Twilight yawned, curling up on the seat as the train rocked and glided over the tracks. Rainbow, briefly illuminated by moonlight, was already snoring up a storm across from her. Giving in to her sleepy desires, Twilight wrapped the cheap blanket around her turning herself into a pony burrito. Looking outside at the vast desert landscape, with its uncountable mesas and buttes, made it seem like the entire world was nothing but an arid, inhospitable desert.
They had boarded the train at nearly midnight, and it would be nearly a day before they arrived at Sierra Maredre, the capital of San Palomino. Such was the incredible size of the desert. Twilight could even feel the heat under her from nothing but the fire magic in the ground. It burned at her horn, like a stream whose water was a bit too hot. On the plus side, it countered the air conditioning vent above her.
Twilight nestled into the pillow, finally warm and calm enough to let her consciousness drain away—only to be caught by rumbling thunder.
Opening her mind’s eye, she found herself standing on a cloud. A cloud in the middle of a dark vortex, with stars above and ground below. She was back in her inner world, a place of her mind, and there to greet her was a filly that looked exactly like a young Twilight.
Aurora held open her forelegs, wide and waiting, and Twilight dove into the hug, picking her up.
“If you want to see me, you can always ask, silly.” Twilight gave her a little noogie like a big sister should. A cold chill crawled over her, which Twilight assumed was her armor deploying from the hug.
“I'm scared.” Aurora sniffled.
“Of what? The desert?”
“No.” She shook her head and buried her muzzle in Twilight's shoulder. “You're getting a bonded blade. There's going to be somepony new here. Somepony that'll hate me.”
“Hate you?” Twilight sat the filly down. “What makes you say that?”
“I'm armor. I exist to protect you. It's all I live for.” Aurora shrunk down into ball mode. “Blades don't think like that. They exist to kill. We're too different.”
“Hey, sword or not, it'll be made from me. It'll exist to protect others, while you exist to protect me. We'll find a balance, okay? I'm not going to let a newbie start up a storm in my head.” Twilight blinked. “Well, other than the one that already exists here for some reason. I really should look into why my inner mind looks like the middle of a giant tornado.”
Aurora giggled and wiped away a tear. “Because Ascension is eventful.”
Twilight rolled her eyes. “Right. How silly of me.” A sudden gust of wind rushed past them, sending their manes flapping about. “Guess the eye of this storm isn't always calm.”
Aurora looked around her, sniffing the air and poking her head over the edge of the cloud. “There isn't supposed to be wind here. That came from outside.”
“Outside? What, you mean like it's something my body felt?” Twilight chewed it over in her mind. “Well, I am under an air conditioning vent. So I suppose it makes sense.”
Aurora shook her head. “That's not what it felt like. That was magic.”
“Magic? That shouldn't be possible. We're in the middle of a desert.”
The cloud, vortex, sky—everything—shook back and forth like the universe was being swung to and fro. “Twilight! Twilight, wake up!”
“That's Rainbow! Something’s happening.” Twilight squinted at her ‘sky.’ “How do I wa—”
“Twilight! Oh, thank Celestia, you're awake. Something's seriously wrong.”
Twilight groaned and blinked, then rubbed her head with an armoured hoof. “What it is, Rainbow? What time is it?”
“Just, well, look!” Rainbow pointed out the window.
The clear northern skies had been replaced with a rolling, boiling, oncoming storm. Lightning was everywhere, accented by the crack of dawn in the east. Clouds as black as smoke approached like a wave.
Rainbow shuddered. “Something's not right with that storm. There shouldn't even be a storm here; the magic shouldn't allow it. Plus, it just feels wrong. I don't even know how else to describe it.”
“I think you're right. Something's up.” Twilight squinted at the clouds, watching a trio of yellow flashes. The thought in her mind matched with Aurora’s instantly. That's not lightning.
A sudden clap of “thunder” blasted Twilight’s eardrums, deafening her for a moment, though through the haze of her mind, she swear she heard steel ripping steel. The world went tumbling, striking her with the walls, the broken glass, and finally hot rock. Her eyes only returned glimpses of visions. Fire burned and smoke smothered, and copper stained her tongue. Sound returning only brought screams and the crack of cored cannons, followed by chains and scraping on the ground.
“Twilight, wake up! Please, please, Celestia, let Twilight wake up…” a voice whispered in prayer.
“I'm up…” Twilight coughed, sputtering out words and blood in equal measure. She could feel Aurora’s healing magic at work, but the first blow clearly came before her armor reacted and deployed. Her head pounded with whatever had hit them earlier, and her legs were sure there was an ongoing earthquake. “What the buck happened?”
“Sssshhhh!” Rainbow held her hoof to her lips and dragged Twilight to the burning wreck of a derailed, overturned train car. She pressed both their backs to the hot, metallic roof. A little hop was all it took for her to peek over the “top” of the train.
Twilight followed suit, keeping her ears down and horn unpowered.
A massive airship had landed, with its maw of a cargo hold open and swallowing whatever the crew had their hooves on. Boxes, crates, bags, mail sacks, even a few families of survivors being led in chains were all devoured by the floating monster.
Twilight ground her teeth and curled up her lip. “Rainbow, we have a new priority. We need to sneak on that ship.”
“We aren't a match for that many guns, Twilight. They're armed to the teeth.”
“Hence the emphasis on sneak. I need to know where they're going. Once I do, I can call in the Bellerophon. These pirates messed with the wrong pony. Come on.” Twilight slunk low to the ground, scraping her belly on the hot, sandy stone. Wind from her magic scooted her past a gap between burning, tossed rail cars, and Rainbow followed suit.
The next car over was unrecognizable, having been reduced to flaming rubble and shrapnel. A shell had blasted a hole the size of a chariot in it, and that was likely just a glancing blow. Bodies littered the ground, some staining the sand an even darker red, while others burned in magic flame. Others still were only pieces of their former selves.
“I think I'm going to be sick…” Rainbow lurched.
“Keep it together. We will make these bastards pay.” Twilight locked onto a second series of cars tossed the opposite direction from theirs, closer to the ship. They were on fire like the others, but otherwise intact, suggesting they were set ablaze rather than hit with shells.
Rainbow ducked her head down and whispered, “Twilight, I think somepony is coming…They're checking for more survivors!”
“We won't be here.” Twilight grabbed hold of Rainbow and charged her horn, sparking them through existence to the other cars. The ship now loomed above them, a gasbag monster with armoured grey canvas skin, devouring the life of innocents.
“I think I see a hatch.”
Twilight followed Rainbow's hoof to a rusty door a third of the way up the beast, which was sealed with a wheel. She then glanced back at the rear engines of the ship. They jutted out like tiny limbs, each a focusing turbine for the flow of magic, with their own crystals for control.
“Previous-generation tech. This thing is older than it looks; probably retrofitted heavily. Good intel to know. It also means that it's likely that any security seals on this door have a key vulnerability... Give me a second.”
“What are you… Twilight?”
Twilight closed her eyes and breathed out as slowly as she could, wiping the desert from her mental mindscape. There were no mesas or sandstone, no dunes or desolation. There was a field, an openness unrivalled by anything in real space. Nothing but fresh air and eternity existed as she reached for a door that didn't exist, because there was only the vast expanse of open space.
Twilight opened her eyes, finding the hatch now wide open.
“How did you do that?”
“Stellar Horizon’s book. He talked a bit about alicorn magic and how it intertwines with emotions, but he was kinda cryptic and pedantic about it. After I read the other one Charlemane loaned me, I've been able to start putting the pieces together. This is about the most basic example I know that’s truly alicorn magic... and about the only one I’ve been able to really figure out. It's not like the other high-power ‘alicorn spells’ I know of that are really mostly unicorn magic.” Twilight crouched like she was going to pounce, wiggling her butt around in the air. “Grab on.”
She sparked them both in the hatchway the instant Rainbow put a hoof on her, breaking through spacetime and landing directly on the airlock-like entrance.
“You're getting good with that, Twilight.” Rainbow rubbed her head. “I'm barely even dizzy. And that magic on the locked door? Maybe these guys aren't a match for us. Or rather, you.”
“The latch only worked because it's old. Newer ones are better able to deal with hybrid magic. This thing might not even be able to handle Trixie's telekinesis.”
Twilight peered out of the door, looking down at the scene below. The entire train had been derailed, and much of it was destroyed. Most of the passengers were dead, and those few that had survived were being whipped with lashes to corral them onto the ship. What must have been crew were stealing anything they could get their hooves on. “They're taking slaves, or hostages for ransom. Somepony is going to get added to the garden for this.”
“What's the plan? Where do we hide?”
“Not sure yet. Follow me.” Twilight grabbed the inner hatch wheel with her hooves and pulled, spinning it open and stepping inside. The hall was dimly lit with caged, jaundiced lights and vagrant sparks from exposed wires. Rust and an unexplainable sickness covered the metal grates their hooves banged on as they walked, finally coming to a dead end and a window.
“Looks like that's the storage area.” Rainbow said as she peeked over the bottom edge of the glass. “Lots of ponies down there. Lots with guns, too.”
“This way.” Twilight turned back, pulling open a door on her immediate right. The room was brighter than the hall, and didn't have the stench of miasma. The cleaning chemicals and tools probably helped. As a storage closet for a janitor, it was a place of cleaning, in a way.
“Dead end there, memsahib.” Rainbow pulled the door shut, then wedged the mop in the wheel. “What are we doing?”
“Thinking…” Twilight bit down on her hoof, scanning the room. Some of the chemicals could be hazardous if mixed, but not enough to cause a mass panic. There were too many ponies for a direct assault, and the pirates’ brazen actions meant that intimidation was unlikely to work. The only other things in the room were buckets, shelves, and a large vent. “Wait!”
She sank her magic into the screws of the vent, grabbing them with the force of a wrench and twisting them out of their holes. All four plopped to the ground, and the cover was off. A filly would have to duck slightly to walk in, but a mare like herself had to crawl.
An icy chill sucked at her coat from the metal of the vent as she moved, inch by inch. Not a meter into the vent, and it split with a long path left, and another vent directly in front of her face. While Rainbow crawled into the tunnel behind her, Twilight peered out through the slats, watching the ponies below her in the cargo hold.
“Hey, Twilight, good hiding spot. But, uh, what happens if somepony breaks into the closet?” Rainbow flopped around, flapping her wings against the metal. “Also, terrible hiding spot.”
“It'll have to do.” Twilight put the vent cover back on, and stashed the screws away in her bag. This thing is already half falling apart. They won't notice these. “Get in that corner while I spy on them from here. I don't want them to see your spectral mane; it tends to attract the eye.”
“Ugh, you want me to move more.” Rainbow tumbled again, and as before, was careful to avoid making too much noise. Twilight could even feel the blast of pegasus magic she was using to help her.
The ponies below, however, had no such qualms about noise. Boxes and hooves banged, clanged, gangled, and even crashed all over. From Twilight’s vantage point, she could see that the ship had cargo doors on either side of the bay, and both were open.
“Whoa!” Rainbow whispered as the ship shuddered and lurched, giving off a lazy groan from the engines. “They're in a hurry, I take it.”
“Makes sense. If the military finds them, they're history.” Twilight leaned forward, watching the patterns of the ponies as they moved. A few families huddled, whimpered, and cried together on the far left. A dozen or so pirates were rummaging through the cargo, tallying their haul. In the center was a massive stack of crates, each a couple stories high, going nearly to the ceiling.
Most important, though, was the loud stallion in the hat. His grey coat and black mane were unremarkable save for the latter’s incredible curliness. The thick loops looked professional, and the beard and goatee finished the look. His deep, dark blue formal overcoat over a white shirt matched his hat, though the gold loop earrings were a bit much. It was his voice, drenched in a creole accent, that caught Twilight's attention more than anything. It was yelling constantly, with a stream of threats creative and degrading enough to be in Luna's league.
“I think we found the Captain.” Twilight scanned the rest of him, committing his sabre cutie mark to memory. “How does one even get a cutie mark in piracy? If that isn't a ‘hey, I'm evil’ warning, I don't know what is.”
“Hey, do you feel something funn--Whoa!”
Twilight and Rainbow both cracked their jaws on the vent floor from the sudden pressure, both of them thankful the rest of the ship was just as noisy with banging and cries from startled ponies. Gravity had seemingly become vicious in an instant, pulling down with an invisible, crushing hoof. It was over in less than a minute, and the popping in Twilight's ears told her just what had happened.
“The ship, it climbed… We must have shot up over a mile. But how? Not even the Bellerophon can do that.” Twilight peered back out the vent, watching the continued action below. “I wonder if that's how they've been evading the military so far.”
“Maybe, but I think it was more to do with the clouds we saw. Maybe it's some kind of cover, giving them the element of surprise each time. Ponies just get a moment to wonder what's going on before the shooting starts.”
“Hmmm…” Twilight zeroed in again on the apparent leader, pointing her ears at him and listening as best she could, though the subordinate was just too quiet.
“So, she wasn't there, you said?” The leader, however, was plenty loud. His words covered the entire bay as he paced. “Well now, that sure is interestin’. Especially considering that we knew she was gonna be there. So are y'all suggestin’ that our source was wrong? Or maybe Miss Sparkle just went an’ jumped off the train at some point?”
The pirate subordinate mumbled something.
“What's that, boy? I can't right hear ya. Go on an’ talk a bit louder now. I want the whole ship to hear us.”
The pirate cleared his throat and blushed. “I-I said, maybe she was killed by the ship’s guns.”
The leader took off his hat and rubbed his head for a few seconds. “Well, if that don't beat all. Maybe that's the case! I mean, it certainly would make sense, if'n we were that lucky.” He put his hat back on. “Now, just how stupid do ya think I am, son?”
The blush on the pirate turned into a ghostly pale. “N-no, I didn't say--”
“Oh? You callin’ me a liar now, boy?”
Even a ghostly pale wasn't enough to describe the fear in the stallion’s face. “I-I-I…”
“All y’all, do you think I'm stupid?”
“No, Captain Farriér!”
“Looks like it's just you, Tack. I'm wounded, fo’ sure, that you think so little of me that I might go’n imagine a prized mare like Grand Mage Sparkle would be killed so easily, ’specially after you went an’ tried to warn her!”
Tack’s lip trembled. “Captain, I swear, I would never!”
“There ya go again, callin’ me a liar! And yer callin’ Crown Agent Cob a liar, too!”
Farriér grinned and glared Tack down from the corner of his eye. “Son, just who d’ya think runs things ‘round ‘ere?”
Tack mouthed something, but the words never came out.
“Tandem, seein’ as how he ain't usin’ them anyhow, be a good lad and blow Tack's brains out.”
Twilight's heart stopped as another pony pointed a mounted, cored cannon at the stallion. No, he can't mean--
A body dropped to the blood-stained floor.
“No…” Twilight whimpered, putting a hoof on the vent. “Tack, I'm sorry. You tried to do the right thing. You tried…”
Farriér pulled a lever, and the far bay door screeched and whined as it opened the ship up to the storming, howling wind outside. Two ponies wasted no time picking up the body and tossing it overboard.
“Captain, Tack wasn't wrong about one thing.” Tandem tightened the bandana on his head. “We didn't find her body in the wreckage. We really sure she's alive?”
Another crack broke the air from Farriér’s hoof hitting Tandem's jaw. “O’course she's alive, ya nitwit! Miss Sparkle is the Grand Mage, not some dirt-licker who grew up in a tin shack like you! Y'all best remember who we dealin’ with, lest you end up like Tack!”
Tandem spit a tooth on the floor. “How we find her then, Captain?”
“That's easy, son.” Farriér signalled with one of his wings to a pony in the midst of the captured families, and the pirates pulled a stallion away from the group and next to where they killed Tack.
Twilight clenched her teeth, hoping it would stop her seething from setting fire to the vent under her. “Rainbow, get ready to hide.”
“What? Hide? Are you serious?”
“No matter what happens to me, stay out of sight, spy on them, find where their base is, and report to Celesti--”
“Papa! Papa, no!”
The mare next to the foal, presumably the mother, hushed her child with a hoof drenched in the river of her own tears. The stallion, meanwhile, was made to sit in the still-fresh blood.
“Stay strong, son.” His own tears were there, but he clearly fought back against them. “Daddy loves you.”
Tandem almost looked shocked. “Boss, no!”
Farriér raised an eyebrow. “Boy, you’d better have a good explanation for tellin’ me what to do, less you aimin’ ta join him.”
Tandem just smiled. “I think you should shoot the mother instead.”
Twilight locked eyes on the mare. “Rainbow, hide. Don't get--”
The mare slammed into the wall along with her blood, and Farriér smiled as the blades hidden in his wings glowed and crackled. The leading pinion blade on his right lined up to the mare's body, a trace of death through the air. The ponies all, save for the pirates, stood in shock, though none more than the foal.
Farriér grabbed onto the stallion and shoved him a few paces to the open cargo door. “Well, my boy, I do declare, I believe you were right! And look, we even got another to--”
Twilight wasn't in the vent anymore. The vent didsn't exist, there was only fire and rage, along with a telekinetic blade screaming out for vengeance. It burned the air around it, but couldn't reach its target from being held back by Farriér’s wing blade. It was all that was between it and cutting off that smug, evil smile of his as he stood before her.
“Well, Lady Sparkle, I presume. Been waitin’ ta make your acquaintance.”
“Die.” The word didsn't come from her mouth, but her heart, and it echoed all the more for it as she drove the blade forward.
“Not bad!” Lightning rolled through the blades, pushing Twilight back, sliding her on her hooves across the floor. “But not good, either. Cataclysm!”
Lightning consumed Farriér, burning around him in a ball, but never touching him. It built up, then pulled back.
Twilight flared her horn ever brighter as her blade burned with dark flames hungry to destroy the sinner. She connected the stream to the house-sized crate next to her, pulling with blind, bloodthirsty rage and lifting it into the air over Farriér. “You want this? Have it!”
She let go.
Lightning cut through the wood, disintegrating it and pushing through with a current arcing into the floor. Metal and splinters flew like bullets, cutting Twilight's cheek and lodging in her armor. More power surged at her in a wave, a living rope of electricity whipping through the room and anything in its path.
Twilight pulled over another, smaller crate, and it popped like a bubble in the path of the magic. She lunged to the side, and the light followed her. She pulled down an avalanche of cargo, burying half the bay, and the lightning pushed through it like a vein. She even threw her blade, but the explosion only cleared the way.
Twilight pulled the debris in with her and painted it with her magic. The shell hardened and submerged into a solid, purple shield that followed her as she drove forward, into the maelstrom.
The edge of Farriér’s lightning attack broke Twilight’s shield into splinters, then sank into her chest.
She fell, but not to the floor. She simply fell amidst a rainstorm of charred wood, glowing metal, and warped glass. The ship was no longer around her, and though there were storm clouds, those too soared away from her.
“Twilight! We're falling!”
Aurora’s plea rattled in her ears, and Twilight shook her head to clear it. She saw the ship, cloaked in cloud, floating away. Innumerable pieces of debris fell with her in the post-dawn air, some the size of a cart, others no larger than a superheated grain of sand.
The light came again, this time as flickers of yellow light deep in the clouds.
That's not lightning. Twilight pushed to the side with her pegasus magic, narrowly avoiding a hail of anti-aircraft bolts that was the opening crescendo of an entire symphony. Bolts rained down from the storm, followed by the hail of full cannon shot. She kept pushing, flying, moving through the air without wings through the desert sky.
The rain of firepower kept firing, seeking her out in her old spot.
They can't see me through the clouds this far away! I'm too tiny! Twilight snapped her attention to the debris, one piece of which bounced off her back. One large crate hit the ground and exploded under her, forecasting her fate in mere moments. Nail, bottle, wheel… No, that's not wha-, wait, there!
She snagged a crate the size of a small coffee table and ripped off one of the large sides. Here goes nothing! Twilight lit a magic circle on the wood, then turned the side over and fired the spell. Sender's Shower blasted magic and water at the rapidly approaching ground, and Twilight hooked into the circle with her thoughts to send more and more magic its way, reprogramming it as she went. The water caught the air before hitting the ground, slowing the board down for Twilight to approach it.
Twilight grabbed on tight to the board, turned herself upside down, held it against all four hooves, and fought back against gravity with every ounce of pegasus magic she could find. The water from earlier rushed passed her, winning the race to the ground.
“Poomf” was the only sound she made as her back landed on the newly-formed steam cloud just above the desert floor.
It was exactly what Twilight had counted on.
She turned herself over, walking off the hot cloud with board in tow. The ship had only just stopped firing, but that still left the echoes of its guns to ring out in the mesas, warning anypony in earshot of the new craters in the desert. Seconds later, the storm clouds vanished completely, along with the ship. Not even her thaumic sight could find a trace.
Twilight swallowed in her already dry throat. “Tack, everypony, I'm sorry. I couldn't save you.” Only a single tear escaped the growing rage in Twilight's pounding heart. “Rainbow, I'm counting on you. Find their base, and get back to me.”
Aurora gave voice to a thought Twilight didn’t want to confront: “What if she can't get out?”
Rainbow ducked back into the depths of the vent, praying that her pounding heart wasn't beating a warning to the pirates through the metal. “It can't… She can't be…”
Thunder and shocks rocked the entire ship, swaying it left and right and all but shaking it apart.
The guns? They're... firing? Rainbow’s eyes went wide. Of course! That means they don't think she's dead! If she's okay, and can dodge the shots, she'll live! But what if they hit…
The walls in the vent pushed in.
I let her down. I should have pushed out the grate.
The dirty, dusty metal closed around her as the mechanical snake swallowed.
I might’ve only been a distraction, but that's all she needed. I'm the Captain of the Evening Guard. I'm supposed to die, not her.
Her breathing stopped as if fangs dug into her throat. Her heart slowed, squeezing down in her chest.
The guns stopped.
I'm… I'm… Rainbow stopped. She simply stopped. Stopped everything. The world fell away, as did her mind. There was nothing; no pain, no sound, no taste, no light, no planning, no possibilities. There was only her.
There was only loyalty.
Being true to Twilight means trusting her. It means trusting in her abilities. I didn't see her die, I only saw her fall. She's an alicorn. She can survive that. And her armor is incredible. I doubt some little zap like that is enough to take her out. The guns? Pfft. Like they could track a target that can teleport. They just lost sight of her.
Rainbow laid back in the wide, abnormally spacious vent. She even kicked back and yawned. All I gotta do is stay put until they dock somewhere, then fly. They got nothing that can catch me. And if they try to stop me? Tch.
She poked her head into the vent intersection just enough to see the light from outside for when the cargo doors opened again. “If they try to stop me, then Una Salus Victis.”
“Rainbow will be fine. Even if she can't get out, all she has to do is stay put. Eventually, I'll find her. And Farriér.”
Twilight pointed the board at the ground and set off another Sender's Shower, and a geyser of steam bellowed into the air. A swirl of pegasus wind was all it took to make another, smaller cloud.
She hopped on her cloud, grabbing her board before it lifted off. Her pegasus magic pushed them up dozens, then hundreds of meters into the air. She had a perfect view of the desert floor, and the air was much cooler. She was even able to shield her coat from the harsh rays of Celestia’s sun with her multi-talented piece of wood.
Twilight shifted her magic from pushing her up to pushing her forward as she aimed for the railroad tracks in the distance.
“Where are we going?”
“Isn't it obvious? To Sierra Maredre, the capital of San Palomino, to find somepony who knows where Farriér hides.”