by D. G. D. Davidson
Chapter 1: The Order of the Mule
I am half pony. I am half donkey. I live in two worlds, but am at home in neither. I am a mule.
And I have the Power.
Hot sunlight pours into my face from a cloudless sky as I sit in my chair atop a hill overlooking the crevasse on the edge of Ponyville. I move my front hooves down to the chair’s wheels; with one quick push, I can send myself hurtling downward into oblivion.
My hind legs are lifeless and shriveled now, my hamstrings severed. The old fear closes over my heart, threatening to swallow me. Doubt fills my mind. Yet, in spite of the weakness of my will, the Power still courses through me: even in my failure, it remains my one companion, my only solace. I focus upon it and kindle it until fear retreats, leaving behind nothing but the hatred and rage that are as intrinsic to my inner strength as the Power itself. I feel that strength in my forelimbs, feel it radiating out from my heart and pounding to the tip of every hair in my coat.
Even to the very moment of my self-inflicted annihilation, I will be strong, and my death will restore to my Order the honor my actions have stolen from it.
When I was but a foal, my sire took me to the Everfree Forest. Without a word, he led me in, and I shivered in the cool, moist air. I started in terror at the sight of trees with ghastly faces and strange shapes flitting through the woods. My nostrils filled with a damp odor of moss and pine.
He led me to a mountain, and we climbed. I stumbled many times over sharp stones, and I panted for breath, but my sire never slowed. We stopped once at a babbling spring and quenched our thirst. The water was so cold it numbed my throat.
At last, we reached the tree line and emerged onto a rocky, boulder-strewn slope where nothing grew but sickly clumps of grass. We looked out over the world, and I marveled at the sight of clouds scudding across the sky without pegasi to guide them. Rough and forbidding, Everfree stretched out below, a great mass of tree-shrouded land untrammeled by ponies. The high cliffs where Canterlot perched were visible in the distance, but they were empurpled with haze. They looked unreal, like something from another world.
My sire rarely spoke. His brown coat was patchy, his face deeply lined. He squinted and flared his nostrils, taking in the wild, hot wind. “Son,” he said in a voice deep and full of sadness, “you know what I am. I am not a stallion, but a jack, a donkey. We donkeys live hard lives, and I knew when I married your mother that my children’s lives would be harder still.”
“They call me a mule,” I said, “and they look so mean when they say it. What’s a mule, Daddy?”
“You are,” he answered. “The child of a jack and a mare is a mule. You will never have children of your own, and all your life ponies will despise you. But you have inside you something they can’t see, something they can’t understand. You have a strength nopony could ever have, so you must set your face against them and take their insults without giving reply. Learn to hate them as much as they hate you, but never show it. Outwardly, you must look and act like the fool they’ll always think you are, but, inwardly, you will always be better and stronger than they.”
“It’s the way of the world, son. It’s the way of the mule.”
I was seven years old when they came for me. There were two of them, and they looked almost like donkeys, but bigger. Muscles rippled under their coats. Their faces were hard and bitter, their teeth misshapen. They frightened me, most of all because I recognized in them what I would become when I reached adulthood. I trembled behind the kitchen door while they stood on the front stoop and spoke to my dam.
I could hear her pleading, though I couldn’t make out the words. She said something frantic, and the frightening figures answered with quiet, rough voices. My dam’s voice rose in pitch, but still the two replied with perfect calm.
At last, my dam pushed open the kitchen door. Her eyes were red, and the fur of her face was streaked with tears. The two figures stood behind her, their faces rigid masks.
“They’ve come to take you away for a little while, sweetheart,” my dam said.
I felt my lower lip tremble as I asked, “Why?”
One of the two answered, “Because you are a mule.”
I ran to my dam and pressed my face against her breast. She lowered her head to my neck. I shuddered and cried, but one of the mules bit my tail and dragged me away.
They blindfolded me. I walked between them for hours, and all the while my heart pounded. I stumbled many times because my knees shook. Once or twice, I whimpered, but they cuffed me until I was silent. Something crunched under my hooves. The air grew cool and musty, suggesting we were underground. The mules never spoke a word, and I was too afraid to ask them questions.
When they removed the blindfold, I was standing in the middle of a large room with rough-hewn stone walls. Figures with black hoods covering their faces surrounded me, and before me on a high seat of oak sat a creature unlike any I had ever seen before: she resembled a pony, but her beige coat was striped with black, and her severely short mane stood straight from the back of her neck, though a long, brown forelock fell across her solemn, deeply lined face. Gold jewelry hung from her ears. In one fetlock, she held a heavy wooden staff carved with images of strange, monstrous creatures.
“Do you know what I am, child?” she asked. She spoke with a thick accent, and it took me a moment to figure out what she had said.
I opened my mouth to answer her, but I was so afraid, I couldn’t make a sound.
She rapped the staff on the ground. “I will tell you: I come from a land far to the south. An adventurous pony mare traveled there, settled among the zebras, and married my sire. I am a zorse, a hybrid like you. When I came of age, I left my home and journeyed for long, perilous months to find the homeland of my mother.”
One of the figures along the wall removed his hood, and I saw that he was a mule. He gazed down at me with contempt, as if he were examining shoddy goods in a store. “She became the leader of all the hybrids in Equestria,” he said. “You will never learn her name, for we call her simply Granddam.”
“Ponies possess magic,” Granddam said. “Pegasi manipulate the clouds, unicorns cast spells, and earth ponies have a magical connection to the land. When the ponies interbreed with other species, the magic they pass to their offspring manifests as what we call the Power. That Power is within you, and, in this room, we will teach you to use it.”
Granddam stood from her seat and tossed something to my hooves. It made a loud, metallic ring as it struck the floor in front of me. I looked down to see an elegant sword with a long, single-edged blade. A lump formed in my throat.
“Take it,” Granddam said.
Trembling, I dipped my head to take the sword in my mouth, but something hard hit me and sent me spinning across the room.
Through tears, I looked up to see Granddam standing over me. She had reared onto her hind legs and now held the staff in both forelimbs. I had no idea how she had moved so quickly.
“Never lower your head,” she said. “The ponies will spite you and spit on you, but you must never lower your head.”
One of the cloaked figures slid the sword across the floor toward me.
“Take it,” Granddam said again.
I struggled to hold the sword in my forelimbs, trying to imitate the way Granddam held her staff. The sword wobbled in my grip. Unused to standing on two legs, I staggered backwards and fell into a row of cloaked mules. From under their clothes, they drew swords of their own and struck me with the flats of the blades. Again, I hit the floor. Tears sprang into my eyes.
“Get up,” Granddam said. “Get up. You are a mule. You have no allies, only enemies, but within you is the Power to slay armies. Get up!”
I stood and took up the sword. Again, mules surrounded me and struck me down. Again, Granddam told me to get up.
I don’t know how long it went on. It was like a nightmare from which I couldn’t awaken. Wherever I turned in that room, every figure I met was against me. Every inch of my body throbbed with stinging pain; fear and exhaustion filled me. The mules buffeted me until I fell and couldn’t rise. The sword dropped from my hooves and clattered to the ground. I tried to pick it up again, but my forelegs had grown so weak, I could no longer grasp the sword in my fetlocks. The mules swarmed me, beating me. I tried to curl up, to cover my face, to disappear. Their swords, like metal whips, rained down on my back, my head, my limbs.
“Get up!” Granddam said.
In the midst of the blows, I at last found words. “I can’t!”
“You can. The body is weak, but the Power is strong. When your natural strength fails, the Power sustains you. Get up!”
Bruised from ear to tail, I was past all limits, but the fear in my heart began to ebb, for I was so exhausted that I could no longer sustain it. When the fear disappeared, bitterness and hatred replaced it. Inside, I raged at the mules who tormented me, and I raged at Granddam, who stood over me with her stony face and watched as they beat me to death. When wrath overwhelmed me, I felt something else welling up in my heart as well--a restless energy I had never recognized before, but which I now knew had been there all the time. It spread out through my veins, pumped into my limbs, filled me. The pain disappeared, replaced by exhilaration. I picked up the sword and rose to my hind legs. The mules around me fell back. The sword did not waver in my grip.
My eyes moved over Granddam’s face, and I saw the tiniest of smiles twitch her mouth.
A mule silently rushed in to strike me. Without trembling, I turned and met his blade with my own.
For three weeks, I trained hard in that secret, underground hall of the hybrids. When it was over, the mules blindfolded me and took me home. They came for me again many times throughout my foalhood. Always, they arrived unexpected at our door, covered my eyes, and took me to that dark place where Granddam taught me to harness the strength within me.
My sire worked hard as a farmhoof and wore himself out in service to his pony masters. He died when I was small, but I did not weep at his death. I felt no sadness; I merely felt resentment. My dam, an outcast because she had married a donkey and foaled a mule, made a pittance working as a street sweeper. I watched her grow gaunt and lined from work and worry, and I nurtured anger at the ponies. That anger fed my Power, and I excelled in my training. I bested all the other students in combat. At times, I even bested my teachers.
I was fifteen when they came to give me my final lesson. My dam sat in her rocking chair on one end of our dark sitting room and watched me practice my forms. The sword in my hooves glinted as I swung it.
“You’re so different from the little foal I once knew,” she said.
“I’ve grown strong,” I answered.
“You used to be so gentle.”
“Gentleness will not protect me from the ponies’ spite.”
“Do you really need protection? Is that what this is about?”
I swung the sword downward in a smooth arc. “My training forms a wall between me and them. Because I am strong, their insults do not touch me.”
She sighed and looked away. “You’ve grown so cold. I’m also a pony, so you’ve built a wall between yourself and me.”
I sheathed my sword, knelt beside her, and kissed her cheek. She winced and pulled away.
“Even your lips have grown hard,” she whispered. “I don’t like what the mules have made you.”
“You’re the one who made me a mule, Mother. The Order has simply shown me how to be one.”
“If you hate ponies, does that mean you hate me as well?”
I didn’t answer her.
“You’re half pony, you know.”
“I’m a mule,” I said. “That’s all I’ll ever be.”
Two mules walked into our home. One of them held out the blindfold and said, “It’s time.”
I stood and brushed his hoof aside. He smirked, but said nothing. He put the blindfold away.
My eyes uncovered, I followed them out of town and into a root cellar behind a barn. We walked through a long, earthen tunnel lit by lamps full of fireflies until we emerged into the hall of the Order. I walked to the center of the room and glared at Granddam, who smiled at me from her throne.
“What shall I learn today?” I asked, allowing insolence to enter my voice. “To kill a pony in one move? To throw the shuriken? To move swiftly and silently over any terrain? To leap buildings and run up walls?”
“You have already mastered these skills,” Granddam answered.
“What, then, is left for you to teach me?”
“Come and see.” Granddam put on a voluminous cloak to cover her stripes.
I followed her out of the hall. We walked to Ponyville’s train station, where we caught the Friendship Express for Canterlot. We sat in a crowded third-class car near the caboose.
“Where are we going, exactly?” I asked.
Granddam gave me a warning glance from under her hood. She leaned close and whispered in my ear, “Instead of asking foalish questions, why don’t you examine the other passengers and practice your skills?”
I did as I was told. Sitting across from us was a unicorn mare with a tan coat and a daisy for a cutie mark. Unicorns were potentially dangerous opponents because they could use levitation magic as a weapon; however, this mare was reading a book, oblivious to her surroundings. I estimated that I could kill her in less than a second with two blows, one to crack her nasal bones and a second to thrust them into her brain. Sitting beside Granddam was a pegasus mare with a blue coat. I couldn’t see her cutie mark from where I was sitting, so I had to take into account an element of unpredictability. I had to consider, too, that pegasi were difficult to incapacitate because their hollow, latticed bones were denser and stronger than those of other ponies and because the sacs in their lungs prevented them from running short of breath. Nonetheless, I believed I could kill her in less than five seconds: she had one rear hoof dangling down to the floor, so I could smash her coffin bone with a quick strike, causing debilitating pain, and then thrust a hoof into her jugular groove to crush her windpipe.
I continued to amuse myself with such thoughts until the train at last pulled into the capitol high in the mountains. When we left the car, I sucked my breath through my teeth, surprised at the cold; it was late fall, and a frigid wind blowing off the snow-capped peaks was howling through Canterlot’s white spires. The wind bit through my coat and stung my skin.
I followed Granddam through the streets to the gate of the palace. The armored pegasus guards merely glanced at us and stepped aside. We walked in, and I couldn’t help but gaze at the tall stained glass windows, the vaulted ceilings, and the crystal chandeliers.
Granddam nudged me. “Stop gawking. What have I told you about how a mule conducts himself in public?”
I recited the lesson: “I must appear oblivious, foalish, ignorant, clumsy, and complacent. My face must never reveal the fire within. My thoughts and emotions are under my control, and my face conceals them.”
“Very good. Then memorize the rooms through which we pass, note their entry and exit points, and stop staring like a tourist.”
I nodded and composed my “false face,” the expression of stupidity, good nature, and obsequiousness that mules wore in front of ponies.
We walked into Princess Celestia’s broad audience chamber. The princess herself sat on a golden throne, from the foot of which sprung a burbling fountain. Colored light from the stained glass windows played across her white coat, and her long, misty hair flowed and waved as if it were floating in water. I had never met the princess before; in spite of my pride, and though I tried to keep my composure in accordance with my training, my knees trembled.
When Celestia saw us, she rose from her throne, dismissed her guards, and called for a servant, who appeared from behind a tapestry. She ordered tea. The servant ducked his head and left. Within moments, Granddam and I were sitting at a table with the princess.
Celestia kept the teapot well out of our reach. She personally poured for both of us and waited for us to taste the tea. After we had both sipped, she levitated her own cup to her mouth.
I moved my eyes back and forth between Celestia and Granddam’s faces. Granddam was serene; she had an almost perfect false face, though she could never entirely mask certain traces of her proud spirit. Celestia, on the other hoof, had an air of calm that appeared forced. Under her careful composure, she was nervous.
After a moment, realization struck home, and my heart leapt: she feared us. The immortal ruler of all ponydom was afraid of the mules.
We drank in silence for a minute before Celestia spoke. “Silver Buttons keeps criticizing the taxes I’ve levied on the outer provinces.”
“Unfortunate,” Granddam answered.
“And Fancypants refuses to contribute to my latest charity fund.”
“Perhaps he’ll come around,” replied Granddam.
“Ruby Twinkle has been printing pamphlets suggesting Equestria needs a senate to reduce my power.”
“I’m sure nothing will come of such newfangled ideas.”
We drank in silence for another minute. Granddam finished her tea, set down her cup, and stood. “Thank you for a lovely afternoon, Your Highness.”
I followed Granddam out of the castle and back to the train station.
“Do you read newspapers?” she asked me.
“Read one tomorrow.”
The next day, I walked to the newsstand and picked up a copy of the Ponyville Express. I flipped through the pages until I found the national news from Canterlot, and there I read the stories I had anticipated with both eagerness and dread: Silver Buttons had died the night before of a mysterious heart attack, Fancypants had given generously to Celestia’s charity, and Ruby Twinkle had gone missing.
I now knew the true role that mules played in Equestria.
Soon thereafter, Granddam and the mules inducted me as a full-fledged member of the Order. By day, I worked as a farmhoof; I presented myself to the ponies as harmless and vapid. I worked hard bucking hay, bucking apples, plowing fields, or doing whatever work I could get. Ponies insulted me and laughed in my face, and I responded always with an easy grin. Then, at night, I slipped into a black body suit, put on a mask, took up my sword and the other tools of our mystical art, and dealt with the dissenters who threatened the country’s peace. Many times, I with other mules visited Princess Celestia in her palace and sat with her at tea. She never gave us instructions, never asked us questions. She merely complained of her troubles, left us to do our work, and made sure that the local governors throughout Equestria did not pass laws interfering with hybrids.
I was good at what I did, but the killing was mechanical, uninteresting, and unfulfilling. I detested ponies generally, but I did not know the individuals I slew; their deaths meant little to me. Before any mission, I always felt my heart fill with fear and excitement, but when I had completed my task, I felt nothing but emptiness.
My daily life was different. More than once, I longed to reveal to insolent ponies what I truly was. More than once, I longed for the thrill of killing the ponies I knew. Once, in late fall, I had a temporary job on Sweet Apple Acres, a large orchard near Ponyville. While I was working, I happened upon Applejack, a farm pony, who was having a ridiculous argument with Twilight Sparkle, the pompous local librarian.
Their argument ended without resolution and Applejack walked away. Twilight Sparkle snorted in exasperation and said, “That pony is stubborn as a mule!”
After she said it, she looked over her shoulder and, apparently noticing me for the first time, added, “No offense.”
I showed her my false face, grinned, and said, “None taken.”
Inside, I thought about how it might feel to cut her throat.
A few months later, I was in the Prancing Pony, a disreputable tavern. Following the practice of the mules, I refrained from drink, but I had before me a glass of soda water colored to look like sarsaparilla. I frequented this tavern at least once a week to give the ponies the impression I was a harmless sot.
Hunched on a stool at the bar, I overheard a conversation that Berry Punch, a drunken reprobate, was having with a couple of airheaded mares named Lyra and Bon-Bon.
Already tight, Berry Punch knocked over her glass and giggled as sarsaparilla ran across the counter. “Okay, ya gotta hear this,” she said. “It’s just hilarious. So, ya see, a mule and a donkey are on a desert island--”
She was laughing so hard, she could barely tell the joke. When she finally managed to blurt out the punch line, Lyra and Bon-Bon tittered.
Berry Punch fell forward and slapped a hoof against the bar. Wiping tears from her eyes, she looked up at me and said, “No offense.”
I pretended to be inebriated and replied, “None taken.”
Inside, I considered how easy it would be to reach out and twist her head until I broke her neck.
A few months after that, I was walking through Ponyville’s town square at midday when our local weather manager, Rainbow Dash, flew over and scattered leaflets. She called out something about a meeting that night for the town’s pegasus ponies.
Rainbow Dash was a flight school dropout and probably the worst weather manager in Equestria, spending most of her time napping. I had no idea how she’d gotten the job. As she flew over me, she deliberately dumped an entire bag of her leaflets on my head and shouted to the pegasi in the square, “Be cool or be mule!”
Then she flew down and hovered in front of me. With a contemptuous grin, she said, “No offense.”
Something in me burst, but I kept my false face on. I smiled back and answered, “None taken.”
Inside, I thought, I know where you sleep at night, Rainbow Dash!
The rules of our Order were very clear: mules did not take personal revenge on anypony. Nonetheless, at midnight that night, I pulled on my black body suit, sheathed my sword at my flank, and crept to Rainbow Dash’s floating cloud palace, an elaborate château of pillars and rainbow falls that looked as if it would have been more at home in Cloudsdale than in rustic Ponyville. The usual fear and excitement filled me, but now they had an especially keen edge: this wasn’t dirty work for the princess; this was personal. I wondered what it would be like this time. I wondered if, after the kill, I would finally feel some thrill instead of the deadness and disappointment I usually felt.
Her palace hovered several feet off the ground. Even though only pegasi and other flying creatures had the magic to walk on clouds, that couldn’t stop me. I slid on a set of special bell boots woven from pegasus hair and dipped in pegasus blood. I threw a grappling hook and caught a balcony on the second floor. Hauling myself up, I slipped through a window and, as I expected, found myself in Rainbow’s bedroom. She was sleeping on a cumulous mattress with her limbs wrapped around a tortoise.
I pulled my sword from its sheath and laid it against her neck. “Open your eyes, Rainbow Dash,” I hissed. “Open your eyes and look in mine before I cut you.”
Her eyes snapped open. She sucked in her breath and, to my surprise, raised her hind legs and gave me a double kick to the back of the head, knocking me forward. Since my blade was lying on her throat, she might have killed herself by that maneuver, but the sword turned in my grip and failed to cut.
I jumped away from her. She flapped her wings, rose from the bed, and dove for me. I rolled forward and ducked her kick.
I had read her dossier: I was aware that she knew Karate and that she could move quickly enough to break the sound barrier, but I was confident that she was no match for a mule with the Power.
I spun and struck with the sword. She twisted out of the way and tried to sweep my legs. I ran up a nearby pillar, flipped over in the air, tucked in my hind legs, and brought my hocks down straight into her back, flattening her against the floor.
I reached down, wedged a hoof under her left hip, and touched a pressure point. I felt her body seize up from the pain.
Turning her over, I placed the blade against her neck again. With one slice, I could sever the muscles of her neck along with her jugular vein, carotid arteries, and trachea. Then I could enjoy watching her bleed and suffocate to death.
About to strike the final blow, I paused and considered. In my heart was the bite of excitement that my illicit hunt for vengeance had granted me, but I sensed that, if I made the kill, the emptiness and emotional dullness I always felt in the act of murder would descend on me again.
Better than to kill an enemy, perhaps, would be to have an enemy who would always fear me.
Bending down so my muzzle was only an inch from hers, I looked into Rainbow’s eyes and saw in them what I wanted to see--terror. In her wide pupils, I could see my own masked face faintly reflected. I could see my own eyes, the calculating, cold eyes of a trained killer. Rainbow trembled beneath me, and my excitement intensified.
“I can kill you anytime,” I whispered. “Anytime. Just remember that.”
I stood and kicked her once. I placed beside her bed a poisoned cupcake with a note that read, “You are in our power.” Then I backflipped out the window and landed on the ground below.
My actions had been reckless in the extreme, and I had possibly endangered the Order, yet my anger was temporarily sated, and my elation was immense.
Only two weeks later, Granddam called a meeting of all the mules. I worried that Rainbow Dash had talked, that the secret Order of the Mule was no longer secret, that somepony knew it was I who had attacked the weather manager.
The mules gathered into the underground hall and waited in silence until Granddam took her throne. I swallowed a lump and wondered what my punishment might be.
But the meeting wasn’t about me; Granddam threw into the middle of the room a copy of an amateur newspaper from the local elementary school. The paper fell open to an image of Princess Celestia gorging herself on two enormous cakes.
“This is most compromising to the princess,” Granddam said, “and it has appeared in a student paper written by little children.”
A heavily scarred mule named Wind Breaker pulled back his hood and said, “According to the rules of our Order, we do not assassinate children, Granddam.”
“Of course we don’t,” she snapped. “But we have a different problem. For years now, ponies in the outer provinces have complained that Canterlot taxes them too heavily, taking so much of their flour and sugar that their foals often go without bread. We have in the past silenced such opposition, but now we know the reason the taxes are so high: they go to fill Princess Celestia’s gullet.”
Another mule named Rheumy Eyes pulled back his hood. “What does it matter what the princess does? She ensures that the law is lenient toward mules and donkeys. She prevents the governors from outlawing interbreeding. If she wants to starve settler ponies, let her.”
Granddam sighed. “I have led this Order for many years, but I did not create it. Its founders wanted to teach mules to harness the Power for the greater good so everypony might benefit from our mystical skills, but I fear we have degenerated into nothing but a league of assassins that merely maintains the power of a tyrant.”
“Many ponies have for some time murmured that they would like a more representative form of government,” Wind Breaker said, “and rumor has it that they have Princess Luna’s sympathies.”
Rheumy Eyes snorted. “A republic? Ridiculous. I have a better idea: why do we not seize the reins of Equestria ourselves? Could the ponies possibly stand against all of us, armed as we are with the Power?”
“Oh, yes,” Granddam answered, her voice dripping sarcasm, “and after we hybrids have taken control of the country, we will of course be able to bequeath happier lives to our children.”
Every mule in the room laughed.
Rheumy Eyes grumbled. “If we made ponies and donkeys our slaves, we could force them to produce more of us--”
“Enough!” said Granddam. “Would you have liked it if your own dam and sire were slaves? No, my mules, the future belongs to those who can produce the children to populate it. We hybrids merely pass through this world, leaving no legacy behind. It is our task to better others’ lives, not our own.”
Throughout the discussion, I stared down at the newspaper open before me. There, emblazoned in its pages, was the Princess of the Day with a slice of cake in hoof, gazing toward the camera with a mixture of surprise and guilt on her frosting-smeared face. She presented her subjects with a façade of wisdom and purity, yet we mules who murdered her enemies had long known that her velvet bell boot concealed an iron hoof. Beneath an exterior of benevolence, she was a merciless despot. Now, simple schoolfoals had unearthed yet another layer: beneath the merciless despot, Princess Celestia was a mere glutton heedless of the consequences as she wallowed in her dissipation.
Rage, my familiar companion, appeared again in my heart. I loathed the ponies, and this princess was the leader and symbol of all ponydom. Here was the proof that she was, in the end, no different from any other pony: beneath whatever exteriors they presented, ponies were nothing but self-absorbed weaklings ripe for a mule’s blade. I remembered the thrill I had felt when I tormented Rainbow Dash, and I tried to imagine what pleasure I might have had were it Celestia’s throat to which I’d held my sword and Celestia’s frightened eyes into which I’d gazed.
I remembered, too, what I had sensed in Celestia while first sitting with her at tea--fear. She had feared the mules; she had feared me. Pony fear was like a drug to me, and I wanted more of it.
But such talk would not please Granddam. I had to choose my words carefully.
I slipped off my own hood. “Granddam, if we removed Princess Celestia from power, we could take control temporarily--just long enough to give the ponies time to create a constitutional government.”
Granddam nodded. “You talk sense.”
“No mule here is talking sense,” Wind Breaker answered. “You forget that the princess is an immortal who moves the sun. Assuming she even can be killed, would dawn still come after her death?”
“Celestia moved the moon after she imprisoned her sister,” said Granddam. “Perhaps Luna could move the sun.”
“Luna might not appreciate a coup d’état,” I said. “We may have to kill her as well.”
“Didn’t the unicorns formerly move the sun and moon themselves?” Rheumy Eyes asked.
“They have lost that art,” Granddam answered.
A memory pricked me. I recalled that time years ago when I followed my sire into Everfree, and I remembered the sight of clouds flowing through the sky. Inside Equestria, the plants and animals depended on ponies to care for them, and even the seasons couldn’t change without ponies to wrap them up, but just outside the nation’s borders, the wild world looked after itself.
I felt a surge of joy. This was the answer.
“I don’t believe Princess Celestia really moves the sun,” I said. “That’s why she claimed the ability to move the moon as well--she had to have an excuse for why night still appeared on schedule after she banished her sister. The princesses are frauds.”
The other mules gasped and stared at me.
“Nopony contests the princesses’ claims,” I said, “because so much in Equestria depends on ponies. Yet I have been in the Everfree Forest. I have seen clouds gather into great columns, and I have seen them release lightning and rain without pegasus ponies to move them. I have seen trees and vines growing free without earth ponies to tend them. I have seen animals gather their own food. All around us, the world moves on its own. Only in Equestria has it become so torpid as to require pony magic. Why should the sun and moon, which light the whole earth, answer to the princesses?”
Granddam leaned her cheek on one hoof and gazed at me, an amused smile on her face. “And what of her immortality?”
I drew my sword from its sheath. “She is flesh and blood, and flesh and blood will always answer to cold steel.”
“Are you willing to undertake this task?” Granddam asked.
I felt the Power building in my heart, felt my head growing light. “I am,” I said.
“If you are caught, you cannot implicate the Order. We will disown you and claim you were acting on your own.”
“I am a mule,” I answered. “I have no allies, only enemies, as you yourself taught me, Granddam.”
Granddam rose from her throne. “Who is in favor of this venture?”
All around the room, mules drew their swords and raised them into the air. Only a few, Wind Breaker and Rheumy Eyes included, kept their swords lowered. My heart pounded hard. My chance was coming. I would have what I most wanted.
“It is settled,” said Granddam. “We will show the princess what happens to tyrants who want to have their cake and eat it too. The Order of the Mule shall assassinate Princess Celestia!”
by D. G. D. Davidson
Chapter 2: The Jump
I sat across from Granddam in her chambers. She stared at me over a broad, oaken desk empty except for a single tallow candle, the room’s only light, which cast her lined muzzle in deep shadows. Her eyes never left my face, but I watched them twitch back and forth, no doubt marking every slight change in my expression. Granddam was working to see through my false face, just as I was working to see through hers.
“Outline your plan,” she told me.
“It’s simple,” I answered. “I slip in, I kill the princess, I slip out.”
“It’s not that simple.” Her mouth turned downward, her eyes narrowed. Displeasure.
“It’s always been that simple before.”
Her eyes dilated slightly. Incredulity. “You’ve never had a target like this before.”
“She isn’t expecting it. It’s merely a matter of--”
Granddam cut me off. “She is the ruler of all the country. She understands politics. She is always anticipating foul play.” Her lips narrowed. Annoyance.
“For over three thousand years, she has ruled the kingdom in peace. What cause has she to expect--?”
Granddam rose from her seat. “Perhaps you are not as prepared for this as I thought. Princess Celestia is in the habit of eliminating her enemies. Do you think she is unaware that some of her enemies might try to eliminate her?”
“She has us, but her enemies do not.”
Granddam shook her head. Disappointment. “She uses us, but she does not trust us. Whatever else she is, Princess Celestia is not stupid. You cannot go ahead with this mission if you insist on underestimating your target.”
“I will not underestimate her,” I said. In spite of my effort to remain calm, I detected frustration in my voice. “But if I examine her security, I am sure I can find a vulnerability to exploit. From there, the matter is simple.”
“What weapon will you use?”
“Even though she can teleport, levitate, cast solar rays--?”
“Not while she’s asleep, she can’t.”
Somepony coughed behind me. I leapt from my seat, spun, and drew my blade.
Mules learned from an early age never to sit with their backs toward doors, yet Granddam forced any mule who visited her chamber to sit facing away from the room’s only entrance. It was a subtle way of telling us that, no matter how much Power we possessed, we were all vulnerable in her presence. When I turned around with my sword at the ready, I saw a wrinkle-faced molly leaning against the doorframe.
“I am busy, Mulia Mild,” Granddam said. “What do you want?”
I knew of Mulia Mild, but I had never before met her face to face. By day, she worked as a pâtissière, and she was quite good at it. She was also one of the most effective assassins in the Order: once, she had slain a target by choking him with a strategically placed cherry pit in a clafouti, thereby employing her two chief skills while making the death look like a freak accident.
“Oh, Granddam,” Mulia said, “I am so terribly sorry that I was, mmmnh, out of town during your latest meeting, but I heard all about it, and it sounds most interesting.” She spoke with an oily, obsequious voice that grated on my ears.
“You don’t have to talk that way in here,” Granddam said. “We’re all hybrids.”
Mulia grinned and spoke normally. “Sorry. It becomes habit. I’ve just returned from Canterlot, where I was part of a dessert competition--”
I snorted. “A dessert competition? Yet another excuse for Celestia to stuff herself.”
Mulia’s grin grew wider. “Oh, yes. You should have seen her drooling over the entries. It was positively revolting.”
“She’s out of control,” I said. I turned back to Granddam. “You must let me act soon.”
Granddam raised a hoof to silence me. “Since you barged in here, Mulia, I assume you want to tell me something important.”
“Yes, three things. Two unusual events occurred on the train trip to Canterlot. Do you know that pink pony who works at Sugarcube Corner? She brought a cake for the competition, and somepony vandalized it during the trip. She accused me.”
“Did you do it?” Granddam asked.
“Of course not, but when she made her accusation, she accurately described our methods.”
Granddam sat down again and leaned her chin on a hoof. “Hmm, we’ve had an eye on her for some time. She evinces certain unusual abilities . . . did anypony take her seriously?”
“No. She made other accusations, but they were obviously outrageous. Still, we should kill her.”
“There are, inevitably, ponies who know of the Order,” Granddam said. “Fear keeps most of them silent, but it’s possible one of them talked.”
I remembered that Pinkie Pie was often in the company of Rainbow Dash. My stomach clenched, and I felt sweat bead on my crest.
Granddam leaned back in her seat. “We’ll do nothing yet. Pinkie is close to the librarian, and the librarian has connections in Canterlot. Killing her would be inconvenient right now. What else happened on your trip?”
Mulia pushed herself away from the doorframe and walked in. “I discovered a sophisticated, miniaturized recording device in one of the other bakers’ desserts. I considered that somepony might have planted it there to monitor my movements, so when the train entered a tunnel, I took advantage of the darkness and destroyed it, though I had to destroy the dessert in the process.”
“Did anypony find you out?” Granddam asked.
“Yes. Pinkie did. Fortunately, two bakers took the darkness as an opportunity to devour other entries, so everypony assumed I only ruined Donut Joe’s so-called ‘Donutopia’ to feed my baser appetites.”
Granddam’s mouth twitched in a smile. “It sounds like your trip was a disaster.”
“We made do. We combined four half-eaten desserts into a single entry.”
My stomach churned. “That sounds disgusting.”
“It was rather. Still, we won first prize.”
I snorted. “Ponies have no taste.”
Mulia laughed. “Especially the princess. As I said, you should have seen her.”
“I’ve seen enough of Celestia’s digestive habits,” I answered, tapping a hoof against the pommel of my sword. “Now I’m ready to get a look at her digestive organs.”
Granddam cleared her throat. “This recording device concerns me; I may assign some mules to keep a watch on Donut Joe. But you mentioned a third thing, Mulia.”
“Ah, yes.” Mulia rested a hoof against the hilt of her own weapon. “I of course snooped around the palace while in Canterlot, and I learned that Celestia’s niece, Mi Amore Cadenza, will be getting married in a month.”
Granddam sat forward, placed both her knees on her desk, and leaned her chin on her hooves. “Interesting.”
“It’s the perfect time to strike,” I said. “The palace staff will be distracted. The guardsponies will have their hooves full.”
“Wrong again,” said Granddam. “The Royal Guard will be on full alert.”
I felt a sharp pang of annoyance, but I struggled to suppress it. “Yes,” I said, “they will be, but we can manipulate what they are alert to.”
“Tell me what you have in mind.”
“Let’s openly threaten Canterlot.”
Granddam raised one eyebrow.
“It will be an anonymous threat,” I said, walking to her desk and leaning on it, “untraceable to us, suggesting a large-scale attack from without. By the time the Royal Guard receives the threat, I’ll already be inside.”
Granddam raised her chin and brought her hooves down to the desktop. “So they’ll be on the lookout for infiltration only after it has already occurred.”
“Too busy watching the walls to watch the halls,” Mulia said.
“It’s an interesting suggestion,” said Granddam, “but you still need to develop a surer means of reaching Celestia and killing her.”
“I have an idea for that,” said Mulia.
Angrily, I turned to her, a fetlock wrapped around my sword. She gave me a smug glance and rubbed her hoof against her hilt, an insolent challenge.
I glanced again at Granddam, who glared at me. Seething with rage, I composed my false face and moved my foreleg away from my weapon.
“You know I’ve developed unique methods of assassination,” Mulia said. “Some of them are, I think, ironically appropriate for Princess Celestia. Have you heard of death by chocolate?”
“She should die by steel,” I muttered through clenched teeth.
“She should die, period,” Mulia answered. “We don’t know if a sword can kill her--”
“We don’t know if poison can kill her either.”
“Wrong. We’ve sat with her at tea, and she’s careful with her cup and teapot. She fears poison.”
Granddam nodded. “Tell me your idea, Mulia.”
Mulia cackled. “It’s simple. If the princess wants cake, let’s give her cake. Lots of cake. Enough cake to choke a horse.”
“You want to sneak a poisoned cake into the palace?” I asked.
“Or poison her food. Either way, it’s only a matter of getting through her security undetected. If she collapses dead at the wedding reception--”
“That would be most satisfactory,” said Granddam. “We can pin the murder on the republican movement. Control of the government will fall to Luna, and if she refuses to create a constitution providing for fair taxes and an elected senate, we can consider killing her as well.”
“Granddam,” I said, “all the major officials will be at the reception. Let’s kill Celestia and take the rest of them hostage.”
Granddam scowled. “Your youth partly excuses your brashness, but such a move would require us to reveal ourselves. No. We work from the shadows, as we always have and as we always will.” She glanced to Mulia, glanced to me again, and said, “Mulia, you’re more sensible; I want you to take charge of this mission. The two of you will work together. That is all. Report to me when you have a concrete plan.”
My rage flared and almost overwhelmed me. Of its own accord, my hoof went back to my sword, but I managed to stop myself before I drew. Mulia looked insufferably smug as she watched me fighting openly with my emotions. Granddam merely looked down at her desk, pretending she didn’t notice, though I knew she saw everything.
Struggling to control my voice, I said, “Well, Mulia, shall we go?”
Mulia nodded. “Of course.”
Staring daggers at her back, I followed her out of Granddam’s office.
Mulia and I walked down a narrow passageway toward the room that served for our library. Sensing that we were alone, I took my scabbard from my belt, shoved it against her neck, and slammed her into a wall.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I demanded.
She smiled. “Helping you, you foal.”
“I work alone.”
“This job is too big for you. I was doing this while you were still wetting your diapers, and I can see right through you. Perhaps Granddam’s age is clouding her judgment, or perhaps she simply likes you too much, but I know what you’re really after. I know all about you.”
I leaned forward and glared in her eyes. Still, she kept her easy smile. “I know about you, too, Mulia,” I said. “I know you’re not really a mule.”
Her expression cracked. Her smile wavered. “Get your hooves off me unless you want to lose them.”
I pressed my luck. “You’re a hinny, aren’t you?”
Her lips spread, exposing clenched teeth.
“The Power isn’t as strong in hinnies as in mules. Isn’t that why you need all your poisons and deadly foods?”
“I’ve more than enough Power for you,” she said.
A sharp pain in my abdomen doubled me over. Mulia had kicked me. I dropped the scabbard and returned the favor. She grabbed me and swung me into a wall, and the hard stone crunched against my ribs. I used the momentum to swing her into the wall opposite. She came at me with a low, sliding kick, so I jumped into the air, flipped, landed behind her, and aimed a double back-kick toward her head, but she twisted around, slid under me, and landed a series of thudding strikes on my barrel, touching sixty-two different pressure points in less than a second. While my hind legs were still in the air, she knocked my front hooves out from under me, rolled to the side, and came to her feet. When I collapsed to the ground, she held a hoof against my left shoulder.
I lost my composure. “Don’t!” I yelled.
“I take it you’re familiar with this maneuver?”
I was. Her hoof was hovering over the final pressure point of the complex series she had just executed. If she touched it, it would produce a cascade failure of all my major organs.
She lifted her hoof from my shoulder and planted it against the back of my neck, slamming my face to the ground. “How about this one, hmm? With one twist, I can shatter your entire spine.”
I could taste acid in the back of my throat. I swallowed my anger and embarrassment. My lips were mashed against the rough stone floor, and I felt them scrape raw as I spoke. “I yield. What are you after, Mulia?”
Still clutching the back of my head, she turned my face toward hers and planted a fierce kiss on my mouth. I didn’t respond, but I didn’t pull away, either: she was my senior in the Order, and she had certain privileges.
She released me and backed away. I could see some of my own blood on her lips. “Yes,” she said, breathing hard, “I’m a hinny. My sire was a Manehatten stallion. He thought he could have his way with my dam because she was only a donkey. The pony police wouldn’t do anything about it, so he got away and my dam had to carry both his child and her own shame.”
Her smile was gone now. In her eyes, I saw intense anguish. “After the Order inducted me, I tracked my sire down, and do you know what I did to him?”
“Mules do not take personal revenge on anypony,” I said.
She threw her head back and brayed with laughter. “But you just said I wasn’t a real mule, didn’t you? Oh, you stupid foal. No wonder Granddam likes you--you parrot all her little platitudes. I’ll tell you what I did to him: I cut a slit in his belly, slowly unraveled his intestines, and wrapped them around a spool. He impressed me by living afterwards for a full three days.”
I grunted. She was trying to shock me, but she failed. Had I been in her position, I would have done the same thing. Wiping blood from my muzzle, I rose to my hooves and struck a series of pressure points on my body to neutralize Mulia’s uncompleted killing strike. Then I struck a few more to deaden pain. Her lips curled into a sneer.
“Don’t do that too often,” she said. “When you truly learn to be a hybrid, pain will only sharpen your mind. You’ll hunger for it as you hunger for hay. To be a hybrid is to live with pain.”
“I don’t need your advice, Mulia.”
She snorted. “Maybe not, but you do need my help. I forgot to mention that, while I was in Canterlot, I drugged a guard and acquired the castle’s latest security plans.”
I nodded. She had beaten me. I felt profound irritation as I watched the smug smile return to her face.
In the library, we pored over diagrams of the royal castle, which mules had smuggled out of Canterlot over a hundred years before. Covering them were red annotations marking additions, alterations, and corrections. Mulia leafed through her set of stolen documents and added annotations of her own.
“Celestia’s private chambers are called the ‘Golden Palace,’” Mulia said. “They cover a full quarter of the northern wing. They earned the name from the gilded ribbed ceilings painted with elaborate quadratura.”
“Spare me the details,” I answered.
“The devil’s in them, you know. The Golden Palace hangs over the edge of Canterlot Cliff, held up by heavy cantilevers. It has only three entrances, all of them guarded by pegasi and extensive magical wards.”
“You’re forgetting the windows, each three feet across and only twenty feet above the floor. That’s no problem for us. We can jump onto the Golden Palace from the astronomy tower, slip in through a window, and make the kill.”
“The jump’s certainly possible, but it’s a little far.”
“We could fire a zip line if you think we need to, but I like to keep things simple.”
“There’s another problem--she almost certainly has wards on the windows as well.”
“Then we just need an amp-horn with a pre-loaded neutralizer.”
Mulia shook her head. “If we were dealing with an ordinary unicorn, that would work, but this is Celestia, and that changes all the rules.”
“You don’t think any other unicorn could break one of her security spells.”
“I wouldn’t count on it. If we’re going to do this, we have to avoid dealing with her magic.”
I sat back and crossed my forelimbs over my chest. “I prefer to be direct.”
“Then you’ll get yourself killed.” She reached out a hoof and stroked my mane.
I pushed her away; she was my senior in the Order, but her privileges only went so far. “I also prefer not to mix business with pleasure.”
She laughed. “Forget the Golden Palace: what we really need to break into is the kitchen.”
I glared, saying nothing.
“Listen,” she said, “all the food for the wedding reception will be prepared in the castle’s kitchen. The portions will be served at random to the guests--”
“Exactly,” I said. “So you can’t poison Celestia without poisoning everypony.”
“Not true. Few ponies know that Celestia has her own portions prepared in a private and supposedly secret kitchen, so if anypony ever tried to use poison at an event--”
I nodded. “She would actually be the only pony who wasn’t poisoned.”
“Precisely. But the care she takes with her food makes her more vulnerable to us.”
“Isn’t this kitchen warded like the Golden Palace?”
“Of course not. Other ponies have to get in and out, so, with a little work, we can acquire the proper spell for an amp-horn.”
“Acquire it from whom?”
“Probably her chief of security, Captain Shining Armor.”
I chewed my lower lip as I gazed down at the plans. Acquiring a spell for an amp-horn was not difficult; the amp-horn itself was a horn gouged from the skull of a living unicorn and attached to a receptacle. If another unicorn fired a spell into the receptacle, the amp-horn would absorb it, and we could then release the spell in another location. A high-level member of the Royal Guard like Shining Armor would never willingly perform a security spell for us, of course, but we had certain chemical concoctions that could persuade even the most recalcitrant ponies.
My hopes of meeting Celestia face-to-face were slipping away, but I still saw a chance of killing her in a way that would satisfy me, even if it was not precisely what I wanted. “We’re not thinking big enough, Mulia. The windows and doors of the Golden Palace may be warded, but there’s still a vulnerability.”
I slapped a hoof down on the table. “The cantilevers. With enough explosives, we can send the entire Golden Palace crashing down the Canterlot Cliffs with Celestia inside.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Amusing, but hardly foolproof. She can fly, you know, and teleport. Besides, we’d have to sneak hundreds of pounds of dynamite into the city.”
My anger bubbled up again, but I pressed it back down. “How about this? We drill a hole in the wall, we inject knockout gas while she’s in bed, and then we set off detcord right under the bed, blowing open the floor and dropping her down the cliff face.”
Mulia looked disgusted. “You’re bold, but too crude. Didn’t Granddam teach you any refinement?”
I could feel my right front hoof creeping toward my hilt again, so I clutched it in a fetlock to hold it still. Around clenched teeth, I said, “Then let’s do this--let’s plant the detcord at the Golden Palace first as a backup plan in case the poison we put in her food is ineffective.”
“That more than doubles our chances of being detected.”
“It also doubles our chances of killing Celestia.”
She sighed and shook her head. “Very well. I’ll compromise with you on this. Now here’s another question: how are we sneaking undetected into Canterlot, the city perched on a cliff a full mile above the valley floor, unapproachable except by a narrow passageway?”
I smiled. “For that, you need my bold, crude thinking.”
We spent most of the following month in preparation, training, study, and simulation. When the wedding was less than a week away, Mulia and I were ready to assassinate Princess Celestia.
Because of the poisons and explosives we had to carry, taking the train to Canterlot was out of the question, since there was always the chance of being searched by a guard. Besides, Celestia undoubtedly received reports of any mules who entered the city. We had briefly considered scaling the mile-high cliff behind the Canterlot Falls, but the cliff was infested with quarray eels. Although we were more than capable of killing such monsters, it would have been difficult to fight them while clinging to a vertical rock face and carrying our equipment, at least if we wished to escape attention. We chose to enter the city from the air instead.
To do that undetected, we had to steal a weather balloon.
Cloudsdale’s pegasi managed all of Equestria’s weather, generating clouds and sending them out across the country. Local weather teams used those clouds as the raw material to create storms and deliver rain or snow. However, even pegasi could not fly above the troposphere unaided, so every weather station maintained high-altitude balloons, which ponies used both for scientific research and as a means of manipulating the stratosphere to ensure that wild weather from the surrounding world did not encroach on Equestria’s orderly patterns.
If we flew an ordinary hot-air balloon or dirigible over Canterlot, even in the dark, the Royal Guard’s night patrol or the airship dock’s observation tower would almost certainly see it, but if we used a weather balloon, we could fly high enough to go unnoticed.
Firefly Memorial Weather Control Station stood on the outskirts of Ponyville near Rainbow Dash’s floating house. After the sun dipped below the horizon and the sky darkened, Mulia and I leapt the high cyclone fence and, keeping to the shadows, sprinted in a low crouch toward the weather station’s hangar.
The station had only one night watchpony. He was an earth pony, which meant that, aside from a certain physical robustness, he had no special traits that could frustrate a mulish assault. Having memorized his nightly routine through two weeks of covert observation, I flattened myself against a corner of the hangar and waited for him to walk by on his rounds.
The watchpony shuffled around the corner, a pair of headphones over his ears and a flashlight in his mouth. He didn’t see me. I leapt behind him, reached out, and touched a nerve in his neck, dropping him to the grass. As he fell, I tapped several pressure points to leave him paralyzed for three hours. He would never know what hit him.
While I dealt with the guard, Mulia found a fuse box and disabled the hangar’s simple alarm system. Then I picked the lock on the hangar’s maintenance door, and we walked inside.
Muted, blue-tinged moonlight angled into the vast hangar through greasy skylights mounted in a wide trapdoor in the roof. Dust motes danced in the beams. The frame of a half-completed dirigible hung in the gloom like the skeleton of some prehistoric monster, and beside it squatted a truck trailer holding a long hydrogen tank. Somewhere in the darkness, water, perhaps from a leaky condenser, dripped steadily against the concrete floor with a rhythmic slap.
My heart drummed hard in my ears, and a delicious thrill of fear ran down my spine, sharpening my senses. This was something new, something that would test my skills to the utmost. We were about to do something that, as far as I knew, nopony had ever tried before: a few daredevil pegasi had jumped from high-altitude balloons, but no non-fliers had ever done it, and nopony had ever jumped over a city in the dead of night.
After a quick search, we found a locker containing pressure suits. Most were too small for us, but some were designed for large stallions, and they could fit mules, albeit with a great deal of discomfort. It took us almost an hour to get dressed. Over my suit, I cinched on a pair of saddlebags containing tools, explosives, and a canister of sleeping gas, as well as a vial of an exotic chemical called hypno-serum, an invention of the zebras. Mulia put on a saddlebag containing a set of exotic poisons, an amp-horn, and her own vial of serum. We both wore our swords strapped to our belts.
The weather balloon’s gleaming white gondola, shaped like a giant teardrop, sat in the middle of the hangar beneath the trapdoor. The balloon itself lay nearby.
I found the crank to open the roof. It creaked as I turned it, and blue light poured in, illuminating the hangar’s vast but dingy interior.
Mulia walked around the gondola and peered through its thick, rubber-lined door. “We can’t pressurize it,” she said. “Not if we’re going to control the direction the balloon moves.”
“That means we have to rely entirely on the air in the suits,” I answered. “If we take all the oxygen cylinders from the locker, we should have enough.”
I hooked up a hose between the hydrogen tank and the balloon. As the balloon filled, Mulia and I squeezed into the gondola’s cramped passenger compartment, checked our oxygen cylinders, double-checked our parachutes, donned night vision goggles, and clamped on our helmets.
The balloon elongated, stretching up into the night sky, and the gondola lifted. It rose until its tethering ropes went taut. I climbed out onto the side of the gondola, shimmied up a load cable to the balloon, clamped the intake valve closed, and dropped the hose. Then I unsheathed my sword, dropped back onto the gondola, and cut away the tethers. We shot into the air and my stomach dropped into my rear hooves.
We had monitored the weather schedule for both Ponyville and Canterlot in order to choose a cloudless, windless night. With barely a breeze to alter our course, we rose almost straight up.
Carefully, I climbed back into the gondola’s interior and watched out the open door. The night was deathly silent; all I could hear was my own pounding heartbeat. Several minutes passed, and the ground below us receded into a mass of darkness punctuated by the twinkling lights of towns. Canterlot, in the distance, showed up in my goggles as a faint outline. We quickly rose past it, but I followed it with my eyes, afraid to lose it in the haze.
The helmet of the pressure suit had a built-in clock and altimeter, each with a glowing dial. Tensely and silently, I watched them for almost two hours, regularly changing out my spent oxygen cylinders.
I flicked on the suit’s radio with my tongue. “We’re high enough. Can you use your Power to move us over Canterlot?”
“Of course,” Mulia answered. Like many of the most experienced hybrid assassins, she could concentrate her Power into her hooves and project it in blasts of energy. She squeezed past me, leaned out the gondola’s open door, and moved her forelegs through a set of forms designed to heighten the energy flowing through her body.
She made the same moves several times, but nothing happened.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
Her voice, though rendered tinny by the radio, sounded frustrated. “I can’t produce a force blast. I think the pressure suit’s preventing it.”
I felt a knot of tension form in my stomach. I looked again toward the dark mass of the land below. I could see the rim of the world as a fuzzy, curved green band in my goggles. We were in the stratosphere now; the longer we waited, the higher we would climb. The balloon overhead had already expanded to almost four times the size it had near the ground, and, eventually, it would burst.
“I’m going to open my suit,” Mulia said.
“What?” The radio crackled as I yelled into it. “You can’t breathe, and it’s almost a hundred degrees below zero. If you open your suit--”
“I can hold my breath, and my Power can warm my body. With just a few seconds, I can produce a force blast that will be enough to send us sailing toward Canterlot.”
Before we undertook the mission, I had read about high-altitude weather balloon accidents, some involving decompression. “Listen, Mulia. An earth pony can go about fifteen seconds in vacuum before losing consciousness. A pegasus can go two minutes. Let’s suppose a hybrid can last twice that. You still can’t get your suit opened and closed in four minutes.”
“Not the whole suit,” Mulia answered. “Just the forelegs. They detach.”
“Only if you take off the parachute and oxygen harness.”
“Fine. Then I’ll take them off.”
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes for a moment. It occurred to me that, if Mulia died, it would solve one of my problems. “All right. Hyperventilate first, and then exhale before taking off the suit. Holding your breath will damage your lungs. And you’ve a good chance of getting a bad case of the bends.”
Through the green haze of my night vision goggles, I could faintly make out her grin inside her helmet. “Pain only sharpens the mind of a true hybrid.”
“You’re about to get one hay of a sharp mind.”
“Enough talk. Let’s do this.”
Mulia sucked in air and blew it out until her helmet fogged. Then she unstrapped her saddlebags and parachute, yanked the oxygen hose from the plug on her barrel, and unbuckled the harness holding her oxygen cylinders. I grabbed the catches on her left sleeve and yanked them. A blast of air blew out and Mulia’s suit deflated like a popped balloon.
After I pulled the sleeve off her left foreleg, I went to the right and opened it as well. Mulia’s legs bloated hideously, and in her helmet, I could see her face puffing.
She reared onto her hind legs and slid her forelimbs through the motions to heighten her Power. Then she thrust her hooves out the gondola’s open door.
From her hooves erupted a burst of white light. Mulia used her Power to hold steady and prevent herself from flying backwards, but the balloon rocketed to the southeast toward Canterlot.
She held the blast as long as she could as her swollen face contorted with pain. She wavered. Her forelegs slowly lowered. At last, she sank to her hocks and collapsed sideways in a heap.
I gazed down at her unconscious form for a few seconds and contemplated. It would be the easiest thing to leave her there and let her die. I remembered how she had scoffed at me, how she had embarrassed me, how she had upstaged me in front of Granddam. My anger boiled up again, and I made a decision.
Watching her die of asphyxiation would not satisfy me. When she died, I wanted her to look me in the eyes.
I forced the sleeves of her suit back over her legs and sealed them shut. Then I buckled the oxygen harness around her shoulders and plugged in a fresh cylinder. The suit expanded, and it took Mulia only a few seconds to regain consciousness.
She rolled over and looked up at me. Her smile appeared strained. “Piece of cake,” she said.
I glanced out the door. “Friction with the air is minimal at this height, so we’re still moving. We’ll be close enough to jump soon, so get your gear back on.”
Staggering a little, Mulia fumbled with her saddlebags and parachute. Once she had donned them, I double-checked to make sure she had them on right.
The time came, and I jumped first. The air was so rarefied that it didn’t even rustle my suit or bags. Except for the faint lights below me, the waxing moon overhead, and the hazy curve of the world’s rim, all was black. A great void enveloped me. I could not even sense the terrible speed at which I plummeted: so thin was the air and so long the descent, I would come close to producing a sonic rainboom before friction would arrest my acceleration.
After several seconds of free-fall, I raised my head and saw a flash of green in my night vision goggles. Something bit into my left shoulder, tore the fabric of my suit, and sliced my skin. Blood streamed out, my suit deflated, and the air ripped away from my lungs.
With my right foreleg, I grabbed my sword and pulled it from my scabbard. Mulia was falling beside me, her sword raised over her head.
I blocked as she attempted a second blow, but my movement was sluggish due to the pressure suit, the blood loss, and my own flesh, which began to bloat from decompression. Gray spots floated into the edges of my vision.
Enough air remained in my helmet for me to hear Mulia as she cackled over the radio, though her voice sounded faint and thin. “Say goodnight, foal! From here, I go it alone!” Then I felt the saliva in my mouth boil as my helmet depressurized, and everything went silent. Mulia brought her sword down hard against my helmet, sending me into a spin.
Turning head-over-hooves at almost the speed of sound, having no air, and rapidly losing blood, I should have fallen unconscious, but Mulia’s betrayal enraged me as nothing else ever had. I felt the Power burning in my heart like a bright ember; I stoked it, and, within a moment, it had filled my body with its fire. My left foreleg was feeble, but I could still move it. I kept my grip on my sword with my right front fetlock and arched my back, holding my legs even. It took almost three minutes, but I at last regained control and the spinning stopped.
The fabric of my torn suit began to whip in the wind and the stream of blood from my foreleg slowed. The atmosphere was getting thicker. Soon, I would be able to breathe.
Mulia banked toward me from my left. Ducking my chin, I turned head-downward and dove below her. Then I flipped over onto my back, spread my limbs to slow my descent, and aimed my sword for her belly. She parried and replied with a slice toward my neck. I blocked and then angled my body, turning sideways in the air. Making an arc, I allowed her to fall past me, and then I struck downward toward her withers.
I missed, but my sword tore her saddlebag. A heavy cylinder of steel fell from it and spun away.
That was the amp-horn. I pointed my head and front hooves and dove for it. On my radio, I faintly heard Mulia snarl in frustration as she followed close behind.
Even with my night vision goggles, I could barely see the amp-horn tumbling out in front of me, a faint green streak. It was hard to judge distance, and my body was rapidly weakening, but I called on my last reserves of Power. Sheathing my sword, I reached out with my right hoof, grabbed the amp-horn, and hugged it to my chest.
Pleased with myself, I took a deep breath, and that’s when I realized I could breathe again, though the air was thin and very cold. It stung my lungs like needles.
I banked and turned, only to find Mulia speeding toward me, so I raised my head, flipped over backwards to get out of the range of her sword, and pulled the cord to open my chute. The flaps on my harness gaped, releasing the parachute bag. One after another, rubber bands snapped off and the lines holding the chute snaked out. The parachute whipped open, and the harness tugged hard at my undersides as the chute caught air, slowing my descent while Mulia continued plummeting toward the ground at full speed.
Taking gulps of the thin air, I looked down and tried to assess my location. I had dropped farther than I had thought. Canterlot, gleaming through the dark, was far to my left. While fighting each other in midair, Mulia and I had neglected to direct our descent toward the city.
Mulia opened her chute and banked hard for Canterlot. I pulled my steering toggles down and attempted to follow after, but an unexpected gust caught me and, unpracticed in the art of skydiving, I drifted away.
I tried to fight the wind, but I failed miserably. Each muddled attempt only made me angrier, and my anger led to more mistakes. Canterlot’s high spires, appearing as sickly green spikes in my night vision goggles, slid past my eyes. I glimpsed Mulia as she made a hard landing on the end of an airship pier, but I continued dropping toward the rocky base of the mountain.
The Canterlot Falls tumbled into a broad lake, the outlet of which was the river that meandered through Ponyville. I glided down to the surface of the lake and skimmed across it with my rear hooves before I finally made a graceless, noisy, and inexpert landing, tumbling into the brush on the shore.
I was so weak I could barely stand. I fumbled until I managed to pull the helmet off my head. The night air was fresh and smelled of lilacs. Taking deep gulps, I yanked off the rest of the pressure suit and assessed my situation.
I had five days until the wedding in Canterlot, but Canterlot was now a mile above me. I had lost a great deal of blood, and my left foreleg was nearly useless. My equipment, however, was intact, and though Mulia was now in Canterlot, she no longer had the amp-horn she would need to carry out her plan.
That meant that Mulia needed to find me--but I intended to find her first. As far as I was concerned, I now had two targets to kill on this mission.
by D. G. D. Davidson
Chapter 3: The Underworld
As the night wore on and dawn approached, I sat down by the bank of the lake and meditated. Spray from the waterfall settled in my coat, but I ignored it. I had never been particularly skilled at the spiritual side of the mulish arts, but I knew I had to gather my energies if I was to climb the cliff to Canterlot.
I began by focusing on my breathing. As distracting thoughts entered my mind, I noted and dismissed them. I lost track of time, and I lost even the sense of water sprinkling me and chilling my skin. Though it frightened me to do so, I even let go of my rage, the emotion on which I depended for my strength. Nothing remained to me besides interior darkness.
Hovering in a void, I could see my Power like an unidentifiable color floating in gray mist. By refusing to exert my will, practicing total passivity, I soaked up energy from the surrounding world. Taking in life from the flowers at my hooves and from the ripples in the lake, my Power grew. As I meditated, the energy gateways along my spine opened, allowing the Power to flow freely through the mystical path between my dock and the top of my head. I directed it to knit the torn flesh in my left foreleg, to rejuvenate the taxed muscles throughout my body, and to prepare me for the hard task ahead. As I concentrated, anger at Mulia, Celestia, and the ponies resurfaced many times in my thoughts, and my Power faltered. Each time, I dismissed the anger and allowed it to dissolve, much as I longed to cling to it.
When I at last opened my eyes and came back to myself, the sun was already up. I was refreshed, as if I had slept for a whole night. The wound on my left forelimb was still sore, but I could move the leg freely. I rose, cinched on my saddlebags, buckled my sword belt, and allowed anger to return to its accustomed place within me. I used these meditations as I needed them, but I never let them bring true peace to my heart; those mules who dove too freely into the spiritual side of our mystical art became hermits or mendicants, but they were useless as assassins.
Once I was ready, I walked around the lake to the waterfalls. The spray and the roar grew more intense as I drew closer until they became like a wall through which I had to push with teeth clenched and eyes half-shut. Struggling through dense underbrush, I found a narrow, slick ledge that ran behind the falls. Nearly choking on the stinging water flying through the air, I gazed up at the dark, glistening rocks. The cliff face was almost sheer. High overhead, Canterlot looked like a crisscrossing maze of beams and struts: from above, the city looked like a beautiful, many-towered castle of spun sugar, but its underbelly was an ugly, interlaced mass of concrete and steel.
I slipped my climbing claws onto my front hooves. Had I intended to enter Canterlot from below, I would have brought ropes, cams, bolts, and hangers, but now I would have to climb the cliff entirely by hoof.
Raising my Power, I leapt thirty feet into the air and grabbed a small hoofhold. Resisting the temptation to look down, I examined the cliff face above me, attempting to plan my ascent, but a bulge in the rock blocked my sight. I pressed my front hooves into a long, narrow crack and inched my way up, my rear hooves dangling in the air.
When I crested the bulge, a large, round cave opening came into view. I grabbed its lip and hauled myself up.
Standing in the cave’s mouth, I peered into its depth. Shadows prevented me from seeing more than a few feet, but I noted that the walls of the cave were strangely smooth, as if something rough had passed across them many times over several years.
A rush of fetid air enveloped me. Instinctively, I leapt straight up, slipped the climbing claw off my right hoof, and grabbed my sword. Below me, an enormous, red, slick, reptilian head whipped out of the cave and snapped at the air where I had been a moment before.
I dropped onto the quarray eel and slammed my blade deep into the base of its skull, right between two of its cervical vertebrae. With a quick twist of the blade and a loud crunch, I split the vertebrae apart and severed its spinal cord. The monster went limp and its head slumped; I quickly dug my left climbing claw into its scales to prevent myself from slipping back into the lake below.
I looked down. Thick blood ran from the eel and turned one of the waterfalls pink.
Climbing up the creature’s exposed neck, I again tackled the rock face. I could now see several black openings in the cliff, each of them the likely home of another eel. I tried to trace a potential path around them. To keep away from the openings, I would have to make several dangerous zigzags.
As I considered my ascent, a translucent violet sphere appeared high above and encompassed all of Canterlot. Shortly thereafter, a faint buzz struck my ears, suggesting a massive discharge of magical energy. The sphere looked like a force field; apparently, believing Mulia and me to be inside, the Order had issued its threat, and the city had responded. Climbing directly into Canterlot was now impossible: the railway and the airship docks would be the only entry points, and both would be carefully watched.
I turned my gaze to the west. Barely visible in the early morning haze, the high bridge for the Canterlot Express spanned a deep ravine between Hackamore Ridge, the boulder-strewn mountain south of Ponyville, and Mount Eohippus, where Canterlot perched.
I had memorized the Friendship Express’s timetables. Although the train rarely ran on time, I had two hours before it was due.
About a hundred feet above me, a narrow ledge led west. From where I perched, I couldn’t tell if it would take me all the way to the bridge, but it could certainly bring me closer. The ledge was at most half a foot across and appeared to be made up largely of crumbly stone. Several black cave mouths opened in the cliff face directly above it.
Digging my hooves into every pit or nook I could find, I made my way to the ledge, hauled myself onto it, put away my climbing claws, and pulled my sword again.
Because of the curve in the cliff face, I could see no more than ten feet ahead. In several places, the ledge looked ready to crack away from the cliff; in some, it already had. Nonetheless, I had little doubt that I could traverse it: a trained mule could balance even on a twig or a blade of grass.
However, my recently healed wounds and my time in meditation had taxed me. I tried to intensify my anger and raise my Power, but I found both muted. A sense of unreality hung over me, yet, paradoxically, my body had grown heavy.
I stepped forward, and my right foot immediately slipped as the stone beneath me crumbled. I fell onto my left hock and almost tipped sideways into the abyss.
Focusing, I raised myself onto my rear left hoof and lifted my sword over my head. Pushing off with one foot, I leapt forward, at the same time swinging my sword in a wide arc until I alighted on the ledge again, this time with my right hind foot.
I had almost reached the first of the caves, inside of which, no doubt, another quarray eel awaited me. I had no wish to waste my time slaying several of the monsters, so I took a deep breath, raised as much Power as I could, and began to run. I cycled my hind legs, allowing only the toes of my rear hooves to touch the ledge, and held my sword at the ready. The ledge crumbled under me again, but now I was moving too lightly and quickly to fall.
I sprinted past the first cave entrance. As I had expected, a quarray eel’s head shot out and tried to grab me, but it was too slow. The next eel was faster, but I leapt, whirled in the air, and landed on the other side of it, maintaining my pace.
The effort was exhausting, but I pressed on, forcing my Power to keep my body light.
I dodged several more eels in this manner, ducking, leaping, and sprinting. When I had passed sixteen of them, the ledge came to an abrupt end, dwindling until it was only an inch across. Beyond it, the cliff became smooth and slightly concave, no doubt from when a large chunk of the mountainside fell away into the valley in ages past. The smooth face was about five hundred yards across, and it ended at a large dome-shaped boulder, just beyond which was the crisscrossing lattice supporting the railway bridge.
I sheathed my sword, dropped to all fours, and considered my remaining Power.
I had a small chance.
I galloped at top speed straight for the cliff. Using my Power, I ran onto the cliff itself and kept running.
After about three hundred yards, I realized I had overestimated my strength. Though still moving forward, I began sliding. I tried to change my angle, aiming slightly downward so I was in less danger of falling, but my front hooves started to slip. Desperate, I kicked against the cliff with my hind legs and shot forward, letting a combination of gravity and momentum carry me the final two hundred yards.
I crashed hard into the side of the dome-shaped boulder. The impact was almost enough to knock me out, but I forced myself to remain conscious. Scrabbling for a hoofhold with my left front hoof, I reached my right back into my pack and fumbled desperately for my climbing claws.
Just as I began to slide, I found them. I forced my right hoof into one set and then slapped it against the boulder, finding a crack and arresting my descent.
Although I knew I was visible from the city, I lay against the boulder’s side, breathing hard for a full minute as pain coursed through my barrel. I had bruised my ribs, but I was otherwise unharmed.
I climbed around to the west side of the boulder to get out of the city’s view. At last, I reached the bridge itself, and it was a simple matter to climb its supports. Once I did, I slipped across the bridge to Hackamore Ridge. There, the train track ran through a lush, flower-strewn meadow, fed by a waterfall, nestled in a high pass. The fall emptied into a meandering river that ran under a low bridge of pink sandstone. I lowered myself into the river, drank, and waited.
Only a few minutes late, the Friendship Express chugged its way into the meadow. I climbed onto the underside of the bridge, which shook and rattled, threatening to dislodge me, as the train sped by overhead.
Just as the train passed, I leapt up and grabbed the rail on the rear platform of the caboose. I slipped down to the undercarriage and clung to the frame.
The train soon made its way onto Eohippus, at last reaching Canterlot. An unpleasantly sharp tingle of energy ran down the length of my body me as I passed through the force field.
The brake pistons hissed and the train at last pulled into the station. I climbed stealthily forward through the closely packed metal maze of the undercarriage, eager to avoid the gaze of any guards who might check beneath the train. Above me, I heard commotion on the platform.
“Whoa! What’s with all the guards?” somepony yelled.
I recognized that voice. It was Rainbow Dash’s. I had no idea why Ponyville’s weather manager was in Canterlot, but at least her outburst had alerted me that the boarding platform was watched.
“I’m sure they’re just taking the necessary precautions,” somepony else said. “Royal weddings do bring out the strangest ponies.” I couldn’t immediately place that voice. It sounded pretentious, as if its owner was faking more education than she actually possessed.
After that, I heard what sounded like an explosive sneeze, and then the pretentious voice added, “Now let’s get going. We’ve got work to do.”
Hooves thudded on the platform as the ponies disembarked from the train.
Another pony spoke, and I recognized the voice as Applejack’s. “And you’ve got a big brother to go congratulate.”
“Yeah, congratulate,” said another voice, this one the librarian’s. She sounded as if she was walking away, but I could still faintly make out the words, “And then give him a piece of my mind.”
After that, several sets of hooves walked across the platform and faded.
I considered for a moment. I couldn’t be certain, but if the conversation I had just overheard had anything to do with the upcoming wedding, then a few ponies from Ponyville were directly involved in the preparations. I mentally filed that information away for later use in case I needed it.
Fortunately for me, the guards were lax; they did not check the undercarriages of the train cars. After the passengers disembarked, the train began moving again. Canterlot was the end of the Friendship Express line, which had only one track: the train would travel to a roundhouse, turn, and head back down into the valley. It would be easy for me to slip away unnoticed in the train yard.
A pony who approached Canterlot by train or ship would get the impression that the city had only a tenuous hold on the cliff where it perched. Its base appeared to consist of a series of rounded concrete slabs hundreds of feet thick, but those slabs were small and unremarkable compared to the graceful, gold-topped marble towers stretching above them.
In fact, the concrete slabs at Canterlot’s base held up very little of the city’s weight. They merely hid from view the enormous, interlacing lattice of steel beams and struts that actually supported the city.
The support beams formed a sort of basement to Canterlot. Naturally protected from the elements by the tons of stone above, this basement was a refuge for the homeless, the criminals, the mentally ill, and the addicts. It contained Canterlot’s living refuse, particularly those who could not train themselves to moderation in the partaking of sassafras root, which had a euphoric effect on ponies. Every year, hundreds of wastrels--deranged, drunken, or murdered--tumbled from their perches amongst the beams and fell to their deaths, crashing into the lake a mile below. None of the opulent unicorns living above them ever noticed.
Walking down an I-beam twenty feet across, squinting into the dimness, I came upon a hunched old mare. From the track marks on the insides of her knees, I could tell she shot up crystal sass, a drug made from concentrated sassafras extract. Sitting on her haunches, she looked up at me with glazed eyes, her unfocused gaze staring past my head and into the distance. Around her, half-hidden in shadows or under piles of rubbish, other ponies swigged from sarsaparilla bottles in brown paper bags or chewed on sassafras bark.
I looked around until I found a derelict earth pony who appeared halfway self-aware, and I kicked him in the flank. He snarled at me and stuck his bottle in his lips like a peevish baby taking a pacifier. “Cover you, half-ass,” he mumbled.
“I want to see Enrico,” I said.
“Maybe Enrico don’t wanna see you.”
I nodded and turned away, saying casually over my shoulder, “You ever see an earth pony fly?”
“Me neither.” I whipped around, wrapped his tail in a fetlock, hauled him off the girder, and dangled him in midair.
He screamed and flailed. “Oh, Celestia! Put me down! Put me down! Please! Oh, covering Celestia! Put me down!”
“Put you down, eh?” I let a few inches of his tail slide through my grip.
“No! No! Sweet Celestia in her palace! What do you want?”
“I told you: I want Enrico. You know him?”
The earth pony breathed hard, sounding as if he might pass out. He stopped flailing. “Yeah. Yeah, I know him. But he don’t like to see just anypony. He picky, you know?”
“He’ll see me. Take me to him.”
I flung the earth pony back onto the girder. After he staggered to his hooves, he walked away and I followed. He looked behind himself frequently to give me sullen glares.
We traversed the interlocking maze of girders and cantilevers until we came upon a small shack pieced together out of mismatched bits of wood and corrugated metal. I tossed a bit to the earth pony, pushed open the door, and walked inside.
Two heavyset pegasi inside the door immediately pointed foreleg-mounted crossbows at my head, but I ignored them; they had little chance of touching me with such weapons. Before me, his cloven hooves propped on a desk, sat a mangy satyr with a large cigar in his mouth. This was Enrico, one of the biggest drug lords in the city, responsible for supplying crystal sass to half of Canterlot’s junkies. He was roughly caressing a purple earth pony mare seated on his lap.
Enrico yanked the cigar from his mouth and waved it at me. “Hay, who the cover are you? Can’t you see I’m busy?”
“I’m here on behalf of Granddam,” I said.
Plainly annoyed, he slapped the mare on the rump. She slid from his lap, looking relieved. Enrico dropped his hooves to the ground, leaned forward, and stubbed out his cigar in a grimy ashtray. “Tell your half-breed nag I’m tired of doing favors.”
“My request is simple, and you’ll be adequately compensated.”
“What is it? Make it quick, half-ass.”
“In a few days’ time, I’m going to take care of some business down here. I know the guardsponies who occasionally patrol the basement are in your pay, and I want you to guarantee that they will look the other way, or perhaps take a little nap, while I’m at work.”
Leaning on his desk, Enrico tapped his fingers together. “And what do I get in return?”
“The continuing gratitude of Granddam, the Order, and myself.”
A sarcastic grin spread across his face, revealing a gold tooth. “This gratitude you speak of, she don’t pay the bills, you know?” He reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of distilled sassafras liquor. Pouring into a shot glass, he continued, “I respond amiably to three things, mule: bits, sass, and fillies.” He dropped the bottle back into the drawer and, grimacing, downed the shot. Waving the empty glass at me, he added, “Unless you got one of those, you can get the cover out.”
“If you do as I ask, five thousand unmarked bits will appear in two weeks’ time in the usual location.”
“Why should I trust you?”
“I give you my word as a mule. When I say I’m going to pay somepony, I pay him.”
I kicked the right foreleg of the pegasus to my left, directing his crossbow toward his companion. The bow fired and the bolt buried itself in the pony’s right shoulder, dropping him. As he went down, I broke the first pegasus pony’s right knee and then gave him a headbutt to the face. After that, I pulled a shuriken and threw it; it shattered the shot glass in Enrico’s hand and stuck to his desktop.
“And when I say I’m going to kill somepony, I kill him.” I walked toward Enrico, reared, and planted my front hooves on his desk. “So, do we have a deal?”
Enrico lowered his hands to his lap and leaned toward me, shaking his head. “That’s the problem with you mules: you’re too busy showing off to notice the obvious.” From under his desk, I heard a loud click.
I leapt into the air just as the front of the desk evaporated in a deafening explosion. Spinning, I landed behind Enrico, lay the edge of my blade against his throat, and pulled his right hand away from the hidden device he’d just triggered to fire the blast.
Dust and chips of wood floated down around me and settled in my coat. “Your last card’s played, Enrico. Are you going to cooperate or am I going to add a new notch to my hilt?”
“We’re not quite done,” he answered.
I looked down to see the purple pony wench clenching a stiletto in her teeth and holding it to my ribs.
“Looks like we got an Appleloosan standoff, mule,” said Enrico, “so how about you put the toy away and we negotiate like gentlecolts?”
I slapped the stiletto out of the mare’s mouth and cuffed her across the muzzle, sending her to the floor. At the same time, I spun my sword in my right fetlock, knocked the pommel against the back of Enrico’s head, and slammed his face into the top of his desk. Grabbing his hair, I yanked his head back and placed my blade against his neck again.
Enrico gave an exasperated sigh and then, to my surprise, twisted the sword from my grip, reached an arm under my barrel, and tossed me onto the desk, which collapsed under me.
“Stupid mule!” He slapped me in the face several times with the flat of my own blade. “What are you, some kind of idiot? Is Granddam training morons these days? Stupid, stupid!” He threw the sword across the room in disgust and wiggled his fingers at me. “You see these? I got hands, you brain-dead half-ass! And I’m a satyr, not one of your pony weaklings. You do not cover with me, got it?” He kicked me in the head. “That’s for my guards.” He kicked me again. “And that’s for my desk.” He kicked me a third time, harder. “And that’s for hitting my moll.”
Enrico turned to the purple mare, who was sitting on the floor and blubbering. He patted her on the head. “There, there, sweetheart. It’s all right.”
I stood, dusted myself off, and gave Enrico a double rear-kick to the tail, sending him face-first into the floor.
“Enrico,” I said, “I know you’re insensitive to pain, but you’re not as tough as all that.”
He rolled over. “Okay, okay, you got me. But did you have to attack the guards? Good help is hard to find. Fire Watcher there is gonna need stitches.”
I glanced at the pegasi, who writhed on the floor and groaned. “Stop wasting my time, Enrico. Both of us can do this all day.”
Enrico rose to his hooves and patted the dust out of the thick fur on his legs. “I can do what you ask, mule, but not for five thousand. I want ten thousand bits.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t pay, I don’t work.”
“Are you really as stupid as you are ugly? I need ninety-five hundred at least.”
“I’m not authorized to offer you more than six thousand.”
“Don’t give me that manure. Ninety.”
“If we keep going up and down in these increments, we’ll end at seventy-five hundred. Should we skip to the chase?”
“Are you offering me seventy-five hundred?”
“Then eighty-five, and that’s my final offer.”
“I believe I already mentioned six thousand as my final offer.”
“And I believe I already told you to get the cover out of my office.”
“I can persuade Granddam to give you as much as sixty-two.”
“I can persuade Granddam to knock some sense into you. Eighty-three.”
“I might be able to give you sixty-three, but I’ll pay for it.”
“You’re darn right you will. Eighty-two.”
“Sixty-three and a half.”
“Darn it, you stubborn mule. Make it sixty-five and get out.”
“Sixty-five it is.” I turned away from him and walked toward the corner where my sword lay. “You’ll see me again in a few days. Be ready.”
“You shoulda been ready right now, mule.”
Frowning, I turned back toward him, and then I felt the sting of a dart hitting my neck. It had the sharp burn of poison in its tip.
I ripped the dart out and rapidly hit a series of pressure points on my barrel to slow the poison’s spread. Grinding my teeth, I snarled, “Enrico--!”
Enrico shrugged. “What can I say? She offered me the full ten thousand.”
Mulia, lowering a blowgun from her lips, walked in through the doorway. “Hhmmn, good job, Enrico,” she said in her obnoxiously oily false voice. “You managed to, ahmmn, both disarm and distract him.”
“Mulia,” I hissed. I took a step toward her, but stumbled. My vision blurred.
Mulia shook her head and held up a small glass vial. “I could offer you an antidote in exchange for the amp-horn, but it would be easier to let you die and take it from your corpse.”
I staggered sideways, struggling to remain upright, as black circles floated across my eyes. “It’sh not on me,” I slurred. “I hid it.”
Mulia’s smile fell away. “Where?”
“Can’t quite remember. Head feelsh funny.” I collapsed.
“Celestia darn you!” Mulia ran to me, uncorked the vial, and practically rammed the antidote down my throat. It was bitter, like cough syrup gone bad. As I drank, Mulia rifled through my saddlebags.
My vision cleared, but a feeling of extreme drowsiness rose over me. Fighting it, I grabbed Mulia’s head between my front hooves and tried to break her neck, but I was too weak. She head-butted me in the face.
“Give me the amp-horn and I’ll spare you,” she cried.
“Go to Tartarus,” I answered. I waved my hooves, trying to stand, but I was too dizzy; the poison, the side effects of the antidote, and the taxing events of the last few days were too much for me. “You double-crossed me, Mulia!”
“I had to!”
“Liar!” I managed to turn over, but my knees and hocks buckled when I tried to rise to my hooves.
Mulia stood above me, gazing down with unmasked contempt on her face. She slowly shook her head. “I was only following Granddam’s orders.”
I paused. Something knotted up in my stomach. I opened my mouth to answer her, but no words came.
“She’s been watching you. You’re out of control. She told me to take care of you before completing the mission.”
I shook my head, trying to clear it. My mouth was dry. I rubbed my tongue around my palate, trying to work up enough saliva to speak. “No. No, that can’t--”
“You’re a walking dead mule,” she said. “When Granddam says you’re dead, you’re dead. Even if I don’t kill you, somepony else will.”
Standing in the corner with his arms crossed over his chest, Enrico said, “Sounds like you’re covered, half-ass.”
“Shut up, Enrico.” I finally managed to gain my feet, though my knees shook. Glaring at Mulia, I snarled, “You are a liar.”
“Give me the amp-horn and I’ll let you go. I’ll tell Granddam I killed you, provided you don’t show your face in the Order again.”
I didn’t know whether to believe her or not, but I knew that in my present condition, I had no chance of escaping her. At the very least, I needed to stall until my head cleared, I regained some strength, and I thought of a plan.
“Deal,” I said. “But no deal. I won’t give you the horn until I use it.”
“I’ll get the neutralization spell for the ward on Celestia’s kitchen. When I get it, you can have it. But I’m not giving you the horn unloaded.”
Mulia spread her lips and clenched her teeth. Her ears laid back and her face turned red. “You . . . you . . . you dam-covering son of a nag--”
Weak as I was, I struck her across the face, uncaring whether she retaliated. “Nopony,” I said, “and I mean nopony, talks about my dam. Do we have a deal?”
She wiped a hoof at the cheek I’d struck as if removing a smudge of dirt. “Deal. You have one full day.”
She glared. “You’re cutting it awfully close.”
“In two days, you’ll have your spell. Where should I find you?”
“I’ll find you.” She backed out the open door of the shack, disappearing in the shadows.
Enrico uncrossed his arms and walked toward me, slowly and mockingly clapping his hands. “I love working with mules,” he said. “You’re always such good sources of drama and entertainment.”
Struggling to steady myself, I raised the little Power I had left and picked up my sword. As I ran a hoof along its razor-sharp edge, I said, “There’s more drama coming your way, Enrico. You sold me out.”
His smile faded, replaced suddenly by a look of cunning, but before he could react, I threw the sword toward his neck.
The purple pony screamed.
Wiping my blade on a ragged cloth, I walked from Enrico’s shack. My hooves slipped a little with each step I took, and my head still felt light. My next order of business would have to be food and sleep, but, after that, it was time to make a house call on the princess’s chief of security, the stallion they called Shining Armor.