“You really should try to get some rest, my dear.”
Professor Annals' soft voice startled Daring Do out of her trance, and she turned her head away from the window beside her. She had been looking through it, but if he'd asked, she couldn't have told him anything about what was on the other side. That, however, was not because of the thick darkness that obstructed the view of the water over which their dirigible soared, but rather because her mind dwelt on the only thing it had been dwelling on for the past three weeks. She stole a glance at her saddlebag, tucked safely underneath the seat in front of her, and met her colleague's gaze where he stood in the center aisle of the airship's coach seating area. His smile was genuine, but his eyes told her that he would much rather be having pleasant dreams than talking to a sleepless mare right now. She grinned back at him and said, “Don't worry about me, professor. I'll get some, I promise. Speaking of, what are you doing out of your seat?” She kept her volume low so as not to disturb the sleeping ponies in the surrounding seats, the scattered sounds of snoring echoing through the stillness of the flying machine.
He gave a slight chuckle and said, “Ah, Daring, so young and naive. When you get on in years as I have, you'll find that some of your internal workings develop a mind of their own, and if you don't adhere to their timetable, well...the results can be quite unpleasant.” An eyebrow rose as his smile faded. “However, that's enough about that subject. Forgive me for my frankness, my dear, but I must confess, I am somewhat troubled about your current state of affairs.”
Daring frowned. “What do you mean?”
His visage formed into a scowl, one that Daring thought was probably very effective if, earlier in his life, he'd needed to address one of his two children about some wrongdoing they had committed. “Daring Do, you know precisely what I mean. Perchance, have you glimpsed your own reflection this evening?”
Daring was struck by his use of her real name, and she slowly realized that she had not seen her mirror image for several days. She could only imagine the size of the bags under her eyes and how unkempt her shaded mane had become. She looked back at the professor's expectant face and answered, “Don't think I have.”
“I dare say not,” said the older unicorn in a voice that was far less accusatory and much more sympathetic than Daring had expected. “You certainly are a sight, but then again, I would expect nothing less to come from such a lack of sleep as you've experienced lately. Something's weighing heavy on your mind, my dear,” he continued, then nodded toward her stored saddlebag. “And I'd wager all my bits that I know precisely what it is.”
Daring's cheeks flushed, and a sheepish grin crept onto her face. She scratched the back of her head with a hoof and muttered, “That obvious, huh?”
Annals sighed and sat down in the empty seat next to Daring's, draping his hoof over her back. “Painfully so, I'm afraid. I must say, my dear, I'm surprised at this behavior of yours. It's not in your nature to obsess.”
She looked up at him with wide eyes. “Don't tell me you haven't thought about it.”
He waved his free hoof dismissively as he responded, “I'll not deny that it's held a prominent place in my mind for some time now, but I feel as though you've taken it to an unhealthy extreme.” She opened her mouth to protest, but found that a rebuttal was not forthcoming. After her lips were sealed again, he continued, “Daring, you really must consider the ramifications to your health, to your career, if you continue to spend such an atrocious amount of time attempting to analyze an artifact, even one so interesting as this one. Why, what would your academic peers think of you if they discovered you'd nearly thrown away everything so you could dissect the minutiae of a glass pegasus?”
Daring looked away from the unicorn, and her eyes landed once again on her sealed saddlebag. Despite the protests of several members of their expedition, she had insisted on keeping the transparent figurine nearby during the journey back to Equestria, providing excuses that revolved around “further study” and “safe keeping.” The object in question now occupied a secure pouch inside the bag, though it had not remained there for the entirety of their return trip, from the train ride out of the Zebrabwe desert and into the port city of Croup Town, and now in the skies above the ocean that separated Equestria from the rest of the world. More often than she cared to admit, she had extracted the entrancing relic from her bag and turned it around and around in her hooves, as though willing it to divulge its long-kept secrets. When it wasn't under her studious eye, the figurine lingered in her mind's vision, threatening to block out any other thoughts. From her recollections of the expedition's journey home, she could recall only snippets of conversations, a few fleeting nights of fitful sleep, and perhaps an occasional meal; everything else was a vain effort to unravel the mysteries of the curious carved pegasus.
What pressed her most into this state of rapt fixation was her memory of the days spent at the desert camp in Zebrabwe following her and Annals' discovery of the figure. While the team had brought some equipment with them into the field to analyze anything they might find, it was nowhere near the capabilities of the machinery that the archaeologists had at their disposal back at Manehattan University. Initially, this shortcoming was nothing more than a slight inconvenience, but it soon developed into the chief source of frustration for Daring Do, as experiment after experiment was conducted on their latest discovery, only to unleash a new torrent of questions. For appearing to be formed out of glass, the figurine proved to be much more resilient: a chisel, two different rock hammers, and even a hunting knife had all failed to leave so much as a mark on its surface. The most extreme measures of heat and cold that the science ponies could manage had not affected the piece in the least. Once, equal parts curious and upset, Daring had hurled the tiny pegasus onto a metal table as hard as she could, only to have it ricochet off, landing in the dirt a few feet away with nary a scratch or crack.
The geologists' search of the cave had turned up similar disappointing results. Tectonic Shift's findings had been uninteresting, with not even a trace of any sort of branching passageway buried under the strata. Even a brief magical analysis from two unicorns on Tectonic's team had turned up no traces of any latent spells or enchantments in the area. Despite the mounting evidence against their story, Daring and Annals had insisted that every word was true, leading to a number of suspicious glances and hushed whispers around the camp. The earth pony geologist did his best to defuse the situation, but even he had become aloof and difficult to speak with following the completion of his team's tests. Two weeks of exploration and scientific study had produced only a strange statuette and a growing air of unease in the Zebrabwe desert.
Daring found herself torn. On the one hoof, she was nearly bursting with anticipation at the idea of scrutinizing the artifact with a more advanced laboratory back at the university, hoping that a more thorough breakdown of the figurine would yield satisfactory results and data that would lead to concrete answers about its origin and purpose. In direct opposition to that excitement, however, was a nagging fear that had settled deep in her gut since the day she had found the pegasus and had slowly grown in intensity as time wore on. Even though she didn't fully understand why she was afraid, she knew exactly what she was afraid of. The terror had planted itself in her brain, and each inconclusive test, each mistrusting look given to her by anypony she considered to be a friend or colleague, each day of drawing no closer to the truth about the infuriating little artifact only fed the fear and made it grow, until it became painful to try to ignore. The very thought sent chills from the nape of her neck to the tip of her tail: This thing will destroy me if I let it. Perhaps the worst part, though, was that she knew she was willing to allow that to happen, all for the sake of answers, precious answers.
She shuddered slightly as the professor sat next to her, keeping a silent vigil over his fellow archaeologist. He gently rubbed her shoulder, his old patience shining through as he comforted the younger pegasus. Finally, she broke the silence. “I'm sorry, Annals. It's just...I can't get it out of my mind, no matter what I do.”
“I understand, my dear,” said the unicorn, “but you mustn't let it overtake you so. We'll be in good old Manehattan in two days time, and once we're there and back in the familiar confines of the university, I'm quite sure that this riddle will be solved in no time flat. In the meantime,” he added as he withdrew his hoof from around her and stepped off the seat, “I may have a temporary solution to alleviate some of your burden.” With a soft smile on his tired face, he extended his forehoof toward Daring.
She stared at his outstretched hoof for a moment before she realized his intentions. “Are you sure, professor? I...I wouldn't want anything to happen to it.”
He drew in a sharp breath and clutched his chest in a dramatic fashion. “Why, Daring, are you implying that I am not trustworthy? You cut me to the quick, my dear!” Several ponies nearby snorted in their sleep, and Annals dropped the volume of his delivery to accommodate the passed-out passengers. “Come now, allow me to help you as best I know how. Let me do my part; you simply must get some rest, if not for yourself, then certainly for your old friend.” His smile widened, and in spite of the dim light, Daring saw deep compassion shining clearly in his eyes as he put out his hoof again.
She hesitated for just a moment, then bent down and pulled her saddlebag from under the seat. Out of instinct, she reached for the clasp on the side, but paused before she opened the cloth container. Instead, she slowly hoisted the bag in her hooves and handed it delicately to the professor. As he accepted it into his grasp, he said, “Are you certain there's nothing in here you need?”
With a weak smile, Daring said, “Nothing that I'll need before tomorrow.”
Even as Annals swung the saddlebag over his back and shifted slightly to bear the added weight, Daring thought she noticed that his shoulders looked less slumped, his spine a little straighter. A yawn escaped his lips, and he said, “In that case, I shall return it to you then. In the meantime, pleasant dreams.” He turned in the direction of his seat.
“Professor?” Daring's question made him pause. She stifled a yawn of her own, then said, “Please...keep it safe.”
“Not to worry, my dear. I'll guard it with my life, for what that's worth,” he said with a smirk.
Daring smiled back. “Thank you, Annals.”
“My pleasure, Daring. Good night.” With that, the unicorn stallion trotted through the airship aisles toward his seat.
“Good night,” Daring whispered as he disappeared from her view. Another yawn came on, this one stronger. Her eyelids began to flutter as she settled into her cushioned seat, and after finding a comfortable position, she was asleep within seconds, her soft breathing fogging the window to the moonlit night outside. For the first time in several days, her respite was peaceful, her dreams free of any visions of a small, transparent pegasus.
The weeks following the interview with Dr. Brier had been, to put it simply, frustrating. Mare-Do-Well's watch over Manehattan continued much as it had in years past, but she had kept her eyes and ears open during her nightly patrols more than usual, searching for any sign of information related to the Seapony Dockworks robbery. On slow nights, she had even ventured into the seedier parts of the city, lurking in the shadows in hopes of overhearing some information being shared among criminals. This had proved to be a fruitless gesture; more often than not, she ended up spying on conversations that centered around the speakers' marefriends. Mare-Do-Well wasn't sure how many more unnecessary details about other ponies' love lives she could handle, and she was quickly running out of avenues to explore.
It was this frustration that led her to The Trough, a watering hole right on the edge of the Southern District. As she trotted up to the entrance, her costume tucked away inside her saddlebag, the front door was suddenly thrust open, and a light-colored body tumbled past the surprised mare, down the short staircase, and onto the sidewalk, where it collapsed in a gasping heap. A light brown stallion with a thick, scraggly black beard poked his head out of the still-open door and bellowed, “Don't come back, or I'll do more 'n throw ya out next time, ya mooch!” Mare-Do-Well watched as the deposed pony scrambled madly to his feet and galloped away, not once daring to look back at the furious bartender, who snorted as the other pony disappeared around the nearest street corner. As the bearded pony turned his head, he noticed Mare-Do-Well standing outside his establishment, and his hardened features softened slightly. “Sorry 'bout that, ma'am,” he said with a hint of anger still present in his voice. “Didn't mean t' upset ya.”
Mare-Do-Well realized her mouth was open. She quickly closed it and waved a hoof in front of her. “No need to apologize, you're just doing what you have to.” She raised an eyebrow. “You still open for business?”
The bartender grunted an affirmation and held the door open as Mare-Do-Well walked inside, then let it swing closed and trotted back towards the bar. Mare-Do-Well scanned the interior quickly, taking in her surroundings. The first thing she noticed was the lack of clientele. Aside from one young stallion whose head was becoming intimate with the bar counter and a group of ponies at a dingy-looking wooden table in the center of the room, the place was completely deserted. In the far corner, a jukebox with several burnt-out neon lights lazily droned an oldie by a one-hit wonder band, while against the front wall a rack of dusty pool cues kept watch over a billiard table that sported several rips in its green felt. Everything else was standard fare: two booths against the far wall, a selection of tables that didn't look like they'd been cleaned all night, and a dull, wooden counter surrounded by tall, uncomfortable-looking bar stools. Mare-Do-Well eased her way past the pool table and balanced herself atop a stool at the far end of the counter, where the bearded bartender stood trying to clean dirty glasses with an equally dirty rag. He scrubbed a particularly nasty glass on his once-white apron, then looked up. “So what'll it be?” he asked as he set the glass, which was still not very clean, next to his other empty containers.
“Cider, not hard,” she responded quickly as she placed her saddlebag in the empty stool next to hers. He turned to prepare her drink as she fished the appropriate number of bits out of her bag, then slapped them on the counter and slid them in the barkeep's direction just as he finished pouring the cider. In one swift motion, he set her foaming mug on the counter and slid the bits into his front apron pocket. She gratefully accepted the liquid nourishment and took a quick swig, her dry throat rejoicing at the feel of the lukewarm refreshment. She sighed contentedly. All the disappointments and dead ends from the past weeks began to dissipate as she relaxed in her seat. After another drink of cider, she asked the bartender, who was still standing directly across the counter from her, “So what was all that business at the door?”
He gave a scoffing chuckle. “That was my no-good brother-in-law. Thinks 'cause he's family, he can just come in here and get all his liquor fer free. I told him once before that ain't happenin', but he's got a thick head.” He leaned a little closer to Mare-Do-Well and added in a quiet voice, “Runs in the family.”
She smiled, then drained the rest of her mug. “One more round?” she said as she held up the empty beverage holder.
The bartender nodded and took the mug from her, refilling it quickly before setting it back in front of the eager mare. She turned to her bag, but he interrupted, “Nah, this one's on th' house. Can't sell that soft stuff to save me, might as well jus' get rid of it.” Mare-Do-Well hoisted her full glass in thanks, then began another drink.
Somewhere in her subconscious, she'd heard the door open and the familiar scrape of chairs on the floor; she'd even heard the soft murmur of a new group of patrons as they entered The Trough and took their seats, chatting amongst themselves. Her eyes widened and her pulse quickened, however, when one voice in particular stood out in the cacophony. It had been more than a month since she'd heard it, but there was no way she would ever forget that accent.
She couldn't hear what he had said, but her heart still began to pound furiously as she slowly set her mug down. She swiveled in her seat so that she was facing the pool table and pretended to study the paraphernalia on the wall. The group with the big Germane pony was perpendicular to her, and with quick glances from the side of her eye, she spotted her target. His face was frozen in a perpetual frown, his jaw set in position so firmly that it looked like a statue. His entourage consisted of two other stallions, a scrawny, sharp-nosed unicorn and a dark green earth pony with a greased mane and a leather jacket. She waited patiently as the bartender left his post behind the counter and approached the table. “What can I get ya, fellas?”
The unicorn spoke first, his voice nasal and grating. “A ginger ale for me, please.”
The greasy pony guffawed and said, “C'mon, shrimp, grow a pair! Ginger ale? What are you, a filly?”
With a snort that sounded like a dying animal, the other pony said, “I need something to calm my stomach, thank you very much. That greasy lunch earlier is wreaking havoc on my digestive system.”
“The less I know about your digestive system, the better, ya nerd.” The leather-clad pony looked up to see the frowning bartender awaiting his selection. “Yeah, barkeep, gimme a Rolling Dock.”
“Right,” muttered the bartender as Mare-Do-Well thought, Yeah, a real stallion's drink there, macho mane. She snapped back to attention when the bartender said, “How 'bout you, big guy?”
Mare-Do-Well kept her eyes focused on the wall as she heard a low grunt, then the rumble of the Germane pony's voice as he said, “Maneken.” The bartender stood still for a moment, then quickly circled back behind the bar to retrieve his customers' orders.
Mare-Do-Well turned so that she was facing the counter again, but kept her ears riveted to the conversation going on behind her. She heard the unicorn first. “So, any new orders from on high, or is he staying quiet?”
“Nah, nothing new last I heard,” responded the greasy earth pony. “Things 've been real quiet here lately, an' tell the truth, it's makin' me a little nervous. I know no news is good news, but from the boss?”
“Patience,” said the Germane. “Boss is not foal. We wait for orders.”
“Easy for you to say, big guy,” the other earth pony muttered.
For a while, the only sound Mare-Do-Well heard from behind her was the clink of glass as the bartender delivered the beverages to the table. After several minutes of silence, the unicorn's whiny voice piped up, “Wait a moment, what time is it?”
His more talkative companion said, “Almost 7. Why?”
A chair slid across the floor. “Well, gentlemen, I'm afraid I must bid you farewell for this evening. My Dragon Hunters group will be expecting me soon, and I'd hate for them to have to carry on without my presence.”
The pony in leather laughed and said, “Y'know, sometimes I wonder if you're a real stallion.”
“I'm not even going to grace that comment with a response.”
The sound of hooves and the creak of the bar's front door let Mare-Do-Well know that the scrawny unicorn had departed the premises. She began to think hard about her next move; after more than a month of dead ends, these three – now two – had fallen into her lap, and she wasn't about to lose her only link to the mystery of the Dockworks break-in. Various ideas swirled around her head, but she quickly discarded them as impractical. She heard the smaller earth pony's voice again. “Y'know, big guy, you ain't exactly good for conversation.”
The Germane was silent for a moment longer, then said, “Nerd was better?”
Both stallions laughed for a short while, then returned to their drinks in silence. Mare-Do-Well sat, clutching her mug tight, as her mind raced quickly in search of a solution. Suddenly, she sat bolt upright in her stool, and her eyes went wide as a grin crept onto her face. With a hard swallow, she slowly turned around in her seat to face the table where the two conspirators sat. Celestia, I hope this works. In a voice that was just loud enough to reach her intended audience, she said in a sing-song voice, “Excuse me, boys.”
Each of the earth ponies was facing toward her at an angle, an empty chair close to her side of the table indicating the unicorn's former position. Mare-Do-Well's cheeks flushed as first the smaller pony, then the larger raised their heads from focused stares at their bottles to make eye contact with her. She blinked twice, then narrowed her eyes in a maneuver she hoped was attractive. “Would either of you like some...company?” Her last word came out quiet, and her gaze shifted from one stallion to the other, hoping for some kind of reaction.
It didn't take long. While the Germane pony's face remained unchanged – if anything, she thought his scowl deepened – the smaller earth pony quickly realized the opportunity that lay before him, if his sleazy grin was any indication. He spoke in a voice that was at least an octave lower than the one she had heard before. “Well, if you're offering...we've got an empty seat, whaddya say, big guy?”
The big stallion raised one eyebrow and looked at his companion, still frowning. “Serious?”
“Course I'm serious!” said the greasy pony. With a wink at Mare-Do-Well, he said, “Nothing wrong with a little company, 'm I right?” He gave the Germane a playful tap on the shoulder.
The large pony stared at his smaller counterpart for several seconds, then sighed. “Do what you want,” he murmured as his massive frame lifted out of the chair and he turned toward the door.
Greasy-haired pony spoke up, “Where you goin'? Don'tcha wanna stick around and chat, at least take a chance?”
The massive Germane head spun back around. “Little pony. Too small.” Without another word, he plodded out the door as Mare-Do-Well took the unicorn's former seat, placing her saddlebag on the floor beside her.
As the Germane departed, she resisted the urge to bolt out the door and follow him into the street. Instead, she turned back to the other pony and looked at his face. A look of shock at seeing his friend depart was quickly replaced by the same grin from earlier as he turned to face his new mare companion. “Forget him,” he said. “Doesn't know a good thing when he sees it.”
She had to struggle to contain her nausea, but finally managed, “And you do?”
“Sure do, sweetheart,” he replied. “An' I'm lookin' at a real good thing right now.”
His eyes hungrily drank in her frame, and the feeling of vomit rose in Mare-Do-Well's throat again. She swallowed subtly and said, “Hmm, a sweet talker. I like that.” She gave a quick look around the bar, which was still nearly devoid of patrons. “Say...maybe you and me, we can get out of here, go somewhere a little more...private.”
She wouldn't have been at all surprised to see his tongue lolling out from the side of his mouth as he sputtered out, “Sounds...uh...good to me. My place isn't far. You game?”
Nice and easy. Mare-Do-Well flashed a sultry stare at the dark green stallion as she simply stood up from the table and grabbed her bag in response. He eagerly jumped up beside her, leaving almost half of his Rolling Dock still in the bottle. Side-by-side, the two ponies departed The Trough and began the trek to his living quarters, Mare-Do-Well shooting him sly grins as she watched him walk with a little spring in his step and anticipation plain to see in his eyes.
It only took a few minutes to reach his building. With a quick turn of a key concealed in his jacket pocket, the stallion led Mare-Do-Well inside and through the hall toward the elevator. She did her best to ignore the dark stains on the off-white walls, the mysterious lumps in the ragged brown carpet that was missing several patches, and her nostrils filling with several scents that blended together to form a potpourri that she'd do her best to forget as soon as possible. The thin wooden doors on either side of the hall proved quite ineffective at masking the sounds that emanated from the rooms, from cries of rage that caused Mare-Do-Well to cringe to screams of pleasure that made her blush. Mercifully, the elevator was not a far walk. After the doors opened to reveal a poorly-lit car, her companion stepped inside, and she followed warily. With a mighty lurch, the cables began to pull the two ponies up. As the elevator rose slowly, the stallion stepped close to Mare-Do-Well and said in a low, breathy voice, “By the way, sweetheart, I don't think I caught your name.”
She flinched slightly, but quickly recovered and looked at him with narrow eyes. “No, you didn't. What do you say we keep it that way?” She gave him a wink and turned her focus back to the elevator's buttons as a huge, toothy grin spread onto the greasy-haired pony's face.
The elevator jolted to a halt, and the doors crept open once again. “After you,” said the dark green stallion, pointing his hoof out into another dirty hallway, though not quite as bad as the one on the ground floor. Mare-Do-Well sauntered out of the car, followed by the stallion, who led her to the left and around the corner. He paused in front of a door with nail holes where the numbers had once been and used another key to unlock it, then swung it open. She stepped inside and surveyed the small room as he closed the door behind them and slid the locking mechanism back into place. It was surprisingly not a complete dump, although several shirts and magazines strewn about showed that the floor served as both a laundry basket and a bookshelf. A bed that could barely fit one pony sat unmade in the corner, and on the opposite wall, she spied a door that likely led to the bathroom. A tall lamp in the corner provided illumination, while thick curtains obstructed the view of the deepening twilight outside the window.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a hoof snaking its way around her neck and the feel of breath on her ear as the overeager stallion sidled up beside her. She pushed him away gently, his face perplexed, and said, “Actually, all that cider I had earlier is starting to catch up with me. Would you mind if I used your restroom first?” A quick bat of her eyes sealed the deal.
He quickly stepped away from her and said, “Oh, yeah, sure. It's right over there.” He nodded in the direction of the door, then leaned a little closer. “I'll be waiting in here.” His head cocked to the side as he gave an exaggerated wink.
If Mare-Do-Well hadn't had to use the facilities earlier, she certainly did now, if only so she could throw up. She maintained her composure, however, and walked slowly towards the bathroom door, making sure to put a little extra shake in her hips. She flashed the panting stallion a quick smile and sealed herself in the privacy of the tiled room. Instantly, her veneer of charm dropped, and her saddlebag was off her back and opened in seconds. She extracted all the pieces of her costume and put them on quietly, giving a quick flush of the filthy toilet as she donned her wide-brimmed fedora. A glance in the mirror brought a concealed smile to her face, and she swung the door open and stepped back into the room.
The earth pony's leather jacket had been cast aside to become just another loose article in the sea of clothing, and he was lying on his side on the bed, the very picture of seductiveness in his own mind. His longing gaze quickly turned to wonder, though, as she reappeared in all her costumed glory. He let out a low whistle, then said, “So you're into that kind of thing, huh? Pretty hot.”
Mare-Do-Well twirled around, her cape flowing around her, and a quick look at his face told her that she had his undivided attention. In the same seductive voice as earlier, she said through the mask, “Oh, but I have a little problem...see, I couldn't reach the zipper back here.” She turned around and stuck her flank up high, pointing with a forehoof toward her rump. “Could you please get that for me?” She gave a little wiggle. “Pretty please?”
He slid off the bed and said, “Sure thing.” He eagerly stepped toward the presenting mare, his eyes gleaming with anticipation as he made ready to claim his prize.
Thump. Her back left hoof flew true, catching his jaw and turning his head sharply to the right.
Thump. The other rear hoof followed immediately, a direct hit on the left side of his face that knocked his whole head backwards and caused him to rear up.
THWACK. Both hooves struck his exposed chest with full force, and he was propelled through the air toward his bed. He landed with a loud crash as the wood of his bed's frame cracked from the impact of his flying body, and the entire sleeping apparatus collapsed around him. Mare-Do-Well muttered, “Training bag never felt that good,” and quickly sprang to his prone body.
The stallion lay in a heap, surrounded by the remnants of his bed. His eyes spun in circles, his tongue hung limply from his lips, and a thin gash on his face where her second kick had hit him was oozing blood onto his dark green coat. She quickly gripped either side of his head with her forehooves and gave a quick shake. His eyes spun once more, then settled into place, staring directly into the hollow eyes of the costumed mare's mask. His pupils shrank and he gasped, ready to shout in terror, but a hoof over his mouth kept him quiet. Mare-Do-Well did her best not to think about how much she felt like a dominatrix at that moment, instead saying harshly, “Listen up, lover boy, you're not gonna shout, you're not gonna scream, and you're not gonna say a word unless I ask you a question. Got it?” He looked left, then right, then back at Mare-Do-Well and gave a quick nod. She removed her hoof from his lips and said, “Good boy. Okay, first question: You're partners with the big Germane pony, right?”
“With Krieg?” he choked out. “Yeah, we're partners, we work together. Why?”
She slammed down a forehoof inches from his head. “I ask the questions, you give the answers, remember?” she growled. He nodded again, and she continued, “Second question: Who are you working for?”
He cringed, then winced in pain. “I can't tell you.”
“No? Well, that's unfortunate.” She lifted one rear hoof without looking away. “Guess that means you won't be a stallion for much longer.”
“Wait, wait!” he squealed. She slowly lowered her leg as he sputtered out, “If I tell you, he'll kill me, I know it! A pony like him, you don't wanna cross! He's got power, influence...I'd be dead in a week.”
“Well, now I really want to know who he is. And since I don't have anypony else to question, I guess you'll have to do.” She leaned her face closer, the earth pony's eyes widening. “And the sooner you talk, the less pain you'll have to go through.” Her hoof rose into the air once more. “Are we clear?”
He groaned, a low, pitiful sound brought on by intense pain. His eyes shut and he turned away from Mare-Do-Well as she stood poised above him, ready to strike at his most sensitive area. She was just about to deliver the crushing kick when he whimpered, “Okay.”
She gave his head a quick slap, and he opened his eyes again. “What was that?”
He coughed, then said, “Okay! I'll tell you what I know.”
For the second time, she brought her hind leg down slowly. “There now, that wasn't so hard. Now, who is he?”
After a moment's pause and a hard swallow, the wounded stallion said, “He's called the Collector. Nopony knows his real name, and I've never even seen his face. Another pony who works for him brought me in, said I was good material for the group. At first, it was just odd jobs, a hold-up here, a smash-and-grab there, little stuff that didn't bring in a lot of bits. Here lately, though, he's been setting up real specific work, giving us specific things to swipe, certain ponies to...teach a lesson to. He's got a big network, all over Manehattan, but he does a real good job of making sure nopony rats him out. He'll snuff 'em out before he lets 'em talk to the police. Some ponies even say he's into...weird stuff.” He grimaced as pain shot through him and let out a hacking cough.
Mare-Do-Well, however, was growing impatient. “What kind of 'weird stuff?' What do you mean?”
The stallion coughed again, then said, “Like voodoo-type stuff, witchcraft and whatever. Not like unicorn magic or nothin', but they say it's just as strong. Ponies who've been to see him say that his office has all these weird masks and things in it, and they're scared stiff just to be in the same room as the guy. That's all I know, I swear.”
“Third and final question: What do you know about the Seapony Dockworks break-in?”
His face became confused. “I wasn't part of that job.”
“Krieg was,” she responded harshly.
“He didn't say much about it to me,” said the stallion quietly. “Just that the boss made it very, very clear that they were only after one specific thing. He didn't say nothin' else.”
“Now that, I believe.” Mare-Do-Well stepped back from the downed stallion and stroked her chin. “Thanks for the info, lover boy, and don't worry: I won't tell anypony it was you that spilled the beans on your boss. Now, if you'll excuse me...” With a flick of her cape, Mare-Do-Well made for the apartment door.
A weak voice from the wrecked pile that used to be a bed said, “Wait!” With a shaky hoof, the injured stallion propped himself up and looked at the costumed mare, his eyes glistening with both pain and curiosity. “Who are you?”
She tilted her head slightly and raised her front hoof to strike a dramatic pose. “I'm the Mysterious Mare-Do-Well. Remember that.” She quickly sped out the door and into the dark hallway, her cape trailing behind her as she galloped over the discolored carpet to the stairwell. She heard the sound of opening doors behind her as she ran, but she didn't turn to see the curious faces that peered out from their rooms to spot the pony causing all the noise, only to catch the briefest glimpse of a blur of purple as it sped through the building. Her exit down the stairs was swift, if exhausting, and she met nopony else on the way down. When she burst through the front door of the apartment complex, Luna's moon had taken its position of prominence in the darkened sky, and under the cover of blackness, Mare-Do-Well traversed the alleys and shadows of Manehattan back to the sanctuary of her own apartment.