>Let the mob kill Blackheart, and attempt to usurp the Sunheart Company for them.
Crackshot takes me to Blackheart himself, leading me down the darkened steps into the dank cellar beneath the Flying Golem. Amidst all the shelves and wine racks, a gagged and blindfolded Captain Blackheart struggles impotently against the straps holding him to a table. In the corner of the room, a stallion in a suit – one of the bouncers that led us away earlier, I think – rolls his eyes at the feeble escape attempt.
I look to Crackshot to confirm his approval, and he simply nods and leans back against the wall. I march over to Blackheart and tear his blindfold off.
"Hey there, captain!" I say, giving him a cheery grin. "So how are you today?"
His eyes widen, and he struggles even more, screaming into his gag.
"Well, that's nice." I'm not even faking my grin; his panic brings me no end of joy. "So, listen, I was just talking with this fine griffon behind me, trying to work out some kind of arrangement with him. Now, he was very fair. We can't be having fights in his establishment, especially since this whole place is ran by a ruthless organised crime ring, and they could quite easily gut us both. And we wouldn't want that to happen."
Blackheart goes still and squeaks.
"So, I promised that neither of us would ever fight in here again, and he, in return, offered to let me decide how we split the consequences." I lean over Blackheart, my grin widening. "Or, in other words, I get to decide if you live or die."
Blackheart silently pleads with me, his eyes sparkling with false hope.
"Now, here's where I have a conundrum," I say. "On the one hoof, I never liked you in the first place, if my years of tormenting you didn't make clear already. You truly, genuinely disgust me, and I was planning to turn your skull into a spooky novelty teacup if you ever died out in the field. On the other hoof, I never hated you enough to murder you, and in all fairness, I am the instigator in pretty much every conflict we have. If anything, you're the one who deserves an apology from me. Not that you'll get one, but, y'know, you should. So, given that, I think that the right thing to do would be to ask the mob nicely if they would let you go."
I stroke my chin. "The question is, should I? Hmmm..."
Blackheart struggles again, nodding his head as violently as possible.
He reaffirms with more nodding, almost smiling despite the gag.
"Hmmm... tempting... I think..."
After almost half a minute of chin-tapping, pacing, hemming and hawing, and generally drawing it out as long as I possibly can, I look back to Blackheart and give a simple shrug.
"...Oh, alright. Guys, please let Blackheart go, and we'll all just forget about— Wait a minute." I gasp and slap my forehead. "I just remembered! You stabbed me, you son of a bitch. Nevermind, guys. Forget what I just said. Open his throat."
I don't stay to watch the murder, instead ascending back into the bar with Crackshot. Normally, I would love to stay and see Blackheart die, but being directly involved in his demise stirs some conflicting feelings in me for some reason. It's uncannily similar to how I felt when I read about Mayor Stonewall's death, back when I thought that it was my fault. It's not that I like Blackheart, or will miss him when he's gone. It's more that I can't help but feel there's something wrong about killing another pony in cold blood. Weird.
"So, Agony," says Crackshot as we emerge into the now-empty bar. "How long do you think it will take you to assume command of the Sunheart Company?"
I stop and lean against the bar, not far away from where Blackheart stabbed me. There are still some faint bloodstains on the carpet. Outside the window, the sky is pitch-black, and rain pelts down against the glass. I must have been out for longer than I thought.
"Well... I'm not sure, truth be told," I say, running a hoof over my bandages. "There's not much precedent for this."
Crackshot walks around to the other side of the bar and collects a pair of glasses and a bottle of scotch. With a tilt of his head, he indicates the bottle. I return a nod and sit down on a nearby barstool as he pours drinks for both of us.
"Why not?" he asks, passing me a glass.
I take a sip.
"The Sunheart Company, for all our infamy, is only three generations old. Blackheart's grandfather started it during the Fourth Celestial Era, and the company has stayed in the family since. So we've only ever had three captains, beginning with our founder, Captain Sunheart, and ending with the miserable waste of oxygen currently dying in your basement. It's always been passed from father to son. But, you see, Blackheart was a repulsively pathetic individual that no mare would ever touch, mostly because of all those rumours I spread about him, and he was an only child. So this time, there's no heir."
"Well, isn't that good?" says Crackshot, before slamming back most of his glass. "Chaos is an opportunity. Would you have much trouble taking over the command from here?"
I pause to consider, drinking down some more scotch.
"Hard to say. I imagine as soon as it's clear that Blackheart isn't coming back, the new captain would be chosen by vote. We're supposed to make all major decisions democratically. I could put my hat in the ring, obviously, but I'm not sure if I'd win."
"I see." Crackshot rubs the underside of his beak with a wing. "Would any of your fellow lieutenants need... convincing?"
"Maybe. Maybe not." I finish my glass and slam it down on the bar. "Some of them hate me. Some don't. I'll have to get back to you on that."
"Well... I would consider it a professional courtesy if you could do me the favour of winning. I've already gone through the trouble of murdering one Sunheart captain, and it would be a bother to do it more than once."
"Mmhm." I smile tiredly. "Not that I expect you'd have any moral qualms with such a thing, right?"
Crackshot grins widely. "On the contrary, killing ponies is one of my greatest pleasures in life. I think you can relate."
I'm unsure whether I find the hint of malice in his voice to be terrifying, or arousing.
Maybe a little of both.
I bedded down in the Golem last night, since it was preferable to going outside again to face another stabbing. Crackshot offered to comp me the room I'd woken up in for the night, and I immediately accepted. The accomodations were comfortable, but far from luxurious, hovering somewhere around a well-kept brothel in terms of quality... which still made them better than my scratchy mattress in the barracks.
After a good night's sleep, I scarf down a quick bite of this and that in the bar, specially prepared by the Golem's chefs, and say goodbye to Crackshot before heading out. The morning rain has slowed to a nice, soothing drizzle since last night, plinking rhythmically off my armor on the trek back to my post. Dragonfall has only begun to stir, and the streets are mostly clear of the vagrants, thugs, and enterprising orphans that'd caused me so much trouble the previous night. Which is nice, because I'm in no mood to be stabbed again.
Still, a niggling thought in the back of my mind bothers me as I make the walk. It only now occurs to me that, by offing Blackheart, I may have actually jeopardised my escape attempts.
Until my little talk with Fishstink, the plan had been to turn the upcoming mayoral election into a sham, entering my own candidate who could break the city's contract with the Sunhearts for me. Then after I discovered that the elections were already a sham... you know, I actually don't remember what my intentions were from there. Knowing me, I expect I would've approached the mob and politely asked them to let us leave once they have their new guy in office. I also probably would've offered oral sex to seal the deal, because that's a pretty standard negotiating tactic for me in almost all situations.
But in all the excitement, I seemed to have forgotten about any plans I might've had. Somehow, I left the Flying Golem with far less semen in me than I was expecting, and poised to take over a completely different high office than originally intended.
Don't get me wrong, in any other circumstance, I would love to take over the Sunheart Company. I would have infinite paid sick leave, I could abolish the democratic process at long last, and I could commit all the war crimes I want with no consequences (except for the nightmarish visions of horror that haunt all my dreams). However, this would be nothing like my fantasies. If I became the captain now, I would be indebted to the mob. And far from allowing me to break the contract and get us the hell out, that would only tighten the shackles binding us to this wretched city.
Not an attractive prospect by any means, but I don't know what I can do about it; I'm committed to this now. I suppose I could always betray the mob at first opportunity, but that's a risk that I'm not sure is worth taking. I am not subtle, so I'd probably be discovered very quickly. And should I displease his masters, I'm sure Crackshot would not hesitate to put me in the ground just like he did Blackheart.
At least, I think Crackshot put the corpse in the ground. I have no guarantee that he didn't just eat it. Griffons have been known to do that. Well, griffons in the Sunheart Company have, at any rate. Which reminds me, I really need to ban that if I ever do become captain, because it's super gross.
Speaking of gross, a drunk stumbles out of a nearby alleyway and across my path. My rapidly derailing train of thought is abandoned as he doubles over and empties his stomach contents into the gutter. I just sigh and nonchalantly walk around him as he moans in pain and anguish. It looks like Dragonfall has woken up at last.
"Lieutenant Agony, sir! It's good to see you're alright!"
The mare on watch duty, barely more than a filly, salutes crisply at me. Raindrops still patter on my armour as I shuffle over towards the shitpile that is the northwest barracks.
"Yeah, sure it is," I mumble.
I stop at the entrance and regard her strangely. I don't recognise her, and her demeanour is entirely too pleasant for a Sunheart, especially one in my platoon. Going by her age, I want to say that she's one of Coldsteel's child soldiers who somehow survived that suicide mission. But again, she's too pleased to see me for that to be the case. Plus, she still has all her limbs and no severe burn marks. All signs point to her being a new recruit. But when would we have recruited her?
"Where are Sergeant Breakspear and the others?" I ask.
"In the mess, eating, sir." She pauses, frowning. "Or... so I would assume. I've been out here all morning on watch."
I grunt tiredly. "Who'd you piss off to get stuck out here on a morning like this?"
"Nopony, sir. I volunteered." She smirks mischievously. "Better out in the rain than in there with the slime monster."
Well, I can't say I blame her; she's positively Agony-esque in her deviousness... which might mark her as a potential threat. I mutter a word of thanks, making a mental note to send her on another suicide mission at some point, and wander through the barracks to the mess hall.
The place is quiet as I enter. Breakfast time has already passed, with only a scant few soldiers still at the tables with their vile processed rations. However, the filly turns out to be right about my sergeants, as Breakspear, Yellowbelly, and Coldsteel all sit gathered around the head table. Their breakfasts are much more appetising than those of the troops, freshly cooked and accompanied by steaming coffee. I assume that they had it delivered from a local cafe again.
They snap to as soon once they notice me, but I put them at ease with a dismissive wave of my hoof. They sit down again with me as I pull up a seat at the table and casually steal a slice of toast from Yellowbelly's plate. I'm not hungry, but sometimes, you just gotta pull a power play to remind your subordinates just how lowly they are next to you.
"Anything to report?" I ask, toast crunching in my mouth.
Yellowbelly wrinkles his moustache and gulps slightly before answering.
"We lost Torte and Ballbreaker last night," he says. "They got high off some fungus growing on the roof, and broke the quarantine to try reasoning with the slime monster. We resealed the barricade behind them as soon as we noticed."
"Good. We're better off without them. Anything else?"
Breakspear clears his throat and sits up a little straighter. "The forest beyond the western wall caught fire in the middle of last night's rainstorm. We're not sure how that happened; there's any number of things that could've sparked it off, but the storm should've kept it from spreading. I'm told it was impressive to see, if nothing else."
"That figures," I say, shaking my head disgustedly and taking another bite of toast.
"It's a relief to see you're alright, by the way, sir," Breakspear continues. "We all assumed the worst when you and the Captain both disappeared."
"Yes, I went on a walkabout, and had myself a bit of a misadventure. The kind with knives. Then I got patched up a friendly mobster. Oh, by the way, we work for the mob now."
"...Sir?" says Breakspear.
It occurs to me, then, that I should at least feign surprise at Blackheart's disappearance.
"So what's this about the Captain?" I say, cleverly redirecting the topic.
"Um..." Coldsteel rubs the back of his neck. "He went missing last night, around the same time you did, sir. He's now presumed dead."
I feel a chill.
"And why is that?" I ask.
Coldsteel looks at the floor. "No reason in particular. It's just... Dragonfall."
"Yeah, say no more." I finish my toast, trying not to visibly show my relief. "Might have been orphans. Vicious little bastards, the lot of them. Hey, what about Rictus? I notice he isn't here. Did you guys relieve that situation in the crystal mines yet?"
"We tried," said Yellowbelly. "I sent four ponies to the mines to help dig out the cave-in. There were no survivors."
I pause. "No survivors from his squad, or...?"
"Oh, sorry, sir. None from mine. Some kind of poison gas leaked out and killed them all. Rictus yet lives, however. He sent another message this morning."
He pulls a tiny, rolled scroll from a chink on his armor, and drops it into my hoof. The parchment is still slightly moist from his saliva, and I resist the urge to retch as I unfold it. The message is written in what looks like cheap, faded red ink, until I squint at it and realise that it's actually...
"Blood," I murmur. "This is written in someone's blood."
"Yes, quite the omen, that," says Yellowbelly.
I give the message a read.
RAPIDLY RUNNING OUT OF RATIONS. THE DEAD ARE PILING UP BY THE DAY. WE HAVE ONLY TWO MORE SPARROWS LEFT TO RUN MESSAGES, AND MY SECOND-IN-COMMAND DRANK THE LAST OUR INK IN HIS MADNESS. THE TROOPS WHISPER OF THE THINGS IN THE DARK, AND ARE DRAWING LOTS FOR SACRIFICE. THEY SPEAK IN THE VOICES OF OUR FALLEN. I STILL HEAR THEM NOW, CALLING ME INTO THE ABYSS. FORGIVE ME MOTHER, I KNEW NOT WHAT I DID.
THE SCRATCHINGS AT THE WALLS HAVE STOPPED. THEY COME.
"Damn it, Yellowbelly, you had one job," I grumble, wadding up the scroll and tossing it away. "I don't particularly like Rictus, but he's down there with a quarter of my troops. This situation is already untennable as it is, but if there's even going to be a Sunheart Company in a year's time, then we need every warm body we can get!"
My sergeants exchange a look with one another.
"Uh... didn't you just earlier say we were better off without Torte and Ballbreaker, sir?" Coldsteel ventures.
I glare at him. "That's different, because those two have negative value, whereas a quarter of the platoon is a really damn big number!"
Breakspear looks past me, towards the mess hall entrance, his expression shifting to one of nervousness.
"Uh, sir?" he says, dread creeping into his voice. "Perhaps we ought to... put a pin in this, for just a moment..."
At first, I'm ready to shout at him. Even if it is Breakspear, I can't have my subordinates talking over me. But then I hear the other soldiers in the mess hall screaming. Yellowbelly jumps out of his chair and flails backwards, while Coldsteel just whimpers, staring wide-eyed at whatever is behind me. Spine tingling, I slowly turn around to face it as well.
Something green and transluscent is oozing from a crack in the wall above the door. Or, rather, it's oozing from all the cracks in all the walls on that side of the room. It drips out and pools on the floor, and soon the puddle has grown to sufficient size to block off the main exit. The troops nearest to it are caught off-guard and panicking. One of them steps into it, and is dissolved right before my eyes and absorbed into the slime.
"Ah, fantastic!" I shout, throwing a hoof into the air. "Yes! Please! This is exactly what I need right now!"
The walls rumble, and pony-shaped blobs with eyes of glowing yellow start rising out of the goop. At least half a dozen block off the exit, and more start growing out of the cracks where the slime is leaking in. They hang sideways off the walls, piles of vaguely equine-looking green jelly. All of the figures open wide, empty mouths and speak in unison.
"YOU KILLED US, AGONY. WHY DIDN'T YOU SAVE US?" they collectively moan, voices echoing around the mess hall.
I start backing away with my sergeants. I must be dreaming right now, because I have a recurring nightmare that goes almost exactly like this.
"Uh, sir?" Yellowbelly shrieks, like a frightened little colt. "Orders?"
The puddle spreads forward into the mess hall, and the legion of slime monsters advance on us with slow, lumbering steps. I feel a vein pop in my forehead.
1. Attempt to escape by flying over the slime, and leave the sergeants to die.
2. Sacrifice lesser troops to the slime monster in hopes of appeasing it.
3. Call a retreat to the kitchen/armoury, and pray for a miracle.