Paige slinked from one nigrescent stack to another, untrusting of the shielding darkness. She did not feel secure following Inkwell's apparently fearless tromping down the middle aisle of the old warehouse. It was in her mind that if there was trouble, she could leap out from the shadows and offer resistance or surprise. She was the only human in her family, and as such, she took her responsibility as a violence-capable guardian seriously. Clutched firmly in her hand, Paige's trusty aluminum bat 'Lil Slugger' bonked against a tumbled pile of pallets and made a hollow ringing sound. The bell-like tone filled the quiet space and echoed back from the far walls.
"Paige, it's alright. If there was anyone here, Pet and I would have sensed them! Fancy noses and fancy ears, remember?" Inkwell was worried Paige would hurt herself playing Ninja in the pitch black warehouse. Humans had tiny little eyes and no capacity to see into the infrared, after all. Inkwell had been astonished to find she could just make out a faint glow from herself and Petrichor and Paige in the gloom. It was not far into the infrared to be sure, and the glow she saw was not very bright or strong, but it was a new color, a brand new color she had no name for, and as dimly faint as it was, it was a miracle of wonder.
The ability to perceive the strange infra-light also helped, a little, in navigating the now mostly empty warehouse. Some tables and piles of pallets had been left, along with various bins and crates, but the vast mountainous stacks of books were all gone now. Most of the great warehouse was open floor, which made Paige's attempts to hide rather silly. Inkwell found it hard not to laugh at her defensive antics.
The goal, if it still existed - hopefully, it still existed - was a lock-box hidden just behind old Milner's rafter office. The members of the Underground Bookmobile all knew it was there, it seemed a perfect place to stash it. The office had been constructed on a platform near the high ceiling of the building, and the untraversable back edge where the office wall met the railing of the platform was only two-thirds of a meter wide or less - just wide enough to set something narrow down where no person would ever have reason to look. It was a dusty, cobwebbed uselessly narrow space easy to entirely forget about.
"You're sure that nopony can tell we're here?" Petrichor was being brave, trotting right behind Inkwell, but her occasional glances to the right and left betrayed that she clearly felt spooked.
"We listened, we smelled, you tell me!" Inkwell made for the spiral stairs in the center of the warehouse that led up to Milner's office and the roof hatch. Inkwell stopped, remembering the night she had been chased. These stairs were the place she had been shot. Her old, human blood probably stained them, somewhere near the open hatch at the top.
"Yeah... I know. Nothin' here." Petrichor seemed less than absolutely certain. The reality was that even with the faint benefit of seeing the glow from their own warmth, the warehouse was very large, definitely creepy, and very, very dark.
"Hey... maybe we shouldn't be chatting like it was the middle of the marketplace here?" Paige whispered from where she crouched behind an isolated pile of partially broken crates standing in the middle of the vast, empty floor.
Inkwell sighed. "Sorry Paige." She whispered back. It seemed the most expedient and kind way to respond.
The stairs were a long, steep climb, the warehouse was four stories tall and the platform with Milner's office was right near the top. Inkwell found it easy enough to climb up stairs designed for a human body, but she worried about trying to get back down again afterwards. The idea of trying to face the steep staircase muzzle first was frankly frightening - she could easily imagine tumbling face first down the spiral. She'd probably have to slowly back down the stairs, tail first, and that was not by any metric a dignified thing to do.
The climb was dark and long, and when at last the three stood at the top, far from the doors that provided what dim light there was, it became a matter of feeling their way around the platform. A small patch of light spilled down the short, straight stairs leading to the roof hatch, but it was not enough to clearly see anything at all. "I should have brought a flashlight, or something..." Inkwell felt foolish now.
Petrichor smirked in the inky black. "If only we had a unicorn..."
The 'thump' sound of a solid hoofpalming came from the direction of where Inkwell was standing. Instantly, the tip of Inkwell's horn began to glow with a pale, silvery light. The light grew in intensity as Inkwell concentrated on exercising her magic without any specific target. The glow was more than sufficient to see the open door to the warehouse office, the rail around the platform, and a grinning pegasus and a human slowly shaking her head. "I forgot!" Inkwell felt deeply embarrassed.
"It is amazing how the mind can take the most incredible things for granted." Paige muttered. "I guess even the power to do magic just becomes ordinary in the end. It's OK, Inks, maybe it's better you didn't turn on your headlight before we got here, right?"
Inkwell sighed. "Maybe." The little unicorn moved to the left side of the rectangular office, and walked to the back where the rail, close to the back wall of the structure, wrapped around the building. Inkwell lowered her head, so that the silvery light was closer to the platform floor, and began searching for the metal lockbox.
"What are those?" Petrichor seemed anxious.
"What?" Inkwell couldn't see the lockbox anywhere. It just wasn't there, down the narrow, impassable space between office back wall and rail. Only empty platform and the dark hollows under the office module's raised floor greeted her searching eyes.
"There are little... lights or something. All over down there. Like spots. They're in the weird color. They're uber-red."
Inkwell jerked her head up. "What? Where?" She backed out and turned to where Petrichor was leaning on the rail, looking down on half of the warehouse.
"Hey... they're gone. Wait..." Petrichor strained her eyes in the dark. "Turn off your horn. They're really dim."
Inkwell ended the glow from her horn and let her eyes adjust. Gradually, as she leaned over the rail, looking down, she began to make out small dots of the new color her eyes could see, peppering the warehouse. "No power..." she whispered. "No external power. Batteries. Oh, Celestia, I've been foolish. Those are sensors of some kind. Probably infrared beams or something like that. We must have triggered dozens of them the moment we entered. Luna, but I am a silly unicorn." Inkwell stomped her hoof. "Cin-na-mon SWIRL! We won't be alone for long we..."
A scent met her nose, her new nose that was ten thousand times more acute than a human nose. It was sweat, human sweat, and the musk of testosterone and the bitter tang of adrenaline. It came from outside the open doors, and it had crept in, announcing the imminent arrival of people Inkwell was certain she did not want to see. "They're out there. Now."
"I smell them too." Petrichor shivered. She began much more seriously wondering whether or not she really could carry a pony and a human on a pallet through the sky. She had not admitted it, but transporting Inkwell, back when she had been Gwen, had not been nearly as easy as she had made it out to be. In fact, she had barely made it to the roof at all. Worse, that trick had been used already, and it would be foolish to think that whoever was approaching them would not be prepared for a repeat of it.
"Inkwell!" Paige whispered insistently "Get the box and stop worrying about what's coming! You said it would all be fine when you found the box!"
"It isn't there! I looked and it isn't there!" Inkwell stared in fear at the dim uber-red glow that marked where Paige loomed behind her.
"Let me look! Give me a little light, let me try!" Paige sounded just a little desperate.
"Light? They're coming! I can't use light!" Inkwell was horrified at the possibility of being shot again. Light would make them all easy targets. Though, to be fair, those who meant them harm probably had augmentations that let them truly see in the strange new infra-color, and far better than ponies possibly could.
"Inks... let me try!" Paige had a hand around Inwell's foreleg, and it was squeezing a little too tight for comfort. Inkwell smelled the fear in Paige's blood. Resigned, Inkwell lit up her horn once again.
"It's supposed to be right there, behind the back of the office. In that narrow place next to the rail. It isn't there, see?" Inkwell grasped the rail with a blob of her telekinetic force, which created another source of the silvery light. The tiny, empty corridor behind the office back wall was clearly illuminated.
"Keep that light there!" Paige set Lil' Slugger down and dropped to the floor beside Inkwell's legs, and squeezed as best she could into the narrow space between wall and rail. She began stuffing her hands into the black rectangular hollows created by the raised floor of the office module.
"We have company..." Petrichor stared in horror at the glow of the open far door, which began to be occluded for brief moments as humans darted through and into the building. Pet's senses strongly suggested that the same was happening all around them, at every entrance to the warehouse.
Inkwell shivered with fear as she struggled to maintain the light from her horn and the glowing patch on the rail. Paige was searching frantically through the cobwebs and detritus under the office, until her hand hit something metal. "Shit!"
Inkwell flinched at the word, briefly. "What? Did you find it?"
Paige was scrabbling now, at the floor, her body straining, her arm far under the office floor. "I hit a box, a metal box. It has to be it, but I pushed it further under! Dammit to hell!"
"They know where we are..." Petrichor was frozen at the rail, terrified into immobility. Her words were soft and empty of the emotion that paralyzed her.
"Inkwell! My finger is touching the box! I can't grab it, I fucked everything up. I knocked it away accidently. But I am touching it, just barely, with my middle finger. My finger is right on it!" Paige had her shoulder pressed to the small opening under the office, her body squeezed into the space between wall and rail.
"So what now?" Inkwell was having trouble thinking. The people who had shot her were coming, and they might shoot again at any second. She felt her legs trembling, and her light began to blink as her concentration faltered.
"Inks! Run your magic down my arm. Follow my arm down to my finger, and then you can grab the box with your field! I'm touching it! Just use my arm as a guide!" Paige's muscles ached from her uncomfortable position.
"That's grea..." Inkwell stopped, horrified. "Paige... um... my hornfield. It's pure magic, it will burn..."
Paige cut her off. "Fuck that, do it! It's either you get that box, or we end up compost. Fuck my arm. DO IT!"
Inkwell swallowed hard. Petrichor, finally unfrozen, turned to look at her lover laying on the platform, just legs sticking out of the cramped space she had crawled into.
The glowing, silvery blob on the rail vanished and reappeared just above Paige's right arm. "Do it, Inkwell. Just do it." The glow hesitated for but a moment, then sank to encompass the arm.
Inkwell felt Paige's blouse, and then her skin, soft and brown. The edge of the field, difficult to control, dipped down, and Inkwell sensed the layers of fat and muscle, nerve and tendon, and then bone, warm with marrow. Inkwell could feel the rushing of blood cells through vessels everywhere. Inkwell could feel every detail of the inside of Paige's arm.
"It's a little numb, but I'm not feeling pain, Inks. Go for it!" Inkwell moved her telekinetic field down the arm, following it without sight, purely by some arcane, supernal sense of touch. The arm gradually began to feel oddly mushy as she passed over and through the tissues, following them down to Paige's hand. Inkwell could sense the fingers splaying out, and chose the middle one, running her magic along it. She could not control the size of her blobbet of force, so she felt the entire finger, all the way through, until she reached metal. It was a box, and inside it, Inkwell could feel an echo of powerful thaumatic flux. It buzzed, as if the box were full of hornets.
"I have it! I have the box, it's here! Pull Paige out so I can pull the box out!" Paige immediately responded by trying to escape the narrow confines, but she was having trouble. She flopped like a fish, trying to back out. Inkwell could do nothing - she had to keep focusing on her unseen telekinetic grasp of the metal box.
"Help me! I can't move my arm and I'm laying on the other one!" Paige seemed frantic. "Pet! Pull me! Pull me out!"
Petrichor began dragging Paige free even as multiple bright beams converged on the platform from below. Petrichor yanked and pulled with mouth and hoof, and tried not to notice the tiny, bright green dots of intense coherent light that danced about them.
"DO NOT ATTEMPT TO FLEE. ANY ATTEMPT TO FLEE WILL BE CAUSE TO OPEN FIRE. REPEAT - " The amplified voice was not at all kind or pleasant. There was more than enough light now. Everything was bathed in harsh, actinic spotlights, and Petrichor and Inkwell had multiple bright green dots that hovered on vital spots upon their bodies.
"We aren't going anywhere!" shouted Petrichor "Paige is just stuck, I'm getting her unstuck!"
"REMAIN WHERE YOU ARE! DO NOT ATTEMPT TO RESIST!"
'Yeah, yeah' Paige thought, as she finally was able to sit up. 'They always say that'. Most of her arm was completely numb, and she could not move it. She leaned against one of the rail posts, feeling dizzy and slightly sick. With her left hand, she moved her useless right arm and held her hand up in the spotlights from below. Already large portions of her brown skin had turned shock white, and the middle of those areas was rapidly turning black. It looked like ink spreading from below. Paige felt like she needed to vomit, as if she had been poisoned. "Hurry up, Inks. I'm not doing so well."
Inkwell was busy navigating the lock box out from under the office floor. Finally, the long, thin box was free, and she floated it out onto the wider space of the platform. Inkwell tried to open the box, but it was locked. "MUFFINS!" Of course it was locked, it was a lock-box.
What to do? What to do? Inkwell ran her thaumatic field through the box. Inside, beyond the metal, the two buzzing scrolls repelled her telekinetic touch. She could feel the active spells inside them, whirring and churning, woven into the very paper of them. As her scan reached the end of the box, she found a pencil, and an eraser. Convenient, it was a complete kit. Unfortunately, the box could not be opened to make use of the contents.
"WE ARE COMING UP. DO NOT MAKE ANY SUDDEN MOVEMENTS!" The sound of boots, very, very cautiously beginning the long ascent sounded from far below.
"Inks?" Paige did not sound well. "What's up?"
"I can't open the box. It needs a key. I figured it would be an electronic lock, but it needs a key! I thought I could just blow out the electronics and..." Inkwell was almost in tears "...it needs a key!"
"Is there anything inside the box that might help?" Petrichor was grasping at straws, the boots were steadily sounding louder and closer.
Inkwell sniffed, holding back her emotions. "Just an eraser. And a pencil. I don't think it's strong enough to pry the box open from the inside, but I can try!" Inkwell floated the pencil, inside the locked box, and began trying to use it as a crowbar against the inside of the lid. The pencil snapped in half from the force. A tear glistened on Inkwell's soft, fuzzy cheek.
"Inks?" Paige vomited, her dinner splattering against the platform. She began using her left hand to fumble for the emergency ponification kit she had strung on a cord around her neck. "I... ULP... I think... I'm not so good. I've got some seriously dead tissue here. I feel like...ULLLL" Again Paige threw up, finally ending up dry heaving as the sound of boots came nearer.
Petrichor dropped and grabbed at the ponifcation kit with her forehooves. She held it steady while Paige struggled with the catch to open the kit. The carbofiber case opened, revealing a metal cylinder with a thaumatic warning sticker and instructions for use. The instructions were terse and amounted to swallowing the entire contents in one go. "Inks - these things activate the moment they are signed, right?"
Inkwell nodded and managed a faint "Yes?"
"I'm ponifying Paige, right now. She's deathly sick and getting worse. You said you have a pencil in there? I bet princess magic beats a metal box any day of the week!"
Inkwell jerked with realization. "Yeah!" She grabbed the stub of the pencil in her hornfield, and forced the carbon inside the primitive writing instrument to stick out from the synthetic wood-like material that surrounded it. The pencil stub was short enough to move inside the box, and inside one of the rolled up scrolls. Inkwell tried to scribble 'HELP' in the middle portion of the scroll, feeling where the spell imbued within the paper had a space within it. She rotated the scroll within the box, until she found a space on the paper that hummed and buzzed near the bottom. That must be the activation line, the signing line. Inkwell did her best to write the letters of her own name I-N-K-W-E-L-L and then she withdrew her field quickly as forces she simply could not comprehend swirled into life, tugging and yanking at her simple telekinetic grasp.
The men stood over them now, HLF Frontsmen, armed with automatic rifles and the most intimidating of grimaces. Everywhere there were lights now, moving over the scene, shining into the eyes of the two ponies and the one gravely ill human, holding a cylinder in her left hand.
In one smooth motion, Paige downed the fluid inside the cylinder and fell into her own vomit, unconscious. In a flash, her brown skin turned shock white and her dark hair fell out. Her doughy flesh began to pulse and ripple, and the HLF men backed up to the rail shaking their heads and swearing.
"Fuck! The little bitch is going pony right in fucking FRONT of us! The god damn hell???" The Frontsman was incredulous. Of all the terrible things he had seen, and the even more terrible things he had done, this was easily the worst moment he had witnessed. He couldn't believe his eyes. "I can't believe the little bitch dropped pony juice right in front of me! Shit! Let me shoot them! Come on, let me fucking just shoot the lot of them! I wish I had a goddamned flame thrower. Burn it with fire! God fucking damn!"
The horrified Frontsman was pulled aside by a superior who calmed him down. Suddenly all eyes were no longer on the shifting, changing body of Paige. The little metal box was rattling and slamming itself on the platform as if it were angry, as if it were about to explode.
"BACK! DOWN THE STAIRS, DOWN!" The Frontsmen began a steady, rapid withdrawal down the curving stairs. "THEY'VE GOT A BOMB!" It was the only interpretation of events the HLF men had, and it made sense to them. The traitors believed all that shit about ponification creating souls. Clearly that must be why the human was converting - they intended to suicide and take as many of the HLF with them as they could! By converting, the traitor could be assured of pony heaven, or whatever these fuckheads believed in, after the bomb destroyed the building.
The lid of the rattling metal case blew open with a bang. A burst of green fire erupted angrily from inside the box and shot through the open roof hatch. For a brief moment the entire warehouse glimmered in strange green firelight, before it was plunged once more into gloom. The HLF men froze, unsure of what had happened. Was that the bomb? Had it been a dud? Was it safe to return and see what was left of the enemy on the platform?
Petrichor nipped and pulled at Paige's trousers, yanking them free of her fluidly shifting legs. Paige had deliberately chosen loose clothing because she was aware she might have to go pony at a moment's notice - she was prepared for just that eventuality, so she was in no danger of strangulation. Petrichor merely wanted to do something, anything to help, and reasoned that being free of incompatible clothing was at least something she could do for her love.
Paige's eyes had sunken into her swelling, almost featureless head. Her muzzle was extending, her nostrils widening as her rapid breathing fed oxygen to her quickly changing body. She was doubtless deep into her Conversion Dream, and despite the threat from below, Petrichor could not help but wonder what Paige was experiencing. Pet's concern and amazement at watching Paige convert was interrupted by the sound of a human man shouting an all clear, and the sound of boots stomping quickly and angrily up the spiral staircase.
"We warned you, but you fucking pull out a bomb on us! Fuck you!" came a voice loud from adrenaline and rage "You're dead now, fucking dead you - "
As the Frontsman soldier stormed the top step and aimed his automatic rifle at the pale, waxy shape of Paige laying on the platform, he froze, suddenly lithic gray all over, the last swirls of a golden light rippling and flowing down his silent, immobile form. His flesh was solid granite as were his clothes, likewise his gun, and all of the little devices attached to his armor. More flashes of golden light burst and faded from far below, like distant lightning, preceded by brief cries of shock and surprise suddenly silenced.
Inkwell noticed that the immobile Frontsman, as well as the rafters and the office, and much of the interior of the warehouse had been rendered clearly visible by a strong silvery-blue light that shone brightly from below. Inkwell felt a presence that filled her mind and heart and soul, a sweet closeness that sang of exquisite moments under perfect stars, of moonlit embraces and the tranquil beauty of the night.
"Thou art secure, my little ponies, and thy rescue is assured. Be thee all at peace, for thy princess has arrived to succor thee."
Inkwell willed her neck to turn and bend, feeling almost frozen with overwhelming awe. She looked down below at the floor of the warehouse, where an immortal glory in midnight blue, shod in silver and with a flowing mane of stars looked up at her with endless compassion.