“This is Alpha Twelve. Site is secured. Forty-three victims recovered. They're covered in that goo, but they don't look any worse for wear.”
“Excellent. Tape off the area, and keep civilians and the press away until we can decontaminate the area.” Twilight marked the site off of her map. That was a big one. Decontamination may not be possible. We might have to thaumically vitrify the area and remove the whole thing in chunks.
“Lady Sparkle? This is Captain Dual Strike.”
Twilight rolled her eyes and suppressed the urge to groan. “What is it, Captain?”
“I've led your Omega team underground to try to find what the changelings were so interested in down here. We've searched everywhere and found nothing but a few spots of murkyr; nothing we can't handle. There is, however, a large area we can't access. It should be nothing but concrete, but I can't shake the feeling that it's just large enough to hide something.
“Intelligentsia is looking for a hidden entrance trigger, magic or otherwise. But I thought you might want to check for yourself.”
“Copy that.” At least he's being helpful. “Keep the—”
“One other thing, Lady Sparkle.”
Twilight's ear twitched. “Yes?”
“General Gemstone Quartz is rather upset you didn't include him in this plan of yours, given that he commands the military in this Duchy. I hear he's on his way with the additional forces you requested.”
Oh, joy. “Understood. I'll be down when I can.”
“I'm on my way up to relieve you so you can investigate this yourself. I'll continue the coordination in your stead.”
Twilight shared a look with Trixie, part commiseration, part order. If I didn't want to check that place out myself this bad, I would chew him out right over the radio. “That's acceptable, Captain. Teams, switch Command and Control to Captain Dual Strike in three minutes.”
Cloud Burner, still hooked to the little cart, practically growled. “Interrupting you like that? Passive-aggressive punk. Somepony needs to pull the bug out of that guy's butt.”
“That would likely require surgery.” Twilight hastily scribbled some notes on the map for the Captain, leaving out the rude drawing she was tempted to leave for him. “But I think he's on something like the right track. I can find hidden magic better than Intelligentsia, or anypony else for that matter. I should get down there as soon as he arrives.”
Trixie looked like she had been sucking on a lemon. “Can't you, like, order him to do push-ups or something?”
Twilight double checked to make sure the radio was definitely still off. “It's complicated. The Captain of the Royal Guard can really only be disciplined by Celestia. I can order around soldiers under him, but as long as we're talking about soldiers actually in the Royal Guard or one of its divisions, he generally has the authority to countermand any orders I give, as long as he personally issues the counter-order.”
Cloud grunted in agreement. “Same goes for that old fogey Grand General Blueblood. Technically, in the military, he and Twilight are the same rank. But in just about any situation imaginable, he'd carry out the orders of the Grand Mage. Only exception is if Princess Celestia personally grants him full operational control, because in that case, he would have the final say.”
“And the Princess can order me around. In the military, her commands are absolute.” Twilight leaned over the cart and scanned the area. “I think I see the Captain coming.”
“Imma make funny faces at him when he's not looking.” Cloud chuckled. “Going back to ranks, Twilight’s authority is a bit more complicated than just military. She has civilian, noble, and law-enforcement powers on top of her military status. In terms of law enforcement, a duke can control their own forces and have them be generally uncooperative… but they still have to comply with things like giving her requested documents or locking up those she arrests.
“Also, insubordination to the Grand Mage can be something that comes back to bite them when Celestia questions them about it. If a duke is being obstinate to cover their own hide or just be a jerk, there's probably going to be consequences.”
Cloud clapped his mouth shut as Captain Dual Strike came into earshot upon his own chariot. True to word, as the Captain got out to address Twilight with his back to Cloud, the pegasus was sticking out his tongue and crossing his eyes.
Twilight picked up her map and relevant notes in her magic. “There's still a lot of coordination and reports to do. Are you certain you want to take over this duty, Captain?”
The Captain’s smile had the feel of cold steel in it. “Of course, Lady Sparkle. Though, next time you start an investigation into a major changeling infestation, I do hope you'll include the Royal Guard in your plans.”
“If I feel like it's necessary and beneficial. My operations ars need to know — and I'm the one who determines who needs to know, with Celestia being the only one who can meaningfully disagree. For now, I am content to give this over to you. First, though: Trixie?”
Twilight looked over to her unicorn Guard, who promptly charged up and fired a blast of magic that hit Dual Strike right on his rump and flowed over him like a pressure washer.
The Captain was stunned, and, judging by his pupils, thoroughly dazed, but conscious. A second later, he was pushing himself back on his hooves and growling like a lion, ready to sink his teeth in Trixie.
“Huh. Guess he's not a changeling in disguise,” Twilight said before Dual Strike could form his words. “Can't be too careful with the bugs around. Good luck, Captain. Trixie, in the cart. Cloud, take us down.”
They left the Captain fuming so bad on the cloud he could spontaneously combust, and with his charioteers barely holding in a snicker.
Their little trolling done, Cloud Burner had them on the ground in just a moment. The actual entrance to the underground tunnels looked like an oversized elevator sticking out of the ground, and up until recently, it was sealed with welded metal and heavy chains. However, such measures, even when reinforced with wards, weren't enough to keep Royal Guard operatives out. Twilight could still see little spots of Intelligentsia’s orange magic where she had cut through to break in.
The hole led to a slope of dirt, followed by the same style of tunnels as before. The similarities between one hall and the next were just another hazard of the underground; it was easy to get lost. It wasn't until Twilight tried to swallow that she realized there was a difference.
“Why is the air so dry in here?” Twilight murmured to the guards following her. “Even if it was sealed, this place should be damp and musty.”
“She's right.” Cloud pawed at the dust under him, kicking up a little puff of dirt. “This place should be mildew’s dream home. But it's as dry as San Palomino.”
“Wards?” Trixie guessed. “Certain kinds of long lasting spells can affect their environment, especially if it's sealed off like this place was.”
“That only begs the question: what kind of wards are down here?” Twilight narrowed her vision and tilted her ears forward towards an especially dark corridor. “Eyes and ears open. Not sure I like this.”
“I'm already certain I don't like it.” Trixie lit her horn and fired a flare down the hall, which was promptly swallowed by the dark.
“That must be the murkyr the Captain mentioned.” Twilight pulled out her sword and aimed it down the hall. The blade immediately hooked into her heart, glowing with the violet power of an alicorn ascendant. “Hit the deck, ponies; I'm improvising.”
Twilight could hear Cloud's and Trixie's eyes widen before they ducked.
The fire came through a sieve this time, orderly and fine, before swirling into a ball at the end of the blade. Tiny bits of power orbited the center like some giant atom, and she let go of it with a breath and a tiny push. “Go.”
The fire orb drifted forward in a hush, inching forward to meet with the murkyr. Tendrils from the dark reached out to swallow the light, but burned as it came into contact.
The orb grabbed hold of the dark motes, pulling them in and feasting. The murkyr gave off a screech as it fell into fire, pulling so hard as to create a tiny shockwave from the collapse. The interaction was like a black hole feeding on a nebula, and soon, there was nothing left. At least, nothing but the wall Twilight's spell was about to run into.
“What was that?” a voice like Intelligentsia’s asked from around the corner.
“Duck!” Twilight yelled before putting up a barrier.
An instant before the orb hit the wall, a magic circle on the stone surface of the tunnel flashed into existence before being consumed by the orb. In the next heartbeat, the ground shook as if a metric-ton anvil had landed in front of them. Chunks of concrete exploded out from the wall, along with a big cloud of dust. Charged magic sizzled through the air like lightning going from cloud to cloud, only fading when met with the sound of a very frustrated officer of the Royal Guard.
“Seriously?!” Intelligentsia poked her head out from behind a corner to the left. “Did you really need to blow up the murkyr instead of burning it away slowly?”
Trixie tried to clear some smoke away by waving her hat around. “Lady Sparkle says it's not a real mission without an accidental explosion.”
“I did not say that!” Twilight choked out. “... but that doesn't make it untrue. I definitely didn't intend for that spell to form as it did. I'm still new to using my sword.
“More importantly, have you found anything yet?”
Intelligentsia took off her glasses, wiped them off, and used them to stare beyond the cloud of dust. “No, but I think you did. I saw an embedded ward just before the spell hit, and… Oh. Well, this is interesting.”
“Hmmm?” Twilight tilted her head and walked into the slowly-thinning cloud, eventually getting to see the wall behind it. Or rather, the vertical crater she'd put into said wall. Most important was the bit of metal at the very center, at the deepest part of the crater.
“That's weird,” Cloud said through a wing covering his mouth. “It looks like there's a metal wall on the other side of the concrete. What's above this place?”
“A half-collapsed maintenance building.” Twilight pawed at the wall a little, knocking free a few more chunks. “Not something I would rate as needing a reinforced basement wall. And as far as I aware, RGIS doesn't have any secret facilities nearby.”
“We don't,” Intelligentsia said. “I'd know.”
Bloodmoon's voice growled low and deep, nothing like his usual flirty self. “The Night Guard maintains a permanent presence in Manehatten, but we are not aware of anything at this location. That concerns me. How was this undetected?”
Twilight switched to her magic sight, and only found a dark void. This isn't just the absence of magic. The wall is actively blocking my senses. Aurora, did you catch that magic circle before I blew it up? I couldn't read it all in time.
“Only a partial. I definitely saw some symbols that could do space manipulation. We… might have just blown up the door.”
Oh, wonderful. “Whatever it is, I'm going to see what’s on the other side. The only question is what method will cause the least damage.”
Trixie chuckled. “Since when are we concerned about not doing damage?”
Twilight rolled her eyes. “Just because my adventures tend to cause coincidental explosions doesn't mean I'm not—okay, this sentence is starting to sound crazy even to me.”
Cloud Burner grunted. “I hate to say it, but we should wait for those reinforcements from Gemstone Quartz. The military has special tools for just this kind of situation, and if those don't do it…” Cloud looked like he had just vigorously rubbed his tongue with manure. “General Quartz is a very talented mage, especially with wards and stuff. If there's anything like that stopping us, he can get through them.”
Twilight sighed. “I suppose we could wait rather than risking extensive damage. After all, if we just blew up the only door, then anything inside is likely as trapped in there as we are stuck out here. But let's get more ponies to surround this thing, just in case.”
Cloud saluted before taking off back towards the exit, leaving the other four ponies to explore the area. Twilight, however, stayed put to think and ponder the void in her sight. Her thoughts drifted around her brain, occasionally touched by a word or feeling from Aurora. Wild theories came and crashed themselves on the shore of her mind, crashing into pieces when no direct evidence came to support them.
From time to time, one of her companions came to report what she had expected. There was indeed a tunnel path surrounding the void, but no other magic circles or alternate ways in.
Twilight was about to start chewing her hoof — while still covered in armor — when Cloud arrived with a small cadre behind him.
She noticed that most of them were combat engineers — the unsung heroes of the Equestrian military. The ones who were trained to go into an area to design and build stuff, often while under fire, so that the rest of the military could come in with their complex supply chains. If there was a need to build something, even if that meant blowing up something in their way, the engineers were the ones the Crown sent.
In this case, one particularly large earth stallion with a welding mask was carrying a circular saw on his back that was at least a half-meter in diameter. The blade was even reinforced with glowing red runes, and the assembly was dragging the longest extension cord Twilight had ever seen.
The was also, however, a unicorn she was trying to avoid locking eyes with. Ultimately, though, that was impossible.
The robes he was wearing were a bit tighter than a martial arts uniform, and awash in pastel colours. His mane was pink, flowing, and a little curly, while his coat was an off-white. His height was that of a draft pony, but his legs were lanky and thin. He moved with a delicate femininity that somehow matched the touch of makeup on his face, but the charged air around this unicorn was anything but delicate.
“General Gemstone Quartz,” Twilight finally said in surrender to her inner not-wanting-to-do-this. “Thank you for allowing me to borrow your engi—”
“Thank you for telling me what you were up to in Equestria’s largest city.” General Quartz stuck his snout in the air, looking down on her. “Oh wait, you didn't. What were you thinking? I was told not even Her Highness Princess Celestia wasn't told! This kind of insolence should not be—”
Crack! Twilight stomped the ground, sending a spiderweb crack out under everypony in the tunnel. “General Quartz, you will not address me in such a tone. Her Highness has placed her trust in me to operate independently when I so deem it necessary. I am under no obligation to inform you about my operations.
“You, however, are obligated to aid me when I so order it. I was going to be all nice and polite, but if you're going to go down this route, I'll have Cloud Burner here shove that circular saw so far up your flank it'll tickle your tonsils.”
One of the engineers snorted out a laugh, earning him a momentary death glare from the General before he turned back to Twilight. “Well, if you're saying you don't need my help…”
Twilight put magic in her horn and teleported to be right in his face. “Let's get something straight. I don't need your help. I can get this done without you — but that tool you're having your engineer parade around will get it done faster and more safely. Now, if you want to be a different sort of tool and leave, go ahead. Try me. It'll be in my report. You know, the ones I give to Princess Celestia. The pony that taught me. The pony whose wing I've literally spent time under.”
General Quartz looked as if he was about to breathe fire, or maybe bile. The twisted visage imprinted on Twilight's retinas just long enough to rattle her when it vanished, replaced by an amused, if defeated and deflated smile. Whatever hostility there was before was a melted goo by now.
“So like your brother,” General Quartz sighed. “A shame, really. It won't do you any favors in the Council.”
Twilight folded her forelegs. “I couldn't really care less about that, especially right now.”
“Maybe not now. But someday, you may change your tune. For now, though, I recommend stepping back around the corner.”
Twilight raised an eyebrow.”Why?”
“Because this gets quite bright. And noisy. Boys? Let's turn this wall into a door.” General Quartz motioned to the engineers, who immediately started setting up.
When Twilight saw the sound-blocking headphones getting pulled out along with more welding glasses, caution transformed into the better part of valour and she dashed around the corner to her guards. She had even lit her horn to put up a barrier, but General Quartz had beaten her to the punch.
Rather than a field of energy like the barriers she had, Gemstone’s barrier lived up to his namesake as a wall of foggy crystal sprouted from the ground. In a few seconds, it had sealed off the passageway.
Aurora, do you think it possible that his ponies are trying to trick us into letting them destroy evidence? Could he be involved with whatever is going on?
“It's probably prudent to be a little paranoid given who we're dealing with. However, I severely doubt that. It would likely require taking on you, Trixie, and Cloud when you discover what happened.”
Twilight let go of a breath she didn't know she was holding. You're right. In fact, I think I remember something about everypony thinking he has a hopeless, long-running crush on Princess Celestia. I doubt he would have anything to do with the Majestics.
The ground started to rumble as if they were in an earthquake, and the crystals lit up like a fireworks show. Barrier-shmarrier, Twilight thought while covering her ears. I'm pretty sure everypony in the tunnels can hear this.
“Well, I know one thing for certain!” General Quartz yelled over the noise. “See the light? It only gets that brought when cutting through wards! Powerful ones, too!”
Trixie and Cloud were ducked down and covering their ears. In fact, Trixie had pulled her hat down around her head for extra muffling, and Cloud was “borrowing” her cape to cover his ears with.
Aurora, how much are you deadening the noise for me?
“If General Quartz really has done this a bunch before, I'm amazed that he isn't completely deaf. That's how much.”
The noise died down for a moment, and the voice of one of the engineers crackled over her radio. “First cut of four complete. There's a very dim green light coming from the crack. Possibly changeling-related, but it's hard to tell right now. Our thaumic-contamination sensors aren't reading anything, so we're proceeding.”
Twilight blasted up another barrier behind them to stop the echo from bouncing around the tunnels and finding them that way. It helped, but Trixie was still putting little bubbles of magic around her ears and Cloud’s. The look of relief on Cloud's face made it look like he just took a huge dose of happy pills.
Twilight immediately put the same spell on her own ears. Even then, she could hear the saw clear as day, but at least it no longer felt like the blade was cutting her eardrums open.
Three more cuts later, all the shields could finally drop.. More importantly, there were now slits cut into the wall, opening the way to whatever was inside.
General Quartz grabbed hold of the free slab of concrete with his rose-coloured magic, hefting it up and out of the way without so much as a grunt of effort. Little sparks of green power crackled from the cut wards, crystallizing into shards when they encountered the stallion’s power.
“What… is this?” Twilight took a few tentative steps inside the chamber, nose turned up in disgust.
Even with a piece carved out of them, the wards on the walls were mainly intact and filling the entire area with a haunting green light. Dozens of magic circles covered the space , some active enough to be spinning.
“Twilight!” Trixie pointed a hoof at one of the circles. “This is one of those symbols we saw earlier!”
Twilight nodded slightly. Her eyes were still taking everything in. The chamber was maybe the size of a house, yet it was all one room. Each wall had a dense concentration of wards, and each of those had enough power in them to turn a pony to dust. Despite the light the wards were putting out, every side of the chamber was pitch black, like it was covered in a paint that absorbed light.
Scientific equipment was scattered about in a dense pattern, from simple filing cabinets to complex thaumic sensors. There was even a THACT camera, which was as big as a chariot and functioned as sort of a crude attempt to replicate an alicorn’s Sight. The “film” for it cost ten thousand bits per picture.
Twilight just about tripped over a cable on the ground, catching herself on a large gem-core engraving unit. She blinked when she recognized the model – a Crystal Phasic Wishmate 3500D. That’s new, just came out two months ago. This lab has been keeping up with new technologies, so it was probably used recently. So where are the workers?
“I think I found a light switch!” General Quartz called out. “Brace yourselves, ponies, in case I’m wrong.”
Twilight’s mane bristled at the thought of flicking a switch in the midst of such magic. She scanned the room, following the wires to find the switch near the General, and threw a telekinetic blade at the part nearest to her. The resulting shower of sparks left a scorch mark on the floor and would have set her mane on fire had it not been hiding under her armor.
“What in-“ General Quartz yelped. “Problem, Lady Sparkle?”
“Don’t turn anything on. There’s just too much magic in here, and many of these machines use magic to function. Turning on the lights might also turn some of the machines on, and there could be booby traps. Safer to use flares.” She lit her horn and wrapped a simple flare in a careful spell to isolate it from the rest of the magic in the chamber.
The flare flew up to the ceiling, hovering just below it, and glowed white. The center of the chamber lit up like a spotlight had been turned on. Much of what was in the room was still muted, as if color itself had been sucked out of it. The glow of green, however, was brighter than ever before.
“Empty Night!” Trixie gasped.
Twilight dodged her way past machines and cables to the middle of the room, and shared in Trixie’s astonishment.
The center held six pods, much like what changelings held their victims in, only these were made artificially. Inside of each was a single changeling, strapped down tightly. Spikes had been added near the straps, each one just touching their chitin. If any of them had moved even slightly, they'd have been punctured somewhere on their bodies. None could speak from the gags in their mouths.
Every changeling had an IV placed in between their chitin plates on one of their forelegs. The tubes didn’t lead to a saline bag. There was, however, a sort of tap near the needles in their legs. Green blood had stained the floor nearby, and there was a bag of blood on a table nearby.
The thing that made Twilight sick the most, however, was the sickly green magic circles in between each of the pods. All of them were made from solidified changeling blood, and still glowing brightly.
The changelings all regarded her with an unstable mixture of desperation and hate. They squirmed in agony, moving ever so slightly under the torturous implements.
They're being tortured… Twilight’s wellspring poured magma into her veins, begging to be unleashed. It was chilled by the memory of the changeling that self-destructed rather than be captured. Wait… How come they didn't die by suicide?
“Hey Twilight!” Trixie held up a cardboard box that had been soiled with changeling blood. “There's some kind of amulet in here!”
Amulet? Twilight eyed the box, but also the equipment all around her. “Boys, make sure everything here is fully disconnected and safe. Trixie, dump the amulet on this cart.” She grabbed a metal cart with a bunch of tools on it and wheeled it over to her.
Trixie turned the box upside down, spilling the contents of goo, metal shavings, a chisel, and a golden amulet no bigger than a ten-bit coin. It was infused with changeling blood, and bore the same kind of symbols that all the other unfamiliar magic she'd encountered in this mission had. Unlike the rest, though, this had even more symbols she didn't know, and the spell was very different in structure.
The lead of the engineers came over to them. “Well, this place is like something out of a horror novel. What should we do with the captives?”
Twilight bit her hoof. “I don't know yet. Right now I want to know what this amulet does. It could be the key to everything, but we don't know what it does yet.”
The engineer chuckled. “Oy, Beanpole, over here!”
A lanky engineer with a mop for a cutie mark sauntered over. “Yeah?” he asked with a voice higher than one would expect for a stallion his age.
The lead held up a coin. “Give ya five bits if you put on this untested amulet from our little mad science cave.”
Twilight rolled her eyes. Like anypony would be stupid enough to—
“Beanpole” grabbed the amulet in one swift motion, and had it on by the time Twilight opened her mouth to yell.
Green fire overcame the stallion for a moment, and when it was gone, a different stallion stood in his place. One who was stout, dark coloured, and even in different clothes.
“Whoa,” the newcomer said, voice raspy. “What did that do to me?”
Sweet sunflowers! It's a changeling’s powers in amulet form! Twilight yanked the amulet off him, and sure enough, the green fire appeared again, transforming him back to normal.
Trixie blinked. “This… This is big. Who knows what mysteries this might solve.”
Twilight's synapses crackled with life, and she took a deep breath.
First, the circles on the buildings. We didn't know who put them there at first, but now it's clear that whoever ran this lab did it. But why? What purpose did they have? Why did the changelings come running here when we blew them up?
The circles kept them from knowing for certain where the captured members of their hive were being kept! Yet, there was a clear increase in changeling activity for some time in this city. Obviously, that wasn't a coincidence. Which meant that they knew their drones had been captured. But Chrysalis doesn't seem worried about sacrificing her drones when necessary, so why care about these who were being tortured?
Because they could feel it, and couldn't stop it! The building circles must have kept their location hidden, but not the pain of the torture! That's why all the changelings came rushing here, to get the pain to stop!
But again, Chrysalis has no trouble killing her drones for the sake of the hive at large. So why didn't she do it as soon as we blew up the circles?
Because she couldn't! The small circles here aren't to keep the hive from finding them, but to keep the hive from giving them orders! Right now, they're just individuals, largely cut off from their psychic network, scared and getting hurt for who knows how long.
The hive felt their distress, but these drones didn't seem to know that the rest were coming for them. Which also means… this wasn't an invasion. This was a rescue mission!
But Chrysalis couldn't just mount an attack on the largest city in the world, not even with the entire hive. It would be the literal end of the changelings. So she did what changelings always did — infiltration! She caught more ponies not just for the love from them, but also to try to discover this lab’s location.
And that explains why they went after Duchess Demesne’s assistant. The hive placed a bet the Duchess might know something, but going after Demesne herself would have been too high a risk given her security and Manehatten’s infrastructure. The assistant was a much easier target, but either the assistant didn't know, or the Duchess didn't reveal it, or neither had anything to do with this.
And let's not forget Vinyl. Going after the beloved daughter of a crime lord would have been risky. What if goons were following her? They'd be even more trigger happy against changelings than the police! But Vinyl? A free spirit like that probably didn't have much protection. Get Vinyl, get a potential in near Tailored Trade himself.
Yet in the end, it wasn't the crime lord or the Duchy’s government behind this. As far as I can tell, there's only two possibilities that come to mind. Two that have the resources, organization, and ruthlessness to pull this off, both of which would be nearly impossible for the changelings to directly target: the Templar Illusionists, or the Majestics.
The Templars I can cross out immediately. Why bother with changeling amulets when their own techniques are so superior? Not just illusions, but hard-light magic that effectively makes the illusions real. It doesn't make sense.
Which means there's only one possibility: the Majestics. They were behind it all. They created the lab in the place the changelings would have the hardest time assaulting, and the place their agents could operate in most freely. They tried to catch the drones, which would have just self-destructed, giving them all the changeling blood they needed to set up the circles and catch more, this time bringing them in alive.
When I got to the city, the techs working here likely took what they could conceal and bailed. The security team that got killed by changelings was the clean-up crew for this place, and they went down fighting. There's no way to prove how the changelings knew who to target, but if this place is still intact, it means they had no other ponies here who could do the deed. That speaks to the actual size of the operation: just a scant few ponies in the largest city in Equestria.
Still, this lab could have been here for years — who knows how many of these amulets are out there? Or how many times they've already been used?
I can't even begin to answer that. All I know right now… Twilight picked up the amulet. …is that once I crack the secrets of this magic, this will be one trick they won't be able to use anymore.