The pony who scrambled up the boarding ladder from the boat wore a black waistcoat covered with rich embroidery over a filthy, tattered white shirt. Lank, flat black hair hung down from his mane over his dull, rust-red fur. A thin, sinister-looking mustache hung from just below his nostrils. The combination of these details made Twilight almost overlook- almost- the pair of musket pistols and the short, heavy sword on the belt that ran around him just before his haunches.
Twilight forced herself to restrain her sigh. Of course it was a stereotype. The sinister ponies of the Forbidden Jungles, the Mexicolti and Nickeraguans and all the rest, all had a limited set of roles in the pirate and sailing-ship romances. Most of them were highly unflattering to the ponies in question. And Mexicolti don’t even look like this! she thought. The ponies of the jungle tribes look just like any other ponies! What the hay?
But any further thoughts on the limitations of adventure novelists had to wait. The pony in question had made a beeline for her, in her best uniform with the epaulets that hadn’t yet worn through their microscopic layer of brass plate. “You are the captain?” he asked. “This is a princess’s ship?”
“Yes.” It took a lot of concentration to say the next part without breaking the stern, formal pose she’d decided to adopt. Even thinking the name of the main character she’d replaced seemed to strengthen that personality in her head, and it took an effort to keep the true Twilight from sinking under again. “I’m Captain Hornsparker, of Her Royal Highness’s frigate Lydia, at your service.”
“A pleasure,” the native pony said. “I am Major General Majordomo, in the service of Xipe Totec.”
“Xipe Totec?” The name seemed vaguely familiar to Twilight, though- for a welcome change- not to the Hornsparker memories, which hadn’t a clue. “I’m sorry, but my orders are to find and meet a pony named Don Sunstruck.”
“Just so,” Majordomo said, nodding. “Such was the name of our lord Xipe Totec before his apotheosis.” He gestured a hoof back towards the village from which the boat had come, and to the large building on a hill behind the village. “He has sent me to bring you into his presence. He has waited far too long already.”
Apotheosis? Oooooh… boy… The author of this one seemed determined to plumb the darkest possible depths of the pony condition… or, at least, to go as far as he could in the format of a cheap adventure novel. Why did Mom recommend this one to me again?
Anyway, if I’m lucky I’m only dealing with a mad-pony. If I’m unlucky, then I’m facing some sort of monster who’s taken over some poor pony…
… without my magic. This is bad…
I have no choice but to play along for now, Hornsparker’s voice echoed in her head, louder than ever. The ship’s stores are dangerously low. We need a friendly port to get enough food and water to see us back around the cape, if necessary.
You shut up, Twilight thought, mentally fumbling to shove Hornsparker back in her mental corner. “Thornbush?” she asked.
The first lieutenant stepped forward. “Aye, ma’am?”
“I am going with this pony,” she said quietly. “You now know my orders. If I don’t come back or send word by midnight, you are to assume command and act on those orders as you see best-”
And then, unbidden, Hornsparker’s will broke through, and Twilight’s thoughts were crushed away in a small corner of the captain’s mind. She watched as through a keyhole, barely aware, unable to think clearly, as her body moved and talked on its own.
“Your first priority will be to see to the safety of this ship and its crew, Mr. Thornbush. Is that clear?”
“Aye, ma’am,” Thornbush said automatically, worry obvious on his face. “But- is it safe for you?”
“I must go regardless,” Hornsparker said. “Remember- the ship and its crew first.”
“Aye, ma’am,” Thornbush repeated.
Nodding, and relieved to have finally recovered from the madness of the past several hours, Hornsparker turned to the Nickeraguan general. “I am at your service, sir.”
Twilight Sparkle’s will resurfaced at the horrible sight of a pegasus, limbs and wings tied spread-eagled on a giant stone wheel standing at the quay, eyes rolling, tongue lolling out. “Water,” the poor pony gasped. “For Celestia’s sake, water.”
Hornsparker, when she had seen the sight, had merely been shocked. Twilight Sparkle, on the other hoof, was furious, and that fury had broken through the spell-memories, allowing her to shove Hornsparker aside and regain control. “What are you doing to that pony?” she shrieked, rounding on General Majordomo.
Majordomo didn’t even blink. “Xipe Totec has ordered this pony to die of thirst,” he said. “For her blasphemy, she is not permitted to experience the renewal of death by blood.”
“Blasphemy??” Twilight lowered her horn, pushing the feeble power available to Hornsparker forward and preparing the most powerful blasting spell she could manage. “What kind of blasphemy can justify this??”
Majordomo shrugged. “Our master Xipe Totec needs no justification,” he said. “He is Xipe Totec. That is sufficient.”
“What??” Now rage gave way to shock- shock at the utter indifference Majordomo expressed at the pony’s suffering. “Maybe he needs no justification, but what about you? What do you have to say about this??”
“Better her than me,” Majordomo said. “This way, Captain.”
Twilight looked around. The rowers of the boat they’d come to the town by watched with the same indifference Majordomo showed. But the townsponies, all of them various shades of red fur, mostly but not entirely earth ponies… they glared at Twilight, eyes burning with a barely checked hatred for no reason she could think of. And she noticed, for the first time, that there were hundreds of them, all watching with the sharpest intent from roads and doors and windows.
This isn’t the time, Twilight thought. And it’s only a story. Remember, all of this is only a story. That poor pony on the wheel, she isn’t real. None of this is real.
Yeah. Keep telling yourself that.
Angry, stomping, Twilight trotted behind Majordomo through the town, past its palm-thatched cottages and meager shops, past obviously native ponies and a scattering of Maredrid burros, and up onto a path that led up the hills and into the jungle behind the village. Sentries, armed with spears and armor fashioned from shells and rough cotton fabric, stood at points along the path, guarding more stone wheels, each with a rotting corpse of a pony left for the fat, almost flightless vultures to peck at.
Twilight, angry and sad and horrified beyond speech, said nothing. For a wonder, neither did Hornsparker.
Then the path reached the top of the hill, revealing the large white house Twilight had seen from the Lydia. Behind it, on the other side of the hill, lay an enormous farm- rows and rows of fruit trees, plowed and cultivated land, and hundreds of ponies hard at work under the hot late afternoon sun.
Twilight had barely a minute to take in the sight, for Majordomo had picked up his pace, almost galloping past the sentries on either side of the ranch house’s main doors, leading her down corridors past servants clothed in a similar mix of finery and rags as the general. Finally, at a large set of double doors studded with brass, he stopped, knocked twice on the door with a hoof, pushed it open, and fell to his belly, forelegs outstretched.
And there, on a chair on a dais- the only furniture to be found in the large, empty chamber- there sat Don Sunstruck. Twilight couldn’t imagine that a pony so horrible could be anyone else.
At the core Don Sunstruck was a burro- no, a mule, Twilight thought, with the huge ears, the massive muzzle, the protruding teeth, and the dull brown fur and black mane with a few streaks of gray. But much of the fur and mane were covered by darker brown, wet-looking splotches… dried blood, Twilight guessed, coming from the pieces of pony skin very loosely stitched together to form an obscene garment thrown over Don Sunstruck’s body. A mismatched pair of pegasus wings hung limply from his back. A unicorn scalp, complete with horn, perched unsteadily on his head like a horrible hat or toupee.
I am never casting this variant of Haycartes again, Twilight thought, shuddering with revulsion. I would never, NEVER, want to see anything like this again. Daring Do never gets this horrible in any of her books…
“Majordomo,” the thing under the patchwork pony skin said, “you have been gone quite some time. Eleven ponies have been flogged in your absence.”
For the first time Majordomo showed an honest emotion: raw fear. “Great Xipe Totec,” he said, “The captain came instantly upon hearing your summons.”
Sunstruck turned his eyes for the first time onto Twilight, and she flinched at the intensity of those eyes. As if everything else hadn’t been a clue, the eyes told the world that their owner was mad, stark raving mad, and not the fun friendly Pinkie Pie kind of raving mad, either.
Hornsparker remained silent in Sunstruck’s head. For lack of any prompt, she curtseyed as well as she could and said, “Captain Hornsparker of Her Royal Highness’s ship Lydia, at your service, sir.”
“You have brought the weapons? The armor?”
“They’re in my ship,” Twilight managed.
“That is well. You will make arrangements with General Majordomo for their transfer.”
And now Hornsparker’s thought spoke up, a single word: Supplies.
Right, yes. Until the Lydia had her hold full again, Twilight would have to depend on… on… this madpony and his equally mad followers. But with a full store of supplies, she could swish her tail at this monster and sail back where she came from, hopefully bringing an end to this horrible story…
“First my ship needs supplies,” Twilight said firmly. “The long sail around the continent has left my crew short of both food and water. Without these things…” Inspiration, not prompted by Hornsparker, prompted her to add, “Without these things I will be unable to defend your dominions against your enemies at sea.”
Majordomo gasped in shock.
For a moment the mad glare under the raggedly cut pony skin intensified. Then, slowly, Sunstruck nodded. “Certainly,” he said, in a tone of near-indifference. “General Majordomo will see to it all.”
“Good,” Twilight said, trying to match Sunstruck’s tone. “Fresh water comes first. My crew will begin on that tomorrow morning, if you will show me a source.”
“There is a spring close to where we landed,” Majordomo said, looking at Twilight with a wonder and fear almost equal to that he’d looked at Sunstruck with.
Twilight paused, nudging the false memories in her mind. What else do we need?
Memories flowed, passively, almost submissively.
Right. “We’ll take care of the water,” she said. “But for food we need thirty tons of oats, ten tons of alfalfa, forty tons of ship’s biscuit- if you haven’t got that, I need that much flour and the ovens to bake it with. Lemon, orange or lime juice- forty thousand fruits’ worth. Ten tons of sugar. Five tons of salt. A ton of coffee. Twenty tons of potatoes.”
Majordomo’s face kept going through progressively greater expressions of shock with every demand. “But, Captain-“
Keep pushing, Hornsparker whispered. It’s the only way I’ll get half of it.
“We will also need fresh hay, vegetables, and soft bread for my crew each day we’re in port,” Twilight pressed on. And then, inspiration. “And, finally, I must make good the crew lost on the long voyage. If you can spare some criminals- those who deserve nothing better than a hard life and dishonored death at sea- I can make use of them.”
For the first time, Sunstruck smiled. “Yes,” he said. “Under the waves, never to die and be reborn, blood lost to their people. Yes. Those that still live, you may have, Captain.” He turned to Majordomo and said, “See to it all, General. Start now.”
Majordomo bolted for the door, which slammed shut behind him.
“That is the only way to deal with these ponies,” Sunstruck said, voice suddenly light and casual. “No better than the dumb animals. That is why I was reborn among them, of course, to save those who might be worth it. You, of course, must settle for those who cannot be saved. Like those you saw on your way here.”
“Indeed.” Twilight was surprised she found even that one word.
Sunstruck continued to babble. “Of course, this body was once as they,” he said. “That was before my divine nature awoke. Now daily I grow in power and divinity, as the cycle of death and rebirth turns. Once I was Sunstruck, but that is a false name. I am Xipe Totec, the god of war and planting, of death and rebirth, of conquest and liberation.”
“I see.” I see you’re two bits short of a jumbo-meal at Hayburger.
“I knew you could, Captain. Of course, for the time being you serve me best by continuing to serve your false sun goddess. Her servants who I spoke with before seemed quite eager to make the conversion themselves, but the cycle is not yet complete, and before then I cannot displace her.”
“Ha-hmm,” Twilight grunted. She’d run out of words, but Hornsparker had used that throat-clearing noise to evade a hundred conversations with Thornbush, or so her memories said. Now it came in more handy than ever.
“But the time is not long,” Sunstruck- or Xipe Totec, if he preferred- said. “And there is much to do before it is completed. Let us discuss the steps.” The mad mule rose from his throne and began to pace, much as Twilight had been pacing when she first came to her senses that morning. “The king in Maredrid has a useless servant in her Nickeraguan colony up the coastline, who styles himself governor. He refuses to recognize my divinity, and for that of course he must die. I cannot complete myself while he lives and denies me, you see. And he has an army of three hundred ponies to protect him. When my divine power is fully unleashed such a small force would be as nothing, but I am still waxing in power, so I must depend on the sinews of my faithful.”
Twilight couldn’t even manage the throat-clearing at this. She had enough weapons in her hold to arm a force large enough to destroy the governor’s army. Celestia help me, I’m arming a madpony to commit slaughter on ponies who probably don’t deserve it…
… but if I don’t, the best I can hope for is that my crew starves to death at sea. That’s if this crazy mule doesn’t order a hundred boats out to storm the ship. We have the guns, but if he has enough boats, he can take the ship and kill us all.
“And then there is the Cumpleanos,” Xipe Totec said, walking back to his throne. “I have received word that she is sailing here in a vain attempt to thwart my will, and-“
Hornsparker, who had been unnaturally quiescent for so long, surged forward in a wave of fear and confusion. Twilight found herself wrestling for control of her mind, barely able to manage the word, “When?”
“Oh, when the cycle decrees it,” Xipe Totec said. When the mule shrugged, the stitched-together bits of brightly colored pony hide did horrible but fascinating things. “But I had word of it a week ago, so I believe the cycle is imminent.”
“Then I must get back to the ship at once.” Twilight didn’t know if the words were hers or Hornsparker’s, but both wills agreed on that point.
“Will you not dine first?” Xipe Totec offered. “Food is being brought for us.”
“I’d be failing my crew if I waited, sir,” Twilight managed. Apparently Hornsparker was satisfied with this, because she felt the pressure easing from her mind again. “I must be with my ship if we’re about to fight.”
“As you will,” Xipe Totec shrugged. “You have my leave.”
“Thank you,” Twilight said, and bolted out the throne room doors. By the time she made it out of the ranch house she was at full gallop, and she continued galloping, ignoring the damage to her best uniform tunic, all the way down the jungle path, ignoring the guards and the corpses and the buzzards.
Only at the quay did she come to a stop, watching as six weak, delirious-looking ponies were being loaded into the same boat she’d been brought to shore in. Among them, gasping for breath, was the pegasus she’d seen on landing.
There had been more than six of those stone wheels on the path and in the village- many more.
But, as the sullen burros rowed her and her new crew members out to the Lydia, she comforted herself: six is better than zero.
Even if they aren’t real, they’re real enough to me.