer,” Roughshod muttered, prompting a stern glare from Caballus.
While Meister took his seat behind the desk to call for House security to secure the crime scene, Caballus began his own sweep of the room.
First he glanced upward. There was no damage to the ceiling, which ruled out the killer making a dramatic entrance from above. The same went for the walls. Assuming they didn’t just waltz through the security scanner, the window seemed the most likely point of entry, as well as the exit. Caballus’s eyes slowly scanned down to the floor. A trap door wasn’t entirely out of the question, though Meister didn’t strike the Inquisipony as the sort of Governor-Mayor to keep an escape tunnel to dive down at the first sign of…
A glint of light caught his attention, a sparkle in the carpeting. Caballus began to bend down to inspect it more closely.
“The Constabulary is sending over its Stone Cold Killer task force,” announced Meister, fresh off his communicator. Caballus promptly stood up straight again and shifted his hoof to cover up the tiny speck. The Plutarch didn’t seem to notice. “Habeas is not going to like this at all,” he said.
Meister opened a drawer of the desk, and procured a bottle. He poured himself a glass of punch that was such a dark shade of red, it appeared almost black. “In light of tonight’s events, I apologize for being demanding earlier about your reasons for coming to Pferdian, Swift,” he said. “However, I would still like to know them.”
Caballus looked Meister in the eye. “At first, I was making a circuit of Segmentum Grassificus, to identify the sectors most ripe for distributing my goods.” He was confident that if pressed, Fyzzix would have a list prepared of what those goods might actually be. “But when I met your son in Hippopolis, he asked me to do him a favor. He wanted me to tell you… to tell you that he was sorry. Sorry that he couldn’t return your ship himself.”
Meister’s reaction was unreadable, as though his own face was carved from stone.
“I didn’t understand it at the time, but I gave him my word,” Caballus lied, “and now I’ve kept it.”
After a long moment of silence, the older stallion walked over to the window and gazed out at the scattered lights of the Palace Quilt, and to the brilliant glow of Pferdian beyond. Macsnacht fireworks had begun over the city, giving his face a faint, colored cast whenever one went off.
Caballus glanced over to Mystic, and pointed his eyes down to his hoof. When she understood, she gave him the slightest nod. At the same instant, he lifted his hoof and she plucked up the object with her magic, silently depositing it into her saddlebag the second before Meister faced Caballus again.
“Swift,” he said, his voice hard, “these most recent slayings… I am accustomed to those around me trying to kill me, as you’ve seen, trying to take what is mine. But this Stone Cold Killer and his benefactors, whoever they are, they mean to hurt me… to hurt Pferdian, to leave it crippled and unstable. This I cannot abide.”
The Plutarch strode across the room, and stood before Caballus, looking down from his few-inch advantage. “You are a stallion who still knows honor in this dark and treacherous age. I have nopony else I can trust. I need your help, to end this threat, so that I might raise Pferdian back to glory again. Do this, and your Trader dynasty will rise alongside mine. Together we can build something great.” He poured a second glass of punch and held it out. “What do you say?”
Caballus glanced down, took the punch, and they clinked their drinks together.
“It would be a pleasure, your Excellency.”
It was unusually blustery for this time of spring, Mystic thought as the team made its way across the aerodrome runway. Or perhaps it was the constant jetwash and turbulence of all the airships coming and going above her head. Either way, it made her cloak flap wildly, as though she had some sort of giant, panicking bird tethered around her neck.
Caballus was in the lead, with an energetic mare from the port authority at his side. She was constantly reminding them of how honored she was to be aiding guests of the Plutarch. Meister had called ahead of them, and ordered that the special team of “salvage auditors” be given every assistance.
“I would go myself,” he had told them, “but somepony needs to take the helm of the Trade House, and I don’t dare name a new Seneschal to do it in my stead.” Meister seemed to believe that whoever was ordering the assassinations wanted him to be preoccupied with his business, and unable to orchestrate a response. It was why he needed Caballus.
“You shall be my eyes and ears,” the old pony said. “I don’t trust anypony under my own employ anymore, not with something like this. Any one of them would turn double agent for the right price.”
Then Caballus had suggested starting with Tier’s ship. It might have been the Killer or his associates who had done the third heir in, to send his father a message, or so Caballus had argued. It was a flimsy pretense, but it held up, and Meister gave them his support.
When they reached the hangar that the Glücksritter was stored in, the port official led them through a side-door. It took a moment for Mystic’s eyes to adjust as she stepped inside, but when she made out the finer details of the ship once again, it called back memories of the first time she had seen it: sand whipping against her face, furious roars filling her ears, and cold metal squeezing around her neck. She took a deep breath.
“Where was it picked up?” Caballus asked their escort.
“She was adrift in airspace to the west, my lord, riding the currents toward town. Even with all the traffic, we’re not used to seeing many sky-hulks in these parts. It took us a little by surprise.” The mare activated the ship’s loading ramp by remote. The long, metal slab began to lower, groaning irritably.
“Who found it?” the Inquisipony asked over the noise.
The official shrugged. “Some sky-barge called in a derelict sighting, so we dispatched a salvage team. By the time we got there, a few junk-trawlers were trying to board it, but they fled the scene as soon as we arrived. Then we towed it back to port and sealed it in here, pending an investigation by either the Constabulary or the Arboates.” Her smile didn’t quite succeed at hiding her nervousness. “I didn’t know that the Trade House would be sending its own… salvage audit team. I didn’t know it even had one.”
“It does now,” Caballus replied. He walked up the ramp into the primary cargo hold.
The ship’s main power was down, so the red emergency lights, drawing supplementary power from outside, were the only source of illumination in the cavernous space. It was empty, but it still contained the smell of penned animals, the same stench that had permeated Tier’s warehouse.
“Has anypony else been on the ship since it was recovered?”
The mare shook her head. “We were never cleared to inspect the hulk, so… you’re the first, my lord.”
Caballus dismissed her, and waited until she was gone before he laid out his plan. “Fyzzix, Roughshod and Hairtrigger, you search the other holds and the Enginarium. Look for anything missing or anything out of place. Mystic, you’re with me. We’ll be sweeping the bridge and crew quarters.”
Everypony acknowledged, and Fyzzix pointed them toward a hatchway with stairs. “This ship is an older configuration, but that should take you to the crew decks… or the waste filtration system… but it I’m about 89.6 percent sure it’s the crew decks.”
Mystic gave him a concerned glance, but Caballus forged on ahead, leaving her no choice but to follow. The stairs led up into a narrow corridor, and up another flight of stairs. They climbed those as well, and by the time they reached the top, Mystic’s breath was coming out in determined huffs. The first heavy breath she took at the top of the stairs turned to a cloud in front of her face, and she realized it had suddenly become very cold.
“Hmm, must be a malfunction of the coolant systems,” said Caballus, as though he had barely even noticed, “or the life support. Come on. These must be the crew quarters.”
The corridor was lined with hatches, scores of them on either side. Caballus opened the nearest one to look inside. It swung open with a rusty, metallic screech. The interior was sparse and clean, if rather cramped. But even though it had three bunks jutting from the wall and barely enough room to stand beside them, it was actually quite luxurious compared to the quarters on some naval ships or chartist vessels.
“It doesn’t look like there’s anything here,” said Caballus after a cursory search.
Mystic stepped out into the hallway, and looked forlornly down toward the other end. There had to be at least fifty more rooms. “This is going to take forever.”
When Caballus came out as well, she found him staring at her hooves. “Maybe not,” he said.
Following his gaze, Mystic saw what he had noticed: the floor had been burned. In spots and specks, the metal of the corridor had been scorched, as if by acid, leaving a trail pointing down the corridor.
The static crackle of Mystic’s comm-bead filled her ear. “Come in… er… uh… Captain,” said Roughshod over their channel. Even though Fyzzix assured them it was secure against outside listeners, Caballus would take no chances.
“What is it, Roughshod?” Caballus said.
“We found… the… uh… we found the…”
“We have located the crew,” Fyzzix said dispassionately.
“You have?” Caballus said. “Where?”
“Secondary cargo hold,” replied Fyzzix.
Caballus frowned. “Condition?” he asked, as though he already knew the answer.
Hairtrigger’s disembodied voice sounded unsure. “They’re… they’re all…”
“Fragmentary,” Fyzzix finished. “They were petrified by means consistent with the previous killings, then fractured by blunt impact, and sealed in shipping containers. Cursory examination indicates an overall volume of stone that would correspond to approximately one hundred and fifty adult male ponies. That is roughly the number indicated by the crew manifest in Ver Kaufer Trade House records, and matches the expected crew necessary to operate a vessel of this size and configuration. There’s also mild structural damage…”
“That’s all the proof we needed,” said Caballus. “The Stone Cold Killer is working with the Children, and right now he’s our best lead. We find him, and we’ll find them. Continue to the Enginarium. Mystic and I are going to check something before we go to the bridge. Over and out.”
The Inquisipony set off down the corridor, following the speckled trail of burns. Mystic followed, and it led them up another flight of stairs, through two bulkheads, and stopped at a broad oaken door.
“Must be the captain’s quarters,” Caballus mumbled as he put a hoof on it and pushed. With a groan, it opened, and the two stepped inside.
As soon as she crossed the threshold, Mystic felt the temperature drop, and she shivered. The entire room—the desk, the bookshelves and all the other expensive looking decorations, even the dead embers in the fireplace—were covered in a thin layer of frost. She pulled her cloak over her head and clutched it tight around her with magic.
Seemingly unaffected, Caballus began rifling through the desk drawers, pulling out scrolls and parchments, scanning for something useful. While he did that, Mystic picked apart the furnishings, looking under sculptures and behind paintings, but she found no hidden compartments, nor anything that appeared out of the ordinary.
She often marveled at Caballus’s keen eye for spotting clues amongst the mundane, having no such knack herself. If there was something here, it would be him who found it; that’s why he was the Inquisipony.
Instead, she trotted over to the bookshelves. Compared to them, her own collection aboard Her Solar Majesty seemed paltry. The thought that a traitor like Tier could take so many books with him wherever he went felt like injustice. It wasn’t like Caballus couldn’t requisition more books, or even a bigger ship, if that was an issue. So why didn’t he? An Inquisipony could have anything they needed to do their job, and whatever else they wanted besides. Maybe she would ask him…
“Find anything?” said Caballus, jarring Mystic from her train of thought.
“Oh, no. Nothing. But there might be something in these books.” She concentrated on her horn, building some heat there, and waved it across the bindings. The frost melted enough to reveal their titles.
His skeptical expression made it clear that Caballus suspected she just wanted to take a peek into the small library. He skimmed some of the books.
“Half of these are listed on the Index Proscriptus,” he said doubtfully. “If Tier had done nothing else wrong but be caught with these, he would have been burned at the stake along with them. In Defense of the Future: A Logical Disc-Horse… Bestiaria Prohibitae… The Eight Sermons of the Dread Saint Blasphemius. We don’t have time to spare for these right now, and when we do, it will only be to destroy them or have a few of the more benign ones sealed in the Friendquisition’s archives forever.”
“Well… how about… this one?” Mystic replied, levitating a tome that had none of the grotesque pictograms or macabre script of the others.
Caballus read the title. Tactica Equestrialis: A History of the Later Equestrian Crusades. He must have sat through a hundred lectures about that ancient and venerable tome in his years at the Stablea. The hopeful, pleading look on Mystic’s face was almost too much to bear.
“No.” he said sternly. He could get her another copy later if she really wanted to read it. Everything on this shelf, no matter how harmless it looked, had to be considered tainted.
Hanging her head, Mystic floated the book back to its place. Caballus put a hoof on her shoulder. “Come on, there’s nothing here. Let’s get to the bridge.”
The captain’s quarters were never far from the bridge on most ships, and they found it after only a few minutes of wandering the empty halls. To Mystic, it seemed that they could have found it just by going in the direction that felt coldest. They stopped just outside the door.
“Come in, Captain,” said Fyzzix in their ears.
“We have reached the Enginarium, and I believe I have identified the ship’s navigational stack.”
“Can you download it?” Caballus asked, a hint of excitement creeping into his tone. With the data contained in the ships nav-stack, they might be able to retrace the ship’s steps and find out where else Tier had been plying his heretical trade, and where the Children might be hiding.
“Standby,” Fyzzix replied. The following pause was altogether too long for Mystic’s liking, who was now shivering where she stood. “Negative. It has some kind of… encryption. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, except…”
Caballus perked up. “What? What is it?”
Another moment of silence, save for the chattering of Mystic’s teeth, passed before Fyzzix responded. “I can’t be sure. But I will have to remove the stack to properly access and decode it. It’s going to take some hardware.”
“Do it,” said Caballus. Then he put his hoof on the door lever. It swung open with a metallic screech.
The bridge looked like a frozen tomb. The red emergency lights gave the room a menacing, infernal tint. Every surface was coated with ice, reflecting the light in all directions and illuminating every cogitator terminal and system workstation.
It was deathly still, every crunch of hoof on the ice echoing like shattering glass. Mystic lit her horn, pushing back the red and turning the room a green-blue color. They walked between the crew stations, cautiously making their way from one end to the other in search of something useful.
“Do you see anything?” Caballus asked her.
She turned to him to answer, but she brushed up against an icicle hanging from a holo-table while she wasn’t looking. When it clinked on the ground, she flinched.
Caballus gave her a deadpan look and started chipping the ice off the helm controls with his hoof. Sheepishly, Mystic tugged her cloak even tighter, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath.
Between the clangs of Caballus’s strikes, Mystic thought she heard another sound. “Quiet,” she told him. Caballus stopped his picking and perked his ears up.
Mystic strained her hearing, and followed the sound. It was faint, like someone was… crying. She bent down under the holo-table, and her horn-light revealed a pony there.
“Caballus, over here!” she cried. The figure was curled up in a fetal ball, trembling and pale as snow. The poor creature’s mane was a frozen, tangled patch on its head, though Mystic couldn’t tell its gender. “Are… are you alright?”
The pony shuddered, but otherwise didn’t move. Mystic heard it mumbling something, but she couldn’t make it out. “What happened to you?”
“He t-t-told m-me to wait f-for somep-pony to c-c-come,” it said.
By then, Caballus was beside her. “Who told you?” he demanded
“C-C-Can’t you hear them?” the pony squeaked, “They howl b-beyond the veil. They feast on our hate, and drink our fear. He s-said they w-wouldn’t stop, the t-tears wouldn’t s-stop, not until somepony c-came.”
She brightened her light, making him cringe, and she made out the shape of his cutie mark: a snowflake, surrounded by sparkles.
Sparkles. Just like hers. A chill that had nothing to do with the cold ran down Mystic’s spine.
“What does that mean?” she asked, the hair on her neck standing on end. “What happens when somepony comes?”
Finally lifting its head, the pony, a colt only just younger than Mystic, looked her in the eye. Though they were red and puffy, they still were bright blue, and long streams of tears had run from them down his cheeks and frozen there. An on his forehead, jutting like an icicle, was a horn.
“I was sup-p-posed to kill them,” he whispered.
Caballus shoved Mystic away to avoid the jagged shards of ice that erupted from the floor. Numb from cold and shock, Mystic kicked and struggled to find purchase on the icy metal beneath her. Her mind reeled; it was a unicorn, a rogue in thrall to the Darkness. A witch.
“Run!” Caballus shouted, helping her to her feet. An instant later, more frozen spikes flew at them like darts, impaling cogitators and vid-screens as the two ducked behind them. They had almost made it to the door when Mystic heard more of the frozen missiles whistling behind her. Glancing back, she must have slipped, because she suddenly felt the sensation of falling, and saw flashes of a dark, grey shape over her.
She wasn’t sure how she ended up in back in the corridor outside the bridge, but that was the next thing Mystic remembered. She was running, with Caballus behind her yelling into his comm-bead.
“We have to get out of here, now! Just rip it out if you have to, and meet us in the cargo hold!”
They reached a bulkhead door that Mystic didn’t recognize from their route up. Were they lost? Fyzzix’ reply was garbled to Mystic, but Caballus responded with “I don’t care! There’s a rogue unicorn on the loose in here!”
He cranked the lever to the side and put his hooves on it to push, but ice started to form around the edges of the door, sealing it shut. It spread so rapidly that it engulfed his hooves before he could pull it away, leaving him stuck to the metal. Mystic turned back, and saw the unicorn at the far end of the corridor, panting thick clouds of mist.
She was shivering even harder now, only now it was from fear. She felt cold sweat and helplessness trickle down her back. Caballus couldn’t help her. She had to face the unicorn alone, against every instinct that told her to run.
How could you run when he needs you? her inner voice said. This is what he keeps you for: to fight the enemies that only you can fight.
It was right. Caballus, with his courage and his cunning, could defeat any heretic or zoono. Of that, Mystic was sure. But he had no defense against magic. No defense but her. This was her purpose.
Filled with resolve, Mystic planted herself in the center of the corridor. She pulled arcane power toward her horn, preparing it for an attack. The ice-witch struck first, flinging more icicles at her. Without time to properly defend, she released her offense instead. A web of lightning shot from her horn down the hallway, filling it with crackling energy. The projectiles were vaporized in mid-flight, and the metal walls were shredded as the spell passed through them.
When the deadly net reached the other end, it burst in a blinding flash. For a moment, Mystic lost her enemy in a cloud of vapor. But then the rogue emerged, encased in a thick layer of ice, like a suit of armor that sizzled and steamed from the dissipating electricity. A cold wind whipped up in narrow hall, swirling around him until it lifted him off the floor. Snow stung Mystic’s vision, but she saw blue light shining in the witch’s eyes like beacons in a blizzard. She suspected that she had made him angry.
As if to answer, the red emergency lights in the corridor began flashing, and klaxons blared. Between the loud wails and howling winds, Mystic could barely hear Fyzzix’ voice shouting over the comms. She didn’t catch most of what he said, but she did manage to pick out a few phrases, such as “cascading failure,” “plasma reactor,” and “explosion imminent.”
“We need to get out of here!” Caballus yelled. “Help me with this ice!”
Mystic launched a fireball down the hallway. “A little busy!” she replied, but she tried to start a torch spell to heat the door. With all the noise, however, she found it impossible to concentrate long enough to melt anything, and was interrupted by staving off another volley of sharpened ice. By now, the hostile unicorn was halfway to them, close enough to hear his sobbing, broken by manic, unnerving cackles.
Desperate, Mystic shot another fireball, aimed not at the witch, but at the pipes running along the ceiling above his head. A jet of pressurized water drenched him, and his reflexive defense was to lash out with yet more ice-magic, sealing himself in a frozen prison.
“That won’t hold him for long,” said Caballus.
Mystic nodded, and aimed her horn at the cold metal door. “I have an idea.” Magic gathered at the end of the appendage, a ball of distorted space appearing there. After a moment, she touched it lightly against the bulkhead. A loud CLUNG! rang out as the compressed kinetic force was released. The shockwave shattered the ice around Caballus’s hooves.
She did it once more, ignoring the sound of cracking ice behind her. This time it was even stronger, the ball vibrating violently in her magical grasp. Caballus braced her, and they both closed their eyes. Ice build-up and steel hinges alike gave way in a deafening crash, blowing the door into the next corridor beyond.
“NO!” yelled the ice-witch, in the disturbing timbre that reminded Mystic uncomfortably of herself. “You have to die! He said you do!”
“Are you in the hold yet?” Caballus said into his comm.
Roughshod’s voice emerged from the static a moment later. “Yeah, we’re here! Where are you? This whole ship is about to go critical!”
Caballus and Mystic jumped over the mangled door and galloped as fast as they could. She even heaved up the metal telekinetically, and flung it backward at the rogue.
“We’ll be there in sixty seconds,” said Caballus. “I want you to rig the ramp to close and lock itself. Then you three get out. We’ll be right behind you.”
“But… are you gonna-“
“Just do it!” the Inquisipony snapped. He bounded down the stairs ahead, flung open one last hatch, and skidded into the primary cargo hold. Mystic followed behind, tumbling on the last few steps and rolling through the final passage. Caballus slammed it closed and locked it. Finally able to light her torch spell, Mystic welded the locking mechanism permanently shut.
Caballus looked behind them. On the far side of the hold, the loading ramp was rising, slowly but implacably. “That’s enough,” he told her. It was obvious there wasn’t enough time for her to seal the edges. “We have to move!”
The pair galloped across the empty hold, hooffalls drowned out by the banging coming from the other side of the door. Halfway to the ramp, Mystic glanced back. Huge dents bulged from the door with every blow. Then gouges appeared, as though claws of ice were slashing at the other side. Finally, with a shriek of tearing steel, the door gave way. Furious winds nearly tore the cloak from Mystic’s neck.
Ahead, the gap between the ramp and the roof of the hold was quickly disappearing. She could hear Caballus panting and wheezing, and saw deep wounds on his flank and side. From when I stumbled on the bridge, she realized, he must have shielded me.
Her own lungs burned almost too much to breathe. The incline was increasing as well, taking more and more effort to keep going up. It felt to the green unicorn that every stride she took only brought it closer to locking them in the doomed ship. At least we’ll have company, she thought.
But in spite of her estimations and the protests of her legs, she was almost there. Caballus reached the opening first, straddling it and reaching a hoof back to help her. Just one last lunge and-
Pain shot through Mystic’s left leg and she faltered. She tried to move it again, but it felt… stuck. Eyes watering, she looked down and saw an icicle impaling the ankle, pinning it to the deck. The sight of it made her feel faint…
“Give me your hoof!” said Caballus, grasping for her.
She tried, but he was just out of reach. Mystic looked down at her leg, and past it, at the witch. He was almost on top of her.
“Do you hear them?” he shouted. “Do you hear the voices too?”
“Shut up!” Crying herself, Mystic aimed her horn at her ankle. She had no choice. Just one more spell and she would be free. All it would cost her is…
Suddenly, Caballus was above her. He put his mouth on the end of the ice-shard sticking up. “Hold still,” he said through clenched teeth, and pulled. It snapped, and he hefted her onto his back, crawling toward the edge of the ramp. In seconds it would close, either trapping them inside or crushing them.
“No, don’t leave me alone with them,” cried the rogue. By now his tears had frozen in long streams that hung off his face. “They’ll go away! All you have to do is DIE!”
“You first,” the Inquisipony said, and he pushed off.
The next thing Mystic was aware of was a falling sensation. It was strange; it felt so far away, like it was happening to somepony else. Caballus’s grip slipped and suddenly she couldn’t see him anymore, only the ceiling of the hangar spinning above her. Blackness started to creep into the edges of her vision. Getting darker…
She felt hooves around her again. Deceleration jarred her back to her senses, and she saw an orange face with a big, red eye. “Got you, little missy,” said Hairtrigger through clenched teeth.
Mystic looked down and saw Roughshod, galloping beneath her with Caballus on his back. Up ahead, Fyzzix was beckoning them toward the open hangar doors. She blinked, and they were outside, the hangar falling away behind them.
“Keep going!” the Meq-priest said, no exertion in his artificial voice. Mystic must have blinked again, because the hangar was now shrinking into the distance. “We haven’t reached minimum safe distance yet. I estimate plasma containment failure should still be a few-”
Mystic didn’t know if he ever finished that sentence, because there was a flash that swallowed the world, and a BOOM! that finally sent her into darkness.
The light bathed Sniffles, white and blinding, but he did not blink. If his eyes even still felt pain, he didn’t know it, since the sensation had long since become alien to him. It faded, leaving spots on his retinas, which would fade in turn. If there was one truth Sniffles was sure of, it was that everything faded eventually.
“Like a flower,” his companion said to him. A glass of punch, dark, strong and served in the finest crystal, floated to the pony’s lips. A forked tongue licked the juice from a row of glistening fangs. “See how it blossoms? Its petals open to us, and show us another sun that Equestria might worship. A new dawn of war.”
Sniffles sniffled. “I never fancied you a poet.” The light from the explosion had just subsided, and a cloud of superheated dust began its ascent over the rest of the aerodrome. Perhaps it was shaped a little like a flower, the Pony marine supposed. The deck shifted beneath their hooves, their ship adjusting its course to steer wide of it.
“Oh yes,” the pony replied, his gaze fixed on the fireball through the glass dome of the observation deck. “I’ve studied all the greats. If you like, I could recite from The Saltlicks of Longing for you.”
“Never heard of it,” said Sniffles. He wiped his nose on his armor. It wouldn’t do to ruin the carpet here; it was much nicer than on the Glücksritter.
“It’s a classic. The only book of poetry to be officially endorsed by the Heliarchy for its spiritual fortitude. It was even written by an Inquisipony. Quite stirring.”
Sniffles’ disinterest was palpable. “Is that so.”
“Most assuredly,” his companion said, unperturbed. “Whatever your boorish tastes in the written word, you can’t tell me there is no beauty down there in this scene before you.”
The Apostle of Smooze nodded slowly. “A shame about Hoarfrost, though. He was such a sweet colt.”
“And loyal too,” the pony said, “He had nothing when I found him. When I did, I gave him the two things he had always lacked: power and purpose. Unfortunately, he was proving to be too unstable to continue his… studies. Still, his instability gave him a perfect place in my plans, and he performed it well.”
A mare in servant’s garb totted up with a data-scroll resting on a tray on her back and holding a hoof over her nose. She presented it to Sniffles, and timidly retreated away.
“It seems our… asset is ready to begin the next phase.”
“So impatient,” the pony said, taking another sip. “Always hungry for that next kill. Very well. If all is prepared, call the Children. It’s time for the party.”