The Freeport Venture

by Chengar Qordath

The Game is Ahoof

It’s possible I might have made a few miscalculations on this mission. In hindsight, I should’ve focused more on Metal Mome instead of letting the rest of the crew distract me. While I will mention that crossbow bolts and cutlasses are very effective distractions, that doesn’t change the fact that putting Mome down for the count would’ve saved me a lot of trouble. About five tons of it, if you want to be specific.

The sword-wielding golem stomped towards me, taking its time on the approach. The one good piece of news was that I was only up against the golems so far; Mome’s crew had already started slipping out of my improvised prison, but for now they seemed content to sit back and watch their captain in action. Maybe it was some sort of pirate pride thing and nopony wanted to interfere in our duel, or maybe they just weren’t all that eager to get between the large golems and the Alpha-level unicorn who’d handed them their plots a minute ago. Either way, I had more immediate problems on my mind.

Problems like that huge golem. The battle nearly came to a very abrupt end as the golem whipped its sword at me. I barely ducked beneath the blade before it took my head off, and I could actually feel the air current against my horn. Though if anything happened to my horn, I was pretty sure my head wouldn’t be far behind.

The golem quickly followed its first horizontal swing with an overhead chop, intent on splitting me down the middle while I was still ducking down on the deck to avoid the first attack. It might have worked, if the only option for moving around was my hooves. Instead, I teleported to the quarterdeck. That put me behind Mome and his pet golems, buying me a few precious seconds to make my next move.

My first instinct was to take a shot at Mome himself, but his guardian golem was doing its job well. From the front Mome had been covered by the golem’s tower shield, while from the back the golem’s own body protected him. I might have a chance at smashing through its defenses with brute force, but that would take a lot of energy to pull off. I wasn’t running on empty or anything, but I’d slung around a fair bit of magic already and I had my limits. Not to mention the other golem would be coming after me before long, so I couldn’t afford to spend several seconds trying to batter down the shielder’s defenses.

Not unless I changed the battlefield first. I pulled all the heat out of the deck between myself and the sword-wielder, and on a ship at sea there was more than enough ambient moisture for that to ice everything over. I hoped that would slow the golem down, maybe even knock it over. If I was lucky, it might slip and fall into the ocean. A several-ton golem might be very effective at smashing ponies to pieces, but I don’t think it could swim very well. Mome’s golems wouldn’t be a threat if they were stuck on the bottom of the ocean.

Unfortunately, all my planning wound up being for nothing. The golem did slow down a bit as it stepped more carefully, but its weight wound up being an asset. The ice I’d layered over the deck was thin, so the golem’s sheer mass broke it up every time one of its massive feet came down. So much for that idea. If I wanted to send the golem sliding around on the deck, I’d need to layer the ice down thick enough that it could actually support the automaton’s weight.

I let out an annoyed growl and shifted to my next strategy: if I couldn’t remove the golem completely, then I could at least cut down on the threat it represented. If I had to guess, Mome’s bipedal design had two obvious advantages over quadrupedal: it cut down on weight and it gave the golem a pair of minotaur-like hands it could exploit to increase its reach. If I could take away the reach advantage, that would at least buy me some more room to maneuver. And there would be a lot more in the way of opportunities to mess with it that way.

I still had plenty of heat energy stored up from icing over the deck, so that was the natural tool of choice for my next strike. I concentrated all the heat into a single beam and fired it at the base of the golem’s sword. The blade was glowing red-hot after the attack, but it didn’t actually melt or look damaged enough to be unusable. Naturally, the golem wasn’t bothered by the temperature at all—it wasn’t like its hands would get burned, and only an idiot or a sadist would program a golem to feel pain.

I would need to do something more than just heat the sword up. I could just pour on more power if I had the magic to spare, but I wanted to do things a bit more efficiently. Besides, if I reduced that sword to molten slag, it would probably start a fire. On a wooden ship. Which would be bad.

Instead, I tried something so bold it was just a little bit crazy. Okay, a lot crazy. I charged straight at the golem. It responded exactly the way I’d hoped it would, bringing its sword up for a huge overhand chop that would split me in two. At the last possible second I dropped down onto the deck, letting my momentum and the slick ice continue carrying me forward, right between the golem’s legs. A second later, the automaton’s sword crashed into the deck with every bit of force its magically empowered strength could manage.

The golem pulled its sword out of the hole it had put in the deck a few seconds later. The blade was now rather noticeably warped, bending almost forty-five degrees at its base. The golem paused for moment, then took a quick experimental swing with the altered blade. Obviously it didn’t care for the result, because the next thing it did was try to hammer the blade back into shape. It was partially successful, but ended up doing almost as much damage as it fixed in the process. After a second more, it gave up the effort and tossed the ruined weapon aside.

Mome let out an annoyed growl from behind his guardian golem’s shield. “I’ll fix it later. But don’t think you’ve won, lass. It doesn't need the sword to ruin your day.” To demonstrate as much, he had the unarmed golem pick up one of the many broken deck planks its attack had created. Its fist tightened, and the wood shattered. I couldn’t quite shake the mental image of what it would be like if my skull were taking the place of the wooden plank.

Not that I was going to let such an obvious intimidation ploy shake me up. “Nice show, but it can’t kill what it can’t catch. And it’s going to have a harder time catching what it can’t reach.” I slipped off the quarterdeck and hopped down to the main deck, the golem hot on my hooves. Next up came a tricky bit of precision timing, as I threw an illusion of myself onto the main deck’s hatch a split second before teleporting up to the crow’s nest. With any luck, the golem would fall for it, especially since Mome was keeping his protector golem’s shield between myself and him at all times. It might keep me from flash-frying him, but it also made it harder for him to keep a close eye on what I was up to.

Instead, I was only up against the golem’s baseline intelligence. I’m not saying golems are necessarily stupid, but they tend to take a very direct view of the world. Its orders were to smash me, so it charged my illusion and did its level best to smash it, despite the fact that the illusion was standing on top of the main deck’s hatch.

Just for added punch, I got to work on another ice spell. It worked on the same principle as the hailstorm spell I’d used on the crew, except that instead of dozens of smaller chunks of ice, I made just one huge one. The golem closed with my illusion and brought its fists down in a double-handed smash that would’ve splattered me across half the ship if I’d actually been there. Instead, the fists just passed right through my illusion, which dispersed upon impact. That left the golem standing right on top of the hatch, exactly where I’d wanted it.

By now, the block of ice I’d conjured was nearly as big as the golem itself. It obviously wouldn’t have anywhere near the same density as the metal golem, but a thirty-meter drop gave it plenty of time to build up momentum. I dropped the ice boulder, and it struck the golem with an audible crunch of protesting metal. As I’d hoped it would, the hatch gave way under the force of the impact, sending the golem crashing down into the bottom of the hold. The entire ship lurched from the impact, making me, Mome, and the crew watching our battle struggle to keep our footing. The shrieking sound of metal grinding on metal drifted up from the hatch as the golem struggled to recover from the blow.

Mome winced as his golem went down, and flinched a couple more times at the continuing sounds of destruction drifting up from the hold. That golem was probably doing all kinds of damage down below. It might even put a hole in the bottom of the ship, which I realized might not be so good for me now that I had a second to think about it. On the one hoof, it would send the golem down into the depths, which was good. On the other, ships aren’t so good at floating when there’s a giant golem-shaped hole in the bottom. If I wanted to capture his ship relatively intact, I might need to tone things down a bit. Besides, that ice spell had taken a lot to pull off.

Regardless, I couldn’t really afford to waste too much time worrying about that. Mome still had one golem left, after all. I needed to take it or him out, and preferably without completely draining myself in the process. I went for something a bit more basic and tossed a simple thunderflash spell down at Mome. To my relief, the luminancy worked for once, hitting the pirate with a bright flash of blinding light combined with a disorienting thunderclap.

The spell sent the golemancer staggering, and I followed it up with a small but intense fireball. Hopefully it wouldn’t burn him too badly, but I wanted him down for the count. Unfortunately, the thunderflash spell didn’t have any effect on the golem guarding him, and it quickly intercepted my attack, catching the fireball on its shield. The blast left the metal glowing and scorched the wood beneath the golem, but the pirate was unharmed.

Just to make things even better, the now-swordless golem climbed back up out of the hatch. I was gratified to see that I’d at least done some damage to it—the top had caved in where my block of ice had hit it, and one of its legs was twisted and limp. The golem was still moving, but at a snail’s pace compared to what it had been doing before, and one of its hands was also missing several fingers. That would cut down on its options, though I’m pretty sure it could just club me to death with its forearm if it came down to that.

I growled in frustration at this turn of events. I’d hit that golem with the best shot I could manage, and all I’d done was slow it down. Things were not going well for me. Golems were good at taking a beating, and the last thing I needed to do was run myself dry fighting them. Even if I managed to take down Mome and his little helpers, I still had the rest of the pirates to deal with. At the very least, I needed to keep enough power held back to make them think I was still too dangerous to mess with.

Thinking of that did at least inspire a shift in tactics. I repeated a trick from earlier in the fight and cut the ropes holding up the mainsail. Once more, I threw in some telekinesis to direct it, this time directing it at Mome and his protector golem.

The pirate figured out my plan—no great accomplishment when I’d already used the trick earlier in the fight. For the first time since I arrived on his ship, Mome tried a direct magical spell, using his own telekinesis to try and counter me.

As soon as he did that, I noticed two very interesting things. First off, both of his golems slowed down and seemed less coordinated the instant he began spellcasting. That confirmed Puzzle’s theory that he had some kind of active magical link to his golems. If I knew more about how that link worked, I might be able to cut it off or even steal control of the golems completely. Unfortunately, I rather doubted he would give me a couple hours to study how the spell worked and test out some formulae for a counterspell.

The other bit of news I got from him was more immediately relevant: now that his magic was going up directly against mine, I had a sense of how strong of a spellcaster he was, and I wasn’t impressed. He was a plain, middle-of-the-road Delta. His golems were plenty dangerous, but I could take him apart without even trying if he wanted to get into a pure contest of raw magical power with me.

I grinned and grabbed onto the sail as well, putting my spell up directly against his. There was no style or sophistication to it, just a pure magical hoof wrestle. He would wear himself out way faster than I would, especially since he probably needed to keep his golems running on top of going up against me. It would explain why he only brought them out when a fight was imminent. Not only would those golems eat up magic, directing them would also distract him from handling his own affairs. I’m pretty good at multitasking, and I would have a hard time handling what was effectively three different bodies at once. The same seemed to hold true for Mome; with him focused on spellcasting, his golems were moving a lot less quickly, and without the precision I’d seen before. I was pretty sure I was safe up in the crow’s nest, where they would have a long, difficult climb to reach me.

Sadly, Mome wasn’t stupid enough to completely burn himself out trying to take me on magically. Once it was clear he was outmatched, he gave up on the contest, ducking behind his guardian golem and counting on it to protect him from whatever my follow-up would be. Too bad for the pirate that sticking close to his golem was exactly what I wanted him to do. Just to make sure he wouldn’t be going anywhere, I took the opportunity to grab some of the ropes I’d severed and use my magic to quickly wrap them up together. Then the rest of the sail dropped down on them, covering them completely.

Mome snarled from underneath the sail. “You're starting to annoy me, lass.” The guardian golem quickly worked its halberd back and forth, cutting a hole in the sail around itself and its master. “But did you really think a bit of sail and rope would make any difference?”

“Nope,” I called down, grinning at him from safely atop the crow’s nest. “It would take a lot more than that to knock you out of the fight.” I got to work on a new spell. Lightning was never an element I’d worked with very much, since it came a bit less naturally to me than fire or ice. I could produce electricity by mixing enough hot and cold air, but I needed a bit to charge the spell up. Especially when I wanted to take the spell a bit slower than usual to save on energy. Thus, a bit of banter to distract him while I got the spell ready. “By the way, I’m curious. How much were you bullied in school for being a pink stallion?”

Mome smirked. “Once. After I finished with the first guy who got that bright idea, nobody else was stupid enough to try it again.” He tried to have his guardian golem work on the ropes holding him, but the angle was awkward and golems generally aren’t good at tasks that require precision. After a couple failed tries, the damaged golem finally made its way to its master’s side and tried to help. It had no more luck, especially with one of its hands broken. The protector golem passed its halberd over, and the other automaton limped away and lined the blade up with the ropes, trying to cut them.

I grinned as I felt the lightning spell reach completion, and unleashed it on the guardian golem. Mome was still tied to the huge metal automaton, so all that electricity would get conducted straight through him when the bolt hit. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t enjoy that.

Unfortunately, Mome spotted the attack just before it hit. His damaged golem abandoned all subtlety and care, making a quick wild swing at the ropes binding him to his protector. The strike put a dent in the other golem’s side and a gash along Mome’s flank, but he dropped free just before my lightning bolt hit. That still left the pirate’s mane standing on end and wisps of smoke drifting up from him, but it would’ve been a lot worse if he’d been half a second slower.

I tried to follow that spell up with another one, but the lightning blast had taken a lot out of me. Not so much that I couldn’t cast, but I needed a second to catch my breath and refocus. If I’d tried following the spell up right away, I probably would’ve done something wild and unfocused, which might’ve killed Mome. I was willing to go that far if it was him or me, but I still preferred to take him alive. I just wasn’t desperate enough to push things to that level, to deliberately kill another pony. Instead, I tried for surrender. “So are you ready to give up, Mome!? Because I can do this aaall day!”

“Oh is that so?” Mome shot me a confident grin. “For your sake, lass, I hope that’s true. The lovely thing about golems is that they don't get tired. Not like ponies do. Tell you what, though. You walk away right now, head back to your ship, and I’ll let the matter drop. Right now it’d be a bit of a bother to run that ship down, especially with two of my sails damaged. You go your way, I go mine, and with any luck we never cross each other’s path again.”

So he wanted to cut a deal with me? Good. He might still be acting tough and confident, but he wouldn’t be offering a deal unless he was scared of losing to me. I risked looking away from the pirate captain for a moment to check on his crew. Most of them had gotten out from under the sail, but they didn’t seem to be in any rush to join the fight. Sure, I’d forced them to disarm, but proper pirates would have hidden backups, and a ship’s full of things that can be used as improvised weapons.

What I couldn’t figure out was why were they hanging back. Because I was dueling Mome? Pirates generally aren’t known for respecting honor, but maybe it wasn’t about honor. It was about dominance. Conventional wisdom says that pirates follow the biggest, strongest, and meanest pirate on the ship. If Mome couldn’t take me by himself, he risked losing his crew’s respect. A captain who didn’t have his crew’s respect wouldn’t be a captain for long.

Mome tossed his head back, and his genial tone shifted to something dark and ugly. “You keep fighting, on the other hoof, and after I take care of you I’ll kill everypony on that ship. I’m normally not one for revenge—there’s no profit in it—but in this case I think I might need to send a message. No way I just had the bad luck of running into a mage of your talents; you’re hunting me. I don’t like being hunted. Might be the Council needs to learn a lesson about what happens when they send an assassin after me.”

Now that I knew what was going on, it was easy to figure out he was posturing for his crew. He didn’t really want a deal with me, he was trying to show them that I was only alive because he was giving me a chance to walk away. It wouldn’t do for all those pirates to start thinking that he was having a hard time beating a girl. Maybe I could find a way to use that to my advantage.

His two golems switched positions, the damaged one strapping the shield to its arm and hovering protectively over Mome. That left me facing a fully functional golem once more, though at least this time it was unarmed. And still down on the deck, while I was up in the crow’s nest. I would love to see that golem try to climb up and get me.

Mome seemed to be thinking much the same, as he frowned up at me. A couple seconds later, the golem hopped down into the hold. I briefly wondered if Mome had done something crazy like build a golem-sized crossbow. Thankfully, when the golem came back up, it was just carrying a heavy metal keg. Probably filled with grog or something.

The golem stomped over the quarterdeck, lifted the keg over its head, lined it up with the crow’s nest, and gave it a few practice swings. I frowned down at it incredulously. The mast was over thirty meters high, no way the golem could actually expect to make that throw—

It chucked the keg, and I very quickly realized that I was wrong. I teleported away just before the heavy metal container slammed into the crow’s nest, smashing the wood to bits and sending the resulting kindling tumbling down the deck. With nowhere else to go, I dropped back down to the quarterdeck, which left me uncomfortably close to the golem itself.

The automaton was ready for me, reaching over to the side of the ship and grabbing a gaff hook. Those were normally fishing tools, but I’m pretty sure all the golem cared about was that it was long and had a sharp metal bit at the end. That would certainly be enough for it to make my day unpleasant.

It took a swing at me with the hook, and I threw up a quick ice barrier to catch the weapon. I couldn’t get it thick enough in time, though, and the attack smashed right through my shield. I quickly jumped to the side, and between that and my shield slowing the strike down, I only got a cut along my barrel instead of being smashed to bits or impaled like a fish on a hook. The injury still left behind a fiery line of pain along my side. I gritted my teeth and quickly used the heat I’d leached away for my ice spell to cauterize the wound. 

I’d used that trick before, but only for little stuff like papercuts. When I did that it was usually just a quick hot sting no worse than the papercut itself. Turns out, when you try that on a bigger wound, it hurts a lot more. I probably would’ve cried, but I didn’t want to give Mome the satisfaction of seeing my tears. It helped to know that as bad as it hurt, pain was better than bleeding all over the place.

My eyes were so hazed up from the unshed tears that I almost missed the golem winding up for another swing at me. There wasn’t enough time to dodge, so I quickly teleported to the forecastle. Just that little hop made me stumble, though I’m not sure if it was due to the effort of the spell or my injury. Either way, it was a bad sign.

Worse, Mome had spotted my stumble. His grin widened, and I was distinctly reminded of an old saying about how sharks reacted when they smelled blood in the water. “That hit looked like it hurt, lass. And how many of those teleports do you have left in you? I’m normally not one to criticize a lady’s appearance, but if you don’t mind me saying so, you're looking a bit peaked.”

I took a deep breath and pulled myself back together. I had maybe one big spell left in me; I would have to make it count. No way I could give away how tired I was, though. “Not as bad as you're going to look in a minute.”

Mome smirked, then nodded to his golem. It charged straight for me, cocking the gaff hook back for a swing. I briefly hoped that it might slow down while moving up from the deck to the forecastle, but it just jumped right up onto the forecastle without even breaking stride.

Fine. I wanted it going fast anyway. I turned my mind down to the ocean below and grabbed as much seawater as I could manage. I’m not very good with water—consequence of being a natural pyromancer—but that didn’t mean I couldn’t work with it. All that water gave me more than enough material to freeze into an ice ramp thick enough to support a golem’s weight, which I set right in the golem’s path.

It tried to stop, but several tons of metal moving at a full charge creates a lot of momentum, and I’d also iced over the path leading to the ramp itself, The plan worked just as well as I’d hoped it would, and the golem went vaulting over the side. The splash it produced when it hit the water was enough to soak me and just about everypony else on the ship. Getting salt water on a fresh wound was not fun, but not even that could spoil the moment for me.

There were black dots swimming across my vision from all the effort that spell had taken, but it was worth it. I turned to Metal Mome, grinning triumphantly. “You’re down one golem and the other one’s half-wrecked. What was that you were saying earlier about surrender?”

He quickly glanced over the side of the ship, and then smiled at me. “Lass, do you really think it’d never occurred to me that one of my golems might fall in the drink?”

I glanced over the side as well. Somehow, in defiance of all the laws of physics, the golem was staying afloat. Mome had put some kind of magic on his golems to keep them from sinking if they fell overboard. Dammit, Puzzle had warned me about that, but in the heat of the moment I’d completely forgotten. And now I’d wasted the one spell I had left.

The ship shuddered as the golem climbed back up on the deck, soaking wet but none the worse for wear. I hoped all that salt water would at least make it rust, but that wasn’t likely to happen any time in the next five seconds or so.

Much as I hated to admit it, I was tapped out. I felt like I’d just run a marathon and needed two days in bed and good meal before I could do anything more. I hadn’t been beaten—no way I could ever lose to some pirate—but clearly a tactical withdrawal was called for. Next time I would be ready for him. I could change my strategies and recover a lot faster than he could fix his golems, let alone upgrade them. Hit-and-run tactics were perfectly valid. Prudent, even, when they gave me such a big advantage.

I still had plenty of heat stored up from my last ice spell, though I couldn’t hold onto it for much longer. Better to use it than let it go to waste. I didn’t want to spare the time and focus to do much with it, so I ended up just throwing an unfocused wave of fire at Mome and his crew. Mome’s guardian golem protected him, and the ship didn’t catch fire like I’d hoped it would.

Mome smirked at me as his golem began closing in once more. “Alchemically treated wood, lass. My sire’s recipe. Surely you didn’t think I’d do nothing when everyone knows how dangerous a shipboard fire can be?”

So he’d treated his wood with some kind of anti-fire potion? Dammit. I almost certainly could’ve thrown in enough energy to start a fire anyway; it just needed to be hotter. Pity I was already dangerously close to burned out. As it was, if I tried for a parting shot, I might not have enough energy left for another spell after that.

So I took the only option I had left: I teleported away. I’d planned to make it all the way back to the Venture. It was a ways off, but still within line of sight. Difficult, but normally something I could’ve managed.


The problem was, I normally wasn’t near the limits of my endurance. Instead of popping up back on the Venture like I’d planned, I wound up in the water about fifty meters behind it. I had just enough time to yelp before I dropped and hit the water. Just to make things even worse, I belly-flopped instead of managing a proper dive. Not pleasant at all, especially when I also had a wound on my barrel.

As much as it hurt, I couldn’t stop to actually deal with that pain. Survival instinct kicked in, and I forced myself to swim back to the surface. I might be worn down mentally and magically, but my muscles were still in fine working order. I breached the surface and gasped in a lungful of air, and paddled as fast as I could for the ship.

I’d made it about halfway back when I looked back over my shoulder at the Granite Heart. What I saw nearly broke my rhythm. Ten of Mome’s pirates were either pegasi or gryphons, and they’d all taken to the air and were heading straight for me. I guess he didn’t want me getting away from him. I paddled as fast as I could, but I’m not an especially great swimmer. I’d spent most of my life in a mountaintop city a thousand miles away from the ocean. What swimming experience I had came from pools and waterparks, not the middle of the open ocean. I couldn’t outrun a bunch of fliers.

I was still twenty meters away from the Venture when they closed the gap, and I braced for their attack. To my surprise, it never came. They all passed right over me. It took me a second to realize I wasn’t their real target. I just happened to be between them and the Venture. The Heart was half a kilometer away. It would’ve been impossible for Mome or anyone else to spot me among the bobbing surf. They’d probably just assumed I’d made it back to the Venture instead of hitting the water most of the way back.

The pirates stayed high as they came in, and I realized what they were planning once they hit the Venture. Just like when I’d taken down their ship’s sails, they aimed to take out the Venture’s. Fortunately, Weyland and her crew had spotted their approach and were ready. I couldn’t see much of the fight from down in the ocean, but at least I could tell there was one. I groaned as I saw several of the Venture’s sails either fall completely or get knocked askew, but when the pirates withdrew, only five of them went running for it. One of them, a hippogryph, was flying low and weak, blood trailing from his wing. The limb gave out completely a second later, and he plummeted into the water. Because this just wasn’t my day, he landed almost right on top of me.

The hippogryph surfaced, spotted me, and his eyes narrowed in fury. “You!” He swam over and slammed his talons down on my shoulders, forcing my head beneath the surface. I struggled to free myself, but he was stronger and had leverage over me. Desperation took hold, and I fought as hard as I could to free myself, but it was futile.

Just when I’d almost given up, I spotted the trail of blood his wounded wing was leaving behind in the water. I slammed one of my hooves into the wound as hard as I could, and the talons holding me under loosened their grip just enough for me to break free. I rushed for the surface, greedily gasping in a lungfuls of air once I made it.

The hippogryph was already swimming back to hit me again, his beak drawn back in a furious snarl. I didn’t like my odds of winning a water fight with a stronger opponent who was also probably a better swimmer, so I dug down deep inside myself to try and find enough energy for one last spell. Too bad there was nothing left.

He closed in on me again and, despite my best efforts, forced my head under the water. He’d learned his lesson, and this time his wounded wing was out of reach. I still hadn’t even fully recovered from my first attempted drowning. I didn’t have the strength to fight him off again.

I couldn’t believe it. If I had to go out, I could’ve been okay with losing a fight against a notorious pirate. But this? Getting drowned by some lowly crewman when I had almost made it back to safety? This just wasn’t right. It wasn’t supposed to end this way! I was supposed to win the fight, get comfortably established in Freeport, find a way to become an alicorn, and then return to Canterlot in triumph. Instead, some two-bit criminal would drown me, and I wouldn’t even get a proper funeral. I would never see Celestia again.

Celestia ... Mom. I’d only called her that once, right before I left her. I never should’ve left in the first place. It had all been one huge mistake, and now I would never get a chance to make things right. Never get a chance to say all those things I wanted to say to her again. I wouldn’t be able to tell her how much she meant to me, or listen to all the things she wanted to teach me. I would never be able to tell her how much I loved her..

I made one last, desperate effort to cast a spell, and this time I scraped up some tiny little scrap of power I’d missed before. With thoughts of Mom still fresh in my mind, I cut loose with it. I was half-delirious from nearly drowning and didn’t even think about what kind of spell to use.

A blast of hard light shot out of my horn, catching the hippogryph in the face. The blow knocked him senseless, and the talons holding me down went slack. I scrambled to the surface again, coughing and gasping for air. I took a moment to just appreciate the fact that I was still alive. I never would’ve thought about how happy that made me until just then.

I turned to the hippogryph I’d knocked out. He’d tried to kill me. By all rights, I should return the favor. Or barring that, just leave him. He’d probably drown before he woke up, unless all the blood he was leaving in the water attracted a predator first. He was a pirate. He’d broken the law, and probably killed somepony innocent at some point. He deserved to die.

But that’s not how Mom would’ve done things. With an irritated growl, I wrapped a foreleg around the hippogryph’s neck, and dragged him the rest of the way to the Venture. “This is a one-time thing, because I’m feeling sentimental. You try to kill me again, and I will murder you so hard your ancestors will feel it. Got it?” The hippogryph didn’t give me any kind of answer, on account of being knocked out.

With considerable difficulty, I made it back to the Venture. One of the crewmen spotted me and tossed down a rope leader, and I managed to hold onto it and my prisoner back while they hauled me onto the deck. Then I finally got a good look at the state of the ship itself—the rigging and sails were a mess. The pirates had obviously known exactly what to do to cause as much damage as possible. No surprise, really. They had a lot of experience at this kind of thing.

I flopped onto my back and groaned, all the exhaustion I’d been ignoring in my desperate struggle to stay alive coming back full force now that I’d made it to safety. Or at least temporary safety.

I think I might have drifted off for a minute or two, because next thing I knew Captain Weyland was nudging me none-too-gently. Once I’d opened my eyes, I saw her scowling back down at me. “It looks like things didn’t go as planned.”

“Gee, what gave you that idea?” I groaned and climbed back to my hooves, wincing as my barrel decided to remind me that it was injured. “So how bad is it?”

For a minute, I thought Weyland might give me a proper chewing out, but I guess the pragmatic need to stay alive won out over her general pissed-offedness. “It’s not good. They messed up our rigging pretty badly, and I have four crewponies down with injuries with three more working wounded. It looks like you did some damage while you were over there, but they’ve got a lot more crew working on repairs than we do. Especially since I have to keep a watch out for any more raids, so that’s more crew who can’t do repair work.”

That was pretty bad. “So they’re going to make enough repairs to come after us before we can make enough repairs to run away?”

“Looks pretty likely,” she grunted.

“Great.” I groaned and rubbed my face, trying to work the worst of the dried sea salt out of my coat. “How long do we have before they're ready to come after us?”

“Depends.” She frowned over at the other ship. “I’ve got a decent idea of how much damage you did, but a lot depends on how much they have in the way of supplies and training. Hard to make repairs if they don’t have the materials. Looks like they’ve got plenty of experience at patching up, though. If I had to guess, could be as little as two hours, but no more than four unless there’s something I’ve missed.”

Well, at least I’d managed to make an impression in my time on the Granite Heart. “And how long would it take us to get back up and running?”

Weyland glanced up at, watching her crew hard at work. “They got our rigging pretty good. Maybe three hours to get it to point where we can move again. A lot longer to get it back into proper shape.” Weyland nodded to the pirate ship. “Lucky we managed to take down so many of their raiders. Wings make rigging repair go a lot faster, which is the only reason we might have a chance of making it in time. It doesn’t help that they have fewer sails than we do, though at least the fact that we’ll be losing the light right around the time our repairs are done should be to our advantage. If we can get away with any kind of decent lead come nightfall, we have a chance of losing them.”

So it wasn’t completely hopeless. It was all just a question of who could fix their ship the fastest. Pity I had no idea how to fix a ship beyond a couple basic repair spells that any unicorn should know, which I couldn’t actually cast right now anyway. “If I can get a good meal and a quick nap, I might be able to recover enough to manage something in that time.” Two hours for food and a nap didn’t sound like anything close to enough, but it would be better than nothing.

“I’ll take what I can get.” Weyland scratched her chin. “Kukri can see to that. No sense wasting another set of hooves. I’d be halfway tempted to put her on rigging work too, if I wasn’t worried about another raid.” She looked up once more, and shouted a few orders to her crew before returning her attention to me. “If you don't have anything else, I’ve got way too many things to do and not enough time to do them in.”

I shook my head, trying to stretch a little bit of feeling back into my limbs. “Nothing I can think of right now. Anything else you want to cover?”

“Not really.” The captain gave me a quick once-over. “I'll feel better if you don't look like a half-drowned rat on its last leg when it's time for fighting. Most of us had self-defense training at the clanhold, but if it comes down to a fight you’re our best shot at winning.” She threw a baleful look at the pirate ship. “I don't think they're gonna just let us surrender now that their blood’s up. Not unless we have an ace up our sleeves. A unicorn that can set their whole ship on fire is the closest thing we have to that. To hay with the bounty and capturing the ship, better to burn them all to bits and live.”

“Personally, I’d settle for just making them go away.” I didn’t like the idea of running, but right now it looked like discretion was the better part of valor. The odds were just stacked too high against me. I could come after Mome again after recovering in Freeport, and this time I’d be a lot better prepared for the fight. Maybe I could see about having Puzzle arrange for some of the local mercenaries to back me up too; it would certainly make things a bit easier for me.

The captain nodded thoughtfully. “Trying to take them out might be too ambitious. Could try a bluff; pirates don’t like taking on targets that can fight back. Make ‘em think we’re not worth the trouble. Could try dumping the cargo too, see if they slow down to pick it up. Would work better if more of the cargo could float.” Weyland sighed, and added, “And if their blood wasn’t up. It’s still worth a try, but I suspect they’ll decide the cargo will keep until after we’re dead.”

“If we try enough things that have a slim chance of saving us, one of them might work.” I paused as something occurred to me, and I slumped down. “Sorry I dragged you and your ship into this, Captain. I never meant to put you in harm’s way.”

Weyland sighed and waved my apology away. “Puzzle told me what the risks were when I took the job. It was my decision to go with the idea. If there's anypony to blame, it's the captain. My ship, my responsibility.”

I still couldn’t shake the feeling that they wouldn’t be in this mess if not for my bounty hunting trip. No, it wasn’t just the trip, I’d screwed up too. If I’d done things differently, I could have Mome, or at least sunk the Granite Heart. However, I was too worn out to bother with arguing over how much of our current predicament was my fault. “Let's just focus on making it out of this first. Then we can worry about blame.”

Weyland grunted and nodded. “Would do more to keep us from feeding the fishes. Or Mome’s crew. Probably horseapples, but there’s rumors some of them don’t believe in wasting perfectly good meat.”

Well there was a lovely mental image. “And on that note, I think I’ll head to the galley. Sooner I’m fed, the sooner I’ll be back in fighting shape.” The captain didn’t even bother with a verbal response, she just waved for me to get on with it already.

The ship’s galley was a small, crowded room that barely had enough room to fit a simple stove in between two pantries. I found Kukri in there, busy pulling out food for the rest of the crew. The little changeling was still wearing her pegasus disguise—I’d never even seen her in her natural state. For that matter, I didn’t even know if the crew knew what species she really was. Well, I’d be surprised if the captain didn’t know, but the rest of the crew might still be in the dark.

The filly let out a soft gasp when she saw me. “The Shimmer mare is injured!” Kukri paused her food preparation long enough to pull out a first aid kit, though she set it to the side for the moment. One thing at a time, I guess.

I glanced over at the gash in my side. It’s probably telling of how tired I was that I’d almost forgotten about it, mixed in with all the other aches and pains. “It’s nothing serious. And the Shimmer mare is also very hungry.”

“Of course.” Kukri quickly threw several items onto one of the plates, then passed it over to me. “If the Shimmer mare has no objections, this one will tend her injuries while she eats.”

“Got it.” Normally first aid and food don’t go together, but I wasn’t feeling very picky. I looked over what she’d passed me. The chunk of hardtack was no surprise, but the other thing on my plate caught me off guard: a slice of salted fish, alongside some jerky that I think was made out chicken. Kukri must have been in such a hurry that she hadn’t remembered I was a vegetarian like most Equestrians.

I finished off the hardtack, then stared down at the rest of the food on my plate. On the one hoof, I’d never eaten anything like meat before. On the other hoof, I needed nutrients. Pragmatic survivalism won out over cultural taboo, and I closed my eyes and forced myself to eat it. For the record, I don’t like meat. At all. But I liked the idea of dying because I hadn’t gotten enough energy even less.

Once I’d finished the meat and fought back the urge to spit it up, I sat still for a minute longer to let Kukri finish cleaning and bandaging me up. The dressing wasn’t fancy, but it got the job done. With that taken care of, I got up and headed for the door. “Kukri, I need a nap. Right now I’m dead on my hooves and couldn’t cast a cantrip.” I’d even had to eat with my hooves rather than using my magic to pick up my food. “I need as much sleep as I can get, but I also need somepony to wake me up the instant something happens. Can you handle it?”

“Of course.” Kukri turned back to her work in the kitchen, but hesitated for a moment. “This one has a confession to make. It is ... frightened. This one has heard that if the pirates catch us, they will either kill us or sell us into slavery.” The young changeling trembled. “This one does not like the idea that it will never see its family or clanmates again. It especially fears that it might be sold to the Old Mind, which it has heard delights in inventing new torments for Free Minds that it captures.”

Okay, I might still not understand much about changelings, but I definitely understood kids. I went to Kukri’s side and gave her a quick pat on the back. “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be okay. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Kukri stared up at me, trembling at my touch. “The Shimmer mare promises this?”

I gave her the best reassuring smile I could manage. “Yeah, that’s a promise.”