• Published 20th Jul 2019
  • 3,158 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 2

One of the perks of being friends with an ex-spy and an information broker, it was a lot easier to find out useful information—like which hotel Solar had booked a room at. I wasn’t looking forward to the meeting, especially after all the new food for thought Strumming had thrown my way. Getting mixed up in Solar’s old obsession had been bad enough, but now I had to worry about whether there was something way dirtier going on. Much as I knew it was my duty to investigate and help bring in a dangerous warlock, I would’ve been a lot happier if this whole mess stayed far away from Freeport.

Solar’s room was at The Golden Galleon, one of Freeport’s high-end hotels. It was the sort of place that had nice rooms, plenty of security, and staff that knew to help their customers without asking too many questions or blabbing to anyone. Which probably meant there was a lot of low-level criminal activity going on, but it also made it the perfect place for an archmage to set up a warlock hunt.

I met up with Puzzle at the hotel lobby, which had a very nice and extremely fancy bar. He’d been there for a bit, judging by the fact that he’d gotten himself a snack. He lazily waved me over to the booth he’d reserved for the both of us. As I took a seat across from him, I felt a privacy ward spring up. Just a low-level suggestion field, not strong enough to keep out someone who was really determined to pry. Still, it was a lot more privacy than most public places offered.

Puzzle smiled when he saw me. “Good to see you, Shimmer-mare. How are you?”

I shrugged and didn’t bother pretending all was well. “Been better. I’m sure you can guess why I’m a bit grumpy.”

Puzzle nodded. “This one can’t fault you for being in a mood considering the circumstances.” He finished off his flatbread, putting the empty plate to the side. “From what the Heartstrings-mare told this one, it presumes your meeting with the Archmagus went poorly?”

“Not like you need to be the best information broken in Freeport to guess that.” I sighed and very briefly considered ordering something from the bar. Normally I never touch alcohol; a drunk pyromancer is just a recipe for trouble. Still, on a day like today I was a bit tempted. “He wants me to help hunt that warlock he’s been obsessing over to the point of abandoning my family. At first I didn’t want anything to do with it, but Steel Rose being in my city is bad news. I might be getting dragged into this kicking and screaming, but I can’t ignore the problem just because it annoys me.” Not to mention the other issues Strumming brought up. If there was something dirty going on, I wanted to get to the bottom of it.

“This one can hardly fault you for not wanting to get involved in a case with this much baggage.” Puzzle frowned, tapping a hoof against the table. “Though if it’s any consolation, this one suspects the case won’t last much longer. It senses we’re moving towards an endgame.”

That got my attention. The idea that the case that had dragged on for over a decade might almost be over was hard to ignore. “What do you mean?”

“Consider the following points.” Puzzle counted them off on the feathertips of his current pegasus disguise. “One, the Shimmer-stallion is under investigation. Assuming there are no shocking revelations, he’s got two to four months before he’s taken off the case and recalled to Canterlot to account for his activities. Secondly, he’s being divorced by his wife, adding to his stress and serving as a stark sign of just how destructive this obsession has been. Third, he’s come to his estranged daughter and asked for her help in his investigation, completely breaking with his pattern of flatly blocking anyone from helping him.”

“He didn’t exactly ask me for help.” Though I knew better than to take that at face value; just because he hadn’t outright asked for help didn’t mean he wasn’t dropping hints and hoping I’d offer to do it on my own. “Still, I see what you’re getting at. Whatever he’s up to needs to get done soon. Once the Corps calls him back, he’ll either have to give up the chase for good or go rogue and lose his entire career.” Not to mention that if he refused to obey a recall order, the Magi would assume the worst when it came to their investigation.

Puzzle nodded. “He has to feel the noose tightening. In all likelihood, this will be his last chance to stop the Rose-mare.” Puzzle’s expression darkened. “Assuming that is his goal.”

“Right.” I grimaced and asked the question I feared I wouldn’t like the answer to. “Have you found any information on the possibility that there’s something fishy?”

“Nothing concrete,” Puzzle assured me. “The evidence for him being anything more than a magus in good standing who’s too obsessed with catching a particular warlock is purely circumstantial. It’s largely down to the fact that he’s never caught her or turned over anything beyond the most cursory evidence in his reports. It’s far from unheard of for a magus to neglect some paperwork while in active pursuit of a suspect, but not for this long. Not to mention how many bridges he’s burned just to keep after Steel Rose.”

Well, at least the evidence was circumstantial. “Anything useful on Steel Rose herself?”

“Far less than this one would like,” Puzzle answered. “So far as this one can tell, she’s a fully independent warlock. Small surprise, no cult or coven wants anything to do with her when she has an Archmagus after her.” A bit of a wry grin tugged at his lips. “In fact, according to this one’s sources, quite a few dark magic practitioners suspect her of being a plant to help draw out warlocks for Solar to destroy.”

“Makes sense. Nobody wants to be friends with someone who has that big of a target on their back.” Warlock covens that could stand up to an Archmage were few and far between, and even the ones with that much power usually didn’t want to risk the fight. Far safer to keep their heads down, at least until they’d come up with some sort of plan to gain enough dark magic power.

“That seems to be the prevailing sentiment,” Puzzle agreed. “That said, while she might not have prominent allies, she still works with the lower end of the dark magic community. Evidently someone has been hiring all the usual suspects. Freeport has no shortage of dumb muscle, and quite a few warlocks and petty magical criminals who are hoping for a chance to graduate into serious dark magic despite the fact that none of them have the intelligence, skill, and talent to ever be more than disposable minions. Rumor has it there’s a new player hiring muscle, and that would certainly fit.”

I grimaced. “Not really a surprise Steel’s looking for some extra numbers, especially since she’s an independent operator. One nice thing about hired goons, they tend to blab a lot more than real followers. Anyone been talking about their new boss and where her base is?”

“Nothing certain yet.” Puzzle shrugged. “The Heartstrings-mare is following up on a few leads and checking some of the usual hiding spots.”

“Right.” Warlocks tended to be drawn to areas with some kind of dark magic taint, and Freeport had several of those thanks to the likes of the Golden Path and the Necrocrats. A lot of the more infamous ones had either been burned to the ground or cleansed and purified, like the ruins of the old Charger clanhold had been. Most of the places left were low-level, like a creepy abandoned warehouse where the petty street warlocks liked to gather for whatever rites they were trying to fumble their way through.

Puzzle frowned and dropped his voice a bit despite the fact that we had a privacy spell covering us. “Though having the Heartstrings-mare on the job does bring up one potential concern. Her ... antipathy towards dark magic users could potentially complicate matters.”

“Hmm, yeah.” I knew Strumming’s past gave her a lot of reasons not to like anyone who played around with dark magic. It was no small part of why the two of us had gotten off on the wrong hoof. I liked to think she’d gotten a lot better about it over the last few years, but putting her in a situation where she had to help out with a warlock hunt was still about as risky as bringing a recovering alcoholic to a bar.

Puzzle seemed to agree. “By all indications, Solar is still working under the current theory that Steel Rose is a pact-warlock and is trying to bring her in alive. Strumming might not be inclined to pursue the same course, especially when there isn’t any reason to believe the Rose-mare isn’t a fully committed warlock beyond a vague theory based purely on an absence of contravening evidence. While powerful warlocks who appear overnight are usually pacters, that is hardly a universal rule, especially when they operate under an assumed name. For all we know, her name could be the latest alias of a career criminal.”

“Good point.” It was a pretty safe bet that Strumming would lean towards the least charitable interpretation of Steel’s actions. “Question though: what makes you so sure that Solar wants to bring Steel in alive? Last I heard, he hadn’t been reporting anything back to the Corps.”

Puzzle shrugged. “It is admittedly speculation, though backed up by some evidence. For one, it is standing policy for the Corps to attempt to capture warlocks alive whenever practical.”

“A policy that’s got a built-in loophole, and isn’t all that strictly enforced for magus-killers,” I countered. “Barring some pretty extreme circumstances or really damning evidence, the Corps wouldn’t go after Solar if Steel Rose wound up getting killed while resisting arrest. Maybe if he straight up executed her while she was in custody or something, but nobody would string him up if he used a fireball during a duel instead of a stunbolt.”

“True,” Puzzle conceded. “However, the other point to consider is that if Solar wanted nothing other than Steel’s blood, this one doubts the chase would have lasted this long. The most likely explanation for how long this has gone on is a stalemate of some sort. Steel is strong enough to evade being taken alive, but not strong enough to kill Solar.”

“Or there are some missing factors we don’t know about,” I pointed out. “Which is a pretty safe bet with how quiet Solar’s kept the whole thing.”

“That may well be so.” Puzzle scowled and shook his head. “Has this one ever mentioned how much it hates not knowing important facts? Because it really does. Especially when they bring up other potential complications, like how those unknowns will interact with other less than predictable factors like the Heartstrings-mare. This one doubts she would hesitate to take a chance to kill such a dangerous warlock should one emerge, and with so many unknowns surrounding Solar and his goals...”

“Right, it could get messy.” I took a deep breath. “I’ll talk to her about it. She said she’d follow my lead next time we needed to deal with a warlock. She did a good job of that when it came to Starlight while we were dealing with that whole mess, and I’m inclined to keep trusting her until she gives me a reason to think she’s not being honest.”

Puzzle nodded. “That is perhaps for the best. Though it dislikes the element of risk in this plan, at some point we need to give her the opportunity to prove herself. Even if that could have unfortunate consequences.”

“Yeah, I think she’s earned a little trust after everything that happened in the North.” And really, as long as there weren’t any big ugly secrets to be revealed, I wasn’t going to shed any tears if Steel wound up dead. She was a warlock who’d killed my godparents and pretty much ruined Solar’s life.

“The Heartstring-mare has at the very least a chance to prove she deserves our trust in this matter,” Puzzle agreed. “Though as long as we’re discussing past incidents and issues that could potentially affect our judgement, that does bring up the issue of yourself.”

I tried not to clench my teeth or sound too pissed off. It was harder than it should’ve been. “I know how to keep it from getting personal.”

Puzzle either missed the warning signs I was getting annoyed with him, or didn’t care. If anything, the fact that I was getting mad at him probably reinforced his opinion. “This one does not doubt your ability, the matter is whether you wish to. You can blame the Rose-mare for a great deal of your family’s problems, after all. Doubtless the Runeseeker-mare would be happy to kill her on the spot given the chance.”

“Maybe she would,” I growled, “but I’m not her. I said I know how to handle it.”

Puzzle held up a hoof in mock surrender. “This one isn’t questioning your competence, it just wants to make sure you’re going to be okay. It’s no secret that your family is a sore topic for you, and the Steel Rose is at the heart of your issues with your father. It’s the sort of situation where you could use a good friend.”

For a moment I was tempted to snap at him, but that would’ve just proved I wasn’t quite on an even keel. Instead I stopped, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. “Right. Thanks. It’s getting to me a bit, but I’m doing my best to deal with it.”

“This one would honestly be more concerned if you weren’t bothered.” A hint of a knowing smile tugged at his lips. “Since that would mean you’re bottling it all up. So, is there anything you want to talk about before we go meet the Archmagus? Better to vent now than have an incident in front of him.”

“Yeah, no kidding.” I took a minute to think it over. “If I somehow wind up getting as crazy and obsessed about taking down Steel Rose or anything else as he is, pull me out.”

“This one can do that.” Puzzle’s smile got a bit wider. “Just try and not to make that too hard for it. You can be a bit temperamental, and you’ve gotten quite a bit scarier since you beat Blackfyre. This one would much prefer not to be on the wrong side of your anger now that it is aware you could drop an entire mountain on top of it if you were mad enough.”

“I’m not planning on doing anything like that again.” Especially since the whole situation where I collapsed a mountain on top of Blackfyre had involved a couple one-time circumstances. That’s not to say I hadn’t gotten way stronger thanks the pseudo-ascension, but I wasn’t likely to get another chance to tap into the residual energy of my own death curse. Or at least, I sure hoped nothing like that ever happened again.

“This one is immensely relieved to hear that.” Puzzle smiled, but it didn’t last very long. “There is one last thing this one would like to suggest. It might be wise if Strumming or this one kept an eye on the Shimmer-stallion if we come to work with him. Someone ought to make sure he’s not doing something suspicious while we’re preoccupied. There are enough oddities with this case that it would be unwise to trust him blindly.”

Much as I hated the idea of needing to treat Solar like a potential enemy... “That would probably be prudent. Do you want to keep an eye on him, or should we put Strumming on it?”

“It would probably be best if this one took charge of it,” Puzzle said with a chuckle. “This task calls for a degree of stealth and subtlety, and the Heartstrings-mare’s idea of that is somewhat...” He paused, searching for the best way to put it. “Well, she once told a story about how she passed her stealth test for the EIS by setting a tool shed on fire as a distraction. This one wasn’t able to confirm if the story was true, but it does sound like something she’d do.”

“Yeah, it does. So she can be my direct support while you watch my back.” I grimaced and shook my head. “Whatever’s going on, it ends here. If I have to get mixed up with the Steel Rose case, I plan to close it out. It’s past time someone did it.”

“It’s dragged on far too long already,” Puzzle agreed. “So, let’s see how exactly your father will want to coordinate with us. Lead the way, Magus.” A hint of a smile tugged at his lips. “Assuming you are still content with that title. This one would not have been shocked to hear you decided to rebrand yourself as Sunset the Magnificent, or Sunset Dragonsbane.”

“I don’t need to brag with my name. Everything I’ve accomplished speaks for itself.” I got up and headed forward. “Though I suppose while we’re on the topic, I’ve been debating whether I should be an Archmagus at this point. I mean, I’d basically be promoting myself up a rank, which just looks pretentious and reeks of ego. I did take down Blackfyre though, so there’s a pretty good case to be made that I’ve earned it.”

“It is certainly quite the illustrious accomplishment,” Puzzle conceded. “And doubtless there have been Archmages who never equaled it. If you’re worried about seeming self-promoting, you could always ask some outside force to convey the rank upon you.”

“Yeah, but that just begs the question of who.” I sighed and shook my head. “Celestia would look like nepotism. Same for the Mage’s Guild really, considering two- fifths of the votes belong to my parents, and that’s not to mention the potential baggage of getting the title from Equestria. But then if I ask the Council for it there’d probably be a lot more messy politics involved, not to mention all the debate about whether it’s a legitimate title coming from them.”

“Very true.” Puzzle paused, rubbing his chin in thought. “A slight modification, then. Instead of asking one of them to promote you, ask all three to acknowledge that you have obtained the rank. In essence, a self-promotion that’s been ratified by three different bodies. It avoids entangling you too much with any of the groups while still benefiting from the legitimacy they convey.”

“That is a pretty good plan.” I smiled as I thought it over. “Especially since getting Celestia to back it will be a nice kick in the rump for the Council to play ball. It’d look awkward if she acknowledged my rank and they didn’t, even if as far as the Equestrians are concerned, it’s a purely honorary courtesy.”

“And much the same here until there are other Freeport magi to command,” Puzzle pointed out. “Though this one supposes that it will be useful the next time we have to work outside Freeport’s borders. You wouldn’t be able to order Equestrian Magi about, but your opinion would hold quite a bit more weight.”

“Exactly,” I agreed. “Not to mention the status of it all. Remember, the Magus Corps started out as the Guild of Mages, and they’ve still got a lot of guild-like trappings like the whole master and apprentice setup. Sure, the modern Corps throws a lot of extra responsibilities around, but at its core, Archmagus is their equivalent to master craftsmare in any other guild.”

“And getting official recognition that you are a master of the magical arts would doubtless be gratifying.” Puzzle smiled knowingly. “Though this one had always been under the impression that there could only be five Archmagi at a time.”

“Five Archmagi holding the Marches and Canterlot,” I corrected. “There’s no hard and fast upper limit on the number of other Archmagi. Even if there was, it’d only apply to Equestrian Magi. In my case, it’s more like a recognition that my skills and accomplishments are on par with those of an Archmagus and I should be regarded as equivalent to one. Plenty of precedent for that with how Equestria regards spellcasters from other nations.”

“You already have something similar to that as regards your magus rank,” Puzzle pointed out. “The Equestrian and Northmarch authorities both treated you as they would a foreign Magus. Even if there’s been no formal declaration, an informal de facto acknowledgement goes a long way. If everyone treats you as a Magus, then you are one.”

“Exactly what I was thinking.” I arrived outside Solar’s room. “Well, let’s hope he treats me a bit more nicely than he has most of the Magi who wanted to coordinate with him.” I knocked on the door, then took a step back. I could feel the defensive wards he’d set up over his room quite clearly, and I didn’t want to risk being on the wrong side of them.

After several seconds, I felt the defensive spells open up, and Solar opened the door. Barely a crack open, and I could see he still had the security latch set until he visually confirmed it was me, then sent out a spell to double-check it. I probably should’ve been offended by all the paranoia, but considering two of my closest friends were shapeshifters I couldn’t exactly fault him for making sure that I wasn’t someone else in disguise. Once all that was done, he closed the door, then opened it up properly. “Sunset? I ... wasn’t expecting to see you again after the way our last conversation went.”

I took a moment to swat down any lingering personal feelings and get into the professional mindset. Keeping it strictly business would make this a lot easier. Or at least save me from all the messy personal baggage. “Archmagus, we need to talk. There are a few things to establish if you’re going to be working in my jurisdiction.”

“Oh.” He took a deep breath. “Right. Of course. Come in, Suns—Magus Shimmer.” He opened the door and waved me in. The hotel room looked fairly nice, though it was hard to tell when the spare bed had been completely taken over by a small mountain of files and photographs. Clearly he’d been hard at work. “I apologize for the mess, and for not taking care of the professional courtesies in our last meeting. I suppose ... personal matters took precedence.”

“I think we both had a role in that,” I conceded. “Anyway, introductions. Archmagus Solar Shimmer, this is Puzzle Piece, an associate of mine.”

Puzzle inclined his head, smiling politely. “A pleasure. Your reputation precedes you, and if you are half the magus your daughter is....”

“Likewise a pleasure.” Solar offered his hoof. “And there’s no need to stand on pretense. Her Majesty’s letters included quite a bit of information about my daughter’s companions. Though I do have to wonder why a race that depends so much on disguises also likes to have their own odd verbal quirks that could compromise that disguise.”

“Because no matter what else this one might be, it will always be a Free Mind,” Puzzle answered as he shifted back to his natural form. “This one can’t say where the custom originated from, but it is a vital part of our identity.” He smirked. “Though of course, I can choose to talk differently if I want to, or need to maintain a disguise.”

“It’s not the strangest culture quirk I’ve run across.” I shrugged, then brought things back to the matter at hoof. “Anyway, I’ve had some time to think, and a few things have changed. Steel Rose is a dangerous warlock and she’s in my city. If I ignore that just because of some personal history, I’m being derelict in my duty to Freeport. I’d like to coordinate with you to ensure her capture or neutralization before she can accomplish whatever she’s up to here.”

Solar blinked and seemed to need a second to figure out how to answer that. “Thank you for the offer, Sunset, but I can handle her. I’ve been hunting her for more than half your life, I know how to keep her from causing problems.”

I tried to think of the most diplomatically professional way to point out the obvious gaping flaw in that argument. “You’ve been chasing her for over a decade and don’t seem to be any closer to finishing the job than when you started. If she’s causing problems in my city, I don’t intend to let her get away and keep it up for another decade.”

Solar sighed and ran a hoof through his mane. It looked a lot thinner than I remembered, probably on account of time and the stress of constantly being on the hunt. “This isn't your problem, Sunset. It’s bad enough that I’m stuck on this never-ending chase, and the last thing I ever wanted is to drag you into it.”

So much for keeping it strictly professional. I crossed my forelegs over my chest. “Trust me, there aren’t many things I hate more than getting dragged into this case. But having a warlock run around in my city hurting innocents is one of them. My personal opinions and baggage aren’t worth the innocent lives that could be lost if I don’t stop whatever Steel’s up to.”

Solar groaned and shook his head. “No Sunset, this isn’t your problem to deal with, it’s mine. Just ... just go back to your tower, live your life, and don’t worry about this.”

Did he really expect that to work? Maybe he did, considering how little he really knew me. “No. I’m sure you’re aware that you’re in my jurisdiction, Archmagus. If you want to investigate in my city then you need my permission.” Normally that kind of coordination wasn’t a big deal, but Solar hadn’t been observing any of the usual courtesies and certainly wasn’t being nice about coordinating with me. If he refused to work with me, I would technically be within my rights to throw him in jail as a vigilante. Or on the far less extreme end of things, just tell all the Freeport officials not to cooperate with him. Not like they would need much encouragement.

Solar took half a step back and stared at me. I guess he hadn’t been expecting me to put my hoof down with him. After all, the last time he’d really tried to be a father to me was back when the worst thing I could imagine was getting sent to bed early without dessert. At least he adapted pretty quick. “Ah, yes. I see. I had hoped this sort of quid-pro-quo wouldn’t be necessary.”

I frowned. “Let me guess, you thought that since I was your daughter you could do without all the usual protocol that comes from operating outside your jurisdiction?” I didn’t give him a chance to try and weasel his way out of admitting it. “Look, I’d really prefer to just work with you instead of turning this whole thing into some sort of jurisdictional horn-measuring contest. We both want to stop Steel Rose, but if you don’t work with me I’ll have to do it on my own. Two separate investigations are way more likely to get in each other’s way.”

“Right.” He took a deep breath, then let out a resigned sigh. “Alright then, the obvious first step would be for us to exchange information. You know Freeport, I know Steel Rose.”

“Yeah, I would think so with how long you’ve been chasing her.” I levitated over the only two chairs that hadn’t been taken over by folders, files, or magus equipment. “You might as well get comfortable, because Puzzle and I have a lot of questions.”

Solar frowned. “I’d rather keep this just between the two of us.”

“Puzzle’s the best information gatherer in Freeport,” I pointed out. “Like you said, the big thing I bring to this partnership is local contacts, and a whole lot of those go through him. If you want to find Steel before she starts causing trouble, he’s our best bet.” I shrugged. “Besides, even if he left the room, I’d just tell him everything once we were done. Why not cut out the middlemare and let him get it straight from you?”

Solar grunted. “I suppose. You trust him that much?”

“Yeah, I do.” I shrugged. “Plus, the more we give him to work with the better the results will be.”

Puzzle chuckled and nodded. “You can never tell which seemingly innocuous little piece of data will turn out to be the key detail to cracking the entire case. This one once caught a notorious murderer who eluded the authorities of Lubeak for weeks because it knew his favorite flavor of ice cream.”

“So tell us everything you know about Steel Rose,” I ordered. “Don’t leave anything out, no matter how insignificant it might seem. We’ll take it from the top: she’s a warlock, so what kind of magic does she use?”

“She’s a ferromancer,” Solar promptly supplied. “Naturally focused on unicorn magic, but she’s supplemented it with zebrican shamanism, a bit of runework, and half a dozen other sources and bits of lore.”

“But all of it still focused on metal manipulation?” I frowned. “That seems a bit limited.”

“I’m sure you recall Vigilant Stand’s saying about how a unicorn who practices ten thousand spells one time isn’t as dangerous as one who practices one spell ten thousand times,” Solar shot back. “She’s very good at what she does. Good enough to take down two magi at once, and that was before she spent the last decade traveling the world and getting her hooves on more little bits of forbidden lore.”

He had a point there. “Every rumor I’ve dug up is working on the theory she’s a pacter. Do we have any idea who or what she’s made a pact with?”

“She's not a pacter,” Solar answered. “That tends to be the default Corps assumption if someone comes out of nowhere, but part of that’s just because it’s the simple answer.” He sighed and shook his head. “Steel Rose is one of those cases where we missed the obvious warning signs. A student of a bunch of forbidden lore who managed to stay under our radar up until Gingersnap and Golden crossed her path. She might have a particular focus, but she has studied a lot within it. The black arts of the Warpsmith Foundries, the bloodsteel forging of the Quetzemarin, and the forbidden zebrican practice of Kare Demir.”

I definitely didn’t like the sound of that. I’d heard a couple things in passing about the Warpsmiths, and Puzzle’d told me enough about the Quetzemarin that I didn’t want any of their work getting used. The dark side of zebrican shamanism wasn’t something I was all that familiar with, but considering the other types of black magic Steel was working with I could probably assume it was bad news.

Puzzle seemed to be on the same page. No surprise considering he’d seen some of that bloodsteel magic first-hoof. “A very unpleasant collection of black arts. However, that begs the question of what she plans to do with all the forbidden knowledge she’s collected. This one can imagine all sorts of horrible things that could be created by a sufficiently twisted mind.”

Solar grimaced and nodded. “Yes, quite a few of the covens she’s started wound up creating things I needed to cleanse with a great deal of fire. Whatever little groups she manages to set up before I catch her usually seem to either be aimed at helping her expand her personal knowledge or attempt to apply that knowledge in the creation of something that goes against the laws of magic and decency.”

“It sounds like she’s focused almost exclusively on research and development,” Puzzle observed. “That’s rather unusual for an independent warlock. What’s the point of R&D if there’s nobody to share it with? Not to mention the question of how she funds her activities. Cults can get away with asking for free labor thanks to the zeal of their members. The sort of temporary minions she relies on expect to be paid well for the risks they undertake.”

Solar shrugged. “I can’t imagine her goal was to become an outlaw. From what I understand, she ran afoul of Golden and Gingersnap while conducting her research. She’s kept the money from running out with a bit of freelance work and selling a few of her creations.”

“That could certainly explain what she’s doing in Freeport.” Puzzle frowned “This one hasn’t heard about any dark magic artifacts being offered up for auction, but such events are usually kept very quiet. Especially since the Shimmer-mare established herself in Freeport, and did things like killing a prominent warlock shortly after he appeared at a public auction. Do you think she came to Freeport for an underground auction then?”

Solar shrugged. “I can’t say for certain, but considering her history and how she usually operates, I could easily see her showing up as a buyer or a seller.” His eyes flicked over to me before quickly cutting away. “And ... there might be other reasons.”

I didn’t like that look. “Such as?”

He sighed and ran a hoof through his thinning mane. “She might be here because of you, Sunset. She wouldn’t be the first warlock to get the bright idea of going after the family of a mage who’s been chasing after her.”

I scoffed. “You can’t be serious. Maybe back when I first moved here that would make sense, but now? The fact that I took down Blackfyre is still the talk of the town. That doesn’t exactly make me look like an easy target. In fact—”

Puzzle put a hoof on my shoulder and interrupted. “So this one takes it this feud between you has become that personal?”

Solar scowled. “I’ve been chasing her and disrupting her operations for over a decade, and she killed two of my best friends. That’s pretty damn personal. At this point, what does she even have to lose by going after my family? It’s not like I could go after her any harder than I already am.”

I could think of a couple answers to that, but there was no reason to butt into the conversation just to point them out. After all, most of that boiled down to posturing about how I could take Steel in a fight, and that wouldn’t get us anywhere. Even if it was true.

Puzzle took the lead while I was making sure my ego and temper were in check. “A fair point, she’s already earned your enmity. Onward to other matters, then. How does she normally set up an organization in a new location? What are her normal methods of operation?”

Solar nodded, evidently happy to change the subject. “She’ll start by securing a base and getting lots of expendable manpower and sentries. She knows it’s only a matter of time before I come for her, and she’ll want to be ready.”

Made sense. A secure base of operations was almost always step one. “What type of place does she normally like to hole up in?”

Solar shrugged. “Usually whatever she can find on short notice that’s nicely defensible and out of the way enough for her to keep a low profile. She also tries to find anything that can give her as much of an advantage against me as possible. Underground bases are usually a favorite to counter light magic, but I doubt she’ll have much luck finding one of those in Freeport. Other than that, she also likes ready access to any sort of metalworking facilities, though she’s more than capable of producing the equipment she needs on her own. Still … why spend the time, bits, and efforts setting up something new if she can find it ready-made?”

“Though even then, there are limits to what she can make on her own,” Puzzle pointed out. “Not to mention the resource requirements for metalworking. Even if she can use magic to bypass the need for things like a blast furnace, she’ll need raw materials and fuel. Not to mention the more exotic and horrifying reagents for dark magic.”

“Ferromancy is much more resource-intensive field than most black magic,” Solar agreed. “But that can be to our advantage. Tracking those resources might help us find her, and makes it far less likely she’ll set up somewhere isolated.”

Puzzle nodded. “Shorter supply lines are always an advantage, and any stealth gained by being in the out-islands would be lost if she has supply ships heading out there. In fact, she would probably stand out even more.”

“Someone opening up a new ironworks in the city wouldn’t be all that strange,” I agreed. Freeport wasn’t a huge manufacturing hub, but there was still plenty of demand and producing locally was cheaper than importing. “Any other ways we can find her?”

“She does have a rather distinctive appearance,” Solar pointed out. “Not many ponies go around with a metal face mask covered head to hoof in armor. Of course, she might be using the costume to pull a Starswirl Gambit.”

Puzzle shot a curious look Solar’s way, so I explained. “Establish something famous about your appearance so you can drop it whenever you need to go around in disguise. Three guesses why it’s named after Starswirl the Bearded. Even his best friends barely recognized him if he shaved.”

Puzzle frowned. “So not even you know what she looks like undisguised? This one would think that after how long you’ve pursued her...”

Solar shrugged. “I’d have to capture her to get the mask off. Considering all the dark magic she’s mixed up in, I can’t even be sure it would come off. I don’t know how familiar you are with the work of the Warpsmiths of the Fallen Gates, but they like to fuse metal and flesh together.”

“Well that sounds disgusting and horrifying.” Considering my recent experience with Blackfyre, I would’ve been perfectly happy to not see any crimes against nature for the next couple years. Guess I should’ve known I wouldn’t be that lucky.

“Whatever you’re imagining, it’s not horrible enough.” Solar sighed and shook his head. “In any case, there is another option we can take if we’re not hunting Steel down. We can always try to bait a trap and make her come to us.”

Puzzle frowned. “This one would have to imagine that a warlock with her extensive experience on the run from an Archmagus would be very cautious. Pulling her into any sort of trap would be a difficult proposition.”

“It will be,” Solar agreed. “If it was easy I would’ve done it already. Still, there’s a big gap between something being very hard and it being impossible.” He smiled at me. “And I know Sunset’s very good at pulling off things that straddle that line. That’s a lesson Blackfyre learned the hard way.”

“Yeah, not that I enjoyed it either.” Losing a leg had been a pretty high price to pay to beat him, not to mention everything else I’d gone through. “So what’s the plan to lure her in?”

Solar shrugged. “She’s careful and a bit paranoid, but there are ways around that. We just need to make sure the bait is tempting enough and hide the trap well enough that she either doesn’t see it or does but thinks she can outwit us.”

“Sounds right.” Turning a trap against the ones who set it was a pretty classic move. “Of course, that begs the question of what bait we could use. With how long she’s been on the run from you, I’d imagine it would take something really good to draw her out.”

“Yes, it would,” Solar agreed. “Unfortunately, I have something perfect in mind.” He sighed and sank down on the bed, staring down at his collection of files. “I hate to suggest it, but one of the working theories for why she came to Freeport is to target you. If we put you somewhere nice, public, and seemingly vulnerable...”

“You want to use me as bait?” I scowled. “Can’t say I’m wild about that plan. Especially since me playing the bait out in public makes collateral damage a lot more likely.” Not to mention it restricted my options a fair bit. Heavy-hitting fire spells were a bad idea in the middle of a very flammable city. Not to mention that when I’d fought Starlight in Coldharbor, I’d had to block a lot of her spells so they wouldn’t hit occupied buildings. Dodging and deflecting an opponent’s spells was almost always easier than a straight block.

Solar shrugged. “I don’t love the idea of using my own daughter as bait either, but we have to do something to stop Steel. We’ll do what we can to minimize the risks, but if we don’t stop her, the amount of damage she causes could be a lot worse can a couple smashed market stalls.”

So far I didn’t like the plan at all, but I should at least let him finish laying the rest of it out. “Tell me what your plan is.”

“I don’t have a solid plan yet, mostly just a concept,” Solar confessed. “You and your ... friend know Freeport better than I do. Where’s a good place to set up an ambush?”

Not the answer I was hoping to hear. “Most of the best places for that are in the poor districts, where we could find an abandoned warehouse or something. There might be some squatters around, but they’re usually very good about sensing incoming trouble and clearing off. But that doesn’t sound like it would work for your plan.”

“It would look a bit too obvious if you were hanging around in a perfect battleground,” Solar agreed. “It’s going to be a lot harder to pull her into a trap that a blind mare could see a mile away.” He shifted his attention to Puzzle. “Do you have any other suggestions?”

Puzzle frowned and rubbed his chin. “Sunset’s tower does make an obvious target for anyone who wishes her harm, though not exactly an easy one to assault considering its magical defenses. It would be far safer to follow her going about her daily business and wait until an opportunity presented itself. No wards to break through, and far easier to isolate her from potential aid.”

Solar grunted. “Well, there you have it, then. You focus on luring her out, and I’ll work on actively hunting for her.”

Puzzle answered him before I could come up with a good way to point out exactly how stupid that plan was and all the problems I had with it. “This one takes it you want us to work in two seperate groups then?”

Solar nodded. “That sounds like the best plan to me. Pursue two different lines of attack at the same time, and we double our odds of success.”

“That sounds reasonable,” Puzzle conceded. “Though it does put us at risk of one team becoming isolated from the other. We should work out a proper line of communication so we can continue pooling data. It might also be wise if we had someone work with you to act as a representative, not to mention a local guide for Freeport. This city can be quite hazardous for those who aren’t used to it, or even those who are.”

Solar grimaced and shook his head. “I’m used to working alone, and most of what I’d be doing works better that way.”

I scowled and crossed my forelegs over my chest. The motion still felt a bit weird when one of those forelegs was a prosthetic, but the limb did everything it needed to. “We’re supposed to be working together on this. You need to give us something. Puzzle knows the city inside and out, and all his sources would be perfect for digging up the information you’re after.”

“I think there’s a bit of a difference between my information gathering and his,” Solar demurred. “It would probably make more sense to have each of us consult our own sources, then pool that information to make sure we’re both getting the same results.”

“So you’re consulting magical sources?” I pressed. “Fine, then another magus can help you. We work together from the magical angle, while Strumming and Puzzle hit the streets.”

Solar shook his head. “We need you out in the field for the plan to lure Steel out into the open.”

A plan I had yet to be convinced wasn’t a load of horseapples.

“What about the Heartstrings-mare?” Puzzle suggested. “She has experience when it comes to working alongside a magus in an active investigation.”

Solar didn’t say anything for several seconds. I suspected he was trying to find a way to say no in a way that didn’t make it obvious he was just outright refusing to cooperate. After all, if he wouldn’t work with me, Puzzle, or Strumming... “Perhaps. Send her to meet with me and I’ll see what we can work out.”

Well, that was an impressive amount of non-commitment. “I’ll make sure to do that. Fair warning, she’s a bit unique.”

Solar shrugged. “I’ve dealt with my share of quirks and eccentricities in the Corps.”

That was one of the first things he’d said in a while that I completely believed. Puzzle seemed to be on the same page. “Anything else to address for the moment, or shall we get to work on our respective investigations?”

“I think that covers it for now.” Solar stood up. “Um, one other thing. I know we’re both going to be very busy, but if you can spare a bit for us to get dinner together, Sunset...” He held up a hoof. “No work talk, strictly father-daughter catching up. It’s ... I’ve missed far too much of your life already, but it would be nice to at least know a bit more about how you’re doing now.”

“We’ll see.” I suppose I should’ve given him a chance to try and make amends, especially considering he was going about it way better than Scarlett had, but when he was giving me the runaround on magus business, I wasn’t inclined to do him any favors. I got to my hooves and headed for the door. “We’ll let Strumming know to get in touch with you. Keep us up to date on any developments, and we’ll let you know if we find anything.” I headed straight for the door, not bothering with any of the usual courtesies.

Puzzle caught up with me a second later, moving at a bit of a trot. “You seem to be in a foul mood, Shimmer-mare.”

“Yeah,” I grunted.

Puzzle sighed. “This one shouldn’t be surprised. It’s not terribly happy about the fact that he’s obviously trying to give us the runaround and distract us, and it has far less personal investment in the matter than you do.”

“Yeah.” I growled and shook my head, doing my best to put the anger out of my mind. Snapping at Puzzle wouldn’t do any good, especially when he wasn’t even the one I was mad at. “Guess I should at least be glad it wasn’t just me seeing things.”

Puzzle snorted and nodded. “He was definitely brushing us off as much as he could without being so blatant about it that we could call him out on not cooperating. Think about this: he’s trying to find a warlock he’s been hunting for a decade, and the city’s best information broker came into his room and offered his service for free. So why didn’t he ask this one any questions, or even show the slightest interest in retaining its services?”

“No kidding.” If I was looking for a fugitive warlock hiding out in Freeport, Puzzle would’ve been the very first person I asked. “Not to mention him basically making up an excuse to get me out of the way. I could buy that if he was still thinking of me as a kid, but Celestia told him all about what happened in Northmarch. After I took out Blackfyre, it’s pretty ridiculous to think that Steel would consider me an easy target.”

Puzzle chuckled softly. “You did make a rather firm statement. In all honesty, this one thinks it would be easier to kill Solar than you, at least in Freeport. On top of your own considerable prowess, you have a secure base of operations and many devoted allies, while Solar is operating on his own far from Equestria.”

“Good point.” When it came to measuring myself against my birth parents, it was hard not to think about how badly my impromptu duel against Scarlett had gone a few months ago. Then again, she’d pretty much ambushed me, and a lot had changed since then. My pride certainly didn’t object to Puzzle’s declaration.

Puzzle continued on. “As for the rest of the plan, the suggestion that you could tempt her into attacking you in public would be far too dangerous for her. If it turns into a public brawl she can’t end very quickly, it would draw in the condottieri or some of your other allies to back you up. This one and the Heartstrings-mare certainly wouldn’t hesitate to get involved, and it expects the Doos would be inclined to aid you as well. For that matter, plenty of other mercenaries might look at the situation and decide to aid you first and negotiate payment afterwards. Far too many risks and unpredictable factors, and a warlock who’s managed to avoid death or capture for over a decade while being actively hunted by an Archmagus probably didn’t last that long by being stupid or taking risks.”

I scowled as I thought it all over. Solar’s plan had seemed pretty ridiculous as soon as he suggested it, and the more I thought about it, the less sense it made. There was really only one possible explanation for it all. “He doesn’t want us involved, and he’s making up every excuse he can find to keep us out.”

“Which begs the question of why?” Puzzle asked. “It could just be parental instinct. This case has consumed his life, and he might want to see you make the same mistakes he has. However...”

“Him locking us out of the loop doesn’t do much to dispel the idea that he’s trying to cover something up,” I agreed. “Not that it really matters which of those he’s doing, it’s not like we’re going to play along either way.”

Puzzle shot me a dry smile. “This one never imagined we would. If he won’t cooperate we’re more than capable of carrying out a warlock hunt on our own.”

“Damn right we are.” I took a deep breath. “I just hope Steel’s the only warlock we need to hunt.”

Author's Note:

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