I squeeze my legs tight, wrap my arms around the unicorn’s neck and twist my entire body. The stallion’s spine and neck break in three places. I push his limp body off, and a crosswind takes it off to the side.
That’s that dweeb taken care of.
My name is Gilda. I’m a griffon, and I’m about to die.
I’m about to reach terminal velocity. Sixty yards a second. A fall into deep water might not turn me to griffon jelly; but I’ll still be knocked out and drown.
I’ve been falling for thirty seconds, and the wind is screaming past my ears.
My left wing is bound to my side by paralytic magic and my right has a bloody, fist sized hole through it. Both wings are still twitching from the electricity the unicorn shot through me. Can’t feel the pain. Can’t fly with them either.
I remember to take a notepad and pencil out of my barding.
‘Hey T.’ I write, ‘I’m dead but mission accomp. RB was leak, is dead. Good working w/ you
‘See you when you get there,
The adrenaline starts to fade. The pain creeps back in, and my heart rate drops. There’s a fine trail of pink mist coming from the hole in my wing. It looks almost pretty.
I thought for a second, and took out the notebook again.
‘Hey Dash, was going to come over and buy you a beer, apologise over the whole Ponyville thing a few years back. Your friends are still lame-os, but they were your lame-os and I should never have let that get in the way of our friendship. I’m sorry, Dash, and I hope you can forgive me.’
‘I guess I’ll see you when I see you,
‘Gilda - PS, good luck with the whole wonderbo’
I hit the ground so hard I bounce.
Everything that can hurt, does.
This isn’t a bad thing. Griffons have high pain tolerance, and unless there’s such thing as Griffon Hell, it just means I'm still alive and I probably haven’t severed my spinal column. Since my last memory was hitting the ground at terminal velocity, I’d say the pain is a net positive.
A hoof gently nudges my side.
"Sup, loser." I recognise the voice, but can’t place it.
I'm in a large hut. It looks like something out of those cub’s pirate tales about voodoo, monkey curses and secret treasures. Strange masks adorn the walls, every surface is covered in bizarre ingredients and poultices and there are dozens of candles dotted about the place.
I look down. I'm in a bed, surrounded by more candles, covered in bandages and casts with Hoofrican scripts written over them and my wings are suspended outward by bandages and splints. Sharp smelling pastes are slathered underneath the casts on my arms, legs and neck. There are huge needles pinning the casts onto my limbs through my bones. There's a zebra in the corner, mixing something up.
Zebras don’t buck around when it comes to healing, it seems.
"You awake, Gilda?"
I place the voice this time and turn my head a little to the left (which hurts). I see Rainbow Dash. She hasn’t changed much in the eight or so years since I’d seen her last. Her face is a little more weathered, but same voice, same mane and same easy grin.
"Sup dweeb" I say weakly.
"You took quite the fall there, pal. I think you’ve just lost the right to call me Rainbow Crash ever again," she says.
"Mmh. How am I alive, Dash?" I ask.
The zebra speaks up, "You fell on granite rock into which Poison Joke had pried, The Joke softened the rock, lucky, or you would have died."
Even without the rhyming, that would have made no sense whatsoever. Dash sees my confused expression.
"Poison Joke is this weird flower that changes the main attributes of whatever it touches. It turned the granite into a big trampoline, you bounced and landed near Zecora here’s house. She took you in and patched you up, she’s pretty good with her zebra medicine," she says "Good thing too, you’d broken just about every bone in your body."
"Thanks ‘cora" I say.
"Now, you’d usually be laid out for a few weeks and go through several months of agonizing physical therapy before you could walk or fly again, but my good friend Twilight Sparkle has a hornboner for some accelerated healing spell she’s been researching," says Dash, "She’s been getting the reagents together for the last two days, she should be here shortly."
"Two days? How long have I been out?" I ask.
"Four days. Zecora sent for me, she found a note on you with my name on it. Too much blood to make out what it said."
"Ah. Hey, was there anyone else-"
"Yeeahh, we found a unicorn, we think," she says.
"Whoever it was, sorta... splashed," she says with a grimace, "Wasn’t much to go by. We think there was a horn in there. Friend of yours?"
"He put a hole in my wing and tried to toss me out of a sky chariot. Fell out with me," I say. It's not entirely a lie.
"Huh, you’d have thought he’d have teleported somewhere safe before he hit the ground," says Dash.
"Ehh, unicorns. That’s what they get when they spend their childhoods with noses stuck in books instead of practicing wing-free landing drills."
"Well, seems like your grisly sense of humor survived the fall, Gilda," says Dash with a grim smile.
Just that moment a purple unicorn comes in through the door. "Hey Dash, Zecora; I’ve got all the stuff here, is the patient still- Ah, hello!" she says, turning to face me "You’re Gilda, right?"
"Gilda, this here is Twilight Sparkle, Doctor of Thaumatics, Master of Sciences. You’re in good hooves, she’s been working on some kind of super-spell to patch you riiight up. I heard it might hurt, so I’m going to stay and enjoy the show," says Dash.
Same old Dash.
Twilight and the zebra spend a few minutes setting up the equipment, attaching wires to the spikes through my limbs, injecting me with a green substance, giving me a shot of apple brandy and setting up some weird effigy of me with needles through various points above my head. Twilight attaches the wires on my limbs to her horn, and casts her spell.
It is not a pleasant experience. It feels like all of my flesh has turned into ravenous maggots, which are trying to eat all the other ravenous maggots, and are somehow breeding at an alarming rate. My bones don't feel any better. I now know what a castle feels like during a siege.
Luckily, it's over fast. The pain is gone, just a tightness like I’d been working out without stretching the muscles for a few weeks. My neck, arms and legs move just fine. The metal spikes through my limbs have somehow dissolved.
"Well, it looks like a successful operation," says Twilight as she starts to unravel my bandages and remove my casts with her telekinesis, "How are you feeling? Can you move all your limbs at the joints? Do you have feeling in all your limbs and muscles?"
With that, Dash punches me hard in the arm.
"Ow, buck off!"
"Yeah, I think she’s got feeling in all her limbs," says Dash with a grin.
An hour later, after I’d thanked Zecora for her hospitality and Twilight had finished interrogating me on every single possible aspect of how the healing had worked, I was on my way out of the Everfree forest with Dash. Twilight had teleported back to the library, but Dash wanted a chat with me.
"So what was on the note, Gilda? One last “Buck off, dweeb” before you kicked it?" she says.
"Well, I had a job to do around here, thought I’d pay you a visit after it was done. I was kind of a bitch last time I saw you, didn’t treat your friends too well, got all jealous, yadda yadda. Got all bitter and didn’t want to think about it for a few years after, but I figured I should buy you a beer and try make it up to you, y’know?"
"Doesn’t seem like you to tell me that through a note," she says, grinning.
"Yeah, well, you’re right about the whole “before I kicked it” thing. You were a good friend, and a great, y'know. Couldn’t die and leave you thinking I hated you, would’ve broke your heart," I say, grinning right back at her.
"Hah, whadya know, Gilda actually changed for the better," she says.
"You’re still the same ol’ Dash. Still questing after the Wonderbolts?" I ask.
"Questing after? I retired last year" she says, a huge grin plastered across her face.
"Say bucking what?" I say.
Dash, actually got into the Wonderbolts? Dash, screaming Wonderbolt fangirl, actually quit the Wonderbolts?
"You actually got in?" I ask.
"Yup, a few years after we last met. Signed up for a four year contract, was on the performance squad for one. Flew a couple of scouting missions over hostile Diamond Dog territory, did a whole bunch of interdiction over pirate routes, provided aerial support for the peacekeeping mission in Llamastan, was on the mission to rescue that jackass Prince Blueblood when he caused those riots during his diplomatic visit to Tarandroland; and a bunch of other stuff like that," she said, failing entirely to keep a smug tone out of her voice.
"You actually quit?" I ask.
"I retired. Just wasn’t for me, in the end. Too much time practicing the same routines, over and over, way too much travel, not enough naps. Now I’m a ‘freelance aeronautical performance consultant’, I set my own hours, chill out in my cloud house and can get stonking drunk with Applejack and Pinkie all the time. Not bad work, if you can get it," she says.
"Fair enough. Hey, you said I’ve only been out for four days right? And you still live near Ponyville?" I ask.
"That’s where we’re headed, birdbrain!" says Dash.
This is good news, my contact is in Ponyville and she would still be there for the debrief. The mission would be a complete success!
"Yeah whatever, can you take me to the Ponyville library? There’s someone I’ve got to meet there." I pause. "Actually, you don’t know if there’s been anyone from out of town hanging out at the library lately do you?"
Dash thinks for a moment. "Yeah. There was a brown stallion, from Fillydelphia, bit stuck up. He’s been hanging out there all day for the last few days, Twilight said."
"Does Twilight go to the library a lot? Did she notice anyone else there?"
"Twilight’s the librarian. She hasn’t mentioned anyone else, why’d you ask?"
Let me stop for a moment and explain:
Equestrian libraries are decent meeting places for people in the intelligence business. Magical books need lots of charms and runic magic to stop them from playing hazard with all the other books and, in large numbers, the library itself. These charms have the wonderful side effect of making libraries very hard to magically scry without the librarian being involved. Librarians tend to have terrible poker faces, and the locals can generally tell you if the librarian has been suddenly replaced, so if something is up you can get out of dodge quickly. They’re usually pretty empty so it’s hard to hide a pegasus assault team in one, and it’s easy to subtly slip a note into a book and leave it for your contact to find.
Plus, spies tend to travel constantly and trashy romance novels are a good way to alleviate the boredom. Most libraries have at least a few Rose Papillonne titles for those cold nights in dingy Bed and Breakfasts.
"Just wondered if sh- uh, he was travelling with any friends. His name is Cravat Tweedhooves or something, right?"
"Yeah, something like that. Hey, Gilda."
"Yeah?" I say.
We'd started at the edge of the town. Dash beat me to the tree-library by a good few seconds. Not too surprising, since I’d just recovered from a broken everything and she's apparently an ex-stuntflier.
"Hey Dash, do us a favor and get Twilight," I say at the door, "I’m knackered." It was a lie, but I wanted to check that the library was secure. Better safe than sorry.
"Pfft, weak. I’ll go get her, you want me to check if she’s got any ice cream for you to cry into?" she says.
"Buck off," I say.
"What’s that about ice cream?" Twilight Sparkle is standing in the doorway. I can’t see anyone behind her.
"Hey, is anyone else in the library with you?" I ask.
"Uh, there’s Spike and there’s Mr Tweedhooves, but that’s it," she says. She looks a little confused, but isn’t lying.
"Awesome, I need to talk to him," I say.
“Mr Tweedhooves” was sitting at a table next to a window. Rainbow Dash had gone outside to chat with Twilight. When Tweedhooves was completely sure no one was around or listening, he spoke.
"Ah, hello old friend, how's the weather back home?" he asks.
"Wet and cold, there was a thunderstorm but it didn't last. My aunt Gillian keeps saying that she'll never get enough sunshine. Course, it doesn't help that Ruddy Boddington is pissing all over the place, barking at the cellar and sneaking chews from the pantry. We had to sort that out, we've found a new home for him."
TRANSLATION: "Mission was finished. Agent LD is dead. Redbeard was the leak, he was a mole for a slavery ring and has been developing and selling weaponized magical reagents. I have killed him, and found the location of his stash"
"Well, it looks like it all worked out. Any of your cousins coming to visit?"
TRANSLATION: "Affirmative. Were you followed here?"
"Nah, they didn't bring it up. Only people I've met since are Dash, Twilight Sparkle and a Zebra witch."
TRANSLATION: "No, was checking every fifty meters from Everfree forest borders. Clear skies, no one hiding in the clouds. Met Dash, Twilight Sparkle and Zecora on the way."
"Good, I can lose the disguise. Honestly, Cravat is a versatile cover but Trixie will never know how stallions are able to walk around with that thing swinging between their legs all the time."
Mr Tweedhooves’ skin ripples and twists, and suddenly he's a powder blue unicorn mare.
"Uh, aren’t those two-"
Trixie cut me off. "Rainbow Dash is ex-special forces and knows the deal with assets like me. Twilight is the personal student of Celestia herself and is hardly a security risk."
Trixie has always been a bit Nightmare-Moon-May-Care with security procedures for my tastes.
"Besides, I have some rather bad news that pretty much makes our covers moot," she said darkly.
"You’ve been banished, Gilda."
“You’ve been banished, Gilda,” says Trixie, slowly.
I blink, confused. I'm on good terms with my immediate “Family”, and I couldn’t think of anything I’d done to anybird in the Tribe bad enough to get banished for it. Hopefully some crow-beaked up-and-comer had just got it made, needed a favor done and thought she’d look the big cat by banishing me and making me do it as a quest. Not that hard to find something I could technically be banished for, I suppose. Anger management was never my strong point. Trixie is looking at me warily, waiting for a response.
“Huh. Well that’s uh... weird,” I say, “Do you know which Tribesbird ordered it? Did they tell you what my quest was?”
Trixie winces as she says the next seven words: “It’s Clan level. Double secret banishment decree.”
I blink twice. My mouth is dry, my heart drops to my stomach before both drop into a pit of freezing acid, I can barely breathe and every muscle on my body tenses. I think Trixie is speaking. I can’t hear her.
Clan banishment, double secret. By the Four Winds...
“-so then my EIS contact says that you are no longer a trusted asset, and that since we have been working closely together, Trixie is no longer a trusted asset either!” I hear Trixie say, “The Great and Powerful Trixie, cast aside like bruised fruit! This is bad, Gilda, this is very bad. What in Discord’s true name did you do?"
My beak opens but I can’t speak. I focus, and finally say “There can’t... I mean... buck there’s, uh, I can’t even - NOTHING I could have...”
Trixie’s voice starts to rise. “Gilda, Trixie’s entire income and lifestyle depends being a trusted middle-mare between the Guild and other groups and ponies. The Guild needs me to smuggle ten crates of gemstones, I smuggle twelve and keep the profit. The guild asks me to blackmail some mayor or councilpony for two thousand bits and their help covering up a break-in, I blackmail them for two thousand five hundred bits and have them write off my unpaid parking fines. Now she is not trusted and is NO LONGER a middle-mare! What in the Princesses' names am I supposed to do?”
“Well I don’t know, go round Equestria putting on magic shows again, you’ve lived off that before haven’t you?” I snap. Her eyes are full of venom but I can’t bring myself to care right now. “I’ve been banished from the Blackwings, Trix. This is bad. This is very bad,” I say.
We must have been getting loud, because Rainbow Dash bursts back into the library. “Hey, everything okay Gil- What the clop is that unicorn doing here?” she says, staring at Trixie.
Trixie shoots Dash a look of loathing. “Oh, how Trixie hates this town.”
Trixie, Dash and myself are sat at some hay fries place near the library. I'm poking at a seed cake and explaining the situation to Dash. Trixie is pointedly ignoring both of us.
“Wait, hasn’t this all happened before?” asks Dash, “Didn’t you get banished after rigging a bunch of card games when you were with your griffon family, just after our last year of flight school? You got that sorted out, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, but I only got banished from the tribe for stealing. My quest was to make up the money I stole, with interest and they would let me back in,” I say.
“Ahh, that was why you were working triple shifts at Beanburger Palace all that summer; and why you took so long to snap and punch your supervisor. Quite the show of restraint on your part, she was a nag and a half,” says Dash, “So what’s different now?”
“I’ll lay it out for you,” I say, “You get banished from your family for ignoring your parents too often, getting in too many fights with siblings or not coming back to visit relatives at the Midwinter Carnival; and they give you a quest like ‘go bring your brother a dozen juicy rabbits’ or ‘send your grandmother a new coat and write her an apology’. You get ignored and can’t stay at home ‘till the quest is done, but when it’s done all is forgiven and forgotten. It’s small potatoes, you get me?” Dash nods.
“Getting banished from your tribe is bigger," I say, "Mine’s the Redbeaks, you met a few of them, they’re basically extended family plus neighbors and families. You only get banished from your tribe if you do something that seriously damages your tribe or your tribe’s reputation, like killing a clan member without tribal approval, not offering hospitality to someone in need, or like me, rigging an inter-tribe sporting event for quick bits.
“Your entire tribe won’t talk to or be seen with you until you complete a quest, and the other tribes in your clan are wary of you. It’s not like getting a reputation here, everybird just knows you’ve been banished, it’s like magic. The quest will be bigger, like ‘earn enough money to pay off everyone you stole from and give them a tidy profit on top’ or ‘work as an indentured servant for the family of the griffon you killed’ or ‘steal such and such piece of griffon artwork from some idiot pony collector in Manehattan.’”
“I think I see where this is going...” says Dash.
“Clan banishments are big,” I say, “There are only eleven griffon clans in existence, and six of those are just tribes putting on airs who would join one of the big five in a flash if a civil war broke out or something. You only get banished from your clan if you’re seen as a clear and present danger to every tribe within it. You get banished for murdering an entire family in one tribe and blaming it on a family from the next, for trading a dragon a bunch of tasty griffon eggs for a bit of his horde, for selling secrets to Stalliongrad or a Camel Sultanate and then defecting.
“If you get banished from your clan, it’s... Imagine that one of your friends turned up at your house one day wearing a dress made from all your other friends.”
“Gross, but go on,” says Dash.
“Well that’s how every other griffon in your clan will react to seeing you. If they’re on their own, they’ll run in terror. If they’re not, they’ll try tear you to pieces. Even griffons in other clans won’t want anything to do with you. I saw a banished Stormclaw once. Half of me wanted to fly away, the other half wanted to cut his throat before he cut mine.”
“Pretty harsh. Is there no way back in once you’re gone?” asked Dash.
“You still get a quest. If you got banished for flying into a rage and doing something terrible, or through gross negligence, your quest will be a vital service to the Griffon Kingdom. You’ll have a quest to secure enough medicine to save one thousand griffons, or to hunt down everyone on a list of defectors or enemy agents and bring back proof of death for all of them. If you got banished for something you did in cold blood, it’s likely to be a suicide mission, like flaying a grown dragon by yourself.” I pause, and pick at my seed cake.
“Soooo, I’m guessing you ended up with more of a ‘suicide mission’ than a ‘saviour of your clan’ quest...” says Dash, tensing like she's expecting a blow.
“There’s the rub,” I say, “no one can tell me why I was banished or what my quest is, and no one can tell anyone who might contact me why I was banished or what my quest is, because it’s double secret banishment. They're probably worried that I'll just murder any griffon messenger on sight, so they're going to watch from a safe distance and then decide if they should tell me or not."
"You're stuck out in the cold until the people who banish you decide you're not going to murder them then, basically" says Dash.
"Yup. So on the upside, I’m still alive and there’s probably no death squad after me," I say, "Downside, I’m banished, my funds will be frozen, none of my contacts within the EIS or Griffon Kingdoms will get within a dozen leagues with me; plus...” I pause to put on a pair of my widest, cutest molly-kitten eyes and aim them straight at Dash, “...I don’t have a place to stay.”
Dash just gives me a dark glare in return. “Eight and a half years, Gilda. Eight and a half years, barely a buckin’ peep from you, and you think one crash landing and little apology later turns us back into schoolfilly slumber-party friends, preening each other’s wings and psyching each other up for the next big race?”
Ouch. I should have seen that coming. I open my beak to talk, but get cut off.
"I sent you dozens of letters after our spat in Ponyville to see how you were and try patch things up, you replied to ONE of them, two years later, on the back of a Llamese takeout menu that had been redacted by censors. The only things I could make out were 'Gilda,' 'sorry for all the crazy shit' and 'beware of weasels,'" she says.
I give her a pleading look. "I bucked up, I was a dumbass back then after that letter things got all crazy with the military. I'm sorry, Dash."
“Huh. Well I tell you, if you are thinking we’re back to old times, you best be thinking we’re back to being schoolfriends and not that other thing we were, because oh, Gilda. I. Bucking. Tell. You,” she says, holding her stare and pointing a hoof at my face.
Four Winds, this week is getting worse and worse. This week started off as old, unseasoned meatloaf, then I realized that in my carelessness, I had pissed on that meatloaf; and now I have to eat the pissy meatloaf. Dash still hates me, which I guess still counts as ‘meatloaf I have pissed on’, but I think it deserves a special mention.
It's all I can take. My face falls, I stare down at my claws and I stammer “Dash, I’m-” before she bursts out laughing. “Oh mare, I had you, I completely had you Gilda!” she says, cracking up.
I - I do not have to eat the pissy meatloaf. This is a very good thing.
“Oh Gilda, the look on your face,” Dash says with a grin, “Of course you can crash round mine, there’s always room at the Casa del Dash for an old friend. Element of Loyalty, Beeyotch! You mah homefilly! We can fill each other in on the last eight and a half years years, you can drink all my vodka, and if you’re a good little molly and you think up your apologies for Pinkie and Fluttershy, I’ll even let you preen my wings. That sound good?”
Oh Dash, how I’ve missed your sense of humor.
“In some of the places I’ve been in the last eight years, I’d be legally allowed to kill you for messing me like that,” I say, “You still living in that sweet cloud house?”
“Same as ever. I’ll fly over there now and get some stuff set out, come over when you’re done here. That cool?” she asks.
“Sure, see you there,” I say.
See ya!” she says, taking off.
Trixie levitates her last hay-fry into her mouth. “Well with that, Trixie plans to retire for the night. Meet me here at ten in the morning tomorrow. I had the foresight to book us some freelance work in Fillydelphia so that we do not run dry of bits by the end of the month-”
“Good thinking Trix, who’s still hiring in Filly? Sparks?” I ask.
“Sparks is entirely legitimate now. He hired a few old pals for the sole purpose of keeping all his other old pals well away from him. He’s got nothing on offer, unless you want to invest all those bits you don’t have in property. No, we’re working with-”
“Similar problem, she’s still big in the underworld but she’s justifiably paranoid and won’t even be seen by anyone outside of her own organisation. She’s been involved in a quite few things lately that individuals like you or I would want no part in, so it’s all for the best. No, we’re working with-”
“Trixie likes to finish her jobs alive so she avoids working with individuals like him. He has chronic backstabbing disorder, he’s never been a very stable zebra and losing a hoof, an eye and his front teeth to that Fifth Horseman character in Manehattan hasn’t improved him any. No, we’re working with-”
“We’re not working with ‘Lit-Up’ Lucino are we? Because that pony was a scrambled abortion before-”
“Before he got into drugs, yes,” Trixie says, “He’s far worse now, half of the bookies in Filly are running a pool on how long he’ll last before one of his crew finally pulls Lucino’s kidneys out through his nostrils. It’s quite an achievement for one pony’s drug supply to completely drain the coffers of a large crime family, but he seems to of managed it. No, we’re going to work with-”
“Is it Daddy Cane? He was pretty reliable last I remember, usually has all kinds of work going.”
Trixie winces. “No, it’s not Daddy Cane. We’re working with Brickbat.”
“Brickbat Maginty? Why didn’t you say so?” I ask. Trixie gives me a look. I try to remember the last time I worked with him. It was a few years back, when booze smuggling was still the big thing. “Does he still call everyone a bucket of cunts?” I ask.
“No, he’s mellowed out since. Best of both worlds really, he offers well paying jobs that we’re suited to but doesn’t go around breaking legs with a brickbat any more so I find he’s much easier to talk to these days. I think he has some security work for us. Trixie will see you at ten tomorrow, yes?”
“See you then, Trix,” I say.
I’d been cast out by my clan for a crime I (probably) didn’t commit, had just recovered from breaking almost every bone in my body, had no real job, no real home and no money. But I'm now in a warmer place.
Maybe the warmth is from the fireplace that despite being in a cloud-house, works perfectly. Maybe the warmth is from the half bottle of vodka in my belly. Maybe it's from hours of swapping tales and war stories with a true friend I thought I’d lost, with no disguises or dishonesty truly necessary.
But I’m pretty sure the warmth is coming from Dash’s lips, as she drags them over one of the secondaries in my right wing, preening them perfectly. She had finished working her magic on my left, which had melted into the floor next to me, and was ever so carefully straightening out and stretching every little feather I had. After spending a month living in a muddy hole of an observation point, followed by an assassination, followed by breaking my everything and followed by spending several days in a coma, this is heaven. I'm talking, I think.
“...so our intel is bucked and we end up practically crashing into the wrong side of the country, where I don’t speak a word of the languaahhhhh.....” I try to say. Dash had just taken a feather that was twisted 180 degrees the wrong way and gently eased it back into place. She murmurs for me to continue
“...and we’re there, with all this medicine and weaponry, about to hand it over to the camels we’re supposed to be fighting. There’s not much we can do right, we just try to bluff and be all like ‘Yo, from Griffon Kingdoms and Equestria with love!’ and try not to get stabbed,” I say. Rainbow finishes the secondaries, takes a moment to spit out some down, and moves onto the primaries. By the Four Winds she’s good.
“So all the bad guys, who we’ve just armed up to the humps, decide to venture out their fortresses and strike our guys so hard that they’ll have to surrender. Thing is, the camels we were supposed to be supplying got suspicious and decided we had swi- ohhhhh -tched sides. So they had decided to just gather what they could, and assault the fortresses with everything they had.”
Dash spits out some more down, and says “Wait, was this in the fall of about three odd years ago?” She goes back to work.
I grin my beaky grin as she tugs a particularly stiff primary with just the right amount of hardness. “That’s the one, Dash. Felafel Valley Not-Massacre. Both armies head straight towards each other with nothing but siege weaponry, meet bang on in a corner of some twisty valley, and are reduced to slap fighting with hooves and clubs. They panic and try to rush past each other to take their opponents fort and both succeed, then spend the next year and a half skirmishing to retrieve all that siege weaponry they just left laying in the valley. They’ve been in a stalemate ever since, and most of the wood has rotted away from rains and floods.”
“Not yur mouth successful mission then?” asks Dash, mouth full of feather.
“No. But I did learn a very important lesson.”
“Whut?” She wriggles one of my primaries from side to side with her lips, and it was all I could do to not pass out.
“Never put your own name on the mission plan when you submit it”
“I’ll drink to that!” She takes another shot of vodka, and downs it with a slice of apple pie.
I look at the pie. No meat or seeds, but it still smells delicious. “That from the farmer you go drinking with, Applejack or something?” I ask.
“Yeah, that’s the one. Made by her, but it’s more of a Soarin thing,” she says.
“Soarin the Wonderbolt?”
“He loved his pies. That dude was like a brother to me, just wasn’t the same after he went, even with Spitfire and Thunderhooves still there,” she says.
“Sorry to hear that, Dash” I say, giving her a gentle nip on the ear. She nuzzles me back.
“He died doing what he loved. Anyway, much as I love to reminisce, this talk is getting a bit heavy. What’s your plans for tomorrow? Are you doing something with that crazy unicorn?”
“Yeah, we’ve got some job providing security for something-or-other in Fillydelphia, going down there tomorrow to get the details,” I say.
“Sweet. I’m tagging along,” says Dash with a big fat smile.
“Huh? Why? It’s probably only a two-pony job” I say, sounding more surprised than I should have.
“Firstly, you’ve been banished, smashed to bits and put together again and have no money. I wouldn’t be the awesome Element of Loyalty if I didn’t help a friend out when she’s like this. Secondly, I want to go to Filly anyway to visit Pinkie Pie, she’s doing consulting for a restaurant that one of the Cake nieces set up. You can apologise to her while you’re there,” says Dash. I groan.
“Thirdly, that blue mare is crazy and I trust her as much as a fishnet condom. You just get banished, and that nutty blue illusionist is acting all ‘ooh silent treatment’ and acting like you cost her money?” she says.
“Yeah, Trixie is crazy but she’s always been a bit crazy. No different now than ever,” I says.
“Yeah, but... Just for this first job after you get banished? For me, Gilda?” she asks, blasting me with her own set of kitten-eyes.
“Oh fine, you can keep an eye out for her,” I say.
“Great, she’s also why I’m bringing along another friend who can deal with her if anything goes wrong.”
“What? Oh buck no Dash, that’s just plain unprofessional. You can’t just drag random amateurs into business with you, they end up being the weak links that panic, break the chain and mess up a whole bucking op. If you’re coming, it’s you alone,” I say flatly.
“She’s not an amateur. She has espionage experience and is skilled countersurveillance, tracking, magic detection, languages and a dozen other things that get spooks like you all hot between the haunches.”
I look at Dash skeptically. “When you say ‘espionage experience’, you do mean actual experience working as a spy and not just...”
“Not just what, me telling them my stories of being an awesome Wonderbolt and then peeking at the neighbors through cheap binoculars? Nah, she was doing this stuff before I’d even been accepted into the ‘Bolts, she was the one who prepped me for my mission in Tarandroland! She was working all kinds of crazy intrigue over there, trust me,” says Dash.
“Fine,” I say, “But if she bucks up the job, I get to stay in your guest room forever, deal?”
“Deal. Anyway, we should probably hit the hay. I’m a tired pony,” she says, turning towards her room.
“Yeah that sounds good-” I suddenly think of something, and put on my suavest, cockiest grin possible. “Hey Dash,” I say, “Wanna fool around, for old times sake?”
In my defense, I sound like much less of a sleazy rake in my head.
Dash looks at me over her shoulder, turns and walks up to me. Eyes half lidded, she leans in and gives me the lightest kiss on the beak.
“Go to sleep Gilda,” she says softly, with her perfect easy grin. She trots back into her bedroom.
I shrug and go over to the guest room. ’Doesn’t matter, got preened,’ I think to myself as I slip into bed and fall asleep.
I'm up front with Dash, both of us pulling her sky-wagon towards Fillydelphia. Trixie and that librarian - Twilight I think - are sat in the wagon proper. The purple mare looks bashful. Trixie is seething.
“Gilda, please remind Trixie why we are bringing a stuntmare and a librarian along to a very important job that I worked very hard to get us? It seems a little, what’s the word - stupid.”
I laugh. “You did not work ‘very hard’ to get us that job, you flirted with Brickbat and brought him a shot of whiskey at O’Brayens; I know how you operate Trixie.”
“I had to do more-” she begins to say.
I cut her off before she goes into full umbrage mode. “And whatever you did was much appreciated. Dash is here because she’s ex special forces and wants to make sure nothing bad happens on our first job after getting kicked out. She’s also the only one of us with good links to legitimate law enforcement, intelligence and military personnel.”
“Damn straight,” says Dash, “and Twilight is here because she managed to put surveillance on the entire Tarandroland royal palace, convince her enemies that she was an evil sorceress of limitless power, learn a new language and ferret out a rogue spy in Princess Luna’s entourage all within her first week of intelligence work.”
“DASH! That’s all classified as restricted information! And she’s a griffon spy!” says Twilight with a look of panic.
“Was a griffon spy, thank you very much. Besides, the Kingdom and Equestria are allies and I’m usually working with EIS support. I’ve got clearance for any Equestrian materials classified as confidential or less, I’ll show you when we get to Filly, ‘kay?” She looks calmer. “So is all that stuff true?” I ask.
Twilight blushes heavily. “Well, I didn’t set up the surveillance, I just misappropriated their existing system so we could look at whatever we wanted and hide anything we needed hidden. They thought I was an evil sorceress before I turned up, don’t ask, and language learning is pretty simple if you have the right spells.” Trixie had mentioned as much a while back.
“But I did find that spy, and there was a LOT of analyst’s work I had to do for the Princess. So yeah, I guess you could say I’m a bit of a ‘spy-brarian’ -*snerk*” she says, snorting and giggling at her pun.
Trixie looks unimpressed. “So why did you decide to come along? Did you get bored of shelving books and decide playing spy for a few days would take your mind off it?” she says sweetly.
“Actually, Dash asked me along and we were going to head to Filly soon anyway,” Twilight says, “Plus, when I was in Tarandroland we were woefully underprepared for a lot of the spook stuff, so I collected and built a few things in case I ever got involved in this stuff again.” She taps a front hoof on a large briefcase next to her.
“Oh? A pair of pocket binoculars, a ‘Listen In On Your Friends!’ foals microphone, some invisible ink and an Andy McNeigh paperback I’m assuming, lets have a look,” says Trixie, levitating the briefcase towards her and opening it up. “Ah yes, you’ve got.... Wait, a portable hole? Single use teleportation devices? In-ear headsets with a two kilothaum signal booster? Where could you - I mean where could you get-” She levitated a vial of liquid from the case. “Is this refined thaumic somniate?” asks Trixie, staring at Twilight.
“Er, yes it is,” says Twilight nervously, “I was trying to think of ways to get information from ponies without resorting to highly unreliable so-called truth potions and without letting them know they’ve been interrogated. It wasn’t my idea, Princess Luna mentioned dream based information retrieval and I did some research into it.”
“Princess Luna taught you how to prepare and use somniate?” asks Trixie. She sounds stunned.
“No, the chemicals are actually from this article I read in the Journal of Applied Pony Psychotropics. The author didn’t explicitly say it could be used for interrogations, but it was a pretty clear subtext. I can’t remember the article title, but I think it was by Beatrice von Cantrip-”
“That’s me! That’s the name I publish under!” Trixie squeals, “You’ve read my work?”
Now Twilight is stunned. “You’re Beatrice von Cantrip? I LOVE your work! I was working almost entirely off your articles in the JAPP and Journal of Thaumatic Psychology. I can’t believe you’re a scientist too, this is amazing!”
Oh Four Winds, now Trixie is having her ego eaten out. She’s going to be more insufferable than usual.
“The Great and Powerful Trixie is a mare of many talents from dazzling feats of illusion to lucid works of science, not to mention fine grooming, surveillance and countersurveillance, sleight-of-hoof, sensuous massage-”
“Running from bears” cuts in Dash. Trixie doesn’t even notice.
“-disguise, thaumatic engineering and many other things. Are there any questions you would like to ask Beatrice von Cantrip about her work?” she says, batting her eyelids.
“Actually there is, I’ve been working with our resident apothecary Zecora on a timed stimulant drip that would cause an in-dream rush of excitement or fear at certain points but there are a few issues we’re stuck with that we need to get sorted before we send it in for peer review, I think I have a copy in my luggage somewhere. Princess, I can’t believe you wrote the seminal article in the field. I’m impressed, Trixie!” Twilight is now rummaging around in the back, rump in the air.
Trixie is floating in contentment. “You’re a lucky mare, Sparkle. Hah, and I was worried we would have a boring ride today. I don’t suppose you had a chance to test Trixie’s variable dosage hypothesis?”
“Oh, we did actually! We had some success, but all participants had to have matched proportional dosages of somnium or the dream would become unstable and the participants would wake up....” is all I take in before I tune out the science talk.
Dash looks at me and raises her eyebrows. “What was it you said about all my friends being lame?”
We were in Fillydelphia by early afternoon. I like Filly. It’s full of accountants and lawyers who don’t blink twice as you rifle through their company’s files as long as you’re wearing thick glasses and a poorly fitted Hoity-Toity suit, even if you are a griffon surrounded by ponies. The nightlife consists of dimly lit pubs that are quiet enough to talk in but loud enough not to be overheard. Fillydelphia lawyers have the most fragile egos of any pony in existence and can be played like a piano if you know how to get them riled, and an accountant will bring you her husband’s balls on a plate if you pretend to be a Securities Exchange Agency official and bark at her to bring you them.
Me and Trixie had to meet Brickbat and retrieve our equipment, so Dash and Twilight went off to see that pink idiot and find a room with her. Then we would meet up at La Tige Peu d'Herbe for dinner. Getting the equipment was the first order of business, which is why I'm skulking around in an abandoned section of the Fillydelphia sewers with Trixie.
See, much of the equipment I use is either valuable or illegal and frequently both. You don’t want to store it with anypony you’re known to associate with, you don’t want it stored where people know you’re staying and you also don’t want it stored so far away you can’t access it when you need it. A set of historical blueprints from the city planning office lets you find all the unused areas of the sewer system that won’t flood, aren’t used for maintenance and have easy access from the city streets.
I count my steps as I walk along the passage. I find what I'm looking for, a brick in the wall with a small triangle etched into it. Under my feet is a loose slab of concrete, and under that will be my equipment, packed neatly in two vacuum-packed saddlebags. I stick my claws under the grooves I’d left, and start to move it.
“Hey Trixie” I say, “what happened to Daddy Cane?”
“When I asked about Daddy Cane you winced and changed the subject. Did a job go wrong or something?” I ask.
Trixie sighs, and says “I guess you could say that. Remember about two and a half years ago when we had to bribe two Equestria Royal Treasury officials and weren’t allowed to fund it with EIS bits?”
“Oh yeah, that. I broke thirty legs, killed two ponies and stole five kilos of moon dust to make up my share. Fun times.”
“Well, Trixie had some other important projects on the burner that she needed time for, so she couldn’t spend all her hours getting money together. I knew from my student days that there were rich stallions who would pay a thousand bits an hour for the company of a sufficiently beautiful and magically talented young unicorn, so I contacted Daddy Cane.
“We were only working together a week, and he got me generous set of clients, but then he started making... insinuations. I was still running my highly successful magic show at the time, and he’d gotten it into his head that it had fallen through and that I’d been forced into making a living through companionship. Trixie told him in no uncertain terms that everything was going fine and she merely needed to raise funds quickly; but he was adamant that it was all falling apart,” says Trixie.
“I’m starting to see where this is going,” I say, lifting up the large slab and pushing it to the side.
“At the end of the week, Trixie had gotten her bits and he’d gotten his share, but he was very insistent that The Great and Powerful Trixie drop the act and work for him full time as a companion-for-hire. I told him no and went to leave, so he pinned me to the floor and told me, what was it, that he’d ‘do me until I couldn’t walk straight and rent me out to the crew at three bits an hour’ until I was more reasonable. That simply wouldn’t do of course,” she says flatly.
“So what happened?” I ask.
“I Hoofdini’d him. The last gentlecolt to see me had been into bondage, and Daddy Cane forgot how good I was with rope.” Trixie smiles.
“That’s all?” I say.
“What do you mean?”
“He threatens to have you raped indefinitely and all that ‘The Great and Powerful Trixie’ does is Hoofdini him?” I asked. It's a fair question, Trixie is not a model of restraint when she’s bucked off.
“I found that two organisations had hits out on him. Trixie might have sent them each an ear and collected on the bits,” she says. She had taken out a pocket mirror and starts checking her mane in it.
“And?” I pull out the two saddlebags from the hole, and cover it with the slab.
“What do you mean, and?” she says with an annoyed look.
“Are you saying there’s not an and?” I ask.
“Oh fine. I knew he had a lot of money hidden, and I knew his daughter Coco Cane had access to it, so I sent her one of his fetlocks on ice and told her to bring me one hundred thousand bits, along with a list of places he kept his funds, before it was too late to reattach the hoof. Messing with Trixie is expensive.”
“And?” I put my saddlebag on and pass Trixie hers.
“And wha- Oh fine,” she says, seeing my look, “I could hardly have Coco Cane coming after me for revenge, especially since she’d just taken over her daddy’s crew. I Hoofdini’d her too when she handed over the bits. Happy?” says Trixie, with an exasperated expression.
“Oh Trixie” I say as she puts on her saddlebag, “Never change.”
“Well feck me in the ears, it’s Gilda the Griffon and the Sweet and Lovely Trixie. You two are a sight for sore eyes I tell ya!”
We're in the back room of O’Brayens pub, sat across the desk from Brickbat Maginty, a donkey crime boss who had only recently grown out of his ‘breaking legs with a brickbat’ years.
“It’s good to see you too, Brickbat,” I say “How’s business?”
“Ah, same old shite Gilda. Most of business is keeping a steady supply of moon-dust up the noses of the lawyers and call fillies in the bedrooms of accountants. There’s enough people want to keep it that way that business runs pretty smoothly. Hardest part of business is keeping down the thick cunts who try to make a little extra by mugging businessponies or murdering dealers for turf, but break a few dozen legs and everypony gets the message quickly enough.” Brickbat is the same as ever. Still gregarious, still pragmatic, still drunk by two past midday. He takes a green bottle out from under his desk and pours out three glasses of whiskey.
“You told Trixie you had a job on offer, is this still the case?” Trixie asks, levitating her glass over and taking a sip.
“Certainly is my dear. Oh, and a million thanks for taking care of that mess last week. Maker’s Mark that would have turned out badly.” Brickbat turns to me, “Some bucket o’cunts partner in one of the top city law firms started beating a call filly pretty bad. Her bouncer walked in and kicked the guy to death. That body would have caused us a lot of problems if not for this wonderful lass” he says, pointing to Trixie.
‘Trixie is glad she was able to help” she says, beaming.
“Anyway, down to business,” says Brickbat “I’ve got someone who wants to sell a case full of very valuable documents. He’s set up the meet, but doesn’t fancy being anywhere near it for security reasons, so he’s asked me to arrange the hoof off. There’s this young feller I’ve been planning to bring up the ranks, he’s not a muppet but he might be a tosser. This is where you two come in. I give the feller the package to deliver, you watch him to make sure he don’t feck up, and if he do feck up you retrieve the package and bring it back to me, savvy?”
He takes out a manila folder from under the desk. “The feller’s name is Fourleaf, his photo, favorite haunts and stuff like that are in there. The location of the meet is the Sunny Skies office building downtown, and it’s happening in four days at midday, you’d do well to scout the place out beforehand. Don't be seen, I want to see that he behaves without this grouchy old donkey breathing down his neck. There’s a check for a thousand bits in that folder for expenses. Pay minus expenses is sixteen thousand bits.”
I whistle. “That’s quite some expensive help you’re hiring.”
Brickbat throws his head back and does something between a bray and a belly laugh.
“Well, Gilda" he says, "It’s quite an expensive case. We've got a deal you two?”
I look at Trixie. She nods, and lifts the folder into her saddlebags.
I smile a beaky smile. "We'll see what we can do."
“It sounds like a simple job” I say, nibbling on some seedcake “We provide passive security for one of Brickbat's dweebs, make sure he doesn't double cross anyone, and recover the case if anything goes wrong.”
We're in La Tige Peu d'Herbe, an upmarket cafe that does great food for ponies and passable food for griffons. Still, the place has a great selection of wines; and it's nice to be sitting outside on a balmy spring afternoon, eating food and planning jobs with friends.
“What's Brickbat paying you?” asks Dash.
“Two thousand bits” says Trixie, a little too fast.
“Trixie!” I say, “These are trusted friends, we don't need to lie about crap like that.” Trixie stares daggers at me. “We're getting paid eight thousand” I say to Dash and Twilight “and you're both welcome to a cut.”
“So you're actually getting paid sixteen thousand?” Dash says, deadpan. Before I can speak, she breaks out laughing.
“Gilda, please. I'm an ex-Wonderbolt, I'm living rather comfortably indeedy on retirement and consulting fees, and Twilight is the Princess' protégée, she's hardly struggling. It's you that needs the money, and her too probably,” she says, waving her hoof at Trixie.
“Trixie will have you know that she has a great many bits squirrelled away and is merely trying to find a new source of income after having her last job cruelly taken from her,” says Trixie, glaring at me, “She needs not your pity, for the Great and Powerful Trixie desires to retire to some island on the Clopagos instead of a dreary cloud house over some backwater near the Everfree.” Dash snorts derisively.
“You've got a job taking less than a week that involves babysitting a delivery donkey and doesn't require anything illegal on our part; and it's paying sixteen thousand bits? And those sixteen thousand are supposed to be split between two ponies? That seems... odd. Suspicious even.” says Twilight with a frown.
“True, but it's probably not a set up. It doesn't have us doing anything obviously illegal, we don't have to be in any specific place, and you don't bait someone with too good money. Sixteen thousand bits will be Brickbat's way of telling us 'there are details about this job I can't tell you directly, I can't trust anyone cheaper than you, watch all the angles, do your homework blah blah etcetera'” I say.
“So we do our homework” I say, “Trixie, go to the Sunny Skies Office Complex where the meeting is happening. The meeting is in a conference room on floor seventy-six, find out the booking and work details for all the nearby rooms and floors. Find out what keys they use and make sure we have bumps on hoof. Sound good?” Trixie sips her Manehattan and nods.
“Dash, tonight would be a good night to wine and dine - well, scotch and slops more like – any police buddies with an ear to the ground. Check there's nothing big going on, check if Brickbat or any of the other bosses are being moved on, check if it looks like a gang war or some crap is starting up. You can handle that?” I ask.
“Oh mare, I just get the worst jobs.” Dash grins.
“I hope your analyst skills are still up to scratch, Twilight. You need to look over the crime stats, business stats, city health records, all those kind of things. Do some digging and see what you can find out.” I pass her a manilla folder. “A list of names and important details for the major criminals and half-legitimate businessponies in the city; Trixie made it about a year ago. Check records and newspapers and see if there's anything interesting. I'm guessing you know the standard quant tricks, knowing that smuggling is up if lots of little import-export businesses have sprung up but the city isn't getting tons of new taxes in, all that stuff yeah?”
“Oh sure, I did that stuff all day back in Tarandroland and read up on it more afterwards” Twilight says, nodding. “Hay, all I need now is a bowl of moss soup, somedeer accusing me of starting an orgy and Princess Luna telling me to murder somepony and it's like I never left hah hah haahh...” She trails off as she sees our faces. Rainbow Dash has a poker face. Trixie's head is tilted sideways and she has an eyebrow cocked. I remember to close my beak.
“So anyway...” I say, “Did you guys go see your friend?”
“What, Pinkie?” says Dash, “Yeah, we did. Mare was she busy, haven't seen her rush around this much since the parasprite infestation.”
“This new consulting job of hers is a ton of work, she's really stressed” says Twilight, obviously glad that the conversation had moved away from orgies and murder, “After we're done here, we should throw her a party, she looks like she needs it.” Dash nods, and Twilight downs her wine.
Trixie then speaks. “It will be a long day tomorrow, and the Great and Powerful Trixie requires her beauty sleep. We should make a move back to our room.”
We pay the bill and leave.
If you're in a city and trying to keep a low profile, don't stay at a dingy hostel, cheap motel or two star hotel. They're the first places criminals, bail-jumpers and other poor dweebs go when they're on the run, so they're crawling with cops and bounty hunters and the owners are only too happy to tip them off. Also the rooms always smell funny, the service is awful and they stock nothing in the minibars but Smirnhoof vodka and that foul Buck Daniels whiskey.
Go to a four star hotel instead, wearing a rumpled suit and thick framed glasses. You look like another businesspony or bird among thousands and no one blinks an eyelid. The receptionists don't know criminals by sight and aren't on first name terms with the people after them. On top of that, the service is just great, the rooms are the nicest outside of Canterlot and the minibar is stocked with Johnny Trotter Black. I've gone through about four of them and I feel warm and fuzzy inside.
'Course, I've got my beak buried in Rainbow Dash's soft, downy wings. That makes me feel pretty warm and fuzzy too.
Trixie is in the next room, using her showmare voice. She must be showing Twilight some of her newer illusions. Unicorns, honestly. I tug one of Dash's secondaries a little too hard, just to hear her gasp.
Twilight is saying something, there is a sudden noise of a spell being cast and then silence. Ah, Twilight will have instantly copied a spell it took Trixie weeks to learn, or just done a far more impressive version. Trixie is going to go absolutely-
Trixie is talking excitedly and asking Twilight a ton of questions about whatever the hay she just did.
Whatever. My entire world is sleek, soft feathers and the smell of cheap shampoo. I could spend all night doing this, nipping at Dash's feathers and running my claws through her mane. Back in Speedsters I'd knit knots into her mane to annoy her, but now I'm just gently scratching her head like a nice molly.
Twenty minutes later I'm done on her left wing and go to mix up another drink. Rainbow Dash is lying on her bed in a puddle of pegasus. We both take a drink, and then I dive beak first into Dash's right wing. Her feathers ruffle against my face, and it's wonderful.
“So how'd you end up in the 'bolts?” I ask Dash through a beak-full of down.
“Mmm, did an audition, spent a year or so in cadets, got myself up into the B-squad and then after some missions and a show got picked by the A-squad.” Her secondaries twitch, stroking my face and ears.
“Picked by the A-squad huh? You were screwing all of them, or just the captain?” I ask.
“No, but I did save three of their lives at once” she says, smug as a kitten.
“Oh please, you're not that good in bed.”
“The Young Fliers Rainboom, look it up,” she says, “Anyhoo, after a mission to rescue a diplomat to the Llama Nations Soarin was all like 'yo, why don't we take Rainbow Dash and push her onto the A-squad”
“So Soarin got you into the 'bolts?” There's a knot in the muscle at the far edge of the secondaries; I grind my beak into it to ease it out. That gets a moan out of her.
“Most of the official stuff was Spitfire, but Soarin was pretty much my mentor from when I left cadets onwards.”
“He taught me a lot of things back when I didn't think I could learn nothing from nopony. He taught me to tuck and roll in a crash, stopped me from going crazy half a dozen times in training and he saved my life in Tarandroland. I miss him.”
“He sounds like Scratchy” I say, easing off the muscle and going back to the feathers.
“Wait, your uncle? That one with the eyepatch?”
“Hah, 'uncle' Scratchy, that's him. He's why I'm going to get this banishment notice removed, he's getting old now and there's no way the last bender we went on is going to be the last time we saw each other. He taught me three very important things that will always stick with me.”
“What were they?”
“Pegasi dig scars, liver shots don't leave bruises and napalm sticks to foals.”
“Oh mare Gilda, I'd forgotten griffon advice. It's the best kind. Hey, I've got a tough patch of coverts, could you get into them? They've been giving me problems for ahhhhhhmmmghhh...” I dive straight into the patch she was talking about, moving quickly from feather to feather, trapping each of them between my tongue and the roof of my mouth. The muscles under the thin feathers ease out as I tug gently on them. Dash lets out something between a moan and a whimper and beats her hind legs against the bed.
Ten minutes later I'm dragging my beak down her furthest primary and slowly sliding a claw down her flank. She's practically purring.
“Hey Gilda, how did you get this job so quickly after getting banished? It pays pretty well for something Trixie found out about a few days ago” says Dash, after I straighten the last feather. She gives her wings a spastic ruffle to make the down settle nicely.
“Oh, Brickbat owed Trixie a favour so he kept this job open for us, she Hoofdini'd some asshole for him a little while ago.”
“Wait, what does Hoofdini'd mean?” asks Dash.
“Oh, it's this magic trick that Trixie does. She takes a bunch of knives, some tarpaulin and a bag of quicklime and makes a pony disappear” I say. Dash turns and looks at me, open mouthed and wide eyed. It takes her a second to realise I'm not kidding.
We can still hear Trixie and Twilight through the walls. They're giggling and screaming, and the room sounds of magic and loud *phlumphs *. I think they're having a pillowfight.
Dash dives for the door and I jump on top of her.
“-Celestia, Twilight's sharing a room with that psychopath and you didn't-”
“Dash calm the buck down, it's not like that at-”
“-you just said she cuts ponies into pieces, how is it not like that-”
I flip her over and pin her. She was strong, and I'm glad she's half trying to reach the door instead of trying to fight me back.
“Dash, the last three ponies it happened to were a rapist, a pimp and a mare-beater. Trixie might seem a little crazy sometimes but she's got a heart of gold I promise, and she's never fucked over a pony who didn't have it coming to them.” I'm pleading, something I try not to do very often.
“Gilda, I swear if she does anything to Twilight-”
“Then I'll have lost my clan and the best friend I've ever had. I promise, Dash, she's not like that, and being around a mare like Twilight only makes her more normal. Well, still a dweeb but relatively more normal, y'know?”
“Come on Dash, Trixie has saved my tail more times than I can count. Besides, didn't Twilight say she'd killed somepony back in Tarandroland? Sounds like they should get along just fine” I say, attempting a stern glare.
“Oh that? Oh that was nothing- Oh fine,” she says, seeing my expression “But I'm keeping an eye on her. And you're paying for all the drinks.” She goes back to the bed and onto her belly. I start to rub the muscles between her withers and her wings. She turns back into a pegasus puddle.
“So Dash – You wanna fool around?”
I'd forgotten how hard she could slap with her wings.
Half of my wonderful saddlebags of tradecraft that I dug from the sewers is uniforms. There's a reason that law enforcement and armed forces have to train their checkpoints and patrols to yell 'oi!' and ask for identification from everyone they see: nopony is going to call out somebird in maintenance overalls just because they don't recognise them, partly out of embarrassment and partly because they don't want to wait six months to get a broken toilet unclogged.
These hundred-floor cloudscrapers that rent office space out to two dozen companies who all hire their own private maintenance guys are easier than a tom during beakball season. Carry a box of tools, have sweat patches on your uniform and look like you'll tear the spleen from the next person that bothers you. Everypony will avoid you like a rabid weasel.
Today I'd actually picked a tinker's overalls. Tinkers are expensive, specialised and complete prima donnas, so nopony bothers to keep them in-house. I had my disguise, my toolbox and my completely unnecessary sunglasses. Time to get to work.
I walk into Sunny Skies Offices and make a beeline for the least crowded elevator. I see Mr Tweedhooves flirting with a receptionist, who is giggling and searching through some files. When I get to the elevator I press the button for the top floor. I get a pretty wide berth from the two stallions inside. Ponies, honestly. Walk into an elevator with a set of talons and no deodorant and they act like something's the matter.
Ponies come in and out for a while, but after floor fifty there's no one but me. I strip off the control panel and stop the elevator between floors. Using some complicated technomancy and a pre-built arcane circuit customised to the make and model of the elevator and you can program it remotely to do whatever you want. You can make it go up, down, up if it has more than five ponies in it, down at two past midday every other Tuesday, everything but make you a meatloaf and give you a paw-job.
I do not have a pre-built arcane circuit customised to the make and model of the elevator. I have some decayed flakes of sapphire from a gemstone battery and a small bottle of Uber-Glue. With some messy-but-effective technomancy I glue specks of sapphire onto the wires connecting the buttons for floors 70 to 80. Send a wave of magic at the right frequency, the sapphires heat up and melt the wires, and no one can reach any of those floors until someone gets a replacement circuit.
Next thing I do is take out a little gift from Twilight that Trixie was raving about, a black piece of stone the size and shape of an acorn's cap. I put it into the top corner of the elevator with uber-glue, and tap it three times while whistling. It glimmers and then becomes the exact colour of its surroundings, pretty much invisible. It's a portable hole, and it will let us keep an eye on anything in it's line of sight if I heard Trixie right.,
One elevator down, five more to go.
The next bit needs a little finesse. I have to get into the maintenance section in the second basement, but it will be full of the in-house maintenance guys, who will know that I'm not one of them. I can't risk sparking one out or directly lying to any of them, because they're diligent little horseapples who will check over all their equipment to make sure nopony has nicked or damaged it. My plan relies on them not doing any of that.
I get out of the elevator with Trixie, who is now a pink unicorn mare with curled red hair, dressed in a very well-fitted business suit. She had found an empty office and stuffed it full of marketing literature, free t-shirts, those pens that have a laser pointer on the other end and donuts for a gadget and technomancy training company. Knowing Trixie, she's probably getting paid by them to do this.
The central maintenance room is a short walk down the hallway on the left. I hide in a cleaning closet opposite the door. Trixie goes into the room.
I can't hear her exact words, but I know she's telling all the maintenance guys about a marketing meeting for Advanced Equine Technomantics or whoever and promising free donuts and toys. Excited murmurs come from the room, before several ponies trot out. Trixie coughs twice as she walks passed the door, a signal that the room is free.
I wait a minute and then go into the room. It's a classic dweeb-cave. Antibiotic spray on all the desks, posters for Japonese cartoons and My Little Ape, bizarre gadgets, half-built circuits and gem matrices, empty pizza boxes and Red Taurus cans. At the back is the main circuitry cupboard.
I'm no master sourcerer when it comes to circuits, but I've had enough experience on the job to know the circuit for the building fire alarms when I see it. With some solder, a few crocodile clips and a doohickey from Trixie, we can remotely activate the main alarm. This will turn on the sprinklers, send the elevators to the next available floor and shut them down, and turn on a blaring alarm through the entire building.
I hear the door latch click, and dive straight into the cupboard. Not a smart move on my part. It isn't hard to bluff your way out of being in the maintenance room when the head tinker isn't there. It's less easy to bluff your way out of being inside the main circuitry cupboard with a soldering iron and a bunch of wires.
“-yeah she's nice and all, but she's a total muggle and I don't know if it can work out. I mean, last night she asked me if the analytic engine would still work if you put the wrong numbers into it. What's up with that?” The voice comes from a young stallion, he still has a coltish waver in his voice.
“You silly colt, it took me a week to explain the difference between bit rate and baud rate to you-” says a more mature voice, before being cut off.
“Bro you've been in tinkering for less than a year longer than me, and I was having a real bad week-”
“Whatever, progress is fast in technomancy. All I'm saying is that you could do a LOT worse than Saffron for a marefriend, you get me?”
“Yeah, I guess, but she's so...”
“Look, you haven't had the pleasure of training the FNP yet, trust me when I say that ninety percent are like that and then ten that aren't will make you look bad by comparison. Besides, you're in an awesome position. You get to be the powerful and smart technician and she gets to be the pupil who is eager to learn and eager for her teachers praise bro, eh? Eh?”
The younger one laughs. “Whatever dude, just pick up the carrot-cola crate and lets be back up before those buckers eat all the donuts.”
A minute later they are gone and I walk out in peace. I am a lucky griffon sometimes.
A few hours later we are back at the hotel room, and I'm going through the plan for tomorrow.
“Rainbow Dash, there are three good observation points between O'Brayens and Sunny Skies that give you a great line of sight and no chance of being seen. I'll be covering the two points inbetween so you can hop between them, but that shouldn't be a problem for the fastest pegasus in Cloudsdale right?”
“Nag please, fastest pegasus in Equestria these days!” Dash says smugly.
“What about Scootaloo?” asks Twilight.
“Only on certain tracks, not straight line speed and I said fastest pegasus in Equestria” snaps Dash. Twilight rolls her eyes. I'll have to track down this Scootaloo. I don't know if she's the fastest pegasus in Equestria, but she sounds like a valuable asset for annoying a certain cyan mare.
“Anyway, that should take care of the target until Sunny Skies, at that point we hoof off surveillance to Trixie, who will hoof off to Twilight when the target gets into the elevators. We have complete coverage of floor seventy-six, me and Twilight will be watching from the supply closet up there. We'll be able to talk through these cool headsets Twilight has given us,” I say, pointing to a set of them on the room's table. “Then Trixie joins us in the closet for surveillance and Dash keeps up coverage from the outside of the building. Any questions guys?”
“What happens if the target tries to hoof off to someone else before the hoof off?” asks Twilight.
“Contact the rest of the team through the headsets. Dash, if they do it outside, track the case and keep us up to scratch. Trixie, if they do it inside, follow them. If they try it after they get into the elevators, we shut the elevators down, I retrieve the case and set off the fire alarm to cover our exit,” I say.
“Who's buying the case anyway?” asks Dash.
“Brickbat doesn't know, just that they'll been in the large conference room on floor seventy-six of Sunny Skies at three in the afternoon tomorrow,” I say.
“Hey, if something goes wrong won't it be hard to sort it out with all the civvies running about?” ask Dash. I've got to give the mare credit, she actually pays attentions in briefings now. Then again, the last briefings we went to were for mock missions back in flight school; and I didn't pay much attention to those either. Too much pegasus flank around to think about crap like that.
“There are two conference rooms, a large lounge and a supply closet on that floor, and only one room is booked. We're going to send a magic pulse to disable the elevators from accessing that floor after everyone has arrived and we can evacuate the entire building with the fire alarm if things get really hairy. We've got eyes on all the main entrances to seventy-six and vibration sensors in the ventilation to give us a heads up if anyone attacks the meet. Sound good?” I ask. Dash nods.
“Did you check the list of keys that Trixie so magnanimously provided you with?” asks the powder blue ex-showmare. I pull a set of keys out of a bag.
“Bump keys for all the office and supply closet doors in the entire building, that should have us covered,” I say.
“So that's all? We just watch Brickbat's courier, watch the meeting and then we're done?” asks Dash.
“Hopefully. Twi, Dash, how did the intel gathering go?” I ask.
Dash pipes up first. “I spread a few drinks around and talked to a few sergeants I know in the local police. Sounds like business as usual. No big stings planned, no chatting about some awesome assignment that they just can't tell you about. Twi found some stuff out though.” I turn to the purple librarian.
“There's been a huge increase in organised crime over the past few years, but it's hard to see unless you really comb through the data” she says “I looked up those names you gave me and used newspaper records to see where they had been operating. Not the most reliable method but it worked well enough, see, I found that where these guys have been at work, fire and buildings insurance has gone way up, interest rates on bank loans are way higher, business profits are lower, all those signs of racketeering.
“There are other subtler signs too, like restaurants that do a crime gang's regional dishes doing really well where all the other places are being burned down or falling like dominoes; import-export businesses setting up just like you said.”
“So Brickbat has a little more competition than he's letting on these days. Good to know. Anything else?” I say.
“Yeah, it looks like it might be coming to boil. One of the reason I could track down these guys so easily is because they keep popping up in the papers after being hospitalised after a beating or being dragged out of a burning building that happened to be full of smuggled goods and counterfeiting devices. I mean, you said these were supposed to be heavy hitters and front guys, the exact people who should never be turning up in these articles. It's like they're starved for funds and are having to do riskier and riskier things, but we're in an economic boom so it shouldn't be a problem even for bottom feeders,” she says, almost exasperated “Either every criminal in Equestria has suddenly decided that they want a piece of Fillydelphia, or there's something even weirder going on that I can't work out in just a day.”
Interesting. Brickbat is probably half expecting an attack of some kind but isn't going to say it for some reason. "Anyway, we should all hit the hay. Big day tomorrow, ponies” I say with a yawn.
I don't even hit on Dash that night.
“You got a visual yet Dash?” I ask. I'm hidden inside a small, low hanging cloud staring at a patch of street through a pair of binoculars.
“Nah not- Wait, that Fourleaf donkey just walked out of O'Brayens. He's got a briefcase on his saddle that he didn't go in with.” Dash is watching O'Brayens and the surrounding streets from a cafe in the Happy Hooves shopping tower. She'll be wearing a hoodie and her hair would have been dyed cobalt. “He's with another donkey and a big draughtspony,” she says.
“A grey draughtspony?” asks Trixie through the headsets.
“Yeah, you know him?” asks Dash.
“That'll be Cracky Fetlocks. Trixie has worked with him, he's a tough pony,” says Trixie.
“They're walking in the right direction, I'll tell you guys when I need to move” says Dash. First five minutes of the operation and nothing has gone wrong. Not bad. I best check on Twilight.
“Yo Twi, is all your arcane scrying shite up and running?”
“Uh, let me go through the checklist...” comes her voice “Yeah, I can see everything I need to. Your equipment is set out, and the node is set up for the one-use teleporter.”
“Cool. You got eyes on all five elevators?” I ask.
“There are six elevators,” says Twilight flatly.
“Just checking.” Smart mare.
Fourleaf and his cronies take a pretty straight route to Sunny Skies, apart from a stop at a hay fries stand near Dash's second observation point where they are joined by a frightened looking, slope-shouldered businesspony. Half an hour later they're walking along the street towards Sunny Skies.
“Hey guys, three ponies have just arrived on seventy-six,” says Twilight through the headset, “and there's another three coming up on the elevators to floor seventy-six.”
“Keep us posted. Trixie, you got eyes on Fourleaf yet?” I ask.
“I see them now, can't talk,” she says.
“Hey Trixie, did you ever get over being shown up by two colts and a bear back in Ponyville?” asks Dash, voice full of malice. Trixie can't reply, but I think she's trying to broadcast rays of pure hatred down the headsets. Twilight scolds Dash, who giggles before mumbling “sorry”.
A minute later, Trixie speaks. “They're in the elevators, time for us to join Twilight. Oh, and Dash? Trixie kicked your flank with a cloud, did you ever get over that?”
I switch on my teleporter just before Dash lets out a torrent of swearwords.
One use of Twilight's teleportation device and I know I'm not a fan. I now know what milk feels like when it's being turned into butter. When my eyes refocus, I realise we're in the supply closet for floor seventy-six. Twilight and Trixie are sitting next to each other, with various bits of arcana, runes and technomantics around them.
They had drawn circles on the wall, and those circles had magical views of all the elevators, the hallway of this floor and of the conference room. The conference room is massive, with a glass table for big enough for twenty ponies and an overhead projector. Two of the walls are windows overlooking Fillydelphia. Trixie had apparently stuck a portable hole in the light fixtures in there.
I turn to my small bag of equipment on the floor. It contains a gas mask, a stab vest, two fear-gas grenades and a beakball bat. Not as fancy as all that unicorn stuff, but it gets the job done. I slip the vest on and turn to the two mares.
“How we doing?” I ask.
“The meeting has just started. It looks like everypony is there, I'm going to shut off elevator access to this floor,” says Trixie, sending a wave of magic from her horn to a set of chalk runes on the floor. They flash indigo and fade back to grey.
“Sweet. You wanna play 'Spot the Mook'?” I ask.
“Trixie would like that, you go first.”
“What's this you're doing?” asks Twilight, geeky enthusiasm dripping from her voice.
I look across at her. “Oh it's just this game we play on stakeouts where you figure out who ponies are and who they're working for from the way they act and look, you kinda need a good knowledge of spooks and crooks though-”
“Ooh, that sounds really fun! Can I have a go?” she says.
Trixie shrugs and gives me a 'why not?' look. “Go on then, no points for guessing that those donkeys work for Brickbat,” I said.
“Those two” Twilight says, pointing a hoof at the viewing portal “are Equestria Intelligence Service.”
She's pointing to a pair of ponies. On the right is a light gray unicorn stallion wearing a navy cloak with a crimson trim and the chestplate of a Noble House of Pony. His dark grey hair is slicked back and he looks utterly indifferent to everypony and everything around him. The other is a white unicorn stallion, wearing Royal Guard issue pauldrons over a Hawaiian shirt and a hoofball cap over his chestnut brown mullet. He has a thick handlebar moustache, gratuitous sunglasses and a bouncer's facial expression.
Twilight's right. I put on my best poker face, and turn to her. “Hmm. Go on.”
“The one in the cape is a classic middle foal noblepony. He's not getting the big inheritance and gets bored of spending his time boozing and whoring; so joins the army to annoy his family, who get him a half-respectable job as a diplomat after he leaves. At that point he's already got a job with The Guild, as the EIS is colloquially known, and they are only too happy to use his diplomat job as a cover for his spycraft,” she says, like she read it in a book. Even Trixie looks a little surprised.
“Not bad. How'd you figure that?” I ask.
“Three things,” Twilight says “First is his face. Expression of total detachment. Diplomats on stressful assignments like Dog Nations or the Provincial Donkey Territories look like they're one bad hour away from an aneurysm or nervous breakdown. Diplomats on cushy assignments like Camel Sultanates or Japony have easy, drunken smiles and gin blossoms under the eyes. Spies are the ones who look bored when they're not actively conning or stabbing somepony.
“Second is the way he's dressed. Short, slicked back mane. No flashy jewellery that will glint in the light. Chestplate done in black matte for the same reason, with a more obscure crest, denoting his family's lands or business instead of the standard family crest. You'd have to actually look his crest up to find out who he was. Most nobles want you to know exactly who they are, this one just wants you to know he's a noble and buck off. His cloak is a dull, dark colour with no shiny gold trim that completely obscures his cutie mark.
“The third thing is his friend, who's not the normal bodyguard for a noblepony. He's old-school EIS and doesn't care who knows it. The 'tache, mullet and sunglasses scream 'ex special forces', probably Firecasters or the Special Arcane Service, and he's got a Royal Guard falchion in a quickdraw scabbard, which haven't been issued since the Diamond Dog border conflict four decades ago.
“Look at them separately and you might just have a weird noblepony and a soldier of fortune, but together they send a very clear message: 'We are the guild. We have been in places and times you cannot begin to comprehend. Buck off, mere mortals.'” She finishes her speech and looks at me and Trixie expectantly. I blink twice. By Adune, I hadn't even noticed the falchion.
“Well, top marks for Twilight Sparkle” I say. She beams.
“How do you know all those things? Didn't that pegasus friend of yours say you'd only been on one mission?” asks Trixie.
“Well, I grew up in Canterlot and I've read a fair bit of military history, plus there was a 'diplomat' exactly like that one in Tarandroland,” she says, blushing a little, “I don't know about any of the other ponies in there.”
“Ah, the rest are crooks, our speciality” I say, “My turn now.”
There are Brickbat's three couriers, the Guild ponies, and five others. One is a nervous looking earth pony stallion, running to fat, in a poorly fitting suit. Another is a mint-green earth pony mare wearing a very flamboyant suit, lots of jewellery and a nicely styled mane. There are three ponies sitting together, a handsome unicorn mare in a grey three piece suit, flanked by a wiry, boss-eyed navy unicorn wearing glasses and a fitted black suit, shirt and tie; and an older, grizzled, piss yellow earth pony stallion with a scarred face. He's wearing a track jacket and is made from sinew and hate. Brickbat's donkeys and the terrified businesspony are at one end of the table, everyone else at the other.
“Okay” I say, “The flashy green mare and the sweaty businesspony. Both are dirty money ponies, but from different directions. The businesspony used to be an accountant but got caught doing fraud, now he can't get work except with criminals and the more work he does with them the less chance he has of going legitimate. The crooks know he's not one of them and give him a lot of shit for it, which is why he looks like he's about to piss himself.
“The green mare is the opposite. Started off working at a bookies, grew up around criminals, but went off to university anyway to study business or something. She's now a full on money launderer, knows that no scumbags will touch her partly because she's one of them and partly because every other scumbag would cut them to pieces for cutting them off from their money. Mare's got it made, probably treats jobs like this as social calls.”
“Your turn, Trix” I finish.
On the screen, Fourleaf sticks his briefcase on the table and slides it over to the money launderer mare and the Guildsponies, who open it up and look through the documents inside.
“Trixie has the easiest one of all,” she says with a grim smile “That mare is Nicker Cavallo.” She points at the unicorn in the three piece suit. “And I believe that's Ballpoint with the eyes and Knacker with the face.”
“I saw her name in the newspaper archives a few times” says Twilight “She's wanted for murder I think.”
I laugh. “Oh yeah. Cavallo and her crew have taken out more ponies than your average civil war. Dunno what she's doing in Filly though. Manehattan is her stomping ground, not here.”
Cavallo takes out a briefcase from under the desk and slides it across to the businesspony, who is wiping sweat off his forehead. He clicks the case open.
“Trixie has not heard the exact details, but Cavallo did something very bad in Manehattan and isn't allowed anywhere near that city any more. She acts as a scary liaison between the Macaroni family members who'll still talk to her and their dealings elsewhere in Equestria. Best avoid her if anything goes wrong” says the blue mare.
“Hey Trixie, can you see what's inside that case? It looks like-”
She cuts me off. “Bearer bonds. Let me just focus the lens...” Her horn glows and the image clarifies.
Four winds. Reams of Royal Treasury Gilts, worth five thousand bits each. That case can't be worth less than two million bits. I look at the gas and the bat.
“You know Trixie, we could just beat them all up and steal that case...” I say, slowly.
“NO” come three voices at once
“-there's nine of them against one-”
“-you've got enough people who want you dead-”
“-we'll get found out and-”
“Okay, fine, I get it!” I say, “Dash, is everything clear from the outside?”
“Yup” comes the coltish voice through the headset “No roving pegasus squads on stakeout or ponies climbing up the walls.”
One of the runes near Trixie starts flashing yellow. “Trixie, is there something in the ventilation? The sensors are going off,” says Twilight.
“I'm getting readings but they're not pony sized. Rainbow Dash, can you check if there are any birds flapping around the air vents on the west side of the building?” says Trixie.
“Sure thing, I'm on my way” replies Dash.
“Birds...” says Twilight, looking up like she can't remember something.
I look at the screens. The two money ponies have just finished verifying the contents of the cases.
“Uh, guys?” says Dash, a nervous note in her voice “There's a rope hanging down from the top of the building that wasn't here a minute ago, west side. Twi, you don't think...”
“Oh Princess” says Twilight, eyes wide.
“Okay, now the readings are all over the place, I might need to reset the sensors” says Trixie, concentrating on her runes.
Something catches my eye on the hallway viewing portal.
Something very out of place.
“What the hell is a cannon doing in the middle of the hallway?” I say out loud.
Then a lot of things happen at once.
The cannon goes off, against the door to the conference room. The force shakes the entire floor, and the blast not only knocks the door off its hinges but sends the door into the window across the room hard enough to make a door sized hole in it. A dark figure in a hat and cape appears in the hallway, and lobs an apple-sized lump of metal into the room.
A blinding flash of light comes through the conference room viewing portal. The intruder is using military grade distraction devices. In the second it takes to slip my mask on and grab my bat, the figure shoots into the room, bucks both Guild ponies in the face and dives for Brickbat's case. Fourleaf and Cavallo's minions all dive at the masked pony.
I move to the door, but I'm stopped by telekinetic force.
“Twilight, what the fuck do you think you're doing?!” I yell.
“Look at the screen, Gilda!” says Trixie.
The masked assailant is destroying everyone in the room. She bucks a chair straight into Fourleaf's face and slams hooves first into Cracky the draughtspony, knocking him unconscious. Both money ponies dive for cover and every other pony pulls out a weapon. Some strange coiled rope shoots from one of the masked pony's hooves and goes around the neck of Fourleaf's donkey guard.
The donkey is then thrown hard enough at Cavallo and her guards to knock them across the room. The mustachioed Guildspony charges the figure with his sword, who deflects it like it's not even there, jumps above the Guildspony and brings a shod hoof on the back of his head hard enough to knock him out. His noblepony friend teleports him and himself out of the room.
The masked pony swipes both cases and then dives straight out the window.
“DASH! You fucking see that? The case is outside, keep track of that maniac!” I shout.
“Don't worry, Gilda, we know exactly where it's going?”
“What? Why?” I say, still held in place by telekinesis.
“Because” says Twilight carefully “That maniac is Pinkie Pie.”
I'm suddenly back in the hotel room, dry heaving. We’d left a teleportation beacon in the room in case we needed to get back quickly; Twilight must have activated mine.
This is very bad. The meeting had been attacked by one of Dash and Twilight’s friends. They were more than likely working together. Twilight pinned me with telekinesis like it was foal’s play and Dash seemed very sure that the purple librarian was more than a match for Trixie. Best case, they just wanted to scatter me and Trixie while they escaped with two million bits and an equally valuable set of documents. Worst case Twilight wanted me out of the way while she takes a clear shot at Trixie, before coming after me. I won’t give them that chance.
I bolt for the door, but a bag appears in front of me in a violet flash. It's my equipment bag. Weapons, gas grenades, gas masks and all. Either they weren’t planning on slotting me, or Dash’s sense of fair play is a lot bigger than I remember it being.
Suddenly the rest of the equipment teleports into the room. A roll of duct tape bounces off my head. Then, Dash, Twilight and Trixie appear.
Trixie had been talking mid teleport. “-what about the portable holes we left-”
“Don’t worry, they’re charmed to disintegrate when the main portals close, they leave no trace” says Twilight, cutting her off. Dash is not as used to teleportation, and is clutching her stomach, looking ill.
I am now seriously confused. Beakball-season-afterparty-and-two-pints-of-Everfree-Everclear confused. Twilight and Trixie are sorting their arcane equipment and Dash is rummaging around inside the minibar.
“Would somepony mind telling me what the buck happened back there?” I yell.
“Sure” says Dash, mixing up a pair of vodka screwdrivers “We were watching some crooks swap a bunch of documents for a bunch of money, and then Pinkie Pie ballistically breached the door, stole the documents and the money and dived out of a window. That’s the long and short of it, Gilda.”
I do what any reasonable griffon would do, and punch her in the face. At least, I try to. My arm is held in place by telekinesis again. I try punching with my other arm, and that's locked in place too. I think about kicking, but look around first. Twilight has a guarded expression as she keeps up the spell. Trixie is staring at Twilight, and is rooted in place. She has a terrified look in her eyes, but her cheeks are flushed and she's biting her lip. Dash looks worried, like she did the few times we genuinely thought we were getting kicked out of flight school.
I sigh. “Fine, I’ll break it down more slowly. We were watching a meeting and some crazy pony in a mask attacked it,” I say, “And supposedly, this crazy pony is your friend Pinkie Pie.”
“Yup” say Dash and Twilight in unison.
“The clingy pink one with the balloons and the parties? She did this?” I ask flatly.
“You ever hear of Mare-Do-Well, Gilda?” ask Dash.
“Yeah, that vigilante in Manehattan a few years-” The bit drops. “Pinkie Pie is Mare-Do-Well. Right.”
“Ah, you’re learning not to question the ways of Pinkie” says Dash with a grin. “It takes some ponies longer than others to do that” she says, glancing at Twilight who nickers softly.
I rub the bridge of my beak. “Okay, give me the long version because this is batshit crazy. Give me a drink too. A strong drink.”
Dash rummages around the minibar some more and says “See, a while after we last met I basically became the hero of Ponyville after heroically rescuing a bunch of ponies. It kinda went to my head a little bit, so my friends came up with Mare-Do-Well, who went around being a bigger hero than me.
“Twilight had her magic, Fluttershy had wings, Applejack was her freakishly strong self, Rarity made the costumes and Pinkie had Pinkie sense. Anyhoo, I learned a valuable lesson, wrote up the friendship report, yada yada. The uniforms got shelved and we forgot about it.”
Dash passes me a vodka screwdriver. I take a drink, it is freakishly, perfectly strong. Dash gulps down a mouthful of her drink, then continues: “A few years later there was the Manehattan crime wave and a DJ friend of Pinkie’s got beaten up badly in a mugging. Pinkie took a sabbatical from the bakery and went to sort out Manehattan. She broke half the gangs in the town and left the rest running scared until the crimewave faded away. She got training and support from us, but it was really Pinkie’s one pony war on crime. If we’re lucky, she’s started another one and we can work something out. If she’s working as a free agent...” She trails off and stares forward.
“I thought Pinkie might have been involved as soon as Trixie mentioned birds in the ventilation" comes Twilight’s voice from behind me. "We built a device together to mimic just that.”
“Okay, there’s something you dweebs are missing, because we’re talking about a clingy extrovert who works in a bakery you two look like you’re scared-” I say, before Twilight grabs me and turns me to face her with telekinesis. “Will you stop doing-” She shuts my beak with telekinesis.
“Gilda, I'm sorry to keep doing this with the telekinesis, it's very rude and I know you can probably break out of it if you fight hard enough, but there are things I've got to tell you that may be crucial to your continued survival. Well before the Manehattan crimewave, Pinkie Pie already had an inscrutable form of precognition, mild influence over the spacetime continuum allowing quasi-teleportation, a strong affinity for tinkering, mechanics and technomancy, ingenious pranking abilities, immunity to covert surveillance and boundless levels of energy. All that was before Dash, myself and the other elements turned Pinkie into a true crimefighter.
“Dash taught her military tactics from weapons handling to room entries. Applejack trained her physically and adapted her precognition, or ‘Pinkie Sense’ as Dash calls it, to fighting and wrestling, allowing her to dodge blows and avoid holds with minimal effort. Fluttershy taught her first aid and tracking skills. Rarity provided outfits, disguises and equipment modifications.
“I gave her information on everything from interrogation to basejumping to explosive chemistry. I customized her equipment, changing it from a random selection of useful bits and bobs to a set of specialized devices designed for all her crimefighting needs. I used my analyst skills to find her targets, acquire surplus military equipment, carry out interrogations and put her in he right place at the right time to stop the maximum number of criminals.
“Pinkie led indirectly to the imprisonment of four hundred ponies and directly to the imprisonment of three hundred more; as well as the deaths of the cupcakes killer and of crime boss Mare Gnocci. Without the training and assistance we gave her, she wouldn’t have a third of those numbers. We turned a lone vigilante into a machine that runs at optimum efficiency, and with that she was able to fight a one pony war on crime and win.”
Twilight then pulls me so close with her telekinesis that our faces touch. One of her eyes twitches a little. “So when we watch her waltz into a room filled with six vicious criminals and two trained spies and then incapacitate seven of them without taking a single blow - a ratio that tells you everything you need to know, by the way - to steal four million bits worth of paper; when she hasn’t mentioned starting a new war on crime, might be working as a free agent and appears to be working against us - you’re Nightmare-damned right we’re scared.”
She releases her telekinesis and drops me on the floor. I'm glad I'm part-cat what with the whole always-landing-on-your-feet thing. Sprawling to the floor after being levitated would be straight-up undignified. “Pinkie Pie is very dangerous, don't try to beat the location of the case out of her, got it,” I say “Can we steal it out from under her?”
Dash gives me a look. “Gilda, we're not stealing anything from Pinkie without knowing the full story.”
“She stole it first! It's important to the job I'm doing, she's basically costing me eight grand as it is!” I say.
“Six grand” says Trixie, looking up from the bag of arcana she was sorting through.
“Say fucking what Trixie?” I say.
“The Wise and Highly Prepared Trixie found out about the job, had it reserved for us and brought it to your attention, therefore she deserves a slightly larger share,” she says airily “It's S-O-P for independent contractors.”
Everypony in the room is trying to give me an aneurysm. “Trixie, four grand is not a slightly larger share, and 'horseapples you made up on the spot' is not the same as S-O-P” I say. She gives an indignant nicker and goes back to her sorting.
“Can we at least watch her to see what she wants the case for?” I ask, exasperated.
Twilight gives a short, harsh laugh. “Pinkie Pie is impossible to surveill covertly. She'll occasionally play along, but she always knows when she's being watched.”
“That makes absolutely no sen-”
Dash cuts me off. “And you were doing so very well. Don't question things like that when Pinkie Pie is around, it never ends well. Besides, I've got a way better idea.”
“Shoot” I say.
“We ask her. Hear me out, I saw her jump from that window as Mare-Do-Well. We tell her we want to join in whatever crimefighting operation she's running, ask her what she's been doing,” says Dash “If she's just back to being a vigilante, she'll tell us. If she's doing something bad, she probably won't.”
“What happens if she's not just being a vigilante?” I ask.
“Me and Twilight will get the rest of the elements together and sort it out. Pinkie's done crazy things before, all of us have. For the meantime, you'll just have to deal with not being on Brickbat’s Hearth Warmings card list.” Rainbow Dash downs the rest of her drink.
“Great. Just bucking great.”
The espionage game isn't a straightforward, shitty pulp novel by a hack writer; with all the situations exactly how you need them, simple solutions to your problems and no ambiguity or unknowns. You don't always get to choose your intelligence sources. The information you need might be held by a camel slave trader, a griffon traitor, or a bright pink migraine-incarnate who moonlights as a vigilante.
The four of us are walking down Escrow Street, wearing cheap business suits. If you dress like a paralegal or an accountant in Filly, no one assumes you're anything but. Both Buttercup, Blueberry & Lemondrop LLC and Booksworth & Page Auditors were based here along with several cafés, restaurants and delicatessens. Both firms treated Escrow Street as a company cafeteria and suits came from all over town for lunch here, giving the street its nickname: The Trough.
“Here we are, the Big Brioche” says Dash.
I look through the window, which had 'BIG BRIOCHE' written on it in huge gold letters. The restaurant is well lit and airy, with cream walls and upholstery, oak flooring and art on the walls. There is a large mechanical conveyor belt set in a circle, with three ponies on the inside preparing food and many ponies sat on the outside picking up small plates of food as they pass. This is where Pinkie Pie is doing her consulting. We go in.
The maître d' smiles warmly at us. “Good afternoon gentlemares, do you have a reser-”
“DASH! TWILIGHT!” Pinkie appears in front of us, cutting off the stallion. “You're here, this is awesome! You brought Trixie too! And Gilda!” She stops, and looks a little nervous. “Wait, Gilda?”
That's me, bitch.
Dash's pink friend looks different since I'd seen her last. Same manic voice, same spastic poof of hair, but now there are muscles under her big pink pillow of a body, bags under her bright blue eyes, a slim sheen of sweat on her forehead and her mane looks a little teased out. She's been a busy filly by the looks of it. I put on an easy smile and stop myself from crossing my fingers as I speak.
“Hey pink stuff, I came to apologise for being such a nag last time I saw you. You and Dash are pretty cool ponies, I really hope I can make it up to you guys” I say. I can do sincere when I need to.
Her face immediately lights up and her mane poofs out. “Aww, that's the nicest thing ever! Stay for lunch and you're totally forgiven,” she says, turning around “Come on guys, there are booths upstairs!”
We all follow her past the conveyor belt of food and to the stairs. Upstairs looks very different. There are two dozen wooden booths, with paper screens to stop you from seeing who was inside. A buscolt is removing plates from an empty booth in front of us, which looks like it could seat eight ponies.
“We got all these booths when we found out that some ponies prefer privacy, which I think is a bit boring but I could totally see why if you were talking to some headhunters trying to hire you away and then your boss walks in and sees you because that would be totally awkward and you'd probably get fired and wouldn't want to come and eat here again” says Pinkie in one breath “and that would be terrible because we do the best lunch in Equestria at reasonable rates for the average businesspony. Anyway, Dishy's just finished up, file in my little ponies!” We move into the booth as the colt goes off with the plates.
The booth is softly lit and has plush seats, a glass table and a painting of Fillydelphia at night on the wall. “Wow, this is really nice Pinkie,” says Twilight “You've outdone yourself.” Pinkie giggles and pushes a black button on the wall.
“Can we get a radish and jalapeño pizza with extra cheese, a beanburger and hayfries, and a seafood platter to booth 12 please” says Pinkie, before releasing the button, “Gilda, I just need to head to the kitchen to sort something out for you, back in a minute!”
“Mare, Pinkie always knows exactly what I want to eat. Do you think it's Pinkie Sense?” says Rainbow Dash. I can hear her stomach rumbling.
“I think it might be, since she's never eaten with Trixie before,” says Twilight.
“Actually, Trixie eats here a lot, especially since Miss Pie started working here. Pinkie has done a lot with the place and is a fantastic hostess, if a little eccentric,” says Trixie “I provided her with pyrotechnics and recommended her some up-and-comers in the illusion scene for an event she was hosting here two months ago.”
“Wait, you recommended an illusionist who's not you?” asks Dash, raising an eyebrow, “That doesn't sound like the Trixie we all know and lo- Well, like the Trixie we all know.”
“The Great and Powerful Trixie is the most skilled entertainer and illusionist alive, but this does not mean she poops where she eats, metaphorically speaking,” Trixie says, “Besides, the neophytes in my field have yet to show me up, so I'm not afraid to give them a boost when they're in need.” She smiles sweetly at Rainbow Dash.
“First off, neophyte isn't even a word” says Dash, “Second off, you're fishing and you've got no net, so stop wasting your time and shut it.” Trixie just smiles, takes out a small comb and brushes her hair.
Pinkie comes back into the room with a tray of drinks on her back, which Twilight lifts onto the table. “So how much longer are you guys in town for?” asks Pinkie.
“Well, at first we just came here to sightsee and give you a visit, but we found out something that we need to talk to you about” says Dash. She leans over the table conspiratorially “Is it safe to talk in here?”
Trixie's horn glows and the air in the room ripples oddly. “It is now” she says.
“Pinkie, I was flying past the Sunny Skies building yesterday. I saw Mare-Do-Well. Tell her we want in,” says Dash.
Pinkie's eyes go wide. “Gasp! You guys saw me yesterday?”
“Just me, but I told the guys about it and we want to help” says Dash.
“How did Twilight and Trixie and Gilda not see me?” asks Pinkie, puzzled, “They were inside the building, doing surviellance. I heard you all talking about it on your headsets.”
Twilight looks horrified. “That's impossible! I was using thaumatic scrambling as well as conventional cryptology, the only way you could listen in on us apart from getting an MIT super-anayltical engine would be a headset with the exact same private key as-” Her expression shifts from horrified to deadpan. “I never changed the private key after we worked Manehattan.”
“Yeah, that's pretty much what I thought” says Pinkie. “So, what were you doing watching that meeting with all that cool surveillance stuff?” She's still smiling with wide, innocent eyes, but there is a tiny edge behind her voice. The atmosphere in the room had just taken a very cold turn.
When your cover is blown you have a few options depending on how much the other bird knows, how important they are to the operation, and whether you need to gain their trust or liquidate them before they cause you real problems. Assuming a crossbow bolt to the face isn't an option, you're left with coming clean or telling a bigger lie. You have seconds or less to weigh up the likelihood of your lie being caught, the consequences of telling the truth, the loss of trust if you get caught out lying again, the problems that loss of trust will cause; as well as fabricate a half-convincing lie or figure out exactly how much truth you're going to dole out. There are a lot of variables is what I'm saying. My old flight school calculus professor ain't got shit on me.
My old calculus professor wouldn't have started thinking about it the moment Pinkie said “guys” plural.
Truth it is. “Me and Trixie got a job providing security for the donkey delivering the case of documents and the case itself. The donkey was doing a swap for an unknown third party. Dash and Twilight came along to give a helping hoof, since I got into a sticky situation about-”
“You were banished” says Pinkie, same bright tone. My jaw drops.
“Wha- How?” I sputter.
“I'll tell you later, carry on.”
“Uh, right. Um, after you bust up the meeting, I wanted to see if you could give the case back and get out of town and lay low if you couldn't. Twi and Dash said you were probably doing something worthwhile and wanted to tell you the whole thing. I was paranoid and insisted we told you as little as possible in case you were doing something sinister and planned to slot me and Trixie because we were working with the donkey. I've known security procedures less stringent.”
It wasn't the greatest spin I've ever come out with. Still, it makes Twilight and Rainbow Dash look more trustworthy and doesn't reveal any information that I couldn't afford to give her.
Pinkie looks thoughtful for a moment. “Do you know what was in the case?” she asks.
“Apart from a bunch of documents worth about two million bits in treasuries, no. We were hoping you'd tell us,” I say.
“Actually there were about five million bits of securities in the other case, there were some stocks and some higher denomination treasuries. I was a good little filly and returned them to the banks they were stolen from.” She pulls a copy of today's newspaper out from her mane. 'BANKS RECOVER STOLEN MILLIONS' was the front page headline.
“So” says Pinkie, now grinning from ear to ear, “Do you ponies and bird want to know what was in that case? Do ya? Do ya? Do ya do ya do ya?!” She leans over the table and draws us close.
“Do you fillies know what a 'Book of Names' is?” she asks, almost whispering. Twilight blanches and Trixie sits bolt upright, looking terrified.
“No, there's no way” I say “Twilight and Trixie's horns would have felt anything like that, let alone their surveillance equipment. Hell, I would have felt something like that in the same building. Plus, they're written in blood and made from gruesome things like parchment and dragonskin and horseglue. Paper, ink and staples aren't really a future grim shade's style, unless Lloyd Blankflank has a new grisly plan for immortality.”
“Wait, they actually exist?” says Trixie, panicked “I thought they were a horror story to scare unicorn foals!”
“Oh they exist, or they did” says Twilight darkly “Princess Celestia destroyed the last known one a century ago. Gilda, how do you even know about them?”
“A perk of working in intelligence is that your knowledge of a magical artefact is proportional to the number of times somepony has tried to take over the world with it,” I say, “The last was destroyed before our time, but we've been briefed on them in case another ever shows up.”
A book of names is a magical artefact of frightening power. It is essentially a list of 'true names' of demons, sprites and other similar beings. These true names can be used to summon, bind and sometimes even control said beings. Fortunately for non-demonologists and the fabric of reality itself, true names are very hard to record and tend to just disappear off the page they were written on. Unfortunately, some bastard of a unicorn found that by binding his soul to a book and using the magical energies of many unicorns being tortured to death, he could record true names in a book without them disappearing. That unicorn became an immortal grim shade while his soul was bound in the names of the book; and would stay that way unless the book was destroyed or somepony read the names, causing them to disappear along with a chunk of his soul.
This was another reason that the case didn't contain a Book. No angry grim shade stomping into the meeting trying to find his soul before some idiot paralegal speed-read the whole thing out of existence.
“Oh no, it wasn't an actual book of names” says Pinkie “That would be more of a job for the Princesses than the Mare-Do-Well. It's like a Book of Names but without the demons or the torturing or the evil shades.”
“So nothing at all like a Book of Names then,” says Twilight.
“Silly Twilight, I'll show you!” Pinkie presses the black button on the wall again. “Kitchen, this is Pinkie Pie, can we have the food for booth twelve sent to my office please? Thanksies!”
Pinkie's office was a lot more Pinkie than the rest of the building. The walls were striped white and pink and decorated with helium balloons and paper chains. The entire room was littered with strange devices and junk. There was a vivarium on the desk with nothing but an adult massager inside, a contraption of gears and wires and iron labelled 'Ro-Butler 6000', document boxes filled with candy and several in-trays full of documents. The pink mare shuts the door behind us with her tail, and sits down behind her desk. Everyone starts asking questions at once.
“How are those documents like a book of names?” asks Twilight.
“Why is Mare-Do-Well back? I thought you were helping the Cake nieces with their restaurant,” says Rainbow Dash.
“Who the fuck told you I was banished?” I ask.
“Can I get a refill?” asks Trixie, pointing to her empty mojito.
“All your questions will be answered in time” says Pinkie, “Except Trixie's which I'll answer now: Press the picture of a mojito on the Ro-Butler over there.” The blue illusionist trots over to the machine and presses a picture on the side. The machine shudders and judders and groans for ten seconds, before going 'Ding!' and dispensing a drink. Trixie takes a sip.
“Passable” she says.
“I could never get it to muddle the mint properly” says Pinkie with a small frown, “Anyway, I'll start from the beginning.
“Back six or so months ago, Mr and Mrs Cake come talk to me after closing time. They're all 'we gave our nieces some start up bits for a restaurant in Fillydelphia, it was doing well for a while but now they're really struggling, you know city business better than we do, could you go down there as a restaurant consultant.' I was like, sure, why not right? I've been rented out as a consultant by the Cakes before, I know all about hospitality and I throw the best parties in Equestria. Simple job.”
“So I arrive at the Big Brioche with a smile on my face and a bunch of extra capital from the Cakes to be spent as needed. Lemon Drizzle and Chocolate Cake show me around, and the thing is, the restaurant is pretty darn well run. I fired a cook who couldn't actually cook and just used the job as a front for dealing moondust, replaced him with someone from Ponyville who could cook and would also cater to non-pony tastes, added the private booths upstairs and did a lot of promotion for Big Brioche, but those are the only obvious changes they needed. Lemon and Chocolate have really got it together, they're not like other places I've been where the owners are silly ponies who don't know that grease traps need cleaning out or don't bother to get a booze licence; but they were still losing money.
“After a week I knew exactly what the problems were. Ponies from four different gangs would come into Big Brioche whenever they wanted, trot straight into the kitchen and demand protection bits from the chef or the bartender or whoever else was about. I'd try to change a vendor for hay or for fruits, or even just negotiate prices, and a bunch of ponies in cheap suits would show up, tell me there were no other vendors in town. If I found a new vendor and changed anyway, the new one would have the wheels stolen off his cart and his delivery-colts would be mugged on the job. It was crazy! I hadn't seen criminals coming after a business this hard since Manehattan.
“Lemon and Chocolate told me that it had started out really small, just one or two creepy vendors. It got steadily worse since, and it's happening to everyone. All the honest vendors are being harassed or turned into fronts for the gangs. The police can't or won't do anything, and when a deli owner down the street got some extortionists arrested, fwoosh, his shop was burned down within a week.” Her front legs go up in the air.
“So I was all like 'Crime is killing this neighbourhood! What do I do?' and then it hit me like a sack of flour: The Mare-Do-Well! The first thing I did was track down and take out every pony making collections in the neighbourhood, about twelve I think. Most of them I just set up to be arrested in the middle of a crime, but I hospitalised one who had beaten up a waitress at Morning Sunshine Cafe. I thought the collections would end at least.”
“I take it that didn't happen,” says Dash.
Pinkie shakes her head sadly. “'Fraid not, Dashie. The charges didn't stick for half the ponies arrested, and they just sent even more enforcers in place of the ones they lost. Then I spent months going after the higher ups. I was putting more ponies in hospital than a dozen ambulances. Went after the little bosses, the owners of fronts, but it didn't matter. The gangs would just get worse and worse. Every time I took out ponies from one gang, ponies from two others would pop up like parasprites to take the spoils. It was turning me into a crazy pony.”
“So what happened?” I ask.
“This happened.” Pinkie pulls a letter out from one of the desk drawers. “I was in Fat Parsley's flat trying to set her up for possession of illegal arcane paraphernalia. She had it stored in her wall safe. It's a letter from a certain mare from Manehattan. Nicker Cavallo.” She grins.
“It was a letter telling Fat to get a team together for a bank robbery pronto, on pain of a painful death” she says, “Some super-valuable documents were coming onto the market in Filly. I was a sneaky-pie, and stopped framing and beating up ponies and started tracking and listening in on ponies.
“It took about two months of interrogations and listening to random ponies' pillow talk, but eventually I found out exactly what the documents were. See, this crime boss called Sparks decided he didn't want to be a crime boss any more, so turned all of his money towards legal businesses. Sparks had a itty-bitty problem though, two in fact. One was all his old enemies who would come after him and his businesses if he turned legit. The other was all his old friends, who suddenly wouldn't have jobs any more and wouldn't stay friends for long. He took care of both problems at once and made the not-a-Book of Names. Here's the contents page.”
Pinkie takes out a few stapled together pages and passes them across the table. We all crowd close together to take a look at it. The headings are the names of local gangs, large and small, and different varieties of independent contractors. Under these headings are dozens and dozens of names. I know some of the names, all criminals. A few names are blacked out.
“This is a list of every single criminal and semi-legitimate business-unguate in Fillydelphia. If this is just the contents page...” Trixie looks awed.
“Oooh, would you like some more? Here's the part for that donkey Fourleaf” says Pinkie, handing over another couple of pages.
Everything you could possibly need to know about Fourleaf the donkey was in these pages. Who his family were and where they lived. What he did. Where he ate and drank and slept. Who he'd killed. What he'd stolen and who he'd stolen from. Who he'd worked for, what jobs he'd done and when he'd done them. What weapons he carried, who his contacts were, how he hid his crimes.
“You could have this donkey wrapped around your hoof with information like this... You have the same for all of these ponies?” asks Twilight.
“Yup. See, Sparks got his criminal friends to spend a whole year doing nothing but spying on every other criminal in Fillydelphia to make the not-a-Book-of-Names” says Pinkie, “His friends who did a good job on this job got their legitimate jobs with Sparks. After he got his businesses nice and established with lots of fancy security, he decided to sell the book, and I thought I'd pick up a copy. I was going to just use it as a meanie-defence shield against any pony who tried to mess with the Cakes, but now you guys turned up, I have a waaaay better idea! So long as Gilda and Trixie want to work with me I guess.”
“What's in it for us?” I ask.
“Well, for starters you'll get 25k bits and to sweeten the pot, I'll give you your files from the not-a-Book-Of-Names.” She's grinning widely now.
“Wait, we have files in there?” asks Trixie.
“Sure. How'd you think I knew Gilda was banished?”
“Sounds interesting. What's the plan?” I ask.
"Simple," says Pinkie, grinning widely. “Take out every gang in Fillydelphia.”
There's a knock on Pinkie's office door. “Come in” she says, and a tall, orange-coated green-maned unicorn stallion with a dopey smile plastered across his face walks in, pushing a serving cart laden with food in front of him. Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle both smile in recognition. Trixie looks furious for a moment, and then smiles along with the others.
“Snails, is that you? That IS you, how've you been Snails?” says Twilight.
The orange stallion smiles widely. “Miss Twilight! Yeah it's me, I've been living in Filly since I finished school, I got a job with Pinkie a few months ago. What are you guys doing all the way in Fillydelphia?”
“Oh we're just visiting Pinkie Pie and checking out the city” says Twilight. “I can't believe it's you, the last time I saw you was in field trips to the library with the school. You've grown into quite the handsome young stallion” she says with the cheeky smile of an aunt, making Snails blush.
“Snails mah colt, how you been?” says Rainbow Dash, “Scoots said you'd moved to Filly, you and Twist still an item?”
“We're engaged” he says almost gleefully, “The wedding is this summer, Pinkie Pie is helping plan it and-” He notices Trixie and his lidded eyes go wide. “The Great and Powerful Trixie? Is that you?”
If anyone else notices the look of unbridled hate that quickly passes over the blue illusionist's face, they don't show it. “That would be I, my good stallion. Are you a fan?” she says.
“Am I a fan? I'm a HUGE fan! I saw your Ponyville show, two of your Manehattan shows, your entire Manechester summer tour, I even went to Canterlot to see your firework display for the Grand Galloping Gala! You're amazing, you're like, the reason I actually listened in class when we were studying magic-” He pauses, looking like he has remembered something very bad, and then looks sheepishly at Trixie. “And I, uh, wanted to apologise to you. About Ponyville. Uh, and the Ursa... and your wagon...”
Trixie just smiles gracefully and waves her hoof. “Water under the bridge my dear fan, the wagon was insured against rampaging monsters and my tour continued without a hitch. I changed my story to how I teamed up with Celestia's personal student to defeat an Ursa Major that attacked a town, though not before it devoured two foolish colts” she says, grinning evilly. “Crowds simply loved Trixie's new story, I had far fewer problems with idiot hecklers.” She sticks her tongue out at Rainbow Dash, who rolls her eyes. “But don't worry, Mister Snails, you are entirely forgiven.”
“Aww, that is so nice of you Trixie” says the simpering pink mental case. “Snails has been working here for a few months now, he's a super cook and even better, he can cook for griffons and diamond dogs! Way too many ponies won't which is really annoying for griffons and dogs because it's a big city and there's no decent food, though I can kinda understand why because killing animals is horrible and even eating fish is kinda squicky but Snails is up to the task, ain't that right Snaily-waily?”
Snails nods and levitates five covered dishes off the tray, and sets them down on the table in front of us. One lid comes off to reveal a massive radish and jalapeño pizza covered in cheese for Dash. The next contains a beanburger the size of a pony's head and a serving of crispy hayfries for Twilight. The third is a mixed platter of kelp, carola, sea lettuce and other seafood served with a bowl of dipping sauce for Trixie. Pinkie has a plate of sugared donuts.
Last of all, Snails lifts the lid off my serving dish with his magic. On that dish is pure beauty. Four golden brown fish cakes, steam gently drifting off them. The smell of dill and basil and garlic and impossibly fresh salmon hits me like a warm pillow filled with my greatest sexual fantasies. I bring my knife and fork to one, and gently tease a piece off. Juicy, pink chunks of salmon wrapped in fluffy mashed potato. My eyes go half lidded as I bring the piece to my beak.
The creamy, buttery potato practically melts on my tongue. The salmon has the perfect amount of give and tastes like cubhood summers spent flying and fishing over mountain lakes. Tiny chives and spring onions explode in my mouth like flavour crystals.
Snails, you have no idea what you have just done. I am going to rob, blackmail and murder until I have enough bits to keep you as my full time on-call personal chef. I will buy you out from under that pink witch sat across the table from me. No stallion or tom can satisfy me the way you can, Snails. I... I think I love you.
I wolf down the fish cakes. I think I might actually be crying when I'm done.
I'm far too happy to care.
I look back up. Twilight, Trixie and Dash are all enjoying their food. Snails is standing in the corner, looking at me with a smug, “I just gave a filly multiples” smirk. Pinkie has finished her donuts, and is giving me a similar variation of that look. Fuck you, Pinkie. Your food isn't allowed to make me this happy.
“Snails,” says Twilight, “This is-”
“Incredible-” I say,
“Best Pizza I've-” says Dash
“Ever tasted.” says Trixie.
Snails takes a small bow and moves to leave, but Trixie stops him. “Snails, would you accept a small gift from the Great and Powerful Trixie?” she says, “You can think of it as a wedding present in advance.”
Snails looks confused but pleasantly surprised. “Uh, sure, I'd be honoured Miss Trixie.” Trixie levitates a small wooden charm on a string necklace from her bag. It has an odd looking glyph carved into it, like a starburst within a starburst.
“The next time you and your fiancée are... 'enjoying your relationship', use this,” says Trixie, “Wear it around the neck to activate it. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by its effects.”
Snails blushes so hard he looks like a nearly-ripened tomato, stammers a thank you and leaves the room.
Pinkie licks donut sugar from her hooves, moves her plate aside and slaps a folder down on the table. “Now that you're all fed, let's get down to beeswax.
“The jelly centre of this crime donut is that the three big gangs in Fillydelphia are fighting for power. The second one gang gets a big enough edge over another, they'll try to wipe that gang out. That's what was giving me problems, because as soon as I took out ponies from one gang, ponies from the next would be waiting to take their place. They weren't scared of Mare-Do-Well, I mean hay, I hadn't even been in the full costume until Sunny Skies so they didn't know Mare-Do-Well was here; but they were terrified of another gang getting ahead of them.”
“That's kinda weird,” says Twilight, “Back in Manehattan there were dozens of gangs, but they weren't all going crazy at once like that. What's different here?”
“In Manehattan they were in a stable state, like mints and soda-pop on their own,” says Pinkie, “All the little gangs had their own comfortable empires and hidey holes, so when somepony came along to dislodge them they didn't know what hit them; and the police and courts got back on their feet and stopped them from setting up shop again. It ain't like that in Fillydelphia. Someone has dropped the mints into the soda-pop inside the gangs themselves, so the gangs are going crazy and the fact that the gangs are going crazy is making the other gangs go even more crazy making the other gangs even crazier!”
“I'm hoping you know what's causing all the crazy,” says Dash, who is shovelling the last slice of pizza into her mouth.
Pinkie slides a piece of paper from the folder, with a photo of a young, drunken, butter coloured earth pony stallion attached. “Lucino Tagliatelli, officially the head of the Macaroni family in Filly. Trixie, Gilda, I believe you two know this guy, but I'll just fill in everyone else. Lucino is an idiot playcolt who goes through moon dust like I go through cupcakes. He stumbled into bosshood through a mix of accidental deaths and silly power games by other players in the Macaroni family. Everyone under him hates him and wants to murder him, but fortunately for him, they can't.”
Pinkie pulls out another two sheets of paper. One has a photo of a sour faced, aquamarine earth pony mare. The other has a photo of a moustachioed, middle aged unicorn stallion. “There's a split in the Macaroni family” says Pinkie, “The mare is Jackie Cannoli. She's from Neighples, thinks everyone in the family should stick to their roots in Neighples and that anyone not from Neighples should shut their mouths, know their places and be glad for scraps from the real Macaroni family's table.
“The stallion is Weams and he thinks the exact opposite. He's Fillydelphia born and raised, got into the Macaroni family because it was the only gang in his neighbourhood, and as far as he cares all that matters is loyalty to the family and money brought in, and not in that order. He doesn't really get along with Jackie Cannoli, they both kinda want to kill each other. Thing is, they both run about half of the family each, and if they had a fight, half the family would end up in jail or dead and the other half would get picked apart by the other two gangs. This is what's keeping Lucino alive,” she says, tapping his picture with her hoof, “if he's out of the picture, a civil war is all but guaranteed. He's not the smartest pony but he knows this, so he uses what clout he has to stop either side getting a big enough edge over the other, because as soon as one side gets strong enough to force the other to back down, he's mincemeat.
“This is what's causing the problems. Neither side can get leverage from within the family, so they're having to look outside. That's why they're going crazy with collections, diving straight into any business that the other gangs get forced out of and doing every silly little thing to get a few more bits or a bit more clout; because as soon as Lucino's gone, which could be soon seeing that he does enough drugs to kill several lesser ponies, it could spell the end for the entire family.”
“That's one gang, who else?” I say.
She pulls another sheet of paper out, this time there's a photo of a well dressed zebra who seems to ooze style and charm even in a grainy surveillance photo. “The next gang is the Wharfies. They've got a long history as smugglers and privateers and have always ran the shady businesses around the Fillydelphia docks. I think they started acting weirdly about two years ago, but I couldn't figure out why. I thought I'd be able to work it out with the book of names, but I've had a chance to look through it and I'm even more confused now,” she says, frowning. She pulls out a ream of newspaper clippings and police reports.
“These are a bunch of crimes that I've linked to the Wharfies,” says Pinkie, passing the stack of papers around, “Notice anything weird about them?”
Trixie flicks through them. “Racketeering, muggings, burglaries, seems pretty normal... huh, that's a lot of arsons they're doing... soliciting in public? Why would you do that, it's legal if you do it in a brothel or in a licensed district- Wait, vandalism? Fly tipping? What would a criminal gang get out of fly tipping?”
“It got even weirder when I got the book of names,” says Pinkie, “The Wharfies weren't vandalising things for fun, they were actually paying their ponies to do it, same with fly tipping. They were buying the garbage off businesses at the docks and dumping it in random neighbourhoods in town. They were setting fire to businesses that didn't even have insurance. They were mugging joggers that weren't carrying any bits!
“There was no rhyme or reason to it, they'd just appear in an area of town, cause a miniature crime wave that was probably making a loss for cupcakes' sake, then disappear and cause another bunch of crime waves in a different bunch of areas” she says, throwing her hooves in the air. “The only good lead I have is their boss, Barry LaCroix. Originally from the Clopagos, educated in Canterlot and became the boss just before they started going crazy. He's smart, he's charming and he owns a bunch of fronts; that's just about all I know of him.”
“That's two gangs, who's the third?” asks Dash.
Pinkie takes out another sheet of paper. The photo is a dour russ mare, who I recognise immediately. “The Kurierzy” she says, “Criminals from Stalliongrad, Trotholm and Tarandroland. They're small compared to the other two gangs, but they're very bad ponies and they do very bad things. Their members are much more cautious than the other two gangs, and information on them is much harder to find. I've only been able to get good information on their middleponies. They've been around for half a decade, but kicked off in the last year like everypony else. All the book of names says about their leader is that she's a russ called Trotsky, she's probably from Stalliongrad and she might have been a soldier.”
I grin widely. “Oh, we know Trotsky and we know the Kurierzy, don't you worry.”
Pinkie looks genuinely surprised for the first time today. “Really? Cool! How?”
“Me and Trixie have worked with Trotsky before,” I say, “She's a crazy midget, from Stalliongrad or maybe Trotholm or maybe Sarvvik, she was definitely in armed forces of some kind. We were never sure if she was a spy who liked to pocket some extra bits through crime or a criminal with good intelligence contacts. She's probably both. Has a thing for gelding stallions before she kills them.”
“Yes, that's one of her less endearing habits.” says Trixie, “Two years ago she started acting more paranoid than usual, which is impressive, and six months after that she cut off contact with everyone who wasn't in the Kurierzy or weren't cowed enough by them that they legally qualified as pets. I would advise letting Gilda and I investigate them. They have a great many links to corrupt Equestian Intelligence members and that's really our sort of thing.”
“Alrighty then!” says Pinkie Pie, suddenly perking up like the nut she is. “Gilda and Trixie can stick some feelers into the Kurierzy, Twilight and me can try figure out what the hell is going on with the Wharfies and me, Dashie-”you don't get to call her that you stupid bitch “-and Twilight will plan how to mess up the Macaronis. Sounds like a plan?”
I smile and look over at Trixie. “I'll see what I can do.”
Me and Trixie are back in the hotel room, planning our next move. “Now see, all this crime fighting horseapples is all well and good especially at twenty-five grand a piece” I say, “But we've got our own shit to worry about too. I gotta get unbanished, you gotta get back in the Guild's good books or find some other work. The Kurierzy has a whole bunch of bent EIS agents and assets, so it ain't a bad hole to fish in for either purpose. We find an agent who knows more than he should, use him to get some answers, then serve him up to the Guild on a plate. You got the files Pinkie gave us?”
Trixie levitates a bunch of documents out of her saddlebags and starts flicking through them. “He's useless, he's useless, she's dead, he's stupid, she's smart... Ah!” She smirks darkly. “Gilda, did you know that Smedley Puddinghead is still working in Fillydelphia?”
I turn my head so fast my eyes spin. “What, 'Puddie' Puddinghead? Worked with spies and pony traffickers to get foreign assets in and out of Equestria, didn't really care if the pony traffickers were trafficking slaves, we shut down his operation and told him we'd hang him from his eyeballs if he ever came back to Filly?”
“The very same,” says Trixie, “He set up shop a year after we shut him down and he's up to his old tricks. Would you like to know the best part, my lovely griffon friend?” She takes a juicebox from her saddlebags, lays back on her bed and takes a long drink before looking back up at me.
“He's working with Goodflank,” she says, smirking, “And last I heard, Goodflank had been operating in Stalliongrad.”
Ah, Goodflank. Shiftless, sadistic, gossipy, Goodflank. Makes himself useful by working with ponies no one else will Goodflank. Steals from the Guild like his life depends on it Goodflank.
“Hmm, he's careless, he's almost certainly working with the Kurierzy and the Guild will be glad to see him gone,” I say, “He's got the trifecta. Pinkie, you magnificent bitch, you've given us our in!”
I pause, remembering something. "Yo Trixie, just out of curiosity, that orange chef dude that you looked like you wanted to murder. What was that charm you gave him?" I ask.
Trixie slurps up the rest of her juice and smiles sweetly. “A premature ejaculation charm." I grin. Better than being Hoofdini'd.
"Well then Trix, I think it's time to go find Mister Puddinghead.”
It had took an hour to drag Puddie's fat plot up to where I wanted it, even with the sky wagon. We hadn't told Rainbow Dash that we were taking it. She'd never approve of something like this. No, this was strictly between myself, Trixie and the dweeb passed out in the back.
The altimeter strapped to my wrist reads 60,000 feet. Enough time for what I was going to do. I clamber into the back and give Puddie a poke. His front hooves are tied and he's wearing a blindfold.
“Wake up, dweeb!” I say, poking his fat, brown coat with my claws. He stirs and groans.
“Hnngh... whu- how did-”
“You get here?” I cut him off, “That cute red mare back in the bar who was going to fully blow you? Turns out she won't. She slipped something into your drink. Might have been a sedative.”
I take out my flask and have a pull. “Come to think of it, it was definitely a sedative. Yeah, a sedative. Now you're here, with me. Gilda the Gryphon.”
Puddie tenses up for a moment, then goes limp on the wagon floor. “Oh Nightmare Moon...”
“Yeahhh, you could say that,” I say “We had a little agreement Puddie, didn't we? All you had to do was stop being a middlepony for spies and pony smugglers and stay the hay away from Fillydelphia but that was too fucking hard for you, wasn't it? As I said, now you're here.”
“W-where are we?” he asks.
“Puddie, Puddie, Puddie,” I say, hauling him to his hooves by the scruff of his neck. “It's not where we are that matters, Puddie.” I move him to the back door of the wagon and unlatch it. “It's where we're going”
With that I whip off his blindfold and tackle him out of the wagon, diving down alongside him. It takes him a second to realise what just happened, and his piggy little eyes go wide. The look on his face is beyond priceless. It should be in a Canterlot art museum, behind all lasers and alarms and shit, titled 'The Terror of the Falling Dipshit.' A second later he opens his mouth.
“AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH WE'RE FALLLING! WE'RE FUCKING FALLING! AAAAAAHHHHHH!”
“NO, YOU'RE FALLING” I yell back “I'M DOING AN 'AERIAL MANEUVER' ON ACCOUNT OF THESE HERE WINGS!”
“NO CELESTIA PLEASE NO!” He says, hitting the 'semi-coherent pleading' stage of negotiations. Cold wind rushes past us and ruffles my feathered as we plummet to the ground.
I love this feeling.
“CALM DOWN DWEEB I'M OFFERING YOU A JOB! THERE'S NO PAY, BUT YOU GET A NEW LEASE ON LIFE COURTESY OF ME, HOW'S THAT SOUND?” I'm a big fan of griffon negotiation, but it's hard on the vocal cords. It's not easy to be heard clearly when you're dropping through the air at sixty meters a second.
He looks at me in terror and confusion. His mouth shuts and opens but no sound comes out. He shuts his eyes hard, and then says “WHAT?”
“YOU'RE GOING TO WORK FOR ME, I'LL GIVE YOU THE DETAILS BACK ON THE GROUND. YOU'RE UP HERE BECAUSE I'M GIVING YOU A CHOICE!”
“WHAT?” Again with the confusion and terror. Ponies, honestly.
“WE'RE AT TERMINAL VELOCITY, YOU HIT THE GROUND THIS FAST AND YOU'RE PASTE, EVEN YOUR TEETH AND BONES. IT'S A MERCIFUL DEATH!” I stare him straight in the eyes and dig my claws into his withers hard enough to draw blood. His face twists up in pain. “BUT IF YOU TAKE THIS JOB AND YOU FUCK IT UP, ON PURPOSE OR THROUGH INCOMPETENCE, YOU WILL NOT HAVE A MERCIFUL DEATH! YOU WILL DIE BY INCHES, UNDERSTAND? I'LL START BY SEWING YOUR BALLS INTO YOUR MOUTH AND WING IT FROM THERE!” I think he's starting to get the message.
“SO WHAT'LL IT BE, MERCIFUL DEATH OR FUN NEW JOB? YOU'VE GOT THIRTY SECONDS TO MAKE YOUR MIND UP!”
I'll admit it, I'm having fun.
“JOB! JOB! I PICK JOB!” he screams. Tears are running down his face.
Wonderful. I wrap my arms around his body and spread my wings, going into a glide. Puddie is openly sobbing, and I'm pretty sure he's wet himself.
“So Puddie,” I say, whispering into the quivering lump's ear, “I hear skydiving is less fun without wings.”
As soon as we'd got him into a safehouse of Trixie's, Puddie told us everything we needed to know and a few things we didn't. He confirmed that Goodflank was working with the Kurierzy, among other ponies. The operation that Goodflank is most involved in is a flophouse in a slummy neighbourhood in the north of Fillydelphia. The more Puddie told us about this place, the less we liked.
“It's run by a dozen or so stallions from Stalliongrad” Puddie had said, “They call it the mechanics, because they 'fix' the mares that give any of the Kurierzy pimps trouble. It's, uh, not a nice place. From what I hear! I've never been there or had any involvement myself...”
I knew Puddie's history, he's probably been involved up to his balls in a place like that if he gets any bits from doing so; but the important thing is he told us where it is and how many people are there. I spent the following day and night surveilling the place from a distance with Trixie.
Now it's the evening after that, we've got our equipment sorted and we're about to go in.
I’m perched above a lookout for the flophouse, a navy unicorn. Next to him is a crossbow under a pile of rags. The pegasus method for neutralizing unicorns uses speed and surprise. You strike the top of their head from above to stun the unicorn, then apply a strangle from the back until the unicorn is unconscious. The combination of being stunned and lack of blood flow to the horn stops the target from using offensive or defensive magic. Then you apply a 'Sting Ring' to the horn, a thaumelectric converter which turns magical energy into electricity and directs it into the unicorn, preventing them from using any magic. Finish by binding and gagging the target. All very clean, with no unnecessary casualties.
The griffon method uses a sharp knife.
I fish the house key from the unicorn, hide him under the rags, and caw like a crow. That’s Trixie's signal to come and take the back door to the house while I take a top window. The blue illusionist appears from the shadows, wearing dark clothes and a darker than usual coat. She takes the key and I fly up to a boarded-up third floor window. After securing myself with a rope, I take a hand drill from my webbing and make a quiet little hole in the boards. Pinkie Pie had given me a device for looking through little holes like this one, a strange thin periscope enchanted by Twilight to bend and still work. I was gaining a grudging respect for that pink nutcase. The room is clear, bar a ratty bed and some rattier medical equipment. I spend a minute prying the boards off the wall, and then give a thumbs up to Trixie. We go in.
The room is dark, and stinks of mould and stale piss. There are restraints hanging loosely off the corners of the bed, and an IV drip next to it. The bedside table is covered in used needles and empty vials. I pick a vial up and look at the residue inside. Blue lotus oil, a bad narcotic. It gives a small weak high and quickly causes a crippling addiction. It's banned pretty much everywhere, as no one would take it recreationally and is only used for causing addiction in ponies.
I creep to the door and slide my scope under the crack at the bottom. The hallway is empty, but I take my knife out just in case. There are four more bedrooms and the staircase down the hall. I check the room across from me first. I hear weak murmurs from inside the room as I set the scope up. No hooves on the floor, but someone is on the bed. Opening the door as quietly and slowly as I could, I go in.
Two mares are tied to the bed, face down. Their coats are matted with dirt and covered in cuts and bruises. Both have a shaved patch on their front legs with an IV needle sticking out. The one on the left, a Russ mare, has her tail yanked tight up her back with rope, tied to her mane. The base of the tail was swollen, red and had several needle marks on it. She bleats weakly in broken Equestrian. The burgundy earth pony next to her isn't moving. I check her pulse, weak; but still there. I want to cut them loose, tell them it will be okay and comfort them what little I can, but can't risk them running about in a house full of slavers. They won't have long to wait.
I check the other three bedrooms. Four earth pony mares, an earth pony colt and a reindeer mare. One of the pony mares is dead, choked on her own vomit. Poor thing looks barely past school age. I cut her from her restraints, closed her eyes and covered the cream mare with a sheet. The colt bound next to her is unconscious, a small mercy. I'll be back for him and the others, but I have a job to do first.
I go down the stairs to the first floor. Four bedrooms, and judging from the fumes drifting down the hall, one bathroom-turned narcotics lab. Light shines from under from the bathroom door. A very bad pony is in that room. When I’m eight meters from the bathroom door, the door latch starts to move. I jump straight upwards and flatten myself against the ceiling. Dig your talons into the drywall, stay still, and nopony sees you in a dark hallway unless they're staring upwards. It's a cute griffon trick.
Caustic fumes billow from the bathroom, and out trots a gangly, piss yellow stallion. He’s carrying a soldering iron, glowing orange in the unlit hallway. He giggles as he goes into one of the bedrooms. I drop down and sneak up to the bedroom door. There’s a bloodcurdling scream that quickly dies down, replaced by pathetic, broken sobs. I walk into the open doorway.
I see a cyan pegasus filly, not a day older than Dash was on our first day of Junior Speedsters, wings bound to her sides, tied to a filthy mattress and her haunches propped up with blood-flecked pillows.
I see a giggling, piss yellow stallion next to her.
I see what he is doing with the soldering iron.
I see black.
I'm thirteen years old and I'm soaring over Greenwood Valley. I've been flying properly for less than a year, and today I'm hunting from the air for the first time. My Uncle Scratchy is flying meters away from me, looking down at the valley with his one good eye and telling me what to look for. He's grizzled and funny and wise, everything a good uncle should be.
Scratchy points to a clearing on the ground and tells me to watch it carefully. I see a flash of red peek out from a bush, and a fox moves into the open. My uncle gives me thumbs up, and I go in for a dive. The wind screams past my ears the fox doesn't notice me I'm only seconds away I'm ready to pull up it's in my grasp blood sprays-
My claws are filled with delicious, warm meat. I tear into it with my beak. It’s rich and meaty and juicy, just as meat should be. There's something a bit odd about the taste that I can't place. I hear a strange gurgling sound.
On the floor in front of me is a yellow stallion with a gaping hole in his side. Dark blood is flowing out freely, and the gurgling sound is him trying to breathe without enough pressure in his chest cavity.
I'd torn his liver clean out of his body.
I stop chewing and drop the organ. I'm not a fan of pony meat. Or liver. The stallion is staring straight ahead at the cyan pegasus filly. I grab him by his wound and drag him out of the room. I won't allow him to die looking at the small filly he had tortured. She was too innocent, too pure, too good to be the last thing that fuck sees. He can bleed out staring at a mouldy wall.
I hear a little creak, the sound of a pony trying to walk up a creaky staircase without being heard. Horseapples, I must have made a ton of noise just now. I flatten myself against the wall next to the stairs, then take out my knife and a flashbomb. The pony sounds like they’re halfway up the stairs. I muffle my mouth with my hand and softly caw like a crow, just loud enough for somepony on the stairs to hear. If I don't hear the callback, they’re getting their eyes overloaded with light and their face overloaded with knife.
“hoo...” comes softly from the stairs. Trixie's callback. She quietly trots up the stairs, sees me, sees the blood dripping down my beak, plumage and talons, and sees the pony dying at my paws. Most ponies would have screamed or thrown up at the sight. Trixie just gives me a look that said 'yo, what happened to that diet of yours?'. Good old Trixie. She points downstairs with a hoof and gives me the 'all clear' gesture. I point upstairs and return the all clear, give the all clear for the room with the pegasus filly, and shrug at the other rooms.
I take out my viewing device and check the doors for the remaining rooms. Trixie's horn lights up, her coat ripples and she’s suddenly the dead unicorn from outside. We do the bathroom/lab first. It’s full of thick, yellow fumes, test tubes, jugs of solvents, cleaners and chemicals, Bunsen burners and everything else an amateur chemist could want. There are no ponies in here hiding in the bath or under the jury-rigged fume cupboard, the lab is the late Mr Jaundice's stomping grounds by the look of it.
We then check the bedroom across from the one with the filly. There are three cots, all with mares restrained and attached to drips the same as upstairs. Two of them have the same pulled up tails as the russ upstairs. One more room and then we can free them.
The final room has no bed, just several dog crates. All but one are empty. A gray pegasus filly looks up at us with pleading eyes.
“Please... don’t hurt my sister. Take me instead. Don’t hurt her...” Her voice is weak and raspy, and her eyes bloodshot from crying. Trixie's illusion washes away into a mint-green version of herself and she unlocks the padlock on the cage.
“We're here to rescue you, your sister is safe and all the bad stallions are gone. Can you walk?” says Trixie.
The tiny filly stands up and takes wobbly, tentative steps towards Trixie, then bolts towards her and collapses sobbing in her forelegs. Trixie wraps a foreleg around her and lets the filly cry into her chest.
“T-they said they would kill us if our parents didn't pay... They would c-cut us up and send us to our p-parents bit by bit aaa-aand-” her speech dissolves into sobbing again.
“Shhh, you're safe now, you'll be back with your parents in no time. Shall go find your sister?” Trixie can deal with foals. A perk of spending your teenage years doing birthday parties for exposure and free pizza.
The filly sniffles, looks up at Trixie and puts on a brave face as she nods. She slowly breaks from the embrace, and they both make towards the door. That's when I remember the very messy, very dead stallion in the hallway.
“Trixie, kid, can you dudes wait here for a sec? I gotta go put away my leftovers.”
Everyone was in the living room. We had freed all the prisoners, and the ones who were more or less lucid helped us with the ones who more-or-less weren't. All of them could just about walk, thank Zephyrous, but we had to hook them up to Blue Lotus drips to stop them going into withdrawal. The two pegasus fillies, Hailstone and Virga, are on a blanket next to the colt, cuddled up to each other as a burgundy mare tells them a story.
There's a weird mood in the room. A few mares look numb and have thousand yard stares, from the drugs or from the brutal treatment they've had. The reindeer mare and one of the russ mares look positively giddy at their new freedom, and keep breaking out into peals of laughter. Most of the rest are comforting the ones who are in a bad way. They all look tired.
One mare, a teal pegasus, is trotting around the room anxiously, eyes darting around. She bites her lip and walks up to me.
“Excuse me, um, mister griffon, but what's going to happen now? Y'know, about all this,” she says, gesturing around the room with her hoof. Her voice is cracked and dry.
“It's like we said. My associate here is contacting a social worker through her magic. She can keep you guys safe, hide you, get you back to your homes, whatever you need. What do you need to know?” I ask.
“Well, me and my hubby run a coffee shop, we have for years” she says nervously “Everything was fine until last year, when a bunch of gangsters from Stalliongrad showed up and started extorting money from everyone and beating up anyone who wouldn't pay. We kept up at first, but they kept asking for more and more, until last week we just couldn't pay them or we'd lose the shop.”
She takes a deep breath. “When we told them, they didn't say anything and just walked out of the shop. Later, just before we close up for the evening, five stallions break in. They beat up my husband and told him that they'd make me work off the money we 'owed' them, and if we ever came up short again they'd kill us both. That was two nights ago, they hadn't done anything to me yet, I mean thank Celestia, but... Won't they just come after us when they come back and find the house empty?”
“When who comes back?”
“The gang!” she huffs “There's like, ten of them, and they're all psychos!”
Twelve, actually. Two dead, ten tied up, sedated and crammed into the downstairs bathroom. They didn't notice a disguised Trixie slipping a sleeping draught into their vodka.
“Are the ponies in this house the same ones extorting money from your shop?” I ask.
“The very same.”
“All the ponies in this house have been taken care of," I say, "They kept records of who they were extorting and stuff up in the drug lab, which we're taking, so even if their associates come and check on the house they'll have no idea who you are. Soon their associates will be taken care of. So, you can just kick back and look forward to seeing your stallion again.”
The mare gives me a small smile. “Oh thank Celestia. I'm sorry, I must sound really ungrateful, you guys did an amazing thing saving us and stopping those bastards and I can't thank you enough. It's just been, well, a nightmare. That yellow one, he told me they were going to... all of them, tonight, after they'd been out drinking.” Her voice goes a little quieter. “I can't even imagine what the other mares went through...”
I would give her a comforting pat on the shoulder, but ponies get all weird about that on account of the talons and such. “We can't change the past” I say gently “But we can stop bastards like these from bucking up the future.”
“Thank you” she says softly, “For everything.”
A flash of light and smoke comes from the kitchen. Trixie trots out, covered in chalk dust and stinking of arcane reagents.
“By Nightmare sending circles are a hassle” she mutters to no one in particular, “and ponies wonder why arcane communications majors earn six figures three years after graduation... Ah, Beakface, I've just got a response back from our friend, she'll be here with transport in fifteen minutes.”
“Good,” I say “I'll go start the prep work.”
There were two social workers, Marmalade and Sweetpea. I gotta paw it to them, they're pretty damn efficient. Ten minutes after arriving, they've already figured out who needs medical treatment, who needs a place to hide, where the three kids' parents are and have everypony loaded into the carriage, ready to set off. We'd found a big stash of bits and bankers notes, so we give it to the social workers to make sure all the mares can get what they need and have a little compensation for what they went through. It's only a cold comfort after being forced into prostitution like this, but it's better than nothing.
Before the carriage sets off, the cyan pegasus filly pokes her little head out of the back, and calls to me. “Mister griffon!”
“Hailstone, right? What's up?” I ask.
The small filly gives me a look that I can't place. “I saw what you did to the yellow one,” she says quietly.
Damn it. What the hell do you say to that? I try to laugh it off, foals like funny stuff right? “He tasted horrible. Needed ketchup,” I say, smirking like a dick.
The filly cracks a wide smile, to my surprise. “Thank you, mister griffon. We'll never forget this!” Hey, a pony who doesn't freak at a little blood. She's even more like Dash than she looks.
“No problem kiddo. Now shoo, your parents miss you!” I say, smiling properly for the first time tonight. The two fillies wave at me and Trixie as the carriage pulls away. I know it hurts my griffon cred to say this, but I hope everything goes back to normal for them. They're good kids.
As soon as they're gone, me and Trixie crack on with the cleanup. We search the house for any records or valuables we might have missed the first time, check there are no secret rooms or mares tied up in wardrobes. Fifteen minutes later we're as sure as we can be that we've got everything. The documents and ledgers the slavers had kept are all in our saddlebags.
We head into the bathroom drug lab. Trixie starts rooting around for any chemistry nerd crap that her and Little Miss Migraine could use. It takes her a while, the slavers weren't a big fan of organization or labelling. I start looking under the sinks and in cupboards for some less sophisticated chemistry. I look under the fume cupboard and boom, a dozen gallon-jugs of industrial strength ethanol.
We go from room to room and douse everything in the house. Soon the place reeks of cheap, strong vodka and I start feeling woozy from the fumes. We had already shut off the fuse box, a good thing too since the tiniest spark would turn me into flame-broiled griffon chunks. We get to the downstairs bathroom, where ten slavers are still tied up and out cold from Trixie's sleeping draught.
“Yo Trix, how strong is that draught?” I ask, taking out my knife, “Should I slot these dweebs before we start the fire?”
“Hmm? Oh, I wouldn't bother” she says, “A dose of the Great and Powerful Trixie's sleeping draught is strong enough that the fire won't wake them, no need to waste your time with that thing.”
“Hey, don't call my awesome knife 'that thing'” I say, mock indignantly, “His name is Leroy and he deserves respect! Now pass the accelerant.”
I douse the ten ponies, whistling as I go. They don't stir.
“So how are we going to set this off?” I ask. I'd rather not be in the house as we set it on fire, or near enough for witnesses to see us. Trixie pulls out a battered egg timer.
“I smeared potassium chlorate and some other stuff on the bell of this egg timer I found in the kitchen” she says, “It'll make a big enough flash to start a fire when the timer goes off. Shall we go back to the observation post and watch the fireworks?”
Our observation post was the security office of a disused postal service sorting office two hundred meters down the street from the flophouse. The office was three floors up, so with my eyes and Trixie's magical listening voodoo, we'd had a pretty good idea of what went on down at the flophouse. We arrive in the office with two minutes to spare, and go to the gap in a boarded-up window. Trixie levitates a pair of binoculars from our equipment table and sets up the weird sound amplification doohickey. I just squint.
“Got any snacks?” I ask. Trixie rolls her eyes and levitates a bag of sesame snaps in front of me. I snarf five of them down at once.
“These are Nightmare-damned delicious” I say “These are the greatest sesame snaps I've ever ate. Where'd you get them from?”
“Pinkie Pie gave them to us” says Trixie, smirking like the witch she is. Damn it. The sesame snaps might as well be ash in my mouth.
“Gah, something that annoying shouldn't be able to cook that well.”
“You know Gilda, I really can't see what your problem with Pinkie Pie is” Trixie says, “The Great and Powerful Trixie feels that she is an eccentric yet quite pleasant individual who hosts excellent parties.”
“Yeah, well, I can't see why you don't have a problem with that giant pink vagina, she's the living avatar of that noise balloons make when you rub them together” I mutter, “Anyway, eyes sharp, the house is about to spark up.
Sure enough, an orange glow appears in the kitchen window of the flophouse. It quickly grows into an inferno that engulfs everything downstairs and then starts to spread upstairs. Then we hear the noise. It's coming from the house and it sounds like ponies screaming. Specifically, it sounds like ten ponies screaming through gags as flames sear away their fur and burn the flesh from their bones.
I slowly turn to look at Trixie. “Trixie, you said your sleeping draught would keep them asleep through the fire.”
“It would” she says.
“I didn't use my sleeping draught” she cuts me off, “I used Pinkie's. It has a built-in failsafe that wakes you up if you're on fire or drowning or suchlike.”
The screams are starting to peak, and barely sound equine. I give Trixie a reproachful look. “You should have told me.”
“Oh?” Trixie says sharply “And why is that?”
“I would have brought beer.”
Trixie's expression softens and she gives me a gentle smile. “See, this is why you don't bring ponies like Dash or Pinkie along to every little job you take” she says, “There are just some things they can't truly appreciate like you and I.” The screaming starts to die down. They can't have lasted more than a minute and a half.
We sit there in calm silence, watching the blazing inferno, sipping from juice boxes and occasionally popping sesame snaps into our mouths. It's a good ten minutes until either of us speaks.
“So what's got your tail in a twist, Trix?” I say.
“What?” Her face goes from calm to irritated.
“You wanted those pricks to burn and you wanted to make sure I didn't stop you. You're usually pretty cold when it comes to killing. I'm usually the one who gets pissed off and feeds some dumbass into a woodchipper feet first, metaphorically speaking” I say, “So clearly, something is up.”
Trixie sighs and looks down at the floor. When she looks back up at me there's a solemn expression on her face. “One of the earliest things that the Great and Powerful Trixie learned about the entertainment business is that there is a thin and fuzzy line between the mainstream and the seedy underbelly. The same inn that hosts a Dazzling Displays of Magic show will be hosting the Flanks, Fetlocks and Fantasy Night later that evening, and it's entirely possible that the same performers are in both of them. I never had a problem with things being that way, your job is to entertain people so that's what you do. Most aspiring actresses and singers do some escort work on the side, and near every actor or male model has worked as a 'masseur' at some point.”
“What I'm saying is that when you're in the entertainment business, you know the ponies in the other entertainment business, and often they're the same pony and often that pony is you. Mares and stallions who have sex for money are your friends, your rivals, your confidants and everything inbetween. Prostitution's not a bad gig in central Equestria, it's legal, if a bit sleazy, it pays well, you're working with interesting individuals and you're getting laid all the time. It takes a certain mindset, Discord knows I couldn't do it on a regular basis, but there are worse ways to earn a living.
“Then you travel outside of central Equestria, to Stalliongrad or Trotholm or the Sultanates” she says.
The moon goes behind the clouds, making the dark room seems darker still. Trixie's face hardens. “You visit these very dark places and it's suddenly a very bad gig. Pimps beat their mares in broad daylight. Guards arrest working mares, take their money and rape them. Recent geldings who stare at the floor, terrified, when their 'friend' glances over at them. There are kidnap rings to get fillies into the business. In central Equestria they are - or were, just a rumour, a horror story from a distant land. Outside of central Equestria- you see the signs. The thousand yard stares. The blue lotus addictions. The black eyes and bruised jaws. But the very worst is the tails.”
“What, like some of those mares in the flophouse had?” I say, “I was gonna ask, what in Hades is up with that? Is it some weird look-like-you're-in-heat thing?”
“Close” she says, with a grim smile “Stalliongrad pimps tell the street-trotters to keep tails up in the air at all times to show that they're available. If a mare forgets, or is too weak, or refuses; they strap the tail up her back, inject the lifting muscles with steroids and let the lowering muscles wither from disuse. Tail muscles aren't supposed to work like that, so it's painful to trot around with and makes sex excruciating. Customers hate it, because it tells them that the mare has been forced into the trade, so it actually costs the mares and the pimps money.”
“So why do they do it?” I ask.
“Sheer fucking meanness” she spits. “It hurts the mares, tells them that pimps own them completely and tells them that they're worthless.” She stares back out at the burning house, and then turns to me.
“So when the Great and Powerful Trixie sees bastards like these try to bring a taste of their homeland to central Equestria” she says dramatically “She thinks it prudent, nay, downright patriotic, to discourage them.”
I sling an arm around Trixie's shoulders. “Trixie,” I say, “Usually I fucking gag when ponies talk about 'the magic of friendship'...”
Trixie looks at me and smiles warmly. “Trixie shares your sentiments.”
“Still, when I hang out with a mare like you long enough, well, I kinda see what they're getting at...” I look down at the floor, embarrassed. I mean it, but Adune knows how corny I sound.
Trixie just gives me a chaste nuzzle, and puts her foreleg around my shoulders. We sit there for a while, both cuddling a friend, drinking juice and snacking on sesame snaps as we watch a flophouse burn to the ground.
Sup ponies, I'm Rainbow Dash. Ex-Wonderbolt, current Element of Loyalty, one-time winner of the Daring Do Fanclub annual fanfic write-off, 3rd-dan blackbelt in prank-jitsu, saviour of the world officially-twice-unofficially-thrice over and aeronautical performance consultant (rates negotiable). The wings on my back are so powerful they're simultaneously registered as a demolition tool, a deadly weapon and an abortifacient. There's some other stuff too, but what's important is that I'm the Dash, I get the stallions' wings all bonery and the mare's candy-vags all buttery and I'm pretty much the most awesome pegasus in Equestria.
Right now I'm in Fillydelphia, which should be the most boring city in Equestria but right now has some mad problems with crims and gangsters and load of other douchenozzles. I should be helping my old friend Gilda with a boring babysitting job; but then Pinkie Pie turned up, made the job a lot less boring and then gave us a totally radical new job: find all the criminals and gangsters and douchenozzles and roll them like pizza dough.
Now, usually gangs ain't that big a deal unless they like, completely take over a city, but something's been driving the three big gangs in Fillydelphia nuts and they've been thieving and extorting and beating on ponies like their lives depend on it. One gang are the Macaronis, the big Neighples crime family, the second are the Wharfies, a bunch of sailors and dockworkers who have a thing for robbing and breaking stuff, and the third are the Kurierzy, a bunch of psychos from Stalliongrad and Trotholm who came for the weather, stayed for the crime and are filled to the nipples with ex-soldiers and spies.
Pinkie, myself and Twilight Sparkle have tangled with the Macaronis before in Manehattan, Gilda and the nutty blue hack are out trying to find a chip in the Kurierzy's armour, but we need to find our in for the Wharfies. That's why me, Pinkie and Twilight are holed up in one of Pinkie's Mare-Do-Well hideouts. It looks exactly how you'd expect a Mare-Do-Well hideout owned by Pinkie Pie to look: pink everywhere, random bits of candy, a bathtub, a disorganised pile of gadgets, two wedding cakes, the usual.
We're sorting through box after box after mother-clopping box of police reports, newspapers and legal documents. You know who got all these boxes of police reports? Me. I went to see my buddy Gumshoe, asked him if I could borrow some copies from the archives without leaving a paper trail, and that bastard gave them to me. I have brought this pain on myself.
Hey, I get it, right. Intelligence gathering is important. It's still a bunch of nerd stuff, but you might need to do it in the field and you might not have a team of spooks there to hold your hand and do your analysis for you; so the Wonderbolts test you for that stuff during selection and train you further after you join. Before I joined but after I finally got around to reading the 'Bolt's training manual, I let Twilight Sparkle, the egghead of all eggheads, spend six months getting me up to scratch on that stuff. So I can do it, I know it can be the difference between life and death on a mission, I've got all the materials right in front of me, I'm working with an egghead and a crimefighter, but...
It's so boring. You're just sitting there, reading through papers, jotting down notes and turning coffee into piss. It doesn't feel like proper intel-gathering. I wanna be out there, breaking into offices, bribing people for secret dossiers, smacking suspects across the face 'til they spill the beans, y'know, the cool stuff. It's dumb I guess, because all that stuff does is get you more information that you just have to go sort through later, but... blehh.
Twilight's doing most of the brain work, me and Pinks are either sorting through stuff or doing pretty simple note taking on whatever she asks us to sort through. Right now I'm coding, which is honestly the lamest, most boringest thing in the world. Here's how it works: Twilight sets up a bunch of code-monkey jibber-jabber on Pinkie's Hex engine, which is like an analytical engine but portable. I don't see how it's portable since it's the size of a clopping fridge-freezer and I don't see how it works, since half of it is a huge termite mound inside a glass case filled with magical and mechanical gadgets; but Twilight apparently knows what she's doing. Anyway, she sets up the machine to take in a bunch of data from cards with holes in, the cards with holes in come from a microwave-sized terminal that you type the data into and spits out cards, with a translation of what the holes mean so you can double check your work, and I'm sat here slapping data into the mini-terminal. Pegasi are not made for data entry.
I take a slug of coffee and sigh. “Twi, why am I punching corporate employment data into this stupid box?”
Twilight looks up at me, her face twisted with study-lust. “We don't know why the Wharfies are going on random, costly crime sprees but we do have a lot of data, so it's time for us to do the only thing we can do: monitor everything. I've set up an algorithm that calculates the probability that a company will be a dummy company. Dummy companies are used to hide illegal activities or turn dirty money into nice clean money, so if we can find them and link them to the Wharfies, we just might find out what they're up to.”
I sigh again, and bury my face in my forelegs. “Pinkie, you got any donuts?” I ask.
“Heads up Dashie!” she says, reaching into her box of snacks and flinging a donut at me. I snatch it out of the air with my mouth.
“Thanfp” I say, chewing the pastry. Mare, Pinkie's donuts. They're just so very... donutty.
We go on like this for hours. Coffee, donuts, data entry, spreadsheets, interest rate charts, something called a 'linear regression', lists of export prices, luxury goods catalogues, more coffee, maps of Fillydelphia dotted with pins of different colors, Pinkie brings in some maple bars, fatigue, snappy Twilight, thirty-minute break.
Thirty-minute break! It's a windy route out of Pinkie's hideout, going through sewers, the crawlspace of an abandoned licorice factory, more sewers and coming out through a technomantic-device dumping ground, leaving me ten minutes of glorious flying time. I'm cutting through the cool evening air like a knife through water. No fancy tricks or careful warm-ups, just the pure freedom of flight. All the aches from sitting down in a chair for hours and hours hunched over paperwork are washed away like dirt under a rainstorm. It's over all too soon, and now I'm back in the hideout.
Twilight is already back to work, but less cranky than before. Pinkie is full of energy and happily humming along like she always is. I sit my flank down, ready to work on...
“The regression analysis of financial activity in likely dummy corporations, criminal activity intensity and real estate turnover, it should be the last thing that Hex spat out,” says Twilight, snapping me out of my boredom-and-donut daze, “Pass it here Dash, I think I'm starting to see how this all fits together.”
I grab the papers and she takes them with her telekinesis, muttering as she looks over them. “R-squared of point three-five... significant T-values for the differences between now and three years ago...” She puts the papers down and looks at me and Pinkie, grinning from ear to ear. “We've cracked it, guys. It's a real estate scam. A gigantic, multi-million bit real estate scam.”
“What do fly tipping and arson have to do with real estate?” asks Pinkie.
“Okay fillies, here's what's happening,” says Twilight, her eyes lighting up as she goes into teaching mode. “Somepony, possibly Barry LaCroix, is sending out gangs of criminals to cause as much trouble as possible to certain neighbourhoods. We were confused, because there seemed to be no financial motive for the way these criminals were acting, and in a lot of cases it looked like they were losing money from their activities. But, what happens to property prices when criminals start wrecking a neighbourhood?”
“They go down...” I say, cautiously.
“Precisely!” says Twilight, “They hit an area hard, causing prices to plummet and property owners to move out. That's one of the common variable where the Wharfies have gone on a crime spree, a big drop in real estate prices. Then, when prices are at rock bottom, a mix of front companies come in and buy all of these properties up on the cheap.”
“Makes sense,” I say, “Couldn't it just be companies acting like vultures though? Housing prices drop, companies think the crime can't get any worse, and buy up the houses for when it gets better?”
Twilight shakes her head. “If that's the case, it's an amazing coincidence, since every time there's a big property buy up, crime in that neighbourhood drops to almost zero within the month. Property prices start going up again. They're risking a lot of capital with this scheme, but they've probably made at least a million bits back already. As property prices rise, they'll be looking at tens of millions of bits, maybe more.”
“What happens now then, Twi?” I ask.
She puts a hoof under her chin and thinks for a second. “We still don't know exactly how this scheme is being organised or who the major players are, and we need to figure that out so we can shut it down. We've got a good set of leads though, and we should be able to figure it out,” she says, waving her hoof over the papers. “Come on, ponies, it's time to do research!”
We're soon back to crunching through numbers, combing over personnel files and cross-referencing between the Book of Names, Twilight's data and just about everything else. It's not half as bad now that we know what we're working towards, and Twilight's crazed zeal for all things analytical is actually kinda infectious. We eat donuts, drink coffee, and at one point I think I laugh at a statistics joke. Don't judge me. It's pretty impressive the way Twilight works, it's like watching someone solve a puzzle with most of the pieces missing, and having the missing pieces appear as more of the puzzle is solved. It's past midnight when Gilda and Trixie arrive.
“Hey there, ponies,” says Gilda, walking over to the desk and snatching a donut.
“Sup Gilda,” I say.
“Not mumph” she says, mouth full of donut, “Hows the intel work going?”
“We're ninety-five percent sure we've figured out the Wharfies,” says Twilight excitedly. “They've been using criminal gangs to lower property prices around Fillydelphia so that their front companies can buy property at cut rates. That way, when the crime stops the value of their properties go up, netting them millions. They're using accountants to launder the money for the front companies, a corporate lawyer to set up the front companies, an estate agent to carry out the deals and a middlepony to set everything up between the criminal side and the white collar side. We've got good leads on these ponies.” She levitates a sheet of paper with the important details we'd put together and passes it to Gilda.
“Sweet. Anything else?” asks Gilda.
Twilight looks frustrated for a moment. “We haven't figured out where the Wharfies are getting the capital for this scam. It's very profitable, but they need a lot of funding to buy all these properties in the first place. I doubt they just have the money laying about.”
“Yo Pinks, have you got the Book of Names stuff for any of the Wharfies' smugglers?” I ask, “Smugglers are always gossiping and looking for new routes and contacts, if we track some contractors down we might be able to find out where they're getting all these bits from.”
Pinkie grabs the dossier and roots through it, before picking out a sheet of paper. “Got it! It was under S!”
“So what's the plan, ponies?” asks Gilda.
“We give the white collar criminals a scare, and when they try run to safety, we trap them like rats,” I say, bringing my hoof down on the desk.
Twilight rolls her eyes. “The plan is a little bit more complicated than that, but yes, that's the gist of it,” she says, “The details are on the sheet of paper I gave you, Gilda.”
“Well then,” says Gilda, “Let's get to work.”
I'm with Gilda and Trixie, walking through Haydean, a newly-built neighborhood in east Filly. Gilda and Trixie need to put eyes and ears on somepony around here to help track down the Kurierzy. Haydean is a trashy new money place filled with yuppies, overpriced bars and crappy nightclubs; so it's pretty much like every other newly-built neighbourhood in Fillydelphia.
I'd been meaning to ask Gilda a question since she came into the hideout, but didn't want to ask in front of Twi and Pinks. I turn to Gilda. “Yo Gilly, did you guys get griffon takeout? Your breath kinda smells like organ meat.”
“Huh? Oh, yeah, we did. I got peckish and picked up a steak and kidney pie on the way to the hideout,” says Gilda.
“That's cool,” I say, “where did you guys eat?”
“Colin's Grill-” says Trixie.
“Samuel's House of Pie-” says Gilda at the same time. They look at each other, then Gilda says “Nah, Colin's is on Wingrove Avenue. They do look pretty similar though, you silly little blue thing you.”
“Oh I do apologise,” says Trixie, “The bird-thing is right of course. We stopped at Samuel's House of Pie.”
“Fair enough,” I say.
We walk along the sidewalk, nopony saying anything for a minute or so. “You know Gilda,” I say, “the whole point of a poker-face is that other ponies can't tell you're hiding something. You're a crappy liar for a spy I tell ya. Who'd you waste, G?”
Gilda's shoulders sag, and she sighs like a colt caught stealing. “We were gonna tell you-”
“I don't think we were,” says Trixie, glaring at me.
I snort and roll my eyes. “Whatever, just spill the beans.”
“A slavery ring, Dash,” says Gilda, “The things they were doing... I might have lost my temper a little.”
A slavery ring? Here?
“Wait, there was an actual slavery ring in Fillydelphia? Hell, an actual slavery ring in Equestria? That... clop, that stuff just isn't supposed to happen over here,” I say, “That's fucked up and bullshit, mare. What happened?”
“We went in, incapacitated the guards and freed the mares,” says Trixie, “Gilda saw on slaver torturing a filly-”
“I might have gone a tad blood-crazy...” says Gilda.
“And we ended up having to dispose of the slavers when it was clear they would go after the freed mares,” says Trixie matter-of-factly.
“Hay, I got no argument with that,” I say, “Can't say I wouldn't have done the same. I mean, being forced into sex – I don't even want to imagine what that's like.”
“It's not always so bad.” Gilda's eyes go wide as she realises what she's just said.
Oh Godesses, had Gilda been raped since we'd last spoke? Had she been through a whole bunch of awful shit and had to deal with it alone? I was sending all those letters, but... had I been so worried about sticking up for my friends that I abandoned her? Or maybe it had been before even then, and I'd just never taken the time or interest to find out.
“Gilda...” I say, as gently as I can, “were you-”
“Oh Adune no, I wasn't like, raped or anything,” she says, waving the idea off. “We just had to have sex a lot when we didn't want to.”
I blink. “Gilda,” I say carefully, “being made to have sex when you don't want to – Gilda, that is rape. That's what rape is.” I stop walking and put a hoof on Gilda's withers. “I understand completely if you don't want to talk about it, just say and I'll change subject, but...”
Gilda laughs, ruffles my mane with her talons and shrugs my arm off. “Nah, you got it all wrong. Rape is like when you're physically forced or tied down or drugged; we just had to have sex when we didn't want to.” When the looks on our faces don't change, she continues. “Don't fret about it, it was before I met eiher of you guys, if I haven't said before it's because it's not a big thing. It wasn't like nearly getting crippled at Speedsters or fighting at Tối Thung.”
Trixie doesn't even pretend to be sympathetic and starts talking to Gilda like a foal. “Gilda, sex without informed, freely given consent is rape. That's-”
“Yeah whatever Trixie”, I say, cutting her off, “More importantly Gilda, we were sixteen years old when we first met. That's practically kids! Also, you keep saying 'we', who is 'we'?”
“Hey, don't get me wrong,” says Gilda, “I was sixteen when it was going on, that's totes legal in the Kingdoms. Look, it was the end of cadets. That's just what happens at the end of cadets.”
I'm sat on my haunches, slack-jawed.
“I think I'm missing a teensy bit of context here Gilda,” I say, “Could you explain exactly what you mean by 'that's just what happens at cadets'?”
“Well, you've heard the griffon word 'fag' right?” Gilda asks.
“Yeah, I think so,” I say, “It means fillyfooler right?”
“Not... Not quite.” Gilda pauses like she's trying to find the least freaky way to say something. “It means being gay, but also being, uh, subservient. See, it's short for faggin, a young servant. For the last three months of griffon cadets, you're put with two other cadets to be faggins for a squad of warriors. You do their laundry, cook for them, polish their armor, prep their weapons, carry their messages...”
I'm staring at Gilda, waiting for the bit to drop.
“So your job is pretty much to do whatever your squad tells you to do... and, heh, it can get pretty cold at night up in the mountains,” she says. She starts walking down the street again, and me and Trixie walk with her.
“Gilda,” says Trixie, “After this job, we need to have a nice long conversation about this, with a big box of tissues, some ice cream and maybe a therapist who will do house calls-”
“Hey, it's not like that, sheesh,” says Gilda indignantly, “If you say no then no means no; and if they tried anything like that you'd get transferred and they'd get a few years in a military clink.”
I stare at Gilda for a few seconds. “I'm sensing a 'but' here,” I say.
“Look, you want to get along with your squad,” says Gilda, like she's explaining what algebra is to a dumbass, “They can be cool, they can take you out drinking, give you extra training, and give you a leg-up later on in life. They can also make you do push ups 'til you pass out, make you separate landfill from compostable garbage all day and bawl you out for not getting their swords sharp enough or their buttons shiny enough. So when it's late and one of the mollies starts giving you bedroom eyes, you might as well go through with it so long as she's not totally awful, even if you really don't want to right that moment.”
“So you said yes because your squad would make life hell if you didn't?” I ask.
“Well it's not like they outright threatened-”
“But there was a strong implication that they would,” says Trixie, grinning. Wait, grinning? This ain't funny you mad blue witch, this is messed up!
“Maybe I guess, but we'd still say yes in the end so it's not rape, QED,” says Gilda.
“After we're done here we're going to have a sit down and I'm going to carefully unpack everything that is wrong with that statement,” I say, “Hey, griffon training squads aren't mixed sex, so you'd have been with all mares right?”
“Mollies, but yeah.”
“Gilda, you swing both ways,” I say, “What about the cadets that didn't?”
“Pfft, what about 'em? They didn't have to do anything if they were real stick-in-the-muds about it,” she says. The houses along the street are getting more downmarket, and making way for high-end apartment complexes. “Most just took the porcupine by the spines and dealt with it.”
“And these other cadets didn't freak about having to do things like that?” I ask, eyebrows raised.
“Nah they were – actually, come to think of it, Grizelda did start acting all withdrawn and mood swingy,” says Gilda, like she's trying to remember who played what position in the Junior Speedster's Stormball Team. I didn't think my eyebrows could rise that high. “But hey, we were teenagers. Teenagers are supposed to be all withdrawn and shit, right?” she says, seeing my expression.
I'm about to open my mouth to answer, then I realise something. “Gilda, you were a griffon warrior, yeah? So your squad would have had faggins too?”
“Sure we did, wh- Oh fuck you Dash, I was nice to our faggins,” she says, “I showed them how to make good dopiaza, taught them how to shoot, did all that huggy pony crap if they were down; I even punched one of my squadmates for bullying them!”
“Did you sleep with any of them?”
“That's a low blow. I expected better of you than to ask that, Dash,” says Gilda, looking hurt.
“You slept with all of them,” I say flatly.
“Just two, the third had a munty face,” says Gilda, “But it was not like that, and screw you for implying it was. Both of them approached me, thanks very much for asking.”
“So you weren't trying to get them in the sack,” I say.
“You just slept with two young, impressionable cadets who idolised you, saw you as a mentor figure and relied on you for protection from your squad,” I say.
“Well when you put it like that, yeah.”
“And that's not at all creepy or taking-advantagey,” I say, deadpan.
“I'd drop it Dash, I've had this conversation with her before,” says Trixie with a smirk, “Besides, we're nearly there so pipe down, featherbrains.”
The apartment complex is ten stories of shiny glass and gleaming limestone, practically sparkling in the moonlight. Gilda takes out a key and lets us in. Inside, the empty lobby looks like Rarity's wet dream. Plush red carpets, tasteful art all over the walls, all that stuff. Not my thing. We take the elevator to the sixth floor, and open the door to apartment 62. It's an expensive studio flat owned by a total slob. There's clothes strewn around everywhere, empty pizza boxes on the sofa, paperwork cluttering up all the work spaces, and the place smells like it hasn't been aired in a while.
Trixie pulls out a bag of arcane equipment and gets to work, drawing runes on the wall in transparent wax, sprinkling powder in concentric shapes under the rug, occasionally lighting up her horn to cast a spell, that kind of stuff. Gilda goes into the piles of paperwork, takes a couple of documents and adds several of her own to the piles. I keep out of the way and listen for anyone walking about at half three in the morning. After twenty minutes of this, Trixie packs her things away, casts one final spell causing the wax on the walls to glow a bright pink and then disappear entirely, and then we leave the apartment and apartment complex. Ten minutes down the road I ask what she did.
“A tracking spell,” says Trixie, “The next unicorn who enters that room will absorb the latent thaumatic energy present, and create a subtle connection between themselves and our surveillance devices. There are ways to detect it before it occurs, but our quarry is lazy and the methods to detect it are laborious.”
“Fair enough,” I say. I yawn, tired from hours of paperwork. “What's the plan now?”
“We go back to the hotel and sleep,” says Gilda. “Long day tomorrow.”
The first order of business this morning is the accountancy place where they launder the smuggled money and shoot it into the front companies. We're doing them first for two reasons: accountants are easily spooked, and the office is right next to a café that does these totally sweet crepe things with little bits of apple in the batter and cinnamon syrup.
The firm is Hayson, Hayward, and Partners, a pokey thirty-pony accountacy business in a red-brick building fifteen minutes south of Escrow Street. Trixie went in before us, pretending to be a potential client. She had magicked my coat a light tan and my mane a dark grey. With a brown business suit and briefcase, I look like a very lame Daring Do. Gilda is next to me in a similar getup, also wearing a pair of brown aviators.
We go in and march straight over to the receptionist, a lime unicorn. He looks up at us. "Hello, how can I-"
"I'll cut to the chase," I bark, "I am Agent Red Tape, CFA. I'm from the Securities Exchange Agency, and this is Special Agent Skyfeather of the Royal Investigative Bureau. We're on SEA business and urgently need to speak to Mrs Hayson about the goings-on within this organization."
The stallion looks shocked, and stammers "Um, of course ma'am, wait here and I'll get her right away!"
Two minutes later he comes back, with a flustered, middle-age, buttermilk unicorn following him. I trot up to her and say "Mrs Hayson? I'm Agent Red Tape, SEA and this is Special Agent Skyfeather, RIB. The main office is through here, yes?" I point to a set of double doors behind the receptionist.
"Mrs Hayson, I'm required to inform you that neither you nor the company are officially under investigation at this moment," says Gilda, cutting her off. We both walk straight past her through the double doors, and into the main office. It's a fairly spartan, open plan office with low walled cubicles, lots of fluorescent lights and only one window. The ponies are all wearing green visors, thick glasses or both.
Mrs Hayson hurries after us. "Please, what's going on-"
"While you are not officially under investigation, Agent Red Tape has discovered several red flags that may indicate money laundering," says Gilda, loud enough for everyone in the office to hear.
Mrs Hayson's eyes go wide. "Money laundering?! That's preposterous, I assure you-"
"I'd like to remind you that money laundering is a serious offence Mrs Hayson, with extremely stiff penalties for all involved," I say, "I highly advise that you co-operate with us for this matter. Now, has your firm done accounts for East Equestria Expedition Inc, Happy Hour Lending Services Inc, Big Short Investment Capital...." I rattle off a few more names, all of front companies involved in the scam but none that were directly linked to Hayson, Hayward and Partners. The money launderer won't get found by their boss, but they'll damn well know somepony is on to them.
Mrs Hayson stops, shakes her head and takes a deep breath. The accountants are still working and talking, but they look rattled. "Now look here. You can't just, just - barge on in here without any kind of warning or warrant and start making accusations and, and, you said there were 'red flags' and you won't even say what-"
"You want a red flag, lady?" yells Gilda. The entire office is silent, staring at us in shock. I see one accountant taking his cactuses off his desk and hiding them in his draw. "There's one sitting right over there." She points at Trixie, disguised as Mister Tweedhooves, who is talking over some papers with a unicorn clerk.
"That is one Cravat Tweedhooves," I bark, striding towards Trixie with Gilda and Mrs Hayson in tow. "A notorious criminal who used to provide illicit financial services to half the gangs in Manehattan and might I remind him is BANNED from stepping hoof within fifty meters of any accountants' office, hedge fund or investment firm by the terms of his parole!"
"What?!" shouts Trixie/Tweedhooves, in that weird, masculine Canterlot accent she/he has. "This is slander, utterly baseless slander! I have perfectly legitimate cause to be here, I am merely asking for advice regarding my personal income taxes this year."
I turn to Mrs Hayson. "Mrs Hayson, what does this group of accountants here handle? Please be aware that lying to Royal agents can incur a severe fine and up to a five year prison sentence."
"C-c-corporate tax..." she stutters, paling in fear.
"Alright Tweedhooves, cut the crap," says Gilda, slamming a paw down on the desk. "You wouldn't be here if someone hadn't tipped you off that there was a money launderer running around in this office, and you wouldn't be approaching them in office hours if you knew exactly who it was. Tell us who tipped you off and we'll let your little transgression today slide."
"Your accusations are baseless and your actions amount to harrassment," huffs Trixie, snout in the air. "You will all be hearing from my lawyers."
"You've got one last chance," I say, taking out a pair of hoofcuffs and a unicorn binding ring, "Before we drag you out of here in cuffs and leave you in the cells overnight. Even if you're not in violition of your parole, which you damn well are, your associates won't appreciate you cancelling all of today's meetings with them, will they Tweedhooves?"
Trixie gives me a look so filled with hatred I'm surprised it doesn't set fire to my eyebrows. "Very well," she says, standing up, "Lead the way, gentleponies."
Gilda turns to Mrs Hayson, who's still in shock. "Agent Red Tape and I need to talk to Tweedhooves here, so we'll be on our way. Think about what we've told you."
The three of us turn to walk out of the office. Before we reach the door, I turn around and look at Mrs Hayson. "Oh, and don't leave town," I say. We exit the building, and continue down the street. We duck into a public bathroom and Trixie removes the magic around my coat and hair, and turns back into Trixie.
"So, do we know who our accountants are?" I ask as we walk outside into the Fillydelphia sunshine.
"There are only five employees at that firm with the necessary skills, contacts and resources to launder money for front companies," says Trixie. "Two of them, Quick Returns and Honey Petals, turned white as a sheet when they saw two Royal agents walk in yelling about money laundering; and all but sighed with relief when you said you didn't know who the culprits were. They're almost certainly our launderers."
"That's the accountants sorted then," I say, "Next up: Stakeout time."
I'm sitting outside a Manican café on a perfect sunny afternoon in Fillydelphia, looking like a total boss in a suit and bitchin' pair of shades. It's a sweet little place, they've got their outdoor seating ringed off with mini palm trees, they're always playing samba music and it's just breezy enough that you can sit outside in the sun without getting sweaty. I've got a big plate of nachos, a big bowl of guacamole, and a cup of that really strong coffee you always get in Manican places.
Now, I can practically hear you saying "Oh wow Dash, that sounds sweet, you must be totally chilled out and all that." Hate to break it to you pal, but you're wrong, oh so wrong. Why are you wrong? Two reasons. Firstly, I've been sitting here for five hours. Five hours. You know how long five hours feels for a pegasus as fast as me? Very long. All of the long.
Secondly, the company. Am I sat next to Gilda, the fairly amoral, somewhat attractive and totally radical griffon, talking about flying fast and kicking flank? No. Am I sat next to Twilight Sparkle, the eminently approachable egghead who's been through a thousand adventures with me, and more importantly introduced me to Daring Do? No. Am I sat next to Pinkie Pie, hard-partying, occasional-vigilanteing and reality-warping pony of awesomeness, talking about pranking and crimefighting? No.
I'm sat next to an arrogant blue hack who loves crossdressing. Mare, Trixie. I can't stand her. She's always boasting, she thinks she's better than everypony else, she's got an ego the size of a skyscraper and worst of all, she's got no sense of self awareness. She's got me made up like lame Daring Do again, and she's magicked herself the same way, tan coat and dark grey mane
We're not here for the food. We're here for the office across the street, a dinky little two-pony operation that the crooked estate agent and the crooked corporate lawyer are working out of. It's got a big, glass storefront and we can see Inkjet, the lawyer, sitting at his desk. He can see us too. Hopefully he's noticed the two tan-coated, dark grey-maned mares in suits and shades sat outside the café, staring at his shop. See, we're here on a stakeout. Although, not to get all Pinkie Pie or anything, but it's not really a stakeout since we're just waiting for them to watch us, so really it's more of a fakeout.
"So, Rainbow Dash, why did you come all the way to Fillydelphia with Gilda?" asks Trixie, "She coped with every job she had during the near-decade you'd abandoned her for your Ponyville friends; why are you following her around like she's a foal liable to wander into traffic now? Is little miss Element of Loyalty suffering from a guilty conscience?"
My eyes don't leave the storefront. "Well Trix, the whole falling from the sky, nearly dying and being banished from her clan thing might have had something to do with it. See, when things like that happen to my friends, I like to help them instead of whining about how much they've inconvenienced me."
"Hmm. Whatever helps you sleep at night, pegasus," she says. This is exactly what I'm talking about. She's fishing like a spastic albatross, diving head first at anything that might get on my nerves. Today it's all been about Gilda and loyalty and stuff. It's a little weird, usually she picks at one thing, then another thing, and another thing; but today she's pretty one-track. Maybe she thinks she's actually getting somewhere with it. It's not so bad, at least it's keeping her from bringing up Scootaloo.
Oh hey, it's not like that. I love Scoots, I helped train her, we're great friends and yeah, in my heart I know that the greatest thing a teacher can experience is seeing their pupil outdo them, but when she cut through Skyworks Industries Racetrack Six half a minute faster than my record, I mean, damn. It kinda scares me, and I feel like a real flankhole feeling that way, but...
Ah screw that load of horseapples. I love Scoots, it's great to see her to do well, and that's all that really matters. Really.
"Speak of the Draconequus, here they are," says Trixie. Across the street a corn-blue stallion is trotting nervously towards the office we're watching. He's staring straight forward trotting like a pony desperately trying to trot normally and failing. He's moving like a hollowed-out hydra being piloted by angry bees. Twenty yards behind him is Gilda, suited, sunglassed and crest neatly combed, stalking the stallion in the least subtle way possible. As soon as the stallion reaches the office, he darts straight in. Gilda walks straight past the office and continues down the street, cool as a cucumber.
The stallion is Hot Property, the estate agent half of the estate agent/lawyer duo. As soon as Gilda passes, he starts pacing around and snapping frantically at his partner, who just stares dead ahead and is probably saying something like "shut up you bucking retard there are agents watching this place, DON'T LOOK" through clenched teeth. Hot Property freezes up and haltingly moves to his desk.
"I think that's them spooked," I say.
Trixie takes a sip of her drink. "I concur. Now we wait until five o'clock. So, pegasus, when you abandon your friends, is it always at parties or do you try to mix it up?"
Two more hours. Great.
"You know what I like most about tossing somepony's house?" I say, strutting into the kitchen. It's one of those high-end yuppie luxury ranges, all chrome and glass and cute little gadgets. Gilda is going through the cupboards, breaking jars and flinging crockery against the walls.
"What's that?" she says.
"Raiding their fridge," I say. The fridge is huge, twice my height and packed to the brim with goodies. "Alfalfa, more alfalfa, pineapple juice, potato and spinach pasties, quiche, black lentil caviar – Ah sweet, yoghurt!"
Gilda whips her head around to look at me. "What kind of yoghurt?" she asks.
"Uh... Blueberry yoghurt," I say, pulling a few pots out, "You want some?"
She shakes her head. "Can't stand blueberries. Need a spoon?" She pulls out a drawer hard enough to snap its railings, lets the contents clatter to the ground and picks up a spoon from the pile. I grab it, pop the lid and chow down. It's damn good yoghurt, probably made by the blueberry farming version of Applejack somewhere. Pick-Me-Up is a high class drug dealer with high class taste in food. She also acts as a liason between gangs like the Wharfies the white collar criminals that launder their money. That's why we're tossing her house.
The living room had been fun. We took apart every lamp and vase, Gilda opened up the sofas with those big talons of hers, tossed the bookshelves onto the floor and bucked holes in any bit of wall that felt hollow. Kitchens are just as fun, if not more so. There's something so satisfying about the way expensive china shatters.
"Oh score" says Gilda, holding a broken teapot. Inside was a plastic bag of white powder. "That's gotta be half a kilo of moon dust at least. Drinks are on me tonight!"
"No they're not," I say, snatching the bag with my wing, "I'm not helping you deal drugs, banishment decree or no banishment decree."
"What?! Oh that is lame Dash, I'm out of a job and you're begrudging me a little income on the side?" says Gilda.
"You're getting paid three times more for Pinkie's job than for Brickbat's and I've been buying drinks," I say, "'Sides, I'm an ex-Wonderbolt. I can't be involved in dealing, foals are supposed to look up to me and stuff."
"Yeah, well foals don't know what a lame flip-flop you are," grumbles Gilda, "You think Trixie is done in the study yet?"
Like clockwork, Trixie walks into the room, snout held high. "The Great and Powerful Trixie has retrieved all of the necessary documents and thrown the rest of the room into disarray. She sees no reason to take such foalish pleasure in the latter." She looks down her nose at Gilda, who is chucking bowls up in the air and batting them against the wall with her tail.
"What?" says Gilda, seeing her expression, "It's practice for Beakball season."
Trixie sighs. "Regardless of that, are we done here? Pick-Me-Up will come home at some point, and I'd rather not be here when she does."
"We're done here," I say, "Lets go." I drop the half eaten yoghurt on the countertop and we walk out. When we get to the front door, Trixie nails a note telling Pick-Me-Up that her house was searched today by members of Special Branch, that she's wanted for questioning and that she's not to leave town.
Subtlety is for dorks.
Trixie (or 'Lulamoon') and me (or 'Firefly') are walking through the rain towards a bar in the docks. Gilda has gone off to set up the next stage of our plan for the white-collar criminals with Twilight and Pinkie Pie, leaving me and Trixie to snoop out the Wharfies' smuggling operation. Trixie's done her usual disguise work, and she's a seafoam green unicorn and I'm a white coated, orange maned pegasus. We're looking for a brown unicorn who goes by the name Dale working with a gray coated, blue maned pegasus. As soon as we reach the bar, we quickly hurry inside out of the rain.
The bar is called the Grog Barrel, and looks pretty much exactly how you'd expect a bar called the Grog Barrel to look. It's dark, it's dirty and it smells like booze, tobacco smoke and seaweed. The wooden floor is warped and stained. Spittoons are everywhere, and they're not for decoration. Most of the regulars are grizzly old sailors and dockworkers with missing teeth, dressed in raincoats and watch caps. A musclebound, middle aged stallion with a thick handlebar moustache is behind the bar. Our two smugglers, unicorn and pegasus, are sitting together at the bar.
I walk over to the bar with Trixie, and we sit down a seat away from the smugglers. I see my reflection in the mirror behind the liquor rack. A white-coated, orange maned Rainbow Dash is staring back at me. Trixie is useful for one thing at least.
I glance to the left at the smugglers. The pegasus is athletically built and looks about my age. He's got a gray coat, a messy, electric blue mane, unshorn fetlocks and a rakish grin. Behind the bar, above a display of nautical knots, is a small tele-vision set, showing the pre-fight commentary for a Pegasus Fighting League bout. His eyes are glued to the screen.
"This is going to be bloody brilliant, Dale. Granite Noggin versus Raynor Grassy, couldn't have asked for a better match up," he says, with a strong Trottingham accent.
His friend Dale, a brown coated, dark brown maned unicorn looks disinterested. "Feh, if I wanted to see a bunch of pegasi beating the tar out of each other, I'd visit your family for Hearths Warming Eve." His accent is Trottingham but much smoother, like Rarity's; and he looks a lot neater than his friend with trimmed fetlocks, a neatly combed mane and thick framed glasses. If it weren't for Pinkie's dossier, I'd think he was an accountant, not a smuggler.
"Can't believe Granite Noggin has been fighting for so long," I say, "Hay, I can't believe he's still talking normally since he loves blocking punches with his muzzle."
The pegasus turns to me, and grins when he sees a mare talking to him about Pegasus Fighting League. "He's a proper hard bastard he is. Did you know he got run over by a carriage when he was a foal?"
"No way! What, was it just a glancing thing?" I ask.
He shakes his head. "Both back legs went under, broke in four places. He still ended up a PFL Hall of Famer."
"Ho-lee clop," I say. I rest a hoof on the bar, and pull it away when it touches a sticky puddle of something.
"Too bloody right," he says, "Who are your bits on, love?"
"See, normally I'd say Noggin by a mile, but I hear he only just recovered from a bout of hoof and mouth, and I know that stuff can totally wreck a training regimen," I say, "Still, if he thinks he's up for it, my money's still on him. You?"
"Same. Either way, it's gonna be a cracking fight, Noggin's a fantastic scrapper. Did you see his match with Shinya Poni?" he asks, now resting on the bar and leaning slightly towards me.
"Mare, that was awesome!" I say, switching seats next to him so I can hear better, "That last minute winglock was a gift from the wing-jitsu gods."
The pegasus chuckles a little and sweeps his hoof through his mane. "I'm glad you say that, I can't count how many idiot fans-"
"-can't count full stop," interrupts his friend.
"Shush now Dale, cool ponies are talking," says the pegasus, "As I say, can't count how many idiot fans I've heard telling me that match was 'boring' because of all the grappling."
"You're in good company. I love a stallion who appreciates a good bit of grappling." I shoot him a sly grin, and get a laugh and a similar grin back.
Trixie leans around me and speaks to the unicorn. "They're going to continue like this for some time, aren't they?"
"Quite," says the unicorn. He nudges the pegasus. "Icewind, stop being such a boor and introduce us to these lovely mares."
"My sincerest apologies, ladies," he says, "My name is Icewind. I don't know who this twat is, I think he's stalking me." His friend sighs, rolls his eyes and gives us a weary smile. Icewind ruffles his friend's neat mane with a hood. "I'm joking, this is my mate Dale, I'm just having a bit of-"
"Don't say it don't say it don't say it," says Dale, wincing.
"-having a bit of banter," says Icewind, drawing out the word, "A bit of banter is what I'm having. You don't have a problem with banter do you?"
Dale glares at Icewind through his glasses. "I've no issue with the concept, I've just never met anypony who uses the word banter on a regular basis who isn't a tosser, present company not bloody excepted."
"Tch, poncey git," says Icewind, waving a hoof in Dale's direction, "Anyway, who are you two lovely fillies?"
"I'm Firefly," I say, "and this is my friend Lulamoon. We're gonna be in Fillydelphia for a while, so we went to see the sights. We were checking out the docks, it started raining, and now we're here."
"An excellent choice," says Dale. "There's no greater pub than the Grog Barrel in all of Fillydelphia," he says, waving his hoof around the bar. I gotta admit, even with the stains and the dusty liquor bottles and the smell of seaweed, it's got a certain charm to it. "Speaking of which, you mares don't have drinks yet. What are you having?"
"Well, what's good here?" asks Trixie, voice like syrup.
Icewind taps his mug. "You've got to try the grog at the Grog Barrel. Barpony! Four mugs of grog, thank you kindly."
The barpony comes back with our drinks, which the smugglers pay for. We all get up and sit down at a low table with a pair of ratty sofas for seating, still close enough to the bar to see the tele-vision. The four of us talk, drink, joke and watch the match. It's tense and fast paced, there's nearly a first round knockout by Raynor Grassy; but Granite Noggin wins with a choke halfway through the third round. That gets a cheer from me and Icewind.
Trixie asks about the accents, and they tell us they're both from Trottingham. Dale and Trixie are chatting about some random unicorn egghead crap, I think. I'm not really listening to them. I'm talking more about sports with Icewind, and find out he was a national-level diver until a wing injury forced him into early retirement.
"Damn Icewind, I feel for ya," I say, "I got into Wingbury College on an athlectic scholarship for pegasus relay, all that went straight to Tartarus when I nearly got a leg torn off in a weather duty accident." I point to a scar I got in Tarandroland.
"It's mad, isn't it," he says sadly, "You get so close to the top of your came, and an injury throws a spanner in the works. You miss a season of training-"
"-can't make the next tournament-" I say,
"-lose sponsorship-" he says,
"-no money in the sport-"
"-all downhill from there." He gives a glum shrug, and I pat him on the shoulder. We're quiet for a minute, so I start to tune into what Trixie and Dale are talking about.
"-studied illusion at Canterlot Technical College see," says Trixie, "and contract work was the way to go because the full time corporate employment for illusion graduates is horrific."
Dale nods, a grim expression on his face. "I've got friends who went that route. They're spending ten hours a day magicking up pie charts and graphs for former business studies students with the IQ of fruit. It's like pulling teeth for the soul."
"Very much so," says Trixie, pausing to drink some more grog. "What did you study?"
"Finance and economics at Trottingham City University," says Dale.
Trixie raises her eyebrows. "Really? Shouldn't you be stuck in the bowels of some big Manehattan investment firm, working sixteen hours a day for millions of bits?"
Dale looks down at his drink. When he looks up, there's a weary, frustrated expression on his face. "I was. It didn't work out," he says simply.
Trixie puts a hoof on his foreleg and gives him a sympathetic look. "What happened?" she asks softly.
Dale sighs. "It's a long and not particularly interesting story. The crux is that there was a club, and when everything went to pot, I wasn't in it," he says, "Still, now I'm working with Icewind here. It doesn't pay as well, but the work is more interesting and the hours are much better."
"So what do you guys do now?" I ask.
Icewind smirks at me and stretches out his forelegs. "A little of this, a little of that," he says, "What about you two lovely fillies?"
I smirk right back and sink back into the ratty sofa. "Same." We stare at each other with guarded smiles and both take a drink of grog. It's good stuff, the strong taste of dark rum balanced by lime and a bit of cinnamon. We say nothing for a good ten seconds, just looking across the table at each other.
"Cut the crap," we both say at the same time.
"You first," I say.
"We brought the drinks, Firefly," he says, tapping his mug with a well-toned fetlock.
"Good point." I lean over the table and beckon him to do the same, getting my muzzle close enough to his ear to smell his cologne. He smells of musk and lime. "We're in logistics," I whisper, "Mostly arcane reagents of the, ah, hard to acquire sort. Your turn."
"We're logistics too," he whispers back, his breathing making my ear twitch. "Mainly recreational stuff, but we'll take other contracts too." He sits back up straight, and grins. "Are you mare looking for work in Filly? Dale and myself know a few ponies, I'm sure we could get you sorted out."
"For a small price of course," says Dale. Hah. I can see why he's struck it off with Trixie.
Trixie raises her mug to her lips, and looks at Dale with wide, innocent eyes. "What kind of price?" she asks.
Dale gives a lazy shrug. "Business contacts, shipping routes, bits..." He drags his gaze up-and-down Trixie's body. "...Other things. I'm sure we can work something out." Trixie downs the rest of her drink, and giggles demurely. Oh Celestia, get a room.
"...and he acts likie I'm the cad, honestly – oh bollocks, we've got company," says Icewind, looking at the door.
A group of eight stallions had just walkied into the bar. They all look like they've been drinking heavily, and a few of them are blatantly lit up on moon dust. The lone unicorn of the group hasn't even wiped the trail of white powder off his muzzle. They're all wearing dirty track jackets or letterman jackets flecked with odd stains. Their eyes are darting around the bar, looking for something to break, or screw, or both.
In a word: Scumbags.
Icewind leans over the table and murmurs "The guy we do logistics for has recently been hiring some right wankers in acquisitions. Case in point, Strikeout and his mates over there."
One of the stallions spots us, and the group trots over to our table. A forest green stallion with a closely-cropped red mohawk looms over Icewind. Icewind leans back and to the side, to stop the stallion from getting behind him. "Well, well, if it ain't Dale and Icewind and two real pretty fillies," says the stallion. He's got a strong Bucklyn accent and sounds even scummier than he looks, which isn't easy.
"Hello Strikeout," says Icewind coolly, "The bar's over there."
Strikeout scratches his chin with a hoof. "Eh, me and the colts have been drinking for a while now, we feel more like tawkin' with some nice young fillies," he says, "So why don't you and your flankhole friend fuck off back home and leave these two mares wit' us, you fuckin' piece-of-shit smuggler?" I get a closer look at the dark red and yellow stains on his track jacket. Dried blood and mucous, probably not his. Totally charming.
A brown pegasus leans over me, and brings his muzzle down to my ear. "Forget these two flankholes," he says, brushing his dank black mane out of his face, "We'll take good care of ya." He leans in closer and his stinking breath is all over my face. Then he rests a hoof at the base of my wing.
Oh, that is fucking it. I grab my mug and throw the rest of my grog right in his face. His face twists with rage, and he pulls a hoof back to punch me.
A perk of being a pegasus is that you can feel air currents in the same way that unicorns can feel magic. Normally, it isn't much use outside of flying and weather duty, but with some simply training you can feel blows coming just before they hit you. With a lot of advanced trining, like the stuff the Wonderbolts drill week-in-week-out, you can start setting up counters to your opponent's attacks before they even realise they're throwing them.
I parry the punch with my left, trap it with my right and then slam his face straight into the table. He yelps, and I shove him into his friends before jumping into the air for another pegasus trick. I flex and curve my wings, drawing in a pocket of air, then whip them forward, buffetting the stallions with a powerful blast of air. It cracks like a firework, drops a few of them on their haunches and sends the creepy pegasus sprawling. I look back and see it did what I wanted it to: gave Trixie and the smugglers time and space to stand up.
Strikeout stares at me blankly. "You know what you've just done, you dumb cunt? We were gonna treat you mares real nice, use a mattress even! Now we're gonna make sure you never walk or fly again."
They charge as one. Trixie's and Dale's horns light up and Icewind takes to the air. Strikeout comes at me, bringing up a forehoof for a massive haymaker. I bob under it and leg one hoof slam straight into his chin, then throw a hook hard into his liver. That gets a satisfying wheeze, and I'm up in the air before he can recover, bringing a back-hoof down on the face of the drugged-up unicorn.
Finally, after all this snooping and sneaking and egghead stuff, some action. A blue pegasus gets in the air to take a swing at me, I feel him approaching and my back hooves crunch into his ribcage before he can touch me. I see half a dozen Trixies running about, stallions kicking at the illusions then getting a telekinetically-enhanced chair to the muzzle as they realize it's not real. Three ponies are mobbing Icewind, I fly over and grab one from behind-
Pain shoots through my wing and I cry out. Some flankhole just broke a pool cue over my back. Before I can react, a huge earth pony tackles me to the ground and climbs on top of me. I wrap my forelegs around his to stop him rearing up and pounding my face into the floor. I nearly bridge him over, but he bites down on my shoulder hard enough to draw blood. Before I can react, he brings his head up and headbutts my muzzle. I grunt in pain, but keep trapping his arms and trying to bridge him over. His head slams a second time, and stars swim across my vision. He pulls back for a third, and a chair telekinetically smashes over his head. Thanks, Trixie.
I push him off and get up, just in time too. The dusted-up unicorn is counterspelling Trixie's illusions and Trixie is desperately battling off Strikeout with a pair of chairs. He smashes both chairs out of the air with a mighty buck, and then slams both back hooves into Trixie's side, sending her sprawling. I charge towards strikeout and wrap my forelegs around his waist-
-thrust into the air and loop-the-loop backwards-
-and drop him headfirst through a table. He doesn't get back up. I look around, and see Trixie on her haunches, her horn glowing. A barstool whizzes past me and takes out the scumbag unicorn. Icewind is holding two ponies in headlocks and flapping madly in the air, trying to keep a third at bay with his hindlegs. Dale is on his back getting pummelled by two ponies. I fly and grab one around the neck in a stranglehold, lifting him into the air.
Three... Two... One...
He passes out and I drop him on the floor. Trixie is halfway through hogtying the other pony with Dale's help. We all turn to help Icewind with his three ponies.
A minute later, we're standing over eight, groaning, hogtied ponies. The crusty old regulars are looking at us, grinning at the spectacle. The bartender is glaring at the wrecked chairs and tables, considerably less impressed.
"This is all going on your tab."
Ten minutes later, after we settle the bill with the bartender, we're all trudging along the docks. It's lashing down with rain, making the light of the street lamps glisten off the cobblestones as we walk past the rows of piers. Behind us, huge cargo ships and ferries are being docked, loaded and unloaded at the industrial end of the docks. We're walking past the dock for fishing and other small boats.
Icewind kicks a loose cobblestone, scaring some wet seagulls away from a pile of rotting seaweed. "I can't sodding believe it. That was my favourite pub, that was. The grog was lovely, the scuzzy old regulars were a right laugh and Rummy always had PFL on the telly," he says, "Then those thieving, mugging, stupid chav twats find us there. Where are we supposed to go drinking now?"
"This entire situation is unconscionable," huffs Dale, wiping the rain out of his glasses. One of the lenses had cracked in the fight. "I don't appreciated being attacked by flankholes when I'm out drinking, and I appreciate paying fifty bits apiece for damages even less!"
"Who were those guys?" I ask.
"Well, Firefly, as far as I can tell they're our co-workers," Icewind says sardonically. "See, we've been doing this whole logistics thing for a few years now, mainly for a few characters around the docks. Now, there's always been a few wankers in the docks, but they were never much of a problem since they were thugs with no business sense."
"Until someone started hiring their services," says Dale, "Hiring the exact kind of ponies you shouldn't hire, because they're idiots who'd burn a business to the ground rather than extort money from the owners. In the last year or so, they've pretty much taken over the docks. We're pretty sure they're working for our boss, since everypony else hiring in the docks is either working for him in some way or isn't around anymore."
"For a while now we've said we'd move to greener pastures if he wasn't paying us so handsomely," says Icewind, "But now? I'm not sure if it's still worth the money." He shakes his head. "For what it's worth, we're sorry you two got dragged into that. I'm sure you didn't come out tonight to be attacked by a bunch of nutters."
"Ah, it wasn't so bad." I grin at him.
"And the company couldn't have been better," says Trixie in a silky voice, darting around Dale.
"Not a total loss then, ladies?" asks Icewind. Before we can reply, he and Dale come to a stop at one of the piers. "Ah, this is our stop," he says, pointing to a small yacht moored twenty metres away.
"Your house is a boat?" I ask. It's not a dinky little thing, but there can't be more than two cabins below deck.
"Technically it's our office, but there's bedding in there and our flat is on the other side of Fillydelphia," says Dale, "We don't particularly feel like walking all that way in the rain and we're now short of bits for a cab. You two are welcome to come on board for a drink or two if you'd like."
"We'll pass tonight," I say, "It's getting late and our place isn't far from here. Still, I'd love to meet up again soon if you guys are up for it?"
"That sounds great," says Icewind, rooting around in his mane for something. He pulls out a little business card dispenser, and gives one to me. I read the card.
"Seaview Speedy Courier Services?" I ask, raising my eyebrows.
"It looks good on the tax forms," says Icewind with a grin. "Our schedule is pretty empty for the next few days, so just drop by and we'll probably be about. If we're not, go to that office over there-" he points to a small shack behind us, "-and leave a note in our box saying when and where you want to meet up, in public of course. Sounds like a plan?"
"Sounds like a plan," I say, "Goodnight, Icewind, Dale."
"See you soon, Firefly," he says.
"And you too, Lulamoon," says Dale, winking at her. Trixie blows him a kiss, and they walk off towards their boat.
Suddenly we're trudging through the rain again, back towards our hotel. The cobblestone of the docks soon gives way to the brick sidewalks of downtown Fillydelphia. Late night taxis trundle along the road under orange streetlamps. We cut through an alley at one point, and with a shimmer of Trixie's horn our coats and manes are back to normal.
I should probably say something to Trixie. I mean, annoying as she is, she's been pretty cool tonight. She sorted out the disguises, she's cut back on the snide comments a little, and she did give me a helping hoof when that big flankhole was on top of me, trying to headbutt me into the floorboards. I mean, I saved her flank right afterwards, but that's totally expected since I'm Rainbow Dash and being a hero is totally my job. I need to say something, something like-
"You know, pegasus, you handled yourself admirably tonight," says Trixie, snapping me out of my thoughts, "I wanted to thank you for not screwing up our intel work this evening, and of course for stopping that hideous green thing from beating me into a coma. I'd also like to apologise for the insinuations about your loyalty to Gilda. Although you did abandon her, you did your best to make amends and have been entirely loyal to her since we've started working together. It was... out of line for me to suggest otherwise"
"Huh? Oh. Yeah, it's no problem, apology accepted. Thanks. For the disguises, and for knocking out that huge guy," I say, "You're cooler than I thought, Trixie."
"Thank you, Rainbow Dash," she says, a smile visible under the glow of the street lamps. "You're still an egotistical, featherbrained braggart of course, but... I think I can now see why you harbor these delusions and why other ponies indulge them."
I laugh and shake my head. "You too, Trixie, you too."
We're back at the hotel soon enough, and me and Trixie split up when we get to our rooms. I walk inside and see Gilda already out cold on her bed, an empty whiskey glass on her bedside table. I lock the door behind me, brush my teeth, and slip into bed. All the aches from sitting around doing stakeouts and scrapping with ponies sink away as I start to slowly slip into sleep. Gilda twitches, and murmurs some nonsense in her sleep.
Just another day for the Dash.
AUTHORS NOTE: While you're waiting for the next intstallment of Banishment Decree, check out the utterly fantastic Mare-Do-Well fiction Eyes Without a Face, which barely gets a tenth of the recognition it deserves. It's thrilling, gloriously dark and comes off like a gut-punch made of purest noir, and I'd like to think it's quite a big influence on my story. Go give it some love!
Now, on with the story:
Trixie's safehouse is a run-down, grungy apartment in Lichen End, one of the cheaper neighbourhoods in Fillydelphia. It's in a gigantic tower block filled with students at the technical college and university, single parents and alcoholics. The landmare gives Trixie free run of one of her shittier apartments for almost nothing, in exchange for getting her out of trouble with a loan shark last year and for supplementing her income with the odd moon dust shipment. The tiny studio apartment is a dilapidated hole, with paint flaking off the walls, huge patches of mould and the lingering stink of rotten onions. Still, it suits its purpose. There are a few bedrolls in case a team needs a place to lay low, a box of Royal Guard issue MREs, a closet of arcane reagents, tools and clothes, a well-locked weapon cabinet; anything a shiftless jack-of-trades like Trixie might need that can't be traced back to her.
I'm here to visit Smedley Puddinghead, 'Puddie' to his friends; of which he has twelve less than the last I saw him. He's a beady-eyed, chubby and cowardly ex-bureaucrat who earns money by making sure things run smoothly for smugglers, traffickers and more recently, slavers. That third one has him right on our shit-list. He's curled up asleep on a bedroll, strands of strawberry pink mane over his face, surrounded by empty MRE packets, juice boxes and dirty magazines. I stroll over to him and give his pudgy brown frame a nudge. He murmurs and makes a cute little mewling sound like a kitten, but doesn't stir.
I drive my fist hard into his liver. It gets his attention.
He's now very awake, clutching his side and dry heaving, not even trying to hold back tears. As soon as he sees me, his tiny, sunken eyes fill with fear and loathing. I wait for him to stop retching. “...you broke a rib” he gasps.
I give him a flat look. “Your ribs are fine, chickenshit,” I say, “Now get the fuck up, you have work to do.”
He gets to his hooves and looks at me like a sullen yearling. “Does this mean I get to leave this dump?” he asks in his whiny, nasal voice, “I can barely breath for the mould and the water coming out of the taps is-” I cut him off by backpawing him across the muzzle. He looks at me, stunned. He opens his mouth to say something and I raise my paw, causing him to flinch back and whimper.
“I'll tell you the same thing I told your mother,” I say, “ I pulled your face out of my flank because I'm done pissing, not because I want to hear every stupid thought that comes into your fat skull. Now get in the bathroom and stick this dye in your mane and tail.” I pull a bottle of charcoal dye from my saddlebags and toss it over to him. He catches it and freezes up for a second, before hurrying into the bathroom with his tail between his legs.
I head over to Trixie's supply closet and start rummaging around for a toolbox. There's a big red one in the corner, I pick it up and haul it over to the countertops in the kitchenette. In a few minutes there's a vise set up with a slip stone poking out the top. It's been a while since I've given Leroy any special treatment, and I always feel guilty if I don't give my knives the TLC they deserve. I take out a bottle of mineral oil, dab a spot onto my paw-pad and gently rub it into the slip stone. Then, I take Leroy from his sheath and trail a claw over the flat of his blade. He's been cleaned since his last outing and is looking pretty pleased with himself.
I've had the handsome little bastard since just before Toi Thung. We've been through a lot together, and though I ain't monogamous with my knives, Leroy holds a special place in my heart. I never marred him with notches like other warriors would, the only imperfections on his sleek, phosphatized finish are from use and from sharpening. Leroy is a kerambit and curves inwards like a talon, so he needs a gentle touch when he's being sharpened. Before I set his edge to the slip stone, I bring the flat of his blade to my beak and give him a little kiss. He did well on our last outing, and he deserves it. I get to work and draw the blade edge along the whetstone, moving it in lots of small circles as I do. This goes on for a few minutes on both sides, before I hear the shower turn on and a yelp from Puddie. “Gilda, there's no hot water in this place!” he yells.
“It's ten Celsius outside, grow some ovaries!” I yell back, “If you're not out of that shower with dyed hair in ten minutes I'll shove your balls up your flankhole and see if that does the trick.” He shuts up, and the shower comes back on. Ponies, honestly. I get back to sharpening Leroy. The rubberised cloth around the handle is getting a bit frayed at the edges, but it does the trick and doesn't need replacing just yet. It makes him look rugged.
I don't mark him, but I've got a little sheet of paper with his score on it. He hit forty-four at the flophouse. Sometimes I think of retiring Leroy. Putting him on a stand in a nice glass cabinet next to his score-paper, so I don't have to see him broken in the field, or lost in some desperate scramble to retreat. But that's silly, like a parent wrapping up their cub in swaddling, afraid to let it out in the world. Leroy's place is next to me. I'll be with him when he breaks, and if I get killed, I hope he's buried in my shallow grave too. I keep sharpening, listening to the little scrt-scrt-scrt sounds he makes with every small circle.
A few minutes later he's done. I clean him off with a cloth, put away the tools and sit around waiting for Puddie. I double check the letters that Twilight and Pinkie made up, make sure I've got the address list, and set out the blue Postal Service uniform that Puddie will be wearing. Hopefully it fits. Puddie then steps out of the bathroom, shivering. I don't know if it's the cold or the fear. It's probably both.
“So here's what's going down,” I say, “We broke into that flophouse you were telling us about, freed all the mares and brutally murdered all the Kurierzy working there.” Puddie's face is a mask of fear, but he doesn't look surprised. “Now, our friend Goodflank is going to find out if he hasn't already, and since you knew about the house and where it was, he'll be checking up on you,” I continue, “Which is why we went to your place, made it look like you'd left town for Manehattan and planted some papers that suggest you're heavily in the pocket of another EIS agent.”
His eyes go wide in horror, and I flash him a grin. “That's why it's probably best if no one recognises you on this job this evening. Stick those clothes on; between them and the dye, you'll probably be safe on your deliveries tonight,” I say.
He says nothing and glumly gets to work. The uniform is a little tight but it goes on, and soon enough we're out of the apartments. He has a bag of mail and a list of addresses, I'm flying well above to make sure he gets to them. It starts raining hard as soon as we set off. All the addresses we're delivering to are in nicer areas of town. I'm in the air soaked to the bone for an hour before we reach the first, a nice townhouse owned by a certain bent accountant.. I take up a position on a cloud, watch Puddie go up to the door, slip the mail through the slot, walk away. Twenty minutes to the next, the lawyer's place, same deal. Then the drug dealer, and so on.
Several addresses later, it's one in the morning and I'm making sure Puddie gets back to the apartment in one piece. I only let him dry off after I check that all the letters are gone. He curls back up on his bedroll like a whipped dog, and I leave him to his MREs and his porn.
I head back to the hotel in the rain. I'm soaked through when I get to the room. Dash and Trixie aren't back, so I towel off and head straight to bed. I'm asleep before my head hits the pillow.
It is a cold spring morning in the Western Peaks, ten kilometres from Griffhala, home of the Redbeaks. I’m perched on an outcropping of rock overlooking a small valley coated in dense scrub. My cousin Gretchen is next to me, cleaning sap off her bush knife. Our hunting party had spent the last half hour clearing twenty yards square of scrub from the valley and had turned the waste into a two foot high barrier at one end of the bare patch. Two other cousins, Terrence and Nigel, as well as my Uncle Scratchy, are all sat in an alcove on the other side of the valley forty odd yards away. I’m seventeen years old, on spring vacation from Junior Speedsters, out hunting with my cousins and a friend from flight camp.
Gretchen leans in close and whispers to me: “You sure your friend is up for this?”
I laugh quietly. “Please, she’s top of the year in manoeuvres. She can do this trick in her sleep.”
She scowls. “That ain’t what I meant. We’re turning critters into lunch. I’ve seen ponies get real funny when they see a little mess, and it’s about to rain kidneys, Gilda.”
“Rainbow Dash has seen me hunt and eat before, she knows the facts of life. I wouldn’t have brought her along otherwise.”
“A’ight, if you say so” she says, “But I ain’t the one gon' have to rock her to sleep tonight while she breaks down sobbing all ‘bout the blood and the guts and the horror of it all.”
Ah, Gretchen. She’s a good flier and knows her bushcraft back to front, but she’s Gretchen “Not My Fuckin’ Problem” Redbeak for a reason.
“Pfft, shut up Gretchen. She’ll be down here any second now anyways, I think I hear her now” I say.
A strange, crackling rumble comes from down the valley. I crane my neck and see a mass of dust and stormcloud billowing down the valley floor, electricity sparking through it. There is a blur of bright colour at the head of the speeding cloud. As it gets nearer, I see small bush fires being started by flashes of lightening. A hundred meters from us and the cyan-and-rainbow blur at the front of the cloud shoots straight upwards into the sky, leaving it behind. The rolling storm continues another seventy meters before dispersing. We ready our burlap sacks and see Uncle and the toms do the same. We wait ten seconds.
Three... Two... One
A screeching, chittering swarm of lemmings bursts into our clearing, piled three deep and fleeing the noise, fire and thunder. I cackle and dive from my perch into the trapped pile of critters, skewering lemmings by the pawful and shoving them roughly into my sack. The rest of the party are doing the same, whooping and squawking as they go. A few minutes later the living carpet thins out and our bags are full of dead or dying lemmings. I’m sweating and splattered with blood, but I feel incredible. I look up and see Rainbow Dash hovering above us, and fling a decapitated critter at her. She dodges it and gives me an over-the-top grossed out look, before shooting me a grin and laughing.
We’re back at our campsite, and I’m showing Dash the basics of griffon food prep.
“So you take the dead critter like so” I say, splaying one out at the edge of a stone slab, “Pin it by the head with one hoof, and with the other press down on the sternum and slide downwards like so...” As I did, a trickle of urine and a pellet of lemming crap came out. “Bam, no poo in the stew.”
“Yeah, gross,” she snarks, “Remind me why I get this totally awesome job and not you?”
“Because my job is taking off the heads and feet and that’s a lot easier with talons” I say, trying to keep a straight face.
“Oh, is that so Gilda?” says Gretchen with a twisted smile “Ah seem to recall that you get all squicked out by critter shit. You damn near go ‘tardshit if you get any on your claws, that’s why you paw the job off on one of us cats ain’t it?”
“Eat a dick Gretchen, that was last year I’ve totally changed since- MOTHER OF PISS!” I scream, as Dash flings a lump of crud at my face. “THAT IS NOT FUNNY DICKFEATHERS!” I say, before spewing a curseword-laced rant at Dash, Gretchen, and everyone else in earshot. Gretchen and Dash are on the floor laughing.
Uncle Scratchy turns around from the firewood he was chopping and fails at looking stern like only an uncle can. “Shush up and buck up mollies, quicker we get the prep done is the quicker we eat.”
“Yessir, Uncle Scratchy”
“Yessir, mister Scratchy”
Uncle Scratchy gives Rainbow Dash a cautious look. “RD, you sure you’re okay with helping? Ah know some ponies can get freaked by this sorta thing, you can come build the fire with me if you’re feeling off.”
If Dash has any reservations she hides them well. “Nah I’m cool, I’ve been with Gilda when she’s hunted before. I’ve got a ranger friend in Ponyville, we catch fish for some of the animals she looks after, this isn’t so different,” she says, with a calm look on her face.
Dash cleans, I chop, Gretchen skins, Terrence rubs the spices and Nigel makes the kebabs. Five minutes later and we have enough for dinner. While we wait for the spices to sink in and for Scratchy to build the fire, we all do the basic cleaning, chopping and skinning on the hundreds of critters before rigor mortis sets in. It’s fiddly work and we have to move fast, but we’ve gone through all the bags within the hour. Soon enough we’re sitting around the fire, with lemming kebabs for the griffons and a pepper and squash kebab for Rainbow Dash.
“Mare, this kebab is really good” says Dash, “What spices did you use?”
“Trade secret m’fraid” drawls Terrence. “Why, if ah let just anybird get ahold of mah recipe ah wouldn’t have a line of mollies outside my nest beggin’ for a beakful of my special meat now would ah? Windsake, I even known a few pegasi what like a taste of sausage from time to time” he says, giving Dash a huge wink. I throw a lemming head at him. “Ow! Dammit Gilda!”
“Don’t hit on my marefriend, dick-for-brains!” I yell.
Uncle Scratchy’s eyes light up. “Why Gilda, you never said you and Dash were marefriends” he lies.
“No wonder she ain’t worried bout getting eaten by scary griffons” says Terrence with a shit-eating grin “She’s getting eaten by a certain griffon already!” I dive towards him and start punching him in the face. He barely fights back, he bursts out laughing and just covers his face to stop me from breaking anything until Uncle Scratchy separates us. Gretchen and Nigel are rolling their eyes. Dash and Terrence are doubled over laughing.
We're soon back sitting around the campfire. Gretchen and Nigel are chattering about griffon politics and history like the dorks they are, Terrence is starting on the next course of food and Rainbow Dash is snuggled under my wing. Uncle Scratchy roots around in his bag, pulls out a plug of chewing tobacco and cuts a hunk off with his knife. Dash's head pokes up from under my wing.
“Woah, that's a sweet looking knife” she says, staring at the talon-shaped blade cradled in Uncle Scratchy's paw.
“Like it? Military issue karambit,” says my uncle, spinning the blade by the finger-hole. “Every griffon warrior is issued one after basic training. Strong construction, keen edge, claw hole for weapon retention. She's called Shona.”
“How come it's curved like that?” Dash asks.
“It used to be a tool for digging up snu-snu roots, the curve made digging around easier. Assassins and spies carried them as weapons because they could say they were just foragers if they got searched. After Meatball Mountain the griffon army-”
“Meatball Mountain?” asks Dash.
“That'd be the Battle of Peak Nine-Three-Seven, a hamlet of snu-snu farmers and a scouting-support base staffed by a squad of warriors and three dozen reservists. They got attacked by two hundred Diamond Dogs.” Uncle Scratchy pauses to pop his chew into his beak.
“What happened?” Dash was now sitting up attentively.
“They came up the mountain as dogs and went down it as meatballs.” Scratchy grins widely.
“Huh?” Dash has an eyebrow raised and looked confused “What do you mean they came down as- Oh. OH! Ewww!” She sticks her tongue out and makes a grossed-out face.
“Pfft, ponies” says Scratchy, rolling his single eye. “Anyway, the griffon army saw how practical they were for combat, and they're perfect for teaching griffon fighting philosophy. You use your opponent's defences to find their weak points.”
“How does that work?” asks Dash. Uncle Scratchy chuckles.
“I'll demonstrate. Gilda, if you please?”
I take out my blunt training karambit from cadet training and toss it to my uncle, then walk up to him and drop into griffon fighting stance. Uncle Scratchy slips his index talon through the claw hole, and the training blade sticks out from the bottom of his paw.
“You're a griffon warrior facing the enemy” he says in his Drill Sergeant voice, “You strike at the throat of your enemy, and they block with their front paws.” He swipes the training blade at my throat, and I barely block with a front paw. Quick as you blink he twists the blade, dragging it down my wrist, across the tendons at the elbow joint and upwards into the armpit.
“With a flick and a curve, you turn that block into two opened arteries, a severed tendon and a flayed pectoral. They can't move that limb to defend with it, and they'd bleed out within minutes even if they could.” Scratchy hands back my training karambit. “A good warrior does this in every fight. You make your enemy mass their forces in one location, so spies can slip into their borders and wreak havoc behind their lines. Retreat prematurely in battle, and swoop in on your enemy's flanks when their forces spread out. Let them waste their coffers on siege weaponry, and fight all of your battles outside of city walls.”
“That. Is. AWESOME!” says Dash, looking utterly enraptured. Her brow furrows suddenly. “Wait, that weapon works best against things that have forehooves like diamond dogs and other griffons right? But pony and zebra and camel forehooves are built the other way around, wouldn't that be kinda lame if you got into a fight with them?”
Uncle Scratchy laughs. “Gilda my dear, you've picked yourself a sharp little mollyfriend! You're right Dash, they're not useless for hooved types but they're better for claws 'n' paws. It ain't much of a problem though, griffons have the biggest problems with wyrmlings, minotaurs and dogs. The zebra are pals, we've got our methods for camels and we never, ever go to war with ponies.”
Nigel turns from his chat with Gretchen to face Scratchy, an angry look on his face. “Dad, that's total bullfeathers! What about Spring Valley-”
“That was a heated argument between a couple of platoons that got a little out of hand” Scratchy says, waving a paw to shush Nigel.
“Wait, Spring Valley?” says Dash, “My grandparents talk about that, there were a whole bunch of veterans in Cloudsdale who fought there-”
“There were barely two dozen fatalities on each side, I've seen barfights worse. When griffons make war, by the grace of Celestia it's not with ponies.”
I can practically see steam coming from Nigel's ears. “Oh sure, ponies don't call it war when they send scouting parties into marked griffon territories or supply arms and technomancy to our enemies, but the moment something kicks off anywhere near Equestrian borders it's suddenly a brutal confict...”
By Adune, I would do awful, disgusting things for Nigel to shut up about Griffon-Pony politics. Unforgivable things. Fortunately, Scratchy shuts him down.
“Spats and tussles, nothing more” he says sternly, “I don't want to hear none of that talk from you Nigel, y'hear? Specially not in front of our guest, it's downright rude.” Nigel rolls his eyes and mutters, but thankfully shuts his beak.
There's a lull in the conversation as Nigel goes back to chatting with Gretchen and Scratchy stuffs some more chew in his mouth. Dash pipes up and breaks the silence.
“How come griffons don't fight ponies? Griffons seem pretty...” she trails off, not knowing how to end the sentence without stepping in it.
“You mean all the talons and beaks and knives?” Scratchy says with a grin, “We don't go to war with ponies for a very good reason, but I'd have to give you a history lesson to explain it.” Dash makes a grossed-out face at the words 'history lesson'.
“Hey, it's griffon history babe” I say, nudging Rainbow Dash in the side. “Not like that boring crap they teach in Cloudsdale, we've got way more races and fights!”
Dash looks sceptical. “Well I'm all ears, but it better be awesome!”
Uncle Scratchy spits out some juice. Everyone gathers round the fire for story time, and Uncle Scratchy drops his voice to tell the old tale: “Let me tell you one of the greatest legends of the griffon race. Long ago, a thousand years before the banishment of Nightmare Moon, was an age of steel and adventure. Foul and mysterious beasts that are now sealed in the depths of Tartarus stalked the earth, causing great destruction wherever they tread. The nations of the world barely existed; and tribes and principalities skirmished and raided one another out of greed and spite. We griffons were surrounded by enemies. Devious camels wielding dark sorceries, savage minotaurs, mountain wyrmlings and hordes of barbaric diamond dogs were but a few of the opponents we faced. Even the Equestrians, which near every griffin clan shared a border with, had an uneasy peace and our shared borders were beset with both griffon and equine raiders.
“We did not have the living Godesses of the Equestrians, nor the djinn of the camels or the strange idols and fetishes of the zebras and the deer in their eastern jungles. Our only gods are Chingis and the Four Winds. Chingis is a bitter and moody goddess who sits on her great mountain, sending out dooms to anyone presumptuous enough to pray for her favour. But she gave griffons the will to survive and the strength to kill our enemies, and this is all we would ask for in a goddess. The Four Winds connect the earth and the endless sky and the realms beyond, but they heed our prayers no more than the grass heeds the ponies.
“We had no divine aid in this age of strife and sorcery; but we had four mighty heroes whose years of adventuring and exposure to strange magicks had given them near-immortality and legendary powers. These four and their companions turned the disparate tribes of griffondom into a true nation, and changed us from nomadic hunters to a true civilisation!
“First among these heroes was Zephyrous the Brutal. A lightening-quick giant with the strength of twenty griffons, he cleared the bandits from their nests in the Dural Mountains, routed the mercenaries and raiders that plagued our borders, reconquered lands that had been taken from us and claimed new lands, putting all races within them under the protection of the Griffon Kingdoms. He was a cunning and brutal tactician who turned the hunting parties of the many tribes into a fearsome fighting force.
“The second was Hoelun the Covetuous, the thief of knowledge. She was the polymath who founded our capital Condorcorum, created our education system and brought the griffons the gifts of the mind. On her orders our armies looted the libraries of every town and city they conquered, bringing back their scrolls and codices to the gigantic library in Condorcorum; and paid or coerced the scholars of these cities to come and teach at our capital. She held great symposia that brought together astronomers, cartographers, mathematicians, technomancers and alchemists from around the world, where they were offered access to our great libraries in exchange for copies of their texts and their teaching services.
“Third was Adune the Decadent, mistress of forgiveness, reconciliation and celebration. Her prowess with the guitar was fearsome; her shredding could inspire clashing armies to lay down their arms, terrify her opponents or whip her own forces into such a frenzy that they would ignore mortal wounds through sheer strength of will. She hosted an orgy that ended three wars, created alliances between four races, caused six dozen marriages and was so potent that the ground it was held on still causes raging erections and moist haunches in all that cross it. When she met the Royal Pony Sisters and their diplomatic delegation, they partied so hard that Condorcorum switched time zones and Zephyrous temporarily switched genders. So grand was the celebration that he was not even mad!
“Fourth was Young Zeyphr, Lord of Justice. He was a nemesis of all those who would harm the kingdom and its subjects, whatever their race or creed. When the rogue pegasus Colonel Typhoon committed a vile war crime against the Buckbeak tribe, slaughtering every tom and cub in the settlement before setting her stallions on the mollies, Young Zeyphr took a group of warriors deep into pegasus territory, kidnapped the Colonel and her entourage, and brought them back to the Kingdom. They were taken to a barren mountain, stabbed in the gut and left to bleed out for their crimes. He created Sinn Bird, our first spycraft organisation, who tracked down and murdered everypony else involved in the massacre. He travelled with the other heroes, acquiring sorcery and magical items allowing him to banish the otherworldly monsters that plagued the earth; and tamed Cerberus to guard their prison.
“The four heroes and their companions ushered in an age of prosperity to the Kingdoms that had never been seen before, lasting several hundred years. We became an educated nation and made wondrous advances in astronomy, technomancy and every other philosophy thanks to Hoelun. Our culture was enviable, and for a time our cities became the diplomatic nexuses of the world, where merchants and politicians could always expect to be well entertained by Adune and her disciples. The circles of sorcerers in the Sultanates did not place curses on the leaders of our clans and our allies, nor did the deer of Nainuoc kidnap griffons for the ransom at the edges of their jungles, for fear of having their throats torn out as they slept by Sinn Bird and Young Zephyr. No one dared attack our nation with Zephyrous leading our armies, and he kept the trade routes through our mountains clear, letting commerce prosper.
“But it was not to last. Centuries of exacting brutal vengeance on our foulest enemies and exposure to hellish beings and the dark arcana needed to defeat them had taken a toll on Young Zeyphyr. His heart blackened and he no longer sought to avenge those that had been wronged, only to satisfy his lust for blood and harm anybird he thought did not pay the Kingdoms sufficient fealty.
“One fateful night, he strode into the chambers of the Condorcorum ruling council and demanded they marshal forces to exterminate a group of itinerant, peaceable donkeys who had settled within griffon territory without first paying tribute to the nearest tribal chief. The council balked at this cruel demand, as there were many innocents in that settlement and a peaceful compromise could surely be reached. Young Zephyr flew into a rage, and told the council that they had shown themselves too cowardly to lead the nation, that the other three heroes had grown weak over the years, and that he would assume direct control of the Griffon Kingdoms. When the council protested, he slew them all to a bird.
“The other three heroes were not in the city, so Young Zephyr concocted a grisly plan to draw them out. He drew upon the eldritch energies of the demons he had defeated and the artifacts he had collected; and used them to summon a great horde of hellbeasts to his side. He allowed the Balegorgon to channel its vile being through him, and then lay waste to Condorcorum. He rent the warriors of the city apart twenty at a time with his great spectral claws as his demons killed everything around him. The slaughter was so dire that severed limbs rained from the skies, buildings were decorated with the hides of cubs, the great feasting hall was wrapped in the intestines of the dead. Young Zephyr tore down Hoelun's grand library, disintegrated Adune's favourite tavern and all the griffons in it, and slew Zephyrous' two youngest sons.
“The three heroes felt the psychic toll of Condorcorum, gathered what forces they could and went to confront Young Zephyr. They fought an impossible battle, as Young Zephyr was impossibly skilled at combat even before he turned, and was now a great eldritch dragon with the powers of the Balegorgon coursing through him. He threw his old friends around like cubs' toys and slaughtered their mortal companions, all powerful griffons in their own right, in front of their eyes. They could injure him, but could not kill him before he destroyed them utterly.
“Just as their defeat looked inevitable, Adune took her guitar and played the riff she wrote after Young Zephyr first swore to stop those that would harm the innocent. Something stirred within him, and he paused for just long enough for Hoelun to teleport the city's great standard-pole through his blackened heart. This blocked the portal between realms that the Balegorgon acted through, shifting Young Zephyr to his normal state. His mind cleared, and when he saw the enormity of what he had done, he broke down and wept, begging for forgiveness. He knew though, that as soon as the iron pole was removed from his chest, the portal would reopen and the Balegorgon would come into the world once more. He brought his old friends in close, and told them to annihilate him lest he turn back.
“In his last moments his friends forgave him, then Zephyrous channelled the earth and skies and all willpower bestowed by Chingis in all griffons' hearts, and directed this energy into his downed friend, destroying Young Zephyr utterly. Zephyrous' body, strong as it was, could not withstand these energies, which disincorporated him and fused him into the very soul of griffondom. Adune could not bear the loss of two of her oldest companions, her home city and her favourite watering hole, and so after throwing the Great Wake for Condorcorum she disappeared, reappearing over the ages at any griffon party, concert or bacchanal that gets sufficiently out of hand. Hoelun immediately set to work rebuilding the razed city and ruined military and recovering what was left of her life's work, the great library. She feared that one day she might turn as Young Zephyr did and that her powerful form could doom her race if possessed, so she rejected her immortality and cast sorceries to make her reincarnate; keeping her soul and memories but losing her magick-infused body.
“This was the lowest point for the Griffon Kingdoms. Our capital was a ruin and the backbone of our army was shattered. Of our four legendary heroes, one was dead, two were indisposed and the other was effectively mortal once more. Our enemies were salivating at the chance to pay back old insults, to grind our nation to dust, steal our wealth and make slaves of our cubs. The howls of the Diamond Dogs could be heard within a month, the camels amassed their military and mercenaries at our borders, raiders and bandits gleefully prepared to set up in their old dens of yore. The griffons knew they could not withstand attack from every direction, not in their current state, so our ancestors commended their souls to the Four Winds and prepared to make their last stand on this earth.
“As everything looked lost, Celestia and Nightmare Moon appeared to our remaining leaders and to the diplomats of every nation against us. They decreed that in absence of our heroes, the griffon race were welcomed as their children, same as any pony, unicorn or pegasus; and that any attack on their children would invoke the full wrath of Equestria, a superpower in its own right even without the two Royal Sisters. They then turned to us and offered us soldiers should we need them, builders and raw materials should we want them, and many other boons in return for naught but our friendship. Our enemies flinched and scampered back to their holes. We rebuilt our kingdom once more.
“This is why we are loyal to Celestia and Nightmare Moon. In our darkest hour, when they could have left us to our fates, waited until our race was no more, and then swept up the invaders and claimed our territory; when they could have remembered all our skirmishes and animosities; they instead took us under their wings as if we were kin. They went beyond showing us mere mercy, they gave us the greatest of blessings, for nothing more than to accept them as family. Ponies are our family, and this is why we would never wage war against ponies any more than the clans would wage war against each other.”
Uncle Scratchy sits back and drinks deeply from his cup, his story finished. Rainbow Dash looks impressed. “Oh mare, griffon history is metal,” she says, “Why can't Equestrian history be like that?”
“Oh I don't know, Equestrian history can be quite entertaining when they're not being a pack of hegemonistic dogs,” says Nigel, “For example, the pegasus Commander Hurricane was once disqualified from a duel for punching his opponent so hard it technically counted as witchcraft, and he drank so much moonshine that he had to pay stamp duty on his blood every time he crossed a border.”
“Yeah, now that's a pegasus I could get behind!” says Dash, “You'll have to fill me in on that guy.” Oh holy balls Dash, don't encourage him.
Uncle Scratchy claps his paws together. “Anyway, time for more food! You like mushrooms cub?”
Rainbow's eyes light up. “I LOVE mushrooms, gimme! Uh, please, I mean.”
Rainbow Dash snuggles back under my wing and we all start munching down the next round of food. It's been a damn good day. I've missed my Uncle, and I've missed that dumbass Terrence with his terrible innuendoes and his awesome food, and I've missed Gretchen, the Moon-may-care forest witch with her bluntness and her cublike enthusiasm for everything to do with bushcraft, and I've even missed Nigel with his fancy speaking and politics and dweebishness. I've missed my mom back at the tribe, and the five griffons who might be my dad, and most of my brothers and sisters, and chilling out around Griffhala, and I'm back here now and it's good to be back.
Everything feels right.
I wake up when I hear the screaming. It's a drawn-out, tortured howl, like a dog going through a threshing machine. It takes a few seconds to realize that I'm doing the screaming.
Everything is wrong. My muscles are spasming wildly, sinews like steel ropes, almost crushing my bones. Boiling acid courses through my veins, barbed wire wraps around every organ, my muscles are crushing my bones and tearing the tendons from the joints, my eyes throb and threaten to pop from their sockets and billions of strange creatures are crawling under my skin. I scream even louder as I thrash and take deep breaths through burning lungs.
Rainbow Dash is standing over me, terror in her eyes, begging me to say something. I can't, all I can do is scream loud enough to strip the flesh from my throat. She runs off. I start to see blackness behind my eyes, and everything inside me feels wrong, deeply wrong, like soul-incest, like there is some part of me gone, something vital that I will die without. I'm thrashing around hard enough to throw the sheets off the bed and crack the headboard with a flailing claw. I hear Dash burst into the room with Trixie and Twilight. It doesn't matter. I'm going to die here. I can't survive this. Four Winds, I'm going to die.
Dash is yelling and Trixie is scrambling around and Twilight is trying to think and my organs are being liquefied as evil bees eat me from the inside. I want to live damn it, but I'm slipping. My screams turn to low groans, the pain dies down as my body is flooded with whatever chemical makes pain die down and I can't even feel my thrashing muscles any more. In a moment the blackness will set in, and all that I am and ever was will be no more.
But the blackness doesn't come. I'm groaning because I don't have to scream any more. I can't feel my muscles thrash because the spasms have stopped and turned into small bouts of twitching. The relief isn't some sweet injection of painkillers, it's because the pain is gone.
Whatever just happened is over. I see Rainbow Dash in front of me.
"-you okay, Gilda? What just happened, you were screaming and- jeez, your pupils are pinpricks, we gotta get you to a hospital or something," she says breathlessly, "You had some kind of crazy fit, did you take a bunch of moon dust a minute ago or something?" Her eyes are wide with worry and she's shaking as much as I am.
Trixie shakes her head. "It's not drugs, if she took enough to cause a fit like that she'd be dead now," she murmurs. She doesn't look as terrified as dash, but she's definitely unnerved.
Twilight is pacing, and then she turns to us. "I'm going to run a toxin scan and then check through my codex of non-pony medical conditions, if that doesn't come up with anything we're going to need to get her to a-"
"Won't help," I croak, cutting her off, "S'not poison or illness. Got a hole in my soul, can feel it. I've heard it happens when you get banished from your clan. You stop being a proper griffon, n' it kills you." My insides still feel terrible, my joints ache and I can't stop twitching.
Twilight frowns. "That's not right. Vincent the Machinist came to Equestria after he was banished from the Goldeneyes and lived to old age. Quite a few griffons have done that after doing something terrible in the eyes of their clan but not bad enough to be jailed in Equestria. I don't know what happened to you, but it wasn't that."
I stretch out. I feel like I've just had feather flu. "S'mthing wrong with me..." I mumble, getting off the bed. My legs are wobbly and Dash comes close to catch me, but I can stand. "-m not a real griffon any more, I- I'm something else." My back leg twitches, and I lean against Dash. "Trixie," I say, "Need you to get the tuttlebark burner and some candles. Gotta do the thing."
Trixie raises her eyebrows, but nods and heads back into her room. I stumble off Dash and start rooting through the saddlebags at the bottom of my bed. I stop when I find my stash of rabbit jerky. Then I take two little bottles of whiskey from the minibar, open one up, and down it in a single pull.
"You about to do what I think you're about to do?" asks Dash, an eyebrow cocked, "Does that work when you're, y'know..."
"Banished? Worked just fine when I was out of the tribe" I say, "He's part of my psyche, same as every griffon. I think it's time for a chat."
"Wait, are you going to commune?" asks Twilight, eyes lighting up, "That's incredible! I've heard of griffons communicating with Zephyrous but I've never seen it! How does it work? Can I watch? What do-" She quiets down and blushes deeply when Dash gives her a sharp look. "I mean, if that's okay with you, if it's a private thing-"
I wave a paw at her. "Nah it's cool, there really ain't much to see though. I go into a trance for a bit, and it happens in my head. Watch all you want." I flop back down on the bed and stare at the cream wallpaper of the suite. Everything feels wrong.
Trixie comes back in with the burner, some tuttlebark and some candles. We head into the en-suite, Twilight looking excited, Dash looking wary and Trixie with her usual aloof expression. I set up the candles around the sink, light them, plug the basin, put the burner in the sink and light it. The device cools the smoke as it comes out, and the thick brown incense settles in the basin. I take out the jerky and the whiskey, then turn to the others.
"'Kay, I need you to turn off the lights now," I say, "This works best in the dark."
Twilight flicks the light switch and the room is now lit by candlelight, reflecting off the mirror above the sink. I tear off a small strip of jerky and chew it until it is soft and ready to swallow. I pour the whiskey into my mouth and down it and the jerky, then lower my beak into the basin and inhale as much of the incense as I can. It smells of roasted duck and sulfur, and it burns my throat and nostrils. I then stare directly into the mirror and chant:
"Zephyrous, Zephyrous, Zephyrous."
My eyes roll back and everything is black.
* * *
Everything is back in focus. I'm in the bathroom again, everyone looking at me expectantly. I stare at the floor.
"It didn't work," I say, "Nothing happened. I'm... I'm alone now."
Twilight gives me an odd look. "You were in a trance for five minutes, mumbling like you were having a conversation with someone. I think you started speaking Qi-Rin at one point."
"Nai-tu," says Trixie, "Deer dialect. You were most certainly in a trance of some sort. It seems likely that it worked, and you're simply unable to remember it. Strange, but I think Twilight would agree that you haven't lost your soul or something like that."
It's wrong. Everything is wrong and it feels wrong and I'm wrong. I'm going to die banished, I can feel it.
"Thanks guys," I say glumly, "Can I talk with Dash for a bit?"
Trixie and Twilight give me sympathetic looks and go back to their rooms. Dash comes close and puts a hoof around my neck. "How ya feeling?" she whispers. I swallow, and lean in close to her, sitting on the tile floor.
"Last night I had a dream," I say, "It was a memory of the time you stayed with my family for the Spring break, when you helped us hunt with my uncle and my cousins. They all really liked you, and the hunt was fun, the food was great, my cousins were all loveably dumb and we told stories and sang songs long into the night before we curled up close together and slept under the stars and all that crap. Now there's a very good chance that none of that shit will ever happen again."
My eyes go moist and I start snivelling like a cub. "I want things to be normal, Dash. I want all this to stop, to clear my banishment. I want to go home and see Uncle Scratchy and crazy Aunt Gina and Terrence and Gretchen and all my cousins and nieces and nephews and brothers; I wanna eat dansak and rocky mountain oysters fried in butter and coriander and live baby octopus that squiggles around as you stuff it in your beak; I wanna walk ino a griffon bar without everybird putting a free hand on a weapon, I just want to be a normal fucking griffon without something- something wrong inside me..." I trail off, bury my face in Dash's neck and just fucking sob. Nothing is right and everything is wrong inside. It's like I'm going to die and horrible things are waiting for me in the black.
Rainbow Dash holds me close and gently runs a comforting hoof through my crest. "Wow Gilly, I didn't know you were so torn up about this banishment thing," she says softly, "It's been pretty hard on you, huh?"
I calm down and relax against her. She's soft and warm and I start to feel a little better. The wrongness fades. "Nah, it's just that dream and that fit," I say, sniffling. "It's just... got me out of sorts is all, I'm feeling a lot less weird now." I look up at her through reddened eyes and smile. "Sorry for being so lame just now."
She smiles back and chuckles softly. "Don't sweat it G, it happens to all of us," she says, "And we'll get you back in, I promise. I never leave a friend hanging."
"Thanks, RD," I say, as she hugs me in close. We sit there for a minute, not saying anything, until there is a knock on the door. Trixie comes in. I look like a dorky pathetic mess, but I don't care, she's seen me worse.
"If you're feeling capable, we can work on your way back in right away," says Trixie, a smug look plastered across her face, "My prodigious abilities with arcane tracking have come through spectacularly, and we've picked up Goodflank on our monitors. He's meeting Trotsky now."
Extra author note: Did you arrive here from Equestria Daily? Yes? If so, GET BACK THERE AND RATE MY STORY, I CAN ALMOST TASTE THE SIX STAR RATING MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!1!!ONE!
We decided to take the scrying device to one of Pinkie's hideouts and view it there, so that we could start planning and prepping as soon as we were done. Trixie and Twilight had already set up some node thing in the hotel room and another in the technomancy dump to get between Pinkie's and the hotel. They had mixed the reagents and cast the spell about ten seconds ago; and now I'm spewing all over the ground next to a broken refrigerator.
“Jeez Gilda, you okay?” I think that's Rainbow Dash speaking.
“Gimme a sec, I'll be- *blurghhh*” Turns out my stomach ain't quite empty. It feels like my organs are having a drunken wrestling match.
“...that's a lung, surely I need that... M'kay, I'm good,” I say, wiping my beak and getting back to my paws.
“Well it's about time, the Great and Powerful Trixie has expended considerable effort tracking this quarry of ours, and would not like to miss this opportunity because you have some prayer-induced hangover.” She taps a hoof on the secret entrance, which swings open, and she heads into the tunnel.
How have I worked with Trixie all these years and not stabbed her yet?
We follow her, and after a short trip through the sewers, some dry-heaving from me and a jaunt through an abandoned licorice factory, we're at Pinkie's. The whole place smells of apples and cinnamon with a hint of something else. As soon as we're all inside, the pink loon appears behind us and tries to hug us all together.
Of course she does.
“Hey girls! I thought you might be hungry after all that stuff we did yesterday, so I baked some apple pie and got Snails to whip something up for Gilly-Boo!”
“You will never use that nickname for me again.” Also, I hate you.
“Okiedokes, Gilda Redbeak of Clan Blackwing!” she sings, bouncing past us to the cluttered table. She shrugs two cardboard boxes off her back onto the table, and opens the larger one to reveal a gigantic apple pie with a flaky golden crust, steam gently rising from the slits.
Then she opens up the smaller box, and it is pure beauty. Dozens of lightly fried whitebait, garnished with diced tomatoes and onions, with a big chunk of lemon on the side. I squeeze the lemon over the fish and shove a whole claw full into my beak. Crispy skin, soft flesh and crunchy bones. The nausea dies down as I eat, finally settling my stomach. I hate Pinkie Pie a little less.
The next ten minutes are a mad flurry to set up and calibrate all the runes, sigils and other sourcery to get the scrying device up and running. Soon, the whole place reeks of ammonia and coalmilk. Now we're sat around the table, staring at the arcane viewing portal chalked on the wall across from us.
The image on the portal is a small waiting room, seen through the eyes of a pony. There are two sofas, the viewer sitting on one and a stony-faced, milk coated pegasus sat across the room from him. Between them is a coffee table with a coffee maker and a bunch of magazines on the top. The pegasus is reading Aviation Weekly. The viewer sighs, and looks at the beautiful silver watch on his forehoof.
“I thought you said this guy was meeting up with Trotsky, what's this crap?” asks Dash.
Trixie glares at Rainbow Dash. “Goodflank entered the building and asked to see her, he is very obviously waiting. Now be quiet, Trixie is in no mood for your nonsense.”
Dash responds by flinging a piece of pie crust at her. Twilight catches it with her magic and shoots Dash a look. We all turn back to the screen. We don't wait long until a buzzer goes off in the waiting room, causing the pegasus to look up. “Ms Trotsky will see you now,” he says, in a strong Trotholm accent.
“Finally,” Goodflank sighs. It's been a while since I've heard Goodflank's Manehattan prep-school accent. He sounds like the bored and impatient management consultant he should have become. The milk-coated pegasus gets up and lets him into the main office.
Trotsky's office is opulent and well furnished. The room is softly lit by lamps on cream walls, decorated with Namby Pamby prints. A burgundy chaise-lounge is in the corner of the room, and in the centre of the room is a large desk. Directly behind that desk sits Trotsky. She's a brown russ, as ugly as most earth ponies, maybe a bit uglier. Her face is weathered and a little squashed looking; and there's a chunk missing from her right ear. She has calm grey eyes and is smiling the thinnest of smiles. As Goodflank approaches, she gets up and trots towards him.
“Dzien dobry, Goodflank,” she says.
Trotsky moves in close to Goodflank, and her face goes out of view as she nuzzles his neck. She sighs softly as she kisses and nips somewhere behind his ear. “You have news for me?” she whispers.
“Mmm. Rather bad news I'm afraid.”
Trotsky pulls back and looks at our target through wide and innocent grey eyes. “This news, it is so bad you must tell me right now?”
“I think it can wait,” says Goodflank. You can practically hear his smug smirk. Trotsky's eyes go lidded and she moves in to kiss him. Goodflank keeps his eyes open when he kisses. Figures. When the russ mare pulls away, she turns, wraps her burgundy tail around his neck and leads him to the chaise-lounge.
I don't think I need to spell out what the pair spend the next twenty minutes doing on the chaise-lounge. Rainbow Dash and Pinkie are giggling. Twilight's cheeks are glowing red. “They're certainly, um, energetic...” she says over the moans.
Trixie on the other claw looks unimpressed. “Trixie has seen far better. Six out of ten.”
I'm glad when it's over. Earth ponies are gross, and Trotsky makes creepy noises when her tail gets pulled. The pair spoon and snuggle for five minutes before Trotsky speaks up. “Mmnn... so, lover, what was this news you come to give me?” she asks, voice soft and contented.
“Some very bad business up north at the mechanics,” he says darkly, “Ogorki and his colts are all dead, house burned to the ground. The two fillies they were ransoming were released to their parents. I assume the mares were released too. All the records and funds are gone, either burned or taken.”
Trotsky turns towards Goodflank, frowning. “This is very not good. Ogorki and his group were good ponies. Very competent. You have leads, moj ogier?”
“I would not come to you empty-hooved, my love,” he says, “Only one other pony knew the location of the mechanics, Smedley Puddinghead. I went to his home and searched it. He sold Ogorki out to an EIS agent, now he's either far away from Filly or buried in some shallow grave.”
Trotsky's face grows darker. “This is... worrying.”
“That's not even the best part,” says Goodflank, chuckling grimly, “I know the agent and I know her assignment. It's Agent Harvest, and her assignment is protecting and assisting Lucino Tagliatelli.”
“Oh horseapples...” mutters Trixie.
“What just happened?” asks Dash, looking worried.
I inhale sharply. “We may have just started a gang war.”
On the screen, Trotsky's face is twisted with rage. “That shit-birthed, dust addled donkey dares to attack us!? We will bring terrible things on his head for this!,” she says, “But first Agent Harvest must be removed. Can she be tracked?”
“I know she'll be eating at Il Pomodoro Dolce at eight tonight, that gives me nine hours to whip something up. Do you have something in mind, love?”
A look passes over Trotsky's face, and I can see something terrible behind those calm, grey eyes. “Il Pomodoro Dolce is Macaroni business, yes? Pick up Wiley Pegasus from refinery at four. Get rid of Il Pomodoro Dolce and Agent Harvest at same time.”
Dash's eyes go wide. “Did she just say what I think she said?”
I nod. “Yup. This is bad, dude. Very bad.”
Twilight looks back and forth between us, brow furrowing. “Wait, what? What's she planning? Who's Wiley Pegasus?”
“Twi, wait,” says Dash, eyes glued to the portal, “We need to see if they mention anything else.”
We're interrupted by Goodflank letting out a long whistle. “You know Trotsky, if it were anyone else asking me this I'd tell them to go clop with a cheese grater,” he says, “But for you, my dear, anything. Do you have a fall pony for me?”
Trotsky shifts, stands up and walks to the desk. “Teaflower has been making plans to leave the business and he does this without consulting me or asking my permission,” she says, rooting through some files, “I was going to have him gelded and let him bleed out, but he may as well serve some useful purpose. This will be enough to impersonate him, yes?” She passes Goodflank a few sheets of paper and some photographs.
“This should do nicely,” he replies, looking over the files. He puts them away and looks back at Trotsky. “Another round before I go?”
Trotsky smiles. “I would like that, I think.”
Rainbow Dash mutes the portal, stands up and walks in front of the screen. “Guys, this is not good. We've gotta stop this flankhole and the ponies he's working with, or a lot of innocent ponies are going to die."
Twilight, Trixie and the nutter look worried but confused. “What exactly is going on? Who's Wiley Pegasus?” asks Twilight.
“A Wiley Pegasus is a bomb, made of fifty litres of cyoctene, jellied coal spirits, with a white phosphorus detonator,” I say, trying not to think of the memories it dredges up, “It creates a thirty-meter explosion with a total mortality rate for anything caught inside. Liquid fire will splash outside that circle and has a seventy-percent mortality rate for anypony it touches. It burns underwater, and is enchanted to be near-impossible to extinguish before it burns out. Cyoctene bombs are some of the most dangerous weapons in this world, and their use is banned by any international treaty worth mentioning.”
I know way more than I want to about cyoctene. It's one more reason to hate Nainuoc.
“It sounds like there's a stockpile, or maybe they're even brewing it,” says Rainbow Dash. “We need to shut them down, we can't have douchebags like these owning weapons like those.”
We all get to work. Me and Twilight work through the business and property listings, trying to find anything with refinery or finery in the name. Trixie and Dash sort through Pinkie's stash of old military munitions manuals and whip up the equipment and know-how to defuse a Wiley Pegasus. Pinkie starts getting our equipment together and keeps an eye on the monitor in case Goodflank mentions anything else.
Fifteen minutes later I'm tearing my crestfeathers out. “Dudes, this is a mess. There are ten possible places with refinery or finery in the name: Four bars, an inn, a textile mill, the salt refinery on the docks, a fashion house in uptown Filly and two restaurants.”
“It won't be the bars or the restaurants,” says Dash, looking up from a copy of EAF Manual B2M21: Incendiaries and You. “Cyoctene stinks and needs ventilation, you couldn't serve food around it and you want a lot of room between the bomb and the detonators.”
“Right, so we're looking at either the salt refinery, the textile mill or the fashion house,” I say, “The salt refinery is in Wharfie territory so it's probably not there-”
Twilight cuts me off: “We can't assume that. We don't know how far Goodflank's influence reaches, he might have friends in the Wharfies too, and it sounds like he can impersonate ponies. For all we know, he's planning on stealing this bomb.”
Dash is poring over a map, sticking pins into it. “The textile mill is in west Filly, the fashion house is central and the salt refinery is in the south-eastern docks. There's twenty minutes as the pegasus flies between each of them, probably an hour by hoof. We'd have to split up to check them all out in time. How are we gonna know anyway? They're not exactly going to have a sign saying 'yo, we make bombs' posted outside.”
“Uh, girls?” Pinkie pops out from a large pile of webbing and contraptions.
“Yes, listen here,” says Trixie.
I turn to our resident nerd. “Twilight, could you figure out what molecular compounds cyoctene ventilation will give off and what they'd break down to in chromatography? I could lift a few portable analysers from the university, I've got the technomancy chops to take an air sample and do a read out.”
She shakes her head. “It'll take a few hours to get hold of the chromatographs, the results will take at least an hour to process and with city air and masking agents, the results will be clear as mud. No, we need some other way...”
“Uh, girls, we've got something important,”
“Yes, cease your chatter and listen to us.”
“Wait, Twilight, what about magical scrying?” asks Dash, “I fly you over, you do your thing, bam, we find our guys.”
“The spell itself would take two hours to prepare in each case. We have less than five hours until he makes the pick up, unless we get lucky on the first go, he'll be picking up the bomb before we know which is the right one. It would be simpler to just tail him to the place,” says Twilight.
Shit. That won't do. “We need information from this guy, and to get it we need proof that he picked up the bomb and planted it. I gotta be there before he makes the pick up, or I might miss it. He'll probably be in disguise when he plants the thing.”
“Oh by Discord's prostate, I've had enough.” Trixie's horn flashes and the room goes completely silent. Twilight and Dash's mouths are still moving, but no sound is coming out. There's no drip-drip of the coffee maker or hum of the Hex engine. There's not even the ringing in the ears of walking out of a loud nightclub into a quiet morning. Just pure silence.
Twilight's brow furrows, her horn glows for a second and the ambient noise returns. Trixie gets that weird flushed look she gets when Twilight does stuff with magic. Her ears twitch, she swallows and then speaks:
“As Pinkie and I were trying to say, you may have overlooked a likely location. The condemned beet processing plant in the northern outskirts is colloquially known as the sugar refinery.”
Pinkie holds up some files from the book of names. “It's smack-bang in Kurierzy territory and it's walking distance from where Daisycutter, a criminally inclined ex-Royal Guard quartermaster lives. You won't have found it in the business and property listings because it's been condemned for a few years.”
“Jeez, how many condemned factories are there in Fillydelphia?” says Dash.
Pinkie's face scrunches up and she somehow counts on her hooves. “'Bout fourteen I think. There's a demolitions and construction shortage in Filly, my sis Blinkie is thinking of setting up here, the pay's pretty good.”
Twilight's eyes light up. “Of course! It's isolated enough to store or produce explosives, and the chimney could be used to ventilate and filter the fumes. We'll have to scout it out, but it looks like we've found the place. How did you guys know about this?”
Trixie smiles smugly and flicks her mane over her withers. “Trixie and the lovely Miss Pie know Fillydelphia rather well, especially where criminals are involved.”
I put my fist down on the table and get everyponies' attention. “Okay, here's what we're going to do. Dash and Trixie will get to the restaurant and set up what you need to kill that bomb and capture Goodflank. Pinks, do your costume thing, photograph Goodflank going in and out of the factory and into the restaurant, and catch him going into disguise if you can. Twilight's on mission control. Make sure Pinkie knows where Goodflank is at all times, get some communication doohickeys ready so you can anonymously set Special Branch on the refinery after the pick up and get the local guard to the restaurant after the bomb is defused. I'll get into the refinery, make sure it's the right location, and photograph Goodflank making the pick up. Any questions?”
Pinkie's hoof shoots into the air. “Ooh! Me! Pick me!”
“Yeah, pink stuff?”
“Snails wants to know what you thought of the whitebait.”
“Better than sex. Any questions about the job? No? Let's get prepped.”
We're getting our gear sorted when Pinkie Pie appears in front of me, dressed in a dark purple bodysuit, with a mask over her face, a wide-brimmed hat and a cape. I look her over.
"I'm loving the gimp look."
"Be nice, Gilda," says Dash with a frown.
"Hey, I'm being serious. There's stallions that pay Trixie good money for putting on outfits like that, ain't that right Trix?"
Trixie sighs exasperatedly and narrows her eyes, but stays focused on two conical flasks of chemicals she's mixing on a makeshift alchemist's bench.
"Featherbrain, Trixie knows you are uncomfortable with equipment more complicated than a plank of wood with a nail through it; but some ponies require more specialised equipment, for tasks like bomb disposal. Specialised, volatile equipment requiring a thorough facility with chemicals and reagents. Chemicals and reagents that could drown us all in lethal fumes if prepared incorrectly."
She places the two conical flasks, one now full of clear, viscous liquid, down on the surface and then looks straight at me. "So please, Gilda, clop off."
I roll my eyes and turn back to the Gimp-Do-Well.
"Come with me, Gilda. I have some toys for you."
I do a double take when I hear that voice, and for a moment I'm not even sure it came from Pinkie. It sounded nothing like her. It wasn't the horribly peppy, chirping-like-a-foal-on-a-caffiene-drip that it usually is. It was smooth, dark and creamy with a weird intensity that makes it hard to know if she wants to seduce me or stab me. She sounds like a femme fatale from some noir detective film.
The others haven't looked up. Dash and the librarian must have heard it before, and Trixie is concentrating on her chemistry. Pinkie is still staring at me through the freaky grey eyes on her mask.
"Uh, sure," I say, "Lead the way, freak."
She turns and walks out the door with me following. We go into the corridor. Left is the way out through the licorice factory and dumping ground, right is an unused emergency exit, and directly to the front is a steel door with a mechanical combination lock. Pinkie twists the dial for a moment, then the door swings open.
The room is large and dimly lit. The right side of the room is a makeshift plywood-built shooting range twenty meters long; and the left of the room is filled with cardboard boxes, wooden crates and plastic barrels. A crate near me, about half my height, has its lid pried off. Half a dozen strange black tubes that flare out like a grapnel on the end, encased in grey packing foam, are visible on the top. There's probably eighteen total in the crate.
"Gas-powered grappling hooks with thirty meters high-tensile nylon cord. Re-useable, but requires reassembly and a new gas cannister with each use. Those are spares." Her chocolatey superhero voice sounds no less freaky the second time.
We walk to the back of the room, which is slightly better lit by yellow lamps on the wall. The back wall is home to a large rack of weapons and equipment; from heavily modified crossbows, to coils of rope, to technomantic goggles, to weird and complex devices I'd be hard pressed to describe. I swear I'd seen once piece of equipment there in a gynaecologist’s office. In the corner are several Mare-Do-Well suits hanging up, next to strange variants like a Mare-Do-Wetsuit and a ghillie suit. There's a large workbench, covered in tools and bits of scrap. Small gas cannisters are scattered all over it. Mounted in a pair of vices is what looks like a crossbow without the bow or string.
"This is the armoury, where I store and develop my equipment, as well as keep confiscated items that are... too interesting to destroy," she says. She picks up an odd-looking bit of gear from the wall. It looks like the twisted offspring of half a set of welding goggles and a jewler's loupe, pumped full of gem matrices and technomantics.
"Pie Technologies Specterscope® in the sixty thaum range. It casts out infra-red light beyond the visible spectrum and the viewer picks it up, allowing you to see in even the darkest spaces clearly without giving away your position; and has a pure light amplification mode which casts out no light whatsoever. The viewer also picks up ultraviolet, infra-black and octarine wavelengths making it second to none for the detection of illusions and thaumatic activity." She passes it to me, pressing a button above the scope as she does. I put it over my right eye. The dim room is suddenly bright as day, though most of the colour is bled out of it. I take it off, and sling it around my neck.
A small duffel bag filled with half-meter long black bars catches my eye. I point to it. "Are they-"
"Flexible linear shaped charges, two-two-five grain TNGB, will cut through half an inch of high quality steel. Very useful for breaching interior walls and doors. Highly inadvisable in environments filled with explosives and flammable substances. Not for you. Moving on." Spoilsport.
She moves along, picks up a camera and passes it to me. "Camera with scope, no flash."
"Just a camera?" I ask, eyebrow arched.
"A nice camera. I'd like it back in one piece."
"I'll see what I can do. What's next?"
She thrusts a small fabric case towards me and opens up the top, revealing six plastic tubes the size of firecrackers. Each tube has a button on the side and a ring pull on the end. "Dual chemical freezing agent," Pinkie says, "Pull the ring off to arm, press the button to spray. It'll freeze locks and let you shatter them.”
"Now last but not least, the Gas-Propelled Dart Launcher with less-than-lethal ammunition." She lifts the strange crossbow-looking thing from the vices on the table and passes it to me. It has an adjustable stock and a strap for slinging across the shoulder.
Pinkie picks up a piece of ammunition and shows it to me. It's a dart with a hollow shaft about the width of an arrow, four fins and an odd half-sphere blob where a spike or arrowhead would be. In the dim light I can see two colours in separate halves of the blob, a blue and a yellow.
"Fin stabilised dart with a two-part electrothaumic payload. Each half contains decayed or hypercharged gemstone powder dissolved in an electrothaumatic gel. When the film separating the two parts is crushed, the mixture of opposite-thaumacity gemstones releases magic, causing the gel to release an electric charge powerful enough to incapacitate a stallion,"
She turns back to the launcher. "The GPDL is lever-action with a trigger mechanism adapted for griffon use. Darts are loaded into this slot above the trigger; press the slot to unload the magazine. Six darts fit in the magazine and one fits in the chamber. Effective range is sixty meters, point-blanc is ten meters. Do not use more than two darts per target. Do not use on foals, pregnant mares, elderly ponies or ponies with heart conditions. Gas cannister slots in here, provides propellant for up to fifty shots. Extra darts can be mounted on the side for ease of loading. I have dummy rounds and a small firing range if you wish to familiarise yourself in the next thirty minutes before we set out."
"I might just take you up on that, Pinks," I say. I've seen dart launchers before, but you never want to use a new weapon without knowing how it handles. "Anything else?"
Pinkie walks over to the wall and starts strapping bits of equipment to her suit. "That's it for toys, but there's something else I need to talk to you about."
"It's... I've killed ponies, Gilda. Two ponies." She speaks slowly and sounds resigned. The unblinking mask and smooth, dark voice make it more than a little creepy.
"So I've heard," I reply. I double check that Leroy is in his sheath. Pure habit.
Pinkie turns towards me but doesn't look at me, and seems to sag a little. "It's strange. I'm a party pony who does party pony things. I make punch and cakes, I send out invitations and get everypony playing and laughing and dancing and I threw a pony out of a thirty-sixth story window and I took a rock in my hooves and I hit a mare over the head with it until her head was all over the floor."
She stops, and takes deep, ragged breaths through her mask. "If anypony deserved to die it was those two, but it didn't matter. After the first one, it was all I could think of for weeks. That I should have prepared better. That I shouldn't have chased him just after I'd raided his home and was reeling from everything I'd seen. That I could have done something, anything different and I wouldn't have blood, no matter whose, all over my hooves. The second time was no better."
She whips her head around to face me and steps forward so she's barely a foot away. I nearly go for my knife.
"You don't see it that way, do you Gilda? You've killed enough griffons and ponies under orders that it just doesn't faze you any more; or maybe it never did," she says, an edge to her voice.
"I've done what I had to for the Kingdoms and Equestria," I snap, "Not all of it was sunshine farts and gumdrops and I feel the exact same way any normal griffon or pony or fucking donkey or whatnot in my place would, so where exactly are you going with-"
"I have no argument with what you did on your job. Dashie..." There she goes, using that name again, "She was with the Wonderbolts and they had orders. But she doesn't do things like that now. You're a free agent now Gilda, with no orders whatsoever. You were a free agent when you killed twelve ponies four nights ago."
I roll my eyes. "Oh go soak your head, dweeb. They were scum, doing some of the worst shit I've seen in my line of work and if you're going to tell me-"
"I know what they were, Gilda. That's the reason you're not in a prison hospital with four broken legs and a fleet of detectives poring over your entry in the book of names."
"Well if you're not flipping out over that, what's your point?"
"Protecting the innocent is a heavy burden and a sacred duty. You treat it like a game at the fairground and I don't like that. You go blood crazy like that again and I'll end you before you lay a talon on that sharp little knife of yours. Be a dear and pass that on to Trixie." She turns, and walks away.
"Pfft, whatever freak, I'll shove a cupcake so far up your flankhole you'll be coughing sprinkles and pissing icing-"
I blink. She had disappeared into the shadows.
How the fuck did she do that?
One mystery at a time, I guess. I sling the launcher over my shoulder and head out.
It took a bit longer than we wanted for us to get completely sorted, but it was worth it. Twilight pulled up blueprints for the beet sugar refinery, blueprints for the sewers and a map of Fillydelphia and used her magic to combine them all on one piece of waterproofed paper. This means I can figure out exactly where I'm going to enter the sewers, where I am when I'm down in the sewers, and how to get to the refinery from there.
The abandoned refinery is on the outskirts of the city, past a landfill site and a bit of scrubland, but close enough in that it has access to the sewers. I went into the sewers near a bunch of warehouses just before the landfill, and I'm now about half a kilometer from the refinery. I've done this kind of thing enough times that the smell doesn't bother me anymore. I almost like it. It smells like shit and subterfuge.
Two minutes later and there's a chain link fence blocking a turn I need to take. It goes all the way across, not just on the maintenance paving but also the actual water-filled sewer. There's a sign attached saying in big letters: 'DANGER: THIS AREA IS STRUCTURALLY UNSOUND. DO NOT ENTER. The padlock is on the other (read: wrong) side of the fence and looks well used and maintained. That's a clear red flag of someone playing silly buggers. I think about using one of Pinkie's freezing agents to just break the fence, but there's no point leaving a big fat sign that somebird broke in if I can help it. The brand of lock is good quality but common, so I fish out a bump key and get to work. It's a right nag securing the lock in place with tape and getting enough leverage for the mallet, but after about five minutes tinkering I'm inside.
I look overhead and see something interesting. There's a ceiling-mounted rail mechanism in this part of the sewers. It looks solid but not something that was made by professionals, and definitely not by the city council. If they've opened up the factory to the sewers, it would be perfect for transporting materials onto a raft that could take them to anywhere in Fillydelphia. If they're manufacturing this stuff...
"Mission control, this is bravo one," I whisper into my headset. "I'm getting close. This section has been locked off and modified for transporting heavy materials, over."
After our last little hitch using the headsets we decided to adopt some extra security measures into our communications strategy, like "call signs," "radio discipline," and "not being fucking idiots."
"Copy that bravo one, proceed with caution. Sound carries far down there, so no further communications unless absolutely necessary. Out," comes Twilight's voice into my ear.
I walk further down the section, with one eye using the Specterscope to see in the total darkness. The quality of the sewer and maintenance paving gets worse as I walk. A hundred meters on and the maintenance paving is submerged in six inches of sewer water. I'm very glad I'm wearing gauntlets and pawboots. Down here it smells less like sewage and more like damp and mould, with just a hint of something chemical. I'm moving through the shallow water slowly and methodically, making sure my weight is never on the paw or claw I'm stepping forward with. I don't want to be heard down here.
I stop in my tracks when I see a tiny glimmer in the water through the Specterscope. I look a little more closely and let out a sigh of relief when I realise I just narrowly avoided setting off a tripwire. They rigged it underwater, and it was pure luck that I saw it before I set it off. I look up and see what looks like a thin dark line of smoke stretching from one side of the sewer to the other. These guys are devious bastards. They set another tripwire at flying height, covered in dark wool so you'd never see it. Very gingerly, I step over the wire in the water.
I very slowly, very carefully, trail along the side of the tripwire for fifteen meters before I find what it was connected to, and it's all I can do not to piss myself. Eighteen claymare anti-personnel mines in an array, at a range of fifteen meters. Anyone or anything that tripped those wires would be painted across the wall. There's a nice little disarming mechanism next to the claymares, so they don't blow themselves up on the way out. I discreetly disable the mines. I don't want to turn into a meaty sieve if I have to get out of dodge.
I'm getting close now, the stench of chemicals is much stronger here and I can hear distant sounds from down the tunnel. I'm treading as slowly and quietly as I can, desperate to find traps before I trip them. I can see light shining down from a section of ceiling ahead.
Clinging to the wall as I approach, I see a gap in the ceiling ahead. They had cut out the top of the sewer at that point and built a makeshift freight elevator. There's a hanging mechanism connecting a raft of wooden planks on air-filled plastic barrels to the ceiling railing and a steel crane thing. There's a ladder leading up from the maintenance paving into the refinery above. It's not lit by daylight, but by dull orange sodium lights. I'm close enough that I can hear voices and movement from above, though they sound muffled.
I take out Pinkie's periscope when I get near the top of the ladder and use it to peek into whatever is above the elevator. It's dark and only lit by a single sodium light, but it looks like the entire room is a loading bay. There are two forklifts parked nearby, dozens of metal coalmilk drums scattered about and a garage door large enough for two fully-loaded wagons. On the other side of the room is a set of double doors, light shining through the cracks. I can hear noise and movement from the other side.
Double checking that there's no one in the loading bay, I climb up the ladder. The room stinks of coalmilk and solvents. It's then I realise that the dart launcher will be a no-no in most of this place. A spark might light half the room up. I slink up to the double doors and slide the periscope under to get a view.
Through the scope I see a large factory floor, thirty by fifty meters at least. Down the left length of the room there are four gigantic vats that rise up fifteen meters to a set of catwalks above the ceiling. In the centre of a room is a huge machine being operated by several unicorns and half a dozen russ, all wearing masks and goggles. Coalmilk drums full of coalmilk spirits are being poured into funnels at the top, combined with binding and jellying agents and being processed with unicorn magic. I get another shock when I see what the end product is: a gigantic, reinforced, two-hundred litre yellow metal barrel. That's not some pissant, fifty litre Wiley Pegasus made for a team of commandos, a crude catapult, or two fliers with a skywagon. That's a two-hundred litre bomb, designed to be carried by a team of fliers with a gigantic skywagon packing nine other bombs just like it. The kind of bomb that says: "See that little village down there? Fuck that village and everything in it."
There's a jury-rigged ventilation system, crude-but-effective like the railing system in the sewers, taking the fumes from the factory floor into the chimney which (if I remember the blueprints) is behind the right wall. That's where half of the noise is coming from, it keeps switching between thwug-thwug-thwug-CHUG-CHUG-CHUG. I don't think I need to worry about setting off a giant explosion, those reinforced barrels are enchanted so that nothing but a strong detonator will set them off. Still, even a small gas explosion could suck all the air from the room and snuff me like a candle, so I'd best not chance it.
First order of business is to contact Twilight and let her know that this is the place and I'm inside. I slink behind some barrels so that I don't get caught slipping by anypony trotting through those double doors, and turn on my headset. The static is loud and crackly.
"Mission control this is bravo one, do you copy?"
A few seconds of static, then: "Snirvle wurbles hshhhshhk"
Damn it. I must be out of range of the signal booster we left in the sewers, but behind too many thick walls to get signal. Second order of business: find somewhere I can contact Twilight from. I go towards the far side of the room away from the double doors, and the static gets louder. This part must be a ways within the building or have a lot of stuff overhead.
Turns out I've got to go through a factory floor full of bomb making flankholes. Figures.
I can't go through the double doors, there's way too many ponies roaming about in there moving barrels and making bombs, I'll stick out like a thorny dick. I stick the Specterscope back on and have a look around the room. There's a thin metal grate in the wall far to the left of the double doors, it should lead out straight behind the vats, so I go to check it out.
Fucking boss. Leads right out behind the vats, no illumination, out of line-of sight. A tight squeeze, but big enough for me to get through. I'm less happy when I see that it's built into the wall. Not a simple screwdriver job, I'll have to break it quietly. Hopefully no one will see it before I'm done here. I take out one of Pinkie's freezing agents, pull the ring off and wait for the CHUG-CHUG-CHUG of the fan. When it comes, I spray one of the sides of the grate. Then the next, then the next, then all the edges of the grate are frosty-white. I slip a length of nylon cord through the middle of the grate, wrap it round and wait for the ventilation to go loud. When it does, I give a mighty pull and the grate comes right off towards me.
The chilled edges of the grate burn at my sides as I squeeze through, and I pray that nopony peeks around the vats. The next order of business is getting to the catwalks above. Hopefully it'll be a good vantage point to find the Wiley Pegasus; and the ceiling isn't nearly as well lit as the bomb-making machine and factory floor. Staying close to the vats, out of view of the rest of the factory floor, I fly up to the catwalk as quietly as felinely possible. As soon as I clamber up, I have a perfect vantage point of the rest of the room.
Past the bomb-making machine are six two-hundred litre bombs on three customised pallets. Past the pallets is a large table where several ponies at one end are poring over chemists' equipment, and at the other end a unicorn is making the final adjustments to a Wiley Pegasus. Fucking aye, I've found the bomb and I've got a nice little vantage point to view the pick-up from. I can't get too comfy just yet though, I still need to contact Twilight and I need to make sure nopony trips over me while I'm waiting on the catwalk. Twenty meters ahead is a door going off to the side. I creep over to it.
There's window on the door and inside is a well lit hallway. Every cadet gets Shape, Shine, Silhouette, Shadow, Spacings and Movement drilled into their brains, and opening a door to a well lit hallway throws at least three of those into the shitter. Fortunately the vats block the view of the door from most of the factory floor. There's only a few ponies moving about that would have line-of-sight, and I wait until their backs are turned before I slip inside.
At the end of the hallway is a glass door leading to an office. I can see a few open-plan cubicles from where I'm standing. I don't want to go too near in case there are ponies in there. A door on the right of the hallway has a sign saying 'Stairs.' On the left are two doors next to each other, the mares' and stallions' toilets. I head into the mares' room, dart launcher at the ready to stun any nefarious dork with the gall to take a dump when I need to contact mission control.
Empty and dilapidated. The room doesn't look like it's been used in years. I go into a stall and grab bog roll from the holder, then stuff it into the cracks of the bathroom door to muffle any sound. I turn my headset back on.
"Mission control, this is bravo one, do you copy?"
"Brablen un krrrk misznun kintrsss, radew chuk"
I wait for a second, then it clicks. 'Bravo one this is mission control, radio check.' Definitely not loud and clear, but better than the loading bay. Maybe if I go into the office...
The ceiling has foam tiles. I go to a toilet, step on top and poke four of them out. There's a subspace above the tiles. No room for most of my equipment, but enough to get in, check out the next room and get in if it's empty. I drop the launcher and unstrap most of my equipment; and hide them inside the bin just in case somepony pops in for a crap.
Soon I'm in the ceiling subspace. There's no divider between the bathroom and the office, just support beams at the corners of the walls. I gingerly lift a ceiling tile from the office ceiling and slide the periscope through. It's a medium sized office with about twenty low-walled cubicles and two glass-walled corner offices at the far end.
The office itself is only barely lit, but inside one of the corner offices is a brightly lit desk with a reindeer, antlers and all, hunched over it, assembling some technomancy. It's hard to tell from this distance, but it looks like he's making detonators. There are dozens of components scattered around him or organised into boxes and drawers. Smart move keeping the detonators well away from the bombs.
The reindeer is concentrating on whatever he's building. I should be able to sneak up behind him and knock him out without much fuss. I remove four ceiling tiles, use my knife to cut away the supporting strips that go between them, and oh-so-quietly drop down onto the office floor. I creep through the cubicles staying well out of view, moving as slowly and silently as I can towards my target. I love moments like this. They make my heart jump into my throat, and that feeling never gets old.
Eight meters from the corner office, I peek around the side of a cubicle with the periscope and check he's still facing away, which he is. Something else catches my attention: a reindeer spear, with a leather strap for easy wielding, runes carved all over it and the scariest looking blade I've ever seen. It's glowing black. I take out a set of brass knuckles, I don't want to go in for a choke without a shot to the liver first, not with those massive antlers in the way, and definitely not with that evil-looking spear about. I move out from behind the cubicle and-
His head shoots straight up and I'm instantly back behind the cubicle, out of view. There's no fucking way he heard me.
I hear the tkk of a wooden shaft being lifted from the floor and a glass door swinging open.
He fucking heard me.
His hoofsteps quickly get louder and I nearly panic. The dart launcher is in the bathroom and he's got a spear sharp enough to spatchcock me. I shoot for my knife, forgetting that my brass knuckles are still in my claw. Leroy comes out but clatters to the floor as I fumble, and in the second it takes to slip the knuckles off the reindeer is on top of me.
I was an idiot to go after him with brass knuckles and a little knife. Detonators or no detonators, he has the face of a barbarian-turned-soldier, staring at me with cold, dark eyes, teeth bared. He's at least a head taller than me and built of iron sinews and thick, taut muscles. Standing on his hind legs with a glowing runic spear in his hooves he looks like a hero out of the Kingdoms, reborn in a lesser race. A demigod of violence, with murder in his eyes.
I blink, and something hot and wet hits me. Something came out of nowhere and slammed a knife straight into the reindeer's neck, blood spurting everywhere. As the buck gurgles and paws at his attacker, I see that the 'something' is a griffon. He forces the reindeer to the floor and stabs and slashes until he stops his struggles.
The griffon clambers off the dead reindeer and turns to face me. I recognise him. Trevor Carver of Clan Blackwing. Same dull green eyes, same messy crest, same serenely pleasant expression of a waiter who is jizzing in the soup simply because he can. He looks less weathered than when I saw him last. And less dead.
I wipe the reindeer's blood off my face and blink a few times. He smiles at me.
Trevor the not-so-dead griffon is cleaning off his knife, a karambit like Leroy. I stare blankly at him, trying to think what to say. My beak opens and closes a few times before I settle on the most pressing question.
“Ain't you dead?”
He sits back on his haunches and then pinches his arm, wincing as he does.
“Guess not,” he says with a little chuckle.
“So... Why you here, Trev?”
“You know what cyoctene does. Can't have ponies like this running around with it. You?”
“Same here,” I say, getting to my paws, “We're setting Special Branch on this place, but first I need photos of some dweeb picking up a Wiley Pegasus.”
“Heh. Just like old times, Moneyshot.” I hated and still hate that fucking nickname. Worse than Gilly-Boo. The only good thing about Toi Thung was that everyone who used or knew about that nickname died.
Or so I'd thought.
Trevor looks up but doesn't meet my eyes. “I can work with that, Gilda. Team up?” he asks, reaching out with a bloody claw. I shake it.
“Just like old times, Trev.”
I start walking to the corner office that the ex-reindeer was working out of, and glance at the second corner office. Three of the walls to that office are glass, and it looks like the other end of the office overlooks another factory floor or warehouse. It's hard to tell, there's almost no light coming from the other side.
The reindeer's office on the other claw is very well lit. To be fair, I wouldn't want to work with detonators and explosives in the dark either; and there are enough of both here to make Trixie drool from both ends. Big jars of mineral oil to keep white phosphorous moist, powdered aluminium in airtight containers, powdered rust, jars of potassium chlorate, magnesium ribbon, jars of acids and caustic agents, burettes for titration, commercial detonators; everything you need to build a bomb. There are several boxes of ready-built thermite and white phosphorous detonators under the desk. Trevor comes over and picks a box up.
“What you doing with those?” A nervous edge creeps into my voice, with good reason. He's got a box of ten thermite detonators, and those can ruin anybirds' day even without a bomb attached.
Again, he doesn't meet my eyes. “Evidence. Part of my job.” He pauses for a second, then points at the other corner office. “The storage room past that office, have you seen it?”
Trevor was always a bird of few words and a bit odd, but he seems freakier than usual. Maybe it's the whole not-being-dead thing.
He puts a talon to his beak in a 'quiet' gesture, and then walks into the other office. I follow him. The room is strangely constructed. Three of the walls are glass, two of them part the larger office we were just in. The other glass wall is overlooking a poorly-lit warehouse area, and has a second door that opens to a set of stairs leading down there. This office must have been intended for the warehouse supervisor when the sugar plant was up and running.
A door into the ground floor of the warehouse opens, letting light shine in, and me and Trevor drop to the office floor. More lights come on as two ponies come through the door and flip a switch somewhere, a mish-mash collection of table lamps around the room connected by wires and crocodile clips. It's not bright and it's nowhere near light enough to give our position away, but enough to let the two ponies get what they need from the warehouse and enough to let us see what's being stored.
I'd like to say that what I see doesn't faze me. That after all the fun little surprises of the last few days I'm all jaded and shit. I don't gasp or clap my claw over my beak or anything, but my eyes go wide and I tense up like someone just grabbed me by the uterus.
Fourteen more two-hundred litre cyoctene bombs. Several dozen coalmilk drums of coalmilk spirits. Crates of polystyrene beads. At least forty reinforced barrels for bomb-making. This isn't some criminal's stash of fireworks for special occasions, this is a wannabe warlord's wet dream.
Then I see the grooves on the floor, the stacks of modified pallets and the adapted pallet trucks about the place. It takes a few seconds to sink in as I see the two ponies loading a pallet of six coalmilk drums into the grooves on the floor, where it neatly slots in and they push it towards the factory floor like on a rail. At the rate they're making these things and how much spare material they have, there's no way those fourteen bombs and the six near the cyoctene machine are their entire stockpile. They're shipping these things out.
As the two ponies leave the warehouse area, I get back up and go out into the main office. “Trev, I need to contact my team, wait here a sec.” He nods and then goes about hiding the reindeer's corpse. I smile inwardly. Trevor was always thoughtful with things like that.
There are boarded-up windows in the ex-reindeer's corner office and on the walls running along from the corner office. This is a room with two external walls, one story up. If anywhere in this building has signal, this should be it. I turn my headset on.
“Mission control, this is Bravo One, radio check, over.” Third time's a charm, I hope.
“Loud and clear Bravo One, this is mission control. Over.” I sigh with relief as I hear Twilight's voice.
“This is the location, they're making military grade cyoctene munitions here. I've spotted twenty two-hundred litre cyoctene bombs and materials to make dozens more. Their storage looks temporary, I think they're shipping them out. Over.”
There's a pause.
“That's two-zero-zero litre munitions, quantity two-zero, please confirm, over.”
“Affirm, that is correct, over.”
“Have you located the Wiley Pegasus, over?” Twilight's voice seems to waver a little, but she quickly composes herself.
“Affirm, only one, custom built for Gulf-Foxtrot, over.”
“Roger that. Continue as planned. Gulf-foxtrot is thirty minutes away. Recover any intel you can. Contact me when pictures are taken, I will contact Sunray Bravo. Over.”
“Wilco, mission control. Also, I have located one friendly, over.”
“Say again bravo one, over?”
“I have located one friendly, he is cooperating with me. I'll explain later. Over.”
A third pause. “Roger that. Get to work, over.”
“Roger that, out.”
I turn back to Trevor, who has just finished stuffing the reindeer under a desk. “Trev, I need to camp out above the factory floor to take the photos. My target's here in half an hour. Can you watch my back?”
I get a brainwave. “Wait here a sec,” I say, heading into the ex-reindeer's office. I'm pretty sure I saw what I need in an open drawer in there. Sure enough, a drawer in the desk has three unused remote controls for detonators. The controller is bound with twine to the electrical output, which converts energy from a thaumatic cell into an electrical charge. Attach the output end to an electrically-sensitive detonator and pressing the button on the controller will make a boom.
In my webbing I have a multitool, some common technomancy bits and bobs and a few miniature egg-timers. Twist the egg timer, chuck it into some bushes, and a few seconds later the guards are searching for the weird ringing thing while you sneak up behind them. The first thing I do is take one of the egg-timers apart and remove the bell. I take the actual metal bell off, just leaving the striker and the electromagnet, and then use some wire to connect the electromagnet to the remote-control output. Double checking the number on the remote-control and the output to make sure they're definitely the same device and I'm not going to blow the room up, I press the button on the remote. The striker vibrates madly but silently. Perfect.
I tape the vibrating gadget to the back of my right paw and give the remote another press to make sure I can feel the vibrations, which I can. Then, I head out of the corner office and chuck the remote to Trevor.
“If there's somepony coming and I need to get out of dodge, hold down the button. If I'm spotted, press the button repeatedly. Got that?” I ask.
I'm about to head back to the bathroom to pick up the camera, the rifle and the rest of my kit, when I remember something that had been bugging me. “Not that I'm complaining or anything, but how come you're acting so calm and composed around a banished bird like me? Why are you helping me and not running away or charging my flank down?”
“Heh.” He walks up to me and reaches a claw out to my face. I draw back a little and he pauses, then gently reaches out further and cups my lower beak. He turns my face towards his so that our beaks are almost touching, and his eyes meet mine for the first time today.
I'm gazing into horrors from an alien abyss, a kaleidoscope of perfectly black shades, every one darker than every other. I realize how truly small and fragile I am as beings older than time itself stare back at me, grinning with great curved teeth that long to crack open my ribcage and slurp down my lungs like oysters.
I've seen this sight before. That griffon had seemed off and strangely wrong when I saw him in the bar, but only when I saw his eyes and stared into infinite nightmares that I knew what he truly was. It's different this time, I can see it for what it is but I don't feel the sheer disgust and terror I should feel. It's as if I'm viewing a tape of some obscene atrocity that happened long ago, but I'm utterly disconnected from it.
I see what any griffon looking into my eyes sees, though I do not feel as they would.
He takes his hand from the bottom of my beak and steps back. “...you're banished,” I say. He grins and winks at me.
“Get your gear, Moneyshot. You've got pictures to take.”
Above the factory floor, the vats and the high-raised catwalks, there are steel rafters by the roof. They're tangled up with ropes and cables where the rafters have been used to support pulley systems for moving kit up high and hold up the jury-rigged ventilation system; and they're either still being used or they were never taken down after use. The area above the rafters is cloaked in darkness, there are no skylights and all the lights in the room are far down below on the factory floor.
Getting up here was a fucker. It's dark, but nothing draws eyes like movement and I had to make sure every single pony down below had their eyes on something else before I so much as twitched. A stallion was looking straight up while he hefted a drum of coalmilk spirits into the cyoctene machine's input funnel, and I had to stay stock still holding a rope with one claw and barely grabbing onto a girder with another. The little bastard fumbled for thirty seconds before he finished up and I could make the jump in peace.
Now I'm perched in position, shrouded in a dull grey waterproof cloak. No clear shape, no silhouette against the ceiling, no shadow, dull colour, no movement. The camera lens is capped until I take the pictures. I'm as close to invisible as possible without being a unicorn. Trevor is hidden down in the catwalks and vats somewhere, ready to give me a warning if somepony starts snooping.
All there is to do now is wait. Goodflank should be here to pick up the Wiley Pegasus in less than fifteen minutes. Far down below I can see the Wiley Pegasus on the table below. It's a chunky little fifty-litre thing, and a unicorn is sewing a duffel-bag around it. You could strut right into some yuppie restaurant with it, shove it into a cleaning closet and no one would twig until the place was in flames.
Still, it's a small fry compared to the two-hundred litre bastards. The giant machine has finished making one and started on another since I first saw it. Four Winds, they could have made a dozen this week alone. Wherever they're being stored, we need to find them and get them out of Trotksy's hooves. Trotsky has rabid snakes where her soul should be, she should not have access to cyoctene. My Uncle Scratchy once told me: “Gilda my niece, never give explosives to things with snake-nests for souls.” Something along those lines anyway, I'm paraphrasing. Point is, whatever her plans are for that much cyoctene, they're probably nothing good.
So I'm waiting. It's a tense wait. Everything has the potential to go very wrong. If someone goes looking for that reindeer and sees the blood on the floor, I'm screwed. Even if I get out just fine, the Special Branch agents will be up against well-trained and well-armed sociopaths on high alert. That's a recipe for sautéed pony in a place like this. The ponies in the Equestrian Intelligence Service can fuck themselves, but Special Branch are all right. They're competent, direct and useful, and they do more to protect Equestria and the Kingdoms in a year than the EIS do in ten. I'd feel downright unpatriotic if I led those guys into a meat grinder.
I wait and think about Trevor. Trusting him is a huge risk, given that he's come back from the dead, appeared out of nowhere and is acting even weirder than usual; but I can't and wouldn't risk trying to incapacitate him in the middle of a hornet's nest. Even if I could, I want answers out of him. I want to know what he knows about Trotsky's little weapons program. I want to know how he survived Toi Thung. I want to know what got him banished.
Looking back, Trevor was the closest thing I had to a friend in our FOG unit. I never exactly wept for his death, but I wouldn't wish harm on the dude neither. I hope he's being on level with me, but I doubt it.
I wait and Goodflank arrives. He comes through a door at the other end of the factory from the loading bay. Honey coloured coat, coltishly-tousled chocolate mane, neatly-trimmed fetlocks, stylish glasses, hooficured hooves (I can't see his hooves, but I damn well know they are). The lens cap comes off, and I get my first snapshot of him strutting up to the huge table. The unicorn assembling the Wiley Pegasus seems to know him, and shakes his hoof as he comes over. They spend a few minutes talking shop. I can't make much of it out, but it looks like the unicorn is telling Goodflank about all the ins and outs of the bomb. I take a few more pictures of the pair going over it.
At one point Goodflank points at the six two-hundred litre bombs, looking impressed. The unicorn mentions something about “the reindeer.” Looks like one of our key leads is dead. I'll need to search his office before I split.
They chat some more and then the unicorn lifts up the bag and I take a picture. Then Goodflank takes the bag and I take a picture. Then Goodflank says his farewells, turns to leave, and I take a picture. Then I am done.
I sneak down from the rafters onto the catwalks. Trevor is nowhere to be seen. I get near the doors to the offices and see the remote control for the buzzer, abandoned on the floor. That dickhead bailed on me! I pick it up and go into the offices, dart launcher at the ready. Any pony I see slinking about gets a face full of shock-spooge. If I see Trev, he's getting a dart just for pissing me off.
The way to the corner office is clear. I contact Twilight as soon as I arrive.
“Mission control, this is Bravo One. Pictures have been taken successfully. The friendly inflicted one casualty and has disappeared. I am going to collect some documents and leave through sewers. You are clear to contact Sunray Bravo, over.”
Twilight's voice comes through the headset. “Roger that Bravo One, contacting Sunray Bravo now, ee-tee-ay at least two-fife minutes. Alfalfa One has been successful; Charlie One and Charlie Two are in position. Out.”
Twenty five minutes. I set to work immediately. The first thing I do is take out the reindeer's body and take a photograph of his face. Next, I toss the corner office looking for documents. There's nothing but manuals, storage guides and a few receipts for Beanburger Palace. I take it all anyway.
Then I look through the cubicles in the larger office. Most of them haven't been touched since the beet plant closed down, the few bits of paper I find are mould-ridden memos. Two cubicles in the middle of the room have been used recently. There are a few empty Red Taurus cans, a calendar with a yellow pegasus wearing socks splayed out on the cover, who I recognise but can't place, and scattered jotters and documents. The documents are written in a mixture of Equestrian, Koński and what I think is Poatsi. A few of them look like invoices and shipping manifests.
I'm packed up and about to leave when horrifying sensations flood my body. My bones burn, muscles are barbed wire stretching under my skin, my eyes bulge and vision goes dark and my knees are buckling stabbing in my head going to start screaming I'll be found they'll kill-
Before I open my beak to scream it's gone, as quickly as it came. I'm on my belly, still in the office, facing towards the corner office that leads to the warehouse area. Something dark is pulling at me, focusing me on the warehouse, filling me with a mixture of foreboding and curiosity.
I'm not sure why I start moving towards the warehouse. I think I should be leaving. There's something about that warehouse, though. I need to see it. I walk into the corner office, go straight on through and then open the glass door into the warehouse, not even checking the coast is clear first.
The strange pull ebbs and fades, and I'm standing at the top of the metal stairs that slope down sideways to the warehouse floor. The room is black as coalmilk and I can't see a thing. I slip the Specterscope over my right eye and take a look.
A few seconds later I see a dead pony, throat cut, lying in his blood. Then I see another pony splayed out on the floor, neck twisted all the way around, her tongue lolling out. I swallow, and the feeling of foreboding comes back in force.
That's when I see Trevor.
He's standing on top of the two-hundred litre bombs, fiddling with the detonator slot on one of them. I take to the air and approach him. As I do, I see what he's done to the other thirteen bombs. Each one has a detonator slotted in and the emergency detonator release button ripped out. There's a string on each of the ring-pulls on the detonators, and they're all attached to a handle lying next to Trevor. I drop down onto a stack of pallets ten meters from him, and draw a bead on him with the dart launcher.
“When you said you needed those detonators for evidence...” Anger, fear and curiosity fight in my mind. Curiosity ekes out a narrow win.
Trevor looks up at me and smiles. “Evidence that bad things happen to bomb-makers. I'm sure you understand.”
“Right. I think you should leave that big pullcord thingy right where it is and step the fuck away from those bombs.”
He shakes his head. “I can't do that, Gilda. I'd be careful where you're pointing that thing by the way, you mentioned it was a shock-based weapon, yes? I've got potassium chlorate from the fuses all over my arms and legs and I left the fuses exposed on a few of these cubs; a spark from that dart gun of yours will, well... You get the picture.”
“This is a bad fucking idea Trevor, Special Branch are gonna be here in ten minutes, you don't wanna do this.”
“Then you should probably tell them that here is going to explode,” he says, tying the last string to the handle. “There's a three-minute delay on each of the fuses, you can't disarm them all in time. I'd leave quickly”
“Trevor, don't fucking do this, just drop the damn handle,” I snap, panic creeping into my voice. He looks at me like I'm a fourteen-year old spotty nerd begging for a pity fuck.
With that he leaps into the air, handle in claw. All the ring-pulls pop out at once.
I don't see where Trevor goes after that. I'm instantly back in the air, flying towards the office. The moment I'm through the glass door I'm yelling into the headset.
“Mission control this is Bravo One, he's rigged the whole place to blow! You need to call off Special Branch RIGHT NOW over!”
Twilight's voice is confused and panicky: “Who rigged what to do what? They're already on their way, over!”
“Trevor, the friendly, he's set a bunch of bombs on two-minute fuses, the entire place is going to explode!” I'm scrambling towards the boarded-up windows at the other side of the office, crowbar out before I even start my next sentence. “Send a message, get Alfalfa One to intercept them, do anything! They get too close to this place, they'll be cooked, over!”
One board off. I can see the edge of the window. “Where are you, over?” Twilight yells into my ear.
“Still inside, trying to exit, can't talk right now, out!”
The next board comes off. My heart skips a beat. There are iron bars in the windows. Strong iron bars. Twilight is saying something. I can't hear her.
I'm fucked. Utterly fucked in every way. There's no way I'm strong enough to break off a grid of iron bars, not in less than two minutes, I'm not powerful enough-
I glance sideways at the corner office full of detonators and a plan springs from my mind. Det-cord, a fuse, four thermite detonators, duct tape. That's all I take. It's all I need.
“'Linear shaped charges are too dangerous,' she said, 'they're not for you,' she said!”
One minute, thirty seconds.
I tape det-cord to the boards and light the fuse. In ten seconds it blows, cutting the rest of the boards away.
One minute, five seconds.
The grid of bars is only connected to the wall at the corners, thank Zephyrous. A detonator gets strapped to each corner and I set each fuse at five seconds. I pull out each of the rings and step well back. All four corners light up in a blaze of white fire. I count down from three, and then charge at the centre of the grid.
The corners of the grid split off like warm fudge and I shatter straight through the window into the afternoon air. I drop the blazing set of bars before they burn my claws off. My wings are pumping as hard as they can go. A single splash of cyoctene could be fatal. Getting caught in the wave of carbon monoxide will be fatal.
I'm nearly at the gates to the factory grounds. My blood runs thick with fire and boiling adrenaline. I can make it. Past the gate now, into the scrublands.
Two hundred and fifty meters into the scrublands and counting. Something inside me is pushing me on. I might just make it.
“Mission control, if I don't make it tell RD-”
I'm lost over the roar of the explosion, and do not stop to look. Seconds later I feel a wave of heat like an open oven wash over me. I'm now three hundred meters into the scrublands, far enough out that I won't drown in carbon monoxide. Just as relief washes through me, something clips me on the back of the wing.
I tumble to the ground
Everything that can hurt, does. Something wet and cool is running down my beak, and I flick my tongue out to taste it. Water. Rainwater.
I open my eyes. I'm deep inside a large bush. A large, thorny bush. Hundreds of little spikes are digging into my arms, wings and body. Light is coming through the top of the bush. It's pouring with rain. The city must have whipped up a massive thunderstorm to put out that fire. I'm grateful, the scrubland would have burnt to a cinder with me inside it if they hadn't.
For a minute I lay there in the thorns and rain, planning. It's still light out and I haven't been found by a local guard search team, so I probably haven't been out that long. The sky will be teeming with weather pegasi; but if the fire is still burning and it probably still is, they won't be letting anyone get close. I need to stay low and get through the scrubland and past the landfill, then I'll be in a crappy part of town where no one will notice a griffon under a waterproof cloak, not in this weather.
Pulling the spiky branches off my limbs, I make myself enough space to sort out my equipment. Anything suspicious looking goes in my saddlebags. The transceiver for my headset is busted, a crack down the case and the innards rattling around inside it. The dart launcher goes on the top of my back, set to be hidden under my cloak. I wince as I move it, and feel sharp pain in my left wing. It's hard to see, but it looks like there's a chunk of concrete the size of a strawberry lodged in my coverts. Definitely not flying then.
Peering out the edge of the bush, I look upwards. The sky is dark grey and rain is pounding down. All the pegasi must be cloudside by now. Still, I keep close to cover as I move. If I'm even visible from up high, there's no way of telling me from a pony from above, not with the cloak and hood. My left wing aches and stabs where the chunk is. My skin prickles from the hundreds of tiny thorns that I just took out.
I reach the edge of the landfill in about fifteen minutes. The rain washes away the stink of the garbage, and I move quietly through the place. It's not hard to avoid the workers, not when they're all wearing hi-vis jackets and I'm grey and in the rain. I scurry past unnoticed like a rat through the gutters.
I've never been so happy to see the dump that is Lichen End. The moment I'm out of the open and into the mouth of an alley, I sag and let the rain wash over me. It's lighter here, the heaviest rain must be focused above the refinery. I need a kebab, a hot bath and a pair of tweezers for all these fucking thorns.
I hadn't looked back properly since I started towards town, so I turn around and have a look. The garbage dunes of the landfill are in the way, but I can see a gigantic column of thick, black smoke in the distance and a dull orange glow beneath it. I get a sense of déjà vu, then figure out why.
Damn, second time this week.
“I warned you what would happen, Gilda.”
Something slams down onto my kidneys hard enough that I squawk and sprawl to the floor. I spring to my paws and swing wildly at my attacker. That gets me thrown into the side of a dumpster.
I groan and get back up, body aching and head swimming. I look up at my attacker. It's Pinkie Pie in her gimp suit. What in Adune's name does she want? I say the first thing that comes to mind:
For a second she stands shock-still, staring at me through creepy grey mask-eyes. Then she starts towards me and I get bucked hard in the face before I even put a guard up. I stagger back against the brick wall, a claw over my face. Something hot and wet and painful is running over my right eye. Pinkie Pie just opened up a twelve-year old scar.
Whatever this is, I've had enough. I'm gonna twist that gimp into a fucking pretzel.
I swipe at her with both claws and she dodges them like I wrote to her they were coming. My right wing comes up to buffet her across the face. She slides straight under it and puts a hoof into a floating rib hard enough to get another squawk from me.
My right side spasms as I turn around. Pinkie is back on her hooves. This time I see her coming towards me and get ready to block and counter. I might have put my claws behind my back and yelled “Please punch me right in the face!” for all the good it does. She wrenches my guard aside in a way that should not be possible for a being without claws or hands, then headbutts me on the earhole. It's the second most painful thing that's happened to me today and I get dropped to the ground a third time.
I get back up and wipe more blood out of my eyes. No finesse this time, I let my hindbrain take over and pounce. I try to tear her to ribbons in a blind fury. It doesn't work out that way. She dodges my attacks so easily I think she teleports. Every missed swing sets up a savage counter, she grapples like she's got seven hooves and trying to block gets me thrown so hard I dislocate an ovary. I am a nine-year old cub sparring with Uncle Scratchy, but there is no kindness or give-and-take this time. When I realise that Pinkie is playing with me and could end the fight at any time, she does.
I'm slammed face-first into the ground with my left arm wrenched behind my back. Pinkie pushes me along the concrete floor until my head is jammed uncomfortably into the corner between the dumpster and the brick wall. If she wants me dead all she has to do is shove forward hard and my neck will snap like a twig. I hope that Pinkie Pie does not want me dead. My breaths come harsh and heavy. I'm not exhausted but badly beaten; blood is running freely down my face, I'm seeing stars and my limbs have been yanked in ways that limbs should not be yanked. The fight's hers any way you slice it.
Keeping a hoof on the arm behind my back, she leans in close to me. She brings her other front hoof to my face, and wipes the blood from my right eye. It's not rough but gentle, almost affectionate, like a mother would do to an injured cub.
“Tell me why, Gilda.” Her voice wavers and it sounds as if her normal Pinkie Pie voice is leaking in. I don't give any coherent response. I just dry heave a few times. Fucking liver shots.
“Tell me why I have to tell Dashie that I turned her old friend over to the guard for killing everypony in the refinery. Tell me what made you do something like that hours after I warned you not to; and tell me what in Celestia's name made you think you'd get away with it.”
Wait, she thinks I did that? Shitfeathers.
“That wasn't me I swear to- AAAUGH!” Pinkie pushes my claw so far up my back it's almost on my neck.
“Please don't lie to me, Gilda,” she says, chocolatey gimp-voice creeping back in, “Not about this. I had to appear in front of a whole squad of Special Branch agents and tell them the factory they were set to raid was just about to explode. Now I'm their only lead and prime suspect. I'm not so happy about that.”
“I told Twilight what happened,” I wheeze, “Why didn't she tell you?”
Pinkie pauses for a second, and I can feel her eyes narrow. “She told me you'd met a friend then set a bunch of bombs off together, which I don't find hard to believe.”
“Chingis, you think I set off enough cyoctene to deep-fry Ponyville and gave myself a minute and a half to get out? I don't have a deathwish you nutcase!” I yell.
“Why should I believe that? You could have got to a safe distance and told mission control you were still inside,” she says.
“I can prove it, check my left wing. There's a chunk of concrete from the explosion, the size of a crab apple, in my coverts. I wasn't at a safe dist- GAH!” I cry out when she roughly roots around trying to find it.
“You don't quite trust me yet I'm guessing?” I ask.
“No, not really.” She finds the chunk in the coverts and we both inhale sharply when she does. It must look as bad as it feels.
Suddenly I'm pulled backwards from the corner. My arm is still behind my back, but I'm not about to have my neck broken.
“Tell me everything that happened,” she says, “If you lie at any point, and I will know, bad things will happen.”
So I do. I tell her everything that happened, from getting into the refinery to getting saved by my not-so-dead friend to my not-so-dead friend blowing the whole damn place up. I pray she buys it, because I'm shit out of luck if she doesn't.
The pressure goes off my arm and I roll onto my back, groaning as I do. “I've been too quick to judge. I hope I don't find I'm wrong,” she says, offering a hoof. I take it and pull myself to my paws.
“I'm sorry Gilda, I should have been more cautious. Can you forgive me?”
“Don't sweat it dweeb, beatings are how most of my employers say 'hello', 'goodbye' and 'gesundheit,'” I say. It's not entirely a lie. I'm still going to piss in her lemonade as soon as I get a chance. “I'm surprised it took you this long to get round to it.”
I don't know how she does it, but she manages to look bashful through the mask. Truth be told, I ain't even mad. I prefer a Pinkie who can take a beating and give one out over a stupid clingy ball of caffeine. It's been too long since I've had a good scrap, and I like a friend who can give one.
That's in the hypothetical sense, by the way. Pinkie is still not my friend.
Still, we set off to her lair together. She knows all kinds of shortcuts through the city, so it's not long until we're there. I walk through the door to see a frazzled-looking Twilight, a worried Dash, a smug Trixie. Twilight and Dash look relieved to see us both, though Trixie still looks smug. I only have to look at the floor by her hooves to see why.
On a thin bedroll with a shock-ring on his horn is a heavily sedated Goodflank. Hooficured hooves and all.
"So. I guess I should tell you all about Trevor, right?"
We're all sitting in Pinkie's hideout after the two bombings, one foiled and the other not-so-foiled. Goodflank, the lazy spy, lover of gang-bosses and failed terrorist snores on the table, out cold from Trixie and kept that way by the Twilight's magic. The librarian-turned-counterintel-specialist-turned-librarian-again-turned-counterintel-specialist-again hums as she patches up my injured wing.
"Friendship is magic, Gilda, but he was still acting eyebrow-raisingly strange," she says, "ponies don't come back from the dead every day, after all."
"I must admit, it's odd that you'd be so trusting considering how he acted at the refinery," says Trixie, "You're either becoming less paranoid or horribly nostalgic. I'm not sure which thought worries me more."
There's a thoughtful look on Rainbow Dash's face. It looks odd on her. "I know a few guys I'd trust if they reappeared like that. There's three of them in this room."
"I'm pretty sure you weren't lying to me, buuuut I like stories anyhoo so go ahead and tell us about Trevvie-Wevvie," chirps Pinkie. I grin a little, I can't help it. Trevor would have liked that nickname. He'd have heard it and grinned that weird public-schoolcub grin of his.
I crack open a can of lager and sit back in my chair. "Okay, I'll tell you guys a story. It ain't a nice story, it ain't fun for me to tell and I don't want to tell it twice. The only bird I've told the whole thing to was a Griffon Intelligence counsellor. I figure I should tell it once more though. And I don't – you guys are pretty much the only ponies or griffons I'd talk to about it. Even you, Pinks." Pinkie smiles at me. It's not her big stupid smile. It looks like one of Dash's smiles, when she tries to cheer me up. Pinkie rests a hoof on my forearm. I don't brush it away.
"Okay, cubbies," I say, "Let me tell you about a little place called Nainuoc..."
So yeah, Nainuoc. Big place, lots of jungles, full of deer, nothing to eat but noodle soup, so damn hot that your ovaries start sweating. There's been a civil war there on and off for two and a half decades now, though it's cooled down lately. It started off as a small thing between the white-backed deer and the water deer, but things changed, and when I was there six years ago it was between the East and the West of the country.
Now, officially neither the Blackwings nor the Griffon Kingdoms had any stake in this conflict. It was a civil war in a country that doesn't border griffon territories and was really just a proxy war between the Provincial Donkey Nations backing the Western side and the Camel Sultanates backing the Eastern side. Officially, the only griffons you'd find in Nainuoc in the last decade were mercenaries, working for the highest bidder and entirely unaffiliated with any clan or tribe.
Unofficially, we were pouring resources into the Western side. See, there are some ruins in Nainuoc that important griffon figures visited; they're very culturally important to us. The donkeys pay them no mind, there's nothing in them about growing potatoes or making whiskey. Camel sorcerers on the other claw? They'd be on that like stink on shit. It was in our interests to make sure the Sultanates didn't even know these ruins existed, so we had to make sure they couldn't get far into Western Nainuoc.
Toi Thung was our firewall. It's the city in the valley between two huge mountain ranges in the middle of the country. Toi Thung was split evenly between the Westies and Easties, and there was a cease-fire in place. They'd skirmish and occasionally take one block of the city from the other, but neither side had the resources for a big push. Griffon Intelligence wanted to keep the status quo in place, so it sent resources to the Western side of the city to make it impossible to take in one swoop, and sent teams on sabotage and scouting missions in the jungles East of the city to stop the Easties from massing resources for one giant assault.
Five months before Toi Thung, my superiors pulled me out of my boring-as-shit desk job analysing field reports from Nainuoc, sent me on a brutal, six-week crash course training with a Small Wing Service unit, then shipped me off to the jungle as a 'griffon intelligence advisor' for one of the squads down there. Turns out me and a bunch of other birds were being groomed for that role, birds smart enough to be useful in the field but not so smart we weren't expendable. They wanted people with analysis skills closer to the ground. I spoke a bit of French and had our contacts memorised, so I got picked.
They attached me to a seven-bird FOG team – that's the Field Observations Group – who were okay, for a bunch of warriors. Well, Trevor and Cheese were all right, and Butch wasn't the worst NCO in the world I guess. Gina, Griz were dweebs, Danish was a fucking mad dog and I hated Poke. When I first got assigned to them they were all in a pissy mood because they had to cubsit some whiny, know-it-all desk-jockey spook. Me.
The funny thing is, by the time Toi Thung happened, I kinda got along okay with them. Except Poke, that dickhead.
So anyway, we did a bunch of missions together, it was too damn hot, I hated it, spent most of my time in a damp tent squinting at damp maps and intelligence reports. After four months of that, we were in Toi Thung. I had this contact, Ngyuen, and she'd gone dark a week earlier. She was holed up in d'Hotel Veritas, an ugly thirty-story building at the edge of the Eastern-Western border in Toi Thung, Banlieu Huit. Either she was trapped, a defector or defunct. If she was trapped or traitor, we had to retrieve and debrief her. If she was dead, we had to secure her intel and materiel.
We were all in position, in a ruined bank across the street from Hotel Veritas. It was sundown; it took us the whole day just to get there from our safehouse. See, both sides were using weather magic to boil the clouds with ice and lightning. If you went above the cloud layer you were toast, and if you flew underneath it the sheet lightning would backlight you. There were shardslinger batteries on the ground ready to rip you to shreds if they spotted you, so we had to stay low on the ground.
Two water deer sat outside the front door of the hotel, playing cards on a fold-up table, ninety yards away from us. They had blowguns and cheap hoofblades. Our two sharpshooters, Gina and Trevor, lay waiting at adjacent windows on the first floor. Each had a crossbow trained on one of the deer. Cheese and Griz were spotting for them. Sergeant Butch and myself were the flankers, keeping the position secure. Danish and Poke were hiding behind cover on the other side of the street, two shadows in the night, ready to sprint and finish off the sentries as soon as the shots were fired.
I've never met a griffon or pony tougher than Danish. Big dude, all muscle, like a bunch of hams glued together with quiet fury. He was there on my Small Wing Service training crash-course. He shouldn't have been possible. I've never seen anybird that big move so fast. Melee training with him was a joke; he could've torn our instructor's face off with a single swipe. This one time, on exercise, he slipped and landed on a jagged rock, tore a gash in his left claw. While we're flying along, I see him wash out the wound, grab a needle and thread from his kit, and start sewing himself up in mid-air. He'd push the needle right into his palm, barely wincing. I heard him muttering, "I am one-" *srunk* "-RIGHT-" *srunk* "-HARD-" *srunk* "-CUNT!" as he stitched. In the field, I'd seen him crush a trio of deer commandos with enchanted blades, using nothing but his bare claws. Freakin' invulnerable.
Sergeant Butch passed me a signalling mirror, then pointed in Danish and Poke's direction, nodding. The dark grey camo paint daubed on her face and beak framed her eyes, giving them a crazy, psychotic look. She wasn't crazy, though. Butch was the most level-headed of the unit, apart from Cheese. She moved over to the crossbow teams, gave them the signal, then gave me the signal. I moved to a hole blasted in the corner of the bank and used the mirror to signal Danish. The giant block of muscle raised his right claw, and gave the 'all set' signal.
Butch gave the order. Gina and Trevor each dropped a bolt through the necks of the two deer sentries. Poke and Danish sprinted from cover and finished them both off, covering the deer's mouths and stabbing madly.
Butch ordered us up, and we all crossed the street to the entrance. Danish snuffed the lamp above the front door and Poke covered the two bodies with a tarp. Griz picked up one of the blowpipes next to the sentries' card game. Two cards lay face up, a pair of knaves, streaked with blood. There was something wrong with the bottle of booze. I grabbed the bottle and took a sniff.
"Careful, Griz," said Gina, "Those blow-darts are savage, one prick and you're out for a day. Like the sergeant on shore leave."
Butch rolled her eyes. “Watch it...”
Griz froze, then put the blowpipe down. "Right. Thanks for the eyes-down. We've got antidote, right?"
"Four doses, that's it," said Cheese, adjusting the heavily-modified spectrum goggles on her head. Cheese had done chemistry and engineering at Condorcorum Polytechnic. Freakin' genius. She was one of our medics, and our demolitions specialist. "You'll be out for an hour anyway, also, too."
The booze was wrong, very wrong. I took a look at the bodies as Gina checked the entrance for traps.
"These knuckleheads still got guards posted," said Poke. I fucking hated that guy. Most of the FOG unit were psychos but Poke went out of his way to be a flankhole. Killed a deer foal once, couldn't have been older than eight. He hadn't seen us, but he'd seen half a pack of cigarettes next to the path and picked it up. Poke crept out of cover, grabbed the kid, snapped his neck, hid the body and told the squad the kid was about to give our position away. Kept the cigarettes to himself. I'd been trying to push him into enemy fire ever since. "Looks like this dump is still in western claws," said Poke.
"No. These aren't westerners," I said. The bodies were wrong too. The squad looked at me. Poke sneered.
"Moneyshot, I've slotted enough Easterners and Westerners to tell the fucking difference-"
Rainbow Dash interrupts me. “Who's 'Moneyshot?'”
“I've heard that name before,” says Trixie.
“Moneyshot was my nickname,” I say. I stop myself from clenching my claws into fists. Force of habit. “See, half my job in Nainuoc was taking pictures of stuff and sending them back to headquarters. One night, I'm stuck in the observation post with Poke, Griz and Danish. I take the lens cap off the camera and there's this white goop between the cap and the lens. I turn around and the others are giggling silently like fuckers. My pictures were boring, Poke said, so he gave the camera a 'moneyshot' to spice them up. The name stuck.”
“Wait, what was the white stuff – did he – oh. Ewwww!” Pinkie's face switches from confused to grossed-out.
“Yeah. Not a huge fan of that name. Anyway, as I was telling...”
I cut him off, "The sentries were drinking honeywine, you don't get it in the west. Westerners wouldn't drink it anyway, they all drink rice wine, it's a patriotic thing. They're wearing western uniforms but they're made of hemp, not cotton. There's a cotton embargo in the east. These are disguises, damn good quality."
The sergeant nodded and then said, "So, Ngyuen hasn't cacked up a reply, she's dead or compromised. Same plan as before. Stay out of sight, remove sentries, be prepared for an ambush. Assume Ngyuen is unfriendly. Gina, take point."
Gina slid a mirror under the front entrance, checking for anything inside. All clear. She nudged the door open and we followed her inside to the dirty, dilapidated hotel lobby. The wallpaper was peeling and the room stank of damp and sweat. Everything of any value had been stripped, either to be pawned or melted down. Two elevators, one out of order. Stairway to the right. The remains of the hotel bar to the right.
A noise crunched from the bar. Hoofsteps. Bored muttering in French. Butch signalled us to hide behind the front desk. She and Danish crouched down either side of the door to the bar. Butch drew her poniard, a classy, blued blade that'd been passed down her family. Wasn't enchanted or anything, just so well-made you'd think it was. Danish didn't take out anything, he just flexed his massive claws.
Two deer walked through the door, dressed the same as the sentries outside. Danish and the sergeant checked there was nobody following them, then pounced. Butch slipped her dagger straight through one deer's ribcage and twisted. Danish grabbed the other by the throat, killing him with a soft little noise.
I didn't feel anything, then. Two months before, when they first dropped me in the jungle, seeing the squad slot some stupid dweebs like that made me feel wrong, sick to my stomach, like I was hollow inside. I had nightmares after Poke wasted the kid. By the time we were sneaking around d'Hotel Veritas, though? Nothing.
"The bar's a dead end and thirty flights of stairs are too risky," said Butch, wiping her blade, "We'll take the knackered elevator, pop the top and fly up the shaft. Crackers, check the elevator."
"Aye aye," said Cheese. Cheese and the sergeant had a professional history together, and the sergeant always called her Crackers for some reason. She doted on Cheese. Very good friends.
Cheese took out her tinkering kit, a leather roll of tools, mirrors and technomantics. I sat by her, passing her the tools and holding the viewing scopes as she fiddled with the elevator door. Unlocking it was easy; spoinking the trap inside without setting it off was less so. The rest of the squad stood guard, tense as gargoyles.
Cheese snorted and smiled, then gently pushed the metal doors open. A pulsing, angry-red fruit the size of a pineapple hung at face height, caught up in a web of wires. If me and Cheese hadn't cut a few of those wires, opening the door would have squeezed it tight.
"A blooming peppercorn in a wire snare, freaking genius!" whispered Cheese, "They don't even need a noise maker, if that thing sprayed juice in the air the whole darn building woulda heard us. Oh molly, I'm taking you as a souvenir."
We couldn't say 'no,' 'stop,' or 'Chingis, my eyes,' before she hopped inside with a set of wirecutters and clipped the peppercorn free from the wires. We were all damn lucky it would only squirt juice if squeezed too hard. Cheese stuffed the scaly, red fruit into a sandwich bag, then wrapped it in rags and strapped it to her kit. She was crazy with stuff like that, but Butch never had a problem with it. For every crazy risk Cheese took in the middle of an operation, she'd develop five awesome bits of kit from it. Cheese gave the 'all clear' signal, then the squad went into the shaft and started climbing the elevator cable.
We climbed slowly, just in case the deer were canny enough to set wire traps inside the shaft. We had our wings for support and extra push, but climbing thirty floors with your face next to Gina's ass sucked. It took us ten minutes to reach the top.
Danish pushed the elevator doors apart with his powerful claws, barely grunting from effort. I heard a confused noise in French from the hallway above, and a set of hooves trotted to the elevator. Danish grabbed the deer and thumped him, then next thing I know there's a knocked-out deer falling down the elevator shaft. Nearly clipped me in the wing, too.
We climbed into the 30th floor hallway. It was clean and well lit, not a pit like the lobby, and it stunk of noodle soup and cabbage instead of rot and damp. There were doors to the penthouse suite, a maintenance closet, and the stairway. Poke and Griz took the lights out of the sockets, Butch and Danish checked the maintenance closet, Cheese opened the working elevator shaft's doors and disabled the elevator mechanism, and I sealed the stairway door with uber glue. It wouldn't have been enough to stop a couple of determined deer from battering the door down, but it'd stop anyone from just waltzing in.
We finished the prep, and then Butch signalled us into position. She checked under the penthouse door with her mirror, then raised a claw. There were two targets inside. Danish took out a roll of yolos – griffon sweets, they're rabbit-flavoured toffee dipped in chocolate – took one out and smooshed it against the peephole. Danish and the sergeant readied up, then the sergeant knocked on the door.
"Hoang?" asked a voice behind the door. Sergeant Butch looked at me.
I pressed a knuckle to my throat so I wouldn't sound griffonish. "Les lumières sont baisées, ouvre la porte." My accent was off. We prayed it wouldn't matter.
The door opened. Danish grabbed the deer at the door and slammed his head into the doorframe, knocking him out. Butch leapt over Danish's back and tackled the second deer, who'd barely had time to get out of his chair. She pinned the deer to the ground and wrapped her arms around his neck in a tight chokehold. He was out in three seconds.
Danish and the sergeant gagged and tied the two deer, and the rest of us filed in, weapons raised. Poke and Griz had a poniard and handbow each, Gina and Trevor had their shortbows. The rest of us had flechette carbines, the break-open single-cartridge ones. Dunno if the Equestrian guard ever used them, what with unicorns and all. The carbine would crunch two depleted gemstones together and shoot a bolt of magic at the target, hard enough to break a set of ribs, or kill with a headshot. If you capped a cartridge with quartz, it would send shards through flesh and bone. Cute little things, but loud as a drunk donkey.
The front room was massive and split into two levels. The upper level looked down onto the lower level where we were, and a rickety spiral staircase led up to it. The lower level was plush, with rugs, two sofas, a big coffee table coated in food and beer, a few bookcases. Nice place, for a hotel in a warzone.
We must have been loud, because a deer on the upper level poked his head over the railing to check out the noise. Poke flew up and pulled him over; Griz and Gina grabbed the deer mid-air and tied him up. There was a shout in French from the upper level. Another deer had seen Poke. Poke pulled his handbow and shot. The deer wailed in pain, and I flew up to see what happened. Poke had missed the neck and shot him in the front leg. The deer dived into a doorway at the other end of the room. Two more deer craned their necks out, then slammed the door and cried alarm.
Poke yelled, "We're spotted, get up here now!" Me, Danish and Trevor flew up, then sprinted to the door. Poke pulled a flashbomb and reached for the door handle, but Trevor stopped him. Trevor took two folded squares of cardboard, both 12" by 12". Special mouseholing cut-outs, with det-cord on one side. They unfolded twice over, and he placed them on the wall three meters left of the door, one just above the other. The det-cord is wedged between the cardboard and the wall. Trevor crunched the acid-vial fuse, stepped back, and counted down on his claws.
Three. I raised my carbine. Two. Poke pulled the pin on the flashbomb. One. Boom.
Poke pitched the flashbomb as we rushed into the smoking hole in the wall. The flashbomb wasn't strong enough to blind and deafen, just enough to distract your target for half a second. It was all we needed. Danish grabbed the wounded deer by his front leg and hurled him into another deer. The fastest deer had flipped a table and taken cover. It would've worked better if Trevor didn't have wings. He flew straight over and dropkicked the deer with a nasty crunch. The fourth deer tried to draw a mouthblade. I slammed the muzzle of my carbine against his face, then swiped his front kneecaps from the side with the butt. His head hit the floorboards. I dropped an elbow into his liver, just in case he felt like getting up.
"We've got a runner!" said Poke, pointing at a swinging-open door. He chased straight forward and we had to follow. I looked over my shoulder and saw Butch and the rest of the squad come into the room. Butch and Cheese followed; the rest tied up the prisoners.
The next room was a cluttered kitchen. We vaulted over workstations and chopping blocks to get to the other end. Poke reached the shut door at the other end, dropped to his knees and slid the mirror under. He gave the 'all clear' signal, twisting the door handle with the other claw. The door didn't budge.
Poke said, "Room's clear, I need a charge-"
Danish slammed into the door at full speed, knocking it off its hinges. It led to a reading room full of documents and technomantics. There was a circle on the floor, filled with glowing runes, and more daubed on the walls. We ignored them. We shouldn't have.
To the left, a sliding door led to a small stairwell. I took point and scaled the stairs, Trevor right behind me, the rest of the squad bringing up the rear. I kicked open the door at the top.
At my front and right, a raised landing pad took up a quarter of the roof. There was a set of ventilation units between me and the pad. I saw a glimpse of a deer and a glint of metal, then I got tackled from behind. Three thin blades skittered across the rooftop where I had just been stood, dripping brown liquid. I saw the liquid hiss and sputter as it ate through the roofing tar. Trevor rolled off me.
That was the first time he saved my life that night.
The deer flung more blades across the air and at the door. "Get to cover," I yelled. Cheese and Gina slid to the ventilation units we were hiding behind; the rest of the squad stayed in cover. Butch and Griz blind-fired their carbines from cover, slinging shards of crystal towards the deer with a loud thundercrack. The blades kept coming.
"Normal deer don't have bladeslingers," I said, over the *tink-tink-tink of blades hitting the floor. "It's Ngyuen. Crazy bitch has us pinned down."
Trevor readied his composite shortbow. "I don't fancy she's coming in for debriefing, Gilda. Mind if I drop an arrow through her heart?"
I held up a rubber-tipped cartridge for my carbine. Still powerful enough to break ribs. "If I bring back a live defector, I might get a promotion out of here," I said, "and you dudes wouldn't have your crazy jungle fun messed up by lame spy crap any more."
Gina grinned and nudged me. "Ah, they'd just send you someplace more dangerous with worse weather, 'cause you've got 'field experience' and can 'take pressure.' They'd give us another damn spook, they always do. 'Sides, you're a solid molly, Moneyshot."
I grinned back. By that time, Moneyshot was more 'fond' than 'fuck-off'. Still hated it, but it was better. "Be my guest and put her down, Trev," I said.
"I'll need a distraction," he said, pointing to the knives flying overhead, "bangers out."
We used bangers to flush targets from cover. Six inch metal tube, yank the cord in the middle and a nasty acid eats through a thin membrane stopping two lumps of depleted amethyst. They sizzle like a banger sausage when the acid fuse sets off. Then they make a big bang. And shrapnel wounds.
Cheese took one out as Trevor nocked an arrow. She yanked the cord and pitched it towards the landing pad. The explosion cracked the air two seconds later, Trevor instantly shot up, took aim and fired at Ngyuen.
Trevor said, "She's down, zone's clear!"
We left cover, and the squad headed to the landing pad. Ngyuen lay near the edge in a pool of her own blood, with an arrow through her ribcage. Her mouth hung open, her small tusks twitching as she drooled blood. A qirin bladeslinger lay next to her, sleek and ceramic, splattered with red. In the middle of the pad sat a fat ceramic tube, a meter high, pointing skywards.
There were more runes painted on the floor here. Some glowed but others were painted in something thin and clear, so you couldn't see them. A trail of these invisible characters led off the landing pad, and probably back into the building.
We shouldn't have ignored those either.
Griz took her med kit out and started to inspect Ngyuen. She shook her head. "She's schtupped, there's a severed artery. She's got less than a minute."
Ngyuen coughed blood, and muttered something to Griz. Griz looked at me. "Yo Gilda, what does 'jiganya' mean?"
"Huh. It means 'I win'," I said.
"Uh, guys?" Cheese pointed at the ceramic tube, her voice rising, "There's a fuse at the bottom of that mortar, guys. It's on fire, guys. It's nearly at the base-"
"Squad, get down!" said Butch.
I hit the floor and the air exploded. All I could feel was ringing in my ears and pressure rippling through my body. A few seconds later, the air flashed bright above us.
I pushed myself to my paws and looked up. It was a firework mortar. It had exploded into a burning deer skull with snakes crawling from the eye sockets. Everybird else was looking up at it too. It continued to burn.
"Well, that's ominous," said Cheese.
Thin beads of light started to rise from rooftops in the distance. More fireworks in response, all simple blue flares that flashed and burned in place. All the colour of the Eastern army. More than a hundred different rooftops set off flares, most on the Eastern side of the Banleui Huit.
The ringing faded, and we heard the noise. A low, angry drone. Danish flew into the air to hear better.
"Eastern war-cry," he said, "Deer streaming into the streets."
"Chingis, this is the launching ground for an assault on Banlieu Neuf," said Sergeant Butch, "and Ngyuen just triggered it."
Trevor perched on the Eastern side of the landing pad. "I can see alarms going up on our friends' side," he said, "Orders, sergeant?"
"The streets will be a meat-grinder, they're not an option," said Butch, "We'll fly towards the Western side, and as soon as we're out of range we'll light yellow flares. Let's hope they're smart enough not to fire on friendlies."
"We're going to bear Western colours? That'll blow our deniability out of the water."
"We've got no choice, it's that or get minced. Cheese, pass out the flares. We're going now. Gilda, if your spy code means you need to burn some documents or put some hairs on door frames or some bullshit, you're out of luck." She looked sterner than usual under the blue light of the flaming skull above us.
"Not a problem, sergeant," I said. Not collecting any intel would set my work back a few months, but I preferred some extra work to being dead. I walked towards Cheese to get a flare, and saw a trail of Ngyuen's blood touch one of those runes I shouldn't have ignored.
Every rune on the roof flashed bright purple, and the building shook for a few seconds.
"The fuck was that?" said Poke.
"I don't know, but we're leaving right now," said Butch, "Everybird strap in and form on me."
"There's something coming up the side of the building," said Trevor, "It's coming up - jings!" He jumped back from the edge and landed on his flanks.
A wall of shimmering black light shot up the edge of the building, and arched over us in a dome. Dark, forbidden qirin magic.
Danish was hovering above me when the eldritch web clipped the farthest feather of his wing. He didn't have time to scream before the fire destroyed him. He didn't even have time to look shocked.
The toughest griffon I'd ever met drifted down onto me, all hot ashes.