• Published 9th Jul 2019
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The Dusk Guard Saga: Hunter/Hunted - Viking ZX



An ancient, lost empire is on the verge of returning from its imprisonment, and the Dusk Guard have been dispatched. Their mission? Retake the city, secure it, and above all, keep its ancient ruler from seizing control once more.

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Chapter 15

The Hummingbird rattled as another gust of wind rolled across its envelope, shaking the cockpit and forcing Hunter to reach for the sidewall again to steady himself.

“Sorry,” Sky Bolt said, her eyes flicking toward him only for a moment before darting back to the control panel. He didn’t question her focus one bit. “This wind is pretty bad.”

“Not disagreeing,” he said as the airship continued to shake. “So much for setting this thing down.”

“Not. Happening,” Bolt said as a particularly violent gust swept over the ship, the deck seeming to drop out from beneath Hunter’s hooves before rising back up like some sort of swelling wave. “I’m getting a lot of crosscurrent; the glacier must have its own wind.”

“Drop then?”

She nodded. “Drop.”

“Great.” At least Nova’s really good at climbing ropes. He didn’t want to think about how much more difficult a drop would be had Steel taken Nova and left him with Sabra. Sabra was talented at many things … but knots and ropes were still one of his weaker areas.

They were close enough now that he could see the strange crystal without need for a pair of binoculars, though it still wasn’t much to look at. Its tip only poked maybe a foot or so above the ice around it. How far down it went, he couldn’t say. Whether or not it was connected to their quarry, again the same answer.

On the one hoof, no sense in making a beat-up about it, just in case. On the other … Well, it was check the crystal, or go back and look for yeti tracks. And of those two things, I know which I’d rather do.

“We’re almost there,” Bolt said, turning her head from the instruments. “You’d better gear up and get ready to jump. I’m going to try and bring us as close as we can. Once I see you outside, I’ll pull back.”

“Don’t go too far.” He felt a faint shiver crawl down his spine as he looked at the crystal once more. “If this turns out to be nothing, we might want to get back aboard.”

“I won’t,” Bolt said. “I’m going to go up a bit, but I don’t plan on leaving anywhere. If you pop a flare, I’ll come down to pick you up. I’ll try and keep an eye on things with the spotlights too, see if I can’t help.”

He nodded. “For future reference, we need to work out some kind of way to communicate with a team on the ground.”

“Already thinking about it.”

“And speaking-pipes or something for those of us in the ship.”

She nodded again. “I know. I thought since the ship was so small, and we’d be using it to get around, well … That one’s on me. I’ll look at it as soon as we get back.”

“All I can ask.” There wasn’t much point in saying anything else. She’d already acknowledged the oversight. “I’m going to go get geared up.” He started to turn, but then paused and glanced back at Bolt. “Don’t bring us down right on top of it. Try …” He looked out the window, his eyes darting over the ice. “There,” he said, pointing. “Just below it. There might be more crevices around that bit of crystal, and I’d rather not land on them.”

“Got it.” Bolt shifted the control yokes, The Hummingbird vibrating as it fought the winds and turned. “Let me know when you’re ready to jump.”

The Hummingbird jerked again as he stepped back into the main cabin, metallic scrapes and pings reaching his ears as the safety gear they brought out earlier slid around on the tabletop. He reached out with one hoof, catching hold of the climbing harness as it slid by, and began putting it over the exterior of his armor. Several times he was forced to adjust it, the strips that made up the harness catching on the crystal plates and refusing to slide into the proper position.

One more thing to note in the after-action report, he thought as he finally got the harness into position, tightening the material down and locking it in place over his armor. It didn’t quite fit right, but a few tugs didn’t suggest it would slide off or put him in a wonky position the moment he put any pressure on it. The armor isn’t set up for climbing gear. Maybe that was something Bolt could work on for the next iteration of the armor.

Because there’s going to be one, he thought, stepping over to his locker and grabbing his saddlebags. They were stuffed to the brim, sides tight with the amount of materiel he was bringing along. Much of it cannibalized from one of the winter survival kits. Might as well get as much into the design as we can.

Saddlebags secure, the weight within them resting as equally and comfortably on his back as he could manage it, he turned back to the locker once more and brought out a safety line. It and the other climbing gear he could attach to the harness, where they would be accessible but—if secured properly—out of the way.

Flares, rope, ice axe … He ran down the list. Only thing left is … His eyes came up, locking on the tan Stetson sitting in his locker. My hat.

Part of him wanted to reach out, to plop it down around his head like he always had. Where it belonged.

Except … between the heavy winds and the magic-repelling nature of his armor, there was a high chance he’d find it swept away.

I can’t do that. Not with Swift’s gift. He shut the locker door, his eyes lingering on the hat until it was out of sight. When the locker let out a final click, he let a faint sigh echo in alongside it. It still doesn’t feel right, but … I’d rather not lose it. Losing it would feel almost as bad as losing Swift.

Focus. He gave his head a little shake, turning away from the locker. You’ve got a mission. Find a shade. Track the shade. Keep it from getting back to the Crystal Empire.

And, you know, don’t die. That one hadn’t been said, but he put it up on the list all the same. Iceworms, frostwolves, yeti, crevasses, and the giant, ripper of a storm. Plenty of dangerous stuff out there.

He grinned beneath his helmet. That’s what we’re for, after all. And yeti, while dangerous, had nothing on a golem.

He made a final check of his equipment, stretching his limbs and spreading his wings to make certain that he still had a full range of motion, as well as to see that nothing was hanging loose or improperly attached.

“How’s it looking?” he called as he dropped all four hooves back to the deck, satisfied with his work.

“How do you feel about an airlift?” Bolt called back.

He grimaced. “That bad, huh?”

“Yup! I really don’t want to leave this thing on autopilot and go shut the door. Or leave a rope flapping around out there. Weighted or not, there’s a chance it could end up in the props. The wind is really bad. We’re barely making any headway, and we’re at half-throttle.”

“Crikey.” That was strong wind. “All right. Airlift it is. I’ll tell Nova the ‘good’ news.”

“Let me know when you’re going to drop. I’ll turn us sideways so you’re out of the worst of the wind, but we’ll drift a bit as a result. Don’t forget to close the door on your way out!”

“Understood!” He headed for the hall, his hooves spread wide in advance of any sudden jerks from their ride. That means we’ll drift down the glacier as we’re getting us off, so we’ll land a bit further south than we planned.

Still, as long as they didn’t land in a crevice, or past some deep gorge in the ice, that’d be okay. And if they did, well … We’ll just have to deal with it.

Nova was standing by the door, already clad in his full armor and saddlebags just as tightly packed as Hunter’s at his sides. He was sitting on his haunches, a heavy, coiled-and-weighted rope looped around his forelegs. One end terminated in a bulbous knot holding a lead weight. The other was attached to a heavy-looking swing-arm by the hatch.

“Finally!” Nova said, spotting him. “We moving?”

“Almost,” Hunter said. “In a moment. You won’t need the rope, though.”

Nova shifted slightly. “We landing?”

“Nope. Airdrop.”

For a moment Nova was quiet, then he shrugged. “Well, that’s easier for me.”

“Until we land.”

“True. You’re going to be the one carrying all the weight, though. We’re not traveling light.”

“Just don’t poke me with your horn and I think we’ll be alright.”

“No promises.” A yellow glow disconnected the rope from the arm and coiled the excess end back up. A moment later the coil was back out of sight, secure in a small cubby near the door. “Now?”

“No,” Hunter said as the deck tilted underhoof. “I just came back to let you know. I’ll head back up to the—”

A sudden gust of wind mixed with a furious cascade of sounds that he only recognized after it was gone as hoofbeats so rapid they’d blended as one ripped down the hall, and he spun to see Bolt standing there, the glimmer in her eyes suggesting she was grinning beneath her helmet.

“Speed mod,” she said. “Not a perfect solution, but I can leave my baby on autopilot for a few seconds—” The deck tilted beneath them, and her eyes widened. “Maybe not. We’re there! Jump! And don’t forget to close the door behind you!” She was gone in a blur, air rushing about in her wake, and a moment later the deck tilted back, though not all the way.

Hunter looked over at Nova. “That’s it then. You ready for a walkabout?”

“Hey, you’re flying. I’m ready when you are.”

“Get the door.” The wind almost felt like a physical wall as it swept in, the door swinging open with what would have likely been a very loud bang if not for the inhibitors that kept it from doing so. Snow swept through the entryway, rushing past him and down the hall.

“Timer set?” Hunter called. Nova’s horn flashed once, then twice.

“It’s set,” he called. “Thirty seconds!”

“Just like we practiced, then!”

Nova nodded and stepped up to the door, resting on his haunches and gripping the sides of the open hatchway with his forehooves. Hunter stepped up behind him, putting his chest against the unicorn’s back and wrapping his forelegs around Nova’s chest.

“One …” he counted.

“Two …” Nova said with him.

“Three!” They both kicked out at the same time, pushing their bodies out of the hatch and away from the side of The Hummingbird. Hunter spread his wings, green lines pulsing down his undersuit as his pegasus magic flared to keep him flying steady against the wind. It was difficult enough sometimes to fly carrying another pony. Add in the extra weight of all their gear, plus the wind …

They fell below the protective bulk of the airship, and a new wall of wind slammed into him with the force of a runaway wagon, shoving them both away from The Humminbird and across the glacier. He spread his wings as wide as he dared, keeping their descent upright and even as best he could, but otherwise not fighting against the wind as they descended. It was the best he could do.

The ground was rushing up at them far quicker than he would have liked. He beat his wings harder, not stopping them, but at least slowing their descent and rate of travel. Twenty feet. Fifteen. Ten.

“Ready to drop!” he called. The wind whipped his words away even as he spoke them. Hopefully Nova had heard him.

Five feet! He let go, releasing his hold on Nova and letting the colt fall. Free of the sudden weight, his own flight path began to rise once more, and he tilted his wings to the side, tucking them and letting himself drop as he turned.

The wind was less powerful on the surface of the glacier, but not by much. A thin crust of snow crunched beneath his hooves as he landed, and he waited a moment, wings at the ready in case the surface gave way, but it held, and better yet felt solid.

He turned to see Nova standing on solid ice as well. The unicorn’s horn lit with a glow, a safety line from his harness trailing out across the ice and over to Hunter. He took it in his hoof as it neared and clipped it to the back of his harness. The line was thin but extremely strong, more than capable of holding the weight of several ponies. A small spring coil would keep it constantly tight as well, allowing them to move freely. As long as they didn’t want to go more than twenty feet from one another.

Safety line attached, Nova was already at work attaching small, metal, cleated horseshoes to the underhooves of his suit, and Hunter dug into his own bags, bringing out his own set and clipping them into place. A spotlight washed over him as he finished, and he looked up at the side of The Hummingbird, giving Sky Bolt a wave.

“You good?” he called over his shoulder as the spotlight moved away, the roar of the airship’s propellers changing pitch. It began to climb up and away from the glacier.

“I’m good!” Nova called back, his words faint under the howl of the wind. “You?”

“Good enough to start moving!” If only so we don’t freeze to death. The wind felt colder than it had been the last time he’d been outside, but then again, that had been on the edge of the Crystal Empire, not a glacier. “I’ll lead! You follow!”

“Works for me!”

Hunter nodded and took a quick look around, eyes locking on the distant crystal. It was further away than he’d wanted it to be. Looks like that wind pushed us faster than I thought. Snow caught at the edges of his visor, melting and streaming away off to the sides. He’d have to watch for ice-build up. He took his first step, hooves crunching against the thin surface-layer of the glacier. The sound was almost impossible to hear over the howl of the wind and the distant drone of The Hummingbird.

Well, it’s not ideal, he thought as he began to move forward, taking a slow but steady pace. It’s stroppy going, but it could be a lot worse. A glance back showed that Nova was following in his hoofsteps, keeping close without being near enough that they were both at risk should something go wrong.

They marched forward, step after step, moving up the glacier’s face toward the distant crystal. The surface was rough and craggy, like a sheets of a pastry that had been frosted and then rolled between hooves until you could see each flaky layer. More than once the ice threatened to give way beneath Hunter’s hooves, and he was forced to step back, away from a thin crust of snow that concealed a break in the glacier that was who knew how deep. More than once it fell away anyway after it was disturbed, thin flakes of frost breaking away to be carried off in the wind or, in one case, falling out of sight down a narrow crevasse, though thankfully one small enough he could step over it. Only after he’d checked the ground on the other side, of course.

They were halfway to the distant crystal when the first moan rent the air. It started low, so low it almost wasn’t audible, but a deep groan that seemed to resonate through the ice, swelling and building in an eerie counterpart the the howling wind. The sound seemed to echo on forever, a long, low tone like the cry of a giant before fading out with a dying gasp. Faint pinpricks clawed their way down Hunter’s spine as the sound faded.

“You know,” Nova called from behind him. “I can see why no one would want to explore this place. That just plain felt weird!”

“Spiders crawling down your back?” Hunter called, putting a hoof forward once more.

“More like centipedes. That was eerie!”

“No disagreement here!” he called, glancing back at Nova. The unicorn was about ten feet back, his body hunched against the howling winds. “How’re you doing?”

Nova lifted a hoof and waggled it from side to side. “Cold, but not bad!”

“Good!” He turned and began making his way forward again, striding into the wind, wings tight against his sides. He could see ice already formed at the edges of his visor, molten snow and wind having worked together to leave their trace. Ice was starting to build at the front of his muzzle, too, each breath adding a new sheen to the grating.

Overhead, The Hummingbird had taken up a holding pattern. Or, at least as close as Bolt could get it given the weather. It was sitting about a hundred feet up, bobbing in the wind.

Every so often, a faint flash would cross the landscape, a distant bolt of lightning arcing across the horizon. The distant cracks were impossible to hear over the storm, but the occasional flashes of light were welcome.

Almost there. He could see the tip of the crystal clearly now, it’s dark surface reflecting the occasional glimmer of lightning. It was hard to tell at a distance, but it almost looked as though there wasn’t even a dusting of snow on it, like it was somehow untou—

The ground gave way beneath him, and he snapped his wings out, the wind filling them and sending him flying back. He tucked them in almost instantly, but still found himself flying through the air, back across the glacier. He twisted, trying to bring his hooves under him and—

Slammed into an orange barrier just above the surface of the glacier, hard enough that he let out an “Oomph!” of surprise.

“Well what do you know?” Nova said as Hunter tumbled to the ice, staring up at the sky. “Looks like it’s good for catching ponies … but not wind. Huh. Good to know!”

“What would you have done if it did catch wind?” Hunter asked, pushing himself up on his hooves as Nova dispelled the shield.

“Probably see how much lift I could get out of it!” Nova replied, holding out a hoof to help him up. Hunter took it, careful to avoid the cleats. “You never know when you might need a temporary hang-glider. Or a parachute!”

“You should run that by Bolt once we’re back on The Hummingbird,” Hunter said, checking to make sure that the safety line had done its job. Thankfully, he wasn’t tangled in it, and none of his other gear had shifted in the brief tumble. “Something tells me there’s a way to do it. Some sort of parachute could come in handy!”

“Later!” Nova called. “I saw you drop. Gorge?”

“Gap at least. Wasn’t paying attention. Bodgy of me.”

“It happens.”

“Well, at least you were paying attention. Quick thinking with that shield.”

“Hey, it’s me.”

He rolled his eyes at Nova’s statement, turning his gaze back forward, looking for the bit that had given way.

Nothing. He frowned. I didn’t just dream it up. He took a few steps forward, watching as the gap he’d almost fallen into revealed itself. Good. I’m not going snowmad.

The gap was lowered, so much so it was almost camouflaged unless one was almost on top of it. The ice to either side rose, another peak in the frosted pastry layers, before plunging into an abyss that dropped at least a hundred feet down, maybe more. It was also far too wide to step across.

“We’ll have to go around!” he called, motioning at the gap. Nova nodded. “No telling how long it is!”

“Can’t you fly over?”

“Sure. Can you float over?”

“I could climb. You could anchor me.”

Hunter shook his head. “Not worth the risk! We go around if at all possible!”

They broke east first, since the gap looked narrower in that direction. It was slow going; there was no guarantee that the gap hadn’t widened past where the snow had broken away. He probed each hoofstep as they moved, checking to see if the thin crust fell away beneath him. Twice the chasm seemed to narrow … only to widen once more and force a slight retreat. But finally, after traveling what turned out to have only been a hundred feet or so, but felt far longer, the chasm narrowed enough that they were able to step across and move to the ice beyond.

“Hold up!”

Hunter turned to look back at Nova. “What?”

“Ice check.”

He glanced down at the ice build-up around his muzzle. “Oh. Thanks!” A solid hit with his hoof knocked it free, ice crystals flying away in the harsh winds. Nova did the same, a blow of his own shaking the ice loose and scattering it across the glacier.

“Not what you pictured when you signed on, is it?” Nova called as Hunter turned.

“No,” he called back. “But at least it isn’t boring.” Though there is something to be said for too interesting. The spotlight swept over them both once more, and he glanced up, pausing to check if Bolt was trying to warn them of something. The lights on the outside of The Hummingbird stayed the same, however, and so he resumed his forward pace.

The closer they came to the strange shard, the rougher the surface of the glacier seemed to become. He was forced to watch each step, to check to make certain that his cleats were secure before pushing ahead. The ice ahead him was riddled with cracks. And, he noted, largely free of snow, save in the deepest cracks and crevices.

Wait a moment. He slowed, peering out at the terrain before them. No, that’s definitely what it looks like.

“What?” Nova called from behind, a faint yellow glow reflecting off of the snow and ice as the unicorn lit his horn. “What is it?”

“The glacier,” he called back, his words carried on the wind. “There’s something under it. Or at least there was!” He pointed, outlining the faint rise in the ice around the odd, dark crystal, invisible from the air. “See it?”

Nova stepped alongside him and nodded. “You think it pushed its way out?”

“It’s possible. Could mean that the ice is unstable, though.” He tilted his head, trying to get the light to catch at the ice from different angles. “Some of that could just be sitting over an empty space now, depending on how it all settled.”

“You want me to take it?”

He shook his head. “No, you stay here and be an anchor, just in case.” He stomped a hoof for emphasis. “It’s a good possie. I’ll check it out. Pull me back if there’s trouble.”

“Got it.” Nova spread his hooves, faint pops echoing up from the ice as he dug his cleats in, the sound barely audible over the shrill winds.

Okay, here we go. He took each step slowly but carefully, not quite as lightly as he had when the ice had been covered by snow, but still light enough that he could duck back if needed. Nice and easy. One step, and then another. Ice shifted before him, dropping, and he tensed, but it only dropped a few inches before coming to a halt with a grinding moan.

Not helping. He could feel a faint unease working its way through him, crawling through his limbs and down his back like a slow, rolling bath of ice water. He took the next few steps carefully, pausing to make certain that the ice beneath him was stable before moving even closer to the crystal.

He was close enough now to get a good look at it. The cracks in the glacier around it definitely suggested that it had come from below the ice, forcing its way up, and recently. Within the last day, if he were to guess by the snow build-up. Maybe even the last few hours. Pretty positive proof that it’s tied to the Crystal Empire. Another shiver worked its way down his spine as he took a closer look at the crystal’s surface. And yet there’s no ice or snow on it. It looked completely pristine. Untouched.

He moved a few steps closer, carefully picking his way across the ice. The crystal had definitely shoved its way up from within the glacier, there was no doubting it now. A shiver rolled down his spine, not from cold, but from nervous energy. Where it had come from, he wasn’t sure. Maybe the ice? There was just something … unsettling in the air.

There. He was close enough now to peer down around the crack around the tip of the crystal, down into the gap between the glacier ice driven by the wedge. Light blossomed around him as The Hummingbird’s spotlight centered on him, and he let out a faint whistle.

As far down as the crevasse went, so did the crystal, growing upwards like a jagged spire.

“Well?” Nova called.

“Goes down at least a few dozen feet. The crystal goes all the way too.” He took a step back, away from the edge. Oddly enough, a faint sense of vertigo seemed to be moving through him, one that didn’t move away when he did.

Nerves, he told himself. Don’t get aggro just because this is weird. It’s sus, but given everything else that goes on, there’s a chance it’s not even related. Satisfied that the ice wasn’t about to drop out from beneath him, he stepped a bit closer to the crystal, shoving his hoof-cleats deep into the ice so that they wouldn’t slip, and took a closer look at the crystal itself.

It definitely looks like the ones beneath Canterlot, he thought as he watched the light play over its dark surface. Just … black. Well … sorta grey. But black right there, and … He paused. No, that was black a moment ago. Am I seeing things, or is the surface … Shifting?

He held himself still for a moment, locking his body as he stared down at the crystal. The unsettled feeling was even stronger now, a slow surge of energy through his body, like the calm before the rush of adrenaline as he looked past the flashes of distant lightning, past the spotlight, right at the crystal itself.

It was shifting. Not the crystal itself, but the color inside it, the darkest patch of black shifting and moving right before his very eyes, pulsing and flowing across the surface like oil. The crystal around it, while still dark, seemed almost grey by comparison, though pulling his eyes away from the shifting darkness showed it was definitely still a dark shade of crystal.

He swallowed, a faint, nervous tremble working its way down his shoulders and into his wings. This … This is weird. His eyes stayed on the shifting mass, watching as it moved inside the crystal like smoke. Or was it on the surface? It was hard to tell.

Another shiver ran down his spine, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling. Even his wings wanted to extend, to fluff up and make themselves look larger, and he frowned, tearing his eyes away from the crystal. Something’s wrong. He took a step back, his hooves crunching into the ice.

“Hunter?” Nova called, and he could hear the alarm in the unicorn’s voice. “What is it?”

“Something’s wrong,” he called, taking another step back. The unsettling feeling in his gut faded, his body relaxing. He took a step forward, and it returned. Back. It was gone again.

“Nova?” he called. “I think this is more your territory than mine!”

“What makes you say that?”

“Magic!” He glanced back at the unicorn, standing on solid ground. “Whatever this thing is, it’s got some sort of emotional field on it. It’s making me feel … alarmed.” He fanned his wings carefully, working some of the tension out of them, lines in his suit flaring as his magic kept him from lifting off in the wind. Nova shook his head as if he’d said something, but the howling wind cut him off. “What was that?”

“Like fear?” Nova took a few steps forward. “Terror?”

“No?” He glanced at the crystal again. “More like … unease. Fight-or-flight response. It’s not as bad right here, but there’s definitely something up with it.”

“Hang on. I’ll come to you.”

“Watch your step. Follow my tracks.” He brought his gaze back to the crystal. The black substance that was … In it? On it? He couldn’t say for sure. But it had sunk back, almost below the level of the surrounding ice. Still no guarantee that this is related to the Crystal Empire, but … Sealed king, black crystal … It does fit. The crystal seemed to pulse again as a bolt of lightning flashed through the sky, and he frowned. So if it is … now what do we do? Dig it out? Take it with us? Arrest it? His eyes slipped back to the dark cloud moving along its surface. And is that magic? A curse? That fear aura? He shook his head. We found something weird … but now what?

“Okay, yeah, that’s definitely magic,” Nova said, stepping slowly up beside him, his horn glowing. “It’s not like anything I’ve encountered before, but …” The yellow light at the end of his horn went out. “That’s definitely magic.”

“Well, at least I’m not cracking a fruity and getting scared by a hunk of rock,” Hunter said.

Nova shook his head. “No, it’s definitely magic of some kind. I can feel it. Be glad we’re suited up, or the effect would be a lot worse.” A distant bolt of lightning lit the glacier once more, a rumble following in its wake a few seconds later. “So … now what?”

“You’re the magic user. Any ideas?”

“Well …” Nova took another step forward. “It’s coming from the crystal, but it’s not a very powerful spell. It feels like … a cloud. No, fog. But it’s constant.” He took another step forward, and a shiver rolled down his back. “That’s creepy. Certainly fits the M.O. of our guy. At the same time …” His voice trailed off, lost to the shrill winds.

“At the same time what?” Hunter asked.

“It might not be,” Nova said, horn glowing faintly once more, as his head turned just enough so that he could glance in Hunter’s direction. “There’s magic coming from that crystal, but also going into it. I can’t tell if the fear effect we’re feeling is part of that or not.”

“What do you mean?”

“The crystal!” Nova called, pointing at the jutting tip. “There’s magic going into it and coming out. It could be that it’s a trap for a renegade spell of some kind, and we’re just feeling the ambient bleed. Or … it could be something else entirely.”

“What if I took a look at it?”

“What, you mean with your mod?”

“Yeah. Would I be able to tell?”

Nova tilted his head to one side, eyes narrowing. “Maybe? It lets you see ambient and innate magic, right?”

“Yeah.”

“You might be able to pick out something,” Nova said. “I mean, we can sit here and come up with ideas if you don’t want to do that, but I’m not much of a mage, remember?”

“Well, it’s not a trap, right?”

Nova shook his head again. “If anything, it feels more like a funnel. Not a strong one, but it’s definitely pulling some ambient magic into itself.”

“Well …” Hunter took a quick look around, including up at The Hummingbird. “I guess it’s that or throw rocks at it. We can save that for step two.”

“Very scientific.”

“Hey, I’m making this up as I go along. For all we know, this is completely unrelated, and we’re just standing here chinwagging while an ancient evil unicorn walks back to do battle with the rest of the team.”

“Yeah … I say we try the mod before we throw rocks, but that’s a good second step.”

“What about probing it with your magic?” Hunter asked, adjusting his stance.

“Better than throwing rocks, but I’d still rather try your mod first. If something goes horribly wrong—”

“It’ll happen to me?”

“Actually, it’ll happen to your mod.” Nova gave him a pointed look, and Hunter felt a brief flash of guilt.

“Sorry,” he said. “That was out of line.”

“Eh.” Nova shrugged. “Don’t worry about it.”

“No, I should,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m your commanding officer, and that was out of line.”

“Just use the mod already.”

“All right.” He tucked his wings tightly against his sides. “Get ready.” He reached down inside of himself, searching for the core of his magic and pushing it into the mod between his shoulders. For a second, nothing seemed to happen, and then a bubble of light burst out of him, radiating over the landscape and filling his vision with a familiar, glowing blur.

A familiar, glowing blur … and darkness. Darkness mixed with tightly-woven lines he couldn’t even begin to identify, all wrapped around a crystal shard that sunk deep into the glacier, pulsing with every passing moment. And inside of it …

“What?” Nova asked. “What do you see?”

“It’s …” He pulled his eyes back, looking at the air around them. He could see the magic of the fear field Nova had talked about, faint, purple lines in the sky that floated like the tendrils of a jellyfish. But there was a smear to everything else in the air, like he was looking through smudged glass. Except that the smudge wasn’t even, it was angled.

Angled right back toward the crystal. “You’re right,” he said. “It’s sucking up magic.” There was a very faint glow to the air where the magic neared the edges of the crystal … and then …

Gone. Sucked into a tangle of spellwork. “There’re spells all over the crystal,” he said. “Or maybe in it? It’s hard to tell.” He took a step forward. There was something behind them too, something all the tangled lines seemed to lead to. Something that was pulsing, growing brighter and darker with every passing moment, swelling outward through the crystal’s lattice-like spellwork in a rush and—

“Down!” He reached out and grabbed Nova with one foreleg, jerking him down to the ice as the bright void of purple at the center of the crystal pulsed. A titanic crack split the air, as if the glacier itself was coming apart, and he caught sight of the telltale glow of magic from Nova just moments before a slim, crescent flash split the air, thrumming as it threw back multiple black shards of the shattered crystal. Fragments passed around the shield, however, the air humming as they shot past. Several hit nearby, skipping off of the ice and sending small chips of frozen glacier cutting through the air in their wake.

The crescent shield winked out, but the immediate danger was past. The top of the crystal had blown completely apart, pulverizing the ice around it. And from it, an oily, smoke-like substance was leaking into the air, somehow unaffected by the wind around it.

You …” The word was a hiss, barely audible over the wind, but still somehow dripping with menace and anger. “Equestrians …” There was no mistaking the anger in the voice now, even as the small cloud of shadow began to swell. “Cry—

The shade’s words cut off in a howling screech of pain as a beam of bright yellow cut into it, boiling a neat hole through the center of the shadows and smoke. Still howling, it shot off across the surface of the glacier, floating just above the surface and darting back and forth in a zig-zag pattern.

“What?”Nova asked as Hunter glanced at him. “That’s definitely our guy. Unless you can think of any other smoke creatures hanging about in strange crystals that might fit our briefing.” Above, The Hummingbird was turning, spotlight trying to track the fleeing shade.

“And you couldn’t just grab it!?” he asked, scrambling forward and down the side of the ice, hoping that his footing didn’t slip or shift.

“Princesses said we couldn’t beat it. Blasting it seemed like a pretty good move,” Nova said, following. “It was that or let it do something. Since when are you the hard-edge?”

“I …” He paused, slowing in his steps. The strange sense of unease was gone. “I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “Sorry.” Up ahead, the spotlight was still chasing after the shade, zipping back and forth across the surface of the glacier at high speed.

“Blame it on the magic,” Nova said as he caught up with him, horn aglow. Faint patches in the ice were lighting up ahead of them, the unicorn probing the surface of the glacier with his magic. A bit excessive, but at the moment … “Another good reason to blast it.”

The glacier shook, a deep cracking noise filling the air behind them, and Hunter glanced back to see the remains of the crystal crumbling, breaking apart in slow motion. Whether it was the lack of its master or some other cause he couldn’t say, but he could see the immediate result: the ice that had been pushed up around it was beginning to collapse inward.

Oh, that’s not good. He could feel the ice beneath his hooves starting to shake as the cascading crash of settling ice built behind them. Nothing seemed to be shifting where they were moving, but at the same time …

We can’t chase this thing across a glacier, he thought. We need to drive it.

“Nova!” he called. “Shoot it again! Drive it off of the glacier!”

Nova skidded to a halt, his hooves kicking up snow and flakes of ice as he took aim. A yellow beam shot across the glacier, scything across the ice with a burst of steam to the right of the retreating shade. It jerked to the left, and Nova followed, his beam passing ahead and enveloping the path forward in another spray of steam. It fell to the glacier seconds later, already ice once more. But in the wake of Nova’s beam, a narrow channel had been cut across the ice.

The smoky shade sped up, darting for the side of the glacier. Nova fired twice more, his long beams cutting around the shade and several times almost striking it, driving it with greater urgency toward the forest. Then, with a final shriek, it vanished between the trees. An eerie stillness seemed to descend over the glacier as the steam from Nova’s strikes faded.

“Okay,” Nova said, looking at him as the glow around his horn faded. “It’s off the glacier. Now what?”

“Now we can track him easier.” He stared at the spot where the shade had vanished through the trees, fixing it in his mind. “We’ll move faster over the snow, and without as much heavy wind. And he’s got to be leaving traces of some kind I can follow.” I hope. He began to make his way across the glacier, choosing to head straight for the side rather than across to where their quarry had gone. “We track him, find him, maybe even catch him. But at the very least, we hunt him.” The edge of the glacier was closer now, and he spread his wings slightly, bounding ahead. “And we’ll be on solid ground.”

“Plus, we know he’s got to be wanting to head west,” Nova added. “So we can try and track him that way. As quick as he was moving across the glacier, either of us could run faster.”

“I’m counting on that,” Hunter added. “Plus …” He shook his head in the direction of The Hummingbird, which was still panning its searchlight across the mountainside. Suddenly, it doubled back, the running lights flashing several times.

“Bolt’s spotted it! Onya Bolt!” Hunter cried as he let himself surge forward, his legs kicking up snow as he darted through the wide gaps between the trees. Wind caught the fine powder, blowing it back over him and across the mountainside. Ahead, some ways off, he could make out a faint cloud of black darting away from The Hummingbird’s spotlight.

The hunt was on.

Author's Note:

Poke the hissing thing, Hunter. Poke it!

It's a good thing funding for this team is insane. They've got to have all the equipment. And even that isn't enough (as the ice checks show).

Seriously, ice build-up is a real problem. In the Bering Sea, crab boats will hire extra deckhands just to run around the boat with axes chopping ice off of the boat. The wind is so cold that the spray hits the boat and freezes. If you're not careful, it'll build to be enough to block machinery, capsize the boat, or even make the boat so brittle it snaps under the force of the waves.

Yeah. Safety courses in my 8th grade class showed us a Coast Guard video of that last one. Came down atop a wave and snap. Two pieces. Down it went. Luckily the crew had already seen it coming and was abandoning ship (that's why the chopper was there to get the footage).

As always, new chapters on Tuesdays and Fridays, as well as every hundred upvotes! If you're enjoying the story so far, don't forget to check out my website or my published works!

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