Mare-Do-Well rose from her hiding place behind the couch in Daring Do's living room as the pegasus trudged into the hallway slowly, yawning as she disappeared from sight. The allure of sleep beckoned to the pony in purple, but a shake of her head helped provide her with clarity as she tiptoed quietly around the sparse furnishings to follow her quarry closely. She pinned herself against the wall silently and peered around the corner, watching as the golden-colored mare approached the door of what Mare-Do-Well assumed was her bedroom. As the archeologist raised her hoof, Mare-Do-Well stepped out from her cover, and with a smirk concealed by her mask, she spoke the line that she had waited to utter ever since her arrival in the single-story house: “So, Miss Do, we meet again.”
The pursuit through Flora Park had been surprisingly brief. The two ponies who fled the scene, both of whom were stallions, never looked back to see that they were not alone, and their gait had slowed to a casual walk after only two blocks. Just in case, Mare-Do-Well had kept her distance from the suspects, ducking in and out of the shadows to avoid detection while keeping the ponies in her sights. Their route had taken them toward the Southern District, and Mare-Do-Well doubled her efforts to remain hidden as her prey trotted through the dim streets. She heard the hushed tones of an intense conversation, but she could only make out fragments and syllables of the discussion between the perpetrators. At last, the two had stopped in front of a decrepit Itailian restaurant, and Mare-Do-Well crept as close as possible through the alleys nearby, attempting to eavesdrop. Unfortunately, the two stallions had taken that opportunity to cease speaking as they loitered outside the restaurant; after a few minutes, it became clear what they were waiting for as a third stallion approached the pair. This third pony struck a chord in Mare-Do-Well's memory; she wracked her brain trying to recall where she had encountered him before. Before she could put her hoof on it, the trio began to converse, and this time, Mare-Do-Well was able to hear them all clearly.
The newcomer was the first to speak. “So where's the professor?” The costumed mare stiffened slightly; his voice gave away his identity, and Mare-Do-Well clearly remembered the weaselly tone of the greasy earth pony that she had so satisfyingly sent sprawling. She dared to peek around the corner for an instant for a better view, and her suspicions were confirmed. His mane was slightly different, but the body type was a direct match for the overeager stallion. She quickly withdrew her head and continued to listen.
The higher-pitched of the two stallions from Annals' house responded, his voice shaky, “We...uh...didn't get him.”
“What?!” The greasy-haired pony seemed rather displeased with this answer. “What do you mean? Did something go wrong?”
“I just don't know,” chimed in the lower-pitched stallion. “When we got there, the old guy wasn't even home. Must've missed him or something.”
“That what happened?” snapped the greasy stallion.
The high-pitched stallion stammered out, “Yeah, yeah, that's what happened. Nopony was there at all. We turned the place upside-down looking for anything useful, but...”
“Nothing,” the stallion with the deeper voice finished.
“Well why didn't you wait around for him to come home?” snarled the greasy pony.
Now it was the lower-pitched stallion's turn to falter. “We figured you...might...need some help out here.”
The greasy-haired stallion snorted, then added with a confident air, “As if I need any help bringing in one mare.” He sighed, then added, “Whatever. As long as you numbskulls are here, you might as well make yourselves useful. Do not think this means you're off the hook, though.” Mare-Do-Well listened intently as the earth pony shared his plan with the two others. “You two wait inside the front door, and I'll corner the mare on the porch. Soon as you can, slip in behind her and cut her off. I hear this one's a pegasus, so be ready to tackle at a moment's notice. Think you can handle that?” Silence passed, during which Mare-Do-Well assumed the two lackeys gave nods of agreement. “Good. Now, let's go. The note we planted said to meet him at the address in...about half an hour, so move it.” Trotting hooves indicated that the three ponies were carrying out their designated assignments.
Mare-Do-Well hesitated for only a moment. Which ones should I follow? While trailing the greasy stallion, who appeared to be the superior of the other two, would likely lead her directly to Daring Do, she deduced that not only would it put her in a more difficult position, but the chance of him recognizing her costume and abandoning his plan was not worth the risk. If these ponies were truly after Daring Do, she needed to earn the other mare's trust. And the best way to do that, she concluded, is to ambush the ambush. She turned the corner and glanced into the night, catching a glimpse of a very familiar sight: the back ends of two ponies who were galloping away from her. With a quick look around to ensure nopony else was watching, Mare-Do-Well sped into the night after the same ponies she had been pursuing since Flora Park.
The neighborhoods in the Southern District became more and more unsavory as the costumed mare continued to tail the two perpetrator ponies. Crumbling brick walls dotted with graffiti and barred windows were more frequent the further south she ran, and in the dim, foggy twilight that still bore traces of the moisture from earlier in the day, it was easy to be intimidated by the looming, sparsely-lit buildings. Mare-Do-Well, however, had spent a great deal of time in this section of Manehattan during her nightly rounds, and instead of fear, a strange sort of excitement fueled by adrenaline coursed through her veins as she galloped, causing her heart to race and pound in her head with each rapid beat. Her quarry also seemed to carry themselves with confidence as they raced through the empty streets towards their destination.
All three ponies slowed as the two in the lead approached an apartment building that for all appearances was like every other one on the same street, decorated with spray painted swear words and strange symbols, with windows that looked like they belonged to a prison cell. The stallions wasted no time and ducked inside the front door, laying the trap. Mare-Do-Well grinned as she surveyed the small stoop and the railings on either side; neither were insurmountable obstacles for somepony of her athletic capabilities. Satisfied that she could spring her own trap with ease, she slunk into the dark alley adjacent to the structure and waited, her breathing overpowering any background noise. A wave of tiredness hit her as she sat in anticipation, but her senses remained sharp and vigilant, her mind focusing on the arrival of a mare that had drawn an unusual amount of interest from several different parties, including herself.
The fight was over swiftly. The two stallions, their faces hidden by hoods, were caught completely unawares by the costumed mare as she leaped out of the darkness and dispatched them with well-placed kicks. Unsure of what the greasy pony's reaction would be, she had simply given him a cold, unblinking stare from her mask, and he had fled into the night, the fear and recognition apparent on his face. Mare-Do-Well grinned as she watched the stallion flee, making note of her second victory in as many interactions with the perverted pony.
Her conversation with Daring Do, on the other hoof, had not been nearly as long as she'd hoped. Not surprisingly, the pegasus had been reluctant to speak with her at first, but Mare-Do-Well had finally been able to share the hard news about Annals and inform Daring of the plot against her. The sirens had been unexpected; some concerned citizen had apparently heard or seen the commotion, and the purple-clad pony abandoned her talk with the other mare and fled off into the night once again, not willing to stick around and be apprehended by Manehattan's finest. As Mare-Do-Well beat her hasty retreat, she knew her next destination already: Daring Do's house. While the pegasus might be safe for the time being, once the police had finished their questioning and she was back on the streets, the Collector's minions would undoubtedly be back on her tail.
The costumed pony maneuvered the dark streets of Manehattan almost from memory, her thoughts free to roam as her body seemed to carry itself through alley after alley and past the silent facades of the tall buildings. A nagging doubt began to creep into her mind: Does Daring believe me? She tried to shake off the misgiving, but it lingered in her mind as she continued to traverse through Manehattan. How would I feel if some pony dressed in a costume suddenly showed up and started telling me all the things I told her? I'd probably think they were crazy, regardless of whether or not they just saved my flank. Mare-Do-Well did all she could to quell the festering doubts and questions, soldiering on until she had arrived at Daring's address, memorized earlier from the same faculty guide that she had utilized to find Annals' place of residence. On a whim, she tried the front door and, to her great surprise, found it unlocked. Not daring to turn on any lights, Mare-Do-Well closed the door, still unlocked, then stepped through the darkness and sunk to the floor behind the couch in the living room. Now to play the waiting game.
The waiting game went far longer than expected. As she hid in the blackness of the otherwise-empty abode, Mare-Do-Well took the opportunity to catch her breath after all the events of that night, from her discovery of Annals' body to her timely rescue of Daring Do. Even in her time of repose, however, her muscles ached and protested as she crouched low to the floor in her hiding place, and no matter how she shifted, some part of her seemed to cry out in discomfort. A haze began to form at the edge of her consciousness, threatening sleep, and she replayed her encounters from throughout the evening over and over in her head to both pass the time and fight off the urge to collapse to the carpeted floor and succumb to the sweet embrace of slumber. When she had cycled through those memories, she shifted her concentration from the past to the future, planning ahead for her conversation with Daring that she hoped would fill in the holes from their earlier talk. Finally, just when Mare-Do-Well thought she couldn't stay lucid any longer, the sound of the opening door drove back the tired haze and snapped her to attention.
Now, as she addressed the pegasus with the golden yellow coat for the second time that night, she was at full awareness, the temptation of sleep averted as adrenaline worked its wonders on her system once again. Having uttered her line to attract Daring's attention, Mare-Do-Well watched as the other mare turned around slowly, soon coming face-to-face with the purple-clad pony. Even before she spoke, Mare-Do-Well saw the pegasus' haggard look; she felt a pang of pity as she imagined how the night's stresses had heaped themselves upon the pony before her.
That pity, however, quickly gave way to confusion when the golden mare responded to Mare-Do-Well's statement in a seething voice that caused a slight chill to run down the costumed pony's spine. “Here to finish the job?” Dark pink eyes narrowed beneath a ruffled greyscale mane, rage present across the entirety of the pegasus' visage.
The statement from the clearly-incensed pony made no sense, at least to Mare-Do-Well. Stricken dumb for a moment, she finally asked in her deeper, disguised voice, “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean,” the pegasus spat back. “First it was Annals, now me. I don't know what you're really after, 'Mare-Do-Well,' but I won't go down easy.” Daring's head dipped low, and both wings began to flare out in an instinctual gesture of intimidation.
All the doubts that had crept into Mare-Do-Well's mind earlier came storming back. A theory popped into her head, but she needed to conduct some questioning before she could confirm its legitimacy. “Are you accusing me of something, Miss Do?” she asked, attempting to keep her voice calm and steady even as her heart increased its rate.
“Don't play dumb!” shouted Daring, the loud volume in the confined space ringing sharply against Mare-Do-Well's ears. “You want me to believe you just came in out of nowhere and took down those other two ponies, like some big hero, but you're nothing more than a liar.”
A surge of anger to match the golden pegasus' tore through Mare-Do-Well's body, and her response was harsh, spoken through gritted teeth and with as much self-restraint as she could muster. “When exactly did I lie?”
“Annals,” Daring said in a harsh whisper. “You told me he was murdered.”
“What are you talking about?” said Mare-Do-Well softly, her ire tinged with confusion.
“You said Annals was murdered,” Daring said, her voice louder and more emphatic, “but I heard the coroner's report with my own ears. He died of a heart attack. There was no evidence of foul play.”
Mare-Do-Well's mind reeled as she flashed back to the house in Flora Park. The first words she had heard drifting through the cracked window replayed in her memory: “Horseapples, that wasn't supposed to happen.” At the time, she had passed over those words spoken by one of the stallions inside Annals' home, but now, as she heard them once again in light of Daring's revelation, the implications were clear as day. His death was an accident. They weren't sent to kill him.
Daring's voice interrupted the flow of her recollections. “And the whole superhero thing? More like an act! Pretend to save me, earn my trust, and then I'll believe whatever you say.” The pegasus' voice was becoming more choked as she vented her anger; Mare-Do-Well could see the corners of her dark pink eyes glistening with moisture. Daring continued, “Well, it almost worked. But I'm on to you now, so just get out if you know what's good for you!” A snort and a scuff of her hoof along the carpet accentuated the pegasus' threat.
Meanwhile, Mare-Do-Well's mind was still racing as she digested the new developments. The truth seemed to be right in front of her, but she couldn't decipher anything while in the middle of this hostile conversation. Desperate to buy some time, as well as iron out the details of the night's events, she raised a defensive hoof and said, “I'll go, Miss Do, but first, please hear me out.”
The hallway was silent, save for the breathing of the two mares as they stared each other down. Mare-Do-Well studied Daring's face as the pegasus seemed to mull over her suggestion; her eyes darted back and forth, and her flared-out wings retracted slightly. Finally, the golden-coated mare said quietly, “Make it quick,” her voice still dripping with anger.
The purple-clad pony sighed, both out of relief and to try to calm herself down before she began to speak. “About Annals...I thought he was murdered, because I was there.”
Already, Daring interrupted. “What?!”
Mare-Do-Well shouted back, the volume of her speech louder than Daring's interjection. “I was there because I was trying to save him, just like I saved you!” The pegasus' mouth closed, and Mare-Do-Well continued in a tone more suited to the confined space in which the two mares stood, “By the time I arrived at his house, two of the ponies that attacked you were there, and I was too late; I thought they'd killed him. I chased them when they ran from the house, and that's how I ended up in the right place at the right time to stop them from beating you senseless. You're welcome for that, by the way.”
Daring snorted again, but her eyes betrayed the questions that Mare-Do-Well was sure had begun to arise. One of those questions found its way out of the pegasus' mouth: “What do you mean, trying to 'save' him?”
“It's like I told you before,” Mare-Do-Well responded, calming down as she noticed Daring's fury beginning to subside. “Some powerful ponies are after the two of you. I thought they were trying to kill you, but it's beginning to look like that's not the case at all. I was trying to stop them before they got to you and Annals.”
“But...that doesn't make any sense!” Daring exclaimed, her posture becoming more relaxed as her desire for answers seemed to overpower her fury at the other pony inside her home. “Annals and I, we don't have enemies, at least none that I know of. I can't think of anypony that would want to...do that kind of thing to us.” She looked at Mare-Do-Well, her eyes pleading. “Who is it?”
The pony in purple paused for a moment as she considered whether or not to share the limited information she possessed. She didn't take long to reach her decision. “From what I've gathered, the one behind the scheme is somepony named the Collector. I don't know his real identity yet, but he seems to have an influence throughout the whole city, specifically the criminal element. Nopony I've spoken with knows who he is either, but they all seem to be afraid of him.”
Daring lifted a hoof from the floor, her eyes betraying the fear that was beginning to grip her. “Why? Why would this...Collector be after me or Annals?”
“I think you know why, Miss Do,” Mare-Do-Well responded, her voice grim.
The perplexed archeologist's face slowly lit up, her dark pink irises spreading wide, and in a hushed voice, she said, “The artifact.”
“You and Annals discovered something, didn't you?” asked Mare-Do-Well softly. “A very special find?”
“That's...well, that's putting it lightly,” Daring answered, her eyes looking every which way but at the costumed pony. “It's unlike anything either of us have...had seen before.”
The purple-clad pony said, “I had a...talk with Dr. Brier at the university.” Daring's eyes lit up in recognition as Mare-Do-Well continued, “He told me about another artifact, one found by a team led by somepony named Trowel. Just a little under two months ago, that artifact was delivered to Manehattan; it was supposed to end up at the university, but there was a break-in at the facility where it was being stored. The thieves got away with the piece, and I haven't been able to uncover anything about its whereabouts. He did show me a photo of it, though.”
“I knew Trowel was on a dig in Cameland, but this is the first I've heard of any break-in,” Daring said. “He got back from the expedition last week. He didn't mention anything about a notable find.”
Mare-Do-Well raised an eyebrow. “Strange. He apparently thought it was important enough to send pictures back to Equestria before he even sent the artifact itself. Why wouldn't he bring it up to you?”
A brief flash of anger passed across Daring's face. “You don't think he has anything to do with what happened tonight, do you? I've known Trowel for years, and he doesn't seem like the type of pony who'd get caught up in anything like this.”
“I can't say,” Mare-Do-Well offered truthfully. “There's no evidence to suggest he's involved, at least not that I've seen, but there's nothing clearing his name at this point either. I'd have to investigate further.”
Daring spoke up, “You said that you saw a photo of the artifact from Cameland. What was it?”
The costumed pony returned to her earlier train of thought. “It was a figurine, a statuette of sorts. It was transparent, almost like glass. The figure itself was a representation of-”
“A pegasus?” Daring blurted out. Her eyes twinkled briefly, and she took a step toward the other mare.
Taken aback by the sudden outburst, Mare-Do-Well flinched, but she recovered quickly and said, “No, it wasn't a pegasus, I remember that clearly. This was an earth pony.” The golden mare's comment had piqued her interest, however, and she added, “Why do you ask?”
With palpable excitement, Daring Do began to recount her tale of the discovery of the transparent pegasus in Zebrabwe. As she listened to the bizarre story unfold, Mare-Do-Well found herself more and more confused and intrigued by the narrative, and Daring's description of the disappearing passageway and the spherical room only perplexed her more. The fire that burned in the pegasus' eyes, however, did more to dispel her doubts than Daring's repeated insistence that every word she spoke was true. By the time the tale was complete, Mare-Do-Well knew that it was no fabrication, and indeed, both archeologists had run across something truly magical in the faraway desert of Zebrabwe. Something that's sure to attract the attention of the Collector. Daring's story having reached its conclusion, Mare-Do-Well voiced her next concern. “Where's the artifact now, Miss Do?”
“Please, call me Daring,” the pegasus responded. She managed a smile, though her face still betrayed her sleepy state. Mare-Do-Well smiled back, then nodded when she recalled that her facial features were still obstructed by her mask. The tired archeologist continued, “It's being stored at the university, in the labs. We're still running tests to try and answer some of the questions that it's brought up. So far, no good.”
“Is it secure?”
“Only a few ponies even know it's down there,” Daring answered calmly. “Brier hasn't gone public about the artifact, and he won't until we've done as many tests and experiments as we can to determine it's not dangerous.”
Alarm bells began to ring in Mare-Do-Well's brain. She paused for a moment and cocked her head to one side, trying to determine why, when suddenly, the truth dawned on her. “Daring, how did they know to go after you and Annals?”
The pegasus' mouth opened as if to give a response, but none came. Her eyes grew wide once more before she found her voice. “I...don't know. It's not public knowledge that we found anything, not yet.”
“It may not be public knowledge,” Mare-Do-Well said slowly, “but it is private knowledge.”
Daring stared in disbelief. “Are you saying somepony in the department is behind this? Somepony who knows that the two of us were the ones who uncovered this artifact?” Suddenly, the golden yellow pegasus sprang forward through the hallway, past a startled Mare-Do-Well, and galloped the short distance to the door, throwing it open with a loud bang.
The costumed pony recovered quickly and shouted, “Wait! Where are you going?”
Daring looked back over her shoulder, her eyes ablaze with determination. “To the university! I have to make sure the artifact is safe!” Without another word, the pegasus leaped out the door and dashed off into the night.
Mare-Do-Well didn't have a chance to shout after her, instead allowing instinct to take over as she followed the running pegasus out the door – making sure to shut it behind her – and into the streets of Manehattan. Her conditioning lent her the advantage in a hoofrace, and soon, she was alongside the golden yellow mare. As the two ponies sped over the pavement, Mare-Do-Well shouted a question, making sure it would be heard over the wind that rushed past both her and Daring. “What are you going to do?”
“I'm not too sure,” the pegasus yelled back, “but if both Annals and I were attacked tonight, it's likely that they'll try to take the artifact tonight as well. We have to stop them, get it somewhere where they can't find it.”
Mare-Do-Well grinned underneath her mask. “Sounds like fun.” Side-by-side, the archeologist and the pony in purple galloped under the street lights toward Manehattan University.