Dio

Cold Comfort [Closed: Steel]

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The north had a charm of its own to Daedalus.  Maretonia’s seaside geography near warm currents meant he rarely saw snow at home, though travels throughout Equestria had rapidly dispossessed him of that deprivation.  Being near the Crystal Empire capital of Crystal Spire had given him nearly enough snow for the rest of his life.  But the airship had rapidly cleared the frozen wastes and passed the alpine forest of Leota.  The Spring heaths grew green and the forests tall, every bit of flora and fauna in full display.  But above the tree line, snow still capped the peaks of the mountaintops of the Webwings.

 

Were it at any other time, it would have been a fine vacation.  But as life was wont to do, vacation was curtailed with work.  The Keepers never slept and while Daedalus had found his stipend more than adequate to spend on his downtime, he had found such time lacking as of late, especially with his recent commitments to EPIC and the investigation of WRAITH.

 

So Daedalus trotted along the bank of the Corusca River, following it toward its headwaters.  The airship had dropped him off at one of the last known secure clearings in Leota before they entered changeling territory.  He was to follow the river until it intersected with the Webwing Mountains, then begin his search.

 

An airship had crashed somewhere in the area several days ago, an artifact bound for the Canterlot vaults in its hold.  Though he was given little in the way of official literature, he was certain there was something important on board.  After all, he was not alone on this trek.  Twilight Sparkle had not been satisfied with sending him on assignment by himself, instead electing to accompany him herself.  Whether she could or would fill him in was still up for debate.

 

Though the sun still shone, one last bit of winter chill lingered in the air, forcing Daedalus to keep his cloak and cowl pulled close around his body for warmth.  He paused for a moment to look upriver.  “We’ve got a few hours of daylight left before we’ll have to make camp for the night.  I’d like to see if we can make it a few more kilometers upstream.  Do you still have hike left in you, Princess?”

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The transportation and safekeeping of magical artifacts, especially those related to dark magic, were one area in which Twilight spared little expense. When a cache of six previously hidden yellow-class relics were turned over from friendly caribou tribes in the north to friendly tribal ponies, she acted quickly. She had sent an airship full of goods to barter with the tribal ponies who were all too eager to share in Equestrian splendor in exchange for items that did them little to nothing. The exchange had gone well and the airship was on its way back when it ran into problems and crashed. Initial reports said natural causes- and to expect survivors. This was all good news, but it was still a mission of import so when she dispatched her agent to the area she decided to join him. Six magical artifacts were very important, after all.

 

Not that the agent she had chosen would have been incapable of doing it without her. Daedalus had proven to be one of her most resourceful and quality agents, and as a Keeper he was easily one of the best. He could have taken this job without her, but she needed to stretch her legs and her mind a bit. That and you didn't know if any complications would arise. It was outside of any organized space nor were there any notable outlaws or opposition forces around, but wherever dark magic reared its duplicitous head, trouble was likely to follow unless it was quickly scooped up. She was more so insurance than anything else. It was always good to have a Princess on your side in a rather immediate fashion after all, and she could scarcely imagine a superior way of directly supporting him. And if she knew much about him, she knew he liked it when she directly supported him.

 

In this support role she looked as if she had come unprepared, her flank apparently bare with the exception of her well-worn saddlebag. Her purple coat whisped innocently against the wind, but somepony with a keen eye who looked closely could likely see a small, whispy trail of purple and white vapor that seemed to cover her. This was her defense against both the cold as well as harm, as when summoned, her battlemage armor would appear. Hopefully that wouldn't be a requirement, but safety was never a cold comfort to have in the hills and valleys of the north. Her saddlebag was likewise deceptively simple- inside she had created several containment cells that would keep the artifacts from any harm, all the while looking innocuous.  

 

She followed Daedalus through the twists and turns of the landscape, keeping to the ground rather than flying. Flying would give her a better vantage point but it would give anything and anypony with untoward desires a better gauge of where they were, and when you were simply trying to get into and out of an area with as little hassle as possible, better to stick with the safer option. It was a long and arduous hike, but she wasn't going to stop. Not when there was so much daylight left, and not when her alicorn cravings were trying their best to give her anything resembling a little bit of a belly. "We can still go for a while Daedalus. I could use it. So, any theories as to the cause of the crash, or do we simply chalk it up to the elements?"

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Daedalus cracked a smirk.  So the Princess of Friendship could maintain an adventuring pace after all.  Then again, he supposed that prior to her current post, she had done more than merely manage margraves and munch macarons.  For somepony who now spent much of her time on the castle grounds, she had maintained her endurance and figure well.

 

“It’s difficult to say.  The dossier was brief and unhelpful and I didn’t have time to reach out to any contacts before our departure.  I suppose we’ll find out for certain when we arrive.  If you’re feeling optimistic, I would say elements.  The weather isn’t exactly forgiving out here.”

 

Daedalus’ breath puffed into a tiny cloud of white in front of his muzzle as they continued.  He’d posited the optimistic outlook first, but optimism was a luxury in his line of work.  There were always skeletons in closets, bloody unburied hatchets, and black hearts hidden beneath golden smiles.  If the ship had crashed in poor weather, then they would collect the crew and call for pickup via the aether beacon tucked into his pack, as they would likely be injured and running short on supplies.

 

“But if you’re willing to entertain more sinister hypotheses, it could have been shot down.  We’re on the edge of Changeling territory and the news always has stories of pirates hitting shipping lanes between Talonopolis and Stalliongrad.  Take your pick.”

 

A hot extraction would make things much more difficult.  After all, getting even a fast corvette-sized airship in and out of the crash site while it was being sieged by a swarm of angry changelings was likely to end in disaster.  Plan B was to exfiltrate by ground as well, adding a few days to the trip but limiting the risk of kicking the proverbial hornet’s nest with an airship pickup.  Daedalus would worry more about that when the time came to deal with it.

 

For now, the trip would involve spending more time with Twilight than he had gotten to since… well since he’d been hired.  For all the professional connections they had established through the meticulous record keeping process of the Keepers and occasional lab work in the Keep, they had spent very little leisure time together.  The mission wasn’t exactly leisure, but long treks lent themselves to casual conversation more readily than slaving away over microscopes and amanuensis tablets.

 

“I should have thought of an endure elements spell,” he chuckled.  “It would have precluded the need for extra clothing and bedrolls.”


“Speaking of which, does that spell work as a bedroll, too?  Unless you plan on sleeping on bare ground it looks like we’ve got only one bedroll and sleeping bag between us!” he said, gesturing to his pack with his muzzle.

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Twilight hadn't entertained much in the way of dark fantasies regarding what had transpired here, if only because she found the likelihood low. This wouldn't be the first nor the last airship to be taken down by terrible weather after all, and the lack of any knowledge regarding raiders in the area told her that it was unlikely to be a major problem for the airship. Not impossible- but the lack of communication to that effect told her it was very unlikely. Not that they had much to go on but it was reassuring that there weren't any noticeable major movements in the area. Unlikely to be Changelings or caribou in any case, as both of them had much bigger problems than a lone, non-descript airship.

"I would put my faith in the natural elements of the world over an attack of some kind. Anything capable of taking out an airship in the region is already mapped and tracked. The Rebel Clans are too busy with their offensives and no notable caribou raiders are in the area. The Changelings, even united, have always fared exceptionally poorly against our airships, and they are far from united at the moment. After that- pirates? Unlikely in the extreme. WRAITH? Very improbable. I think the preponderance of circumstantial evidence does suggest that it was an act of nature, rather than an attack, that did this. Of course, caution is advised regardless," she said, simply excited to be out and about and it showing in her voice despite the dangerous nature of the job.

It helped that she had somepony who operated alongside a similar wavelength to herself. Daedalus was viciously intelligent and helpful to boot. Few shared the same sense of on task focus and adherence that she did, which made traveling with him as smooth as silk. Calm, cool, collected, talented, skilled, and focused- he was worth a platoon of Guardsmen for all he brought to the table and she was very happy to be with him on this journey.

More important was a cheeky sense of humor. Psssh, endure elements spell? What were they, foals? "Endure elements? Why would we need that in a paradise like this?" she said with a smile before sighing, "besides, it isn't a hike or an adventure without gear, is it not? Magic shouldn't be solved everything. Just the important things," she said as they rounded over a hill, her mind lost in her gear listing.

Good timing as well. He was worried that they hadn't packed for two. She nodded, then opened up her closest wing to reveal her saddlebag. "Oh, don't worry. I packed enough for three, just in case something happens to the first set. Dimensional holding in a bag is a hard spell to make work, but I did it- though not as great a weight as I had initially hoped," she sighed. She had ended up having to limit what could be placed inside due to the nature of how it was all being transported, but it was still nice that she didn't have such a heavy pack! "Besides, what would have the problem with one bedroll and sleeping bag? You aren't calling me fat, are you?"

 

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Twilight had a point.  Daedalus would have preferred more concrete intelligence: documents, trusted accounts, and/or eyes on, but her inferences were sound.  WRAITH still lingered in the back of his mind, however.  After his initial investigation at the rally in Stalliongrad, it seemed that anything in the shadows could turn into a WRAITH operation at a moment’s notice.  If they were able to get an entire complex set up in the forge district without the documents being flagged by REIN, then what else could be lurking in areas outside their usual purview?

 

A smile briefly crossed his face as her enthusiasm bubbled up, spilling through what would otherwise be a dry analysis.  It was refreshing, really -- the genuineness of Twilight’s excitement.  Such things were exceedingly rare in Kastrot and seeing it from a peer rather than a client was only slightly more common.

 

“Endure elements?  Why would we need that in a paradise like this?”

 

“Because spellcasting is fun?” he joked.  “On a more serious note, tangible equipment imposes something of a weight penalty.  Every ounce counts when you’re trying to travel light.”

 

"Oh, don't worry. I packed enough for three, just in case something happens to the first set. Dimensional holding in a bag is a hard spell to make work, but I did it- though not as great a weight as I had initially hoped," Twilight sighed.

 

He had to hand it to her, Twilight was truly a jack of all trades.  Daedalus had dabbled briefly in artifice, but his ability to enchant items in a reasonable time frame was far from where he’d like it to be.  Creating a proper bag of holding wasn’t a simple matter of slapping a recall run on a canvas sack.  Any foal could do that.  That Twilight had the know-how and talent to do it right -- mostly right -- at all was amazing.

 

"Besides, what would have the problem with one bedroll and sleeping bag? You aren't calling me fat, are you?"

 

“Well, considering how much time you’ve spent in the castle, I’d actually say your figure is remarkably sylphic!” He laughed.  “I’d personally take no issue with sharing.  Unless of course there’s some Equestrian law that would strike me with the death penalty for touching a princess before marriage or the like.”

 

The formerly towering evergreens gradually shrank and glacial moraine replaced peaty heath as they continued to ascend.  Copious amounts of loose rock on the slopes slowed progress, but Daedalus was able to find a path up using large boulders as more stable steps.  The river itself had thinned considerably but was still too deep to ford.  Up ahead, the sound of rapids could be heard.


“Hm.” Daedalus mused.  “Is there such a law?”

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Hmm, yes. He could be a charmer. And not the spell charm, which didn't work nearly as well as ponies thought it did. He knew the words and ways to make a mare blush. or a stallion? She had never asked him and wasn't about to, though if she had to lay down a bet she'd put heavily her bets in the direction of mares. And then the discussion continued about laws, and she laughed. His sense of humor wasn't poor either. A good stallion and a good agent? Color her impressed with her hire. She patted herself on the back mentally. Sometimes she missed and when she missed she ran through the failures again and again. When it worked out however, she could almost dance. Almost dance.

 

"No laws, not yet. In Kastrot there are, as I'm sure you know," she said with a bit of sauce in there. Unintentional, actually. She did enjoy a bit of playful banter with him. He was a trustworthy sort and she had so many marefriends and supplicants that it was nice to play as such when out and about with him. "Such laws were never on the books in Equestria. It has never been a matter of law preventing Princesses from having any sort of relationship they prefer. They've always had relative free reign. Of course based on what I'm reading..." she was silent all of a sudden, as she thought about the consort requirement she had just read about. She was still deciding what to do about that...

 

She'd have time to think once they were back home. Daedalus had to hoof it over the path as it grew worse (but more beautiful), while Twilight flew above ever slightly. She wasn't opposed to a nice hike of course, but no reason to not get the wings some practice every once in a while. Muscles in them were tender and prone to becoming weak quickly unless you exercised them with regularity. Who was she to argue with doctors as well as Rainbow Dash? After a time they started making real progress, swiftly reaching the last reported position of the airship. No doubt it was close by.

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“Less statute laws than edicts issued by the Assembly that became common law.  Of course, seeing as the Assembly is practically a unitary amalgamation of executive, legislature, and supreme judiciary, the distinction between the two is mostly academic.”

 

Daedalus tended to lapse into a dry tone when addressing Kastroti politics, but it came out even drier than intended.  The matter was perpetually distasteful to him.  He appreciated Twilight’s effort at banter, however, and did his best to force a smile from atop the latest boulder he climbed.  He would avoid baggage from home unless she specifically requested it.

 

“But yes, I do know.”

 

"Such laws were never on the books in Equestria. It has never been a matter of law preventing Princesses from having any sort of relationship they prefer. They've always had relative free reign.”

 

“Strange.  I suppose I had assumed Equestria upheld its princesses as paragons of virtue and icons of purity.”

 

It had always puzzled Daedalus why Celestia and Luna had not elected to take spouses or at the very least consorts.  Being immortals, he supposed, would obviate the need for heirs.  More morbidly, it would also make building romances an exercise in masochism.  The occasional ephemeral tryst would be far less burdensome, but both Celestia and Luna seemed to have eschewed with even that.

 

With all that in mind, perhaps they had then chosen to forgo families in favor of dedicating their lives entirely to the furtherance of Equestria?  This hypothesis, however, was muddled by Mi Amore Cadenza’s selection of a husband and now the birth of her first foal.  Mainland Equestrians, it seemed, had entirely divorced politics from their relationships be they strictly platonic or romantic in nature.

 

Having analyzed the other princesses, Daedalus’ thoughts fell to Twilight.  Would the ramifications of immortality upon relationships and friendships apply to her as well?  Was she even immortal?  He recalled a posting in the library and around ponyville for consort auditions, so it apparently had crossed her mind at some point.

 

“I’m happy to hear Equestria is quite liberal in that respect,” he continued.  “It seems old Kastroti presuppositions can be difficult to overcome.  As usual, the genuineness of Equestria is eternally refreshing.”

 

“Of course based on what I'm reading..."  Twilight trailed off.

 

Daedalus reached down from the last boulder to offer Twilight a hoof, only to find that she had floated up to it on wing by herself.  “Ah right, wings.”

 

Twilight had neither the stature of Celestia nor the propensity to fly as her pegasus friends that he had seen coming and going from the castle.  Considering she had also gone most of the journey on foot, it was easy to forget she had wings as well.

 

The sound of rapids had ramped up substantially.  After climbing the rise, Daedalus could now see the first signs of white water and foaming current.  On the far side of the riverbank, away from the glacial moraine, more stunted evergreens grew.  Daedalus squinted, shielding his eyes from the sun with a hoof.  Some of the trees beyond the bank were even more stunted… or perhaps truncated.

 

“I think I see broken trees.  The airship might have crashed through that stretch of forest.  I’d like to take a closer look.”  Daedalus undid the straps on his pack and withdrew a bundle of rope.  “The water should be shallow enough to cross here.  I’d rather not have to divert another few kilometers upstream to search for a natural bridge or narrower ford.”


While he unfurled the rope and began securing it to the rocks on the near bank, he continued their prior conversation.  “You never actually finished the thought on what you found out in your readings…”

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Academic distinction indeed, one most wouldn't readily recognize out of hoof. He was a learned stallion which was most of her...well, attraction, yes. She dealt with enough fawning types and plenty of strong ones, but academic mares and stallions seemed to believe that they weren't good enough for her. It was very much the opposite- she was always in awe of the very act of a pony's intellectual pursuit. But alas, intelligence was terrifying and for many ignorance was bliss. The information may have come out dry, but the fact that information was being delivered at all was good by her. She listened intently, his tone the same as a textbook to her as she hovered just off of the ground and paid him good heed and cause. It was always interesting to hear about how other nations functioned. Kastrot was a very depressing case of what could happen should power become an end unto itself.

 

Before much longer they entered a likely area where the airship started to come down. Trees showed signs of being snapped at the top and decreasing in fracture height the further it went along. The ground itself showed some signs of stress but nothing direct, indicating that the airship hadn't crashed just yet. An obvious point since there was no airship just yet. The rate of descent meant it had to be just over the crest of the next hill. They were exceptionally close, but the lack of smoke or flames from over the ridge was worrying. The cold could snuff it out, but they hadn't been so late that it was a foregone conclusion. There was always the chance that the crash was controlled to the extent that fire and smoke were unlikely, but she was preparing for the worst regardless. She lit up a small medallion she kept with her.

 

"When we get to the crash site, we'll need to act quickly. This medallion will help create a portal to the Royal Hospital of Stalliongrad that will be stable enough to transport the wounded,” she caressed it, “an excellent little device. Too bad the aetheral tug on it is too strong. It can only be used three times before it has to be destroyed,” she said with a sigh, Tragic was the life of a new magical artifact, but for every ruined piece of magitech a brighter future was theirs thanks to trial, error, and research. She hovered a bit higher up, though not far at all from Daedalus. “Oh, I mentioned something? Oh...Oh! Yes. Nothing to really worry about now. Ancient laws and traditions and such.”

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Daedalus secured the line to a stone which he whirled around his head like a sling with his magic.  The rock orbited around his head several times before he released it, sending it flying across the river.  Daedalus’ expert aim landed it between the cleft of a rock on the far bank, giving a proper anchor for the line.  With careful steps, Daedalus shuffled his way across the river, using the rope as a brace against the current.  Again, he instinctively reached behind him to assist Twilight, only to find her gliding over the water’s surface effortlessly.

 

He envied the wings at times.  Granted, it was likely that he’d hate having extra appendages, weight, and feathers to preen, but the extra mobility they afforded could not be denied.  Maybe he’d build himself a wing spell later to experiment with.

 

"When we get to the crash site, we'll need to act quickly. This medallion will help create a portal to the Royal Hospital of Stalliongrad that will be stable enough to transport the wounded,” she caressed it, “an excellent little device. Too bad the aetheral tug on it is too strong. It can only be used three times before it has to be destroyed,” she said with a sigh, Tragic was the life of a new magical artifact, but for every ruined piece of magitech a brighter future was theirs thanks to trial, error, and research.

 

“Then depending on how many crewponies there are, we might have to send them through first and then make our way back to Crystal Spire on foot.”  Daedalus grunted as he slowly pulled himself across.

 

The water barely covered his knees, but the current was much stronger than he had anticipated.  Footing on the smooth stone of the river bottom was difficult to hold and each step felt like a heart attack waiting to happen.  Daedalus paused about two-thirds of the way through just to steady his footing.

 

Twilight hovered a bit higher up, though not far at all from Daedalus. “Oh, I mentioned something? Oh...Oh! Yes. Nothing to really worry about now. Ancient laws and traditions and such.”

 

“Funny,” he grunted as he fought the current.  “I thought you’d be ecstatic to gush about ancient laws and traditions and su--”

 

Unfortunately, it seemed wit and physical coordination were wholly incompatible.  His attempt at dry humor was distracting enough to cause a misstep.  His hoof slid out from under him and with a whinnied curse, faceplanting him into the river.  The current snagged his cloak and only a timely twist of his body and swipe of his front hooves stopped him from being swept away in the current.

 

He sputtered and coughed, trying to clear the water from his lungs as he clung to the line.  Well this was embarrassing.  Daedalus pulled himself upright, using a convenient divot in the river bottom to brace himself against the current.  He shook water out of his ears as he leaned on the rope to catch his breath.


“The river seems to have deemed my sense of humor excessively dry,” he said sheepishly, looking up at Twilight.

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Daedalus went down in the river with all the grace of a three legged dancer. For a brief moment Twilight was worried about him, more so than she thought she'd be, but that moment passed by quickly. He was a Keeper. The next time somepony she invested with such power fell to such a small trial would be the first. In just a few seconds he was back up and with a quip that earned a laugh from her. "Well, the river made your dry wit a bit more...uggh, where's Pinkie Pie when you need her..." she grunted in frustration, turning her attention back to the job at hand. As fun as it was watching Daedalus flop about in the water they were here to rescue ponies. He needed to be dry to do that, otherwise they'd be treating him for hypothermia.

 

"Let's dry you off," she said with a predatory grin. Daedalus found himself lifted out of the river in a bubble of purple magic. He was held for a few seconds before a n orange orb appeared next to him. It started to radiate off heat and then grew larger and larger until it consumed Daedalus, growing hotter and hotter as it did. In a burst it seemed to pop the purple magic bubble, though Daedalus was still being held. It was extremely hot, dangerously so even, but he found himself completely unharmed in any way. After a few seconds he was levitated next to her. "Sorry for the dramatics. Just needed to flash dry you before we went further. Don't want anypony to catch pneumonia, especially somepony supposed to be on the rescue mission! We'll just hang out up here together until we're past the river, okay?" She asked, though she was less asking and more informing. They moved on

 

It wasn't long until she saw smoke followed quickly by the airship. It was in an open field, though a nearby mountaintop bore the signs of damage. A heavy fog rolled over the mountains, a misty mountain serenity that belied the dangers such structures posed to airship travel. She couldn't see the bottom of the airship but judging by the line of debris she could guess what happened. Flying low, scrapped the top of the mountain, went down controlled but fast and unable to send a message because of the quick descent. A working theory, at least. Outside of the airship she saw many ponies laying on the ground or in makeshift tents, while a few others guarded the perimeter- some limping. At least they were alive.

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Daedalus could have sworn he saw a look of dread cross Twilight’s face when he surfaced.  It very quickly vanished, however, leaving him wondering if it were merely river water blurring his sight.  Thankfully, his gear was thoroughly waterproofed, ensuring that his supplies and tools would be safe from soaking.  Still, Daedalus already felt the chill of the late winter air against his coat.  He would need to dry off soon, lest hypothermia prematurely cut the trip short.

 

“Being that Pinkie is quite a bit less reserved, I would be hard-pressed to emulate her style,” he cracked as he resumed his rope-guided trek.  “Though I suppose you could say my brief swim threw a real damper on things.”

 

"Let's dry you off," Twilight said.

 

“We can do that on the far bank.  I think we can spare a few minutes to start a fire so we can warm u--”

 

Daedalus was cut short by a neigh of surprise as Twilight’s magic gripped him firmly and lifted him out of the water like a foal’s bath toy.  Daedalus winced and blinked back the brightness as a second sun sprang to life next to him.  For a moment, it seemed that Twilight’s flaming sphere would sear his coat clean off, but thankfully no such thing happened.  The water quickly steamed out of both his coat and his cloak as the globe engulfed him.

 

As suddenly as it had appeared, it vanished and Daedalus found himself floating next to Twilight.  He breathed a sigh of relief.  Her zealousness had not in fact torn a hole in reality or more importantly any holes in him.

 

"Sorry for the dramatics. Just needed to flash dry you before we went further. Don't want anypony to catch pneumonia, especially somepony supposed to be on the rescue mission! We'll just hang out up here together until we're past the river, okay?"

 

“Your concern for my respiratory health truly warms my heart,” he teased.

 

The lift and the rapid dry was, as bombastic as it was, still welcome.  It saved quite a bit of time spent drying off and warming up by a fire, which Daedalus had originally planned.  Of course, that begged the question why Twilight didn’t think to do this the first time when Daedalus was setting up the ford rope.  He himself would not have asked; after all, it would have been quite rude to request a ride from the princess when he was perfectly capable of taking care of himself.

 

Daedalus quickly recovered and stowed the rope as Twilight set him down on the far bank.  He gazed into the broken trees, now very clearly seeing the path taken by the crashed ship.  They followed the debris trail through the thinning trees until they finally arrived at the hill overlooking the makeshift camp.


“A good number of casualties,” Daedalus muttered as he assessed the camp.  “Hopefully no deaths.  But it definitely appears no one will be simply trotting out of here.  Best get that trinket ready, Princess.”

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Twilight nodded. It was wise to get the item ready. Even if most of them were walking wounded there would be no walking back to civilization like this. Daedalus, who was well trained, fit, and in full faculties, had trouble. No way the wounded and weary would be able to get through this, and that was without worrying about those who were in decidedly worse straits. She wished she could teleport them herself but it would exacerbate injuries and cause further harm. The portal, meanwhile, would do no such thing. It was as close to a good solution as she was going to find for now. She tapped the item and then held it aloft. Held in a purple glow it was twisted counter clockwise.

“It's ready. When I drop it, the portal will be opened. We'll have to move fast once it is open so we must take stock of the situation before it is deployed. The worst off will be moved first and we'll go down the triage line, walking wounded last. Sound like a plan?” She asked, though it was far more of a rhetorical question than anything else. She knew it was a good plan because it was the only plan that'd get them out of here without causing a whole host of other issues. She sped up, flying towards the crash site and saving her teleportation for later.

Two guards approached, spears out, though they were lowered once they made out who was approaching. Twilight could almost feel the relief radiate from them. One conversed with the other, the limping one staying back. He bowed to both Twilight and Daedalus when he arrived. “Princess! I-I didn't think you'd be- I'm sorry about the state of the ship b-bu-” he began. Twilight landed and placed a hoof on his shoulder and looked him in the eyes to calm him down. In a few moments he started breathing slower and was more composed.

“Now tell me what happened here.”

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“I don’t have any additional improvements on it,” Daedalus quipped.

 

Twilight was off like a shot, leaving him scrambling to keep up on the ground. He was tempted to blink the distance, but decided that the magic was better off saved for later. Besides, he wasn’t about to let Twilight best him physically. Filling his lungs with mountain air, Daedalus pushed into a dead sprint, closing the gap as Twilight arrived at the edge of camp.

 

Two guards approached. Daedalus’ first instinct at having a weapon pointed at them was to step in front of Twilight (even if she was still airborne) and energize mage armor, though he managed to stop himself just short of the second step. The crew was injured and scared. The last thing they would need was two glowing mages walking in with potentially apocalyptic spells charged.

 

Thankfully, they lowered their weapons as soon as they recognized Twilight. Daedalus took the time to catch his breath, allowing his pounding heart rate to settle from the run, which it quickly did. Though nothing more than idle curiosity and perhaps a bit of winded consternation showed on his face, a ping of uncertainty rang in his mind for a split second.

 

Certainly ensuring the safety of the Princess of Friendship was to his advantage. But there was also the last bit of worry that came from beyond the bounds of their professional relationship. There were those that Daedalus called friend who had fallen prey to the games of the Assembly. These guards were no Assembly assassins to be sure, but the imagery was enough to evoke a visceral reaction.

 

But if Twilight were as absorbed as he thought she’d be, the momentary lapse in judgment would likely be filtered out and dismissed by that brain of hers in favor of more important matters, namely getting the casualties to safety. Daedalus blew a light snort from his nostrils. Any flirtatious banter exchanged was merely banter; randy shop talk. Just because his Kastroti upbringing blurred the lines between business and pleasure didn’t mean Twilight also eschewed the boundary. Princess things took precedent over trysts.

 

As Twilight spoke with the guard, Daedalus took a quick lap of the camp, scanning it with both his eyes and aetheric senses. No lattice residue lingered, indicating that it was free of directed spell influence. Twilight's assessment of the crash seemed on point. The ship was not shot down; any damage to it seemed to be a combination of pilot error and natural causes. Despite the lack of lattice, however, more natural ley residue remained; ley residue that fell in a curious configuration.

 

“Ley residue. Ley residue that’s aligning itself along the axis of the ridge,” he muttered, mostly to himself, but audible to any in close proximity. “There’s a ley line running under this mountain...”

 

He caught the tail end of the guard’s explanation as he returned to Twilight’s side. “... so the instruments went haywire. It was foggy, so we tried our best to steer with dead reckoning. By the time we saw the mountain, it was too late. Tore the keel out right from under us and sent us crashing through the trees. It’s a miracle we’re still alive.”

 

“Ley interference would certainly explain a lot,” Daedalus said. “Looks like a fairly recent ley shift might have brought one closer to the surface, using this mountain as a conduit. That would explain the instrument malfunction and additional weather phenomena.”


The mage took one last look at the triage line. “Has a headcount been taken yet? Not much chance to survive solo out here if anypony gets left behind...”

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Twilight listened to the cause of crash, at least the theory of it, from Daedalus with detailed arcane geography in her mind. Ley lines shifted when not in use at a pace much higher than when in use. The constant pulling of aether from them in a place like Manehattan kept them tied down and the shifting was far slower and more subtle, akin more to generational shifts rather than waves. In more isolated areas however ley lines were far more mobile and shifted with greater force. Twilight had theories regarding how this was represented in normal Pony health patterns in this area and the increased likelihood of unicorns getting ill, but for today such a theory was ill-placed in deciding the exact faults that led to this disaster.

Instruments were designed to handle the changing ley lines, an aetheral overflow tolerance being built into them. They weren't perfect, however. Faults could be found in any machine or spell and everything had an expiration date. Airships of the REA by and large had the very best that bits could buy, but sudden, more violent ley line shifts could knock them out for a period of a few minutes. Flying blind was uncommon but in good weather and away from mountains a trained pilot could handle it for a few minutes. Of course here you had a perfect storm that managed to bring down the airship, a conspiracy creating alignment if she ever saw one.

Of course there was a sincere lack of suspects in such a case. Violent ley line shifts could, in theory, be the result of a ploy but anypony that could cause ley lines to shift in such a manner wouldn't need to be indirect about their plots. Ley lines should more mobility at the borders of certain magical nations, of course, and being this close to the Changeling Kingdom as they went about their internal boiling of passions no doubt played a small role, but not of their own accord. It was simply a terrible accident and she thanked the stars that they were the first to arrive.

"Head count?" the guard asked, frazzled. Then he shook his head and nodded. "Ah, right. One-hundred and four of one-hundred and ten present and accounted for."

"Oh dear..."

"Also, artifact never moved."

"That's nice, I guess, but-"

"No, Princess, you don't understand. It never moved." he said, staring up in the sky. Up there was a small section of the ship as still as could be, the artifact and several other elements around it.

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“Then where are the other six?” Daedalus thought out loud.

 

He could see plenty of injured, but there were no signs of fresh grave markers or burial shrouds. Daedalus could only assume that they were still considered missing in action. He looked out over the debris field and the surrounding swaths of Leotan wilderness. Even Daedalus would usually not stray so far off the beaten path. Unless he and Twilight could figure out a means to rapidly locate those missing, their chances of survival were low and rapidly dropping. They would be dead from exposure or injury before a proper search and rescue team could arrive by airship.

 

“We don’t have the horsepower to run a manual search of the area for the last survivors, but we might be able to put together a scrying spell if we could get some of their personal effects. If the triage line is stable we can use the last few hours of daylight to scan for and recover them before we portal everypony out at once. I can get that started if you would like, Princess.”

 

When no response was heard, Daedalus repeated, “Princess Twilight?”

 

He followed her gaze into the sky. Floating in the air with the solidity of a mountain face sat a globular section of the ship’s hold. The cross-section of compartments was carved out of the ship, forming a perfectly round sphere of airship surrounding what he could only assume to be the artifact in question. Daedalus’ gaze shifted back to the debris field, then back to the floating decks. The rest of the ship was torn to pieces as would be expected by a crash, but this floating bit looked like it had been precision cut from the ship with a massive scalpel.

 

Not trusting his eyes alone, Daedalus’s horn immediately lit. His eyes glowed an eerie violet, momentarily washing out his pupils and a corona of the same color engulfed his body as he slipped partially into the aether. What he saw was fascinating.

 

Much like watching a solar eclipse with a blackout disc blocking out the Sun, the sphere section of ship appeared as a jet black globe floating in a mass of indigo strands that snaked up to it from the ground in great writhing bundles. Like a nest of serpents, loose ley field lines constantly slithered around the surface of the sphere, some rejoining the ley streaming up from the ground and others diving back into the dense ball of shifting magical force within.


“The artifact… it pulled the ley line out of the mountain,” he said breathlessly. The stale chill of the void snapped back into the fresh, crisp air of the mountain as Daedalus shifted fully back into the material plane. He looked to Twilight. “What in Tartarus is that artifact? This wasn’t included in the dossier at all!”

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Twilight stared at the artifact, aware that the information had been inadequate but not necessarily inaccurate. They were all yellow class which indicated non-dangerous artifacts, but that didn't mean a classification couldn't change or that it had abilities unknown to most. These strange sets of circumstances could all have come together to reveal an underlying ability that was more than what anypony could have expected. "Previous environmental factors may never have triggered this, or triggered this so visually. It would be impossible for ponies without tremendous knowledge of the aether to see that anything was amiss if it was on the ground, after all," Twilight muttered to the side. She was intensely staring at the artifact and her horn lit up subtly, her eyes taking on a white aspect as a small visual line of magic snaked up into the air, into the artifact.

It was very subtle work. She was investigating not only what it was doing, as informed by Daedalus, but the mechanics of it as well as the type and drive of the work done upon it. She would then unravel it and ensure it could be moved safely. If a ley line was a line then this was an anchor, pinning itself down on a ley line while also having tugged it closer. That would explain the violent ley line movement that could cause the ship to have trouble as well as its inability to move. Indeed, it had pulled the ley line out of the mountain. That was quite vexing. Even after they left the area each and every crew-member would have to undergo a few weeks of observation to ensure their auras hadn't been unduly affected by such raw exposure.

The artifact wasn't pulling aether out of the ley line, nor was it doing anything now that it was floating there except acting as an anchor. Twilight could only guess at the intent. Her eyes and horn still alight and growing brighter. "I think it is an anchor mechanism. It pulls raw ley lines close to the surface, allowing those nearby easier access. This time it was high enough that it pulled the lines out of the mountain. It will be a delicate procedure to disrupt the artifact and repair the ley line," she started before her eyes and horn dimmed and she was normal once more, "but it has done everything it can do for now. It was responsible for the crash, but is relatively inert at the moment. We can deal with it at a later point," she said with a nod, looking at the guards. She started hovering.

"More importantly, we have six missing ponies. You, gather those in the worst health and give them this," she said, snapping in six vials of a teal substance, "and make them drink it. Failing that, absorption through the neck is allowable. It will put them in a state of stasis for two hours. If we don't find the six missing in two hours, I'll return and escort all of you to the hospital. You," she pointed to the other, "get everypony who is in a state of working health to form search teams. We'll meet back here in five minutes and start the search," she said with authority. The two nodded and trotted off to ready their tasks. Twilight hovered over to Daedalus.

"One additional artifact is up there with the anchor. Indications are that two others are in the main crash site, but the other two are missing in the debris field. While we search for the missing crew, I'll try and keep up a locator spell," she paused, "because of the open ley line this'll be rather treacherous, so I'm not going to be able to see much. I would try and look for the crew using a locator spell, but so close to the ley lines a pony's aura is overshadowed by the raw aether unless they are of significant power. You will have to carry the burden of the search," she informed him, sighing as she looked out. "Hopefully all we'll lose here today is an airship...which reminds me. Before we're done here, we have to erase this vessel from existence."

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“I suppose I can’t blame the cataloguing team,” Daedalus mused in response. “I wouldn’t expect bean-counters to have top-tier arcanology training or even research experience.”

 

Daedalus never trusted “inert” artifacts. The Doomsaker was inert. The strange red rune sword in the Keep vault was also inert. Both due to their nature were aether-reactive and either could manifest strange phenomena given the correct circumstances. Whatever this artifact was it seemed to have found its activation parameters. Were it his choice, Daedalus would have elected to secure the artifact first in light of this discovery. However, Twilight was still in charge.

 

“You’re the boss.” He finally said. “Seeing as I have no wings and teleporting directly into a massive bundle of ley flux would likely be suicide, I will have to leave recovery of anything near the anchor to you.”

 

Flying into extreme ley flux was only marginally safer than teleporting into it. Were the physical restrictions not in place, Daedalus honestly would have preferred their roles be reversed. He’d done this before. He had built safeguards into his blink spells. He could slip into the void to evade misfires and unexpected aether reactions.

 

Not that he questioned Twilight’s magical prowess. She was an alicorn and a princess. She had been training for things like this her entire life. No, it was not a question of her capability, but her safety. So in spite of her abilities, Daedalus’ concern remained.

 

“Right. Sterilization, environmental impact corrections, and destruction of sensitive equipment. Kind of amazing what you learn doing government work even if you’re not military.”

 

Daedalus pointed northeast. “Search teams, assemble at the northeast end of the main crash site. We’re going to sweep through the debris field. Your priority is to search for survivors, but you might encounter magical anomalies or other artifacts. If you find an artifact, mark it with a smoke flare and continue sweeping for survivors. Do not touch or manipulate it; either I or the Princess will handle them.”


As the troops marched to assemble, Daedalus turned to Twilight one last time. Unlike the commanding tone he took with the soldiers, his speech to Twilight softened considerably. “I’ll be back in two hours’ time with artifacts in tow, hopefully the remaining survivors as well. Be careful with the anchor, all right, Princess?”

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His concern wasn't misguided entirely. Active ley lines, while invisible to the naked eye, were extremely powerful in terms of magical impact. Simple spells could go haywire and ponies would find their natural abilities going haywire. Magically inclined types such as unicorns might find a simple spell becoming absurdly powerful or have themselves robbed of the ability to cast anything. Pegasi drop out of the air or find that outside of their own will the weatehr responds to the simplest flap with the mightiest of motions. Earth ponies were weakened or emboldened; all special talents were ruined or sharpened into fine tools.

It was an unknown unknown how it would impact you. Higher level magic carried a higher level of risk even before the existence of an open ley line was taken into consideration. Now? Now it was a dangerous matter of another level. Still, it had to be done. She had to rip the anchor from this point so she could remove it from play. The ley line would work itself back in order. Ponies had to be found, the artifacts collected, and this ship erased. She wouldn't be able to play a significant role in the first part of that operations listing, but she was confident that Daedalus could handle it. He was remarkably intelligent and capable. She would trust him with a great deal more dangerous tasks than leading a search party.

"I trust you completely, Daedalus. See you soon," she said as she started to fly up. While she did so she made sure to add in what she could for those on the ground, her horn lighting up and snaking down in thin strands to one in every three members. It was a relatively benign, maybe slightly itchy, locator spell for the artifacts. Wouldn't work unless they were in the general area but it was something at least and it was all she could really do for them. That would allow for some ease of operation dowm there and with that worry eliminated she could hopefully focus more purely on her own efforts. Twilight would normally not have been worried in the slightest but Daedalus was right to be concerned about the unknown unknowns that this magical incident continued to illuminate.

In time, Twilight was at the anchor, casting a new spell on herself as she approached- too close and she'd run the risk of pulling from the ley line. There was enough of the ship around her for her to land and set a small bag down. She stretched her legs and took a deep breath despite the cutting wind. The spell was one of her own creation. It was an aetheral absorbption shield. It would take the aether being dumped all over by the ley lines and when it came into contact, use it to fuel the shield. It became a good feedback cycle. It was being drained the whole time this close to the aether but the aether was fueling it. It should stay up and allow her to finish her work in relative safety.

"All right, what do we have here..." she whispered to nopony but herself, concentrating as her horn lit up and she investigated the anchor closer.

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Scree-covered incline was too treacherous to slide or walk down, but a little ingenuity put them at the bottom of the ravine in ten seconds flat with nothing more than a light coat of dust from sledding down upon a disc of magical force. A wave of his horn dispelled the disc as the remainder of the guards dusted themselves off. A hoof motion sent them fanning out through the forest with military precision.

 

Confident in their ability to at least warn him if danger approached, Daedalus focused on the locator spells that Twilight had sent out from the mountain-top. A circle of runes appeared in front of him, which he pressed in practiced order, producing a pointillistic overlay of the surrounding terrain. Multiple pings showed in the aether, responding to Twilight’s spell as bright violet dots. A few moved erratically, darting about as if carried by a swarm of gnats, but in the midst of the chaos, a few remained motionless.

 

Daedalus followed the wreckage, leaving signs along the way to mark the trail and periodically waving at the sergeant to check if everything was okay. Nothing seemed to have happened yet. It didn’t take long before he was upon the first signature. A large fragment of hull had smashed a tree, leaving a cavity under which something could potentially lurk.  After studying the situation for a few minutes, Daedalus focused upon a spell, purple wisps of smoke seeping from his eyes and horn as a black crystal obelisk erupted from the ground, lifting the hull piece above the compartment.

 

There, nestled below was a small metal cylinder with a quartz window, its interior glowing a faint violet. He double-tapped the metal “roof” with a hoof to ensure that it was stable before leaning down to pick up the container.


“This must be it,” he muttered, lashing it to his saddlebag with the cord recovered from the river debacle. “Two more and a gaggle of guards to go…”

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Twilight plunged deep into the aether this time. It was her favorite type of spelunking, honestly. So much of Equestrian society was based on sight and sound, on the physical interpretation of the world that the real truths that lay beneath every blade of grass and molecule of oxygen had been reduced to curiosities and unreasonably demanding projects. But when she was allowed to feel the aether, taste the aether, move in it and manipulate it in ways no normal unicorn ever could? It was a whole world of possibility that spilled out in front of her. Caution was the greatest tool she had in this arena as one wrong move could upset the aether in great and significant ways. But even though she was cautious, that didn't mean her actions were any less bold. And this anchor would demand all of her boldness and all of her caution, in equally important and vexing ways.

 

The Anchor wasn't draining the ley line itself. In fact, it did hardly anything other than pull and hold. The simplicity of the design was puzzling and befuddling. It wasn't doing anything except holding the ley line in place. Multi-intrusion spells were repulsed somewhat violent as she tried to get a clearer picture of what was holding the ley lines up mechanically, with the associated heavy knocks in her brain that came from counter-defenses. Nothing dramatic. Anything that rose above that would have triggered her own defensive matrix of spells. She then tried investigating what connected the anchor to the mechanics that held the ley line in place. She got more out of this method. It was a strong type of the Urina-Line aether tether that melded with the Xudian line of proto-aetheral transmutagenic spellcrafting, with aetherical incorporeality helping pull more pure forms of aether. She still couldn't see what she assumed now were four bands of invisible aether-tendrils that wrapped around the ley line and prevented it from moving. 

 

So that was good. The counter-spell returned a little stronger this time as she spent more time diving in, but her matrix brushed it aside. If this was place was uninhabited then she could simple slice through it and risk an aether explosion. She'd be safe. But Daedalus and the crew were down below. She needed to find a way to remove the bands and allow the ley line to sink back down into its natural path. This would also allow those down below to have an easier time finding the lost crew. The question was primarily how. she couldn't risk making a mistake in de-activating or cutting the artifact. She needed to know more about it. And the best way to do that was to go bak to the past and learn how it was used.

 

Twilight stepped back, her eyes still blazing white as she pulled out two scrolls. She attached one to herself and the other to the anchor. The magic slowly started to swirl around them and in a flash- a flash that only she could see- they were back in the past. Well, technically, only her mind was. Physically she and the anchor were still there in the sky while Daedalus and the crew looked around underneath them. But now she was back in the past and she could see how the relic functioned for those that had created it.

 

First up was a patch of earth and some earth ponies farming what looked like deadly-poor soil. Several harvests came and went and ponies starved. Then the anchor came and was placed in the fields. She could see the ley lines pulled up and kept in place for generations, and the harvests were plenty. Earth pony magic turned the dead soil into fertile land. She tried to see how it worked or who turned it on but before she could focus, she was in the sky.
A horrible storm saw several pegasi struggle to control it. A tornado one day, a cluster of them the next, a hurricane during other seasons and a horrifying tsunami that forces ponies to flee. The anchor came and pegasi who before could hardly fight a single cloud were corralling mammoth storms. She got closer this time and saw a unicorn in a baloon turn it on, her horn lit a dark purple. It aligned into position and shot the line down into the ground.

 

Twilight got some information, but she was brought to a new place. A bright castle basked in competing shades of light and dark, the sun and moon both in the sky. To the south there appeared to be wildness and chaos, dancing colors and screams of anguish, as a college of unicorns tried with all their might to bring the celestial objects to bear. All failed, and outside the world was dying. Suddenly a unicorn, caked in shadow, entered through the doors and revealed the anchor. She spoke in a language Twilight could not discern. She then saw this unicorn's horn light up purple and send the anchor into motion. Twilight eapt at the chance- nopony there could see her and she needed this knowledge. She got the aetheral signature of the spell used to start the anchor, the line, even the bands. She was so excited that she didn't even see the unicorns around her look at the sky and, as one, pull the sun down. 

 

The strange unicorn looked at Twilight despite it not being possible for her to be seen and, still hidden in a cloak, smiled.

"You can go now," She said to Twilight, snapping the Princess back to the present as the other unicorn vanished in a glowing field of light.

Twilight found herself back at the Anchor, floating above the wreck. Okay....strange...but she knew what to do now. Taking a deep breath, she went further...

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The next two artifact pings were close by and found in similar circumstances. Each was encased in a sealed metal capsule with a quartz window, though they glowed different colors. The first was violet, the next an emerald green, the next an unearthly blue. Their similarity elicited curiosity, but Daedalus knew better than to open them in the field, especially with a minor apocalypse in the process of being defused above. Now there was one remaining.

 

Daedalus cautiously trotted toward the next ping while keeping an eye out. So far, no sign of the missing crew. If he didn’t locate them in the debris field, it was likely they might not have survived the landing. The terrain had become far more hazardous. Fragments of hull had shredded the canopy, larger ones knocking down trees, obstructing Daedalus’ path with fallen logs and jagged stumps. The forest floor in the valley was littered with splintered wood, much of it blackened by fire, coated with a thin layer of frost from the cold.

 

The glint of quartz caught Daedalus’ eye. He gingerly weaved between the logs and splinters, finally arriving at the resting place of the final capsule, this one glowing gold. He lightly gripped it with his magic, checking for breaches of containment. Satisfied that no ruptures had occurred, Daedalus pocketed the capsule and turned his senses to locating any survivors.

 

Suddenly, something else pinged his search spell from above, catching his attention before he could recast the spell. Daedalus was tempted to ignore it at first, assuming that it was just Twilight working her magic. But something seemed off when the ping repeated. Daedalus stopped in his tracks and turned his eyes skyward.

 

“Is something the matter?”

 

“Continue your search, sergeant. I need a moment to scry again.”

 

The sergeant nodded and waved his troops on. Taking a deep breath, Daedalus dipped into the aether once again, feeling the turbulent flow of ley around him. Something strange was happening above. Having walked the edge of the void many times -- even more so after Discord’s strange gift of Kyanaster -- he knew the signature of the void. He knew when and where time and space had become warped or artificially reshaped. Whatever had happened at the Anchor reeked of it. Kyanaster thrummed quietly in its armor socket in response.


“Terrestrial ley lines don’t pull from the void,” he muttered. “Twilight, what have you gotten yourself into?”

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Twilight had realized by now that the bands weren't going to be removed. But she now realized how it worked, and knew how to undo it. She was more concerned about how that figure has interacted with her, but that was for later. For now, a quick overview of this relic, how it worked, and how she needed to do this:

 

This was not an aggressive or otherwise violent artifact. Exact opposite in fact. This artifact pulled ley lines closer to the surface and was held there for local ponies to pull from it. This would enhance the ability of the ponies to do their tasks. Farm their fields. Control the weather. Raise the sun and moon when Discord ruled Equestria. The potential for this was marvelous. You could conquer almost any type of terrain, any climate, any geographical situation. Ponies could thrive in any single place in the world and even the magically weakened could provide powerful aid. It was a mesmerizing piece that could help make whole communities function where nothing could work before. She needed to study it more, but it appeared to be a uniquely suited artifact towards expansion. 

 

To undo it, she would need to first activate the anchor. The counter-spell would remove the defenses on the line entirely and allow for it to be cut. A few seconds later she would undo the aetheral lining and cut into the line. The anchor would start to pull the line and the bindings down below, which would likely automatically release the ley line. In a few moments the anchor would pull the line and the bindings up, then she would activate the secondary spell to close the anchor up, and shut the anchor down. Of course there was the problem that the ley line was still too close to the surface and without the bindings could flex and contort wildly. She'd have to do something about that and after some consideration she decided on a plan.

 

A few moments later, a faint, ghostly mirage of Twilight, her purples faded and transparent, floated next to Daedalus. She was sweating, panting, and looking worked up and out. "Anchor deactivation in progress. How is the search going- not here for long. I am going to use direct aetheral contact using an aural projection to force the ley line down, at least as the aetheric bindings of the anchor are removed. So if you see this- me- seemingly scream out in pain, do not be alarmed. It's just a projection. I'm okay," she said as if trying to comfort more than Daedalus, floating on by and finally starting to sink onto the ground. Only Daedalus could see or hear her. This was good because in just a few short moments she was going to start cursing in pain. Direct aether contact using an aural form was the equivalent to throwing yourself into the fire. Twilight was physically okay, but she would be feeling intense aetheric pains for a little bit.

 

But it was the only way to do the job correctly. She had to keep the ley line in control as the anchor was deactivated and prevent it from whipping around. This would allow for a quicker search and rescue of the crew. Otherwise there was a risk of danger to all involved, and the search for crew would be more pointless and less likely to find a pleasant result. As searing pain enveloped her, what kept her going was the knowledge that her actions were hopefully going to save lives. That and the fact that once aether contact was made, she was unable to sever it- she was going to have to see it through to the end.

 

Even if her aether-aural form started to scream in pain within seconds.

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Daedalus felt the aether shift before he saw it. The apparition caught the corner of his eye as he was already turning to face it. At first it seemed to be a ley resonance ghost, but as he slipped back into realspace and the mirage remained, he settled sight upon it as a purposeful projection. Twilight addressed him in brief by proxy.

 

“I’ve recovered all of the loose artifact capsules,” he replied. “No sign of the last survivors yet, but we’re still looking. Wait, are you seriously going to--”

 

She was.

 

Daedalus cringed as a scream that only he could hear split his eardrums and seemed to vibrate the aether around him. The projection mirrored Twilight’s actions in the aether, horn aglow, wings and limbs spreadeagle as she touched the vein of the world. If anypony else could hear it, they would have every right to have been alarmed. For a moment, Daedalus cursed Twilight’s decision to dive right in. It was a filly’s means of working something out, diving straight in instead of detaching the Anchor from outside using surgically precise spellcraft.

 

“You’re expecting me not to be alarmed by that?” Daedalus growled through gritted teeth, his ears still throbbing from the audio assault. “Projection or not, there’s void magic in there! Watch for it so you can compensate!”

 

Again, the doubts surfaced, not for Twilight’s competence, but for her safety. Much like litigation, diving face and aura first into a raging aetherstorm was horribly unpredictable and nearly always costly. Princess or not, it was still threatening to life, limb, and possibly soul. A few seconds in and the hum of the anchor was already beginning to subsume the air around him.

 

It took a moment for Daedalus to realize the strange hum was not coming from the Anchor above but from his own saddlebags. He quickly dropped the saddle and opened up the packs. The magical capsules he had collected glowed much more strongly through their quartz windows. Each one thrummed with barely contained energy; energy that seemed to be growing with every passing second. Whatever those artifacts were, they were reacting to the Anchor’s activity.


“That can’t be good,” he muttered. Turning to Twilight’s projection, he shouted to be heard over the drone of magic and the screams of aural agony. “Whatever you’re doing you need to hurry it up. I’ve got what looks like a positive aether-reactive feedback loop going here in these artifact capsules!”

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If Twilight could have spent any part of her attention on Daedalus, she would have argued him. Not only from the perspective of a powerful Princess who knew what she was doing, but also a scientist who had a streak of nobility in her and had the knowledge of what needed to be done and how. The fact she was going to get hurt mattered little. She could take the aetheral pains. They couldn't. If she didn't do it, it could be very lethal for many down below. It was an act of grand selflessness, and she would love to debate the merits of it over some fine wine next time she brought Daedalus up for a debrief in her lab.
She didn't blame himfor his worry. His primary job was honestly to watch over her. He was one of the best aether specialists in the world and only one of a few who could deal with dark magic to any degree of competency who wasn't overwhelmed by the prospects. He was powerful and intelligent and had a sense of humor that perhaps only she could appreciate. But in executing his duties he could sometimes only poorly consider the stark reality of the situation. If not her, who? If not this, what? If not now, when? These were immediate problems that demanded immediate answers.

 

Even if it hurt.
A LOT.

 

Her projection was doing the job but it was like stepping on lava and then pressing down. Bit by bit the projection was being consumed by raw aether, and it shot back up to Twilight. Waves of pain shot through her. Due to the nature of the projection it wasn't as intense as it could have been but it still qualified as the worst pain she had ever felt. But she could feel it working. The anchor was coming together now that she had finished the important bit of her spellwork. The tether was coming up and the anchor was sending out return-aether to all of the power sources. When they returned she would be done, and then she could redouble her efforts on re-energizing her projection to decrease this untenable pain.

 

But the sources weren't returning. They were...oh, what a foal she was! He had them. He had done his job dutifully but these artifacts weren't separate, they were all part of one mechanism. He needed to let them go but she couldn't tell him. Her projection could do little other than the job and scream, and she was too intensely focused up top on keeping the magic that was fixing the anchor and the projection to do anything. She could only hope that the various artifacts were gonna be pulled hard enough to force him to give it up.

“Unnf,” she moaned to herself. The pain was becoming more physical- she needed to have plans. Plans in case she needed to talk to Daedalus and get him to let go. Another projection, probably, but- “unnf” the pain.

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If the sergeant saw him now, he would surely think that Daedalus had gone mad. To the outsider he would have been shouting at empty air, but to Daedalus he was shouting over the screaming, yelling, and moans of pain coming from the transparent facsimile of Twilight floating just feet from him. It was clear she was in pain. Daedalus had seen pain plenty in his lifetime, but Twilight’s pain hurt him far more than he had expected.

 

His eyes rapidly darted between the projection and the now glowing artifacts in his saddlebags. They were thrumming quite strongly now, glowing ever brighter and shaking as if they would surely burst their bonds. It took a moment, but Daedalus finally made the connection in his head. The artifact capsules were part of the anchor. They were reacting to the ley flow because they were part of the anchor mechanism.

 

Or rather what was inside the capsules. Each one rattled against the others, the metal barely containing the energies resonating within. Daedalus’ thoughts raced. They capsules would explode. There would be shrapnel. Shrapnel at this range meant certain death to fleshy targets such as himself. When he tried to pick one up with his magic the feedback shot an electric jolt back through the aether stream that struck him struck him in the horn like a lightning bolt. Daedalus dropped the capsule like a heated kettle. Normal magic was going haywire. He had to try something else.

 

Daedalus took a deep breath, centering himself and reaching into the Void to pluck a strand of ley undisturbed by the turbulence around him. With another flick of his horn a blade-shaped ridge of black crystals shot out of the ground. Daedalus checked his footing to make sure he was secure. If he fell upon it, the monomolecular edge would slice him in half.

 

He reached down to the ground where the blue capsule lay vibrating madly. It was difficult to hold between his front hooves and even more difficult to rear up and slam the capsule into the crystalline blade. Thankfully, the split was clean. The halves of the metal cracked and fell away from the crystal within, allowing it to freely levitate upwards, accelerating toward where Twilight had plunged into the Anchor. Seeing the desperate plan work, Daedalus got to work on splitting the rest of the capsules.

 

As the last crystal broke free and ascended, Daedalus flicked his horn again, dispelling the crystalline blade so that it did not leave a hazard. Even in the chill of the northern spring, sweat had begun to bead on Daedalus’ forehead and dampen his mane. The effort of pulling from non-local aether and the physical exertion of manually cracking the capsules was finally starting to show. Even so, however, Daedalus remained wary.


“Come on, Twilight. Did that do it? Help me help you!”

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