“Well, this was largely a bust.” Twilight felt like chucking something off a cliff, but unfortunately the geography of Stalliongrad wasn't going to oblige her with anything more than a hill. “I found a feather. Not even a pinion, either. You got anything?”
“Actually, I think so.” Trixie pulled at a tool locker in the corner of the room. “This is empty, but I just saw a piece of paper behind it.”
Twilight’s ears perked up. “Sounds like a potential lead to me. Let's see it.”
Trixie grabbed it with her magic and slipped it out from behind the metal cabinets, then laid it out before both of them. “It's… music. About Luna? Could this be…”
“A giant red herring.” Twilight turned up her nose at the dirt-covered page labelled “The Moon Is Our Light.” “A red herring so big I'm surprised this whole block doesn't stink like dead fish.
“Oh, the song is real, if I recall right, but there's no way in Tartarus that this is the Nightmare Moon cult, or the 'Lunarian Church', as they like to call themselves.”
Trixie put her ears back and twisted her hat in her hooves. “Are you sure? Because if Captain Dual Strike suspects me at all and they're involved…”
“Now I know you don't have a clue about them. Look.” Twilight held up the sheet music. “The church expresses their worship through song. When a foal in the church reaches puberty, they're given their very own hymnal, hoof-made by everypony in their congregation. They usually spend a fair sum on the materials.
“That hymnal is a faithful's most precious, cherished possession in the whole world. They wouldn't even let a page get dog-eared, much less disrespect one of the hymns by leaving it behind like this. Somepony is trying — and utterly failing — to lead us down the wrong path.
“Which is all the more suspicious. The Majestics are almost never this amateurish. What is going on here?”
Trixie slumped her head down, her sigh condensing in the cold. “Sorry I wasn't more help.”
“I'm not exactly a fountain of leads here either.” Twilight put her hoof on her ear to turn on Aurora's radio. “Hey, Dash? You and Spike get down here. We're going to need extra sets of eyes.”
The Kitalpha made a bit of crunchy noise as it touched down on the snow outside and two of her three flyers shivered their way inside.
“And just why are you shaking?” Rainbow flapped some ice off her wings. “You're an ice dragon.”
“You look cold!” Spike blew some fire to the floor, which raised the temperature at least a few degrees. “Sympathetic response!”
“Well at least I'm out of the wind. What did you need, Twilight?”
Twilight’s left ear went down. “Well, you can warm up in here first, but we need to expand our search for evidence. So far all we got is a feather and an obviously fake Lunarian hymn sheet. They're trying to lead us down the wrong path, but I'm not falling for it.”
Rainbow sighed. “Well, at least we got a fire-breathing ice dragon to help dig through the snow. What's the colour of the feather? That might be a hint.”
“White. Here, take a look.” Twilight grabbed the little thing and floated it over to her. “Not much to go on, really.”
Rainbow eyed it, and poked at it with her hoof before stroking it. “That's not a pony feather.”
Trixie snorted back a sneeze. “Ugh. Um, how do you know?”
Rainbow raised an eyebrow. “Really? Gonna doubt the Wonderbolt who had to spend an absurd number of hours studying feathers and wing types?”
Trixie sneezed again. “Sorry, not doubting you. Just curious.”
Rainbow sighed and gave her wings a flap. “Okay, so, for starters, the barbs are at the wrong angles and proportional length. The size is also weird. Honestly, if this is from a common bird you’d find around here, I think we're looking at a duck feather.”
A light went off in Twilight's head. “And just like that, we got a lead. I knew they were too amateur to not leave behind some evidence. To the Kitalpha, let's go get some maps.
“Okay, either ducks aren't the most popular livestock in Stalliongrad, or the on-the-map categories don't include them.” Twilight crossed another goose farm off her map, then flopped over on the seat on the Kitalpha. The rest of her crew were warming up in the heated cabin, save for Spike, who was smarting over the nasty looks they all gave him when he said he wanted iced tea. “Should have figured goose down would be the most popular here. But one of these has to have ducks.”
“What happens if it's from a pet?” Spike asked.
“Unlikely.” Twilight meandered her pen over the map to choose another location. “That would be unlawful in the city, and the farms here are organized by the Duchy…”
Twilight and Trixie both looked up at each other.
“Trixie, are you pondering what I'm pondering?” Twilight asked.
“Yeah. We're looking for something outside Rasbuckin's beloved ‘system.’
Spike coughed. “Um, would he even allow that? I'm surprised he didn't tear down the city just to rebuild it symmetrically.”
Twilight pulled out a different map, one comprised of pictures taken from the air by pegasi. “He might not have a choice. The nobility didn't just start with ponies that had gained Celestia's confidence for leadership. They were given land to go with those titles. In modern times they don't need land to be a noble, but back then it was a requirement. They owned the territory; the commoners just worked it.
“Claddin upended all this with his ‘system.’ Unlike the other Duchies, most of that land is now centrally managed. But I'm willing to bet that the politics of that meant concessions, and that we're looking for an exception. A noble that refused to give up a farm. A farm like… this one. I don't see it listed on the official Stalliongrad plans.”
Rainbow rubbed her forelegs together. “Back out into the cold, then.”
“Eh, it's not so bad.” Cloud Burner flapped his wings, his fire magic warning the cabin another few degrees. “But then again, I do have some advantages.”
Rainbow grumbled and steeled herself as she put her hoof on the door handle. “Let's get going so we're outside as little as possible.”
“Can't argue that.” Cloud followed her as they hooked back up to the chariot and took off.
The trip was relatively short. Though the trip was well outside and north of the city limits, Moscolt had much more defined boundaries than most large cities. One moment they were amongst tall buildings, the next, farmland.
At least one would assume it was farmland thanks to the barns and grain silos. If not for those, it would just be an endless blanket of pure white snow. The grey, overcast skies did nothing to break up the monotony.
It didn't take very long to spot what they were looking for once it was in range. The other farms were run by the Duchy and had a common layout and set of buildings. They were basically all clones of each other.
This one, however, was older - much older. The main house was an old castle, albeit a small one. Modern mansions would dwarf it. The barn was newer, but the other structure was a large triangular burdei - a kind of large shed made of earth instead of wood or stone.
They came to a landing at the front door of the castle, and the pegasi unhooked themselves.
Twilight hopped out and took a glance at the old, undoubtedly drafty castle. “Okay, you two get inside the chariot and warm yourselves up. Trixie, Spike, us three will head inside and investigate. Hopefully whoever is home will cooperate.”
“And if they don't?” Spike asked, following her out of the warm cabin.
“That's why I have a dragon. Well, one of many reasons.”
“Yay, warmth!” Rainbow dashed inside the cabin, pulling Cloud inside before slamming the door.
Twilight snickered to herself before trotting up to the main entrance. It was a pair of old wooden doors with black iron trim, each half of an arch, and each bearing a gargoyle doorknocker.
Trixie picked one of them and gave the door a generous thumping.
The only thing to reply was a howl of wind through the trees.
Trixie hugged herself and shivered. “What are the odds that nopony is home and nothing is wrong?”
Twilight switched to her Sight, but saw nothing additional of note, not even any wards on the door. “Nopony being home is probable. Nothing being wrong, I'm not so sure about.” She pulled at the door, rattling it and its lock.
“Do we break in?” Trixie asked.
“Yes. I don't see any magic reinforcing the locking mechanism. Think you can open it?”
“With no wards to worry about? Piece of cake.” Trixie lined up her eyeball with the keyhole and flooded it with her magic, poking and prodding at the innards like a true locksmith. She clicked her tongue at the exact same time as the door opened.
“Good work. Let me take point in case there are traps or hostiles.” Twilight nudged the door open, peeking inside the darkened house. Inside was much more modern than the outside would suggest, with expensive dark wood furniture and black marble flooring. Across the entryway was an entertaining area, complete with a bar stocked with liquor.
“Hello?” Twilight called out. Only a light echo answered. “Crown Agents coming in! If there's anypony here, come out peacefully!”
“So we're not going for an ambush?” Trixie asked.
“We're going into an unknown location. We don't know the layout. An ambush by them is more likely. However…” Twilight briefly switched to her Sight again. “I still don't see any wellsprings. There's a teeny, tiny bit of random, non-ice ambient magic in the air but nothing to write home about. Could just be home to a unicorn good at magic.”
The trio opened the door wide and strode in, their breath still making little clouds from the cold.
“It's still freezing in here.” Spike blew a bit of flame. “I don't like it. I've heard that a lot of the rural areas of Stalliongrad are still poor and use wood-burning stoves for heating, but a place this fancy? Makes no sense.”
“Excellent point, Spike. Trixie, you check through that kitchen and dining area. Spike, that living area. I'll check the hall down to the left.”
“Aye!” Spike saluted with a couple fingers and they all split up.
The split lasted all of twelve seconds. “Twilight? I found somepony.”
Twilight snapped to her left and rushed to the living area. In a giant, plush chair was an old earth pony stallion. His short beard was grey and his coat a matte, dingy gold. He was laying down on his belly, head between his forelegs, eyes closed. Nearby was a book and a cup of tea that had frozen solid.
One look through her Sight told her what she needed to know. “He's dead. No sign of a wellspring at all. And…” She gave him a nudge, and his whole body moved like he was a statue. “Yeah, he's frozen solid. The heating must have shut off somehow. We probably won't be able to determine a narrow time of death.”
Trixie took off her hat in a little bow to the stallion. “Did he freeze in his sleep?”
“No idea.” Twilight looked around his body to check his underside. “I don't see any wounds or obvious signs of foul play. Could be poison, or given his age, he might well have just died in his slumber. We'll need an actual autopsy to find out, and given the state of the city, we could be looking at days or even weeks before that happens.”
“So what do we do?” Spike scratched his leg. “Are we investigating his death, or…”
“No. That'll be up to local police. We're still looking for Honesty. Let's split up. Trixie, you check downstairs if there is one; Spike, upstairs. Look for anything obviously out of the ordinary. Meet at the front door when you're done.”
“Welp. That was a bigger bust than some of the statues in the Royal Gardens.”
Twilight grumbled at Spike's words but couldn't argue against him. “The house itself was normal, but we still have to check the barn. The one where the ducks, if there are any, should be. After all, a feather is what lead us here.”
Trixie chuckled. “Watch: the barn’ll be empty.”
“Nah.” Spike brushed his claws on his chest. “It'll be full of emus.”
“Why emus?” Trixie asked.
“Because they're funnier than geese!”
Twilight sighed and stepped back out into the cold wind of the outdoors. The sky was almost crystal clear, save from a few cirrus clouds. Celestia's sun was high in the sky, giving a warm counterbalance to the freezing crisp air. She asked Aurora to amp up her warmth enchantments as she trotted out back to the barn. “I doubt there will be emus, but I really hope there aren't any geese.”
“How come?” Trixie pulled her hat down around her ears.
“Geese are jerks.” Twilight snorted. “Ever have a picnic interrupted by a flock? They're nature's natural-born trolls.”
“Honk.” Spike agreed. “Remember when that goose stole Roseluck’s keys and locked her out of her own garden?”
“Yeah, that left her in a funk for a few days straight.” As she strode up to the earth-covered barn, Twilight did a quick check with her Sight. “I can't see into the barn with my ‘ability.’ But there's a good number of wards on this structure… Odd. Why none on the main house? Although the big one here seems to be to keep things warm, but there's definitely one to isolate magic to keep it out… or in.”
“Which means emus!” Spike clapped with a laugh. “Or, you know, stuff relevant to the case.”
Twilight grabbed the barn door handle and pulled open the door, unleashing an absolute avalanche of quacks. A wave of a few hundred ducks came pouring out of the door. Instead of running away, though, they all surrounded the group and quacked like it was their last chance to do so. Perhaps because it was just that.
“Ew.” Spike poked one of the ducks. They all had damaged or missing feathers and looked sick as dogs. “I feel like throwing up just looking at them.”
Twilight poked her head inside the barn, finding a few large sacks of feed up high where the flightless domestic ducks couldn't get them. The inside stunk like a pit of Tartarus due to the feces covering the floor. By some miracle the giant container of water still had some left for them to drink, but that's all they had.
Staying well outside the barn, she lifted a bag of feed with her magic and floated it outside. The ducks reached a feverish cacophony when they realized there was about to be food, jumping and nipping at the burlap. With a swipe of her sword, the hole she made started raining duck feed, burying a few of the waterfowl - though they didn't seem to mind being covered in food.
“Damn.” Trixie pulled out another bag. “I've seen ducks go to town on food before, but these guys are going to go through this in a couple minutes.”
“Ducks are pigs, in a manner of speaking.” Spike stretched out his wings with a yawn. “I used to help feed some at Applejack’s farm. They do not mess around when it comes to eating. Just ‘get it in my belly now!’”
Twilight gave him a pat on the head. “Sounds like a certain dragon I know!”
“Hey, I can't help it! I'm still growing!”
“Twilight!” Aurora cried out. “I'm sensing thaumic contamination! Valence is spiking at twenty five, effective dose exceeds one milli-Blue per hour and rising!”
Twilight's gaze snapped to the inside of the barn and switched to her Sight. It wasn't only bird poop the ground was covered with. A thin fog of thaumic contamination was wafting out of the barn, the red mist enveloping just about all of the ducks as they fed. It wasn't thick enough to be seen unaided yet, but the typing gave it plenty of energy to do damage to anything breathing it without the right equipment. Worse, in the center of the barn was a bubbling mass of the miasma pouring like a tiny fountain.
“Trixie, deploy an environment shield around yourself and then Spike. After that, set up a shield perimeter. None of these ducks can escape.”
Trixie’s eyes shrank, and her heart hit her chest with an audible thump. “What's… I mean, yes ma’am.”
“Twilight?” Spike asked, holding one of the sick ducks. “Something wrong?”
“This barn is, somehow, an active source of thaumic contamination. The ducks aren't just stick from lack of food, they're completely contaminated. Anypony who eats one of their eggs or uses their feathers for something is likely to get sick too. There's no choice—when we leave here, we'll have to destroy them all.”
Trixie’s horn sputtered aa her spell failed. “Are-are you sure? How bad is it?”
“The ducks have likely already hit a half Blue dose, which would ultimately prove agonizingly fatal for them in another couple of weeks. The two of you are safe for now, but your time here without adequate shielding has to be limited, so Trixie, hurry up!”
Trixie spun up her magic again. “Right, I understand.”
“Let them eat in the meantime. It'll be a last comfort. I'm going to check out what in the world can cause this.” Twilight forced magic into her horn, powering through the contamination disruption and fashioning a pair of shields into a bulldozer blade. It grinded against the stone floor, popping sparks wherever there wasn't enough hay and poop to stop it.
When the blade reached the center, where the contamination was bubbling up from, it came to a resounding clunk of a stop. Peeking out of the mess was an iron loop embedded into the concrete. A few more scrapes revealed a half-inch gap in the floor in the shape of a square.
“Found something!” Twilight grabbed hold with her magic, saying a little thank-you to the universe that she had said magic for this, and lifted. Stone ground against stone as a block rose from the floor. A half meter of concrete was pulled out, straight up, before it popped open like a soda bottle. The hole left behind was just big enough for a pony to fit through, though the only thing going through at the moment was more contamination. In seconds, it was dense enough to become visible to the naked eye.
“Readings are now up to a hundred milli-Blue an hour. This would be lethal within—”
Days, I know. Twilight waved her hoof around in the smoke, but that only spread out the red mist a little. “Rainbow, do you hear me?”
“Yup. What's up? I see Trixie putting up a shield.”
“We found something interesting. A secret hole in the barn floor, and it's emanating a large amount of high-energy thaumic contamination. Do not approach; it'll get you and anypony without a proper shield sick. I'll going to need you to keep everypony out once Trixie's shield goes up. I'm going to hop into this hole and find out what the source is, if I can.”
“Will you be okay in there?” Cloud chimed in. “I don't want you to go in there alone.”
“I'll be fine, and Trixie and Spike now have shields and will be following me. My own wellspring has the kind of pressure needed to protect me from this level of contamination, but I'm... unusual.
“I do understand your concern, though. This could be stepping into a hornets’ nest, which is why I want you two up here to defend the exit and keep ponies away. Oh, and don't let the ducks escape either. They're contaminated.”
The radio hissed with silence and static for a moment, yet she could feel the implications of her last sentence sinking in.
“Understood, we're on our way.” Rainbow could be heard opening the chariot door over the radio before it turned off.
“Trixie, you done?”
Trixie almost strode into the barn before stopping at the sight of the floor. “I think so. Three meters high should be enough, right?”
“I think so!”
Spike ran up behind her, waving a device in his hand. “Got a tau-meter. We can find out how bad this is while we go, uh, spelunking.”
Twilight turned up her nose at the hole. Through her Sight, she could barely see a meter down as the contamination was much too dense. Turning it off, she grumbled a little. “Yet another tunnel. Maybe. Technically, I'm not sure if this is a tunnel, a cave, or one leading to another.”
“Probably tunnel.” Spike tried to find the relatively clean spots on the floor to walk on. “Probably, but not guaranteed. If I recall right, there're no natural caves in this area. Or at least none we know of.”
“Might be adding a first to the list, then.” Twilight looked down the hole and saw a ground of sorts just a couple meters down. “Time to get started. Let's go.”
She jumped in, all four hooves hitting on the stone at once. The new ground was dirty, but with dirt instead of bird poop. The inside was natural stone, carved out artificially. Carbon scoring was scorched on the walls randomly, as if someone blasted flame at them in rage. Ahead of her was an opening leading down, and she took her first steps in that direction when Spike jumped down.
His tau meter began screaming immediately. “Jeez! Gotta adjust the multiplier. We're already at five hundred milli-Blue!”
Trixie landed behind him. “Gee, I always wanted to go swimming in pure thaumic contamination. Thanks, Twilight.”
“You're welcome, though it's not that thick. Yet, anyway. Will likely get worse as we move.” Twilight marched through the opening, careful not to start sliding on the smooth stone. The path banked right and down, heading deeper into the earth. She supposed they were a few hundred meters underground when they came to a cheap, wooden door that was no match for dragon fire.
“Oh.” Twilight blinked some ash out of her eyes. “Well, this is interesting.” She walked forward maybe a dozen body lengths before the ground just stopped at a ledge with the width of a house and a perfectly squared edge. She peered over the side, finding the ground below maybe ten meters down.
“Do we keep going?” Spike sat down on the ledge. “I can glide down, but what about you two?”
“Well, the spells inside Trixie's armor should function as normal, as they're pretty well insulated just by being in the armour. And Aurora’s protections are enough for me to take a fall like that without trouble. So, yeah, we keep going.” Twilight hopped off the ledge, hitting the ground with a crouch and roll. It was like some of the tumbles she took at recess when she was a filly and the teachers made her go outside and play.
Trixie landed much more softly, the spells in her armor bringing her to a gentle stop. Spike was perhaps the most graceful of them, gliding in circles until landing.
“We all here okay? Good? Let's keep—” Twilight jerked her head back as the path ahead became clear. It was another ledge, exactly the same as the first, except now the ceiling expanded and rose well out of sight. Lighting her horn, she fired a blinding flare into the cave.
When it flew far enough away that she could once again see, she realized it wasn't just a cave. It was a monstrous cave wide and deep enough to hold the city of Canterlot.
“Empty night…” Trixie gasped.
Below them, what they had already started to climb down, was ledge after ledge plunging ever farther into the deep.
“Guys?” Twilight swallowed. “These… these aren't ledges. They're steps.”