• Published 20th Oct 2015
  • 6,357 Views, 156 Comments

Freeport Venture: Auction Night - Chengar Qordath

Sunset Shimmer, magus-for-hire in the corrupt city of Freeport, attends a high-end auction where a dangerous book of dark magic is being sold off to the highest bidder.

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The Job

I was already in a bad mood before somepony started pounding on my front door. I’d spent half the morning trying to track down an obscure reference to one of Morning Star’s spells; never an easy task considering the fact that her spellbook was locked up in the Sealed Repository. While some of her later work obviously needed to be restricted, it was rather annoying that her earlier material had been similarly proscribed. It seemed that the Magi Council for the Restriction of Dangerous Materials preferred to ban everything related to her just to be safe. Besides, doing an item-by-item banlist would require letting somepony actually read everything she’d written to decide what was safe and what wasn’t.

None of that logic made me any less pissed off about the fact that I couldn’t find her formula for enchanting magic items. Now that I had my tower fully set up, it was time to start working on my personal equipment—and like any proper magus, I wanted most of my gear to be enchanted. With that much heavy-duty enchanting to look forward to, it only made sense to read up on famous enchanters through the ages. I didn’t want any mistakes that might end up wasting thousands of bits of materials because I forgot to go over the basics.

Needlessy to say, by the time somepony came knocking on my door, I was a boiling cauldron of frustration just waiting for the chance to unload on a good target. It probably wasn’t fair to take out my anger on whoever happened to be there, but one thing living in Freeport has taught me is that life isn’t fair. Well, I’d make an exception for Kukri. Just her though: Puzzle was a good enough friend to deal with me being in a mood.

Fortunately, my visitor was neither one of them. Instead, it was a mint-green pegasus mare with a white stripe through her mane. Strumming Heartstrings of the Equestrian Intelligence Service. One of Equestria’s better spies in Freeport, despite the fact that her identity wasn’t all that secret. And more importantly, the mare who’d imprisoned me and tried to have me deported back to Equestria. She’d backed down from that, but I still would’ve been perfectly happy to never see her miserable face again.

Strumming grinned at me from within the doorway. “Hey, Sunset! Been a while. How you doing? Love the new tower—I guess all that talk about how only males are into towers because of the whole phallic symbol thing is totally off-base. Though building the whole thing out of obsidian had to be a ton of trouble. Cool statement and all, but I would’ve stuck with something a bit less flashy. And cheaper.”

“I had the bits to spare after taking down that pirate. And like you said, it’s a statement. It’s supposed to be flashy.” Freeport’s ruling council has their headquarters in an obsidian-faced palace. Making my tower out of the same material let everypony know where I stood with them. I might technically be working for—no, with the Council for now, but I still planned on facing off against them sooner or later. Freeport was just too nasty and corrupt, and they didn’t seem to have any intention of fixing it.

Strumming looked up at the tower, then casually tapped one of my walls. “Well, you certainly made some kinda statement. And I guess it’s less of an eyesore than half the buildings here. But anyway, not here to talk architecture.” She paused, grinning hopefully at me. “Actually, I was hoping I could get you to do me a favor.”

I shut the door in her face without another word.

Sure, she’d only ever arrested me and tried to have me deported because it was her job, but that didn’t make any difference to me. It might not have been personal for her, but I took the prospect of spending the next several years of my life under house arrest in Canterlot very personally. I wasn’t exactly carrying a massive grudge against her, but I certainly wasn’t going to do her any favors either.

Unfortunately, Strumming was an annoyingly persistent mare. It was one of the things that had made trying to escape from her such a gigantic pain in the flank to begin with. Needless to say, having the door slammed in her face wasn’t enough to stop her. Soon she was pounding away at it again, and I was quite sure that if I just left her there she’d eventually take wing and start working the windows instead. Pegasi were annoying that way. Especially pegasi named Strumming Heartstrings.

I ripped open the front door and unleashed my best death glare on the mare. “What do I have to do to make you go away?”

Strumming chuckled and grinned. “Hey, nice to see you again too. Anyway, I think we started off our first talk on the wrong hoof.” She reached into her saddlebag and pulled out a large sack. She shook it, and I could hear a lot coins clinking together. “I need to you to help me out.” She opened up the bag, showing me all the lovely gold within. “Please.”

While I was a bit tempted to just slam the door again, the big sack of money did catch my interest. Not that I was a greedy money-grubber, but I like getting paid as much as anypony. Back when I’d been Celestia’s personal student, there hadn’t really been much of a budget to worry about. After I took off on my own, I’d received a rather rude awakening about just how expensive some of the equipment she’d given me access to was. Expensive enough that somepony showing up with a big bag of money got my attention.

Sure, I didn’t need a laboratory-grade infused aetherscope, but it would be very useful for some of the projects I was working on.

My eyes lingered on the coins for several seconds before I reluctantly stepped out of the doorway and held it open for her. “You have five minutes.”

“Thank you.” She trotted in, casually looking around my front room. I’d put a fair bit of work into making the place look reasonably impressive. After all, this was what I wanted to show off to visitors and potential clients. Several bookshelves full of massive, archaic-looking tomes dominated one wall, though of course I kept all my really valuable books elsewhere. The same applied to all the magical equipment I had strategically placed around the room. I was particularly pleased by my gold-trimmed alchemy set, which looked utterly pristine because I’d never actually used any of the beakers for practical alchemy. They were showpieces to impress everypony with how intelligent I was, not actual working tools.

Strumming didn’t seem to impressed by any of it. “Hey, you got anything to eat? I’m feeling snacky.” I rolled my eyes and pulled a bag of chips out of the cupboard, which the spy enthusiastically tore into.

While she was gorging herself on junk food, I led the way to my office. Much like my front room, it existed primarily to impress ponies. I had a nice big high-backed chair, placed so that I had more of those impressive-looking bookshelves right behind me. My desk had a few carefully picked tokens of my accomplishments—newspaper articles about achievements like my capture of Metal Mome, and how I’d solved the World’s Port Bank robbery. And, of course, a photo of myself and Princess Celestia. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to remind Strumming that I was the former student of her sovereign.

Strumming trotted along behind me, then flopped into one of the comfortable but much less impressive chairs I kept for potential clients. She slouched down and put her hooves up on my desk, her body language plainly stating that she was not at all impressed. “So, like I was saying, I need your help. Well, technically it’s the EIS that needs your help. And we’re willing to pay you a reasonable amount to get it. Not that we don’t have backup plans in case you say no, but you would make this op go a little easier for us.”

“So you’re here representing the Equestrian Intelligence Service?” I wasn’t sure if that made me more inclined to hear her out, or less. The EIS being what it was, I still had no idea how much of my conflict with Strumming had actually been driven by her superiors at the EIS. She certainly claimed that she’d just been following orders, but I had enough experience with the mare to know that she would lie to me without a moment’s hesitation if she thought it would benefit her.

“Yeah, this is an officially sanctioned unofficial operation.” She smirked at me, then shoved another hoofful of chips into her mouth. “You know how it is, I was never here, we never had this conversation, and you have no idea why there are bunch more bits in your bank account. Maybe your great-aunt died and left you a lot of money or something.”

“And why exactly should I work with the EIS?” I demanded, not bothering to hide my annoyance at the thought. “Last time I had anything to do with you, it ended with me locked up in chains and en-route to a prison ship that would’ve taken me back to Equestria. How do I know you’re not just setting me up?”

“Well, for starters...” She waved to the picture of myself and Princess Celestia. “Her royal boss-ness doesn’t want us dragging you back to Equestria anymore. Second, if I wanted to pull you into a trap, I wouldn’t show up in person to do it. That’d instantly put you on your guard. I’d use a patsy; send in some random mare dressed up to look like she’s loaded with cash, then have her spin a nice story about a runaway daughter or something. You know, something to tug at your heartstrings.” She chuckled at her lame attempt at a pun. “Plus, she’d offer you a butt-load of cash. You’d be out the door in a minute.”

I glowered at her. “I’m not completely naive, Strumming. I know when a job sounds too good to be true.” Though I would probably be suspicious of the next client who showed up wanting my help to find a child who’d run away from home or been kidnapped by slavers. Living in Freeport seemed to be fostering a bit of a paranoid streak in me. Though is it really paranoia when there are ponies who’re out to get you?

“Yeah, you’ve been learning.” Strumming scarfed down the last of the chips. “But anyway, let’s get to business. You should work for the EIS because we’ll pay you a ton of cash, plus we’ll owe you one. And trust me, being owed a favor by the EIS is pretty handy. On top of that, the job we’re working on is something you’d want taken care of anyway, seeing as you’re setting yourself up as the Magus of Freeport and everything.” She paused, meeting my eyes with a surprisingly serious expression. “Before I tell you what’s up, can I get you to promise you’ll keep this under wraps even if you don’t take the job?”

I frowned. “You want me to promise to keep a secret when I don’t even know what it is yet? Yeah, that’s not happening.” I thought it over for a moment, then offered a slight concession. “But once I know what’s going on, I won’t go blabbing about it if I think it’s better to keep the information out of the public eye.”

Strumming spent a couple seconds crumpling up the empty bag of chips and tossing it into a trash can. “I guess that’s good enough. So here’s the deal: we just got a reliable tip that a copy of the Black Codex is going to be auctioned off early next week.”

My jaw dropped and my eyes went wide. “The Black Codex?! I thought that was just a myth!”

“Something we like to encourage as many ponies as possible to continue believing,” Strumming answered without missing a beat. “If everypony knew there was really a how-to guide for just about every form of black magic under the sun floating around, we’d have a lot more wanna-be warlocks to deal with.”

“I bet.” The Black Codex had supposedly been created when a cabal of warlocks decided to get together and write down all their collected knowledge into a single definitive tome. It was basically a dark magic textbook. It didn’t have any of the really advanced stuff; mages always guard their best spells jealously, and warlocks are even more secretive because they’re using forbidden magic. But the Codex did have all the basics of necromancy, mind control, demonology, and a dozen other fields of dark magic.

In some ways, that focus on the basics made it even more dangerous than a grimoire full of highly advanced stuff. Only somepony who already knew a lot about dark magic could use a book on the most complicated aspects of necromancy, while any random unicorn could pick up a copy of the Codex and learn basic dark magic. Sure, they wouldn’t be unleashing hordes of zombies or bending entire nations to their will, but it gave them all the tools they’d need to eventually develop those skills on their own. If the Codex was in general circulation it could easily spawn hundreds of low-level warlocks, each one making the world just a little bit worse.

I grimaced and shook my head. “Maybe it’s just a fake? There’s no shortage of merchants in Freeport who’d be willing to scam someone.”

Strumming sighed and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, because we didn’t think to check something that simple before I came over here.” I glared at her, and she cut back on the sarcasm. “The guy auctioning it off isn’t some two-bit huckster; it’s Goldtalon.”

I growled out several words Celestia wouldn’t have approved of. Goldtalon was Freeport’s richest and most reputable dealer in magical artifacts and tomes, and he had a reputation for always delivering on what he promised and never trying to cheat his clients. The odds that he would destroy his carefully cultivated credibility with a fake book were close to zero. It would ruin his entire business, which was worth way more than he could ever make scamming somepony with a fake book.

I quickly ran through some possible solutions to the problem. “Does the Council know about this? Maybe we can get them to shut down the auction.”

Strumming frowned skeptically. “And here I thought you were getting less naive. I’ll tell you exactly how the Council would respond to this: ‘Freeport doesn’t have any laws against selling or owning books.’” She scoffed. “Because it’s not like a big book of dark magic might lead to more warlocks. As far as they’re concerned, we can’t even prove Goldtalon’s selling it to somepony who would use it. It’d be easy for everyone at the auction to claim they just want it as a curiosity piece, what with it being an infamous book that most folks think doesn’t even exist.”

“So a bust is out.” Not that I was surprised; Strumming wouldn’t be coming to me for help if she had a better way of solving her problem. “Why not just send somepony to the auction to buy the book? I’d bet the Equestrian government could out-bid any private collectors or wanna-be warlocks.”

“That’s our current game plan,” Strumming agreed. “There’s just one little snag: it’s a private auction, invitation only. And the EIS isn’t invited. Probably because Goldtalon knows that half the other guests are on our wanted list. Which means we need somepony who can get invited to represent our interests. Somepony like the new magus of Freeport.”

Ah, so that’s what her angle was. “You want me to be the EIS’s stand-in, then? Buy the book for you and hoof it over?”

“Got it right on the first try.” Strumming grinned and slapped me on the back. “Don’t worry, we’ll cover whatever you have to offer. You just go in there and make sure you put in the winning bid on the Codex. Money’s not an issue; better to spend a million bits buying it now than ten million hunting it down later.”

“Sounds simple enough.” My eyes narrowed suspiciously. “A little too simple, actually. What’s the catch?” I mulled it over in my mind for a second and came up with a pretty good guess. “You mentioned that some of the attendees are on the EIS’s wanted list. I’m gonna take a wild guess that they’re not very nice and might try to cause problems, especially if they knew I was fronting for the EIS. Or if they thought they could just take the book from me for free after the auction’s over.”

Strumming smiled approvingly. “Oh, you are getting nice and sharp. I was afraid I’d have to remind you about them.” She opened up her saddlebag and pulled out a pair of files. “Out of the confirmed attendees, we have two problem cases.” She opened up the first file, revealing a nicely dressed white unicorn stallion I vaguely recalled from one or two high society functions in Canterlot. “Fancy Pants is an up-and-coming noble who’s a long way from Canterlot. We’re not sure what he’s doing in Freeport or why he’s trying to buy a book of black magic. He’s got a squeaky-clean reputation, so it doesn’t fit. Either he’s dirty and very good at covering it up, or he’s got some other angle. Hay, for all we know he’s buying the book so he can give it to the authorities. It’d certainly help his standing in court. Bottom line is, we don’t know what his agenda is, and that makes us wary.”

“So keep an eye on him and figure out what he’s up to.” Now that I had a name to go with the picture, I did recall him from the one time Celestia dragged me to the Grand Galloping Gala. Not that I remembered much in the way of details beyond him being friendly and charming. Hopefully it wouldn’t lead to too many complications. “Alright, who’s the other one?”

“Bad news,” Strumming announced grimly. “Exactly the kind of person we do not want getting his claws on the Codex.” She opened up the folder, showing me a picture of an almost skeletally thin gryphon with brown plumage. “He calls himself Marius. He’s a facilitator. A mercenary who’s sort of like Puzzle Piece, except Marius is specifically focused on helping out the bad guys. Studies all kinds of forbidden magic, but never actually uses any himself or gets mixed up with cults or warlock covens. Instead, he hires out his expertise to anyone who’s up to nasty business and willing to meet his ridiculous high rates. We’ve busted at least a dozen warlocks, cults, and criminal organizations he helped become way more dangerous, but he always manages to keep his beak clean.” She grimaced. “I’m sure I don’t have to explain why we don’t want someone like him getting the Codex.”

“It’d make him even better at what he’s already doing.” I picked up the picture, committing it to my memory. “And it sounds like he’s been causing all kinds of trouble for you as it is.” I frowned as a thought occurred to me. “So why haven’t you gone after him? I can’t see lack of evidence being enough to stop you by itself.”

“He’s very well-connected, and good at keeping up a respectable front back in Gryphonia. He was smart and invested a lot of his profits into reputable businesses.” She grumbled and ran a hoof through her mane. “He practically runs Gryphonstone’s economy, and his mansion is more like a small castle. We’d need an army to take the place down and be certain of killing or capturing him. Too much force to bring to bear without the local government’s permission, unless we want to risk starting a war. And the government certainly won’t let us arrest the guy who effectively owns them all.” She scowled. “We tried petitioning the Council for extradition, but they consider him a ‘legitimate businessgryphon’ until we can prove otherwise.”

“You think he’ll be a problem for me?” I asked.

“I’d keep a close eye on him and his flunkies,” Strumming cautioned. “I don’t think he’d go after you directly—it’s too messy by his usual standards. But he wants the Codex, and bad things tend to happen to anyone who gets in the way of what he wants.”

“Right.” I got up from my chair and stretched out. “Fine. If he tries anything, I’ll be ready for him. And as you should be well aware, bad things also tend to happen to anyone who tries to come after me.”

Author's Note:

As always, thanks to my pre-reading and editing team for all their hard work. Also, I would like to thank all my dedicated Patreon supporters. You guys are awesome.

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