The system was, to put it mildly, imperfect. Duke Rasbuckin knew that. He accepted it.
With imperfection, there came complaints. Such was only natural, and in a way was quite useful. Complaints could usually be followed to find the roots of imperfection, and things could become better.
Perhaps it was a Sisyphean task. Perfection could well be impossible. If it was possible, then it was certain he'd have to see it from the Summerlands, long after his death.
And things had hardly been perfect lately. Granted, much of the problem had been well outside his control, and absolutely outside the control of the Duchy. The blame for the disastrous weather that created the present food shortages could be placed squarely at the foot of the rebels all but destroying Cloudsdale.
Yet, if the system could not handle these events, then was that not more evidence of how it had to be improved? Surely even leniency might be argued for?
Perhaps in less desperate hours, the duke could entertain such thoughts. Now, though, in his tiny shed on the lake, north from Moscolt, he had but the one goal of protecting his system. To do that, he had to protect his citizens, and for that, they needed Harmony.
His course was set.
He stood up and wrapped himself in his red ducal robes, warming his body and mind as the wind howled in concert with the timberwolves outside. The shack creaked as he walked, and the burning incense tickled his nose. When he opened the door to the other room, two of the three ponies inside stood at attention. The third, bound and gagged, could only mumble as he approached.
The room was filled with all the little tools a woodworker or carpenter would want, combined with the isolation yearned for in a hermit’s heart. The floor was just the ice of the lake, covered with a throw rug, save for a big hole in the middle.
The other party in the shed was a gryphon female. Even now the duke's mind told him to be wary of her. They could see too much. This one, though, had proven able to keep her beak firmly shut when needed.
“Roller, ungag him.” The duke pulled up a cushion to sit in front of the captive, with the hole in the ice in between them covered by some plywood.
One of the two stallion officers pulled the gag off the gang member and gave him a swat to the back of the head. “Ready to talk?”
The prisoner spat out a blob of blood. “Go die in a fire.”
“Hmph. How dare you insult Claddin’s ideals so.” Rasbuckin pulled out the picture from his robe and laid it out on the plywood. “After all, it was a supporter of the system that found this.”
The officers removed the blindfold on the gang member. The picture was of him and two others in a warehouse, taken from the skylight on the roof. They had a myriad of tools and instruments strewn about, all meant for testing magical artifacts. The artifact in question was a necklace with a ruby-red apple-shaped gem.
The gang member smiled. “Don't know what you're talking about.”
“Funny.” Rasbuckin waved to the officer, a bulked-out earth pony if there ever was one.
The officer, casual as a day on the beach, walked over to the captive, grabbed his front fetlock, and broke it.
“Argh!” The gang member sucked in the yell, biting his lip hard enough to draw blood.
“I doubt you'll be able to walk normally again after that.” The Duke tapped the picture. “Your friends got away. For now, at least. It's only a matter of time until the system catches up to them. You can save yourself a lot of pain by telling us where they went, or where the Element is.”
“Ha!” The gang member drooled as he laughed. “Last I heard she was on some farm in Canterlot.”
“Funny guy.” The gryphoness rolled her eyes. “Maybe we should dock his tail next. I could use a new necktie.”
The Duke held up a hoof for silence. “You realize, young man, that if attempting to get information from you proves a waste of time, you'll be at the bottom of this lake in short order. You're not just a hooligan. That you were seen with the stolen Element makes you are a traitor. Nopony will lose sleep over your summary execution.”
The gang member laughed some more. “You don't have a clue what death even is, old man.”
“I'm a hundred and two, young one. I've watched more ponies die than you've ever known in your life. You, however, are about to lose yours if you don't see reason.
“Now, tell us what you know. This is your last chance. Blow it, and maybe we'll just give the photograph, and you, to the Grand Mage. Defy her… well, she breaks holes in space-time for fun. I'm certain she's far more creative than this old man. If she decides that talking to you isn't worth her time, we’ll dump you in the water and move on to the next lead.”
Breya put her hand on her sword hilt. “He's cracked. Put the binds back on him.”
The captive slurped up his drool. “He's coming…”
Everyone froze solid.
The Duke wanted to take a cautious step forward. Wanted to. His hoof had him back up instead. “Who is coming?”
“He's coming he's coming he's coming he's coming he's coming he's coming he's coming he's coming!” The gang member stopped still, then gasped in half the air in the room as he threw his head to the sky. “Ionos!”
The floor under them ripped like liquid and spread to the wall as an inky black something overtook the captive from the bottom of his hooves. It flowed like living tar over him, engulfing him entirely. An instant after it compressed into a ball the size of a melon, before exploding out with a dozen tentacles.
The ooze lashed out like whips, crashing into the walls, furniture, and anything not fast enough to dodge them. That would have included the Duke, but the gryphoness he hired earned her pay by blocking the hit for him. In the next second, she earned a bonus by slashing the monster in half at least a half dozen times.
Apparently not content with getting itself cut just a few times, the filth coalesced into an orb, perhaps the size of a hoofball. Hilda, the gryphoness, seemed to be waiting for that moment, as she brought her blade down directly through the center. Ice exploded out from the center, flash freezing the mass before a flame overtook the whole thing from inside.
The fire burned with a dark blue hue, and wasted no time in setting the carpet on fire. Before they could get the fire extinguisher, though, the mass melted into the ice underneath, boring a whole straight through in seconds. The entire thing, carpet and all, was falling into the lake before the fire could spread.
“You know…” Hilda rested on her sword. “I wasn't down with the whole torture thing to begin with, but I knew this was important. I didn't think that's what ponies did when you hurt them.”
“That was not normal.” The Duke wiped his brow, which was already drenched with sweat despite the freezing temperature. “I don't know what that was. But I know what it reminded me of.”
The police chief stumbled to his feet, wheezing out his breath. “I think that broke my ribs. I… I don't know if we should tell the Princess about this.”
The Duke peeked into the hole in the ice. “We tell them. We… omit the torture, of course. It was an interrogation. Everything else, though? They must know. They're the only ones who can protect the system.”
Over the past months, Twilight’s winter coat had come in like never before. There were a few days where she had to visit the castle spa every single day to keep her coat tamed. She was a very fluffy pegasus--minus the wings, of course.
She was still freezing her little unicorn butt off, even as the engine next to her burned off solidified magic to power the locomotive she was in.
“We're getting close,” Spike said over the radio. “Everypony get ready!”
Twilight pushed at Aurora, who deployed over her. This was followed by an immensely fluffy jacket and other bits of winter gear that would bake her in minutes if she stayed in the engine room. Sadly, the safety of the little compartment was not where she was supposed to stay.
Winter gear on, she lit her horn until it bathed the room in crimson light from the fire magic she was summoning, and then pulled the lever next to her. The special modification to the engine room opened the roof, and a giant piston lifted her up and outside into the cold.
We have got to get full weather control back up and running. I don't care if there's a giant ice mana krene in Stalliongrad. Minus sixty-five is just obscene.
The exhaust stack for the engine had been modified to push heat to the sides instead of up and in her face. Additionally, a giant plow had been fitted to the front to run through thick snow when it appeared.
Behind her was the longest train ever put together. Three kilometres of cars linked together to save Moscolt from the disaster of Cloudsdale. The only thing stopping them was nature run rampant.
Not that you could tell that at the moment. It was so early in the morning the sun hadn't even hinted at being near the horizon. Everything was darkness wrapped in an unnatural snowfall on an infinite flat plane. Visibility was a hundred meters at best before sinking into purest black. The moon was no help, being completely invisible behind the thick clouds up above.
To her right was a brand new chariot being pulled by both Rainbow Dash and Cloud Burner. It wore the purples and dark blues of the Evening Guard, and a rounded front and rear with an enclosed roof. On the bottom was a silver lump of metal and steel which was extending as Twilight watched it, turning into a single-barrelled cannon capable of blowing up a small house with one shot. However, it wasn't the biggest source of external firepower at her disposal.
Twilight pressed against her helmet. “Attention, all wings. Moscolt is starving. The out-of-control weather devastated this year's crops and cut the Duchy off from most supply routes. Millions need the food that this train and those behind it are carrying. Failure is not an option.
“I know many of you have never seen a snow crab before. They're bigger than the books say, because this year has set records for snowfall already. That size gives them considerable striking distance, and though they are clumsy, their stride makes them faster than they look.
“They hate heat sources. That includes your body, but most importantly includes this train.
“They'll go for the engine first, but after we pass them by, they'll be more than happy to go after the cars. It only takes one hit from their multi-ton claws to literally derail this entire operation. They can't be allowed to even get close.
“Do not waste time shooting their eyes, body, or claws. Your weapons cannot penetrate their armor there. Targeting their legs is useless as well. They can move at up to forty percent speed on only two legs, and regenerate in minutes. To kill them, you must shoot them in the mouth. Open or closed, it's a weak point. A few solid bursts will shred their insides, fatally disrupting the magic that holds them together.
“Ready yourselves for launch. Steel your nerves. Moscolt is counting on us!”
Twilight nodded in satisfaction. Without the twenty wings of pegasi that she had hidden away in the train — five ponies per wing — , this would have been impossible. Snow crabs were four stories tall when active, but perfectly camouflaged in the deep snow when sleeping.
“Hey Twilight, the scope you designed is working. I can't find where they are exactly, but we definitely have an increase in ice magic coming up. Maybe ninety seconds out.”
Perfectly camouflaged unless you know exactly what to look for. Even still, she could only get it so that they could find the general area rather than specific spots.
“Good work, Spike. All wings, launch at will!”
Behind her, scattered about the train, were numerous cars configured not to carry food, but pegasi. Each had two ramps on either side that folded out to forty-five degrees, and the cars also had a spell that catapulted out any unauthorised pony that tried to get in. She could hear the ka-chunk of each launch even over the wind and noise of the engine. Within seconds, dozens of professional flyers were in the air to greet the threat and punch it in the mouth.
Twilight, for her part, started weaving a spell matrix to contain the power she had summoned into her horn. Points of hot red light formed around her within the magic circle and started to orbit. Each was a spell ready to cast instantaneously, but degraded quickly once in the matrix.
They were also a giant “kick me” sign for anything that hated heat.
“Almost there!” Spike said. “Arming the cannon.”
“Steady!” Twilight shifted her spell to the side for a moment. There was another spell she needed. Seconds later, she launched a mini sun of a flare forward into the night, illuminating several kilometres all around.
The crabs didn't like that one bit. Dozens of mounds of snow and ice, each the size of an apartment building, dug themselves out of the tundra. With coal-black eyes glittering in the flarelight, they started their march towards the tracks, ready to crush with claws bigger than any of the train cars. Standing up as high as possible on their legs, they were tall enough to have the train run directly under them.
“Ponies? You are weapons free.”
A roar like thunder overtook the plains as dozens of guns cracked and growled. Most of the bolts missed and plinked harmlessly off of thick ice — inevitable given the wind and motion. A few, however, found purchase in the mouths of the crabs. Each had a punch like being hit with a mach-speed anvil… that was also on fire… and exploded, for good measure. The ones that were hit struggled for a brief moment before collapsing into a lifeless pile of snow and ice.
A boom followed the little guns as Spike pulled the trigger on the chariot’s cannon. His shot missed — barely — but it didn't matter. The chariot had a much larger shell than the saddle guns of the pegasi. A second explosion boxed Twilight's ears, and as the light cleared, there was a crab missing about sixty percent of its body mass. It never stood a chance.
Guess it's my turn. Twilight pulled out her blade and held it by her head, aiming directly down the tracks and through at least three crabs. She thrust it forward, cutting one of the little orbs circling her. The sword slurped up the power like a hungry snake an instant before it fired. A pure crimson light shot forward faster than the speed of sound, stopping for neither crabs, snow, nor anything else but entropy.
The first crab hit was vaporised entirely, save for perhaps the tips of its legs. The second looked as if it had been hit by Spike’s cannon, albeit with a cleaner edge. The third and final one was intact, but dead. Its internal magic had been too greatly disrupted. When the train reached it, the plow left no remains.
“Left side, car twenty,” Rainbow warned.
Twilight spun to the left and thrust her blade again, firing another beam after a crab that had somehow passed through their defenses unscathed. Its right side vanished in the blink of an eye, followed by an explosion a few hundred metres behind it. A chariot would have easily been tossed by the shockwave, but fortunately, the train was heavy enough to stay on its track.
“Good call, Rainbow!”
Spike’s cannon fired again, and once again missed, but the explosion was easily big enough to do damage. The beastie was missing all of its limbs on that side, making it easy pickings for a pegasus that followed up.
Twilight twirled the sword in her grasp. “Time to get serious.”
This time, she slashed in three different directions, each slash launching a wave of energy at the crabs. They cut in deep, sending up plumes of steam. They weren't lethal, but they left the crabs wide open for the flyers. She pulled in five of the orbs, making them dance in orbit around the blade. The power of an alicorn given time to store magic exploded out in a kaleidoscopic ball of beams, each too weak to be lethal to a crab, but more than enough to carve into them and leave them stunned and still.
The time she bought doing that was spent building more power for more orbs. Halfway through the gap, the wind kicked up to something ferocious, and Twilight slid back on the metal platform. The grips on the bottom of her armor struggled to find purchase on the steel, but she was able to stop before falling clear off the locomotive.
“Guys, the wind’s here. We’re already approaching the river. The largest group is coming; keep them off the train. We get to the bridge and we’re home free. Trixie, you and Stiletto read me? Are you ready?”
“Copy that, Lady Sparkle. They haven’t spotted us. I’m about to freeze my nose off, though.”
“We’ll pick you up as we pass. Everypony, get ready!” Twilight upped the power she pulled, letting her horn burn with pain at the sheer quantity of fire magic she was summoning at once. She’d lost count how many times she had to pause to fire another beam, and her heart punched her in the chest when she realized she was out of orbs.
She held her breath as she turned to find a smaller crab that had snuck in and no pegasi to cover it. Its claw came down on the train, making it tilt to the side. The whole world seemed to stop as the train teetered on the edge of falling, only to slam back onto the tracks.
A second later, one of Spike’s rounds ended the crab’s existence entirely, shaking the cars and threatening to do what the crab failed to do. The car closest to the blast actually caught on fire, but it was put out in seconds by the sheer cold and wind.
“Big one, coming up!”
Twilight spun to face forward, and found the mother of all snow crabs blocking their path. Eight stories tall, and somehow looking hungry, it threatened to crush the engine with a single squat. Twilight pushed power into her horn and fired an immediate beam, but without the time to save up energy, it wasn't anywhere near as strong as the others. However, it was digging in. Chunks of slush were flying out, and six of her pegasi were joining in. Their rounds smashed into the hole that she had made, followed by one from Spike. The crab fell to the ground in a heap an instant before the train reached it.
A shockwave ran through the entire train as the plow crashed into the crab’s remains, and each car jumped up in succession as it hit. Miraculously, none of the hits were enough to derail the heavy cars from their tracks.
“Watch your fire, Spike! That was too close.”
“There's another big one coming from the right. Hit it!”
Twilight summoned more power, but stopped as the bridge came into view. “Here it comes, ponies! Watch the sides of the train and stay clear!”
The Volco river was steaming, as it always was. The water wasn't potable, as it was rich in fire dust. The source was a volcano to the north, which was over a fire krene. The result was a river almost always near the boiling point, and a heat source the crabs could neither attack nor cross. Once Twilight and her ponies crossed the bridge, they were home free.
A casual observer might have been curious about the two giant mounds of snow piled up on either side of the bridge’s entrance. They were obviously unnatural, and not from the crabs. They were, however, excellent camouflage.
“Do it, Trixie!”
One of the piles gained a subtle glow, but that wasn't what got the remaining crabs’ attention. Rather, it was the explosion of hard, purple ice from within the river. The crystal quickly overtook the entire width of the water, making a rough second bridge of sorts. The ice continued to shift, getting a more perfect shape with each passing second. As the train engine reached the entrance to the regular bridge, the crabs took their opportunity to finally cross the boiling river.
It was a veritable stampede of crustaceans. Several dozen of the snow crabs scrambled for the bridge to chase after the hot train locomotive. Another dozen or so couldn't make it past the train to get to the crossing. The pegasi dove on them, swarming them with their now superior numbers. That group was destroyed in seconds.
Those closer to the bridge were crawling over each other for a chance at crossing. When the lead crab got a third of the way across, the ice under it erupted into a hill, sending it tumbling down and crashing into those behind it. Hundreds of legs scrambled to find purchase on the ice, crawling over each other to get up the hill. When they got over, another hill formed beyond it, but the crab was ready this time. The formation of rough terrain did little more than slow them down. Of course, that was the point.
When the lead crab was near the other bank of the river, it flew backwards as a small mountain came into being underneath it. The critter went flying, which was no small feat given its mass. It probably crushed a few of its smaller brethren when it landed.
“OK, Trixie. Close the trap.”
Even faster than it had appeared, the ice bridge buckled and shattered. It didn't so much melt as dissolve into the ether. Dozens of snow crabs fell directly into the boiling Volca river. They scrambled and flailed about, trying to crawl over one another. It was no use. At the location of the bridge, the river was fast, deep, and more than able to pick up the crabs and carry them. They were made of ice, after all, which tended to float.
Even worse for them, rapidly moving water imparted energy at a far greater rate than standing water. In seconds, most of the crabs had melted enough to die. Their remains floated and bobbed along, breaking apart again and again. A few that had been near the starting bank had managed to crawl back on to land, only to be met with a hail of pegasus gunfire.
By this time, the mound of snow that had been glowing was shining like a star. This was because the illusion tower they'd cobbled together from guesses on how the Templar worked had melted away all the snow on top of it. Even though the illusion had ended, it was still heating up, and the top detonated in what was probably best described as a little hissy fit. At least, it was that compared to the explosions that had been seen in the battle just moments before.
“Lady Sparkle, I do believe the day is won. The remaining crabs are running away.”
Twilight pressed a hoof to her ear. “Follow up, Lieutenant. Have your wings destroy all you can, but don’t lose sight of the train or you’ll get lost in the tundra. Once you are done, regroup and come back in for a landing. Dash? Swing around and pick up Trixie and Stiletto, then come in for a landing yourselves at our special caboose. I think we've all earned some nice hot cocoa.”
If there was anything succeeding on a mission in ridiculous wind chill against giant living masses of ice and snow called for, it was a giant mug of hot cocoa.
Especially one spiked with a half teaspoon of cayenne pepper.
It was a comforting warmth in the cold, but there in the train car filled with rowdy military pegasi wrestling each other for fun, it was actually a bit much. The body heat and breath actually made it rather stuffy.
“You know,” Rainbow said, flopping down next to her. “Steamed crab is a delicacy in Gryphonia. They serve it with butter.”
Spike scratched his chin. “That sounds kinda good, actually.”
Twilight stuck out her tongue. “Ew. No thanks. Not that the ones we steamed could even be served. Without the magic sustaining them, they're just water.”
Spike took a sip of cocoa. “So wouldn't eating them just be drinking a glass of water?”
“With fire dust mixed in, don't forget.” Twilight glanced at her hot chocolate. “Not even I want that kind of spice.”
One of the pegasi soldiers burped. “What happens if you do drink it?”
“You suffer internal burns,” Spike answered. "Unless you're me. I think it's delicious.”
Rainbow stretched her face with her hooves and put on a silly voice. “I'm Spike, I'm immune to everything and my burps corrode solid steel!”
“Shut up!” Spike gave her a little shove. “And they do not—UUURP!”
Celestia's and Luna's messages had impeccable timing, as always. The green and silver flames erupted from his mouth and swirled into a ball that just happened to touch the wall of the train car. When it turned into a letter and fell to the floor, it left behind a hole in the steel that was letting in the wind.
The entire car erupted into laughter, and Twilight pulled him into a hug as his wings drooped. “It's okay, Spike. It's just another cool thing you can do. What does the letter say?”
He handed it over, and she opened it up for a read. “Uh-oh…”
Rainbow hushed the other pegasi. “What is it?”
“Can't say here. Classified. But our trip to Stalliongrad just got more complicated.”