The inside of Castor’s home was full of contrasts. The parts of the house that Ditzy and Orange Sherbet were led through were well cared for, but there were signs that the majority of the residence was abandoned, doors were barricaded or boarded off. Some corridors were thick with dust while others were freshly cleaned. Here and there gemstones were placed, almost haphazardly, on the floor and on tables and shelves. Everywhere there were pictures, mostly of Sparkler and her father, but others had been turned to face the wall or covered by curtains. The house almost seemed to be in mourning.
Castor led his guests into a grand sitting room, although most of it was empty of furniture with just a few chairs positioned around the fire in one corner. “Would either of your ladies like a drink?” asked Castor somewhat awkwardly as if he was going through the motions without quite remembering why.
“Tea, if you have any,” said Auntie politely.
“Me too,” said Ditzy, her misaligned eyes taking in the room and its contents.
“Very well, I’ll be back in a minute,” said Castor heading for a door. “Don’t go anywhere,” he added, a hint of threat in his voice.
Ditzy shivered slightly. Now she was inside Castor’s house she wasn’t sure what to do, the walls seems to be constricting her. She struggled to fight off her claustrophobia. “For such a paranoid pony he seems quite trusting, we could rob him while he was away.”
“Not so, dear,” said Auntie Orange. She pointed at a small ruby sitting on a table near the door. “That’s a spell gem, part of a very effective security system. If any unauthorised Pony gets near them they activate a spell, possibly a harmful one. I bought a few for my hotel but only for the very best rooms, since they are very expensive. I saw over a dozen like it on the way in here, this house is very well protected indeed.”
“I have spared no expense in protecting me and my daughter,” said Castor, returning with three cups and a pot of tea. He poured out the steaming beverage and passed the cups to his visitors.
“What is it you do, Mr Cut?” asked Auntie, accepting her drink.
“He’s a jeweler,” said Ditzy.
“What makes you say that?” asked Castor, looking at her strangely.
Ditzy blushed. ‘Her’ Castor had been a jeweler as was his daughter and she had assumed it was the same here, but there was no reason her universe had to be the same as this one. “I... I saw at the gems and assumed...”
“Ah. Well my mother was a jeweler, and I have some gem cutting skills, but I’m hardly an expert. For example I don’t recognise the gems in those necklaces you are wearing, although they are certainly exquisite.” Castor paused for a moment staring at the Element of Kindness around Ditzy’s neck. He leaned forwards slightly, eyes locked on the magic item.
Ditzy began to feel a little uncomfortable. “Um, they’re very special, unique really,” she explained.
Castor shook himself and looked back up to her eyes. “Sorry, no I’m not a jeweler. I have a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. I work in security, the making for spell gems for protection specifically.”
“So you made all of these?” said Auntie, gesturing around the house.
“Yes. I put a lot of effort into making sure my daughter and I are very well protected from anything the world might throw at us. My talent has made me wealthy, particularly since the Day of Disharmony. Everypony needs protection these days.” He took a sip from his drink.
“I’ve heard that you used to use your wealth to help the homeless of the city,” said Ditzy.
The cup held in Castor’s aura shattered, causing the stallion to flinch away from the scalding liquid. “I... I am sorry, sometimes I squeeze too tightly.” He started to try to tidy up the mess. “I was a fool then. To think that I could do anything about the blight that is overrunning this city,” he continued coldly. “The street ponies are nothing but criminals and thieves, I have no more pity for them.”
“But you used to,” insist Ditzy, “you tried to help them.”
“I used to feel sorry for them. The streets were dangerous, some even died. I felt I had to do whatever I could to protect them, they are still ponies after all,” he gave a small smile, “May used to tell me I was putting too much of myself into helping them.” His face darkened again. “She was right of course.”
“Where is your wife?” asked Auntie.
Castor looked away away his ears drooping. “She is on a trip to another city, she should return soon.”
“What made you give up on helping the homeless?” asked Ditzy.
“The problem was overwhelming. There were always more to house, more to feed, and they never stopped. Then they betrayed me, one of them I trusted stole something from me, something so very precious, after I’d helped him. The ungrateful wretch!” He snarled. “I vowed I’d never lose anypony... anything again. I threw out all the parasites and made this place safe, safe for Sparkler. You understand don’t you?” An edge of pleading made its way into his voice. “You said you had foals.”
“I’d do anything for my Dinky,” agreed Ditzy.
“As would I, for Tangerine, it’s not like having money means you care less for your children, isn’t that right, Mister Cut,” said Auntie rather pointedly, “but don’t you think you’ve gone too far, locking her away?”
“I don’t know what else to do, she doesn’t understand how dangerous the city can be, she keeps wanting to help the wretched masses, she doesn’t understand what they could do to her. If you hadn’t saved her last night...” He shuddered. “Thank you again. I don’t know how to talk to her any more, how to get her to understand. It was so much easier when she was younger, an ice cream would solve any problem. I remember when I first saw her a tiny little thing, with a nub of a horn, she seemed so delicate, so fragile. I knew I had to do everything I could to protect her.”
Ditzy and Orange Sherbet nodded, remembering similar situations when their own foals had been born. “I remember thinking that I could never, ever, leave Dinky, regardless of what it cost me.” said Ditzy.
“I don’t know where the time went, it seems like just yesterday she needed her daddy to chase away the monster under the bed. Now she’s almost a mare.”
Ditzy nodded. Dinky wasn’t nearly as old as Sparkler, but she was still worried about how quickly her little muffin seemed to be growing. How soon would it be that her daughter wouldn’t need her mother any more? Would she deal with it any better than Castor?
“I do understand,” said Auntie, leaning forward. “Tangerine seems to want to do everything by herself these days, her and her little friends. I do so worry about them sometimes.”
“Once Dinky got caught in a storm. I overslept and didn’t pick her up after school and she went playing with some friends. When I found out I... I thought about about the things that could happen to her, she could be lost, have gotten hurt, drowned.” Ditzy’s voice began to crack as she recalled her fears. Auntie turned to comfort her, but to her surprise found that Castor already had an arm around the the distraught pegasus. “She was all right in the end. She stayed at a friend’s house, but afterwards I wanted to do anything to stop her getting hurt.”
“Then you know how I feel” he said, “All the time. Sparkler has no friends who could protect her in this city, there’s only me.”
Ditzy shook her head. “But I let my fear control me, I lied to my daughter, tried to make her do something I wanted her to do that wasn’t in her best interests because I was scared of what might happen. I realised in time that I couldn’t protect her from everything. I had to let her go so she could grow.”
“But Sparkler could get hurt!” cried Castor
“Then be there to soothe her wounds,” said Ditzy placing her hoof on Castors, “but she still needs to get hurt to grow. You have to let her live.”
“I... I know, but I can’t let go of my little filly.”
“She’s not a filly any more, she’s a grown mare. She has a colt friend.”
Castor scowled. “That is one more thing to protect her from, I know what colts are like at that age. She shouldn’t trust him, he’ll break her heart. He’ll take her away from me.”
“Not all colts are like that,” said Auntie, “My Mosely was the perfect gentlestallion, except when I didn’t want him to be,” she coloured slightly as Castor’s, and one of Ditzy’s, eyes locked onto her.
“Pokey seems to be a nice colt,” agreed Ditzy.
“Seems, oh yes his sort seems nice, pretend to be harmless until they betray you, until they take what’s most precious from you,” snarled Castor.
Ditzy had a sudden realisation. “What did happen to your wife?” she asked quietly.
“I told you she’s away on business. I’ll see her again soon.”
“You don’t hide the pictures of somepony who’s just on a business trip. What really happened Castor?” she insisted.
He looked around wildly. “She’s away, she’ll be back, it’s all business.. it’s... she’s...” he started to sob. “She left me! She left for some wanderer! Why? Why did she do that?”
Ditzy rushed forwards and wrapped the distraught stallion in a hug. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m so sorry.”
Dash struggled against her bonds, but they held firm. She hated, hated, hated being restrained. Not being able to move felt so wrong to her, not that she was panicking or anything, that would be totally uncool. No she just really didn’t like getting tied up. And she wanted to get away right now!
“Grahhhh!” cried Dash in frustration. She and Sparkler had been carried a short distance through the streets and into what seemed to be an abandoned hotel. The scarred mare had had her minions tie them to each other and a chair and then left them alone, saying she was going to get her boss, whoever that might be. The younger mare was trying to put on a brave face, but Dash could tell that Sparkler was terrified. Apparently the gang didn’t have a horn lock to prevent the unicorn using her powers so instead had used a more primitive method, a thick wire ran from Sparklers horn and was wrapped around Rainbow’s barrel. Any attempt to channel magic would cause the power to painfully surge through the Pegasus.
“I wish Daddy were here,” muttered Sparkler, “or Pokey, or well anypony.”
“Hey! I’m here. I’m not going to let anything bad happen to you,” said Dash.
“But what’s going to happen to us?”
“Well in my experience some totally lame villain will come in through that door, tell us all about her secret master plan which has enough flaws in it that a filly could tell you it wouldn’t work. Then my friends will turn up and royally kick her flank with me being particularly awesome. Then we can go have ice cream.” She spoke jovially, trying to keep her fellow captive’s spirits up. In her own world she was sure she could depend on her friends to get her out of this jam, but here, she didn’t really know her fellow elements as well, she could only trust they would find and save her, somehow. She just hated not being able to do anything.
“Ice cream?” Sparkler’s ears pricked up. “Dad used to buy me that when anything bad happened to me. I used to pretend to skin my knees just so we could go out together. What flavour?”
“Any flavour! Rainbow, chocolate, Bourbon, chili, apple, snozberry. Yumm! I could really go for some snozberry ice cream with rainbow sauce now.”
Sparkler giggled a little, “Now you’re being silly! You’re trying to make me feel better.”
“Is it working?”
“Good.” smiled Dash. “Don’t worry, everything’s going to turn out fine.”
“I’m sure it will,” said an accented voice. Dash turned to see that a blue stallion had entered the room without being noticed. “Your father only has to be a reasonable stallion.”
“Who are you?” asked Dash, struggling at her bonds again.
“Ah, let me introduce myself. I’m a stallion of wealth and taste, I am known as Handsome Gambit, but call me Gambit s'il vous plaît.” Dash recognised the accent, he must have come from Neigh Orleans, or somewhere close.
“What are you going to do with me?” asked Sparkler.
“Nothing, hopefully. My ponies found you wandering the streets, anything could have happened to you. I’m just going to ask your father for a little finders fee for you, as long as he pays up nothing will happen. If he doesn’t,” he smiled nastily, “well this city can be a dangerous place.” Sparkler tried to back away from the Stallion despite being restrained. “As for you,” he turned to Dash, “you and your friends resisted Cookie’s crew, and that made me look weak. I need to make quite a public spectacle of you. I haven't quite decided what yet, maybe I should do something about those wings of yours?”
Dash’s mouth went dry at the thought. “How do you know her father will pay up?” she asked, trying not to sound scared and to distract Gambit’s attention from the younger mare.
“Oh, I know her father quite well, at least I know how to hurt him. You see, when I first arrived in this town I saw so many opportunities. I had expected the situation to breed desperate ponies willing to do anything to survive. And when I found just what I needed, I could install myself at the top of the largest gang in the city. Just a little organisation and I could become very wealthy indeed. But to my surprise the criminal element of the city was surprisingly thin. Despite the large number of refugees flocking to the city, few of them were willing to turn to crime. They actually seemed to believe that things would get better if they played by the rules.” Gambit snorted, “As if anyone got ahead playing fair! If I wanted to make a name for myself in Fillydelphia I knew I would have to do something to convince the homeless population that they didn’t have a hope, and to do that I would have to do something about your father. I had to hurt him. Do you know how to hurt a stallion? How to truly break him? You do not attack him directly, instead you take that which he cares for the most. That’s my talent you see,” he turned to show the broken heart symbol on his toned flank, “to see what a pony cares for most and in your father's case that was you and your mother.”
Gambit looked around the house, it had been a long time since he had spent time in such an elegant environment. The room he was in had apparently been a ballroom, but it was now converted into a dorm. Simple cots were lined up, separated from each other by cloth partitions to allow the occupants at least a modicum of privacy. Getting in had been ludicrously easy, the place had an open door policy so anypony could just walk in from the street and find a place to sleep, as a result it was packed. To his surprise rather than chaos ruling, the population had organised themselves in neat groups, there was no fighting between ponies, they all worked together to get their own space, no matter how humble. Off to one side a young pink mare was ladeling out soup to the ‘guests’ who lined up and waited patiently, chatting amongst themselves.
This would not do at all.
Peering across the room, he saw a purple stallion making his way around the room talking to a red maned stallion and nodding to the various ponies currently residing in his house as he passed. As Castor approached Gambit stood forwards, “Mister Cut?” he asked, putting a little waver in his voice. “I just want to say thank you for all the help you’ve given me.”
The purple unicorn stopped for a moment and grinned. “Thank you,” he said. “I just do the best I can, everybody deserves food and shelter.”
“If there is anything I can do to help? Anything at all.”
“Well there’s always a need for another pair of hooves. Just help out where you can, pass it on as they say.” Castor turned back to his red headed companion and they continued their discussion.
“Thank you, sir.” Now that he was close to Castor, Gambit concentrated and let his mark do its work. Who or what was this stallion’s heart linked to? To his surprise, rather than the usual few solid chains linking his target to his loved ones, Castor seemed to be covered in thousands of thin threads binding him to the entire population of the hall and beyond. Blinking, Gambit tried to focus to find any particularly strong threads, there was one, leading across the hall to the filly at the food counter. There was a certain resemblance, a daughter? He considered her for a moment, she was just starting to fill out from her gangly teenaged phase, and it was clear she would be a beauty in a few years. No, she was still too young, even he had some standards.
He turned back to Castor and looked for further connections. Ah, there was one. A web of connections could be made out, running from his heart to a mare following several steps behind him. She was in her early middle age, still attractive despite the touches of grey in her pink mane and coat, excellent, this would be fun. He focused on the mare and noticed a link between her and her husband. It was somewhat faded, and she kept trying to attract her stallion’s attention as he talked to the homeless but he didn’t seem to notice. Perfect.
“Excusez-moi madame,” he began as he put himself between the mare and her husband. The stallion did not notice and continued on his way. “I have to thank you for all the good you and your husband have done.” Smiling his most winning smile he took one of her hooves in his and gently kissed it, keeping his eyes locked with hers. She blushed but did not turn away.
“Thank you, but most of this has been my husbands idea. Mr..?”
“My name is Handsome Gambit, but call me Gambit. I am sure you are too modest, behind every great stallion is a greater mare.” He turned to watch Castor as he continued around the room. “I am sure that your husband understands that.”
“Maybe,” she said with a trace of bitterness, “He always seems so busy nowadays, I get so little time with him.”
“I find that incroyable, if you were my mare I would be unable to keep my eyes off of you for even a second.” He turned his head aside feigning embarrassment before turning back and locking his gaze on the mare, “Forgive me, I have said too much, Mrs Cut.”
The mare blushed again but did not move away. “Call me May Bell,” she said.
Gambit’s grin widened. He had her!
“You bastard!” swore Dash, once again trying to tear herself from her bindings. Sparkler had slumped in her chair and was quietly sobbing.
“Such language!” teased Gambit. “And from such a pretty mouth.”
“What did you do to her?”
“May? Nothing she didn’t want me to do, repeatedly. Her and her husband had been drifting apart for some time. She was lonely, I only provided the company.” He turned back to Sparkler. “What did your father tell you happened to your mother?”
“He... He said she was on a business trip.”
“Ah, then the truth must come as un petit surprise to you.”
“No,” mumbled Sparkler.
“No?” said Gambit, sounding surprised.
“No, I know Dad is lying to me, trying to protect me.” She straightened, her eyes hard behind the tears. “Because she came to me the night she disappeared.”
The sudden brightness awoke Sparkler from her slumber. She moaned quietly and tried to burrow deeper into her duvet.
“Sparkler?” came her mother's voice.
The pink mare sat up in bed and blinked at the mare silhouetted in the doorway, “Mom? What is it?” she asked. She looked at the clock by her bed, it was three in the morning.
The older mare seemed to be seized with nervous energy as she strode into the room and grabbed a suitcase from on top of wardrobe before opening it and filling it with items of clothing seemingly at random. “We’re going to have to go on a little trip, dear.”
“What? Why?” stuttered Sparkler, getting out of bed. “It’s not the vines, is it?” She looked around nervously. When she was younger she had been plagued by a number of nightmares of the terrible vegetation breaking into her home and carrying her away.
“No dear nothing like that,” said May Bell with a smile that didn’t quite cover her face. “We just have to go, just you and me and... somepony else.”
“Go? Go where? I don’t understand. Is Dad coming with us?”
“No, your... your father won’t be coming. You see, you see I’m leaving, I’m leaving him.”
“Leaving him? What do you mean?”
“I’m sorry, but me and your father it’s... it’s just not working any more. He spends all of his time with the homeless and none with me, I’m tired of coming second in his life. I’ve found somepony, somepony who treats me like I’m actually important to him.” Tears started to glimmer at the corner of her eyes. “It’s hard but we have to go now.” She grabbed her daughter in her aura and started to gently pull her towards the door, levitating the bag alongside them.
“No!” cried Sparkler, digging her heels in. “I’m not going. You’re not going. Please you have to to do something else, talk to Daddy. Please Mom.” She started to sob.
“I’m sorry, but I’ve tried, I’ve tried so hard but I can’t do this any more. I have to go now, I don’t have much time before your father finds out. Please, please come with me,” pleaded May Bell.
With a soft whine the older mare looked back and forth between her daughter and the door.
“Mom! Don’t, please!”
“I’m sorry, I love you so much,” she hugged her daughter tears rolling down her face, “but I can’t, I can’t. I’ll... I’ll write when I can.” She disengaged herself from Sparkler and trotted to the door, turning to face her daughter again. “Please, come with me, please.”
Sparkler swayed on her hooves for a moment seeming to almost be pulled towards the door against her will. “I can’t, I can’t leave Dad. Please don’t do this, come back, please!” she sobbed.
May Bell turned again and staggered out the door. Sparkler paused for a second before rushing forward to see the silhouettes of a mare and stallion disappearing down the stairs. “Mommy!” she wailed.
Her mother did not look back.
Fresh tears flooded from Sparkler’s eyes as she remembered that fateful night.
“How very sad,” noted Gambit with a smirk.
“Shut up you slime!” cried Dash. “Don’t you feel the least bit guilty, you ruined her and her father’s life and for what?”
“Money and power, what other reason is there? With Castor’s heart broken he stopped helping the homeless and they became very open to my suggestions. I run a good chunk of the crime in the city, burglary, prostitution, cons, muggings, I get a cut of them all.”
“What... What happened to my mother?” asked Sparker still crying.
“As far as I know she’s fine, although it’s been some time since I last saw her.”
Gambit sneered at the mare sprawled over the bed. The last month had really aged her and she hadn’t been a spring chicken to start with. The slight peppering of grey that used highlight her hair had spread, her face was more lined and her eyes sunken and reddened. He was just glad he wouldn’t have to look at her any more.
Carefully he made his way across the room and started to fill his bag with the scant contents of the room. The few items of jewelry May Bell had brought with her quickly disappeared as did her remaining bits. He hesitated as he took her watch, it was of exquisite quality, he flipped it over and examined the back, there was an inscription ‘True love never dies’, it appeared its owner had been wrong. With a grin he strapped it onto his own leg. Fully packed he started to pad towards the door.
“Gambit?” came a sleepy voice from behind him, “Where are you going?”
He considered lying for a moment but there didn’t seem to be much point. “I’m leaving,” he said, turning to face her.
“Leaving? What do you mean?” she asked sitting up.
“Leaving as in going and not coming back.”
“But... but what about us?” She tried to stagger to her hooves.
“There was never any us, I just needed a way to hurt your husband, by now I’m sure he’s in quite a state. I’d say our time together was fun, but really you were never that good, quite boring really.”
“What... What are you talking about? What do you mean?” She stood there, uncomprehending.
He sighed she really was dense. “I. Used. You. To. Get. At. Your. Husband.”
“What! How dare you,” she cried, ”I’ll...”
“You’ll what? Tell your husband? We’re several cities away and you’re the one who left him, who abandoned your daughter.”
“No! No! It wasn’t like that,” cried May Bell, backing away, her eyes streaming with tears.
“Non? All it took was a pair of muscular flanks,” he wiggled the aforementioned organs, “and you were panting like a filly in heat, you forgot all about him and your child.” He smirked.
“No!” she fell back onto the bed. “I didn’t! I.. I... I... Oh Sparkler, what have I done!” she wailed.
His talent let him know the exact moment her heart broke. “Well I’ll leave you to think over your behaviour, au revoir.” He gave a wave as he turned from the sobbing mare and trotted towards the hotel’s reception with his bag.
“Are you leaving sir?” asked the receptionist looking suspicious.
“Just a quick trip, my wife will deal with the bill,” he said with a smile, that should keep May busy for a while in case she did work up the courage to return home.
He had one more stop before he caught his train. There was a family of bakers who had apparently gotten separated from their daughter, they thought she might have ended up in Fillydelphia and were willing to pay for somepony to bring her back. He had no intention to carry out the deal but every few bits helped, plus from what they told him of her she might be useful to him if he did bump into her.
Yes, things were certainly looking up, he thought as he walked through the streets whistling a cheery tune.
Pokey had followed the gang of ponies carrying Sparkler and Dash through the streets of Fillydelphia as carefully as he could. They were heading into the worst part of the city, where the guard didn’t go, even in groups. Fortunately they seemed to be so sure of themselves that they didn’t try to hide their passage, and he had no problem tracking them to an abandoned hotel. However, the building itself was crawling with ponies. He couldn’t think of a way to get in without being spotted. He tried to fight down his fears of what they could be doing to his marefriend in that place, and instead think. He needed help but who? His friends from college would be no use. Those strangers from last night? He didn’t know where they might be. No, he would have to rely on himself for this.
Trying to keep his distance and act casual, he circled the building. It was in poor repair but most entrances were either blocked by the creeping vines or barricaded. The only clear entrance was at the front where there was a steady stream of scruffy looking ponies going in and out. Maybe he could blend in with them?
Thinking quickly, he rolled around in the dirt for a few minutes, getting strange looks from the homeless around him before using his aura to mess up his mane. He hoped it was enough of a disguise and made his way falteringly towards the entrance. To his surprise it was easy to join the back of the queue of battered ponies making their way into the building. Trying to keep his head down he shuffled forwards with the line of broken and silent mares and stallions. To his surprise as he entered the building he found the queue ended at a table with a large pot of stew on it. Each pony would step forwards and drop whatever they had, bits, jewelry, other valuables into the table and were rewarded with a bowl of the gruel. Here and there stood tough looking thugs to keep the line in order.
All too soon Pokey found himself at the front of the line. “What you got?” asked the pony behind the table.
“Err.. Nothing, I’m new... I saw the line and just joined,” Pokey blathered.
“No money, no food,” announced the mare, then her face softened a little. “New blood eh? Fillydelphia, not what you expected? We’ve all been there. Look I’m sure there’s something you can do.”
“Um.. Well... I suppose,” he stammered.
“Well, you’re no con-stallion then, but we can probably find something for you to do, a burglar maybe? You’ll probably clean up well, you can sneak into the nicer parts of town and steal what you need. Certainly better than having to sell your plot on some street corner. Go through there,” she pointed at a side door, “and ask for Lock Pick. He should be able to show you the ropes.”
Pokey mutely nodded his thanks and wandered, slightly dazed, towards the door in question. Nopony stopped him and he found himself in a more secluded part of the building. He couldn’t believe his luck! Now all he had to do was find where they were holding Sparkler, rescue her and get her out of here. Visions of how grateful she and her father would be flashed in front of his eyes, maybe the old stallion would finally recognise that he was good enough for his daughter. He just had to hope that he didn’t meet anyone who recognised him. He pushed open a door in front of him.
Tough Cookie hummed to herself quietly as she made her way towards her gangs quarters, a tray of freshly baked biscuits on her back. She had managed to get some time in one of the hotel’s better kitchens and it had felt good to get a chance to use her mark. Her parents had both been earth ponies, and her mother claimed they could trace their lineage back to Smart Cookie herself. Although they had never said anything, Cookie had always been afraid she might get a weather control mark or something. And it had been her proudest moment when she had gotten her baking mark after helping her parents complete an order. As always a stabbing pain made its way through her chest as she remembered her family. They were gone now, but she was just lucky they had sent Handsome to look after her in their place.
Putting aside her pain for a moment, she turned back to the job at hand. Her crew had done well in capturing that pink filly and her polychromatic friend, so they deserved a treat. Plus she knew Handsome loved her cooking, she would definitely make sure she had enough left over for him as well.
She trotted up to a door, only to have to open in her face, causing her to jump back in surprise and drop her tray. “Hey, watch where you’re...” she growled. There in front of her was the surprised face of the blue stallion who’d tried to protect Sparkler last night.
He looked at her, recognition in his eyes, “Oh!” he gasped.
They stared at each other stupidly for a moment, then Cookie reacted. Treats forgotten she discarded the plate as she leapt forwards to tackle the stallion. She shouldn’t have any trouble subduing a single soft student. To her surprise, he managed to leap aside at the last second and she flashed past, almost colliding with the wall. By the time she had oriented herself again he, to her further surprise, lashed out at her with a hoof. “Hey!” she cried as she ducked back so his leg harmlessly flew past her.
“Where is she?” he demanded, lining up for another punch.
Quick as a shot, Cookie lashed out with a wing, slapping her attacker across the face. She followed up with a body tackle which knocked him from his hooves. “We’ve got her under lock and key for the moment, you can join her,” she grunted.
Not giving up, the stallion staggered to his hooves again and grabbed at her with his telekinesis. “No! I’ll save her.”
She easily broke out of his grasp and slammed her hoof into his already injured nose, causing him to cry out and fall back. “Course you will,” she mocked. “You’re a regular hero.”
Eyes watering, Pokey stood again, and blinking spun and tried to kick at Cookie, missing by a mile. “Look there’s being brave and there’s being stupid,” she said, driving a pair of blows into his chest winding him and knocking him to the ground again. “And you’re definitely the second, now just stay down.”
Pokey lay there, struggling to breathe, “Good,” said Cookie, “Now...”
To her surprise Pokey once again leapt to his feet and charged her. Rearing up onto his hind legs, he slammed her against the wall and pinned her there. “Where is Sparkler?!” he cried hoarsely. He raised his horn to Cookie’s neck. She rolled her eyes down, and for the first time noticed just how long and sharp it was, she gulped.
“She’s with Gambit,” she gasped.
“Who?” he asked.
“You’ll find out soon enough,” said Cookie, kicking out him her hind hooves, catching Pokey between the legs with a wicked blow, her hoof smashing into the organs dangling there. He stood for a moment, swaying slightly before collapsing to the ground with a gurgling scream and curling into a small ball of pain.
Cookie fell back onto four legs again and looked down at injured stallion in front of her. She almost felt impressed, he’d fought better than she thought he would. Still it would be up to Gambit to decide what to do with him. With a yell she summoned other gang members to help her take him to the boss.
“You just abandoned her?” cried Dash. “She gave up everything for you!”
“She wasn’t of any more use to me,” said Gambit matter of factly.
“You’re a monster!” shouted Sparkler. “I hate you! I hate you!” she screamed.
“What you think of me isn’t very important. It’s your father who’s going to make me very rich indeed. Now all I need is somepony to deliver him a message.”
The door behind him opened and a small group of ponies entered, led by Cookie. “I’ve got something for you boss,” she called, throwing Pokey onto the floor. The injured stallion tried to struggle to his hooves.
“Who is this?” asked Gambit, examining the new comer.
“Pokey!” cried Sparkler, “are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” he mumbled, trying again to stand with a little more success. “I’m here to rescue you.”
Gambit laughed, “Plus impressionnant, I am shaking! Such a great hero comes to visit me. And so handsome too.” He used his magic to turn the younger stallion’s head from side to side, noting his blue coat and white mane. “Do you know your father, colt?” he asked, “because I’d swear you’re one of my bastards. Well done Cookie.” She glowed at the praise. “This more than makes up for your earlier failure.”
Her face turned sour again at being reminded of that.
Gambit looked back and forth between Pokey and Sparkler, his horn glowing slightly “You’re close, I can see the chains binding you. If you want your petite amie to stay healthy, I have a little message for you to carry...”
“I won’t help you!” cried Pokey. “I’d rather die!” He spat in Gambit’s face.
The older stallion’s expression quickly changed and he turned purple with anger. A hoof lashed out, clubbing Pokey to the ground before kicking him in the ribs several times. “That can be arranged.” he growled, hitting the prone stallion again. Even Cookie flinched.
“Stop! Please stop!” pleaded Sparkler. “I’ll do anything, just don’t hurt him any more.”
“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” growled Dash.
Gambit ignored them and lifted Pokey’s head from the ground. “Now I have a little message I want you to deliver to Castor Cut. Tell him I have his daughter and if he ever wants to see all of her again he needs to bring ten thousand bits here by,” he checked the watch on his wrist, ”two pm. And not to tell the guard, I’ll know if he does. He might want some proof that I actually hold his daughter,” he mused. “I’m sure I can arrange something.” He drew a knife from somewhere and advanced on Sparkler, grinning at the helpless mare.
Castor had calmed down from his original outburst, and Ditzy had released him from her grasp. He sat gripping his tea in his aura and looking into the middle distance. Words seemed to tumble from his mouth, now he had started his confession he didn’t seem to be able to stop. “She said I spent too much time helping them and not enough on her and she was right! I tried to help them all, and how did they repay me, they took my wife from me. She didn’t even tell me to my face, she just left a note. Twenty years together and she left a note.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” said Orange, suddenly understanding Castor’s behaviour.
“I can’t let them get Sparkler. I can’t take losing somepony else, not again. I’m not strong enough to take that.”
“You can’t blame the whole city for what just one pony did.”
“Why not? What did this city ever do for me?” snarled Castor. Ditzy just hugged him again and the anger seemed to drain out of him. “I know it’s wrong, but it hurts so much,” he sobbed again.
Ditzy kept holding the stallion until he calmed and slumped back into his chair. Auntie poured him another cup of tea.
“Thank you,” he mumbled, trying to calm himself. “I think I needed this, to have somepony to talk to.”
“I know it hurts, but you have to let Sparkler go. You can’t hurt her to stop your pain.”
“I know, but it’s so hard, I’m so afraid. I’ve had nightmares about waking up and finding she’s not there anymore, that her rooms just empty and I’m all alone.”
“Nothing right is easy, but you still have to do it, for her.”
“Sparkler may have a very important destiny,” said Auntie, leaning forward.
“What do you mean?” asked Castor.
“What would you say if I told you there might be a way to clear out all these dreadful vines? To return the princesses and make things how they were and that your daughter might be part of that solution?”
“I...” began Castor, suddenly there was a hammering sound from the front door which caused everypony present to jump.
“Who could that be?” asked Castor. He picked up a gem from a side table. It glowed and projected a grainy image of two ponies knocking on the door. One, the elder, was holding the other up. He appeared injured and could just about be made out as Pokey Pierce.
Castor blinked for a few seconds, then was up and out of the door as quickly as his hooves would carry him. Ditzy and Auntie took a little longer to react and got to the door in time to see the unicorn throw it open. Pokey was badly bruised with one eye swollen shut, he slumped forwards as the door opened, barely supported by Iron Nails.
“What? What happened?” gasped Castor, helping to drag the injured stallion inside, momentarily forgetting his feud with Pokey.
“I found him on the street,” said Nails. “Someone’s worked him over but he was trying to crawl here. I offered to get him some help but he was insistent he had to get here.”
“What have you done to yourself?” wondered Castor.
“Sparkler,” gasped Pokey.
“What? What about my daughter?”
The colour drained out of the purple unicorn’s face. “No that’s not possible, she’s safe. I locked her in, she has to be safe,” he muttered.
“Gambit, crime lord. Has Sparkler, wants to exchange her for ten thousand bits, two this afternoon,” continued Pokey as he tried vainly to stand.
“No! No that’s not possible, you’re lying,” gasped Castor.
Pokey weakly gestured at his neck. Wrapped around it like a tie was a thick wad of pink and purple hair, recognisably a portion of Sparklers tail.
Castor backed away in horror, making choking sounds before turning and rushing into the house barging straight past Ditzy and Orange knocking them aside. A few moments later there was a cry of distress from Castor. “She’s gone!” he wailed.
Leaving Sherbet to look after the injured unicorn, Ditzy followed the cries and found the stallion kneeling on the floor of a very pink bedroom. The window was open and unbarred, allowing a cold breeze to blow in. He turned to her as she entered, tears running down his cheeks, “She’s gone!” he mumbled again. “My little filly is gone.” Without thinking Ditzy threw her wings around the stallion and hugged him tightly , as if to draw some of his pain into herself. He weakly tried to push her away before collapsing into her. “My nightmare,” he cried.
“There, there.” She soothed the distraught Stallion. “We’ll get her back, she’ll be just fine.” The situation uncomfortably reminded Ditzy of the times that Dinky had been taken, first by Corona and then by a group of gangsters trying to gain leverage on an Element of Harmony. She shuddered, remembering how helpless she had felt, the way her mind had been drawn to all the dark fates that could befall her daughter. Now Castor was living that nightmare too. It wasn’t fair, he had done all he could to protect her.
“It’s happening again! Gambit, he... he was the one that took May from me. First my wife and now my daughter. I’ve got nothing, nothing left. I’m all alone.”
“No, you’re never alone, you have me. I’ll help you get your daughter back, as will all my friends. I’m sure Pokey will help too.”
Suddenly Castor pulled away his streaming eyes blazing. “Pokey, it’s his fault! He made her leave!” He roughly shoved Ditzy aside and galloped back towards the front door.
“No, wait!” cried Ditzy, picking herself up. But the time she got up and ran to the hall Castor was at the door. Orange was desperately trying to hold the crazed stallion away from Pokey who was swaying on his hooves.
“You did this!” bellowed Castor, swinging his hooves wildly at Pokey while Orange tried to push him back, his rage gave him the strength to overcome her earth pony strength and he shoved her off her hooves.
“Stop this now!” cried Auntie, trying to stand again.
“I’ll kill him! It’s his fault Sparkler left, his fault she’s been foalnapped.”
To Orange Sherbet’s surprise, Pokey did not flee. Instead he stood as best he could and held his position in front of angry stallion. “He’s right,” he admitted quietly. “It is my fault, she was captured coming to see me and I wasn’t strong enough to rescue her. Do what you want, I deserve it.” He bared his neck and closed his eyes, waiting to be struck.
Castor backed away in surprise. “What? You... “ he muttered.
“Please stop this,” said Ditzy, placing a hoof on Castor’s shoulder. “Can’t you see he’s sorry?”
“I would rather die myself than let your daughter come to harm,” said Pokey. “I love her, sir.”
Castor looked dumbly at Pokey and then his own raised hoof, “I... I... I know. I didn’t want it to be true but I think she loves you too. We... We have to get her back.”
“I’ll do all I can to help,” said Pokey, swaying slightly on his hooves.
“Yes, we must get Sparkler back. I’ll get the money, we need to get to her as soon as possible.”
“Do you think this Gambit will actually give her back?” asked Ditzy. “It might be a trap.”
“I don’t know but I have to try. I can’t just abandon my little filly.”
“My friends will be able to help. they’re not far away, I can get them here.”
“One of your friends was captured as well,” said Pokey, “Dash.”
Dash, thought Ditzy, she must have gotten Sparkler to leave the house. Why did she have to be so headstrong?
Castor checked his watch. “We have less than an hour to deliver the ransom.”
“Then I’ll go get my friends now!” said Ditzy, making for the door. “We need to save Sparkler and Dash.” When the gangsters had taken Dinky she’d tried to go after them alone, but it had been Big Mac and Cheerilee who had finally located her muffin. Her daughter might have been spared some of her grief if only she’d worked with them. She couldn’t let Castor make the same mistake.
“I can get some help too,” said Iron, standing unnoticed by the door. “There are those on the street who still remember what you did for us.”
Castor blinked. “Would they really help?”
“Well it won’t hurt to ask. Plus I know some who can help the boy here.” He gestured at Pokey.
“Then it’s settled,” said Ditzy, “We’ll go get our friends, and Iron can get what help he can.”
“Good, but hurry. I won’t wait. I’m leaving as soon as I get packed. I’m going to do what I need to to make sure my filly’s safe.” Castor turned and stalked off into the house. Iron helped Pokey limp out of the house.
Ditzy turned to the door but was stopped by Auntie. “I’ll get the rest of the elements, you need to stay here.”
“Why?” asked Ditzy in surprise.
“The way Castor is he’s not going to wait. He’ll probably do something stupid.”
“He’s just worried about his daughter.”
“I know, and if this was Tangerine getting foalnapped then I would do something stupid too. You have to keep him here until we can get back and come up with a plan.”
“Good, now make sure you keep him here. I’ll be back as soon as I can,” said Orange as she turned and galloped out the door. Ditzy in turn followed the path Castor had taken into the house.
Ditzy found Castor in a large room near the back of the house, it seemed to be a combined showroom and workshop. Half of the room was given over to a number of display cases containing gems of various sizes as well as a few less decorative looking security devices, mostly locks and bolts. The rest of the room contained a large work bench with more gems held in vices as well as some carving tools. Next to the desk Castor was busy prying open a wall safe. It seemed hugely complicated and Ditzy sat back to watch the stallion dispel magic, undo locks, and enter combinations. Eventually the door opened to reveal a surprisingly small space behind packed with bits, more than she’d ever seen in her life. She couldn’t help but think what she could do with such wealth, the reward she had received for her part in stopping Corona had been nice but this would probably be enough to buy a larger house, all sorts of treats and toys for Dinky, even hire a professional magic tutor for her daughter, not that Trixie and Twilight weren’t doing a good job. That must be the kind of thing that Auntie Orange could afford for her child. With some effort Ditzy pulled her mind back to the matter at hoof as Castor started to pour the bits into a large sack. Once finished he rushed around the room opening the cases and gently taking out several of the crystals stored in them. He placed them in a bandana which he placed over his shoulder before covering himself with a cloak. Finally he took a yellow gem as big as his hoof from a large box labeled ‘Pie Farm’ and placed it in a vice. He sat in front of it for several minutes, his horn glowing brightly, concentrating hard. Sweat started to roll down his face. Eventually the gem began to glow, at first faintly but then with increased vibrancy until it became painful to look at and Ditzy had to shade her face with a wing. Then the light died away.
“What was that?” she asked as Castor placed the gem in the bag with the bits and loaded them both into a pair of saddlebags.
“Some extra protection in case Gambit decides to betray us. My magic may not be that powerful but these gems amplify the spells within them, and I am very good at enchanting them. I think Sparkler’s going to be even better through. I remember when she first powered up a gem, she was so proud, it took forever to get the oatmeal off the walls though.” He smiled happily, then shook himself, drawing his mind back to the present. “I have to go now,” he said urgently. “I can’t risk being late.”
“Not yet, my friends aren't here yet,” protested Ditzy, putting herself between Castor and the door.
“I don’t have the time to waste.” Castor looked between his watch and a wall clock and back again.
“Please just a few more minutes,” she begged. “You won’t be able to help Sparkler all by yourself, look what happened to Pokey.”
“But every minute she’s with him, he could... anything could happen to her.”
“I know, I really do. The same thing happened to Dinky, I know just what you’re thinking of, how much you want to go to her right now, but you have to wait, you won't help Sparkler if you go off half cocked.”
“Your daughter was foalnapped?”
“Twice so far,” she looked down. “It doesn’t get any easier.”
“How do you still let her go out of your sight? How do you sleep?”
“I get by with a little help from my friends, I know they’ll protect Dinky even if I can’t. Plus if I locked her up the kidnappers have won, they’ve stopped my daughter having a normal life. I couldn’t do that to her no matter how much I might want to.”
“I lost touch with most of my friends after May... went with Gambit.”
“Who is this Gambit pony?”
“I don’t know much about him. He was one of the homeless, and he helped me to organise things for a while. I was so blind to what he was doing,” Castor snarled, slamming a hoof on the ground. Then the anger drained out of him, “But I can’t just blame him, the cracks were already there. Me and May, I... I could have done more for her. I was so caught up in my mission I lost sight of what was most precious to me.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t entirely your fault.”
A loud persistent knocking could be heard from the front door.
“That must be my friends,” said Ditzy.
“At last!” exclaimed Castor, rushing towards the door. Ditzy followed as best she could, bumping into a door in her haste. The stallion swung open the door to reveal Spike, the purple stallion panting slightly.
“We made it here as quickly as we could, Orange told us what happened. I never should have let Rainbow out of my sight! I should have guessed she’d try to get Sparkler out.”
“Wait, your friend was the one who persuaded Sparkler to run off? This is her fault?” growled Castor.
“We don’t know that for certain,” interjected Ditzy quickly. “We can sort it all out once we’ve saved your daugher and Dash.”
Worry and anger struggled across Castor’s face for a moment, “Fine, but we have to leave now, we can’t be late. I can’t bear to think what Gambit could do to my daughter.”
“What do you plan to do?” asked Spike.
“Hand over the ransom. I don’t want to risk Sparkler, but if Gambit betrays me I’ll do what I have to to keep her safe.” He rebalanced the bandana under his coat.
Spike nodded. “We’ll help as much as we can.”
Ditzy looked around at her fellow elements, the party pony, the journalist, the musician and the hotel owner, and she had to admit they didn’t look very intimidating now that Dash was missing. For some reason Pinkie Pie had strapped a broom to her head and the Discord rubber chicken now hung limply from the end. Ditzy thought it made her a little more intimidating, but more in a ‘don’t make eye contact’ way rather than looking like she would be useful in a fight. Auntie Orange was panting hard and leaning heavily against Octavia. “She galloped all the way to the hotel and back again,” explained the grey mare.
“I’ve been sampling too much of the hotel’s food,” gasped Auntie. “I just need to do a few more laps of the stairs each day.”
“Come on!” insisted Castor, trotting away from group.
“Wait! We need a plan in case something goes wrong,” said Spike. “We don’t know how many Ponies Gambit could have with him. There’s only six of us.”
“There’s many more than that, if you’ll have us,” came Iron Nails’ voice.
Castor turned and his mouth dropped in surprise. There stood the old stallion, but he was not alone. With him stood a group of homeless ponies, and not a small group at that. Forty maybe fifty ponies stood there, mares and stallions, young and old.
“I told them you needed help and they volunteered, these are just the ones that I could round up in half an hour.”
“But... I threw you all out.”
“True and many are still sore about that, but you also helped us as much as you could before that. We owe you, you treated us better than most. Also, Sparkler’s done us a lot of good as well. We don’t want anything to happen to her.”
“She’s special to so many, not just you,” noted Pokey. The stallion was covered in a number of less than clean bandages but looked better than he had been.
“I.. I.. don’t know what to say,” stuttered Castor.
“Thank you would be appropriate,” said Ditzy, smiling.
“Thank you! Thank you so much!” The purple stallion seemed overwhelmed. “I don’t deserve this,” he eventually managed, “after how I treated you all. After what Gambit did, I thought you were all the same. What can I ever do to make it up to you?”
“You don’t need to do anything. We’re not all bad and it’s good we can show that, not all of us want to turn to crime to survive, we’ve got our self respect. You helped us keep that respect.”
“No, I have to do something. I’ll open the house up again, do what I can to help you. Once we have Sparkler back.”
There was a heartfelt cheer from the crowd. “That’s very kind of you,” said Iron. “Now let's go save your daughter.”
“Yes, of course. We’ll need to hurry.”
“Actually, I have some ideas about that,” said Pokey, limping forwards. Castor frowned for a second, obviously torn between rushing off to save his daughter or to stay and listen, then he stepped forwards as did the elements.
“What do you have in mind?” he asked.