Twilight fought off the inevitable wave of nausea as they exited the teleportation bloom, then forced down some water from her canteen. The air here was more moist than she would have expected, even so far up.
“We must depart now, Twilight!” Luna called from her chariot. “There is a telegraph station here. If you need us, send Canterlot a message, and my sister shall summon me. Night Guard, break for the south! Tonight, we hunt Titans!”
There was a flash, and the Princess was gone.
“I do not envy those guys,” Rose said with a shudder. “Where do you want me to land?”
“Good question.” Twilight craned her neck over the edge of the cart and looked over the site. The mountains at the border of San Palomino were just barely visible to the far north. To the west was a monstrous hole in the ground, easily the largest quarry she'd ever seen. The reason for the company's success was evident — the walls of the mine positively shimmered with core-quality gems.
To the east were a few small office buildings, a large depot for shipping out material, and a huge cluster of tents. However, the word “tent” didn't quite do them justice. They were somewhere in between tents and real buildings. Groups of ponies gathered under canopies, each with a kitchen serving food.
Around the entire thing was a fence with multiple security towers and a heavily guarded entrance to the south. Hundreds more ponies were waiting outside the gates, gathered into a single crowd.
“Put us down at the gate. No sense in being obstinate unless we have to be. Besides, maybe the guards will know where Goals is.”
“Roger. Headin’ down.”
By the time they were a few meters overhead, the boos and jeers had already reached a fever pitch.
“Turn around and go home!” one stallion yelled.
“There's enough competition for jobs already!” A mare sneered at them.
“What do you think you're doing, cutting in line?! Get to the back!” That one started a chant, with “Get to the back” being repeated ad nauseum. Then came the rocks, and Twilight decided that was quite enough of that.
Aurora, deploy. Make it noisy.
Light swallowed Twilight whole, blazing like a fire and rumbling the ground. When it died down, armor covered nearly every square centimetre of her body, and the crowd was murmuring in awe.
“What's going on here?” One of the guards, a large, male gryphon, opened the gate and stepped through. “What have I told you ponies? You behave, you can camp out here. You cause trouble, you can take your chances in the desert.”
“That sounds reasonable,” Twilight said as the crowd parted a path between her and the gryphon. “But I'm not here looking for a job. My name is Grand Mage Twilight Sparkle, and this is an official investigation of the Crown. I have it on good information that a Mr. Lofty Goals is present at this mine. I need to speak with him, immediately.”
The gryphon, whose name tag said “Baldur,” folded his forelegs. “I assume you have a warrant?”
“Do we?” Rose asked, whispering.
Twilight shook her head. “You are foreign to Equestria, so I'll cut you some slack for not knowing. Grand Mages are the sole law enforcement entity able to operate in Equestria with the powers of the Princesses themselves. Neither warrants nor probable cause are factors in where I want to go or what I want to search. I answer only to Celestia, and have carte blanche to do whatever I need to in order to complete my missions. Which means, if I have to barge in, I have that legal ability. I'm asking that you get him, or allow me entrance to speak with him.”
Baldur scratched his head. “I wasn't informed of any such thing. I'll have to send for somepony to get management permission.”
Twilight sat down in front of the gate. “Do so, quickly. If I start to think you're stringing me along, I'll be forced to take action and enter, whether or not I have permission.”
“I can't allow you to—”
“You won't be able to stop me.”
Baldur staggered at the bravado. “I'll… get a manager.”
Twilight nodded, and started a mental clock as she waited for the gryphon to return. She was about to polish off her fifth gulp of water and tear the gate off its hinges when the metal door cla-chunked and started a slow slide open. On the other side was a medium-sized stock stallion. He had a coat the colour of rust, and eyes of a cold, deep ocean. A formal mane style and suit more expensive than a month’s rent in a luxury Canterlot penthouse told her that this was the stallion she was looking for.
“Lady Sparkle, I presume?” He straightened his tie and bowed. “My name is Lofty Goals. I am the Vice President of Land Acquisitions for the Core Mining Company. You are here about...?”
Twilight signalled Aurora, and the armour glowed and retracted. “I need specific information that your company is likely to posses. It's there somewhere more private we can talk?”
“Of course. My temporary office. Please, follow me.” Goals turned and waved them through, ignoring Baldur's stink-eye. The door closed behind them, and they turned to travel through a series of the tent-buildings.
“Are the ponies outside the gates that much of a problem?” Twilight asked. “It seems odd to have that much security.”
“Well,” Goals began, mulling over his words. “I don't blame them, to be honest. Of all the major mining companies in San Palomino, we treat our employees the best. Come, see for yourself.”
He turned and led them down another row, towards the center of the cluster. A series of pipes had sprouted from the ground in front of them, forming something like a jungle gym, but with vastly more space inside. More than enough for dozens of ponies, as evidenced by the crowd inside. The pipes had holes in them, and cold water was spraying out. Workers, some wearing gear, some not, were basking in the cooling mist.
“After all is said and done, we don't really pay the best.” Goals took a drink from a nearby water fountain. “But, we offer much safer and more comfortable working and living areas than any other company in the Duchy. Ponies don't die of dehydration or hyperthermia on our watch. We have a maximum workday of eight hours, a maximum workweek of forty-eight hours, and living quarters you can sleep in without sweltering.
“Other companies pay by the kilogram mined. Some even have an auction system for their prospective hires to compete against each other, lowering their wages. Worse, they’ll let miners work as much as they want under the hot sun or baking earth. It's why some have secret mass graves near their sites.”
Twilight's cheeks burned with anger. She nearly broke her pen writing a note to herself to investigate this later.
Goals turned back towards the offices and continued his explanation. “We pay by the hour. Unproductive workers are just fired, rather than paid less. It's still hard work, but at least with our way it's livable. But, it means ponies are always trying to sneak into the camp to try and get hired. Baldur is one of our security officers in charge of making sure that doesn't happen. It's hard to sneak past a gryphon’s sight.”
Rose shook out her feathers. “I imagine so. So they're just looking for work? And they throw rocks at ponies joining the line?”
Goals shrugged. “Sometimes. A lot of them are desperate, but we only have so many spots. We try to keep order, give out water. But the crowd just keeps getting bigger. The company is considering hiring a security firm to kick them out, start taking applications only at certain locations. Off-site locations.”
As they went by another misting station, the cool droplets sent a shiver down Twilight's spine. “Speaking of, how do you get so much water out here? It seems a large cost.”
Goals smiled, and his blond mane only served to make his eyes mad with confidence. “Site 47 is the first of our locations to connect to our own private aqueduct to the Stormlands to the north. Soon, all our sites will. Until then, the others have water shipped in. In another two years, we'll be San Palomino’s largest water management organization.”
Twilight followed Goals in through a pair of glass doors to an air-conditioned office building and passed the reception, then turned to Rose in a whisper. “Stay outside. Make a ruckus if you suspect an ambush.”
Rose saluted with a smile, left the building, and took off to the sky, staggering a bit in her climb.
The remaining two ponies climbed a couple stories and ducked into an office. There wasn't a reception desk, per se, but there was a waiting area of sorts. A pair of blue couches on opposite green walls faced each other, with a rectangular coffee table in between them. Beyond them, a pair of frosted glass doors marked the entryway to Goals’ office.
Also in the room was a large, muscled draft pegasus stallion sipping water from a paper cup next to a water cooler. He had nearly opaque aviator sunglasses, and a suit Rarity might have designed. Moreover, he was white on a level only Celestia could hope to match. Even his mane was an untarnished, pure-as-the-driven-snow white.
“Lady Sparkle,” Goals said, turning to face the other ponies. “May I introduce Arctic Snow, President of the Arctic Security Company.”
Twilight bowed with a smile. “A pleasure.”
Arctic bowed back. “No, if anything it's mine. It's a delight to finally meet the little sister Shining Armor has gone on and on about. And to think, I was going to give Goals here an earful for letting something interrupt our meeting.” He leaned in to not-so-subtly mutter an aside. “Actually, I was going to give him an earful just to annoy him regardless, but now you went and gave me an excuse for it.”
Goals rolled his eyes.
“Um…” Twilight blinked. “You're welcome?”
“Now then, Lady Sparkle, you said you had questions for me about something?” Goals opened the doors to his office and motioned for her to enter, which she did. Inside was a fairly ordinary office for a Vice President, with a desk, bookshelf filled with nondescript books, and filing cabinets.
After taking a seat and putting up a privacy barrier, Twilight cleared her throat and pulled out her notebook. “I'll get right to the point. I have reasonably reliable intelligence that a major pirate operating in San Palomino has a base inside a hollowed out mesa. Your company is the most successful in the Duchy, with by far the richest mines. I'm assuming you have geological data on the mesas west of Sierra Maredre that could help me narrow down which mesa they're hiding in.”
Goals blinked and leaned back in his chair. “Wow. That is rather unexpected, Lady Sparkle. I'm assuming you are referring to Farriér?”
“The same.” Twilight held up her notebook's map and circled the area she needed. “I'm not going to sugarcoat this, Mr. Goals. Lives are at stake; recent hostages. And we both know that the longer we take to take this bastard down, the more likely he'll wind up targeting one of your mines. If this is your best-equipped site, his airship’s guns will tear this place apart in minutes.”
Goals rubbed his chin with a hoof. “I… don't really need convincing, Lady Sparkle. Your word is law. If you want the data, I have to surrender it. But he's been a thorn in the Duchy's side for some time. Why stop him now?”
Twilight took her notebook back and folded her forelegs. “I only just recently learned about him. I did so at the point of a gun. He attacked the train I was on, and he was looking for me.”
Goals’ rusty coat grew two shades darker. “If he's willing to attack you, he deserves what's coming to him.” The stallion pushed back from his desk and went through the unlabelled books on the shelf. After a time, he had several of them pulled down. “These have the data. I'll start going through the reports and mark down which are viable. You can go through the others if you want.”
“I will. Thank you.” Twilight tore through the data, which, thankfully, was rich and well organized. There were even charts. Neither Goals’ name nor his cutie mark suggested a geology background, but he clearly had his company pursue everything he was involved in with an incredible dedication to detail. The reason for his company’s success was clear: based on the data, they already had the richest mines in the Duchy.
The treasure trove included information on which buttes were minable internally, which had riches underneath, and which were stable enough to support it all. Still, the sheer number of them in the vast, wild landscape was incredible. There were thousands of buttes scattered about her target zone, and even that was but a small piece of the Duchy.
Discord, Twilight thought. Four thousand years later and his actions are still a pain in the rear. “Okay, I think that's all of them. Two hundred ten viable candidates.”
“I'm sorry I couldn't nail it down further for you.” Goals sighed and plopped his pen on the desk. “That's still going to take you a long time to search.”
“Maybe, but we still eliminated the vast majority of candidates in the region. We'll get him, even if we have to search these one by one. A few Wonderbolt teams will comb through them in a few days, tops. Farriér’s number is up. He just doesn't realize it yet.”
The buzz faded, and everything went black.
Rose yawned and leaned back against a building, wiping tears from her eyes. “You'd think I'd get used to having sand in my eyes, seeing as I've lived all my life in a desert. You'd be completely wrong.”
She then held down a burp and scratched her back on the edge of a building across from the one Twilight had entered. You'd also think I'd be used to the boredom of stakeouts and waiting in general. Wrong again. Maybe it's because I'm a pegasus, but this still sucks.
She took a few steps from the building, out into the middle of the dusty street, and spread her wings. She didn't take off; she just sat there, feathers spread wide.
Non-pegasi didn't really appreciate streets in the same way pegasi did. Sure, the ground ponies used streets. They were made by and likely invented by them. And sure, pegasi didn't use streets as much, but there was one magical thing about them that those without feathers couldn't quite gap: the wind.
Buildings in a grid layout had a tendency to push air along in a wind tunnel, and the tingle it could give one’s feathers was something else, even among tiny buildings like these.
“Yeah, there we go…” Her feathers and skin twitched while the tingle danced up her back, and the mist from a nearby cooling station added an icy prick to each pin. “That's nice.”
“Wow. You got…” A random earth pony stallion blinked, looking at her wings. “Quite the wingspan there, missy.”
Rose blushed hot enough to melt the ice on her back, then gave him a burning glare. “Not cool. You don't just say things like—”
Rose stopped. Something had changed. It was subtle, but it there was definitely a difference in her sight. Pegasi had sight finely tuned to three dimensions, which needed an accurate sense of light, and that sense told her something got darker. Something to the left, where Twilight was.
She turned, and the other shoe dropped. The building that Twilight had entered didn't just turn off its lights. The entire thing was a black mass; a perfect rectangular prism the size of a city block. No light was coming out, or even being reflected by it. It was a pure, cold void.
“Twilight!” Rose flapped her wings, flying forward and blasting the pony behind her off his hooves. Though she was there in a second, it was too late. The mass was solid as rock, and freezing under her hooves. “Twilight! It's an ambush!”
She hollered and pounded on the darkness with every ounce of magic she could bring to bear, brought up the sound of a full stampede to thunder through her body and the valley, and nothing. Nothing from the void that had swallowed her first friend in years.
Plenty, however, came from the sky.
The ground shook hard enough for Rose to feel it even in the air, and more, closer explosions of fire punched her eardrums seconds later. An airship appeared out of nothing to scorch the earth, raining down shells that erupted with flame on each blast. Two monster turrets were turning the mine into slag, and dozens of ponies were flying out of the bay of the ship.
Rose winced and cringed at the voice, and fell to the ground.
“Run! Fly! They'll kill you if they know you're with Twilight!”
“Argh!” Rose punched herself in the face, pain being the next best thing to cold water. “Shut up shut up shut up!”
“Fly! They'll take you away!”
Rose hit herself again and screamed. Whether it was her ‘inner’ voice leaking out our just her own terror and frustration, it still broke through the sound of shells and panicking ponies, overtaking it all. One mighty flap had her in the air, and surrounded.
Ponies were everywhere. Most were running away from the fire on the ground, but plenty were in the air, some flying for their lives, some flying to take lives.
A knock on her saddle had Rose's cannons dropping open at the ready. They were squirt guns compared to the cannons on the backs of the pirates, but in a furball, “unconscious” was as good as “dead.”
The first pony in her sights found that out the hard way.
A little pair of bolts arced out haphazardly, reaching for something with tendrils of light. When they found the pony in their path, they wound around and into him, racing up his spine and into his brain.
The stallion vibrated for a second, then fell to the ground, kicking up a nice cloud of dust as he hit.
Pegasi were remarkably resistant to blunt force impacts, like the ones sustained from falls. This protection, however, was based on knowing what was coming. Being knocked out on a fall, while not as lethal for pegasi as others, was still life-threatening. With a heavy-duty cannon like the one that stallion was carrying, anypony taking a hit like that was going to wind up dead.
Rose swallowed back vomit, then said through clenched teeth, “Live by the sword…”
She banked hard left, lining up on a second, then a third pegasus, knocking them all out of the sky before one of them finally woke up and turned his guns on her.
Bolts of pure, explosive power ripped under her hooves. If any of them had so much as nicked her, they'd have taken her legs clean off. Best case, she'd bleed out in seconds. Worse, she didn't need to look behind her to know that her bogey was fixing his aim for another burst.
She banked again, this time hard right, and another BBBBBRRRRRAAAAAPPP! nearly announced the removal and destruction of her head. Despite her best efforts to shake him off, moving left, right, and every which way possible, the third burst only missed because the pirate behind her had lousy aim.
Rose dove for the streets below her, lining up with as narrow an alley as her large wings would fit down. Her primaries were brushing on walls, her follower had no trouble firing, and that was just the start. She had “cruising” wings, best for stability and gliding. Wonderbolt turns were literally impossible with wings like hers, and she had just given every advantage to her attacker.
Which meant she had to be perfect, and he had to be sloppy like a tiny pony carrying a gun that was too big for his hide to handle.
She dove to the ground just as the next burst ripped through where she had been, then she snapped her wings to her sides and jumped. She twisted and tumbled about in mid air, leaping into a perpendicular alley. While the pegasus behind her raced ahead and overshot her, she jumped off the wall of a building and back into the air. The other pegasus was stuck circling around, and she had a bead on him.
“Sleep tight!” A crack of lightning went through the air, and just like that, her enemy fell.
She snapped around and fired, not waiting to see whether it was a friend or foe.
The stallion grabbed her lightning with a hoof and tossed it aside. His coat was grey, and his mane and beard, jet black and curly. His grin could stab ponies in the heart all by itself, and the look in his eyes would cut them in twain. This was Farriér.
The stallion smacked his lips, electricity arcing over his primaries as he laughed. “I could use a pony like you on my crew. ‘Course, my spy caught you calling for a certain Grand Mage. I bet when she gets out of our little cage, she'll be mighty angry. Best not to be ‘round when that happens; after all, we can always deal with her later. Just about any time we want, in fact.
“So, why don't y'all come with us, now?”
Rose's heart beat faster than an airship engine could spin. This was the pirate of San Palomino, and she was about to say no to him.
“Say yes! Fly! Do anything!”
“AAAAARRRRRRGGGGGHHHHH!” Rose dove forward, and her vision went white.
She was lying on something warm. That was the last thing she felt while the world went away and a voice cackled in her ear.
“That's mighty disappointing. But then, we have ways of negotiating I think y'all will find persuasive. Bring her on board. Gently. Wouldn't want to damage the merchandise, ya hear?”
Twilight blinked. Everything had gone black. The lights in the room, gone. The sun in the window, vanished. There was nothing but void everywhere, and lighting her horn produced only a token amount of illumination; far less than it should have.
“Lady Sparkle, are you still there?”
Her hearing, at least, was fine. “I'm here…” Vibrations rumbled through the floor and into her hooves. “There's no way this is natural. I'm not that lucky. Hang on.” She called forth her magic, and a narrow slice of it, at that. Fighting the Titan, she had to convert her dark magic to light, but here, no conversion was needed. She merely needed a magic circle filled with only one kind of her power: fire.
A red circle hummed to life in the floor, slowly leaking hot, fiery magic. Nearly microscopic motes of flame ate away at something in the air, and in seconds they could see again, at least inside the office.
“What is this?” Goals swatted at the motes with a hoof. “It's everywhere!”
Twilight turned up her nose at the smell of sewage. “Murkyr. A supernatural darkness that absorbs light. By itself, it's harmless. But since it's here, somepony wants us in the dark, figuratively and literally. Come on, let's get out of here and find out what's going on!”
She marched to the door, stubbing her hoof on a table and nearly tripping on a step. There's the real danger of murkyr — not being able to see where in Tartarus you're going. It forces you to slow down, which is likely just what they want. She put more fire magic in her horn and let it leak out to clear the way.
“You two!” a voice that sounded like Arctic Snow said. “Just what is going on here? You never mentioned this place sometimes spontaneously got darker than my ex-wife’s heart. That is, if she had one.”
“We're under attack. You're going to help me fend it off.” Twilight said flatly.
“Attack? Who in their right mind launches a coordinated assault on a mine of all things?”
Twilight narrowed her eyes, not once stopping her pace. “I can think of just one pony to fit that description.” How she didn't wind up falling down the stairs, she'd never know, but she did it. The three of them left the building while the receptionist cowered under her desk, which was just as well. She was safer there than outside during an attack.
The only problem was getting outside the myrkur to repel it. As Twilight stepped outside, she realized there was no way to know for sure how far it went. The sky, the horizon, everything was pitch black. Then, she bumped her nose on something. “Ow!”
“Something the matter?” Goals asked.
Twilight held up a hoof to stop them from bumping into the same wall, then reached out with it to feel what was ahead of her. Inside the myrkur was a solid black barrier, a shield configured to absorb all the light that hit it. The vibrations outside had picked up — explosions, she had guessed — but the shield itself had a steady, low-frequency throb.
“Can you break it down? Or blow it up?”
“Yes. And we would die in the backlash.” Twilight licked her lips and started digging into the barrier with an analysis spell, and in a few moments she had a trio of circles up representing the barrier’s formula. “Tricky, high powered spell. Whoever did this was pretty good. The formula itself is encrypted, although a better word might be ‘obscured.’ There's a lot of additional, unnecessary steps put in to try to make it hard to comprehend, and thus hard to find a weak point. And before you ask, yes, I can crack it. I just need a little time.”
“I don't know how much we have. A pirate operation can be done in minutes. Which means my employees are dying.” Goals put a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. “Please, hurry.”
Snow pulled him back. “Ease off and let her work, Goals. If anypony can break this, it's her.”
“Aha!” Twilight smiled and started working a drill of a counter-spell. “Just as I thought, there's a time limit on this spell, and it's being refreshed part by part in a specific pattern. All I need to do is block the right part from getting refreshed at the right time, and it'll start falling apart on its own.”
She brought the spell to bear and pushed it into the barrier like a knife to a gut, and waited.
“Was that it?” Snow asked.
“No spell is perfect. Something went wrong, but what?” Twilight spun her analysis spell circles around a bit, looking for clues. It didn't take her long. “The pattern changed. Just as I was about to break it, somehow the spell adapted itself to my subterfuge and changed patterns.”
“A self-adapting spell?” Goals sat, stunned. “Are we sure this is a pirate attack? I'd think only the best spell casters in the world could pull this off.”
“He's right.” Snow finally took off his sunglasses and put them in his suit pocket. “The only pony I know of who’s capable of a barrier like this is Armor.”
Twilight shook her head. “When you hear wingbeats, think robins, not dragons. It doesn't have to be ‘self-adapting’ if there's another pony on the other side working against us, making the changes to the spell as we fight it. Much easier that way.”
“And how do we fight it successfully?” Goals was fuming, but it was well hidden. A seething, volcanic hatred boiling so far underwater the bubbles almost didn't break the surface. “I have some flank to kick. And of all times for our security chief to be on vacation…”
“Simple,” Twilight said. “If it's a pony on the other end, we don't just exploit the weaknesses in the spell. We exploit the nature of the pony mind, like how it's really hard for us to be truly random… unless your name is Pinkie Pie, but I doubt she's behind this.”
The circles started pulsing and shifting form, one at a time, almost like a slot machine. However, while those had randomness and the law of large numbers to make sure the house always won, this was being shifted around by a pony in real time. Somewhere, some unicorn was trying to stay one step ahead of her.
“There, he's favouring a Lem sigil. Three, two, one, now!” She pushed her counterspell into the circle, and a crack resounded through the barrier. A spiderweb of cracks grew in the void, and crimson light seeped through. Red? It's not sunset yet… Not good. Very not good.
Light flowed over her body as Aurora embraced her and deployed. She pulled back a hoof, and smashed it into the barrier. Shards flew, the spell failed, and sound, light, and fury slammed into her nearly as furiously as a real attack. Instead, it was made only of horror. Screaming was everywhere, and every building she could see, save the office she was in, was on fire.
And there was an airship overhead, cloaked in a storm and firing its engines.
“No… No! Rose!” Twilight cracked through a teleport, launching herself at the ship. Wind whipped at her eyes and tears, her heart tore at itself, and rage filled her soul to well into her horn. Violet light ripped through the air and exploded on a solid wall of a shield.
The shock blew her back, but she turned her pegasus magic on her back and rocketed forward once again. Her eyes caught an unconscious pink pony just before the bay doors closed, and vitriol flowed out in the form of raw power instantly, reaching out for a target. Clouds wrapped around her magic and the ship, swallowing both before a wave of sound crashed into her body.
When the bells stopped ringing in her ears, she was on the ground in the middle of a crater. Pain, pins, and needles drew lines up her forelegs as she got them under her. The sky was filled with smoke, but there was no ship, and no Rose.
Twilight sucked in a breath through her teeth and wiped blood off her lips. “That does it. I'm not leaving this desert until I wipe that piss stain out of existence.”