A stack of bulbous green shapes reflected the light from Twilight's horn as she gazed around the station in awe. They formed a pillar in the center of the station, like tree sap that had oozed from the ceiling and hardened to become amber. The base of the column filled the space between the station’s two platforms; wide enough for three tracks. With her swords drawn, Twilight cautiously stepped forward.
Dust plumed with each fall of her hooves. A pair of rats scurrying into a corner cast amplified shadows on the wall. The scritching sound of tiny teeth emanated from below the edge of the platform.
“What is this?” Rainbow asked, somewhere behind her.
Seeing nothing threatening, Twilight sheathed her swords and approached the pillar. She inspected one of the round, bulbous pods. Its reflective surface caught the light of her horn, showing nothing but her own distorted face. She dimmed her horn, and another face replaced hers. She saw an inverted pony inside the pod and recoiled in surprise.
“What is it, Twilight?” Applejack said, stepping up beside her.
“There are ponies in these,” Twilight murmured. She placed her hoof against the pod, and the surface gave, the material flexible and springy.
“What?” Applejack said, jostling her to get a better look.
“There’s one up here too,” Rainbow said from where she hovered next to a pod higher on the pillar. “We have to get them out!”
“Wait, we don’t—” Twilight shouted as she looked up. Rainbow had already cut a gash into the base of the pod above her. She sidestepped a trickling stream of green goo oozing out of the pod. A rancid, rotten smell filled her nostrils. A mass slumped out of the breach in the pod, sliding down the pillar until it landed beside Twilight. Through the transparent slime, she saw an emaciated body. She reached out a hoof and pushed it through the slime to touch its neck. There was no pulse. “We don’t know what these are,” she finished.
“Is she dead?” Rainbow asked.
Twilight nodded, flicking the slime off her hoof. She scrunched her nose up at the smell and took a step back.
“And judging by the smell, she’s been dead for a few hours, at least,” Applejack said as she brushed a bit of slime that had spattered her off her armor’s chestpiece.
“This place is full of death,” Fluttershy said. “I can feel it.”
The slime slowly oozed off the body, revealing the mare’s face with clarity. Twilight’s eyes widened. It was the same mare as the one in the tower; the one Rainbow had killed. “That... that can’t be right,” she muttered, pushing away more of the slime with her levitation. The face perfectly matched her memory of Daisy.
Rainbow landed beside the body. She stared at in shock. “No... no way! That’s not right! She’s ash now.” She stamped her hoof. “This isn’t possible!”
“Who is she?” Rarity said, stepping up to get a better look.
“Daisy,” Rainbow murmured.
“She’s a pony we saw in the tower,” Twilight explained.
“You should come see this, Twilight,” Pinkie said, peering around the edge of the mass of pods with interest.
Twilight stepped over. From this angle, she saw a hole through the pillar. The pods formed an arch over where the tracks once were. In both directions, rubble completely blocked the tramway tunnel, isolating the station. A trickle of water oozed out from one of the tunnels and ran beneath the arch. A cluster of rats scurried away from a pod leaking a thin trickle of slime. They’d almost gnawed through the material.
“They must smell food,” Twilight said, shaking her head sadly.
Pinkie wrapped a foreleg around her neck and directed her gaze higher, at the apex of the arch. Twilight quirked a brow. “What is it?” she asked.
“What isn’t it?” Pinkie replied.
“Pinkie, this isn’t the time for your—” Twilight started to say, but as she looked closer, she noticed an odd cavity where a large pod could fit. Around the edges of the cavity, the green substance looked stretched, like caramel that had been pulled apart. “Oh.”
“Some of them are still alive!” Fluttershy cried, drawing Twilight’s attention. The druid’s eyes were glowing.
“Which ones?” Rainbow quickly asked, taking flight again.
“I can’t tell; they’re all buried behind the dead,” Fluttershy said, shivering.
Twilight sucked air through a cloth she’d put over her mouth as a makeshift mask while she stacked slime-covered bodies in one of the platform’s corners, beside the twisted remains of what was once a bench.
“One more, Twilight,” Applejack said, indicating a corpse on the floor that Rainbow had just cut free. A few hoofspans away, Fluttershy tended to another body. The stallion wasn’t breathing, but Fluttershy believed he was still alive.
Twilight reached out and dragged the corpse across the floor, using a well built trail of slime, until it was close enough that she could lift it into the air. She froze as its face passed by. Him, she thought. It was the laughing pony at the head of the table. She jerked the corpse in shock, and it slammed into the wall as her levitation field collapsed.
“This isn’t physically possible,” she said, staring at the corpse. It lay in the corner between the wall and the floor, its neck twisted at a grotesque angle.
“Twilight, you okay?!” Applejack shouted. She sounded muffled and far away.
Twilight stepped closer to the body and inspected it. It was, without a doubt, the same pony she’d seen at the head of the table in the tower. A chill ran down her spine. “How?” she murmured. This can’t be happening, she thought, but no matter how close she looked, the corpse was still real.
A hoof touched Twilight’s shoulder, and she turned away from the corpse. “Twilight?” Applejack said, looking at her with concern.
Twilight pointed at the corpse. “He’s not supposed to be here!” she cried.
Applejack pulled her into an embrace. “It’s okay, Twilight.”
At first, Twilight stiffened, but after a moment she relaxed and leaned her head against the firm plate of armor covering Applejack’s shoulder. “He’s dead...” she murmured. She looked over at where Fluttershy tended to the survivor. What matters is the living, she told herself.
Eyes aglow, Fluttershy tapped her patient’s chest. He coughed, launching green slime up into the air, then rolled onto his side, curling into a ball as he coughed and gasped. “You’re going to be okay,” Fluttershy said softly.
“Where am I?” he gasped.
“You’re safe,” Rainbow said. “Gonna be just fine.”
Out of dozens of pods, only three ponies were alive. They looked gaunt and drained. Bags hung beneath their eyes. While the others gave them food and water, Twilight stood off to the side with Fluttershy. “How’d you bring them back?” Twilight whispered.
“Um... well, they were cursed, and I fixed it,” Fluttershy murmured.
Twilight blinked. “They were—” she said out loud, but Fluttershy stopped her with a look. “Cursed?” she finished with an incredulous whisper.
Fluttershy nodded. “I’m not sure what the curse did, but I was at least able to fix it.”
Twilight made a mental note to prepare a wizard spell she knew with a similar effect. “He looks familiar,” she whispered, eyeing the stallion, the first one they’d rescued. “He’s Cadance’s Butler, isn’t he?”
Fluttershy nodded again.
“I remember you...” one of the survivors said while Rarity gave her some water. “It must have been a dream I was having in there,” she gestured over her shoulder at the green pillar, “But I poured you soup. I was me... but not me.”
Twilight furrowed her brows and looked down. “How can ponies be in two places at once?” she asked nopony in particular.
“That’s easy, Twilight,” Pinkie said, appearing beside her. “There’s only one real one.”
Twilight looked up and quirked a brow at Pinkie. “Illusions?”
Pinkie shrugged and smiled, then trotted forward to give one of the survivors an apple.
Twilight shook her head in amusement as Pinkie walked away. “No... illusions wouldn’t make sense, too real,” she murmured to herself. “A curse – two places at once.” She tapped her hoof on the stone. Spike, are you there? she thought.
Spike appeared in a flash of green flame. He yawned and stretched. “Yeah, yeah, I’m up... why do you have to do things so early?”
Behind him, the survivors shuffled away from the fading green light.
“It’s at least two in the afternoon, Spike,” Twilight said.
Spike rubbed his eyes and looked around the room. He instantly latched onto Twilight’s leg. “Where is this? Is it safe here?” he asked, panicked.
“As far as I can tell,” Twilight said. She affectionately rubbed Spike’s head with her free forehoof. She remembered him coming up just past her elbow, but his head was almost at her shoulder. Did he grow? she wondered. “Does the Celestial Library have anything on a shapeshifter that curses its victims?”
Spike pulled away and coughed up a book. He caught it and passed it to Twilight. She read the cover and blinked. “Demonic Lexicon: Volume IV,” she said, “‘Know Your Enemy’... Spike, are you sure this is the right book?”
He shrugged. “It’s what your request turned up.”
Twilight frowned and cracked the book open. Nabasu, Quasit, she read as she flipped through the pages, looking for relevant information. A sketch covering half a page with a tower of pods drew her attention. Beside the tower, two fanged, insect winged creatures roughly the same size as a pony stood guard. The book called them Changelings. She read the page as quickly as she could.
“They need some fresh air,” Applejack said, gesturing toward the survivors.
Twilight finished off the last paragraph before looking away from the book. “How are they, other than that? Can they walk?”
“They’re fine, despite being stuck in those pods for Celestia knows how long,” Applejack said. “They shouldn’t be able to walk, but they can.”
“Spike, could you write a message for me?” Twilight asked.
“Sure thing,” Spike said, producing a scroll and a quill.
“To Cadance and Shining Armor: Three of your servants are demons,” Twilight dictated. “They are shapeshifters that replaced your real servants some time ago. My friends and I rescued their victims. I have reason to believe the shapeshifters have already reverted back to their true forms, but they might still be lurking. While dangerous, they are not all that strong; Shining Armor should be able to handle it. The Iron Circle was involved. Sincerely, Twilight Sparkle.”
Applejack chewed on her lip. “Shapeshifters, huh? Makes sense. I knew there was an explanation.”
Spike passed the scroll to Twilight. She gave it a quick once over before rolling it up and stepping forward. She approached the butler. “Are you loyal to Cadance?” she asked.
The gaunt stallion, a unicorn, looked up at her. “Of course. I serve her household, and her mother’s before her.”
Twilight pointed at the stairs with a hoof. “That’s the way out. We’re beneath the intersection of 10th and 43rd.” She passed him the scroll. “It is vital to Cadance’s safety that you get this to her or Shining Armor as soon as possible.” She floated over a collection of bits. “In case something comes up,” she explained when she saw the questioning look in his eyes.
He nodded. “I’ll get this to her as soon as possible.” He started to pick himself up, and Twilight lifted him to his feet. Beside her, Rarity and Pinkie helped the other two survivors up.
The three ponies walked away and ascended the stairs. “Shouldn’t we be bringing Cadance that message ourselves?” Applejack asked as they left.
Twilight slowly turned, looking around the station. “No, we’re going after the pod that was removed,” she said. “That brick wall we came through was old, and that merchant didn’t seem to remember anyone else coming down here.” She peered at the walls. “There has to be another way in and out.”
“I might be able to find it,” Rarity said. She focused, and a glow blossomed from her horn. Motes of blue light flowed down her forelegs and spiderwebbed across the floor, radiating ever outward. She opened her eyes and watched them etch lines in the floor.
“So we’re just going to leave Cadance to fend for herself while we chase after some pony in a green coffin?” Rainbow protested.
“Cadance will be fine; she has Shining Armor. Whoever’s in the missing pod must be important, and they could still be alive. If we don’t go after them, they’re as good as dead,” Twilight said.
“Fine, I’ll go make sure Cadance is okay while the rest of you figure out where that pod went,” Rainbow said as she turned toward the steps.
Pinkie blocked her path. “You don’t split the party, Rainbow,” Pinkie said, shaking her head in disappointment.
“But you and Rarity—” Rainbow objected.
“That was special,” Pinkie interrupted.
“And me, Twilight an’ Fluttershy—”
Pinkie pressed a hoof against Rainbow’s lips. “Shhh...”
“I think the point Pinkie is trying to make is that we should stick together,” Applejack said. “We don’t know what’s down here, where we’re going, or when we’ll have the chance to regroup.”
Pinkie nodded emphatically.
“An’ Twilight’s right. Cadance will be fine,” Applejack added.
“Fine,” Rainbow grumbled as she turned away from the stairs. “You win.”
“Well, there are three doors,” Rarity said, pointing. Twilight followed her hoof. Rarity’s spell had illuminated outlines around two narrow steel doors set into shadowed alcoves and etched a glowing blue rectangle into one of the walls.
“And only one big enough,” Twilight said, flicking her head towards the rectangular outline. She made her way toward it, balancing on a slab of rubble to cross to the other platform. She was pretty sure she was walking on the remains of a footbridge that had once arched across the tracks. When she got closer, she could see gaps in the mortar around the edge of the rectangle. Seeing no mechanism to open the hidden passage, she focused on the fake wall, reaching out to it with her levitation.
Pinkie touched a hoof to her shoulder. “Trap,” she said.
Twilight immediately withdrew her magic.
“I don’t see anything,” Rarity said, inspecting the wall. “Where is it?”
“An itchy left ear means magic trap,” Pinkie said. “It’s a new one.”
Twilight sat down and buried her face in her hooves. “Not this again...”
“My ear itched before we opened the vault, and it’s itching now,” Pinkie said. “I just figured it out.” She sucked in a deep breath before continuing, “It also itched when you stepped into the safehouse, and when—”
Twilight held up one of her hooves. “I get it,” she said.
“That’s some crazy intuition, Pinkie!” Spike said from behind Twilight.
“Yep! I call it my Pinkie sense,” Pinkie Pie said, beaming. “I know the future! This is just like the time back in Candlekeep when Twilight—”
“I said I got it!” Twilight shouted. “At least this time it’s useful,” she muttered. She turned on Spike. “Aren’t you supposed to go back to the Celestial Plane when things get dangerous?”
“Right,” he nodded, then vanished.
“I still don’t see it,” Rarity said.
“Guess we’re doing this the hard way,” Applejack said. “Everypony find some cover.” She eyed the door and hefted Truthseeker.
Twilight crouched behind a support column with Pinkie. She peeked around the edge. Applejack stood a good distance from the highlighted wall section. “Everypony ready?” Applejack called.
“Ready,” Twilight answered, the voices of her friends joining her.
“Now if a demon jumps at me, y’all better kill it,” Applejack said.
“I’m betting it’s some sort of explosion,” Rainbow said from behind a piece of rubble.
“I’m not,” Applejack said. Without hesitation, she turned and bucked her chain at the wall. Light flashed along the chain as Truthseeker homed in on it’s target.
The moment Truthseeker connected, a detonation rattled Twilight’s teeth. Flames blasted the wall apart. Before she could take cover, a loose chunk of rubble hit next to her face, missing her by a hair. By the time she was back behind the pillar, it was all over.
“Applejack?” She called, barely hearing herself over the ringing in her ears. She stepped out from behind the column and peered through the dust kicked up by the blast. A moment passed – no response. “Applejack!” she shouted.
A shape stirred, rising out of the rubble strewn across the floor. It shook off the dust, and dragonscales gleamed in the light of Twilight's horn. Twilight rushed toward Applejack, but Rainbow arrived first.
“You okay, AJ?” Rainbow yelled as she landed.
Applejack pointed at her ear and grinned. “Am I a tray?!” she bellowed. “I can’t hear a thing!”
Twilight sighed in relief; other than her ears, Applejack looked unharmed.
“I told you it would be an explosion!” Rainbow shouted, laughing.
The false wall hid the entrance to a maintenance passage. Dried chunks of green ichor clung to the walls. Side by side with Pinkie, Twilight made her way along the rigidly straight passage. It was just wide enough for a pod, or two ponies. She kept the Solstice ready; Celestial Fury would be more unwieldy in the tight space.
“So, what did the book say?” Applejack asked from the back of their formation.
“Changelings are demons that serve the evil demigoddess of deception and lust, Chrysalis,” Twilight began. “They’re solidly built in their true forms, with a tough carapace and sharp fangs, but they don’t seem to use weapons or other tools effectively. They can fly, though they’re slower than the average pegasus, and shoot stunning bolts of green energy from their horns.”
Twilight paused to hack off the end of a jutting, rusted pipe with Solstice, rather than risk scraping herself on it. “The true danger lies in their cursing bite and their ability to shapeshift. If they bite a victim, and cocoon them like the ponies we saw, they can near-perfectly mimic their victim. It said something about ‘borrowing’ the soul. I guess stealing might be a more accurate term. The main thing is: if they die, the victim in the cocoon dies too, unless the curse is removed.”
She stopped at an intersection. To the left, she could see a collapse. A green smear marred the wall of the right passage. She continued down the path to the right. “They rely on subterfuge and avoid open engagement in their true forms. They can mimic pretty much anypony or creature of appropriate size to confuse their enemies, but without a cursed victim, it’s only an illusion, and they lack behavior and memories of whoever they’ve copied.”
“So Daisy was a Changeling? The Daisy in the tower, I mean,” Rainbow said.
Twilight nodded. “It seems like it.” And so was the pony at the head of the table, she thought. “Changelings were probably in control of the Iron Circle.”
Rainbow sighed. “If killing the Changeling kills the victim, I still killed her.”
“No, you didn’t. That Changeling would have died in the fire, rather than risk exposure. They don’t have any sense of self-preservation. All that happens to them is they go back to the Abyss,” Twilight explained. “Only certain weapons can kill them permanently, like Celestial Fury.”
She wondered if splitting the head of the corpse with her sword had ended the Changeling.
She finally had a tangible answer – a what, if not a why. It was demons, not ponies of flesh and blood, that had placed a bounty on her head. Why am I disappointed? she wondered. Did I want it to be ponies, so that I could spill real blood when I took my revenge? I didn’t get to them in time anyway.
“The Abyss?” Rarity asked. “I was under the impression most demons came from Tartarus.”
“Most do,” Twilight said. “Changelings happen to come from the Abyss, the other part of Hell, where their Queen’s realm lies.” She sighed. “It would take a powerful spellcaster to summon them. Maybe these Grey Wizards Cadance mentioned were behind them.”
She frowned at her own conclusion. She felt like she was climbing a ladder without end. Her enemies were always another tier beyond, always lurking just around the corner, but never where she could reach them. She stomped her forehoof down on her next step in frustration. “Why can’t anyone just fight out in the open!” she cried. “Why the proxies? Why the bounty hunters and demons?”
Applejack chuckled. “Based on our track record, they’d lose.”
Twilight snorted. “The Black Knight is a coward. He has to know where I am now.” At least I can still kill him, if I ever find him, she thought. “Well, not right now, but...”
“I know what you mean,” Rarity said. “We weren’t exactly subtle, with those fliers getting everywhere.”
Twilight spitefully cut a gash in the wall with Solstice’s edge. Every step down the passage – fifty-eight paces so far, she’d been counting – she hoped something would jump out at her, just so she could kill it. “Come on! I know you’re lurking down here!” she yelled. “Doesn’t anyone want to take a bite out of Twilight Sparkle?!”
Nothing came to meet her blade.
A hundred and twenty-six paces later, they had pushed down another false wall and emerged into a tramway tunnel. To the right, the tunnel descended and filled with murky water. To the left, she could see light and moving shadows around a bend: Smuggler’s Way.
Twilight flung Solstice at the wall. The blade buried up to its hilt in the stone. “They could have gone anywhere!” she cried in frustration.
She stepped forward to retrieve her sword and felt a hoof on her shoulder. “Relax, Twilight. Somepony must have seen something,” Rarity said.
Twilight ripped Solstice free, spraying debris off its edge. “There are any number of exits along Smuggler’s Way! Even if somepony did see them, how could they know where they left?”
Rarity grinned at her. “You’re underestimating the Thieves Guild. They know where you’ve been, when you’re down here.”
“You’re saying they follow ponies?” Twilight asked as she turned toward Smuggler’s Way.
“Ponies like you, anyway, or ponies that happen to be carrying a large egg-shaped green cocoon,” she said with a sly smile and trotted ahead down the passage. “We just need to find the watcher who saw them and pay the right price.”
Twilight trotted after Rarity. She rounded a bend, and Smuggler’s Way came into full view. Rarity pointed out a pony in a black cloak nestled into an alcove on the side of the tunnel. Twilight glimpsed a rough wooden door. “He’s definitely with the guild,” she said. She opened the Bag of Holding. “Come on, girls. You know the drill.”
The Thieves Guild watcher climbed up a gangplank leading onto a moored barge. A worn sign hung from a post beside the plank, displaying a painted sailing ship and the words ’Low Lantern Tavern’. Twilight carefully followed the watcher up the plank. It lacked railings, or even a rope to grab if she slipped. The sound of water lapping against the hull of the barge emanated from below.
She stepped off the gangplank and onto the deck of the barge. A few sombre individuals sat around outdoor tables on the deck of the boat, nursing their mugs in the afternoon air. Her friends followed single file after her as she moved clear of the gangplank.
The watcher lifted a hoof and pointed towards a table on the far side of the barge, his eyes shaded by his hood. “He’s the one you’ll want to talk to,” he said.
Twilight held up a foreleg to shield her eyes from the rays of the Sun reflecting off the water. Three ponies and a griffon played a quiet game of cards around the table. They peered carefully at their cards and eyed the pile of bits in the center. “Which one?” she asked the watcher.
“The one with the hat,” the watcher said before turning and heading back down the plank.
“Hold on a second!” Twilight called after him, but he ignored her and slipped down an alley between two waterfront warehouses. She frowned and turned to Rarity. “Do Thieves Guild ponies usually run off before anyone gets the chance to make sure they got what they paid for?”
Rarity smiled. “Relax. They’ve got a reputation to keep.”
“These ponies need to smile,” Pinkie said, looking around the deck with disappointment.
Twilight sighed and looked at the table again. Next to the griffon, she noticed a tricorn hat with a plume of purple feathers sitting beside his stack of bits. She walked toward the griffon, stepping around obstacles.
Ahead, the griffon said, “All in,” and pushed his pile of bits into the pot. With a smirk, he picked up his hat and placed it on his brown-feathered head. He leaned back in her chair and closed his eyes, radiating confidence.
“I call,” one of the ponies, a unicorn, said, adding his bits to the pot.
Twilight stopped beside the table. She focused on the griffon. “I need to speak with you,” she said.
The griffon opened one grey eye and looked up at her. “One moment, Mademoiselle, I am winning,” he said as he turned his cards over with a talon.
The pony stared at the cards in shock. “You’re cheating!” she shouted. She pressed a leather bracer around her wrist against the table, and a blade shot out past her hoof as she began to rise out of her seat. A unicorn on the far side pulled a knife stuck into the table beside him free. The third slid out of his chair and started to back away. The two with weapons faced the griffon with menacing glares.
Twilight drew Solstice and speared it into the center of the table, scattering the pot of bits. A mix of gold, silver, and copper coins clattered to the deck of the barge. “I need the griffon. This game is over. Take your bits, and go,” she said, glaring at the two ponies with weapons.
“Who th’ hell’re you?” the pony with the switchblade asked as she turned towards Twilight and brandished her blade. In an instant, Rainbow’s wing was at her throat.
“That’s a nice weapon,” Rainbow said. “Mine are better.”
The unicorn picked a few golden bits up off the floor and backed away.
The pony dropped her hoof and pushed her switchblade into the deck of the ship, driving it back into its sheath. “Alright, alright, I’m leavin’.” She swiped a collection of coins off the table and turned away. She spat onto the deck as she left.
Twilight took a seat at the table while the griffon collected the rest of the bits. “Well, now that you ‘ave finished giving away my money to these uncultured swine, ‘ow may I ‘elp you?” the griffon said.
Rainbow slammed her hoof down on the table. “Hey, we saved you, featherface!”
“Per’aps you did.” One of the griffon’s talons descended to a cutlass at his side. “Per’aps not. I do know that I won the game.”
“Did ya cheat?” Applejack asked.
The griffon held up a pair of claws with the tips almost touching. “Per’aps a little.”
“We’re looking for four ponies who were carting around an egg shaped object bigger than they were,” Twilight said. “I have it on good authority that you’ve seen them.”
“Bigger than one of them, or all four?” the griffon asked.
Twilight glared at him.
“I jest, I jest,” he said, holding up his talons in a placating gesture. “But, if I did know something, it would be information about a client, and bad form to share.”
“Client? For what?” Twilight asked.
The griffon’s eyes lit. He swept off his feathered hat and dipped his head. “Captain Florent, at your service.” He placed his hat back on his head and pointed across the water at a boat moored to a wooden pier a ways down the waterfront. “That is my ship, Solitaire.”
Twilight eyed the vessel. The name painted along the side of its prow in flowy black script allowed her to pick it out from among the other boats moored to the pier. It was a small, single masted, ship. If it weren’t for the fine finish and catamaran hull, it could be mistaken for a poor sailor’s fishing boat, crewed by perhaps six to eight ponies. “So, they paid you to take it somewhere – an island, maybe?”
“An island?” Florent scoffed. He wrapped a limb around Twilight’s shoulders, pulling her close. “Mademoiselle, you are looking at the Coast Runner.”
Twilight pushed him off and shifted her chair away. “What’re you talking about? You can’t sail in the water near the Sword Coast,” she objected. “It’s too dangerous, unless you’re in an armored Carrak, and even then...”
Florent gave her a knowing smile. “If you were talking about any other ship, you’d be right. But, in la Solitaire, it is completely safe.”
“Oh, and what’s your little boat gonna do if a Sea Serpent decides it wants to have some fun?” Applejack asked, stepping between Twilight and Florent.
He chuckled. “A Sea Serpent could not catch ‘er.”
“Doesn’t having more sails make the boat faster?” Rainbow said. “You’ve got one mast.”
“She’s a ship, not a boat, and like any lady, she ‘as ‘er secrets,” Florent said.
“Speaking of secrets,” Rarity said, taking a seat beside Twilight. “Let’s talk business. I’m sure you could be persuaded to tell us where you took them.”
Florent eyed Rarity. “What kind of persuasion are we referring to?”
Rarity produced a diamond. “The monetary kind. Is this enough?”
“Oui, that would do nicely,” Florent said.
Rarity passed the diamond across the table, and Florent snatched it out of the air with his talons. “About a week ago, a pair of weird ponies come up to me and pay me an advance to transport four passengers and a small amount of cargo about a third of the way to Canterlot,” Florent said. “I say there is nothing on the coast there, but they pay, so I agree.”
“A third of the way to Canterlot,” Twilight muttered, picturing a map of the Coast in her mind. “That’s about where—”
Florent held up a claw. “Mademoiselle, I am telling a story. If you want to ‘ear it, do not interrupt.” He paused. When Twilight nodded an affirmative, he continued. “Later that day, four ponies come with a cart loaded with an egg-shaped object beneath a sheet. We get it loaded and set sail. I take them to their destination and drop them off on the beach at the base of the cliffs beneath a place called Candlekeep. They had no wings, so I warned them that the cliffs there are too steep to climb, and the tide covers that beach completely, but they would not listen. The ponies you are looking for are dead: drowned, frozen, or eaten.”
Pinkie waved a hoof in the air. “Pssh, you can get up and down there easy.”
Twilight furrowed her brows and stared at the table. “Why would they go to...” Wait, she thought. If they think I’d go back there... She turned and grabbed Florent’s shoulder with a hoof. “We need to get to Candlekeep. Now!” she cried.
Florent smiled at her. “Forward, I like that. It turns out I ‘ave the perfect ship to get you there!” He pulled off his hat and puffed out his chest. “Solitaire is at your service, Mademoiselle, for the right price.”
Florent stopped on the dock in front of Solitaire's gangplank. “‘Old on a moment,” he said. “Protocol must be followed.”
Twilight stepped up beside him and gave him a questioning look. “Isn’t it your ship, your rules?”
“This is a little embarrassing,” he murmured. He dipped his head, hiding his face behind the brim of his hat, and called, “Permission to come aboard!”
“Granted!” a mare answered from somewhere on the ship. A moment later, a unicorn with a bleach-blonde mane and a brown coat appeared on the deck beside the gangplank. She leaned on ship’s railing and looked over the group. “What’ve you got this time?” she asked.
“Ladies first,” Forent said, gesturing toward the gangplank. As Twilight stepped past, he held up a claw to hide his beak and said in a hushed tone, “This is Quick Fix; she likes to think she’s in charge.”
“That’s because I am in charge, Florent,” Quick Fix said as she stepped in front of the plank. “Hold on. Do they have any cargo? We’re almost full. Six passengers is about all we can take.”
“No cargo,” Twilight said. “Just us.”
“Then welcome aboard,” Quick Fix said, stepping aside. “I suppose you want to take a look at the boat; trust me, you got your money’s worth.”
“She’s a ship!” Florent protested.
As Twilight climbed up the gangplank, Quick Fix rolled her eyes. Twilight stepped onto the deck and took a look around. The deck was wide for a ship of its length due to the dual-hulled design. A cabin rose from the stern, with the steering wheel positioned on the quarterdeck above it. The rigging for the single mast was relatively simple, leaving plenty of open space on the deck. A few crates were stacked against the guardrail near the prow and covered with a canvas tarp. Surprisingly, there were no other crewmembers. They must be ashore, she thought. That’s going to be a problem.
“So, are you with us all the way to Canterlot?” Quick Fix asked them as the rest of the group came aboard.
“Nope, we’re going to Candlekeep,” Pinkie said.
“Candlekeep... you’ve gotta be kidding.” Quick Fix turned to Florent. “Please tell me we’re not leaving another group to drown on a beach beneath the cliffs.”
Florent shrugged. “They say there’s a way up. Besides, two of them are pegasi. I’m sure they can figure it out.”
Twilight had no idea what Pinkie was talking about as far as a path up the cliffs, but she silently agreed with Florent. She was certain they could figure out a way to get all six of them up to Candlekeep. The Changelings probably flew, she thought. And Pinkie was probably talking about her spider-climbing shoes. I can teleport. Only Applejack and Rarity will be a problem.
“You’re sailing all the way to Canterlot? Along the coast?” Rarity asked.
Quick Fix nodded. “Our usual route is back and forth between Manehattan and Canterlot... we move specialty goods,” she said.
“So, smuggled goods,” Applejack said.
Rainbow affectionately bopped Applejack in the shoulder with a hoof. “Aww, give it a rest, AJ.”
“I don’t mind,” Quick Fix said with a grin. “We’re the best smugglers out there, but the main thing we offer is speed, and speed doesn’t come cheap.”
“I noticed,” Twilight grumbled. “I’ve been told that you can outrun Sea Serpents. To tell you the truth, with only a single mast, I’m skeptical,” she said.
Quick Fix smiled wryly. She stepped over to a hatch in the deck beside the mast and above one of the hulls. “Come here,” she said, beckoning. Quick Fix opened the hatch and descended down a short ladder as Twilight trotted over.
Twilight looked down through the hatch. Light from Quick Fix’s horn illuminated the dim space down inside the hull. Along either side, crates were stacked, leaving a narrow pathway between them. At the bottom, a curved piece of metal rose up in the middle of the hull. “Come on down,” Quick Fix said as she stepped off the ladder.
Twilight hesitated a moment before climbing down the ladder. Inside the hull, the sound of waves lapping against the hull echoed in her ears. When she stepped off the ladder, Quick Fix said, “Down here is cargo,” she said, picking up a wrench from atop a nearby crate, “And engineering.”
Twilight noticed that Quick Fix’s mark was a wrench, roughly the same shape and size as the one unicorn wielded in her levitation. “Engineering?” she asked.
Quick Fix used the wrench to open a panel in the curved steel. Twilight positioned beside Quick Fix in the tight space to see inside. Beyond the panel, she saw the interior of a cylinder filled with water and lined with sapphires. It hummed with faint arcane energy.
“You may not believe it, but this is a jet propulsion engine from ages ago, and we’ve got two, one on each side. We only use the sails to get in and out of port; we keep it to the simple-rigged lone mast so that Florent and I can operate it with just the two of us and split the profits fifty-fifty,” Quick Fix said.
“I believe you,” Twilight said. “This is like the one in the Manehattan Museum.”
“I tried to tell them what it did, but they wouldn’t listen. They called me crazy,” she said. “Bunch of stuffy, ivory tower scholars with no real experience,” she muttered, shaking her head. “So, I keep it secret. If ponies knew how valuable this boat was, they’d try and take it. We pay the Thieves Guild protection though, so anyone that messes with us gets a little visit in the night.” She eyed Twilight. “You’re not going to mess with us, are you?”
Twilight shook her head. “I’m not going to cause you any problems. I may not be afraid of the Thieves Guild, but all I want is to get to Candlekeep as soon as possible.”
Quick Fix closed the panel and fastened it shut. “Let’s head back up, then. Don’t worry, we’ll get you where you’re going.”
Twilight climbed back up onto the deck with Quick Fix behind her. When she rejoined her friends, Applejack asked, “We good?”
Twilight nodded. “We’re good. They’ll get us there.” She turned to Quick Fix. “When can we leave?”
“We cast off tomorrow morning at dawn o’clock,” Quick Fix said. “Ride the tide out.”
That’s not soon enough, Twilight thought. “No, we’re leaving now,” Twilight said.
Quick Fix laughed. “No, we’re not. Come back tomorrow.”
Twilight stepped toward Quick Fix, hardening her expression. “Do you want us to pay more? I’m willing to do that.” She laced her magic around her swords. “I said I wasn’t going to cause you any problems, but if we don’t leave now, we’re going to have a problem. I’m getting to Candlekeep, and I’m getting there as soon as possible.”
Quick Fix took a step back, fearfully glancing at Twilight’s swords.
Florent interposed himself into the gap with his drawn cutlass in one talon. “You do not threaten my crew, Mademoiselle,” he said.
Twilight eyed him. A picture of a single stroke, through his sword, through his neck, and through his spine formed in her mind. He’d be dead before he knew what was happening. No, I need him to sail the boat, she thought.
“Woah, Twilight,” Rainbow said, moving to stand beside Florent. “I’m all for getting there fast, but isn’t this a bit much?”
Twilight snapped her focus to Rainbow Dash, glaring. “Rainbow, right now, as we’re sitting here talking, there are Changelings in Candlekeep. There are Demons in my home, stealing the souls and leeching off the emotions of the ponies I grew up with. There’s only one reason I can think of that they would have gone there: to get to me. I already lost Star Swirl; I’m not going to lose anypony else. We’re leaving – now – no matter what it takes.”
“It could be a trap,” Rarity said.
“That’s the first thing that occured to me,” Twilight said. “But, they’d think I’d head back to Candlekeep after the Black Knight’s trail went cold. We figured out where they went, and they did everything in their power to cover their tracks. If we get there now, they won’t be ready for us.” She kept her guard up, watching Florent warily for any movement.
Quick Fix chuckled. “I knew you weren’t a bad sort. Why didn’t you just say so? We’ll cast off immediately. We’ll have to skimp on a bit of maintenance, starboard’s been on the fritz, but I should be able to keep her running. I do think you owe me an apology, though.”
Twilight lowered her guard and fell back onto her haunches. She took a deep breath. I’ll get there when I get there, she told herself. “I’m sorry...” she said. “Every time, they’re a step ahead of us! I didn’t want to waste any time. I didn’t think things through.”
Florent sheathed his cutlass and dipped his head respectfully.
“Yeah, what were you thinking?” Quick Fix said with a laugh. “I was about to point out that I’m the only one who can turn the jets on. You’re not going anywhere in a hurry without me.”
Twilight expected to be seasick on her first voyage, but Solitaire's dual hulls cut through the waves like knives. She leaned against the bow railing, the wind whipping at her mane as they skimmed across the ocean. With air in her face, any queasiness she felt dissipated. According to Quick Fix, they were traveling at twenty-five knots, over twice the speed of the fastest recorded sailing ship, and they were doing it all without needing to rely on the temperament of the winds.
The light of the setting Sun glimmered on the peaks of the waves around her as they flashed past. Noticing an orange tint, she looked to the west and held up a hoof to keep her mane from blowing into her eyes. The Sun dipped behind the cliffs of the Sword Coast in the distance. Florent had said they’d reach Candlekeep at around midnight. In mere hours, they were covering a distance that would take days to travel on foot.
Twilight looked forward again and closed her eyes, relishing the speed.
“Feels like you’re flying, doesn’t it?” Rainbow said from behind her.
Twilight opened her eyes and pushed off the railing, turning to face Rainbow. “I wouldn’t know,” she said with a shrug. “Does it?”
“Sorta,” Rainbow said. “I mean, it’s not as good as the real thing.” She stretched her wings. “I’d still be flying now, but the air patterns are different over the ocean. I’m beat.”
Twilight smirked. “Hard to keep up with the boat?”
Rainbow hoofed at the deck. “Maybe a little.”
“Look!” Fluttershy cried from the starboard railing. “I didn’t know fishes could get that big!”
Twilight smiled as she walked over. At first, Fluttershy had been nervous on the deck of the ship, and had murmured fretfully about not knowing how to swim. She leaned against the starboard railing beside Fluttershy and peered out to sea. She saw a horizontal fluke slap the water a distance away.
“That’s not a fish,” she said. “That’s a whale. See the way the tailfin is horizontal instead of vertical?”
“Yep, whale,” Pinkie agreed as she leaned against the railing on Fluttershy’s other side. “You didn’t get out much, did you?”
“What’s a whale?” Fluttershy asked.
“A whale is a mammal that spends its entire life in the ocean,” Twilight explained.
“A mammal...” Fluttershy said. “So it’s like a squirrel, or a bunny, and it has milk and babies instead of eggs and all that? Does it breathe with gills?”
The dark-blue back of the whale broke the surface, and a plume of seawater shot from its blowhole as they passed. It was huge for an animal, only slightly smaller than their boat. I wonder if we’ll see any of the really big ones, Twilight thought. “Nope,” Twilight said, “Lungs. Their nostrils are on top of their heads.”
“Ooh, this is so wonderful!” Fluttershy said, watching the whale with fascination. “I never learned anything about sea creatures. I wish I could just go out there and talk to them.” She leaned against Twilight. “Thank you so much! How do you know all these things?”
Twilight smiled. “I grew up in a library.” She looked past Fluttershy at Pinkie. “And unlike some ponies, I didn’t get myself banned every other week, despite some ponies doing everything in their power to get me in trouble.”
“They just couldn’t handle the fun,” Pinkie said with a laugh. “And hey, I learned plenty.”
“I don’t know how to read,” Fluttershy mumbled.
“You don’t know how to read?!” Twilight shouted.
“Hey, I don’t know how to read either,” Rainbow said. “It’s no big deal. Signs usually have pictures.”
Twilight whirled on Rainbow. “How could you not know how to read?!”
Rainbow shrugged. “Lotsa ponies don’t know how to read. It’s not exactly something they teach in Flight School.”
“They don’t teach you how to read in Cloudsdale?” Twilight asked.
“Nope,” Rainbow said. “I mean, administrators and officers have to learn, but it’s not really an essential skill.”
“What?!” Twilight yelled. “Reading is absolutely an essential skill! Everypony should know how to read!”
“Not everypony gets to grow up in a library, Twilight,” Applejack said, approaching them from the quarterdeck. “I’m lucky my Granny insisted on teaching me. You really should learn if you get the chance, Rainbow. It’s worth it.”
“Absolutely,” Rarity agreed. “It’s certainly a handy skill.”
“Eh,” Rainbow said, stretching, “Books are probably too slow for me anyway.”
Twilight opened her mouth to respond, but the deck abruptly jolted beneath her feet, and she lost her balance. She tumbled over the canvas tarp covering the crates on the deck and nearly flew over the railing, but she managed to hook a foreleg around it before she went overboard. She saw a yellow blur in the corner of her eye and caught Fluttershy with her levitation.
“Three mares overboard!” Applejack shouted. Twilight could see her through the railing supports, firmly planted in the center of the deck.
Floating beside her, Fluttershy was frozen in terror, her wings pinned against her side. Angel clung tightly to her hair. Before dealing with her own predicament, Twilight set Fluttershy back on the deck.
“Starboard is out!” Quick Fix called.
The waves licked at her hind hooves. I don’t know how to swim! Twilight thought as she looked around, gauging her situation. All she’d learned was how to tread water in a small pond within the walls of Candlekeep. The strain in her foreleg was beginning to become unbearable. The boat was listing starboard, the right hull plowing into the waves. The port hull powered forward, driving the starboard one deeper beneath the surface. Her hind legs were fully submerged now, and soon, they wouldn’t be the only thing underwater.
As abruptly as it had begun, it ended. The starboard hull bobbed up out of the water, and she nearly lost her grip at the sudden upward momentum. She gritted her teeth and held on for dear life as she tried to focus enough to cast Dimension Door.
“Full Stop!” Quick Fix shouted. “We’re drifting.”
“Gotcha, Twi,” Applejack said as she appeared above. Pinkie stepped up on her other side, and together, they hoisted her back onto the deck. As they lifted her to her feet, she saw Rainbow deposit a soaking wet Rarity onto the middle of the deck.
“Living, moving fishes touched me!” Rarity cried, shivering. “It was horrifying! I demand a refund!”
“Sorry, engine malfunction,” Quick Fix said, poking her head up from the port hull. “I’m gonna turn the port back on at half power. You ready with the rudder, Florent?” She ducked back down below deck.
“Always,” Florent called from the quarterdeck.
“Alright, half power!” Quick Fix yelled.
Florent leaned on the steering wheel as Solitaire eased forward over the waves. The engine malfunction had faced them out to sea, and they cut a slow arc back toward the correct heading. The deck shuddered beneath Twilight’s hooves as the rudder struggled against the lopsided thrust.
Quick Fix clambered out of the port hull and crossed to the starboard. “Let’s see what the problem is,” she said as she climbed down.
“Thanks for catching me, Twilight,” Fluttershy said.
Twilight nodded. “It was nothing.” She looked around the deck, still rattled.
“It wasn’t nothing! I can’t believe my wings locked up! I faced a Dragon, Twilight, because he was a great big meanie and I had to, but I see a bunch of water and I can’t even open my wings to save myself... I’m sorry, you shouldn’t have had to catch me,” Fluttershy said.
Twilight met Fluttershy’s gaze. “Fluttershy, after all the times you’ve healed me, it was nothing.”
Fluttershy nodded and glanced down at the deck. Suddenly, she looked up, past Twilight and off to starboard, toward the back of the ship. “Is that another whale?”
Twilight turned and followed her gaze. She thought she saw a dark shape moving beneath the surface, casting a shadow many times larger than their boat. She squinted, trying to make it out. “I don’t think so...” she murmured. “Too big.”
A claw broke the surface, clutching the body of the whale they’d seen earlier. It lifted the massive creature free from the waves, water rushing off of it and splashing back into the sea. It rose ever higher, supported by a huge arm. A colossal head broke the surface nearby. A sinewy, serpentine body covered in purple scales arched out of the waves behind it.
“Sea Serpent!” Florent shouted. “We’ve got to get moving!”
The serpent’s head rose out of the water, supported by a thick pillar of flesh and muscle. It shook the water from its golden mane. On its chest, between its two arms, it wore the barnacle covered hull of a full sized sailing ship like a breastplate, lashed in place by countless rigging ropes. Sailcloth adorned its shoulders like the sleeves of a tunic. It lifted the whale to its mouth, and with a terrible crunch, bit off animal’s front half.
“I’m working on it,” Quick Fix yelled.
Twilight felt bile in the back of her throat as she watched blood and blubber drip from the Serpent’s lips. It chewed and swallowed, then looked down. Its huge eyes widened when it saw them. It dropped the back half of the whale, its meal forgotten. In a voice that rumbled like thunder, it said, “Pretty boat! You’re going to be my hat!”
“Sounds like a big one! How long do we have?” Quick Fix shouted.
The serpent started to move towards them, the sinews beneath its scales rippling. Along its length, Twilight made out ripples where its massive body undulated beneath the surface. Blood oozing from the tail end of the whale tinted the froth of the serpent’s wake red.
“Not long! At this speed, I’d say... thirty seconds to serpent food!” Florent replied.
“Uh oh,” Quick Fix yelled.
“What do you mean uh oh?!” Florent shouted.
“I don’t even know what the problem is yet!” Quick Fix cried.
“By Celestia’s thundering thighs, you’d better live up to your name in the next twenty-five seconds or we’re all dead!” Florent roared.
Twilight eyed the serpent. It was big, but serpent scales weren’t dragonscales. Sea Serpents possessed no innate resistance to magic. A spell thrummed within the depths of her mind. She’d learned it a long time ago, from a book she’d found in one of the dustiest corners of the archive: a book of death magic. It was more complex than even the Improved Haste spell, but somehow, it felt like it had always been there, just waiting for the moment when she truly needed it. This spell didn’t care how big its target was.
She had to form it from scratch, since she never had the opportunity to prepare it. She made her way up the stairs of the quarterdeck at a measured pace, her horn lighting as she worked the magic. The components of the spell fell into place with ease, though she had to let go of three of her prepared spells to cast it. She walked across the quarterdeck and stopped at the stern railing.
The Sea Serpent closed from behind, reaching out with slow, ponderous claw. Its sheer mass made it sluggish. It was nothing but a giant target. As she worked on the next part of the spell, she weighed her options. If she hit in the arm, the spell might not kill it, but the effect would be stronger if she hit it in the head. If the spell doesn’t doesn’t kill it, it might make it retreat, or it might just make it mad, she thought.
“Fifteen seconds!” Florent shouted.
“I’m not going to be able to fix it that fast,” Quick Fix replied.
“Then it was a pleasure serving with you,” Florent yelled.
“Just fly away!” Quick Fix pleaded.
“A captain always goes down with ‘is ship!” Florent shouted.
“Whatever you're going to do, do it fast, Twilight,” Applejack said from behind her, utterly calm.
She trusts me, Twilight realized. I can’t take any risks. I can’t let them down. She finished casting, and a layer of overglow exploded around her horn as she held the spell. She made her choice. “Serpent, I am giving you a warning. If you do not turn away, you will die!” she bellowed at the top of her lungs.
“Ooh, pretty little pony. I hope you’re as tasty as you are cute!” the serpent rumbled. Its claw drew ever closer.
Twilight launched her spell. A black ray lanced out from her horn and struck the serpent in the jaw. For a brief moment, it merely looked stunned. Then, its head exploded into a cloud of black ash. Decay rippled down the length of its body and along its arms. Mere hoofspans away from Twilight, its claw froze and crumbled away in the wind. The spell left no trace of its victim behind. The only thing that remained of serpent was water surging into the space its body vacated and a dark stain on the surface of the waves. Even the ship’s hull it wore wasn’t left behind.
Twilight felt a familiar rush. She hadn’t killed since she fought the group of bandits alone. Unfortunately, even though the serpent was enormous, it still only felt like one. This time, it was completely justified, she thought. She held no doubt, and that made it all the sweeter.
“Holy sweet Celestia’s rigid horn! What the Hell was that?!” Florent screamed, his accent mysteriously absent.
“Disintegrate,” Twilight said. She turned away from the stern of the boat. “How long will it take to get going again?” she asked.
She remembered when Star Swirl discovered her reading the book she’d found. He seemed worried, but he didn’t take it away from her. She had thought it was harmless. She never thought she’d even be able to cast the spells on those pages. As it turned out, it was easy.