• Published 20th Jul 2019
  • 3,164 Views, 164 Comments

Freeport Venture: Old Wounds - Chengar Qordath

When Sunset Shimmer's father arrives in Freeport hunting a warlock he's obsessed with capturing, Sunset finds herself dragged into the case no matter how much she wants to stay out of it.

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Old Wounds 1

I hadn’t been idle for the month or so after I got back from the North. Being gone for a couple months had left me with plenty of minor messes to clean up, and Puzzle had pretty much dropped off the radar to put his business back in order. Not to mention there was all the work to get started on my school. I would’ve thought that getting my funding squared away would solve all the problems, but all it really did was replace them with a ton of new ones: finding and buying the land for the school, getting an architect to design it, a construction company to do the actual building, sourcing all the materials I would need ... and that was just getting the actual building. Turning that empty building into a school was a whole other mess.

Thankfully, I had a few less stressful side projects to keep my mind occupied. First and foremost, my new leg. Celestia and I had done a very good of getting all the basics hammered out, but there was still plenty of room for fine-tuning. Not to mention that now that I had all the basics down I could experiment a bit.

One of those experiments was currently trundling its way along the floor of my lab: a miniature golem, if you could even call it that. After all, golems were much more sophisticated than what I’d made. All this thing could do was walk forwards and backwards. It wasn’t useful for very much other than testing a whole lot of designs for artificial legs and studying how they moved. A full-size prototype might’ve been a bit more accurate, but a quarter-size one was a lot easier to work with. Once I had a solid proof of concept I could scale it up for more advanced tests.

However, the small size did come with one or two complications I hadn’t anticipated. The door to my lab opened, and my apprentice Kukri Doo stepped in. “Shimmer-mare, this one was wondering if—” Whatever question or errand had brought her here fled from her mind when she spotted my miniature golem. Her ears perked up. “What’s that?”

I suppose I should’ve known it would get her attention. Being curious and asking lots of questions was pretty much a job requirement for apprentices. “Just a test golem to try out a couple different walking models. I’m not sticking anything on my leg before putting it through a lot of prototype testing.”

She zipped over, he eyes wide as studied it. “Look at it’s little legs! It’s so tiny!” She accidentally got in the golem’s way, and it lightly bumped up against her legs like an affectionate cat. “What did you even base this off of?! It’s adorable!”

I snickered as I watched her gush. “I just kind of hammered something together. Not that hard to just take the basic leg design, multiply it by four, and then make a simple chassis to hold them all together.”

Kukri blinked and stared up at me. “Really? No anatomical models or blueprints or anything like that? You just ... made it?”

I shrugged. “It’s just a basic prototype, and I have a bit of experience in the field.” Not to mention a lifetime of experience at golemancy thanks to the time I’d used mind magic to take down a rogue golem-builder turned pirate. I wasn’t all that proud of how I’d gotten the knowledge, but now that I had it I might as well put it to good use.

“That’s true.” Kukri’s eyes flicked down to my artificial leg, then quickly turned away. I knew it was a bit of a sore point for her. Me too, if I’m honest. It’d probably be good for Kukri to get some kind of therapy after everything that happened in the North, but that wasn’t exactly a topic I could broach with her parents. I doubt they would be happy to hear that what was supposed to be a safe and simple field trip wound up traumatizing their daughter badly enough to need therapy. As it was, her parents were upset enough to find out their daughter had wound up in the middle of a warzone.

In any case, even if she was hurting she was a resilient kid and she bounced back fast. She grinned down at my little test golem. “Is it weird that this one wants to hug that thing?”

I snorted and shook my head. “Maybe a little, but by now we’re used to dealing with weird. After all, Strumming is working here.”

Kukri snorted softly. “This one still can’t believe how much junk food she has.” She pulled out a candy bar and started idly munching on it. “Not that it’s complaining. There’s enough that she doesn’t miss a few bars.”

I sighed and shook my head. “Don’t ruin your supper.” How Strumming could eat so many chips and so much candy without gaining any weight remained a mystery to me.

“This one knows how to be responsible,” Kukri mumbled just a touch petulantly. My cute little apprentice was growing up, almost at the point of being a teenager. She was certainly starting to show the warning signs she’d be acting like one soon.

Fortunately, she was still young enough to have her moments of innocent cuteness. She grinned down at the golem. “Can this one learn how to make one of these for itself? It is your apprentice and all.”

Ah. That was a bit of a thorny question. Back when I’d recovered Metal Mome’s golem designs, I’d made a point of keeping them from the Council and destroying all of his blueprints. Even if I was using some of that knowledge now, I wasn’t eager to have it get out into the world for everyone to use. Especially since the Council would figure out I’d held the information back.

On the other hoof ... I wasn’t sharing it with the entire world, just Kukri. She was my apprentice, and I trusted her. Not sharing my knowledge with her wouldn’t look good. Fortunately, I could put that issue off for the moment. “Maybe, but we've got a lot to cover before you need to worry about golemancy. Walk before you can run.”

Kukri snorted softly. “Fitting, considering what this thing does. Still...” She watched my golem walking along with wide, eager eyes. “Please teach this one, Shimmer-mare? Please please pleeeeeeeease? That’s the most amazing thing this one has ever seen, and it really wants to be able to make its own someday. This one will clean your entire tower with a toothbrush if that’s what it has to do to learn how to make one of those!”

I smiled and gave her a quick pat on the head. “You don’t have to do something like that.” Aside from the occasional bit of light discipline, making Kukri do chores or menial labor was a waste of her time and potential. Aside from lab cleanup, but that was as much a lesson as a chore. “Well, even if you’re years away from being able to mess around with your own golems, I suppose there’s no harm is laying a few basic foundations. To start with—”

Because the universe has a twisted sense of humor, someone picked that exact moment to knock at my front door. Kukri let out an exasperated sigh. “The Heartstrings-mare will get it.”

“She’s having lunch with Puzzle.” I gave her a quick pat on the back. “Relax, it’s probably just the mail or someone trying to sell me something.” Big shock, ever since the massive influx of wealth from helping to take down a dragon, I’d been bombarded by investment offers, exiled Zebrican princes who needed help reclaiming their throne, and even a couple of loonies who wanted to try and court me so they could marry into wealth.

“This one still thinks we should add a spray bottle to your front door,” Kukri grumbled. “We could use something relatively harmless like water for the nice one, nasty spoiled milk or rotten eggs for the ones who annoy us, and for really bad ones...”

“No, Kukri.” Not that the idea wasn’t a bit tempting, but there was no point in making enemies when we didn’t have to. Not to mention it would probably just be a matter of time before she accidentally used it on someone important.

“Yeah yeah, this one knows...” She sighed and trudged over to get the door, shifting into her usual disguise as she did so. I’ve always heard that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery, so her current disguise was pretty flattering. It wasn’t exactly a carbon copy of me, but it was close enough that most strangers would assume we were related. Considering her mild case of hero worship, I’m sure Kukri didn’t see that as a problem.

While she did that, I quickly put my little walking golem away. I wanted that project kept quiet for the moment, and while it was probably just another one of the usual annoyances there was always a chance I’d need to talk to whoever this visitor was. Hay, for all I knew, it could be Puzzle or a Council Rep at the front door.

I heard the front door open and Kukri put on her best friendly voice. “Hi! Can this one help you?”

I tensed up as soon as I heard who answered her. It had been years since I’d heard that voice, but there are some voices you never forget. “Yes, hello, I...” He trailed off uncertainly, no doubt staring down at my apprentice and the uncanny resemblance. “You’re her apprentice, right? The one who’s a changeling?”

“This one’s Kukri Doo, apprentice to Magus Sunset Shimmer.” I could hear the touch of wariness in her voice. “Are you here to see her?”

“I, ah yes.” He chuckled softly. “Sorry, it’s just ... well the resemblance is uncanny enough that for a moment I was wondering if I had a second daughter. Or if I’d somehow become a grandfather far too soon.” He cleared his throat. “Right, I should probably introduce myself before you think I’m a crazy pony. I’m—”

I stepped into the room. “Archmagus Solar Shimmer of the Eastern March.”

Solar blinked, then looked over at me with a hopeful smile. “‘Dad’ works just fine too.”

“Mmm.” I was tempted to point out that he’d pretty much defaulted on having any claim to that title after years of absence, but I really wasn’t in the mood to drag up a bunch of old baggage. Granted, unless I missed my guess, that was exactly why he was here. The only question was if he’d stopped by to talk about the fact that he and Scarlett were getting divorced or if the far less charitable but far more likely explanation was true: Steel Rose was in Freeport, and he wanted my help in his crazy obsessive warlock hunt.

Kukri’s eyes flicked back and forth between us. Solar did have a pretty clear family resemblance, with his coat color being just a touch darker than mine. The big differences were a mane that had gone white early, and the seemingly perpetual unshaved scruff on his chin and neck. You’d think he would have at least cleaned up a bit before seeing me for the first time in years. Judging by his heavy travel robes, he’d only just gotten into Freeport. Our winters were far too mild to need any sort of heavy clothing, although that might just be a precaution against the next winter rainstorm considering how quickly those could come in. Even if they weren’t cold, they did drop enough rain that going outside without heavy clothing was a bad idea.

Solar hesitated in the doorway, shuffling in place. After the silence lasted just long enough to make it awkward, he asked. “Ah, may I come in?”

“Right, of course.” Even if I had a feeling this conversation might end with me tossing him out, there was no reason not to be civil until we got to the point. Who knew? Maybe breaking up with Scarlett had been the wakeup call he needed, and now he was here to make amends. I wasn’t going to hold my breath, but I’d be lying if I said part of me wasn’t hoping for it. “Kukri, could you put on some tea?” I glanced back at Solar. “You like Earl Grey, right?”

Solar smiled. “You remembered.” Considering how good my memory was, that didn’t mean as much as he seemed to think it did.

“Sure thing, Shimmer-mare.” She curiously glanced over at Solar. “Was there anything else you wanted? We have ... um ...biscuits, chips, candy...”

“Just a bit of tea for now,” Solar answered. “Though I was hoping I could treat you to a meal out a bit later, Sunset. It’s been a long time since we had a chance to catch up, and it seems like I missed a lot.”

I waited until Kukri left the room before answering. “Yeah, it has been.” It was taking a real effort to keep things nice and at least semi-friendly. I didn’t want to rip into him when he was clearly trying hard to be nice, but I had plenty of experience telling me that it was just a matter of time before this went wrong. “So what brings you to Freeport?”

He took a deep breath. “It’s been years since the last time I saw you.” His eyes flicked down to my legs. “And ... I heard about everything that happened in the North. Princess Celestia and Scarlett both wrote to me about it. I wish I could’ve gotten there in time to help, but I was on the wrong side of Gryphonia. By the sound of things, it was all over by the time I heard anything.”

“Pretty much.” It was still kind of crazy to think so much had happened in so little time. I guess that’s how it always is with those sorts of crazy adventures. My whole life gets turned upside down in the course of a couple weeks, and then I need to sort it all out and get back to normal.

He took a seat in one of my guest chairs, his eyes flicking down to my legs again. “That, um ... I suppose I could congratulate you on doing so well with your prosthetic. If Celestia hadn’t mentioned it in her letter I never would have guessed. Are you ... are you doing alright? Is there anything I can do to help?”

I suppose I should give him some credit for at least trying to act like a father, even if it was about a decade too late. “I’m fine. You?”

He coughed and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Oh, well enough I suppose. Just ... well I’ve been very busy.”

“You always were,” I muttered. “Didn’t think that would ever change.”

Solar winced, and things went quiet for a bit. Kukri came in with tea, but beat a quiet retreat as soon as she picked up on the mood of the room. Solar glanced down at his teacup, then sighed and shook his head. “Sunset, I haven’t seen you in years. I’d really appreciate if we could not have this immediately turn into a fight. Maybe even spend a day or two together like an actual father and daughter.”

That’d be nice, but... “Solar, like you said, it’s been years since the last time I’ve seen you. You might have noticed how I’m not a kid anymore, but a full-grown adult. You can’t just leave for five years, then expect everything to be back to normal when you come back. You and Scarlett are getting divorced because you’re never around, and I never even had the chance to get to know you as well as she did.”

Solar’s gaze dropped to the floor. “Sunset, I...”

The guilty act wasn’t working on me. Well okay, it probably wasn’t an act. But just because he felt really bad about abandoning his family didn’t make up for the fact that he’d done it. Still, maybe it was a start. “So are you here to apologize and try to make amends?”

He took a deep breath and met my eyes. “I would like to make things right. I know I haven’t been there for you or your mother. It wasn’t ... I never meant to abandon my family.”

“But you did.” I was tempted to twist the knife a bit more, but there wasn’t much point to it. He already looked so guilty it’d just be kicking him while he was down. “But fine, you want to try and make up for that. I’m not saying you get instant forgiveness just for realizing you messed up and asking for it, but I’ll give you a chance to earn it.”

He nodded, and a bit of the tension left his shoulders. He picked up his cup of tea and took a sip. “Good. We do have a lot to catch up on. Like you said, you’re a full-grown adult now, one who has her own life in Freeport. I’d like to at least hear a bit about it. The letters from Scarlett and Celestia are a poor substitute for actually spending time with you.”

I took a deep breath, then settled into the chair opposite him. “Fine. If that’s what you really want to do, I’m sure I can make some time for you.” It sounded nice. What vague memories I had of Solar weren’t anywhere near as troubled as Scarlett. Of course, it was probably a lot easier to keep all the memories happy when there were so few of them. Stopping in Canterlot for a couple days, then vanishing for another year to chase after his obsession.

Which brought it all back to the one issue that was going to hang over his visit until I got a straight answer. “So is Steel Rose in Freeport?”

Solar winced and set the teacup down hard enough to make it rattle. Which I suppose answered that question. “Sunset, that’s not...”

I crossed my forelegs over my chest and hit him with an uncompromising glare. “Yes or no answer. Is she here?”

He slumped down into his chair with a weary sigh. “Yes, she’s in Freeport.”

I’d suspected it from the moment he showed up on my doorstep. Steel would be far from the first warlock to settle into Freeport, or at least come passing through. Still, the confirmation stung a lot more than I thought it would. I guess despite knowing it wouldn’t happen, a part of me had still hoped he was on the level. “So this visit isn’t about me at all. Not like you’d ever bother to actually spend time with your family unless Steel Rose happens to be nearby.”

Solar groaned and ran a hoof through his mane. “That’s not fair, Sunset. I owe it to Gingersnap and Golden Aster to stop Steel Rose. I can’t let their killer go free to keep causing more death and destruction. Just because I have duties doesn’t mean I don’t care about you and your mother. I do, and more than anything I wish I could spend more time with both of you.”

“Clearly you don’t want it ‘more than anything,’” I pointed out. “You don’t want it more than you want to take down Steel Rose.” I decided to apply one of those bits of advice Puzzle had shared with me a while back and connected the two things Solar said he wanted to work out what he was up to. “Then let me guess: you know Steel’s somewhere in Freeport but you don’t know where exactly and you don’t have any local contacts like I do, so you come to me to ask for help, because as the local magus I could certainly help you dig up any big nasty warlocks that might be hiding out in my city. Why not combine your obsession with a little bit of father-daughter bonding time? Who knows, maybe this time you’ll catch her with my help? We’ll bond, we’ll make up, and then you’ll finally get time to spend time with your little filly like you always wanted to. Did I miss any details or get anything wrong?”

Solar didn’t say anything, just sitting there staring down at his half-empty teacup. As the silence dragged on, it wasn’t hard to figure out why he wasn’t answering. He wasn’t willing to outright lie to me, but he couldn’t find out any way to tell the truth that wasn’t admitting I was right. I gave him enough time to try to talk himself out of it, but once it was clear that wasn’t happening I let him have it. “I think it’s time for you to leave. You can come back once you’ve finally dealt with Steel Rose, assuming you ever do.”

Solar let out a heavy sigh and slowly rose from his seat. “I’m sorry, Sunset. It was nice to see you again, even if it was just for a bit. Maybe...” He shook his head, then slowly headed for the door. He took his time, almost like he was hoping I would change my mind or relent at the last second. I didn’t.

Bad enough that he’d abandoned his family to chase after that obsession. There was no way I would ever let myself get pulled into it along with him.

After Solar’s visit, I went back to my training room to let off some steam. I’d been doing a lot more practice with my combat magic since getting back from the North. On top of all the changes to my personal magic from whatever happened with Chainbreaker and the spirits of its wielders, I’d gotten several painful lessons about how much room I still had to improve. Not to mention I needed to make sure all my combat reflexes were still sharp now that I had a new leg.

Spellcasting practice was easy enough, even if I’d had to upgrade the safety spells on my room. The old wards wouldn’t have lasted very long now that I was playing with a lot more raw power. However, the real tricky part was getting used to using a sword. Swordsmareship hadn’t been part of Celestia’s curriculum, and even if I was mostly a magus I’d be a fool to ignore just how useful Chainbreaker could be in a fight.

Before the trip up north, I’d been getting a few informal close quarters combat lessons from Kukri’s mother, but things had been a bit awkward with Knives since I got back. Not outright hostile or anything, but I wasn’t quite comfortable asking her for any favors while she was still upset with me for putting her daughter into mortal peril. Even if I had a trainer, there was the issue of Chainbreaker itself. The Council really didn’t want me taking it out of the museum unless it was an emergency, and a practice session hardly qualified. I’d gotten a couple blacksmiths to try and make a passable replica for sparring and practice sessions, but none of them had the same feel as the real sword. Still, they sufficed for getting down the basics.

I was in the middle of working on how to try and combine swordplay and spellwork when Strumming knocked on the door. “It okay if I come in? Don’t wanna get set on fire or have my head lopped off.”

I set the replica sword to the side, and used a quick spell to get rid of the sweat I’d been building up. One of the hidden perks of being a pyromancer, I could do a fair bit to regulate my own body temperature. “Come on in.”

Strumming stepped into the room, weaving around the disfigured and incinerated training targets. “Ah, the good old Bacon venting special. Though I guess I should’ve seen that coming.” She flopped down onto an empty bench next to my discarded robes. “Puzzle got word about halfway through lunch that your dad was in town, and we figured you’d be his first port of call. Bug Boy’s doing some digging to see if he can turn up anything about Steel Rose. Seemed a pretty safe bet that if he’s here...”

“Yeah, she is too,” I confirmed.

Strumming shifted around so she was lying on her back. “Ooof, too much pie at lunch. But yeah, judging by the way you went into full pissed-off training mode after he left, I’m gonna take a wild guess and say dear old dad asked you to help him catch that warlock he abandoned you to go after, and you told him to go feather himself.”

“Pretty much.” I sat down on the bench next to her, using my magic to retrieve a glass of water.

“Figures. Really, he should’ve seen that answer coming a mile away.” Strumming shifted from lying on her back to lying on her side. “Although ... well you know how it’s one of my things to be the friend who tells you stuff you need to know but don’t wanna hear? Well, I think this is one of those times I need to do my thing.”

“Better be sure about that,” I grumbled.

“I am.” She shifted around to sit on the bench properly, putting on a bit more of a professional air instead of her usual lackadaisical eccentricity. She really was taking this seriously. “There’s a warlock in your city—one responsible for the deaths of two magi, and it’s not like she’s been a model citizen since then. A warlock who’s managed to evade capture for a decade and change despite being chased by a very determined-to-the-point-of-unhealthy-obsession archmage. Given that track record, she can’t be up to anything good.”

“Is there a point you’re trying to make?” I growled.

“Yup.” She kept her gaze fixed on me. “Let’s just put all that personal baggage to one side for the moment. You don’t wanna get mixed up in daddy’s obsession, I get that. Can’t blame you for wanting to stay well clear considering what a mess it’s made of his life. But just because he’s got an unhealthy obsession doesn’t mean Steel’s not a warlock who needs to be stopped. What’re you gonna do if she’s planning some dark ritual that’ll kill a dozen kids or something? Just let her get away with it because of your dad issues? Obviously not. Yeah, we don’t know if that’s what she’s up to, but she’s a warlock. It’s a pretty safe bet that whatever she’s up to is some sort of horrible dark magic thing that will get innocent ponies killed if someone doesn’t stop her.”

That ... was probably right. I admittedly hadn’t done a ton of digging into the whole Steel Rose thing, precisely because I didn’t want anything to do with Solar’s obsession. But yeah, she was a warlock who was dangerous enough to take down two Magi who were good enough to be old school friends of Solar, and then stay ahead of him for this long. That sounded like a seriously dangerous warlock.

If a warlock like that came into my city ... yeah, of course I’d try to take them down. Which meant that the only reason I wanted to sit this one out was because of all the issues stemming from Solar’s involvement. On the one hoof, it made total sense to not get mixed up in that. On the other ... yeah, if I sat this one out and innocent ponies died, that was on me. It’s not like I could go to the families of the dead and tell them ‘sorry, but I had some personal baggage with my father so I couldn’t save them.’

Which meant ... “Dammit, I really don’t want to get involved in this.”

“Welcome to the world of being a responsible adult with a conscience and sense of ethics. Means you gotta do the right thing even when you really don’t wanna.” A hint of a humorless grin tugged at her lips. “Sucks, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah.” I took a deep breath, then slowly let it out. “But doing the wrong thing would be even worse. So I guess I’ll need to talk to Solar again. And do some research on Steel Rose.”

“Pretty much,” Strumming agreed. “Figured it might play out that way, so I took the liberty of getting a few things together.” She reached into her saddlebag and pulled out two files. “Old EIS records on Steel Rose, and the info Puzzle dug up a while back.”

“EIS files?” I took both the folders. “Are you supposed to have those when you don’t work for them anymore?”

Strumming shrugged. “Well, I was allowed to have them back when I did work for them, and nobody asked for them back when I gave them my two weeks’ notice. Not really a lot in there that Bug Boy didn’t already know anyway.”

I frowned down at the papers. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised you both had files on the Steel Rose case just sitting around.”

“It’s like we saw this coming,” Strumming agreed. “It’s not that rare for warlocks to show up in Freeport at some point, whether it’s to lie low or if they’re just passing through. And if Steel and your dad are both here, it seemed pretty likely you’d get mixed up in it one way or the other. This was one of the first things we hammered out a contingency plan for years back.”

“Right.” From the instant Solar’d shown up outside my door, I’d been pretty sure it meant that Steel was in Freeport. Much as I’d hoped that wasn’t the case, I would’ve been surprised if it wasn’t. “Well, if I am getting mixed up in this, might as well do it properly.” I opened up the first of the files and started flipping through it. The EIS had been very thorough, and Puzzle’s folder looked just as thick. “I’ll go over these properly in a bit, but think you could give me a quick sum-up of the most important bits?”

“Can do, boss-mare.” Strumming snapped off a cheeky salute. “Like you can guess from the name, Steel’s specialty is metal manipulation. No history on her before the assassination of your dad’s two friends, so we’re assuming the name’s an alias. Pretty common for warlocks, gotta go with a name that inspires fear in the masses. Nobody’s gonna take their new dark overlord of doom seriously with a name like Sunshine Smiles. Credit where it’s due, ‘Steel Rose’ is a lot more grounded than the usual fare like Dreadspike Bloodkiller.

“Anyway, considering she goes around wearing a full steel facemask and has an alias, it’s no surprise we can’t pin down any solid history on her.” Strumming frowned down at a photo of the warlock. “Nothing that looks like a likely prior ID, like some small-timer with a similar MO. Looked at a few other usual suspects, friends and family of baddies Aster and Ginger took down; nothing there either. Doesn’t have any known association with some sort of evil cult either. Our best guess is Steel’s a pacter of some sort.”

“Joy.” I knew enough warlock hunting to be familiar with the basic trends. Warlocks usually came in one of four flavors: magical criminals who slowly built their way up from minor nuisance to serious threat, members of crazy dark magic cults, magi who turned bad, and pacters. Out of all the warlocks, pacters were the trickiest to deal with. Ponies who’d stumbled their way into making a pact with some big nasty being, gotten their hooves on an evil artifact, stuff like that.

The big issue when it came to dealing with pacters was all the unknowns. Criminals with a long slowly escalating rap sheet were easy to figure out, as were fallen magi and cultists. Pacters ... well it was kind of a catch-all category that covered a lot of different things. Since they got their power boost from another being or some magical item, each one operated differently. Not to mention a lot of pacters had a ton of power but little discipline or experience in using it, which tended to end in them doing something really stupid and incredibly destructive.

Even if you did take a pacter down, that just left a new raft of issues to deal with. Starlight’s trial in absentia was still working its way through Freeport’s court system, despite the fact that I’d come back to Freeport with a full signed confession and plea deal. It was hard to tell the difference between an evil pony who’d deliberately sought out dark magic and one who just stumbled across a pretty necklace and put it on, blissfully unaware that it would corrupt them into a cackling lunatic. For all we knew, Steel Rose could just be an innocent kid who was nothing more than a meat-puppet for some artifact or demon.

Then again, that was only an issue if we got the point of needing a trial. While Magus Corps policy was to try and take pacters alive if practical since they might be innocent, sometimes they were dangerous enough that they just had to be stopped. Steel had managed to kill two pretty skilled magi in a straight fight, and had a pretty long and infamous career since then. I wasn’t out for blood, but if I had to get involved in this mess, I wanted to close the book on it.

“Any known associates or leads on what she’s doing in Freeport?” I asked.

“Nothing solid in the files.” Strumming shrugged. “Bug Boy got to work on digging for info in all the usual places, so he might have something to go on in a bit. We kinda figured you’d get involved, and even if you didn’t we could always just forward the info to your dad with a nice little friends-and-family discount. One advantage of the whole robe and mask thing, she does kinda stand out in a crowd.” She trailed off with a frown. “Unless she ditches the getup for day-to-day stuff, which would make a lot of sense to do when we don’t know what she looks like mask-less.”

“It would.” I agreed. My eyes flicked down to the files one more time, and I realized there was one other thing I’d have to do. Something I really wasn’t looking forward to. “If we’re making a target of Steel Rose, it’d make a lot more sense to work with Solar.”

“Yup,” Strumming agreed, sounding about as enthusiastic as I felt. “Our files are good, but I’m sure he knows all kinds of little details that never made it into an official report. You never know when that little stuff might matter.”

“Not to mention there’s no sense splitting our efforts,” I pointed out.

“Yeah, long as everyone’s on the same page.” Strumming leaned in a bit closer. “Which ... kinda brings me to the one other big thing I figure I should give you a heads-up on. Solar’s under internal investigation. The Archmagus of Canterlot put one of her top ponies on it. Naturally it’s supposed to be double-secret, but you know how us spies love finding out things we’re not supposed to know about.”

“Actually, I’d be more surprised if he wasn’t.” I sighed and ran a hoof through my mane. “He’s been neglecting his family to the point of abandonment for years to chase after Steel, I’m gonna bet he hasn’t tended to all of his Archmagus duties either. The investigation is probably meant to build up an official paper trail and gather enough evidence to justify a special conclave to remove him from office. Even if he hasn’t screwed up bad enough to make it completely clear he needs to be removed, I’m sure there are plenty of ponies in the Corps who’d love to have a new Archmagus spot open up.”

“Wouldn’t bet against that being part of it,” Strumming agreed. “Politics is like pudding: there’s always room for it. But that’s not the whole picture. After all, the Corps generally doesn’t object to an Archmage chasing after a dangerous warlock with multiple mage kills. Taking down the really nasty baddies is one of the things they’re supposed to do. Thing is, they’ve started thinking there’s more to it than Solar’s saying.”

I felt something vaguely sickening settling into the pit of my stomach as I started to guess what it might be. “What do you mean?”

“It’s not pretty,” Strumming warned me. “Quick sum-up, once Steel kept herself ahead of Solar for a good while, the other mages started putting pressure on him. Started off real nice, offering him additional resources to help bring her in. He turned them down. They suggested he reassign someone else to the case, and he ignored them. They went from asking and suggesting to telling, with similar results.”

She took a deep breath. “That’s when Scarlett sent one of her top agents to try and take down Steel independent of him. Guess she figured it was her best shot at getting her husband back. The agent came back without Steel a couple months later. She’s been mum about what happened, but she had her first meeting with a divorce attorney a couple days later. Oh, and Scarlett put that magus on a new long-term assignment up north, so with the new mess up there it’ll be years before anyone can push him for info.”

“Which made the others suspect she found something bad,” I finished. “And now they think it might not just be a case of an Archmagus who’s a bit too determined to take down this one warlock he has a personal grudge against.”

“Kinda changes the whole picture,” Strumming agreed. “Sounds crazy to suggest maybe he’s gone bad, but he’s spent years filing really vague reports and refusing to let any outsiders in. Something about it doesn’t smell right, the Corps wants answers, and they’re just about out of patience. If he won’t give them answers, they have to make up their own.” She took a deep breath. “Solar’s not just in danger of losing his Archmagus title, he could be expelled from the Corps entirely or even end up on their rogue list.”

I shook my head. “That can’t be—I mean, he’s completely obsessed with taking down Steel Rose. It wouldn’t make sense for...” I trailed off.

Because that was the problem. It did make sense. A decade, and no closer to catching her than when he stated. Not even any substantive information about her reported back to the Corps. Locking out anyone else from getting involved or helping. Something about it didn’t add up, and with nothing to go on, of course the Corps would fear the worst.

There were too many scenarios that would sound all too plausible to them. Maybe Solar was so obsessed he was willing to obstruct efforts to bring Steel to justice so he could get his personal payback. Maybe he’d started dipping into dark magic after Steel stayed ahead of him for too long. Maybe he was making some dubious deals with other warlocks to try and catch her.

Or ... or maybe it was all a lie. Maybe he’d gone bad long before then, and his two best friends had found out about it. Maybe he’d killed them off to cover it up, made up a warlock to pin the crime on, then used the hunt for Steel as an excuse to head out into the field and do as he pleased with no supervision. It sounded completely insane, but it wouldn’t be the craziest thing that had happened in the Corps’ history.

It couldn’t be true. I sure as hay didn’t want it to be true. Gingersnap and Golden Aster had been his best friends since school. They’d been my bucking godparents! The idea that he ever could’ve betrayed them...

But I couldn’t prove that it wasn’t true. There was something weird and fishy about the entire Steel Rose case, and until I figured out what the hay it was, all I had to fill in the gaps were educated guesses. And a lot of those were terrifying to consider.

It had been bad enough when Solar had just been an absentee father who abandoned his family to avenge his friends. Now ... what if it was a lot worse.

What if my father was a warlock?

Author's Note:

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