Dust swept off the roofs like water during a storm; the very air seemed to be made of nothing less than sand and swirling heat, all of which stung the eyes and made the lungs cry out for relief.
In the middle of the harsh buzz of midday a chime rang out, the jingling of spurs that sounded with each step of her two hind legs. Every pony worth their salt had spurs. Sometimes the only thing standing between life and death was five centimeters of steel buried in someone’s chest, and you could bet that she could kick like a gun.
Usually a pony would get them custom made in a shape they liked, in a way they liked.
Sheriff Twilight’s looked like the six-toothed gear that adorned her flank, each straight edge filed down to a razor thinness.
The room didn’t die down as she pushed her way into the bar, the swinging doors creaking on their hinges. No. She knew that whatever the conversation was before, it was now all about her, and it came in full force.
A few of them sported smiles in there. A few frowned.
Twilight took off her Stetson, standing at the entrance, surveying the scene. She let her leather coat – the one made of buffalo hide – hang open. It was as black as night, with a single star peeking out from behind its tough, wrinkled folds. It wasn’t the smartest thing to wear in this heat, but it made a statement. It was a show of force. It told the room that she wasn’t somepony to be trifled with. And it was the star, her sheriff’s badge, that told the room that it was legal for her to shoot anyone she wanted.
That was just the way it was there.
She moved as a mare got up to leave, a wide-brimmed sun hat covering her face. A leg shot out and blocked her with a start, and the mare shuddered to a halt in front of the lawgiver.
And that was when conversation died down.
Twilight leaned closer to the mare, breathlessly, eyes narrowing. With the tip of her horn, she pushed the brim of her hat out of the way.
“Deputy?” she asked.
A dragon, small in stature but covered with scars and chipped scales, edged under the swinging doors, a bunch of scrolls in his hand. He scanned one of them before looking up at the mare that Twilight had stopped.
“Let’s see the mane, boss,” the dragon called back.
Twilight flicked her horn. The hat flew off. The dragon shook his head.
A small moment passed as the dusty unicorn’s face turned upward into a morose smile.
“Sorry to bother, ma’am,” she said, stepping out of the way. “Best be on your way, now.”
The mare rushed off, not having said a single word.
“Hey, new girl!” a voice came flying from the midst of the crowd.
It came from somewhere to the left, amongst the tables and half-empty mugs of wheat juice, but everypony in the joint had done the same thing almost as if by instinct. They all now were standing facing their tables, hats turned down just so to obscure their faces.
Whoever was speaking didn’t want to be identified, and Twilight made no effort to try. She found that those who wanted to be anonymous tended to talk more if you let them be that way.
“Yeah?” Twilight responded, shouting out to the room in general.
“You lookin’ for Moonshine? If you gotta see the mane you gotta be lookin’ for Moonshine.”
“Yeah. Would any of you fine gentlestallions care to tell me where in this establishment I may find her?”
The crowd laughed. Altogether, this time. All at once.
Let them laugh, Twilight. They get their kicks out of feeling like they got one up on the law. It was only when they chose to exercise that belief that it was time to start shootin’.
“She ain’t in this building!” another voice rang out as the laughter stopped, from somewhere to the right, this time.
“Yeah?” Twilight responded.
“Yeah! She’s out back, where she always is!”
Another round of chuckles rose up through the crowd. This time, it was directed more at the pony known as Moonshine. Twilight jerked her head through the laughs toward the door in the rear that headed into the back alley.
Slowly, she walked.
Step by step, through the tables, she wove her way, all of the patrons still staying silent and hidden, like gophers burrowed away from a stalking coyote.
She stopped just before leaving, beside the bar, regarding the mustachioed stallion behind the counter who was busy polishing a glass with a rag that looked like it was making the cup dirtier rather than the opposite.
“Gentlestallions and fair mares,” she announced, slapping a dollar bill on the counter. “A thanks for your cooperation. Barkeep, buy them a round. And you can keep the change.”
The bartender’s eyes widened as he dropped the glass hastily onto the counter, scrabbling for the note. A whole dollar! He stared at it, making sure it was real. But by the time he looked back up, the sheriff was already half-gone through the doors.
The bartender’s eyes darted to the little dragon that followed behind.
The dragon winked at him, firing his fingers at him like pistols with a click of the tongue.
“C-come again!” the bartender called.
“Really. You spend one whole dollar on those guys, and we don’t even got blankets back at the station?” Spike asked, as they scanned the back alleyway.
It was a cool, shaded place, stuck between the rear of the tavern and some other building that advertised textiles. It was narrow enough that no one bothered to look down it, but homely enough for a pony to lie there in a puddle of vomit for a while after a particularly bad day at work if he or she so chose.
It was currently inhabited by a single heap of flesh, one leg hanging into a bin for rubbish.
The pair walked over slowly.
“Do dragons even need blankets? Do you even feel hot or cold?”
“Oh, what a question!” Spike yelled out. “See, that is the kind of racism I come to expect from you!”
“And how else am I supposed to find out?” Twlight asked, bemused.
“I dunno… eh… read a book? You’re one of the few around here that knows how.”
“So everythin' about Dragon can just be put down in a single book and that's that? Don't you find that just a mite narrow?”
“Well… if you wanna put it that way.”
“Besides, books is overrated. Ain’t nothing good found in books and there ain’t never will be.” Twilight scoffed.
“You know what, Twi? I betcha one day in the future, there’s gonna be thousands of books. More’n a thousand!" Spike stuck his finger up in the air.
"Yeah! All over! Different types!"
"What do you mean, 'types'? There ain't no types of books. They're just books." Twilight tilted her head.
"No, I mean, some for learnin’, some just for fun..." Spike frowned. "Maybe some even with, like, pictures on ‘em! So that the ones who can’t read too good still can hold them pieces of paper, see, an’ still feel important.”
“Never gonna happen.” Twilight frowned, turning her attention to the figure that lay up against the wall. “Hey.”
“I don’t even gotta look, Twi. That’s her.”
There were bands of grey that ran down her short, spiky mane. Each band was a different shade between black and white, but when the light caught it just right, you could see a strange coloured sheen reflecting off them. A trick of the light, surely, or maybe it was something else, but it seemed to glimmer the echoes of the rainbow from behind its dull, monochromatic exterior.
Twilight kicked her.
The mare jolted awake, her eyes flying half-open. She hadn’t the wherewithal to open them all the way.
“Whuh,” she said, drawing her leg out from the barrel of rubbish and rubbing her face with a banana peel. “Whusheezehs?”
Twilight simply stood there, her badge waving back and forth slightly as the momentum of her swaying body took her coat.
The mare squinted at the the glistening icon of office, leaning forward, as she rattled off a cough or two. Unsteadily, she stretched her jaw, moving her mouth around before she started to speak.
“Whaddaya want, dog?” she asked, nicely, spitting at the ground next to the barrel.
“Miss Moonshine Dash?” Twilight asked, as Spike pulled out a pistol and let it hang casually by his side. “Come with us.”
Dust and Harmony
Chapter One :: Ain't No Sunshine
Three Days Earlier
Deputy Twilight tore her eyes off the old telescope. It was worn, didn’t magnify much, but it did what it had to. It just barely caught those tiny balls of light out in the horizon, in the distance, in the direction of Full Moon Bluff.
She blinked, scratching her head. In the day they couldn’t be seen. But at night…
Talking to Sheriff Mare had produced little result. Mare was the kind of pony who didn’t care about things outside of immediate danger. She had no vision of the future. Always let things creep up on her and bite her before she was prepared. That was the wrong way to go about things, Twilight reckoned, especially in this new age, and so she brought it up with the mayor herself.
She sat, now, in the waiting room of the town hall, for a few precious minutes of meeting time with the incessantly busy Miss Celeste, the ruler and literal owner of the fine city of Cantermore.
It had grown over the past thirty years to a sprawling capital-to-be, and there were a lot of things that she had to take care of. She certainly had no time for a silly deputy who didn’t even follow the right chain of authority.
It was risky, going past the Sheriff, but this had to be done.
Twilight clutched her telescope a little tighter. She had no idea why she brought it along.
“Deputy?” the receptionist asked, suddenly, jolting Twilight back into attention. “You can go in now.”
“Thank you kindly,” Twilight replied, nodding on the way through.
Huge wooden doors, carved with dancing ponies, marked the path into Celeste’s chambers. Various books lined a wall of shelves, at which Twilight turned her nose up, a few busts of Celeste’s predecessors flanked her large mahogany desk, and a writing table was placed very neatly on the other end of the room near the carpet.
It was one of those kinds of carpet that you hung on the wall instead of the floor.
Twilight never understood that.
“Constance S. Twilight,” Celeste said, standing up as she entered. “Come in. Come in.”
At full height, Mayor Celeste was nearly a head and a half taller than Twilight. She claimed it came from the stock of her ancestors, the ones who found this land and set stake on it all those years before.
She wore a suit, a nice blue one, tailor-made to fit, and her horn was a little bit longer and more pointy than other unicorns’. But other than that, she was a regular unicorn, just like Twilight.
“Please, take a seat.” Celeste gestured to one of the two tufts of straw that lay in front of her desk.
Twilight politely took off her hat and swung it onto the stand next to the door, moving forward with as much respect as she could and throwing herself into the left bale.
“Now, Miss Constance. Polly outside tells me you have somethin’ important to talk about. Is that so?”
“Somethin’ that couldn’t be discussed with Sheriff Mare?”
“It is… not something that I believe she is prepared to handle, ma’am.”
“Now.” Celeste smiled, leaning over her desk, “what is that supposed to mean?”
The larger unicorn swung away from her desk, walking over to a side table that held a multitude of pots and cups and fine china, the sort that wasn’t easy to come by around those parts.
“Now, I could interpret that in many ways, Miss Constance. Do you want some tea?” Celeste said, picking up a pot with a burst of magic. “This stuff. Now, this stuff comes in all the way from the East. Comes along with the express. It’s two dollars for a small packet, you know? Ain’t cheap. Harder even to prepare it. Tea is such a… silly drink. Gotta boil water first… gotta time it right… but sun bless if I don’t just love me a cup.”
Celeste nodded to the tea set, as if she were talking to it rather than Twilight.
“Now, do you want some tea?”
“Uh… I…” Twilight muttered.
“Miss Constance. I’d like to tell you something,” Celeste interrupted suddenly.
“Uh… yes, ma’am.”
“There’s two things I hate, Miss Constance,” she said, the sounds of tinkling china coming from behind her. Twilight couldn’t see what she was up to – her body was blocking the tea-making process.
“One is when ponies waste my time. The other is when ponies waste their own time. Now, if you don’t like tea, just right out and say it. That way, I don’t spend entire cents on a cup that ain’t gonna be fully enjoyed, and you don’t have to pretend to like something you don’t, and we don’t gotta do this big old dance of politeness.”
A few plops sounded out. Sugar, probably, for the tea. Two plops. Two lumps.
“We’re doin’ business here, Miss Constance, and if I reckoned you had nothin’ to say in the first place, I wouldn’t have agreed to see ya. And you didn’t come all this way just to say ‘uh’ and ‘yes, ma’am’. I got Polly outside to do that for you.”
“Sheriff Mare won’t listen, ma’am. I’ve already tried to give her the facts, but she says there ain’t nothing to be done until things are to be done. I don’t mean to go over her head, but I don’t share in her methods on how things oughta work,” Twilight blurted out.
Her face suddenly became very hot.
“You meanin’ to tell me that Sheriff Mare is… not suited for her job?” Celeste asked, walking back to her table with a steaming hot cup of tea.
“No, ma’am. She’s good for what she does. But she takes care of the problems just in front of her face. I feel that if you can… guess what ponies are up to, you can take care of problems before they even begin.”
“Now, that’s a radical way of thinkin’, Constance.”
“Be that as it may, ma’am, but I’ve been seeing things in the distance at night. W-with this.” Twilight held up her old, busted telescope.
“You need fundin’ or something?”
“No, ma’am! I’ve been seeing lights at night, ma’am.”
“In the desert.”
“Constance, there’s plenty of settlers out there in the des—”
“At Full Moon Bluff!”
Celeste stopped jabbing, instead taking the silence to take a sip of tea.
“Go on,” was the only thing she said, a bit more serious in tone.
“For the past week, ma’am, I’ve been seein’ lights out there on that bluff. Just small sparks in the distance. Almost nothin’, but I ain’t mistaken. I see ‘em on really clear nights. I think somethin’s comin’, and I think we both know who that is.”
Celeste tapped her hoof on the table.
“It has been… two years, now? Celeste remarked. “You believe she’s stayed there all that time?”
“Just before you carted her off, ma’am, she swore revenge, you remember? She shouted to the hills and back how she’d come back and this time not for the money in the bank. This time for your head and for the entire town.”
“But we have orders to shoot her on sight,” Celeste said, tilting her head. “I make sure all the local deputies know this. You know this.”
“Yes, I do, but that’s why I got so worried, ma’am.”
“Explain.” Celeste cupped her hooves across her face. Celeste’s request seemed to be more for the sake of it than anything else.
“‘Cause she knows, ma’am. She knows she’ll be shot on sight. If she’s up to somethin’, you can be sure she’s gonna be prepared. Now, maybe these lights ain’t nothin’, but I’ve been keepin’ my ear to the ground too, and a lot of rumors from travellers comin’ in from that direction say about noises… and animals actin’ weird… and a whole load of other stuff.
“Now, I ain’t one to pay too much attention to rumours, but them rumours gotta start from somethin’. I think she’s meanin’ to come back, and I think she’s preparin’ somethin’ big,” Twilight declared.
Celeste closed her eyes, letting her eyelids flutter rather than fall. She took in a soft breath as she digested the news.
“Right then. No time to lose. I’ve made my decision.” Celeste hammered the table, a look of resolution in her eyes.
“Ma’am? What’s… going on?”
“Do you know why I made you deputy?” Celeste asked.
“Uh… no, ma’am. Does this have anything to d—”
Celeste held a hoof up. Twilight immediately shut up.
“When you first rode into town, the stories rose nearly immediately. Do you remember? Now, I hate to use the term, but… words like ‘gearhead’ floated around.”
Twilight sighed, looking toward the hardwood floor. She remembered clearly.
“Back then no one would give you the time of day. It was a misunderstood thing. You were a misunderstood mare. But I saw you, and I said to myself, I’m gonna give this mare a chance.”
“And now here you are. Rumours all squashed. Trusted by all. One of my best deputies, and one with a very interesting head on her shoulders with some very radical thoughts.”
“Thank you, ma’am. But maybe it ain't so much radical thinkin' than just I figgu—”
“Be quiet. I weren’t askin’ ya! But what I’m going to do is give you another chance. Just like last time. And this time, I expect I won’t be let down just like I weren’t let down for the past few years of your service. You get me?”
“Now, I’m gonna tell you something that is just to remain between us, you hear? No one else ought to know this. But this is what I’m gonna have you do. And darn if you ain’t just perfect for the role.”
“Do you know where Ponyton is?”
“Yes, ma’am. Little burg off’a Cantermore. Quite a bloomin’ town, too, so I hear.”
“I set that place up to expand, for one, but I find it a very curious place, because if she’s gonna come back, then she’ll have to go through Ponyton first, or take care of it anyway. She ain’t too stupid. If she comes attack Cantermore direct, forces from Ponyton can sweep in and get her from behind. She’ll head there first, clear the place out, and then move on Cantermore in a straight line.”
“Sounds like you’ve been giving this some thought, too.”
“It’s my job to think about everything. I’d been expecting this for a while. I just wanted to make sure that you came to the same conclusion as I did. And guess what? You’re the only one. So you get the responsibility of a little mission.”
“And what would that be, ma’am?”
“Come first light, you’re to take the train out to Ponyton, where you’re gonna be the new Sheriff. Ain’t been a sheriff there for a few months now. Maybe that’s why she’s aimin’ to strike. I’ll set you up with the papers, badge, money, everything. Come see me tomorrow before you leave.”
“Just like… just like that?”
“Just like that. Like I said. I hate wasting time.”
“I’m… gonna be sheriff?”
“Yeah, congratulations. Now here’s the bit I want you to keep all hush-hush, you hear me? Hey!”
Twilight blinked, refocusing on Celeste. It’d been done, just like that, in a second. She had been promoted. She rolled the thought around in her head.
“Pay attention, sheriff! Not off to a good start, are you?”
“Sorry, ma’am!” Twilight barked.
“Two years ago, in anticipation of her return, I commissioned a weapon.”
“A gun. Not just any gun, mind you. A special one. One that can tear the hide off an ursa at a hundred paces. A gun that can crack an entire tree in half with just two rounds. Maybe I oughta call it a cannon or somethin’, but it’s pretty much in the shape of a gun, so whatever.
“When I had it built, I reckoned it was far too dangerous to just be keepin’ around with me at all times. I didn’t want the public to know that we had something like that just lyin’ here in my hooves as well. So I broke it into five pieces and gave it to five ponies in Ponyton. Now, I trust these ponies. Come tomorrow, I’ll give you a list and some prints of all of them. I also made sure they don’t know who one another is, just in case of thieves or informants or whatnot. I’ll give you a special document. All you gotta do is go there, get all the parts, put the weapon back together and wait.”
“Wait?” Twilight asked.
“Yeah. Wait. Do what you gotta do. Hopefully it ain’t gonna come to that you need to use it, because… well. Just because. But just in case, I wanna make sure that gun’s around handy.”
“No problem, ma’am. Should be easy. Won’t take me more than a day.”
“A day?” Celeste raised her eyebrow. “Listen, it’s good to be so enthused about all of this, but… it’s been two years. Things change. I don’t keep contact with ‘em down there as much as I would like to. Just be ready for anything.”
“Right, that’s done. Now get out of my office. I got work to do. And remember to come visit me here on dawnbreak. I’ll have Polly let you in. And keep this whole ‘Lune’s returning’ thing downwind, got it? Don’t need panic in the city just yet.”
Twilight shuffled, backing out the door, pulling her hat on and swinging the huge wooden doors open.
“Oh, and…” Celeste called out from behind.
“Find a deputy of your own. Someone you can trust. Someone who can keep his or her mouth shut, too. Got it?”
“Yes, ma’am!” Twilight yelled chipperly, closing the doors behind her.
She left, breathless, into the main waiting foyer, the whole meeting swimming through her mind.
“You okay there, hon?” Polly the receptionist asked, looking up from her papers at the wheezing figure.
“I…” Twilight gasped back, chest inflating with pride. “I’m a sheriff!”
The scream echoed out through the dirty streets where cobblestones had begun to creep. These were some of the areas in Cantermore that were going through a bit of ‘refurbishment’ and ‘modernization’, what with a proper drainage system and actual paved roads and everything.
But that would take time, and right now all there was were a bunch of workers laying down tiles from one end of the street to the other.
But nibblers tended to stick to the back streets like rats. For a thief to work on one of these roads, in the middle of day, meant that he was rather stupid indeed, or that something curious was going on.
And the timing.
The timing was so perfect that it defied chance.
One of the reasons why Twilight came to a conclusion so fast was that this had happened before.
“Miss. Calm down,” Twilight said, walking up to the screaming lady.
She was wearing a bonnet and shawl combo, definitely one of the richer ladies of the city. Probably had a ‘handbag’, too, rather than keeping her money in a neck bag like she ought to. Those new handbag things were magnets for snatchers.
“Can you describe the thief for me?” Twilight asked, staring down a darkened alleyway.
“Oooohhhhh!” The lady wailed. “Ooooooooohhhhhhh!”
She had started fanning herself with a thing with lace on the end and embroidery along the sides. Did fans have to be that elaborate?
“Lady! Okay. Just nod or shake your head, got me? Was the one who stole your handbag a dragon?”
“Oooooooohhhh!” the lady cried, doing neither. “A dragon! It was one of those nasty little dragons! Came out of the gutter, it did, and saw upon to take my belongings! Please, officer! You must get my things back! Why do you even allow dragons up in our town, anyway? They should be all back East with the rest of their ilk!”
“Hey!” Twilight glared, sticking her hoof out at the lady.
The lady stopped, her fanning slowing to a twitch.
“Stay here,” Twilight continued. There wasn’t any point in arguing about things that were simply too ‘radical’. “I’ll get your things back.”
The deputy darted down the alleyway, snaking through the barrels and the pipes until she came to rest in the middle of it, a place cut in half by the shade of the building. Sun poured down on one side, and almost on a razor’s edge was it cut off, leaving her side of the alley in shadow.
She stayed where it was cooler.
“Okay, Spike. Come on. We do this every time. You ain’t going to make me have to chase you, are ya?”
Silence. But it was silence by choice.
“Spike, you get your hide out here right now! I ain’t runnin’ in this heat! I’m almost inclined to turn a blind eye to you this one time!”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” a dragon said, popping out from behind one of the many rain barrels in the alley. He lifted his hands to the sky, one of them clutching the strap of a fine ladies’ purse. Cracks ran down the spines on his back, and a thick layer of dust coated his worn-out scales. He sported a rather youthful look, but Twilight knew that he’d been around, and been around for a long time.
Those were dragons for you – you could never really tell how old one was just by looking.
“Come on, baby, we can be reasonable, alright?” Spike pleaded.
“Why do you always gotta make a chase of it, Spike?”
“Because it’s one week for the snatch and one week for resist, baby! Come on!”
“Why are you calling me ‘baby’, now?”
“I dunno,” Spike shrugged. “You got a law against that? Maybe it’ll get me another week in the hole.”
“It’ll get you a bullet in your leg.”
“Alright, Deputy. Tell you what. Why don’t we say you chased me around, and I’ll say you chased me around, and you book me for two weeks and we don’t have to go out into the hot sun.”
“It’s ‘sheriff’, actually,” Twilight said.
“Oh, really?” Spike’s eyes widened, a smile cutting across. “Ey! You been waitin’ for that for so long! Congratulations! So that’s why you were in the Mayor’s office, yeah?”
Of course he had been watching. Like she thought. Timing was too perfect.
“Spike, return the handbag,” she cut him off.
“You know what I find weird, Deputy?”
Twilight sighed. “What?”
“You ponies don’t at all mind that these things are our invention. They’re called handbags, ya? Hands? You see these?” Spike pointed to the thing on his other arm. “These are called hands, right? But I hear miss lady out there in the streets goin’ ‘ohhh ohhh these horrible little dragons, why they up here in our town and taking all our freedoms’, and she’s using something that we gave to your fine com-moo-nity.”
“What’s your point?”
“I find it ironic, thas’ all.”
Twilight shook her head, brushing aside all the verbosity. If there were two things that Spike was known for, it was wearing a pony down with a lot of flannel-mouthed banter, and being arrested. But the funny thing was, he was only ever arrested because he wanted to be.
Furious Spike Ling was a vagrant – a traveller from the far East dragon homelands where names were funny – who wound up in Cantermore when he left his large extended family. Spike had always claimed it was due to an unfortunate circumstance with too much firewater. Or at least, that was one of the stories he had. Other times he said he was a spy for the dragons, and other times he claimed that he came here to seek his fortune in the burgeoning gold trade.
Whichever it was, Twilight had suspicions that he was kicked out for talking too much.
But he lived the streets, and jail was one step up from dirt and pebbles. A roof and food were two welcome things he wanted once in a while, so he worked the law just enough to be able to take a little ‘holiday’ every now and then.
“... and I bet. I bet to anything that the design on that fan she’s usin’ right now is Dragonese as well. I bet if she knew that most of the things she’s usin’ were from our part of these lands, she’d go comp—”
“Alright! Shut up!” Twilight yelled. “I get it, alright?”
“So… you gonna cut a deal?”
“Yeah…” Twilight nodded, an idea floating up into her head. “Yeah. You know what? I think I will. Gimmie the bag and wait here. I’m gonna return it, and then take you in for booking. How’s that sound?”
“Sounds great, baby. One or tw—”
“Two weeks! Now shuddup and stay put!”
“Gotcha!” Spike clicked his tongue, finger-gunning Twilight. “Staying right here.”
It didn’t take long for the officer to return the bag and come parading back through the alley, while Spike spent the time whistling a soft tune.
“Ey, you’re back, bab— Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hey!” Spike cried out suddenly, backing up a few steps and falling over onto his tail. “Whoa! I’m sorry about the ‘baby’ thing, alright? I won’t do it again, I promise! Yo, you don’t have to do that, sheriff! Really!”
Twilight floated her two pistols closer to his face. They were in typical ready stance – levitated by each side of her chest, ready to discharge at any time.
“Get up,” she commanded.
“No, come on. Please! I… okay. I’m gonna stop. Okay? I am going to stop all this… and… and I’m gonna be nice… and…”
“I said get up!”
Still holding his arms out, his hands gently bobbing as if trying to placate a screaming child, Spike wobbled to his tiny little feet, face suddenly taking on a degree of seriousness.
“Okay. What is this about?” Spike asked, softly. “I get it. No games. This is business, right?”
“I’ll tell you. Now.” Twilight flicked her head to the other end of the alley. “Walk. Take a left at the end. You run, I shoot. Got it?”
“Understood,” Spike said, darkly.
Spike rushed in. Somehow, being in an enclosed space made it easier for him to move, and he darted behind the only table in the room for shelter.
The place was sparse, even by sparse standards. A mirror hung above a small sink, and a jug of water lay nearby in case anything needed a wash. There was the table of safety in the middle of the creaky, wooden floor, and a bed that could have just been a mattress on the other side of the room.
A cupboard and hatstand completed the look. There wasn’t even a spitoon.
“Your place,” Spike finished for her. “Yeah. I know.”
“You know where I live?” Twilight asked.
“Yeah, of course I do. Come on,” Spike responded, as if this ought not to be surprising. “It’s a beautiful place. Real homely.”
Twilight lowered her guns.
“Right, so, now what? You murder me?” Spike asked, a genuine question.
“No. I just wanna talk. Guns weren’t loaded.” Twilight fired them off one after the other. The only thing that came out of them were two dull clicks.
Spike’s mouth hung open. “You… what… How did you… Now…”
“I’m sorry,” Twilight said, holding her head up. She was sorry, but wasn’t ashamed.
“Do you even know proper pistol etiquette?” Spike demanded, angry. “You had me for my life, there, Constance! Why would you even do such a thing?”
“I needed to talk.” Twilight shrugged.
“And you couldn't have asked me?”
“You’d have run,” Twilight stated plainly.
“Well, maybe I would have,” Spike said. “But that still ain’t no reason to shove an unloaded pistol in my face! That’s… that’s downright tricky, that is!”
“Well, I do expect you to know what’s tricky and what ain’t, Spike.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?” Spike went on, little arms flailing, spittle dancing through the air like a fountain.
“Spike, sit down. I’d like to offer you a beverage, but…”
“Very funny. What makes you think I’m gonna just stand right here and talk after all of what happened?”
“If you wanna leave, go ahead. I ain’t gonna stop you.” Twilight went on, walking slowly to the table and taking a seat herself. “But you probably wanna know why I did all that to drag you here, don’t ya? And you ain’t gonna stay mad at me. You know there weren’t no danger. Only tricks. And you know all’s fair in tricks. That’s from your side of the line, ain’t it?”
Spike calmed down a little.
“So, go on. Take a seat. I’m sure you wanna know what’s eatin’ me.”
Spike raised an eyebrow. “You sure know me well, Sheriff Twilight. It really is ‘sheriff’ now, is it? That weren’t a spin?”
“Naw. It weren’t.”
Spike sat down.
A few moments passed as the floorboards creaked above. Habitually, the two of them made no noise until the pony moved away.
“Right then. What’s all this about?” Spike asked, drumming his claws on the table.
“It’s about what you just said, really. I know you. You know me.”
“Well, we’ve been dancin’ a pretty long time, lady.”
“That we have. And times… times are different. Times are strange.”
“What kind’a song are ya weavin’, lady?”
Twilight took in a deep breath. “Listen. I wanna come candid. Let me make the first step. So listen closely, ‘cause what I have to say right now ain’t somethin’ that comes easy.”
“But I’m gonna have to play fair, and I’m gonna give you a choice. The things that I’m gonna say to ya… well. It’s the kind of stuff that… if I do tell ya, and you don’t play nice, then you’re gonna go to jail but on a much more permanent basis. You know what I mean?”
“So… now’s the time you either stay or leave. I really ain’t gonna stop you if you wanna go. But if you do decide to leave, I’d be careful about who you talk to. I ain’t got you pegged as a little squealer, but you might wind up with a lot worse than jail for life.”
“So this is the actual threat, then.”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“At least it’s politer.” Spike tilted his head to the side. “Before I make my decision, can I ask somethin’?”
Twilight pursed her lips. This was that one question in every serious conversation that was hard to answer. There was always at least one. The deeper conversations had two or three, but there was always at least one.
Things were too serious, now, for her to care about image or face or other graces like that. She was just going to have to bring out the truth, as much as it gutted her to admit.
“Because I know you well, Spike.”
“No. Just… wait.” Twilight held up a hoof, rubbing her forehead.
“That personal, huh?”
The unicorn smacked her lips in reply. “I know you want a job. I know you want a respectable job. I know you got no home because you got no money, and I know you got no money because no one here in this town’ll pay a dragon whelp t’ do work. Am I on the nose so far?”
“Yeah,” Spike said, his own eyes narrowing. That was the long and short of life.
“So you do what you do. You ain’t stupid, playing the system. Makin’ Mayor Celeste pay for your food and board. I know you got a head on your shoulders. I know you ain’t slow in the legs, neither. I know you ain’t a bad soul deep down. You ain’t ever actually stolen nothin’ before. You ain’t ever done anything besides work the system. And that ain’t considered stealin’, if we’re the ones settin’ the rules. All you do is follow the rules, am I right?”
“Glad you see things my way.”
“Not sure how you can stand it, though. Livin’ in a hole for weeks on end. Never even gettin’ to see the sun.”
“Oh, you know. Us dragons are kinda used to living out in small holes for long periods of time.”
“Well, I can see why this arrangement is beneficial to ya. But… it’s been a year of this, in and out and in and out, and… over that time, we’ve had some interesting conversations, haven’t we?”
“And we’ve had some understandin’s and misunderstandin’s and all sorts’a stuff.”
“I… know you better than some of the deputies I work with, Spike. Over this year, you’re the only one I actually… spent time with.”
“You’re the only one I know outside of work, Spike. I ain’t got no time for that hobnobbin’ stuff. You’re the only guy I know.”
“But what about your other deputies and all that?”
“We don’t really talk. We just work together. I work a lot. More than the others. Leaves me no time for other things. And I can’t drain the resources of this town. I’d rather work with someone I know well and truly proper. If it’s about trust, I trust everyone about the same, so that ain’t an issue.”
“So, let me get this straight. I, Furious Spike Ling, am your only friend?” Spike clarified, sticking a claw out.
Twilight bobbled her head around, staring off into the distance.
She waited for the laugh.
The laugh never came.
“Yeah, you know what? Same for me with you,” Spike said, with a bit less energy than he normally had.
The discomfort hit them like a wave. Both of them staring off asunder, both of them hearing each other swallow loudly.
Twilight broke the silence.
“So, that’s why I’m askin’ ya.”
Spike nodded a little to himself. “I get it. So what’s the job?”
“Yeah, why not. It’s a good job, I hope?”
“That’s deputy, ain’t it?”
“No. Assistant.” Twilight slanted her brow.
“Yeah, and the assistant to the sheriff is deputy. So you need a deputy.”
“I would be glad and honoured,” Spike said, tilting his head in a mock respectfulness, “to be your deputy, Miss Sheriff Constance S. Twilight.”
“Can I tell you the job?” Twilight asked through clenched teeth.
“You hear of Raven Lune?”
“You know what happened, right?”
“I think so. Pretty big name ‘round these parts long time ago. Highwaymare, weren’t she? Then one day about two years ago she gets the hankerin’ for a bigger job.”
“The bank job.” Twilight nodded.
“Yeah. First Security Bank of Cantermore. Got shown ‘mercy’ by Mayor Celeste, and got sent out to the desert near Full Moon Bluff.”
“She’s coming back,” Twilight said, not beating around the topic.
“Well, it’s a suspicion,” Twilight quickly clarified, “but we think she’s comin’ back and we think she’s comin’ back prepared. I don’t think we should make a fuss, so I ain’t tellin’ nopony else just yet.”
“Wait…” Spike said, rubbing his chin. “Raven Lune… weren’t she the gearhead?”
“Yeah,” Twilight muttered.
“Yeah… yeah!” Spike went on, recalling the details. “She done rode that weird drillin’ machine right under the bank. That’s how she did it! No steam, no nothin’. No one saw it comin’.”
“Yeah,” Twilight repeated.
“Aw, she gonna cause all kinds’a trouble, ain’t she? Why’d Celeste cut the rope back then?”
“Listen. That’s all in the past. Ain’t our business.” Twilight looked away. “The point is, Mayor Celeste wants me to take an assistant to—”
“An assistant to Ponyton and look for something she reckons can stop Lune dead in her tracks.”
“Now, that ain’t a figure of speech now, ain’t it?”
Spike leaned back, folding his arms, a smirk across his face. “So, that’s it, then, huh?”
“Looks like we got thrown together by fate, Miss Twilight.”
“I don’t believe in such shingle.”
“Then what do you believe in?”
“I believe in using my resources the best I can.”
“And look who your resources just happen to be.” Spike jerked his thumbs toward himself.
Twilight had nothing to say.
“Well then. I accept, Miss Twilight. You just done invited me to be a hero. This is exactly what this lil’ old dragon needs.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean it’s an opportunity, Miss Twilight, one that I would be more than happy to embark on with you. Imagine that. The first dragon deputy in Cantermore.”
“You ain’t gonna drop that, are ya?”
“Fine. Fine. I’ll talk to the Mayor. See what I can do. I’m already pushing it by asking a known criminal. I sure hope Celeste chalks this one up to more ‘radical thinking’.”
“That’s all I’m asking for, Boss.”
“You gonna start callin’ me ‘boss’ now?”
“Fine, then. Let’s make this official,” Twilight said, grunting, extracting a small knife from within the folds of her coat.
“Whoooaa!” Spike yelled out. “Hey! Stop pullin’ weapons on me!”
“Pipe down,” Twilight chided. “Now, I ain’t got nothin’ but your word, and you ain’t got nothin’ but mine. But trust is somethin’ that’s gotta be earned both ways. So let’s…”
She drew the knife across her hoof, scratching blood out of her flesh.
“... do this right.”
She held her hoof out toward Spike.
“Uh… you… might not want me to do that,” Spike said, cringing.
“Why not?” Twilight frowned.
“Dragon blood is…. Let’s just say that it stings more than a bottle’a Cactus Jack poured into your eyes.”
“So I cut myself for nothin’?”
“Appreciate the sentiment, though,” Spike replied with a smile.
The night flew over a pair that did not sleep well. But that did not matter to the rest of the world. The world exploded in fury at dawnbreak as ponies went about their morning trade and certain deals were made.
Hooves were shook, details given.
Twilight left city hall with a briefcase in tow.
And soon they were on their way.
The train there would take a few hours – more than enough time for them to take a short breath before the coming task ahead.
But it wouldn’t be difficult, right?
Mayor Celeste reminded Twilight once again about the nature of the job, and reminded her how she was a trusted choice. It was the regular things – all the kinds of things that were said to instill confidence. She said she had implicit trust in her judgement, and after a short personal talk with her choice of assistant, she even gave Spike the go-ahead for deputization.
Things moved fast when it came to Mayor Celeste.
But a storm loomed on the horizon.
Maybe it wouldn’t be as simple as Twilight reckoned.
“Hey, Boss?” Spike asked.
“Yeah,” she responded, still staring out at the flat grey terrain of the distant mountains.
“You… ah… pretty silent over there. Did everythin’ go over easy with the Mayor?”
Spike drummed his claws on the seat. He was unused to this kind of luxury. They had a room on the train all to their very own, with plush velvet seats and actual windows! They had windows!
This was like… super-jail!
“Hey, Boss. What’s on your mind?”
“None of your business,” Twilight snapped.
“It is my business, boss.”
Twilight turned, shifted in seat, and faced down the little dragon head-on. “You tryin’ to give me lip?”
“No, ma’am. But this is about that trust stuff you was talkin’ about yesterday. You don’t really talk about yourself much, and this is a good time to start.”
Twilight smacked her lips. “Celeste tell you to say that?”
“Well… a little bit her and a little bit me. I mean, to be honest, it would be kinda nice to be able to have a heart to heart that ain’t through the bars of a cell door, ya get me?”
Twilight looked away, back out the window. The barren rocks flew by, only accompanied by a single cactus and a whole lot of nothing much else. “Fine.”
“So why are you in a mood?”
“Just reservations is all,” Twilight said, rolling her hoof around. “The Mayor was awfully happy to see my demands. Things went too smoothly. And I hate when things go too smoothly.”
“I’m pretty fond of it myself,” Spike said. “But then again, we work pretty differently, don’t we?”
“I’m hopin’ to put some of that to use, Spike. You ain’t just along for a cart ride, you hear?”
“Course not, Boss! So why is things goin’ well a bad thing?”
“Because when things go well, there’s worse things a-comin’. Sometimes… a pony will make one thing look good just to make sure you don’t see the other bad things.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well. Let’s say we’re playin’ a deal of poker. You’ve been winnin’. A lot. In fact, I seem to be foldin’ a lot of times. You’d say that were good, wouldn’t ya?”
“Well… sure. I mean, why not?”
“Because what I’m doin’ is while you’re off throwin’ your little arms up in celebration, I’ve been sneaking money from your pile to mine.”
“Oh, I get it. Distractions.” Spike started nodding furiously. “Man, I’m learning so much.”
“You don’t gotta make a run of me.”
“Naw! I meant it! I ain’t really never had no education growin’ up. Just dragon stuff.”
“Then how’d you figure out how to mess with the system?”
“I dunno.” Spike shrugged. “I really just figured it out after a while. Decided to try it. It worked. It kept workin’. But I can’t figure everythin’ out for myself, so I’m glad I got someone to tell me stuff.”
Twilight huffed. Whether it was meant to be one of acceptance or rejection wasn’t too clear.
“So, whaddaya think’s goin’ on?” Spike asked.
“Don’t know. I just feel that this ain’t gonna be as easy as I think. In fact, Mayor Celeste did tell me that… things change. Figure she knows somethin’.”
“Don’t she always know somethin’?”
“So, let me change the topic to something a little less dumpish.”
“Why don’t we put on our badges?” Spike smiled, rubbing his hands together.
“And who said we got any?”
“There’s a lot of things you gonna need to know about dragons, boss.” Spike winked. “We can smell gold. And there’s two bits of gold in that there briefcase. It ain’t much, but they’re there. So I’m thinkin, probably somethin’ gold-plated, right? Also you smelt of gold about you yesterday and today you ain’t got none. Means you took your old badge off. Replacement’s in the case, huh?”
“You sure you didn’t get no education?” Twilight asked half in jest.
“Hey, you keep sayin’ things like that…” Spike went on, wagging his finger.
A moment passed.
“Well? And what?” Twilight asked.
“What? And nothing. I just meant you should keep sayin’ things like that.”
“Can I have my badge now, Boss?”
Spike pulled the briefcase up to his lap. The whole thing nearly covered his body like a blanket, and popping it open, the lid nearly obscured his whole face. All that was left was a small chipped spine bobbing up and down behind the leather.
“Oh, we got stuff for days here, Twilight! Look at all this junk. Badges… Hey. Here’s yours.”
A small gold-plated hunk of metal stamped with Celeste’s seal came arcing its way over the top of the case. Twilight snatched it with a bit of magic, flying it to the inside lapel of her coat.
And that was done, wasn’t it? That was the seal that made this all… move on.
Twilight imagined that she’d be more excited about it like she was the day before. She wasn’t.
“Look at all this… hey. What’s this about?” A gun rose up behind the brown wall.
“It’s yours,” Twilight explained. “Had it commissioned to you.”
“Really? Really. A gun. I get… a gun?”
“Yeah, but no ammo until I teach you how to use it and clean it right.”
“Oh, no problem, Boss! Gee. A gun. I really hope I get to threaten to shoot a pony in order to make ‘im come back with me to my house to offer ‘em a job.”
“Shut up, Spike.”
“Wiiiiillll do, Boss. And look at all these papers here! Buncha prints, too. Oooh, who’s this?”
Spike held up a faded, yellowed picture of a young mare in a large, flowery hat. Her mane flowed down the side of her face like honey dripping off bark, and she had a soft, pleasant and warm smile to her.
“Can’t you read? Her name’s right there under the picture.”
“Nope!” Spike chimed out.
“Wait, you can’t?”
“Nope. Never learned,” Spike said, studying the poster.
“Oh. Beggin’ your pardon. I assumed since… you seem to be able to speak Equestrian without any trouble…”
“Well, there’s a whole different bag of nuts, Boss,” Spike said. He didn’t sound at all offended. “I gots ta’ talk every day. I don’t need to read every day. I been in Cantermore nearly three years now, and I already knew a bit of the language from back in the dragon lands. After all, we have to trade and stuff. We helped with your railroad. We best know Equestrian.”
“So why not learn how to read and write?”
“Well, you can just add that to the list of the things you’re gonna have to teach me, huh. Or, you know. You can always learn Dragonese.”
“I’ve seen that before. Seems a bit harder. I mean, you guys got like, what, a hundred million letters? And each of ‘em looks like they got fifteen billion strokes each. Must take you ages to write anythin’.”
“Well, it ain’t exactly like that. But I tell you whut. I’ll teach you about it one day, huh? But for now, we got more important things.”
Spike flipped the picture back up from behind his shield. “Who’s the bird?”
Twilight was glad Spike couldn’t see her rolling her eyes. “Rarity Burke. She’s a habidasherer.”
“Makes hats and dresses and stuff.”
“Oh right. Hubbadusherer. Got it. She’s purdy. You reckon she knows she’s purdy?”
“We got a couple stallions in here too. This one here looks like a biscuit roller.”
“Look, would you leave those alone? I already know who we’re gonna look for first.” Twilight exclaimed.
“What, already? Ain’t we gonna take a couple days to… you know. Settle in?” Spike asked, lowering the lid of the case just enough to look at Twilight while discussing this important step in their acclimatizing process.
“No. We ain’t got the luxury of time. We best hurry. And I already asked Celeste who we oughta hit first. She reckons we go after the smith. She’s the one who built the weapon in the first place. She’s the one who’s gonna help us put it back together.”
“And that would be…”
“Moonshine Dash. Makes the fastest guns in the west, they say. A miracle worker.”
“That ain’t her real name, is it?”
“It’s the one she goes by.”
“Which one is she?” Spike sorted through the pictures, back behind his wall.
“Uh… stripes in her mane.”
“The one who looks a bit riled up?”
“Shouldn’t be hard to find her.”
The car jerked forward, throwing Spike back against the seat and causing the case to slam shut.
Twilight braced herself for a moment, but as the train returned to smooth movement, she pulled herself to the window. She counted out under her breath, fixing her eyes on a distant object.
Spike watched, putting the briefcase back down to the floor.
“... nine ... ten. We’ve slowed,” Twilight said. “We’re slowing even more. Train’s stoppin’.”
Spike made a little noise of a bemused hum.
“Engine must be dead. This is just perfect. Of all the trips in the world, why did it have to go belly-up on this one?”
The unicorn jumped to her hooves, throwing the door open.
“Stay here, Spike, and protect the case. Use the gun if you need to. Wave it around or something. I’m gonna go sort things out.”
The slowing of the train got more and more pronounced the further Twilight walked down the cars of the train. Under its own momentum, it would move for a good half a minute more, perhaps, but no more than two.
Was the timing even important?
Details were what made up this world. It was important to pay attention to them.
It was important to Twilight.
That’s why she took notice of the train crew rushing past her in the other direction.
That’s why she took notice that the tufts of smoke coming from the front of the train stopped billowing before the trained stopped.
The panic told her that it wasn’t scheduled. It wasn’t something they planned. It must have been an accident. Lack of smoke suggested what the problem was.
The engine room.
She stood outside the engine room, tossing open her coat to gain entry.
Putting the badge on had come in use.
They were out of coal. No coal meant no steam, and no steam meant that the train wouldn’t run. They could get a courier out to send for some, but that’d take up to a day, maybe. A day that they just didn’t have. All around her, angry ponies yelled at other ponies just to find out who was to blame for all this.
She told them to step outside. She had no time to wait, she said. She’d bring them to Ponyton, and they’d be free to take it from there. They’d be able to refuel once they hit the station. So all they needed was to get there in the first place.
Take a breath.
Close your eyes.
She said that she was carrying samples of a new kind of fuel in her coat, one that wouldn’t overheat the engine and one that was so small as to be as portable as it was. But she wasn’t allowed to show it to the public. This presented her with an opportunity to test it, she said. The train drivers didn’t have a choice but to let her proceed. It was a lie she’d delivered many times before.
Do not panic.
It’s a gift. Not a curse.
The drivers were shuffled out, even though they hadn’t the foggiest idea of what was going on. They stopped and stared as a great silence fell upon the room, and nothing happened for the most terse of moments.
A flash of light streaked out from behind the cracks of the door, and the train shuddered once more. It jerked forward, and the low rumblings of a working engine filled the empty air.
Twilight opened the door again and trotted out.
She nodded politely, and returned to her cabin, the train chugging onward to its destination.
The drivers all gathered around the engine. It was running for reasons unfound. The whispers started.
They always did.
And they would go on about the new sheriff in town.
He was just a faceless stallion in uniform. A worker on the train. A pony sent there to carry out a specific task. He tended the engine until it stopped and watched as it came to life again with nothing more than a unicorn and a flash of light.
He had watched this all.
Just as she asked.
He’d made sure the train was only stocked with a half-load of coal.
Just as she asked.
And he had written the activities and words of Sheriff Twilight down carefully in great detail on a single sheet of paper.
Slipping it into an envelope, he sealed it in haste, quickly flipping it over and scrawling on the top.
“To Mayor Celeste”, he wrote, sliding the letter into his jacket pocket. He’d be sending it by courier as soon as possible.
This was exactly what she had asked him to do.
CHAPTER ONE - END