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Ghost Hunting (Oneshot)

By Lurkernon
Created: 20th December 2020 05:32:33 AM

  1. Originally posted November 2019
  2.  
  3. > The foreman is, in a word, huge.
  4. > Wide, yes - you could see the hulking frame of a bear-like build - but also enormously bloated in a way that left you wondering where he found the calories with food prices as high as they were.
  5. > Maybe it was just water he was swollen with; the man's forehead was certainly wet with rolling droplets of the stuff.
  6. > You pull the aging truck to a creaking halt and hop out, pulling up your coat as he scuttles near.
  7. > How a man that huge could seem to scuttle is another mystery for another time.
  8. > "Anonymous! Good, good, you're here at last."
  9. "Fast as we could; the passes this far north are already snowing up. What've you got?"
  10. > "Everything we said in the message! My people are refusing - refusing! - to go into the mine. They're terrified. Hard men - terrified!"
  11. > You didn't doubt him.
  12. > 'Hard' was a good way to describe the miners you'd met.
  13. > If they were refusing to enter whatsoever...
  14. "Okay. Dancing lights, spectral forms, noises, cold spots, looming sense of dread, the works - anything other than what you mentioned in the message?"
  15. > "We found some old mining tools. Pick-heads, buckets, that kind of thing. Burned 'em."
  16. "Anything else?"
  17. > "Bones."
  18. > Your eyebrows rise.
  19. "Bones?"
  20. > "Bones."
  21. > He nods firmly, neck-jowls flapping despite the heavy coat he wore.
  22. > "A whole skeleton, in fact."
  23. "Just the one? No other artifacts - mining tools, bits of clothing or anything-"
  24. > "It had some things on it, yes, but just the one."
  25. "You burn it?"
  26. > "And bury. But it hasn't helped. The moment they pass into the mining pit itself, it all begins. The deeper in the pit, the worse it gets. Two men got frostbite from... something."
  27. > Standard spectral-pacification procedure, but no effect - so there might be more.
  28. > No; would be more.
  29. "Okay. We'll go in and take a look. Keep your people back. Even if things get... noisy."
  30. > "Noisy?"
  31. > Worried, watery eyes regard you cautiously.
  32.  
  33. "The things we do tend to stir up anything that might be in there. But anyone rushes in, they get caught in it too. We're experienced. They're not."
  34. > "Of course, of course... I do not think keeping them back will be a problem."
  35. > That scared, huh?
  36. > This might be a fun one.
  37. "Right. Three last questions: This is an old pony mining camp originally, right? Any other dangers in there you know of? Gas pockets, hidden vents leaking-"
  38. > The foreman draws himself upright, glaring at you with real anger for the first time.
  39. > "Our equipment might not be top of the line, but I can assure you - I do not play with my men's lives. Our safety gear is top of the line!"
  40. > Ah.
  41. > He thinks you were asking if a man suffering from anoxia might have mistaken a hallucination for a spirit.
  42. > Raising your hands defensively, you offer him a small and reassuring smile.
  43. "No, no - I'm sure you're thinking about your men. You wouldn't have called us otherwise. I was just wondering if there's anything I need to beware of."
  44. > You cut the apologetically-sputtering foreman off with a slight wave.
  45. "It's fine. I understand."
  46. > "Our safety gear is still strung up in the places we explored. Gas detectors, emergency lighting... beyond that, you're on your own."
  47. "Good. Second, any ponies in your crew."
  48. > "Our crew-"
  49. > Again he draws himself up.
  50. > "-is pure. We do not rely on - them. They can't be trusted, you know."
  51. > He'll just love your crew, then.
  52. "Okay. Last, how's the mine structurally? Any places I should stay away from?"
  53. > Shrugging, the foreman gestures all around.
  54. > "We've shored up most areas, and my riggers tell me that what remains of the old mine works are still fairly solid. But again, beyond the parts we explored..."
  55. "I'm on my own. Right. We'll settle in for the night, try to get to the bottom of this."
  56. > As you turn away, the foreman speaks up again:
  57.  
  58. > "You... will have this done, right? There's good gems in these hills, better than industrial-grade. But every day we can't work-"
  59. "You're bleeding money. I get it. Look, we'll clear it as fast as we can... but this is half an investigation job, not just a stir-up, smash-up."
  60. > Treading back to the truck's side, you bang twice on the doors.
  61. "Okay guys, we're on! Full kit, roll it all out."
  62. > The doors fly open, and your team hops out.
  63. > Three sets of hooves hit the ground, followed shortly thereafter by two sets of wheels for the kit-carts.
  64. > Sight Unseen holds up her lead to you, and together everyone sets out - the kit-carts creaking along behind.
  65. > "What's the word about it, Master?"
  66. > Countefort - ever the dutiful - was already thinking about the job even as you hiked across the muddy field to the mining pit.
  67. "All kinds of Signs. Visual, audible, and temperature. They Cleansed a skeleton, but it just got a couple guys frostbit."
  68. > "So. Active, hostile, and engaged."
  69. "Yep."
  70. > Sight Unseen chuckles.
  71. > "A worthy mission, Master."
  72. "Should be. We're probably going into the mining tunnels, so you should feel right at home, little bat."
  73. > "'tis not like home."
  74. "I know, I know. And by the way, Fireline, try not to burn down the mineshaft supports if it gets hairy."
  75. > The last of your team snorts angrily.
  76. > "I'll try to keep it under control, boss."
  77. "...I meant your incendiaries, not just going Nirik."
  78. > Fireline pauses to toss her curly mane - broken by the black band of her collar - and lifts a cloven hoof to scratch at it.
  79. > "Try to keep that under control too."
  80. > As you pass the line of decrepit trailers that forms the new side of the mining camp, you don't even need to look up to feel the hard eyes on you.
  81. > A few dozen men, standing with folded arms and hard expressions that spoke to their skepticism:
  82. > How could a man and three ponies deal with this?
  83. > One of them, though, breaks off from the rest and jogs down to meet you.
  84.  
  85. > "Hey! You want someone to show you around down there?"
  86. > The question is spoken in the long, slow drawl of someone from the far southern states.
  87. > You ponder a moment, then shrug.
  88. "Wouldn't be averse. If you know any decent places to hunker down in the pit."
  89. > "Yeah. There's some old pony buildings up there."
  90. > As if just on cue, you reach the edge of the 'pit'.
  91. > Counterfort whistles softly, and you have to agree.
  92. > Created where a small stream had carved a depression between the hills over untold millennia, it was a sprawling mix of new and old:
  93. > A good half dozen rotting timber-and-stone structures bleached by years exposed still held vigil over the site.
  94. > Despite being certainly practical structures, their surfaces had also at some point been etched with now-faded motifs in the form of flowers.
  95. > Typical pony work.
  96. > Maybe a half-dozen more had once existed, but their wreckage was now tossed to the side; in their place stood fading yellow heavy equipment - a backhoe, a couple small trucks, wheelbarrows and hand-trucks of equipment and supplies.
  97. > Two rusted shipping containers rounded out the haphazard look.
  98. "...huh. The old buildings were still standing when you got here?"
  99. > "Yeup. We were originally going to use them for storage, but..."
  100. > "Ghosts."
  101. > The miner shoots a glance to Sight Unseen, then to you - as if to question whether you accept her just butting in like that.
  102. > You shrug, and he continues.
  103. > "Yeah. The - issues started happening."
  104. "Speaking of which, Sight, you feeling anything?"
  105. > Popping her leathered wings out and holding them aloft, she lifts her head and waves it back and forth - as if scanning the air, her ears flicking about.
  106. > Only her closed eyes hinting at the milky-white orbs hidden beneath them.
  107. > "Oh, yes, Master. There's a lot of plasm on the wind. They're here, no doubt."
  108. > Walking along a well-tread path into the pit proper, Counterfort and Fireline cautiously edge the two kit-carts down the slope.
  109.  
  110. > You hang back, leading Sight Unseen along by her leash.
  111. > The miner walking with you pulls close and lowers his voice, questioningly:
  112. > "I'm sorry, but I've gotta ask.. you really trust them to handle all this stuff?"
  113. "What, the ponies?"
  114. > "Yeah. I mean... fuck it, I'm not saying you're a hack or anything, but is - is that one blind?"
  115. "Sight Unseen?"
  116. > You give a little chuckle at his confused look.
  117. "That's her name. Yeah. But I trust her damn well. She's my listener. Sees into the truth of things. Let's us know when stuff is coming before it does."
  118. > "Huh. The other two do something similar?"
  119. "Counterfort's, uh - what is it you say you are?"
  120. > "Structuralist", the earth stallion grunts.
  121. "Yeah, that. Has a good sense of how things are built, where there might be hidden pockets that hold, uh, remains. And where not to step."
  122. > "Ah," the man replies with a knowing nod. "When you're wandering around in old places you don't know..."
  123. "...pays to know what's going to fall over if you put weight on it, yeah. Plus, he's got real strength in him. And Fireline!"
  124. > "I'm an alchemist!" she chirps happily. "I keep track of all our supplies, and mix the things we use against ghosts. Speaking of which, you use explosives to mine here, righ-"
  125. "Fireline, no."
  126. > Rolling your eyes, you give the man a knowing look.
  127. "Consummate pyromaniac."
  128. > "You wound me!", she adds, dramatically placing a hoof on her lion-like mane.
  129. "But a damn good mixer too. Hey Counterfort, any of these buildings look like a good place to set up shop?"
  130. > The building he choses turns out to be mostly empty on the inside, apart from a lightly cracked stone floor.
  131. > Your escort watches on with something of a mix between uncertainty and concern as your gear is unpacked and laid out on the floor.
  132. > "Well, you certainly come prepared, I'll give you that..."
  133. "Thanks. That said, you might want to head back up before it gets too dark. Spookies tend to get really noisy after dark."
  134.  
  135. > "Yeah, we noticed. And in the tunnels too."
  136. "Light screws with them."
  137. > "You sure you guys are going to be okay down here?"
  138. > Something in his voice makes you pause, and you look up questioningly.
  139. > It's Sight Unseen, though, who steps up and reaches out with a wing towards him.
  140. > "We have done this many a time, sir. The spirits here are disturbed and angry, yes. But can be sent on. They will be sent on."
  141. "...what she says."
  142. > Hands clenching, the man turns to the door - anxiously tugging at his miner's jumpsuit.
  143. > A sense of unease grows in your belly, but fortunately he breaks before you have to bring it up.
  144. > "Listen... we and the guys, we don't doubt there's something up here. Magic's real, ghosts are real, we get it."
  145. "But?"
  146. > "But, I grew up out in the deep country. Tennessee. I hunted back then. I know what hunting's like; lot of us do. And... some of the guys think something here's hunting us. Watching, from the rocks and stuff."
  147. > Your eyes narrow.
  148. > A disturbed ghost was one thing...
  149. "Hunted? How do you mean?"
  150. > "It's just a feel, you know? We haven't seen anything, but we've got a real sense we're being followed. Stalked."
  151. "Right... then it's all the better you get back up there."
  152.  
  153. --------
  154.  
  155. > The sun isn't going to be up for long, and as it dips towards the horizon you still have work to do.
  156. "Fireline, Counterfort - Sight and I are going to take a walk around; you get this place fortified."
  157. > A more foolish master would worry about them fleeing while you were out, but you knew there was nothing to fear.
  158. > Not when there were spirits to lay to rest first; it wasn't competence alone that had driven you to buy these three from the markets.
  159. > Stepping outside, you ruck your jacket up and unclip Sight Unseen's lead.
  160. "Alright Sightie. Let's go for a stroll."
  161. > While you were suiting up, Fireline had fitted her with a harness and lead not unlike a guide-dog's.
  162.  
  163. > Except in this case, you were guiding the blind Thestral around obstacles as she walked, wings half unfolded and ears flicking to sounds you couldn't ever hear.
  164. > Though the sun was not yet entirely down, the mountains surrounding the pit had already cast it into shadow - only the dimmed light reflected off peaks still illuminating the ground.
  165. > Where you passed through shadow, Sight Unseen's tail lashed about.
  166. "Going to be a bad one, huh?"
  167. > "An exciting one, at least. They're already around us. Not manifesting quite yet, but there."
  168. "'They'?"
  169. > "Many, Master. We're going to be burning a lot of bones tonight."
  170. > She turns, pauses, and with your help climbs up to the edge of the pit.
  171. > There she pauses, frowns, and walks in a slow circle several times with her wings extended.
  172. "Sightie?"
  173. > "They are... the currents, they flow away from the camp. But at this edge, they turn back."
  174. > You scramble up the edge of the rocky incline.
  175. > There's nothing that you can feel yet, but the sky is still a vague pink in the west and the spirits aren't fully materializing.
  176. "So, this is the boundary of their reach? Good, we can use that to peg their remains-"
  177. > "Not like that, Master. It is like... like a gust of wind, breaking on a stormfront. They don't just reach their limit, they are turning back for something."
  178. > That gives you pause.
  179. > There were many ways to bound ghosts, several of which you used.
  180. > But none of them set up on this camp.
  181. "Magic of some kind?"
  182. > "Perhaps. A unicorn's workings? I cannot sense those well. But I think those men up there are only safe because the spirits will go no further."
  183. > After walking a bit more of the pit's edge to confirm this was the case, you hurried back to your 'base' with Sight.
  184. > By the time you arrived, the first stars were twinkling in the cloudless sky above and ephemeral wisps were already rolling along the ground.
  185.  
  186. > Fireline was busily setting up your cameras outside, while Counterfort walked in a slow circle laying a loop of iron chain around the interior.
  187. "Come on, double-time it guys. Sight thinks this is going to be a big one."
  188. > Back indoors, it's time to get geared up:
  189. > First the load harness over your torso, lined with pockets that Fireline fills with magnesium flares, salt bombs, and chains of pure iron.
  190. > Lamps on your shoulders, batteries checked and tested.
  191. > The big left-hand glove - armored in black plate that concealed with fine pure-silver threads woven beneath.
  192. > Light, salt, and silver - the old triad of ghostly warding.
  193. > It was no mistake that a glance beneath the hooves of your ponies (and kirin) would reveal grey-iron shoes nailed to them all.
  194. > And in your right hand, the Stinger - the newcomer, but no less potent.
  195. > On goes the helmet with its quartzed lenses, thermal cameras, and microphone.
  196. "Okay, check one-two - Counterfort, can you hear me?"
  197. > "All good, Master."
  198. "Solid. Okay, waiting game."
  199. > Sitting around in full gear wasn't exactly comfortable, but better than being caught with your pants down.
  200. > Different people - or ponies - handled this different ways.
  201. > "Hey Fireline. What do you call a big pile of cats?"
  202. > "Don't you start, Sight-"
  203. > "Meown-tain! Gedddit?"
  204. > A thin tendril of smoke rises from the Kirin's mane as she shoots an equally-smoldering glare at the laughing Thestral.
  205. > "Now, whaddaya do when-"
  206. "Hey, Sight? Save it for later, okay?"
  207. > Sighing, she rolls her head in something that almost looks like an eyeroll if it weren't for her eyes being completely shut.
  208. > "Bah. Yes, Master."
  209. > Sight always joked when she was nervous, but you really didn't need Fireline immolating the cabin right now.
  210.  
  211. > Besides, there wasn't long to wait.
  212. > "Master, we've got specters!"
  213. > Counterfort's call brings your attention back front and center.
  214. > Sure enough, there on the tablets he sat in front of half-seen figures had begun to wander about.
  215. "Early manifestation. And strong, too. They interested in us?"
  216. > "Doesn't look like it.. they're congregating around the perimeter."
  217. > Odd.
  218. > When nothing else happens by the time the moon creeps above the surrounding hills, you stand.
  219. "Okay. Looks like we're going to have to go on out. Gear on, everyone."
  220. > Stepping outside feels like tiptoeing into a pit of crocodiles, no matter how many times you do this.
  221. > This time the ghosts seem thankfully uninterested in you.
  222. > Instead you're greeted by the strange spectacle of the half-seen figures lunging drunkenly slithering at the edge of the pit, only to turn back at he last moment.
  223. "...huh. Sight, you getting anything?"
  224. > "They..."
  225. > Sight Unseen pauses, head tilted and tufted ears flicking about.
  226. > "...they don't want to be here. Not, 'here on this plane'. Here, in the mine. They want to leave."
  227. "That it?"
  228. > "For now, Master."
  229. "Okay, keep your ears pricked. Fireline, left flank; Counterfort, watch our backs."
  230. > "Yes, Master!"
  231. > None of these spirits seemed well-formed enough for an intelligent conversation; without any way to interrogate them, you were left to see if they would spontaneously divulge any clues.
  232. > And, just as the foreman had said, a growing sense of dread loomed in the back of your mind - more than was typically associated with merely stepping into such dangerous work.
  233. > Experience let you quash it, but you knew the signs of a spirit's work.
  234. > Already, though...
  235. "Sight, there's something weird about these ponies' bodies. They're... lumpy. Around the neck and legs. Any idea why?"
  236. > "I'm not getting full sounds yet, Master. Just impressions."
  237. > Damn.
  238. > So much for that.
  239. > "Master!"
  240. > Fireline's hiss comes from right behind you.
  241.  
  242. > "Shade. Full-fledged. Ten o'clock low."
  243. > Sure enough, there it was:
  244. > Not an amorphous blob, but a well-defined pony peeking out at you over a rock.
  245. > A colt, in fact - wide eyed and young, with a messy and ragged mane.
  246. "Sight?"
  247. > "I sense no hostility."
  248. > Well.
  249. > That's the case...
  250. "Counterfort, you're on. I've got your back."
  251. > "Yes, Master."
  252. > A big and bulky stallion he might be, but Counterfort was also the only, well... normal pony among you.
  253. > Dropping to his belly, he cocks his head and nickers gently.
  254. > "It's okay, little friend. We're not here to hurt you. Just help."
  255. > Almost instantly, Sight Unseen whirls about - blind eyes now half-open and staring at the colt's spirit.
  256. > With further urging, it - he - slips from behind the rock to tentatively approach.
  257. > "That's a very complete ghost, Master. It must have a strong anchor holding it here..."
  258. > You nod in agreement with Fireline.
  259. > Though his legs faded into transparency, the colt's spirit was well-formed indeed.
  260. "Least we know we're looking for something noticeable..."
  261. > Meanwhile, Counterfort had carefully lowered himself to his belly - tucking his hooves beneath him to hide the shoes affixed to them.
  262. > "Easy there, little one. Easy. We're not looking to hurt you. We're here to set you free, understand?"
  263. > Ah.
  264. > That got the shade's attention.
  265. > But strangely, rather than react with delight he bounces back cautiously - now regarding you with a bit of concern when he questioningly approaches again.
  266. "Sightie? Anything?"
  267. > "He -"
  268. > Her head cocks as she strains her talent to its extent.
  269. > "It's kind of hard to tell. I think he's afraid we're... connect to something? Working with someone?"
  270. "With the miner?"
  271. > "No, it's not that. Someone-"
  272. > Shrieking.
  273. > Hellish, grating, shrieking all around you - like the screeching of a thousand nails on a hundred chalkboards.
  274. > Sight Unseen is collapsed on the ground, spasming wildly, the colt is gone, and the other ghosts-
  275. "Counterfort! Check left!"
  276.  
  277. > -were stampeding.
  278. > An almost instinctual swipe with your silver-threaded glove tears through the spectral form of a ghost; the stallion's wild rearing, flailing turns two others from his iron-shod shoes.
  279. > "Flare out!"
  280. > Hissing and spitting sparks, a ball of brilliant light flies past your head amid Fireline's magic.
  281. > Even with the anti-flash lenses in your helmet the harsh, actinic light it cast made your eyes ache.and skull throb.
  282. > But it worked:
  283. > The spirits retreated, flowing around you at a distance rather than through.
  284. > In just a moment it is over again.
  285. > The pit deserted, silent but for a slight breeze along the rocks.
  286. > You're at Sight Unseen's side, shaking the Thestral awake.
  287. "Hey. Hey Sightie, you alright?"
  288. > "Yes, I... Oooh. I felt that one!"
  289. > "Yeah, what the hell was that?! Sure wasn't a normal ghost-scream."
  290. "No. And the way they charged... I don't think they were attacking us."
  291. > Sight nods in agreement.
  292. > "They were fleeing."
  293. > The 'where?' remains unspoken, but in perfect unison all four of you turn to look at the yawning mouth of the mineshaft in the pit's wall.
  294. "...oh, fuck this."
  295. > Fireline nods, curls of mane bouncing.
  296. > "You said it. Can we just flood the whole place with gasoline and light it?"
  297. > "You would want that, you flame-obsessed split-hoof."
  298. "Counterfort. Easy."
  299. > You understand his anger, though.
  300. > A ghost-charge like that?
  301. > Surviving was instinct and pure luck.
  302. "Sight. Are you back to full?"
  303. > "Yes, Master. Back... just wasn't ready for a ghost-shriek like that."
  304. > Gathering herself up, she heaves herself onto her hooves and shakes her wings out.
  305. > "They are definitely down there, Master."
  306. "Fun. Okay, everyone. Get your gear together; we're going down there."
  307. > Counterfort nods with a quick 'yes, Master', but Fireline lets out a groan verging on a whine.
  308. > "When it all goes bad, I reserve the right to say 'I told you so'. Even to you, Master."
  309. "...yeah, yeah."
  310.  
  311. > You opt to take the lead - snapping on the flashlights on your shoulders to illuminate the cave up ahead.
  312. > Sight pads at your rear, lead on by her lead, while Counterfort and Fireline pull in behind.
  313. > This far up, the support beams are modern and well-constructed - festooned with bundles of wires and glowing LEDs.
  314. > Though wisps of ethereal fog dance around the shaft's beams, snapping on the thermal camera for a moment confirms what you'd suspected:
  315. "Getting a lot of cold spots, Sight, but I don't think they're really up here."
  316. > "I agree, Master."
  317. > The shaft quickly slopes down, and within ten minutes you're starting to reconsider this plan.
  318. "...you know, digging some bones out from the pit was one thing. Going into the actual mine... Counterfort, the moment you start seeing something shifty you give me a yell."
  319. > "Of course, Master."
  320. > Perhaps ten minutes of careful walking after you enter the mine, you're reaching the end of how far the miners had gotten in restoring the tunnels.
  321. > Modern steel supports had been replaced by the cracked and broken remnants of far, far older wooden ones; the only remaining light is from the lamps on yours and your ponies' harnesses.
  322. > Without that greater light, it's easy for you to see the flickers of ghostfire fluttering around the tunnel.
  323. > Counterfort taps the wall twice and huffs.
  324. > "The rock's solid. I don't think a cave-in is a risk. But..."
  325. "But?"
  326. > "This wood is... ancient. Like, really ancient. The dry air up in these mountains has preserved it all, but it must've been here hundreds of years before the hu- new miners came in."
  327. > Hmm.
  328. "Fireline? Salt bombs only, unless I call it. A flare could send all this old wood up in a second."
  329. > "You got it, Master."
  330. > For once, the Kirin didn't argue.
  331. > Even she understood the risk of being trapped by a fire that would eat up all the oxygen in minutes.
  332. > She does pipe up just a moment later, though:
  333. > "Hey, uh... Master?"
  334. "Yeah?"
  335. > "That colt's behind us again."
  336.  
  337. > A glance back confirms it:
  338. > The spirit was following at a little distance, weaving through whatever obstacles it could find for cover.
  339. "Keep an eye. I don't think it's hostile, and neither does Sight... but I can't be sure.
  340. > You'd seen the most horrific and lethal of spirits disguise themselves as innocuous and simple things before.
  341. > At the next turn, Sight Unseen pauses - head tilted, and tapping at a wall.
  342. > "Master... behind this, there's something odd. I can - hear. Feel. There're all... congregating. Somewhere beneath us."
  343. "Their sources?"
  344. > "Maybe. I can hear... murmuring. Something's disturbing them."
  345. > A chamber where miners had been trapped, suffocating away?
  346. > That'd have produced a fair few ghosts, yeah.
  347. > And explained why they wanted out...
  348. "Counterfort, you're up. Find me out if there's a way in."
  349.  
  350. --------
  351.  
  352. > The way in proves difficult to find, mostly because it had been buried beneath a small rockslide.
  353. > Counterfort is sweating and huffing by the time he clears it, but with yours and Fireline's help a grand, wooden hatch is uncovered.
  354. > Not a door, but a hatch - set on a forty-five degree angle into the floor.
  355. > Beyond, a ramp descends into the darkness.
  356. "...hey Fireline?"
  357. > "Yeah?"
  358. "I take it back. One flare, right down that pit."
  359. > Counterfort cocks his head.
  360. > "Uh, what if it catches fire, Master?"
  361. "Then we run out before it spreads up here, and blame it on the ghosts."
  362. > "Woohoo!"
  363. > Galloping in a circle, Fireline draws a flare from its pocket.
  364. > It whizzes down into the darkness - clattering and echoing off rocks until it reaches the floor some thirty or forty feet down.
  365. > No specters come howling up the ramp right at you, though.
  366. > Marching down the ramp is still unnerving, especially as you start to think about how many tons of rock are hanging over your head...
  367. > As she walks, Sight Unseen stays close to your side - until she is practically pressing her head to your hip.
  368.  
  369. > "Hey, Fireline... did you know I used to work in a blanket factory?"
  370. > "Sight..."
  371. > "Used to, but then it folded."
  372. > Smoke rolls from Fireline's mane, and you give Sight Unseen a curt rap between the ears.
  373. "Enough. We're all spooked, but this isn't the time."
  374. > "Sorry, Master."
  375. > She nuzzles her tufted cheek into your side for real, and you turn the punishing touch into a gentle one.
  376. "S'fine. Just keep it in check, Fireline."
  377. > At the bottom of the ramp is another door, plus the sputtering and hissing remains of the flare.
  378. "A second door...? Why...?"
  379. > Counterfort doesn't question, only blows the door open with a single fierce kick from his hooves.
  380. > "Holy sweet Luna..."
  381. "Yeah..."
  382. > The glow of ghostly forms intruded out into the passage immediately, as behind this lay...
  383. > Forty?
  384. > Sixty?
  385. > Hard to tell.
  386. > A lot of ghosts.
  387. > Instantly the Stinger is out of its holster and aimed, but none of them seem really interested in charging you.
  388. > If possible, some of them actually shy back from the open door.
  389. > Just as you take a step forward, though, the colt again materialize from the wall just in front of you.
  390. > Counterfort quickly lunges to move you out of the way; yet, the colt does not attack or shy from him either.
  391. > Instead it sits there, hunkered down with wide and fearing eyes - yet impeding your progress.
  392. "Sightie...?"
  393. > Cautiously treading a step or two forward, Sight flutters her wings and cocks her head.
  394. > "It's okay, sweetie... I know you're scared, yes. It's strange, isn't it? Being - like this."
  395. > While she speaks you scramble back to your feet; Fireline has a salt bomb out and holds it ready.
  396. > "...we need to get in that room, okay? I - we think we're going to find something in there that's keeping you tied to this place. Can you let us go in?"
  397. > To your mild shock, the colt shakes his head.
  398. > A conversant?
  399. > Specters well-formed enough to do that were rare.
  400.  
  401. > Then the colt reaches for Sight Unseen's neck, and you're dragging her back by the leash.
  402. "Woah, woah! Hey, no touching!"
  403. > Skittering back as well, the colt's ghost produces a whimper - an audible whimper - and hunkers down again.
  404. > "Master, no!"
  405. "Sight, it just went for your throat."
  406. > "Not - not to hurt. He's not trying to hurt us, he's scared-"
  407. > She pulls back on the lead forward again, and back comes the colt-spirit as well - circling around, keeping away from you.
  408. "I really, really don't like this."
  409. > Counterfort gestures through the doorway.
  410. > "Some of them in there noticed that crying too. If it can control them..."
  411. > As you watch - the Stinger out and at the ready - the colt reaches up to touch the lead.
  412. "He's... interested in your leash, for some reason."
  413. > "Oh, that?"
  414. > Sight chuckles softly.
  415. > "It's okay. I'm blind, you understand? I can't see. He uses that to help guide me."
  416. > The spirit seems to take a few moments to consider this; apparently the explanation satisfies it, though, because it backs off and clears the doorway.
  417. > Inside...
  418. > Well, it's hard to see much with the unnatural fog and spirits milling about.
  419. > But the space is large, filled with the ruins of what might have been benches or something.
  420. > The ghosts stayed well back from the silver, salt, and iron you were carrying, and the lamps -
  421. "Oh, shit. That's a lot of bones."
  422. > -revealed the bleached white remains scattered across the floor.
  423. > Not just bones, though.
  424. > Fireline leans down, brows knitting.
  425. > "Are those... chains?"
  426. > Chains, yes.
  427. > And shackles, and collars.
  428. > The way the spirits had seemed to bulge around their fetlocks and necks...
  429. > Sight Unseen nudges at one with a hoof, dawning horror growing in her voice.
  430. > "These weren't just miners..."
  431.  
  432. "Slaves..."
  433. > They were slaves.
  434. > The colt - reaching not for Sight's neck, but for your collar on it.
  435. "Do you think - you don't think - they were sealed down here...?"
  436. > "Maybe..."
  437. > Counterfort picks up a bone, inspecting it under the light of your shoulder-lamps.
  438. > "Not just any ponies, or slaves. See the gleam? These were crystal ponies. My grandfather came from this area, you know? He used to tell us legends about King Sombra's crystal mines. When he was banished and took the Empire with him..."
  439. > The story unfolds before your eyes in plain horror.
  440. > A tyrant vanished, but his outposts remaining.
  441. > Guards, uncertain and fearful, locking their charges away - maybe with intent to return.
  442. > Maybe not.
  443. > You look among your - your workers, your comrades, your property.
  444. > And wonder what they were thinking right now.
  445. "I... I don't think we can destroy these in place."
  446. > "No way. There's some wood here, but it'd choke the air out before it really burned them well."
  447. "Counterfort, I hate to do this to you... but can you manage one of the bags?"
  448. > The stallion huffs.
  449. > "It's the best way to get them out of here safely..."
  450. "We will."
  451. > Gathering up the bones and throwing them into the bag - plastic, but laced with small ringlets of silver that kept the unliving at bay - is nerve-racking enough.
  452. > Getting it up the tunnel to the main mineshaft, tied to Counterfort's harness?
  453. > Much worse.
  454. > Muuuuuch worse.
  455. > Worse, that little colt's ghost - whose remains you had not yet found, and didn't want to ponder on too much on for fear the full disgust of what had been done to him would crash down on you all at once - insisted on tagging along.
  456. > Scampering around the perimeter, in and out of the walls - raising your nerves every time you saw his ephemeral form out of the corner of your eye.
  457. > As you get the bag through the mine tunnel, though, it occurs to you that the colt-spirit's presence wasn't the only thing making you nervous.
  458.  
  459. > No, it wasn't responsible for the prickling on the back of your neck.
  460. "Hey, Sight..."
  461. > You try and keep your voice as low as possible, but it wasn't really something you could do at this point.
  462. "...remember when that guy said some of them felt like they were being hunted?"
  463. > In the darkness behind you, rock scrabbles of something.
  464. > "Yes. We are watched, Master. Behind us."
  465. "...right. Fireline? Salt bomb on my make, and-"
  466. > You never get to finish it.
  467. > Again that terrrible, howling screech came down the tunnel - filling your ears with ringing and mind with fuzz.
  468. > Fireline did not wait for you to finish, though, and hurled two of the salt bombs down the tunnel.
  469. > Where the canisters struck the wall, the primed explosives within them burst:
  470. > Spraying the surrounding feet with innumerable shards of crystal salt.
  471. > Amid the glittering whirlwind, you catch a glimpse of something moving quick and low to the ground.
  472. > In that second though, your hand had reached the Stinger and pulled it from its holster again.
  473. > This time, you didn't wait to pull the trigger.
  474. > Exotic, high-capacity magithaumic batteries dumped their energy to doped silica, and coherent light surged from the Stinger's muzzle.
  475. > Staccato violet pulses lit the tunnel as the laser pumped burst after burst into the creature, kilowatts of actinic light sure to turn any specter or spirit.
  476. > Yet, it did not retreat.
  477. > Instead it stepped into the pool of light casted by your lamp, revealing a gaunt and bony form spotted with dark burns where the Stinger had touched it.
  478. "Holy fuck, that thing's not a ghost! Out the tunnel, go, go!"
  479. > Without waiting for your order, Fireline lobs another magnesium flare down the tunnel; Counterfort drops the bag of bones and kicks a loose rock at your pursuer.
  480. > The blinding burst and flying projectile might have slowed the creature, but you don’t wait to find out.
  481. > Scooping Sight Unseen in your arms, you break out into a dash.
  482.  
  483. > All previous exhaustion has been washed away by the unrelenting tide of adrenaline.
  484. > The washed-out glow of LEDs glows ahead - the literal light at the end of the tunnel - but if salt and the Stinger's laser-burns didn't halt that thing, you don't think a few dinky mineshaft lights will either.
  485. > You burst from the tunnels mouth out into the pit all at once.
  486. > But while Fireline and Counterfort both had the advantage of sprinting speed, you were carrying Sight Unseen in addition to your gear.
  487. > So when the - thing, catches up, of course you're the one who feels claws seize around your ankle.
  488. > Sight yelps as she tumbles from your arms; you barely manage to break your fall and drive a boot into the creature's face.
  489. > Not that it helps much.
  490. > Looking better at it now, you can see that what you took to be a gaunt, vaguely canine body is in fact long deceased:
  491. > Eyes hollow and sunken to nothing; lips drawn back to reveal long-yellowed teeth.
  492. > Mummified flesh crumbling and falling from bones with every motion it takes; beneath the flaking, dry flesh, something black and vaguely mistlike surges.
  493. > A possessed corpse, using it to ward against the normal means of ghost-fighting?
  494. > That's a new one.
  495. > But if that black fog was what you think it is...
  496. > You reach out with your right hand, the silvered gauntlet closing around the creature's muzzle-
  497. "Night night, fucker!"
  498. > -and squeezing.
  499. > Flesh crumbles without a hint of resistance, and the gauntlet's armored fingers plunge into the ephemeral substance.
  500. > Nothing.
  501. > Well, nothing except the creature delivering a brutal claws swipe across your chest that shreds the equipment harness and slams you back into the ground.
  502. > Stars burst in your eyes, but before it can finish you off a howling shriek of fury cuts through the air.
  503. > Wreathed in ghostlight, the colt's spirit slams into the creature's side - bowling it off of you with surprising force.
  504.  
  505. > You retreat without hesitation; ahead, Counterfort beckons you into the fortified hut.
  506. > Scrambling through the door leaves you just enough time to glance back and see the wolf-skeleton-thing sink its teeth into the colt's ethereal form toss it away with a wild head-shake.
  507. > The specter spins out of sight, bleeding blobs of plasm that evaporate into nothingness.
  508. > Then, the door slams shut.
  509. "Cut the lights, cut the lights!"
  510. > Fireline does, plunging the hut into darkness.
  511. > "Does - is it - "
  512. > Scuffing, somewhere outside.
  513. > Sight Unseen cocks and ear, listening carefully - but shakes her head.
  514. > "I don't think it saw where we went. It knows we're here, though."
  515. "Great. First of all: What is it?"
  516. > "Diamond Dog."
  517. > Countefort's answer comes immediately, and close your chest as he sniffs at you.
  518. > "Stay still, Master. I'm checking if you're wounded. That is - was - a Diamond Dog. Now? I don't know."
  519. "There's something under its - skin, hide, whatever. Black, kind of flowy. I thought it might be possessed, but-"
  520. > You cut out as Sight shakes her head, mane swaying.
  521. > "No. It's - It's hollow. It's like - there's half a spirit in there. But it's wrong; I don't know how else to put it."
  522. > Great.
  523. > So you've got some kind of half-a-soul stuck in the jar that protects it from your... normal... weapons.
  524. "Hey Counterfort...?"
  525. > "Yes, Master?"
  526. "It's just bones and dried up flesh when you get down to it, right? Whatever's in there, it's using the bones for actual strength, right?"
  527. > "Uh..."
  528. "And, we saw the Stinger was burning it. Not killing it, but we can damage the body."
  529. > "Yeah?"
  530. > Shuffling around in the darkness, you find a drawbar from one of the kit carts and toss it experimentally in your hand.
  531. > A good meter of weatherproofed steel.
  532. "Think you can kick hard enough to crack a bone?"
  533. > Counterfort grins.
  534. > When you step outside the second time, the Dog-zombie-thing doesn't give you much time to notice.
  535.  
  536. > It comes loping out across the pit, bits of its papery flesh falling off to trail behind it like leaves in the wind, and lunges straight for you-
  537. "Batter up!"
  538. > -only to be met with a swing across the ground that feels like it could've knocked a home run.
  539. > Tumbling to the ground, it doesn't have time to recover before Fireline jams a half-dozen flares into its ruined body.
  540. > The creature might tolerate light, but four thousand degrees of burning Magnesium?
  541. > Its dried-out flesh doesn't like that at all.
  542. > The beast is too distracted to notice Counterfort rearing up from behind; it notices when his iron-shod hooves crash through its back, though.
  543. > Hell, even you heard the splintering of ribs.
  544. > Somehow it’s still not enough to keep the monstrosity down, as it lurches upright to hurl itself at you again.
  545. > Jaws close around your gauntlet, but you were ready:
  546. > Driving the bar down across its neck, something crunching angrily as the blow connects.
  547. > Counterfort spins around and delivers a double-buck that cracks a hindleg in to different places, you rip your gauntleted hand free and shatter its jaw with a double-handed blow.
  548. > From that point on, you and the stallion trade off:
  549. > Toiling like... well, miners, with overhead swings from the drawbar and savage hoofed kicks that pulverize bone.
  550. > By the time you are done, it is somehow still holding itself together but is in no shape to fight.
  551. > You aren't in much shape either:
  552. > Huffing and puffing, sweat rolling down your body.
  553. > Tossing down the drawbar, you begin plodding back across the pit to the stakeout house.
  554. "So... Fireline? You want to tell me I told you so? You can now."
  555. > "What do we do with it now?"
  556. "I don't know. It's magic of some kind. Fire should destroy that, right?"
  557. > “Uh, Master?”
  558. “What’s up, Sight?”
  559. > Wordlessly she points, where -
  560. > Oh.
  561. > That’s probably not good.
  562.  
  563. > Whatever had been inside of the dog’s body had decided it was time to fleet; black, almost tarry smoke surged up and out of its ruined hide.
  564. > To your alarm, the fizzing remains of the flares extinguished.
  565. > Up, up it grew - taking on the rough shape of a head.
  566. > The Dog’s?
  567. > No, you think.
  568. > A pony.
  569. > Lurid red eyes tinged bizarrely with green snap open, regarding you with a baleful gaze.
  570. > “Oh, shit.”
  571. > You not in agreement with Counterfort’s whisper.
  572. > The smoke-pony opens its mouth - and lets out a snarl; at the same moment, a wave of utter despair rolls down your spine.
  573. > This thing - it was powerful.
  574. > Really powerful.
  575. > You couldn’t fight it.
  576. > You couldn’t deny it.
  577. > It would claim you, just like-
  578. > “MASTEEEEER! Ghosts!”
  579. > Sight Unseen’s cry snaps you from your malaise - again she points - this time to the edges of the pit, where glowing figures had begun to emerge.
  580. > Ponies, marching - or stumbling - forward.
  581. > Great.
  582. > The enormous figure, now towering on a seeming pillar of black smoke, opens its mouth.
  583. > “My - cryyyystaaaal - slaaaaaves….”
  584. > Half in your head, half in your ears, the voice sends fresh panic through your gut.
  585. > But at the same time, anger.
  586. “YOU’RE DEAD, YOU STUPID FUCK!”
  587. > It focuses back on you, mouth open in a befanged smirk.
  588. > “Mine-”
  589. “No, not yours! They’re dead! They belong beyond! Fuck off, you-”
  590. > It chuckles - giggles, maybe - and the ghosts lurch forward in unison.
  591. > Oh, shit.
  592. > Shit, shit!
  593. > Nononono.
  594. > Your swipe at the first with the silvered gauntlet, and another bursts into mist as the Stinger pulses coherent light through it.
  595. > On your flank, Fireline tosses two more salt bombs to arc into the midst of the approaching crowd.
  596. > A good dozen ghosts vanish where the two bombs burst, but that’s a dozen off of…
  597. > Far too many.
  598. “God damn it!”
  599.  
  600. > You turn the Stinger on the floating, miasmic specter of the king and squeeze the trigger until it beeps in protest at its empty battery.
  601. > With no effect.
  602. > If there’s anything that-
  603. > Wait.
  604. > Not a ghost…
  605. “Sightie! You said it’s not a ghost?”
  606. > “What, Master? Yes! Well, I think it’s mostly magic-”
  607. “Just not a ghost, right?!”
  608. > “Right, Master!”
  609. > Okay.
  610. > Time to go big or go home.
  611. “Hey Fireline! Why don’t diplomats ever get sick? They have diplomatic immunity!”
  612. > She stares at you in mild confusion.
  613. > “...what?”
  614. > Sight Unseen rolls her head, and you know she’d be rolling her eyes if she had use of them.
  615. > But then she grins.
  616. > “...hey Fireline. What do you call a really, really old hammer?”
  617. > “Not right now, Sigh-”
  618. > “It’s an An-tool-que!”
  619. > Curious black flames flicker at the edges of Fireline’s eyes, and something flickering glimmers within the kirin’s curling mane.
  620. > “Why don’t cannibals eat clowns?”
  621. > “Sight---”
  622. > Fireline’s voice has taken on an unnatural timbre.
  623. > “Because they taste funny!”
  624. > As Sight Unseen guffaws with laughter, Fireline can hold herself back no more.
  625. > “PUNS-”
  626. > Her eyes turn pure white as a sheet of black flame immolates her body.
  627. > “-ARE NOT-”
  628. > Curly red ringlets of mane and tail are replaced by dancing tongues of hot-blue mage-fire.
  629. > “-FUNNY!”
  630. > Her hooves slam down, propelling a scorching burst about herself.
  631. > You just cough, and point at the specter of the one-time king.
  632. > With a shrieking howl of absolute rage, Fireline hurls herself at the King’s specter and the remains of the Dog his body was bound to.
  633. > What follows is… remarkable.
  634. > Between howls of rage and rolling sheets of flame, you can vaguely see the outline of the enraged Nirik - stamping on the dog’s body, screaming wordlessly into the sky.
  635. > Throwing the most spectacular temper-tantrum you’ve ever seen.
  636.  
  637. > Not that you’re complaining; even the ghosts have stopped their assault to watch the spectacle.
  638. > And the king?
  639. > Oh, he was feeling the heat.
  640. > Heh, you’d better not tell Fireline that one.
  641. > It was true, though.
  642. > His shape wavered, shook, contorted, and squirmed until finally evaporating into smoogy clouds that drift away into the open, starry sky.
  643. > As he vanishes, so do the flames:
  644. > Dying down until Fireline stumbles out of their last flickers, her own for back to its normal colors.
  645. > There she collapses at your feet:
  646. > Singed, dirty, but a half-cocked smile on her face.
  647. > “...that felt good.”
  648. “Yeah, bet it did.”
  649. > Kneeling down, you scratch your fingernails along the scales lining her back; for your efforts, she rewards you with a happy little sigh.
  650. “You did good, Fireline.”
  651. > “Is it over?”
  652. > You look up.
  653. > The ghosts still surround you, but they’re… different.
  654. > Fully defined, for one:
  655. > Rather than approximately pony-shaped forms, you could now see each of them in perfect detail:
  656. > Weathered bodies, scarred and muscled from long years of servitude in the mines.
  657. > Ragged manes, collars and shackles, whip-lines crossing their backs.
  658. > But eyes that were, unlike so many other ghosts you’d cleared out, alive with emotion.
  659. > With relief.
  660. > One by one, the approach and pause before you and your little team.
  661. > There, they sink into slight bows - ethereal chains clinking - and then turn to march off into the night.
  662. > All vanish as they pass the edge of the pit.
  663. > At last only the colt is left; he reaches up again, for Sight Unseen’s trailing lead and then to her collar.
  664. > When you tell her, she smiles sadly and shakes her head.
  665. > “No, little one. It’s not my day just yet. We’ll be free eventually, but not today.”
  666. > The colt gives her the saddest eyes you can imagine, and though Sight Unseen cannot see them she must hear what he had to say.
  667.  
  668. > “No, little pony. I can’t come with you. It’s not my time for that either. There are still others who need to be sent on.”
  669.  
  670. --------
  671.  
  672. > “So, you weren’t kidding when you said things might get loud down there.”
  673. “No shit.”
  674. > You give a bark of hard laughter, tossing a thumb over your shoulder to gesture to Counterfort.
  675. “His theory is, this Sombra guy, uh - I dunno, enchanted a Diamond Dog corpse with a piece of himself. Make the perfect guard dog, y’know? Never sleeps, can’t be bribed, never stops watching. But then the King got fucked up by the Equestrian rulers.”
  676. > The stallion nods, snorting angrily.
  677. > “Except, this place stayed behind and his guard never had an ‘off’ button. Sombra never figured on being defeated. So it kept on guarding, even after orders stopped coming. After his other overseers left. Even after the slaves stopped living.”
  678. “They might’ve barricaded themselves down there, some protection from the last remaining guard that wouldn’t let them go find food, y’know? They’ve been trapped down there since forever. Until you came in, stirred the ghosts up, and then pissed the dog off by trying to send one of ‘it’s’ slaves on. Then you made it mad, so it set the slaves’ spirits on you.”
  679. > “Yeah, just be glad you guys didn’t find the really big room full of bones. That’d have been really bad.”
  680. > “Wait, wait-”
  681. > The foreman holds up a massive paw of a hand, having been looking at you like you yourself were a ghost.
  682. > “-are there still more bodies down there?”
  683. “No, no. We went and got them as the sun was coming up this morning. No ghosts, though. Just bones. We burned and buried them, but it wasn’t the skeletons or chains that were keeping them here anyway. That guard dog-thing was the anchor.”
  684. > “Huh… I’m probably paying you extra for this, aren’t I?”
  685. > Fireline gives another sharp laugh.
  686.  
  687. > “Extra? We used a fuckton of flares and salt bombs. Master’s gear is all fucked up. We’re all going to need some time off. And I had to deal with Sightie telling me enough bad puns I went Nirik. Damn right you’re paying extra.”
  688. > By the time you crawl all back in the truck, you feel just about ready to fall asleep right there.
  689. > Sight Unseen, maybe sensing this, stretches across from the passenger’s seat and lays her head in your lap; she is rewarded with a hand in her mane for it.
  690. “Well. That’s another thing I hope I never have to deal with again.”
  691. > “You said it…”
  692. “Speaking of which. Counterfort? Next time you know anything about where we are, see anything funny - you tell me right away, okay?”
  693. > The big stallion chuckles.
  694. > “Yeah, I’ll do that.”
  695. “Good.”
  696. > “Hey Master?”
  697. “Yeah?”
  698. > “There’s a ghost in the back.”
  699. > You sit up with a start, glancing into the back where - indeed - the gleaming, slightly transparent muzzle of the colt peeked out from beneath a pile rubbish.
  700. > He gives a nervous, hopeful smile and Sight Unseen laughs softly.
  701. > “His… he says his name is Topaz Gleam, and he wants to come with us.”
  702. “He what?! Why?!”
  703. > “I…”
  704. > Sight cocks her head again, frowning.
  705. > “...I believe he feels that he didn’t have enough time here on this world yet, and he wants to do more. To - help.”
  706. > Wait.
  707. > What?
  708. > Ghosts often had unfinished business, but not like that!
  709. > Were you the anchor now?!
  710. > Groaning, you slap your forehead and lean back in your seat.
  711. “You know what? If he behaves himself, he can do whatever he wants right now. This is officially the weirdest ghost hunting team ever. Welcome aboard, kid.”
  712. > Even if you can’t hear things the way Sight does, Topaz’s giggle still reaches your ears.
/spg/ aie

Fire's Heart [F&S] (Complete)

by Lurkernon

Fire and Sky: Shorts

by Lurkernon

Ghost Hunting (Oneshot)

by Lurkernon

Fire's Rise (F&S II) Part 2 (Complete)

by Lurkernon

Fire's Rise (F&S II) Part 1 (Complete)

by Lurkernon