• Published 22nd Dec 2012
  • 12,645 Views, 250 Comments

Schemering Sintel - N00813

Many years ago, Spike was kidnapped. Now, Twilight has finally found him and his abductor.

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5 . Murder

Chapter 5: Murder
By N00813
Noon. Even as the sun beat down feebly upon her back, the unrelenting wind snatched any warmth from the air pockets beneath her cloak. It wasn’t too bad, though. The healthy burn of her muscles staved off the worst of the cold.

Her face and ears stung a little, battered by the icy wind as they were. She shook her head, feeling an odd numbness at the points of her ears instead of the scrape of rough fabric.

Her eyes felt as if someone was poking cold needles of ice into them, forcing the eyelids to squint together.

Looking at the glaring sheet of parchment on the little table in front of her was like looking at the sun’s reflection in a rough, mistreated mirror.

The powerful desert sunlight washed into her room through the tiny, one-foot-square window, under which the parchment seemed to glow the lightest shade of yellow. The Khamelan motel wasn’t ventilated, and so the sticky, stale air hung in the tiny room like laundry, almost choking in its humidity.

She frowned, glaring at the short quill hovering in the air before her inside the indistinct purple veil of magic, before refocusing on what she’d written down.

‘Save Spike’

To save him, she needed to know where he was. She needed information. The quill scratched that thought down onto the pressed parchment before her. She smiled.

The only ones who had a chance of knowing about lone, rogue wild dragons would be the ones who made it their business to know everything. Information brokers. She’d heard of one ‘Vafer’, a notoriously slippery and shady figure that made his living selling data to the highest bidder. He was the best in the business, she’d heard, and his information was always accurate and always up-to-date. The only problem now was getting enough money to find one of his agents, arrange a transaction, and buy the location of the dragon and Spike.

‘Save Spike. Need information. Get money.’

Seemed simple. Three phrases on an otherwise empty piece of parchment. The scowl returned to her face as she stared at the last sentence.

Dromedor might’ve been the shining jewel of the deserts, the wealthiest city in the wealthiest country of the Known World. Up at the top, it certainly looked the part. Spires and massive, gilded structures lined every well-paved road, all trying to outshine their neighbours.

But no one would have known that if they were down in the lowest tier, in the slums, where ramshackle huts and people sat upon roofs of other huts, which were above the roofs of others themselves. Down there, they said it was no better than the prisons.

Her mind, and her eyes, lit up. The sheik that controlled this quarter had been trying to get rid of crime for some reason or another. He was rich, and he would pay well.

Twilight grinned, eyes flicking back to the first phrase on the page. Save Spike. That was the point of this entire bloody quest. That was what she was going to do – and after doing whatever she had to do, she would find him and get him back.

Nothing would stop her.

Twilight grunted, sucking in massive breaths as she continued to ascend. There had been a few more groundworm attacks, but nothing she hadn’t seen before. Their mere presence meant several things, however.

Groundworms were scavengers first, predators second. They wouldn’t pass up a meal that walked by, but they usually established a presence in places like landfills, where there was plenty of free food. That meant that there had to be a steady source of gems or meat rolling off the mountain for them to eat. The fact that there were so many of them meant that the thing sitting at the mountain summit must have been absolutely massive.

Her face twisted into an unconscious frown.

A slaving camp?” She glanced down at the sheet of pristine white parchment before her, as if the letters had arranged themselves wrong, and would be correct on second glance. According to the drawn map, the camp was just outside city borders, on the down-wind side of a great sand dune that probably served to conceal it from view. Adventurous pegasi or griffons that strayed too near would be shot down with nets, before being shackled and added to the slavers’ inventory.

Shadows from the many pillars that surrounded the room, eight on each wall, fell onto her and her employer. They provided piecemeal cover from the sun’s brutal glare. As the light washed onto it, the red carpeting below Twilight’s hooves seemed to glow as red as freshly-spilled blood. Likewise, the various tapestries hanging from the ceiling at the back of the hall and around the side were as richly coloured and vibrant as one of Cloudsdale’s famous rainbows. Ancient antique pieces of pottery, polished until they positively shone mirror-like, stood in seemingly random places around the border of the room.

There was some history depicted on one massive, panoramic piece hanging at the very back. On the left edge, a bunch of yellow camels stood surrounded by orange, hill-like sand dunes. As the image progressed to the right, the camels stood in front of a group of black-and-white zebras, and then a group of brown cervids. At the right edge, she saw the same four camels stand in front of two alicorns – one white and one midnight-blue. The sand dunes in the background gradually yellowed into piles of gold.

Oddly, the hall was neither too hot nor too cold – some sort of magical climate-control system must have been hidden in the pillars, Twilight concluded. The desert wind blew across the two of them, refreshing and cool, lacking in any sort of sand or grit.

The sheik was a relatively overweight camel, sitting on the gilded recliner across from her. A great mahogany table, also bordered with gold and silver, sat in between the two of them. He wore nice, vibrant flowing robes that seemed to mimic a colourful waterfall, starting from a hood around his head, down to his twin humps and then hanging off the sides of his body.

He nodded. “Yes, Miss Twintel. This was all the information the one you captured gave us, before he… ahem, expired.”

For Spike, she thought, frowning. The sheik’s methods were none of her concern. Spike was.

“What of the slaves themselves?” Twilight turned the parchment over, but there was nothing more on the other side. It was a simple kill mission, with the addition of a bounty on the leader – a rock hound by the name of ‘Denza’.

The sheik shrugged. Twilight raised an eyebrow, and the guards around them instantly tensed up, with some of them going so far as to place their hooves or claws on the grips of their blades. Twilight ignored the display. The Royal Guards had been pretty much the same, back in the day.

The sheik waved a hoof about lazily, making the universally-recognised ‘stand down’ gesture. “I don’t care. Do as you will.”

Twilight nodded, and pushed herself up off the recliner, lowering her head. “Very well. I will be back.”

As she walked away after a quick bow, she heard the sheik mutter, “If you survive.”

Twilight slowed down from a full gallop to a slower canter.

She’d nearly reached the peak. By her estimate, there was still a kilometre and a half of path to go, and snow had settled into thick white sheets that crunched beneath her steps. Looking back, she saw a trail of grey, dirtied hoofprints.

She could just trace the thin line that was her hoofsteps almost all the way back to the sparkling jewel of Dromedor, far in the distance. The sand dunes behind her, waves of fiery gold, rolled out towards the coast.

From this distance, the city itself looked like a pyramid. Buildings, of all sorts and shapes, tried to cling onto the edges of other, pre-existing structures like barnacles. Surrounded by the smooth curves of sand dunes, the city stood as an incongruous monument to the achievements of civilization.

She took a deep breath as she turned towards the small column of smoke several hundred metres in front of her.

The cold air, despite her best efforts, seemed to have succeeded in freezing the moisture in her windpipe, turning her throat into an icy desert that burned with pain. Her leg muscles were still going strong, but they wouldn’t be for much longer if it hurt this much to breathe.

The sentry gagged, his eyes bulging out of his sockets as he scrabbled at his throat. A thin line of magenta magic had closed around his neck. His veins bulged out, brilliant blue lines against his orange-brown coat.

His tobacco pipe lay forgotten in the sands next to him, the flame still burning in the open end. The leaves spilled out onto the sand, still smouldering.

As he scrabbled, hoof shaking as it headed for the dagger strapped to his chest, Twilight watched, her horn glowing dimly.

The sentry’s hoof closed around the handle, and with that action, a spark of desperate hope lit up in his eyes.

Twilight continued to watch.

The sentry’s motions became slower, more sluggish. His eyes drifted towards the top of his head even as he clenched his teeth, glaring at the lavender unicorn standing in front of him. His murderer. He groaned, summoning up all of his remaining strength, even as the darkness encroached on his vision, and flicked his elbow back –

Twilight merely blinked, before the glow around her horn flared up for the briefest of moments.

She forced herself into an easy trot as she felt the sparks of ley congeal around the tip of her horn. Holding in a breath, she closed her eyes for a moment. Warmth rushed across her face, running from her horn down her spine and nerves, and into the muscle.

Waves of heat beat against her, from all sides.

The smoke belching from the slave camp, or what remained of it, alternately tickled and seared the back of her throat. She coughed, involuntarily, before casting a hasty air-purification spell around her head. Her eyes stopped watering, and Twilight blinked rapidly, letting the remaining tears trickle down her cheeks. For the first time in what seemed like hours, the oxygen she sucked into her lungs was fresh and clear – almost like mountain air.

From the outside, it would look as though her head was inside an air bubble. She doubted that many of the residents in the camp cared for her appearance right now, though. She doubted that any of them could see anything through the intense grey-black smoke that spewed from the burning fabric of the tents. The sentries around the camp would have noticed the smoke, if they weren’t lying dead amidst growing pools of sand stained red with their own blood.

She grimaced. That had definitely not been the highlight of her life; she’d even felt a little guilty about the first one. That was before she saw the slaves.

“Fucking bitch!” Denza roared, his tall, minotaur-like form growing more and more distinct as he charged through the smoke at her. His paws were barely audible, even as his muscles smashed them into the ground, propelling him forwards. He was the last one standing.

His cronies had either been speared with lances of purple magic through their skulls, or bled to death as they lay on the thirsty sand with parts of their bodies severed by clean, magical cuts.

The slaves, she’d tried to save. Some of them had made it out unharmed, dragging their siblings-in-suffering with them, even as the lengths of chain that had once secured them were still red-hot. Others had been hit by stray crossbow bolts and bullets. The lucky ones had died on the spot.

Twilight blocked out the moans of the suffering as Denza’s body solidified in the smoke.

She charged her horn again. Five blasts, rapid fire, straight into centre mass. Denza appeared to ignore the beams of magic punching straight through him, tearing out unnaturally clean holes in his torso. He swung his axe, once, but Twilight had already teleported out of the way as the blade was falling. He struck dirt, the sand painted red by the liquid gushing out of the holes in his chest.

Twilight glared at him, almost growling. Her breathing heavy, she smashed a magenta magical barrier directly into his back. He crumpled, arms and legs pointed in every cardinal direction.

Hatred and anger rose up in her, alongside the swelling wave of satisfaction – justice served.

Why? She wondered.

Even as she drove Pinkie’s knife into Denza’s spine, where the base of the head met the vertebrae, she couldn’t pinpoint exactly why that sense of contentment – not exactly happiness, simply satisfaction – had sprung up in her at all.

The slaves had been mistreated horribly, for sure. Most of them had nothing to shade them from the cruel noontime sun. Dirty rags, stained by what seemed like years’ worth of sweat, blood and tears, had been fashioned into hoods. Even then, they were limited only to the ones fortunate enough to have rags to wear.

She’d seen slaves before, in the markets. This was just… more of the same.

Were they? She spun her head around to check.

Some of the older ones looked like they’d simply lost their will to live, and now where only running on instinct, rather than any sort of conscious will. Even then, the other slaves supported them, comforted them.

Yes. They were just more of the same.

To have their freedoms stripped away from them, to be dragged away from their homes and families, their loved ones, through no fault of their own, and be told that this new brutal reality was their future for however long their lives were to be…

Suddenly, an inkling of empathy, of cold, brutal understanding dripped into her mind, splashing into a million drops until all she could think of was Spike, and the dragon that had captured him. A savage grin tugged at the corners of her mouth as she hacked off Denza’s head, the blade stabbing into the neck rapidly, repeatedly. Blood, oh so much of it, spurted out, everywhere. Several jets of it hit her, bathing her in the viscous red liquid.

The last remnants of warmth from the hasty spell faded from her chest.

Twilight sucked in a massive breath. The oxygen level and temperatures at these higher peaks didn’t bode well for a long fight. She had to win, and win quick, or she’d fall unconscious and get cooked in dragonfire. Then all of this bloodshed and killing would have been for nothing.

Her throat screamed in protest as bitingly cold air rushed into her windpipe.

The knife had sunk hilt-deep into the damp red sand by the time she could consciously control her breathing. As the red haze slowly melted away, she stole another glance at Denza’s headless corpse. It was now undergoing rigour mortis. Her heart was still hammering in her chest, the drums of war still going strong. She closed her eyes, washing the image from the forefront of her mind.

Count ten seconds between inhale and exhale, she willed herself. Ignore everything – the rancid stench rising from the bloodied cloak, the quiet crackle of the flames as they consume the remnants of the camp, the lump balanced on your back, still leaking goo.

Ignore it for Spike.

When she opened her eyes, it was as if she was an observer, letting her body run on instinct instead of thought.

Even some of the older slaves, hardened to their former master’s savagery, shrunk back from her as she approached. She ignored the wide-eyed glances. Ignored the sighs of resignation as she took up the chains. Ignored the quiet mumbles of surprise as they began their walk towards the city of Dromedor, the glittering pyramid in the midst of the waves of orange sand on the horizon.

Less than a kilometre left before the end of her quest. As she walked, exhaling a long, puffy stream of white vapour, she felt the corners of her lips lift. The years of travel suddenly seemed to crash down onto her back. She stumbled, legs folding awkwardly beneath her for a moment, and the thick snow met her chin.

She could see the end of the line, the mouth of the cave: a black hole, ripped from dark-grey rock.

The fates had decided that the end of her story wasn’t going to be set in some grand, marvellous, important place like the canopy of Cervidas’s World Tree or Gryphus’s Skybridge. Whatever happened here on Mount Sterfgeval wouldn’t be recorded by bards or minstrels, to be immortalised in oral history. No – for the world, today would simply be another day on the fields, the forests, the deserts or the tundra.

For her, it would be one of the most important days of her life.

The mountain air was more rarefied, more tenuous than the mists. Her burning lungs seemed to flare up in pain with each passing second. With a blast of white smoke from her mouth, she turned to look towards the sun, and the village below.

The village was shrouded in shadow, the pale white light of the sun doing its best to keep absolute darkness at bay. From her height, she could just make out the tiny grey stalks of chimney smoke rising above the settlement, mixing together a scant kilometre above into one big grey cloud.

The sun itself, watery and pale from the village, seemed just a little more potent on the mountain summit. From its position, hanging in the sky to the west, it showered the snow with light, tinting the white a very slight shade of orange-yellow.

Enough wasted time, she thought. Let’s get this over with.

The crunch of snow below her hooves faded into the back of her mind as she began the long walk towards the mouth of the cave.

One hundred metres. Close enough for the rich smell of roasting meat to worm through her nostrils. She scowled, wrinkling her nose. The smell had gotten more and more bearable over the years, but that didn’t mean it was any more pleasant. She’d… just gotten used to it. That was all.

Twilight grimaced.

The crunching of compacting snow. The warmth of the sun, however weak, on her back. The cool wind zipping through the gap between cloak and skin. Her own breathing, deepening and increasing in frequency. Her heart rate ramping up until it seemed as though it was Spike himself trying to shake loose the cage bars of Twilight’s ribcage.

There were many times before when Twilight had looked back at her life, like it was an essay in a test. She could ignore the ticking clock of Spike’s death for a while, but when she stopped to breathe or sleep she’d look up and see the sand in the hourglass pouring down, little by little.

“Stay safe, Twilight. Best of luck.” Pinkie smiled, almost melancholically, as she stood behind the counter.

Back then, she’d thought Pinkie was sick. That tone she’d never heard before; it was full of some emotion – or lack thereof – that she couldn’t place. It didn’t belong with Pinkie.

But now, she recognised the glint in Pinkie’s eyes. It had spoken of resignation, of hope tempered with cynical experience.

Another step forwards. Her breaths, wafting from her mouth like the smoke from the end of a gun barrel, were stolen away by the wind.

“You’ll get over it,” the caravan guard muttered, stretching out her wings as she sat on top of the caravan. Twilight sat alongside her, watching the trees pass by. She could hear nothing but her own breathing, and the harsh, raspy voice of the griffon next to her. The latter seemed muddled, as if she was hearing it from the bottom of a lake. “Nothing else you can do but that.”

Back then, she’d thought the caravan guard – whom she later discovered went by the name of Eri – was some sort of insane psychopath who couldn’t tell blood from water, with the way she was spilling it left, right and centre.

But now, Twilight understood. She understood why Eri would think like that. Simple survival. Nothing less, and nothing more.

Understanding. That was all Eri wanted, anyways. Agreement was just a bonus.

A single thought lit up the tattoos etched into her body, injected into the muscle over the major nerves. Ink and eyes glowing silver white for a brief moment, she felt the ley coalesce into a ball of white fire on the tip of her horn, almost scalding in its intensity.

“In the end, mate,” the Jackal said, grinning predatorily, his fangs poking out from his mouth as little white nubs. He leant back against a crate of guns with his forepaws crossed beneath his head and his stubby tail wagging freely. Both he and Twilight watched his customers unload all sorts of weaponry from his cart. “What you can do, is what you will do.”

And when she looked back, her life seemed to be written in ink that looked more and more like blood.

The burning in her muscles, under her skin, flared up into a split-second inferno as she hurled the magical flare into the cave, illuminating the beast within.

Twilight stood on in the centre of the small lip of rock, about fifteen metres across, jutting out from the cave mouth. Her opponent’s baleful stare met hers.

The image of Spike, fear screaming in his eyes as he was caged within long black claws, flashed through her mind.

Green eyes gazed into her violet ones.