“Ooooowwwwww…” Twilight groaned and shifted under what she assumed were hospital sheets. She tried opening her eyes, but the photons in the room had the mass and shape of ice picks. “I have got to stop passing out in the middle of battles.”
“Ah, you're awake.”
Twilight held a foreleg over her eyes to hide the daggers she was glaring at the pony that dared put a megaphone to her ear and yell. Somewhere in her mind, a voice told her that the other mare was speaking normally, and it was just her headache that made the sound hurt. That voice was running a risk of being lined up to a brick wall and shot.
“My name is Dr. Full. I'm the Chief Medical Officer of the Bellerophon, and you're in the sick bay.”
Twilight swallowed in her sandy, dry throat. “How bad is it?”
“Could be worse. You didn't actually blow out your horn, so there's no permanent or long-term damage. You did, however, drain your wellspring almost entirely. I'd avoid using magic for the next day or so, or that headache you have will get worse very quickly.”
“I don't suppose you have any aspirin or codeine or something…”
Dr. Full chuckled. “I already put a couple painkillers and a glass of water on the table next to you. When you can open your eyes and see normally, you can take them, but not before.”
“Thanks.” Twilight blinked, and quickly thought better of the action of opening her eyes just yet. “Is the battle over? How many casualties?”
“Yes.” There was a flip of a page nearby. “We lost seven ponies, but the pirates lost much more. We can account for two hundred of them having been involved in the battle, and more than eighty were killed. But…”
Dr. Full paused, and what Twilight could hear of her breathing told of a heavy weight on her. “The ones that lived are in a vegetative state. Nothing we've done seems to be able to wake them, even in ponies that are otherwise healthy.”
Twilight opened her eyes, and allowed the pain to come. She deserved it. “It's a geas. Farriér tried to use his whole crew as hostages against me. Tried to force me to let him go.”
Dr. Full’s eyes went wide, and her hind legs gave out. She had cat’s eye glasses, but they didn't do a thing to hide the shock. “Let a monster go, and risk the lives of our soldiers, and untold more civilians later…”
“Or put a couple hundred pirates into a permanent coma,” Twilight finished for her. “I made my choice. I have no regrets.” She sat up, downed her medicine, and slipped out of the bed. “We'll do our best to reverse it, but I couldn't let a stallion like that go.”
Twilight's hooves clanked on the metal of the deck, and she gave the room a few seconds to stop spinning. It was cramped inside the sick bay, filled with draped-off beds, medical equipment, and storage cabinets. Every one of the beds had a pony in it, and the place was thick with medics and nurses.
Hanging on the wall next to her was Aurora, who Twilight promptly donned. “Where's the ship right now? And how long was I out?”
“Over the enemy base.” Dr. Full adjusted her glasses. “So we can help clean up the mess. They've already built a makeshift camp to aid the investigation.
“You were only unconscious a few hours. I'd tell you to go back to bed, but you officers don't like to listen to doctors. And frankly, we could use the bed space.”
“Then I'll get out of your mane.” Twilight started a slow, easy walk to the door. “One last thing. Were Rainbow Dash, Trixie Lulamoon, or Spike among the casualties?”
Dr. Full shook her head. “There were none by those names. All of the casualties were under General Stone’s command.”
“I see.” Twilight breathed a sigh of relief, but it quickly turned into a dagger in her side. I shouldn’t be happy about that. Ponies still died. “Thank you, Doctor. And I promise: no heavy lifting. I'm in no mood for it, anyway.”
Every few steps, Twilight was dodging a medic, crewpony, or intelligence officer as she meandered her way through the bowels of the Bellerophon. Though it was the middle of the night, the ship was busier than she'd ever seen. A tingle went down her back at the pulsing red lighting. It wasn't a full battlestations call, but the Bellerophon was still on alert.
She made a left turn, grabbed hold of the outside door with her hooves, and spun the wheel open. The ship was still a few hundred feet in the air, though anchored to the ground. The outside air was filled with a thin smoke, and small rain clouds were clustered about the area to fight fires. A much larger cloud covered the sky, blocking the moon and stars and producing a light rain.
Over the base was the scar from her attack, a split in space-time still leaking thaumic radiation. It was a sickly light green, with a bright but thin vertical cut hanging in the air. Though clearly much smaller than it was, it was still there.
Twilight steeled herself by taking in a breath, continuing to survey the view.
Portable lighting had been brought in already. The units were basically stadium lights on wheels. The area around the base was lit up more brightly than Manehattan, making the outside world seem pitch black by comparison. Tents had sprouted on the ground like weeds, and hundreds of ponies were covering the grounds. The one she wanted to see, however, was laying on one of the rain clouds, facing away.
Twilight sucked in a breath to yell and get her attention, but stopped when her head threatened to simulate the pain of a sledgehammer on her skull. Crap. Which will hurt less… I'm guessing magic.
She charged her horn, which only proved her sadly, horribly wrong. Already committed, she said some things which would have made her mom wash her mouth out with soap, and flung a little flare in Rainbow's general direction.
If Twilight hadn't already been used to Rainbow’s speed, she'd have ducked for cover.
“Hey!” Rainbow flew up and squeezed Twilight in a hug worthy of Applejack. “You need to stop passing out after a fight! We were worried about you!”
“You know, I was just telling myself that.” Twilight returned the hug. “But I'm okay. Just a little mana exhaustion. It means I can't really use magic for a bit, though. Think you can fly me down?”
“Sure thing! Hang on!” Rainbow grabbed on even tighter, lifting them off for a smooth landing on the hot desert ground.
After taking her first few steps on solid ground in some time, she noticed a few things that gave her some relief. The first was the sheer number of guards around. Anypony looking to take advantage of her weakened state was in for a lethal shock.
The second was the small army of forensic investigators working at the site. The sheer quantity of evidence the base contained must have been astronomical to call in so many ponies. Moreover, they were from all kinds of places other than San Palomino. Germaney, Manehatten, Prance, and the Bittish Isles were all represented. Luna had to have been working overtime, which also meant they were near a leyline.
Twilight turned her head and found a dragon racing towards her. “Hey, Spike. Guess what!”
Spike skidded to a stop in front of her, holding a stack of documents. He blinked. “Uhhhh… What?”
“You're grounded!” Twilight said as cheerfully as she could manage along with a big smile. “Fly into a fight that dangerous again and I'll have Celestia clip your wings, got me?”
Spike practically keeled over in tears. “But… But I just thought you'd need your sword…”
Twilight's smile evaporated. “I had him just fine, which tells me you didn't evaluate the situation at all. And you nearly got yourself shot. So, yeah, grounded. Until I know you're both healthy and ready, you're hanging out at either the castle or the Minotaur village.”
“I… I…” Spike sniffled and sat on the ground. “I just wanted to help…”
Twilight gave him a little hug. “And you'll get your chance. But that stunt isn't something I can just ignore. And if you want to help for the time being, I need a situation report. What's been happening?”
Spike sniffled, sitting down on the ground. “There… There was a pony that…” He stopped to pull out a neckerchief and wipe his nose. “Sorry. Sorry, I—”
“Spike…” Twilight put his notes back in his bag. “You know I'm only doing this to protect you, right? It's from a place of love.”
He turned away from her, clasping his claws and staring at the ground. A couple of tears hit the ground, and evaporated into acidic gas.
“Why don't you go take a rest? It's late, and you should be getting sleep.” Twilight gave him a peck on the head. “It'll be okay, you'll see.”
“Yeah. Whatever.” Spike got up and started to plod away, stopping only to blow his nose.
Twilight waited until he was out of earshot before speaking. “I hated to do that, but I can't encourage that kind of recklessness. Especially when he's not recovered yet.”
“I’d’ve done even more.” Rainbow said.
Twilight raised an eyebrow at the comment.
“Luna taught us to fight, but he still doesn't have a soldier's discipline,” Rainbow said. “If he were a ‘Bolt, pulling a reckless stunt would have had Spitfire on his tail.”
“He'll be okay,” Twilight said, unsure whether she was talking to Rainbow or herself. “We have to remember that although he's old enough to be an adult in pony terms, he's still an adolescent in dragon terms. He might make some rash decisions from time to time, but he's not normally in combat, so I'm not too worried.”
“Fair ‘nough,” Rainbow answered. “So, what's the plan now? ‘Cause I have no idea what's going on here. I didn't get released from the hospital until a couple hours ago, and found out you broke time to kill Farriér. Bucking awesome, by the way.”
“Thanks, though I hope that temporal rift closes soon,” Twilight said, casting a worried look at the tear in the sky. “No telling what can come through.”
Turning back to Rainbow, Twilight continued, “Anyway, right now the plan is to find a high ranking pony and ask them what’s going on.
“Come on, I bet they're farther in the base.”
Twilight led the way towards the rubble that was once an enormous hidden door; it was now a pile of stone and twisted metal. Along the way were a couple hundred tents, some small for ponies to sleep in, others large enough to house a mountain of evidence. Off a ways to the north, concrete mixers were starting up, about to lay a foundation for a new building.
“Huh.” Twilight tilted her head, not breaking her stride. “Guess they're going to build a mini processing facility right here. Not a bad idea; it’ll give us a head start on things. I still want them to double-check forensics and investigations at other places, though.”
Rainbow hopped into a low flutter. “They definitely got a lot to go through. I heard they're pulling in techs from all over and having them all check each other's work. Like they're worried about ponies on the take.”
“Not unreasonable. This is connected to the Majestics, after all.”
Twilight's ear twitched at a rough, nigh-incomprehensible brogue that sounded like cursing, even though most of the words she'd never have a hope of translating. “And that would be the nearest pony in charge,” Twilight observed. “This way.”
The sound led through a small crowd that was just dispersing, likely having received orders somewhere within the tirade. In the middle was General Stone, with a look that made him even more grouchy than he sounded.
“General Stone?” Twilight asked, getting a glare that hit her in the gut, reawakening the guilt she felt. “I understand that you lost some ponies. You have my sincerest condolences. If necessary, I will take on the duty of informing their families, as you were acting under my command.”
Stone turned to putty as his voice and face softened with a sigh. “Nah, lass. Ye needn't have offered. We've ponies who do that as their job. Saints, they are. Celestia knows I cannae do it.”
“Ah. I see.” Twilight put her ears back, and her heart sank further. “In that case, can you give me a situation update? I need to know what's happening, and what, if anything, I can do.”
“Well…” Stone signaled from them to walk, and they started towards the base. “The area is secure, that ye can be sure of. All the pirates up and collapsed as soon as Farriér died… Except one.”
“Who?” Twilight asked. “And why the exception?”
“Not sure. He doesn't want ta say. Maybe he thinks that'll help him in court, fer all I know. He was teleported to Canterlot and is being held in the castle dungeon, under constant guard.
“We can't find the psychestone, so if they had it, they moved it already. To where and who, we don't know. What we did find, so far, was a bounty of goods, weapons, and ship parts.”
“Ship parts?” Rainbow asked from above.
“Aye. Tons and tons of ‘em. Exceptin’ the hulls and frames, it’s nearly enough to build another few vessels, to be sure.”
Twilight froze in place, and looked up to the enemy fortress. The lighting inside revealed machines and catwalks, which, along with the parts, put a big piece of puzzle right into place. “It's not just a base! It's a shipyard!”
“Whit was that now, lass?”
“The base! It's a shipyard!” Twilight pulled out her notebook and scribbled like a madmare. “My intel says that Farriér was connected to the Majestics. This is just a guess so far, but I'm willing to bet that this was where the Majestics made the fake Bellerophon. After the attack on Canterlot, they must have ‘leased’ it to Farriér on the condition that he steal what they need from time to time. And if he gets caught, there's nothing left to lead to directly to them.
“I’m betting that they’re also why Farriér put a geas on his pirates — to erase any potential evidence. Likely, the Majestics threatened that they would wipe out all their minds if he didn’t. They still might have had such a safety on Farrier himself.
“Whatever the reason, it let him keep control of his sailors… though I don't know if they were aware of it or not.”
General Stone nodded and stroked his moustache. “I'll run it by RGIS, see what they think. We're still digging into things. Some of the base collapsed when they used the explosives on the door, and it'll take time to excavate without causing even more damage.”
“As long as you have things under control here, we can take our time and be careful.” Twilight lost the fight against a monster of a yawn, and surrendered with a stretch. “One last question. Spike gave me a weapon in the battle. Where is it?”
Stone pointed to the ship. “The Bellerophon’s armory. In the safe. That was quite the little beastie. Three of my stallions tried to pick it up, only to have their wellsprings drained. We had to use thaumically insulated suits to move it.”
“Interesting. But I'll look into it later. If anything big happens, let me know. I'll be sleeping off my headache in the royal suite on the Bellerophon.”
“But we just got started!” Rainbow flapped her wings in protest. “There's so much here we have to do! What about that guy we came here looking for?”
“The guy that was beaten and killed by the Templars? We're looking for where he came from. We know where he is: the morgue. And I'm still really drained, I can't use magic, and I have a headache the size of a cumulonimbus. The only cure is sleep. So, I sleep. And you're coming with me. We both had a hell of a time, and we both need rest.
“Before we do, though, do either of you happen to know where Trixie is?”
Stone grunted. “Your other guards are sleeping in our barracks tent.”
Twilight turned and marched towards the ship. “Good enough. Come on, Dash. If I don't get back soon, I'll fall asleep on my hooves.”
“The best thing about travelling with the military: there is always coffee.” Twilight leaned back in her seat, basking in the air conditioning of the officers’ mess that had been set up outside the former pirate base. It was a delicious counterpoint to the hot, bitter drink in her magic. “See, Dash? Plenty of time for investigating.”
Dash yawned, which only made her face and mane look like more of a mess. “Yeah, yeah. But you slept too long. It's already three in the afternoon. Now it's gonna take me a week to fix my sleep schedule.”
“Small price for putting Farriér in his place.” Twilight slumped down the last of her coffee, and felt it settle down with her breakfast sandwich in her stomach. “Speaking of, I want to try and visit Rose today if possible. See how she's doing.”
Rainbow looked down into her own coffee. “She might not be okay for a while. I got the bastard who did it, but he put a lot of Elixir into her. With a needle.”
Silence draped over them for a long while, even in the midst of hundreds of soldiers.
Twilight silently wished for more coffee. “She… she has the best of care now. If anypony can make her okay again, the doctors she has now will.”
“Yeah. I suppose…” Rainbow took a bite of an alfalfa bar. “Then what's first?”
“We get Luna to poof us to the Canterlot Dungeon. I want to talk to the pirate that didn't get mind-wiped. He may know something worthwhile. After that, I confront the Duke, and his ‘security guards.’”
“What about proof?” Rainbow started on another bar, this one with chocolate. “He's a Duke, and not a replacement like Esteem was. We're going to need solid evidence.”
“We already have it.” Twilight felt her mouth turn up into a smile. “I'm going to detain his goons and get them to flip on him — provided their brains aren't already mush. And if they are, then I use that for proof.
“And even if I didn't have anything else, there's the simple state of his Duchy. Lawlessness everywhere, to the point where a pirate like Farriér went unmolested. There's no way that he's keeping his seat. I'm going to take it away and give it back to Celestia.”
“Actually, I'd prefer you leave that to us.”
Twilight choked on imaginary coffee and started coughing out her tongue. She spun around, nearly falling out of her chair and catching herself with a hoof. Behind her was the Princess of the Night, snickering.
“Hehe. I wondered if you would notice me sneaking up on you. Perhaps you need more training?”
“About as much as I need a heart attack!” Twilight scooted herself back onto her chair. “Don't do that!”
Luna acted like she was actually thinking it over. “Hmmm… Nope! Too much fun!”
“Ugh!” Twilight rolled her eyes and ignored Rainbow’s laugh. “Fine. If you want to deal with Badlands, go right ahead. I have other things I still need to do.”
“Well, not so much myself as my sister.” Luna lit her horn, and cast a privacy shield around them. “Tia has been moving pieces into place against Badlands since before you moved to Ponyville. Los Caballos is nearing bankruptcy, and the companies that made it their home are crying uncle.
“They don't know the full results of your investigation just yet, and Sister is looking to break the back of the nobility here in San Palomino.”
“What does that mean?” Rainbow popped the top of a canned green smoothie and sipped at it. “I'm assuming she's not going to literally break his back.”
Luna smiled, and in the depths of her blue eyes, Twilight could see a bright twinkle. “By this time tomorrow, if all goes as planned, San Palomino will not have any nobility. The role of Duke will either be one of Sister's choosing, or more likely, be an elected one for this Duchy.”
Rainbow spat smoothie over the table and coughed hard enough to dislodge a lung. “Are you serious?!”
Twilight leaned back and folded her forelegs. “Actually, it makes sense. Ponies here have an independent streak. Letting them choose some of their leaders will at least give them agency and responsibility in the choice.”
“You're not thinking at the proper level, Twilight.” Luna pushed aside a chair and sat next to them, still every bit as tall as the ponies actually using the seats. “Ultimately, there's a simple truth to being a ruler: we don't do it alone. We need others to cooperate with us, to carry out our words. Those ponies—the nobility—then need to be compensated proportionally to their importance, or they will revolt.”
“The keys of power.” Twilight said. “I know. It was in one of my lessons with Celestia.”
“Just so. As tempting as it is to burn everything down and start anew, that…” Luna’s smile vanished, replaced with a weighty sigh and frown. “that is what I tried in the Lunar Revolts, Twilight. I failed, miserably. Sister is playing a longer game. She's trying to shatter the keys.”
“Isn't that just burning it down, though?” Rainbow asked.
“No, it's different.” Twilight motioned with her hooves like she had modelling clay in them. “Keys are like putty. You can't destroy them, or rather, you can't without severely damaging civilization. You can, however, mush pieces of it together to make a bigger piece. You can also break it apart into smaller pieces.”
“And that's exactly Celestia’s goal.” Luna stole some of Rainbow’s drink.
The Princess ignored her, save for a returning smile. “The nobility are well aware of this overall trend, and are fighting wing and hoof to stop her. This coming shift will be key, so leave it to us.”
Twilight swallowed. “What if we don't succeed?”
“Then either Equestria will collapse into multiple states, or her plan will be delayed for decades at a minimum, or anywhere in between. Hard to say which at this point. After all, no plan survives first contact with reality.” Luna stood up and stretched, spreading her wings. “Let me know when you wish to interrogate your prisoner, Twilight. I shall be ready to take you wherever you need to go, until and unless my Guards find a Titan. I'm afraid those take priority."
Twilight nodded. "Understood. Speaking of priority issues, what about the temporal rift over the pirate base? I didn't expect my short time jumps to produce that. How dangerous is it?”
Luna groaned and rubbed her temples. “I hate temporal mechanics. I… do not understand all of the details, but Sister says this rift should be… symmetric? I think that's what she said. Basically, as long as we station ponies near it to keep anything from going in or out, it'll fade in time.
“Also, one second.” Luna picked up a small stack of nearby papers, rolled them up, and swung at Twilight.
Rainbow broke down laughing and rolling around on the ground.
“Ow!” Twilight held up a hoof. “What was that for?”
Luna ruffled her feathers. “I hate temporal mechanics. Don't do time travel again. Even small jumps can be dangerous if the paradox fail safes don't trigger, and going back multiple times so fast can make something way worse than this rift. Timequakes, chronostorms, all manner of anomalies that could have done permanent damage to the area. Things Discord made with glee.
“Also, time itself doesn't like being messed with so gravely. ‘Tis one thing to slow thyself or speed thyself up, but to go back or forwards instantly? There's a variety of consequences on thyself as well, the foremost being an exponential increase in the power needed to perform another jump.
“Most gravely, though, is What Lies Beyond. We know thou knowest that there are things beyond our world, places over the horizon of reality. Thou hast read Starswirl's book, neigh? Trust Us, he was understating the danger. Open not that door, Twilight. What thou mayest see on the other side may verily drive thee mad. Are We clear?”
Twilight put her ears back and swallowed. “Okay,” she squeaked.
Rainbow tugged at her armor’s collar. “Nothing good can be called What Lies Beyond.”
Luna deflated. “I apologize for being so harsh. But you need to be aware of these things. I shall leave you to your work.”
“Wait!” Twilight scrambled to her hooves and went to a bow. “I'm sorry for the trouble I've caused.”
“I am not angry, Twilight. Not truly. And you've no doubt caused far more trouble for our enemies. Should you need teleportation to continue to do so, please ask. The iron is hot, and the Majestics believe you have played into their hooves. But Tia doesn’t think they expected a pirate survivor, or for the pirate base to not be blown to smithereens. ‘Tis a perfect time to subvert expectations.”
“Agreed, and for that I do need to be teleported.” Twilight bowed her head slightly. “Give me some time to assemble my team."
Finding Spike took longer than she thought; he'd already returned to the minotaur village. Trixie, meanwhile, was in her armor and helping sort evidence.
As soon as Trixie was within earshot, Rainbow said, "I’m still not enthusiastic about you joining us."
ApparentlyI’m going to have to give Rainbow a little push, Twilight thought.
"Wh-Why not?" Trixie shrunk down and put her ears back. "Twilight was okay with it. I've already taken the oath."
Rainbow went from "enraged" to "exasperated" with a facehoof and a groan. "You're not military!"
Twilight raised an eyebrow. Curious. Not what I expected. "So what? I’m not military. Her illusions would screw with Royal Guard officers, Dash. She's got the chops."
"But this isn't just about fighting, Twilight! It's about discipline!" Rainbow pointed in the general direction of the Hinterlands. "Remember what I said about Spike?"
Twilight scratched her chin and wiped her brow. "Okay, you have a point there. So I'll address it."
Rainbow huffed. "How, exactly? Toss her in boot?"
Twilight looked around the base, thinking back to the soldiers she saw in training. “If it comes to it, I might just do that. But that’s later. We have higher priorities right now.” She waved at Trixie to fall in at her side. “We need to find Luna and interrogate us a pirate."
Rainbow flared her wings out. "Oh! Can I use pirate speak at them? I really want to get some licks in, and since we don't torture..."
Twilight rolled her eyes. "And amazingly, Rainbow is the one saying Trixie lacks discipline."
Twilight stepped out of the teleportation and onto the brown stone tile of the Royal Dungeon. Fantasy books had always depicted it as some decrepit, dank, dark place of torture and woe. In reality, it was well lit and very modern. There was a strange warmth about it that was foreign to most prisons.
The walls were solid stone, but not of the mountain they were in. Rather, they were decorative, and hid the real rock, and the extensive wards, underneath. Warm lighting behind armored glass hung over plants, and there was a receptionist at the front. If said receptionist wasn't also a heavily armored member of the Royal Guard, one might have confused the entrance for one to a spa.
The soldier stood up and gave them some files Twilight had requested, then opened the door for them, making the metal clang on itself. The entryway had been upgraded in recent weeks, and now sported two sets of doors. Neither could be open when the other set was.
Inside was decorated much the same as the outside, and the blood from the geas-jailbreak incident last year had long since been cleaned. Each cell was now sealed not with bars, but with thick, enchanted glass drilled with holes. At the end of the hall was their pony, a stock unicorn stallion.
He had a grey mohawk of a mane, and a grungy green coat. Twilight noted the scar on his forehead, and two burns on the back side of his right front fetlock. He had numerous bandages on his body, and a sour note of hate on his face as he stared back at her.
Then, he jumped up and pointed at Rainbow Dash standing behind her. "You!"
Twilight's ear twitched from Rainbow yelling the same thing at the same time. "There's already enough of an echo in here, ponies. Let's try to use our indoor voices, okay?"
“I didn't say anything.” Trixie wound up a spell in her horn. “But I can make it quieter in here, if you like.”
Rainbow ran up to the glass and flared her wings. "Twilight, this is the douche that stuck Rose with the Elixir!"
"Big deal!" the pirate snarled, punching the cell walls. "That bitch nearly killed me! She bucking electrocuted me!"
Rainbow pawed the ground and static crackled over her wings. "You nearly killed my friend and threatened to make me a sex slave! I oughta zap you again!"
Twilight bopped Rainbow on the head.
"I will not have my interrogation degrade into violence. And if either of you cause it, I'll personally finish it."
The stallion spat on the glass. "Why should I help you?"
Twilight flipped through the files in her magic. "Steel Dagger, age thirty-three. Known pirate for at least two years, big brother of the leader of the Dagger gang, whom I arrested a few days ago as he tried to rob a bank."
The stallion’s eyes widened in shock.
She slapped the files closed, then opened the glass, stepped inside with her guards, and closed it behind her with an added privacy shield. "Listen, Steel. I'm afraid I have some bad news. Your friends, every single one of them, is a vegetable. Their minds are either wiped or forcibly shut down by a geas we can't combat yet. So, you're the only game in town."
Steel Dagger sat down smiling and tapping his forehooves together. "So, you need me, and don't have anypony to play against me. Here I thought you were supposed to be smart!"
Twilight shook her head. “You're the one lacking smarts. Everypony else connected to this is either dead or brain dead. The atrocities committed by your, shall we say, treasonous terrorist organization, are going to be front page news for weeks. Which means, all the consequences are going on your head. You're the only one left to make an example out of!”
Steel Dagger broke out into a shaking sweat.
“So, here's what’s going to happen. You’re going to spend the rest of your life on our leash. How tight your collar is depends on how good a little doggy you are. Clear?”
Steel Dagger swallowed and nodded his head.
“Good. Now, first question.” Twilight pulled out her notebook and pen. “Why aren't you a vegetable like the rest of your pirate friends? Did Farriér never put a geas on you?”
He looked out to a distance for a moment, then raised his hoof.
Twilight facehooved. “This isn't school. I take it you have a question?”
He put his ears back. “Um, what's a geas?”
Twilight's mind skipped a gear. Okay, this pony obviously isn't a ringleader. He's just a goon. Dang. “A geas is a powerful, forbidden spell that places a mental compulsion on somepony, either to do something, or have something happen to their mind. It can either take effect immediately, or be triggered by something. In this case, Farriér's death wiped the minds of the pirates under his control. Except for you. Why?”
Steel Dagger stammered a bit, shaking some sweat onto the ground, then shrugged. “I-I don't know. I was a boarder! I'd steal stuff! You just keep your head down, and do your job. That's how it went under Farriér, if you wanted to stay alive.”
Time to attack this from a different angle. “Permanent geas spells such as these need a special kind of enhancer. It's called psychstone. It's black and green, and you would have to have physical contact with it to affect you. Does it ring a bell?”
He lit up with recognition before gripping his heart. “It does! Sweet Celestia, that's the swearing stone!”
“‘Swearing stone’?” Trixie scoffed. “Don't tell me. He had you swear fealty to him by putting your hoof on it?”
“Y-yeah…” He slipped to the floor, eyes locked on something far away. “What's going to happen to me?”
Twilight added the information to her notes. “If it hasn't blanked your mind yet, I doubt it'll ever happen.”
Trixie tilted her hat forward. “He's a pirate. What's to say there's a mind to wipe?”
“Quiet.” Twilight tapped Trixie on the temple with her pen, then continued. “So, what's the thing that makes you special, then? Why them, but not you?”
“How should I know?!” Steel Dagger panted and wheezed, clutching his chest. “Everything was going okay until she showed up! I finally found a way to make money, and then rainbow-hair over there kills me and everything goes to pot! The only reason I'm alive is because another pirate saved my life!”
“Calm down, subject.” Twilight added another line to her notes, and kept as calm as possible. She even shifted to be under the air conditioning because she was hot, and certainly not because she just realized something that was freaking her out and about to make her break into a cold sweat. “Let's change the topic. Your piracy involved capturing innocent ponies and selling them as slaves. To whom did you sell them?”
Steel Dagger panted more, staying silent as he calmed, and wiped his brow several times. “I… I don't know for sure. They were rich, and looking for cheap labour. I heard the word ‘disposable’ more than once.”
Twilight clamped down hard on her magic after a crack appeared in her pen. “Possibly the mining companies in San Palomino?”
“Maybe…” Steel Dagger rubbed his head. “Some of them had strong accents, though. Shanghay, I think.”
“Doesn't necessarily mean anything, especially in San Palomino, but I'll look into it.” Twilight added a line in her notes about a potential Coeval link.
“Hey, Lady Sparkle.” Trixie folded her forelegs. “I recall one of San Palomino’s few true laws is significant here. ‘No foals in mines.’ I hear they enforce it pretty hardcore, too. Like, ponies-with-large-sticks-beating-up-foreman hardcore.”
“Which means,” Twilight finished for her, “that since foals were taken in the attacks, they almost certainly didn't go to mines. Any input, Steel?”
He nodded. “Yeah, we tried to sell them to the mines, but even Farriér couldn't have stopped a mutiny if he went through with it. So he sold them to rich folks looking for cheap housekeeping.”
Twilight clenched her teeth. “What?!”
Steel Dagger ducked down. “Hey, it was that or something worse! And it wasn't my idea. I wasn't even there yet when they figured that out!
“And before you ask, they used an intermediary to sell them. I've no idea where they went!”
“Isn't that convenient…” Twilight said through clenched teeth.
“Hey, if I knew, I'd tell you! Honest!”
Twilight sighed. “Let's move on. Somehow, I don't think you guys made that base. Who gave it to you?”
The stallion gulped. “Farriér had some scary contacts, but I only know that by word of mouth and reputation… except for one. He came by quite a bit. This guy was bucking terrifying. Made me want to steer clear whenever I could. I think even Farriér was scared of him. Just… no joy there at all. No laughter. He wanted us to just execute the ponies we caught.”
Twilight cleared her throat. “Okay, that gets us somewhere. I’ll come back to that in a moment.” She pulled out a picture of the quarry she'd originally been after in San Palomino, Slick Dagger, and put it in front of him. “Do you know this pony? I’m guessing you do, considering your name.”
Steel Dagger blinked and swallowed. “Yeah. That's my brother.”
Twilight's pen went still. “Intelligence suggested he wasn’t related to the gang leader I caught, but was instead taking the name for reputation reasons. Regardless, do you know who he was working for?”
He sighed. “He… He’s my big brother. Adopted. He…” Steel rubbed his cheeks. “How to say this? He never was any good at the mercenary life.
“I tried to get him on the crew, you know? Help him out. But Farriér hated him instantly, and anypony Farriér hates has a real short life expectancy. When one of his backers, the guy I mentioned earlier, came around, I thought maybe I could send him away, out of Farriér’s sights. I mean, these guys were scary, but so was Farriér, and unlike the Captain, these guys seemed rich as hell. So, I asked if he had anything Steel could do.”
Steel sniffed and wiped his eyes. “I never saw him after that. Never knew what happened…”
“Do you know the backer’s name?”
Steel Dagger shrugged a little. “I overheard him being called ‘Mortius.’ Dunno if that was his real name.”
“And what did he look like?”
Steel Dagger blinked, then looked off to the right. “Ugly. His colors didn’t go well together. Maroon coat, hot pink mane. Stock stallion, unicorn, average height, bit chubby. Angry eyes. Just, always angry. Made even the captain cautious.”
Twilight folded her notebook and put it away, then stood up and opened the glass to the outside. “Your cooperation has been noted. If you don't want to be tossed in the darkest hole I can find, I'd keep it up. A Crown Prosecutor will eventually be around to interrogate you further.”
The three stepped through the door, and locked the glass behind them. They were outside the dungeon and into a secure, quiet area of the castle before Rainbow broke their silence.
“So, what's next?”
Twilight shook her head. “I’m not entirely sure. These ponies know how to manipulate events to force me to play into their hooves, and we’ve exhausted direct leads in San Palomino unless we find forensics in the pirate base, which could take ages.”
“What about the ponies that were kidnapped?” Trixie asked. “We can't just leave them.”
“We can't, no, but my solutions there are going to be dependent on what Celestia’s response to all this is. The foals are going to be easier; most rich ponies like to be seen and brag about what they have. I'll start the investigation formally, then give it to the RGIS agents, since they can cover a wide area faster than me. I can only be in one place at a time, and I have confidence in their abilities.”
Trixie and Rainbow shared a look.
“So, then…” Rainbow leaned into Twilight’s shoulder. “What is next on the agenda?”
Twilight groaned, shuddered, and bonked her head on the wall repeatedly, in that order.
“Uuuuhhhhh…” both other mares stammered.
Twilight stopped before her horn dug into the stone wall, and only slightly regretted it. “Girls, I think I've figured out how to undo the geas.”
“Really? That's great!” Rainbow looked at the scratches in the paint where Twilight's horn hit the wall. “So why are you hurting yourself?”
“Because, it's a method we can't use!” Twilight pulled out her notebook and showed Rainbow her notes on her captive. “You said you zapped him, right? And he said they did CPR, right?”
Trixie's eyes widened in shock. “You're joking…”
Rainbow stepped back before sitting down and lowering her ears. “I'm guessing you aren't talking about CPR being the answer.”
“No, Rainbow.” Twilight put the book away. “I'm saying, to remove the geas, we need to stop their hearts, and hope we can bring them back. And we have to hope they were dead for long enough to remove the geas.”
Rainbow tugged at her collar. “Yeesh. I never thought zapping that guy… I mean, I was just trying to thin their numbers for when I made a break for it.”
Twilight pressed her hooves on the headache growing in her temples. “Discoveries are often made by accident or serendipity, but this? I don't want to kill anypony if I don’t have to. Now, we might have to in order to save them. There has to be a better way.”
Rainbow leaned against the wall. “Doesn't Celestia know a resurrection spell? Couldn't we use that?”
Trixie blinked and turned to Twilight. “Princess Celestia can bring ponies back from the dead?!”
Twilight groaned and pressed harder on her temples. “The recently killed, yes. It only works in the first few minutes after death, and even then, the spell often fails, even if performed perfectly. Celestia herself told me it only works perfectly about forty percent of the time under ideal circumstances. Others that live will have traumatic side effects. Only a few will be restored to full physical health.”
Rainbow gagged a bit. “Okay, so that's out.”
Trixie stomped a hoof on the tile. “It has to be the wellspring! Weaken it until the geas fails, then bring it back! Is there a way to do that without killing the patient?”
“Not safely. But Celestia knows more about this than I do. I'll file my report, and leave the rest in her hooves whenever she gets back and has a chance to read it.” Twilight turned towards the Castle's armory, and marched forward. “In the meantime, get your canteens ready, girls. As soon as my report is done, we're going digging for evidence at the enemy base.”
“Luna, I truly wish you wouldn't read comics at a time like this.”
Luna's ear twitched at Celestia's admonishment, and she rolled her eyes behind the pages. “We'll see him coming, Tia. Especially with how much you rely on your Sight.”
“It's not how a Princess should act. Especially given how important this meeting is.”
Luna looked up at the filthy room around her, and to the broken window behind her sister. They were in Badlands’ office, waiting to ambush and intimidate him. Well, at least Celestia was. Not like I really need to be here. So I might as well read. “I can't help it if the Duke has abnormally good taste in comics. Besides, you never let me read them at the palace, either.”
“And for good reason. To be a guiding light for our ponies, we must appear to be wise beyond all their years.”
“Yes, stars forbid we seem relatable.” Luna blew a raspberry at her sister. “I find it curious that the way to seem ‘wise’ has everything to do with the activities you enjoy and nothing to do with the ones I enjoy.”
“It's not like that!”
Luna slapped the comic on the ground. “Oh please! It is like that! Ponies have had a thousand years with one alicorn to look to, and you played the part of the ever-constant sun perfectly, Tia. It's been ingrained in them that Princess Celestia is a wise matron, so everything you like is associated with it.
“You can't keep me caged forever. Eventually I'll need my own identity, my own wisdom. And I. Like. Comics. And music, and art, and acting! And I'll be damned if you're going to turn me into a robotic replica of yourself, sister.”
“Luna!” Celestia lifted a hoof as if struck. “I never intended to—” Her ear twitched. “He's coming. Put it away.”
Luna sighed and stretched, then sat next to her sister, doing her best to sit up straight. If nothing else, Celestia was correct about posture and body language being important when meeting a Duke.
The elevator doors opened, and Duke Badlands marched out, muttering something to himself angrily. His eyes were aimed squarely at the ground, which was odd for a pegasus, but he was clearly preoccupied. He made it halfway to his desk before he even noticed they were there.
“P-p-princess?!” He stuttered and failed, flapping his wings hard enough to lose feathers.
Just as well, Luna thought, taking in the scattered mess of the office without breaking her locked gaze on Badlands. No other Duke would be caught dead with a home like this. Silhouette would have a fit if she saw this place.
“Indeed, my little pony.” Celestia’s voice was, as ever, a motherly song, full of kindness and caring. It's been said to be simultaneously the most relaxing and terrifying thing in Equestria. “ I apologize for not making an appointment. Given recent events, I thought it important to see you as soon possible. Please, have a seat.”
Badlands looked at where Celestia was sitting, which was behind his desk. “But that's my…” He looked up to Celestia, and her warm, loving smile, which instantly forced him into a bow and a shiver. He stayed low, slinking to a spot in front of them.
Luna felt a hot flash up her spine, and switched to her Sight. Magic was leaking out of her sister, washing over them all. It was an old trick, but Celestia had done it at just the right time and strength.
The Instinct ponies felt in the immediate presence of an alicorn was a curious thing. Powerful ponies felt it less, and even weak ones would eventually get used to and overcome it. Moreover, if a pony knew what was happening, it wasn't hard to break through the effects.
However, if one flooded the area with their magic, without it getting so dense as to be visible, an alicorn could tip a pony's mind over the edge, pushing the Instinct into overdrive temporarily, albeit at the risk of them being totally immune to it going forward.
I'll give you this much, Sister. You didn't lose your touch while I was away. Not even one little bit.
Badlands bowed again. “W-what did you need to talk to me about?”
“Oh, did you not know, my little pony? Surely you should have heard of such news within your Duchy?”
“I-I… Are you…”
Luna regarded him without moving a muscle. He was panicked, sweating. It was nothing like he was in the Empyreal Hall. He's colluding with the pirates, not just a victim of them. He most certainly knows why we're here. Yet Twilight’s intel suggests he’s under a geas, which is far more worrisome.
“Are you here because of the pirates?” he finally asked.
“Indeed, my Duke.” Celestia's mane shifted direction for a moment, the only clue she gave to her frustration. “In fact, we have it on good authority that your own security service has been infiltrated by them.”
“O-oh?” Badlands swallowed. “I have a mole?”
If this pony wore pants, they'd be on fire. Luna glanced briefly at Celestia's chiselled expression. I hate this dance. But, I promised to let it play out. So get on with it, Tia.
“I should say that would be an understatement. I have been led to understand that your entire security force may be comprised. But, rest assured, we shall get to the bottom of this. As we speak, Military Police from Fort Earthborne are entering the building and detaining all ponies in the building. We shall find out who is who, rest assured.”
“Oh.” Badlands shrunk down. “Oh. Um, there may be a lot of them.”
“Indeed? What makes you say that?”
“I-I… They have guns. Guns I didn't buy them.”
I want to smack this guy. Or at least lock him in a tiny room with a big, angry skunk.
“Is that all?” Celestia tilted her head. “I would think there are better examples than that. This is San Palomino, after all.”
Oh, what's wrong, tough, independent stallion? Cowed when you have to face the music? Wait...
Badlands was frozen still, and his eyes were far away. Even though he was standing in front of them, he seemed to drop away into a dimensional sinkhole, leaving behind only a burnt husk. Bring him back, Tia, or he'll break.
“I noticed, my little pony, that you have quite a few comics in your office.” Celestia waved to the piles of books scattered about. “You must spend quite some time reading them?”
“Well, it course! One has to be dedicated.” He went on for a bit, seemingly proud of the fact. Celestia listened like a mother listening to an excited foal, only responding after silence had taken over.
“My, my. Sounds like quite the hobby! It reminds me of a pony I met some time ago. I believe he owns a shop now, in Manehatten. Neptuna Comics.”
“Really? That place is famous!” Badlands started shaking again. “I'd like to visit, but I'm rather busy. I should really get back to work…”
“Work does come first, this is true. I was hoping, however, that we could oversee the investigation in your security forces. Perhaps you’d like to witness the interviews?”
Up and down, up and down. In silent amusement, Luna watched Badlands nearly have a heart attack. I wonder if she'll shake him loose like this.
“Interviews?!” Badlands choked out. “Now?”
“Of course! Old memories are often of bad quality. Based on my intuition, it's been some time since the issue has started, so we mustn't delay. Tell me, have you noticed anything unusual?”
“Well…” Badlands stammered, then sank again, flopping into a mushy mess on the floor.
Luna waved a hoof in front of his dead eyes. “I think we've found his limit, Sister. The geas has locked his mind.”
Celestia scratched her chin. “Indeed. Yet it's strange. I thought the Majestics’ geas more flexible than that. Perhaps his is of a different type? Or from a different group?”
Luna folded her forelegs and burrowed into him with her Sight, but found nothing save a chilling silence. “It's plausible, but my instinct says no. My guess is that it's the same geas, but somehow applied poorly. Or perhaps one that's been shaken ever so slightly loose somehow.”
A squad of Royal Guard enforcers cracked the door open, then swept into the room to cuff the Duke and carry him off. Celestia allowed them to do so, as he was little more than a statue at that point, and would remain so until the internal pressure to break his control was removed.
“Luna, I think we're done here. RGIS will remain to collect evidence for us, and it will take some time to discover how to track the spell that's been placed on our poor pony.”
Luna's eyes softened, and she leaned into her sister’s warm embrace. Their feathers intertwined, sending a prickly chill down their spines.
“I worry, Tia. How many more are under this spell? How many close to us? How many have anything of their original personality left? How long have they been gone?”
Celestia squeezed her tight. “I don't know. If it's any consolation, I've known Badlands for a long time, and he's always been a bit of an arse.”
Luna choked on her own spit from laughter, and pushed away from her. “Tia! Don't do that!”
Celestia smiled. “Sorry, Lulu,” she obviously lied. “Let's go home. I'm starting to get rather peckish.”
Luna started her teleport a moment after her sister, following her as she had so many times in the past. In the light of subspace, she could see the little filly she once was, following her sister through the fields of Concordia. From Celestia's wake inside the leyline, their teleport led to the gardens, where there was a dinner waiting for them.
“Come, Luna, join me. It has been a while since we've eaten together, has it not?”
Luna checked around with her Sight for eavesdroppers, but found none, and sat down across from her. “Why did you need me there? You had that whole thing planned out.”
Celestia paused post-sip, then set down her teacup. “You weren't there for interrogation, Luna. You were there in case the pirates downstairs started shooting. I didn't dare bring in Day Guards. Strong though my ponies have grown, they are too few in number to handle such an assault, and their mere presence would have encouraged our wayward ponies to start shooting.
“And, honestly, Sister?” Celestia looked at her with a visage of bare worry Luna hadn't seen in ages. “You're the only one I would have trusted in a fight like that. I am… I have been rather disturbed by some reports lately. Mounted guns aren't the only things spilling onto the black market.”
Luna's heart skipped a beat, then pounded in her chest. “You're talking about bonded blades.”
“Yes. Nothing confirmed, but enough clues in the reports that I have to take it seriously. And since Twilight suspects the base she found was the launch point of the false Bellerophon, I didn't want to take chances in close quarters with these pirates. I had a pony ready to signal me if things went south, but I thought it best for you to stay with me, since their top priority target would have been Badlands.”
“I see. I wish you would have said something, Tia. I'm going to have to ding you for that at some point. I'm always happy to fight for you. But in that case, I'm glad I was there.” Luna picked up one of the fancy cucumber sandwiches and started munching, then said, “And I'm still going to start sneaking in some comics, damn you.”