• Published 28th Jan 2014
  • 1,583 Views, 41 Comments

Zecora's Pinata - BlackRoseRaven

A zebra spirit meets an unlikely ally after he's sent to right a wrong in Equestria.

  • ...

Of Ghede's Worth

Chapter Ten: Of Ghede's Worth

Bondye halted, scowling darkly, leaning less than a quarter of his body out of the swirling green vortex. Slowly, this terrible alligator-deity turned his contemptible eyes down to La Croix, and he asked with disgust: “What do you mean, 'no?' Do you think you can deny your fate, La Croix?”

“I... I mean...” La Croix looked desperately around, trying to form some kind of coherent plan in his mind before he gritted his teeth and whispered: “I... I did everything you wanted. I preserved the balance. I stopped those demons. I closed the portal those damn stupid ponies opened.”

Bondye only shook his head slowly, and then he growled in distaste and leaned slowly down, saying icily: “It doesn't matter what you did or did not accomplish if you did not do it by yourself! You are pathetic, Loa! You dragged your brothers into this escapade, and you went crawling to a priestess of the Old Ways... you, who were once so proud to have made a mockery of the Origin, who helped establish us under the guise of ten thousand other misnomers and lies.”

La Croix laughed weakly at this, and then he clenched his eyes shut and whispered: “I would rather be my own self... a true Loa... than just a monstre dans la cirque...”

Bondye rumbled darkly at this, and then his eyes glowed bright, poisonous green, and La Croix screamed in agony as lightning ripped over his body, as every single molecule of his being felt like it was suddenly trying to pull apart... and then the pain was gone as suddenly as it had come, and Bondye said softly: “I will make you suffer before you die, La Croix.”

“But... I did it!” La Croix shouted, almost wheedled, trembling hard before he sat up and gestured violently at the portal, nearly screaming, his voice panicked, his whole body quaking: “I did it! I did it, look, just look, damn you!”

Bondye snorted in contempt, eyes flicking over his shoulder, and La Croix immediately spun around and tried to scuttle for the entrance, charging through debris and the ashen remains of Bones. But without even looking back at him, Bondye only made a short gesture with his claw, and the zebra was slammed face-first into the floor before he was dragged painfully back to the awful alligator god. “Yes, Loa. I see the remains of the portal. And I see that it was destroyed by the magic that those two ponies emanate, not you.”

“He guided us!” Luna shouted, stepping brazenly forwards, trying to look fearless... and yet she could do nothing to hide her trembles, nor how she didn't dare to step past the line of crushed herbs and hallowed powders. “Without his help...”

Luna's voice died out, but Celestia took it up, saying quietly: “Without his help, we would have all perished. I do not know who or... or what you are, but have mercy on him.”

“No.” Bondye answered calmly, and then his eyes glowed as he looked with disdain at the two princesses, and La Croix shivered weakly on the floor even as he cautiously pushed himself up, supporting himself on one hoof as the other carefully pressed down against the hard wood. “Do not speak to me again or I will kill you both.”

Celestia and Luna both flinched at the coldness, the callousness, the uncaring fact in Bondye's voice, and then the god frowned darkly as La Croix whispered: “You don't... you don't worry none about him, okay?” He's my problem. He's kind of like my papa... except, you know, he ain't ever played catch with me or done any of those other fou things you ponies like to do. Don't make no sense to me... tossin' somethin' back and forth and smilin' about it.”

“Shut up, La Croix.” Bondye's eyes glowed, and La Croix spasmed, screaming in agony and barely supporting himself on his hooves, gasping and shivering but refusing to let his body drop to the ground... and Bondye looked down at him coldly before he asked suddenly: “What are you doing, La Croix? Answer me!”

La Croix grinned weakly over his shoulder through the sickly surges of energy, and then Bondye slapped him viciously aside before the alligator's eyes widened at the sight of the rune La Croix had drawn... and in the ashes of a demon of her icy realm, no less... “What have you done?”

“Invited... invited a friend...” La Croix coughed hard several times, trembling as the green lightning torturing his body slowly faded, before he bared his teeth in a grin even as he struggled just to stay awake, struggled not to give in to the sweet siren call of unconsciousness... but oh, that shock, that fear in Bondye's eyes... that helped his focus quite a bit. “Not sure if you ever met her yourself before... but... she's a real hoot, you know...”

Bondye snarled in fury, reaching his claw towards La Croix... and then he and everyone else in the room froze as a new voice called cheerily: “Oh, thank you, honey! And hey, big boy, you leave him alone, you hear? I mean, I came all this way just to see him, you can't go killing him before I get a chance to say hello!”

A figure seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, standing fearlessly just to one side of Bondye as if she had always been there: she was tall, bipedal, with an icy body clothed in a swirling dress of white snow. Her head was cow-like, both comical and unsettling with its large teeth and sunken sockets and floppy bovine ears... but in spite of her giggling and her almost erratic movements, there was a clear, malicious, terribly-intelligent gleam in her eyes as she almost singsonged: “La Croix! Oh, it's been too long! No hard feelings over that little trick I pulled on you, right? Corpses under the bridge! You know. For feeding the trolls. Not that you should feed trolls, mind you, but hey. I'm Hel. I do what I want.”

Hel crossed her arms and nodded firmly, and Bondye growled in his throat before turning his cold eyes towards her, saying darkly: “This does not concern you, goddess. I will take these two and be on my way.”

But the icy being only smiled pleasantly up at the demon, before she clucked her tongue and waggled a finger firmly, saying seriously: “Oh, no no no. I don't think so. See, we have some catching up to do. And more than that, I'm a little bitsy-witsy curious just how in darnation two lunkhead demons managed to escape Helheim. They had outside help, oh sure, but where did that come from? Not the mooks on this realm, that's for sure! I don't care if they pieced that portal together out of fairy dust and uh... I clearly mean evil fairy dust, y'know. And evil gnome bones. And other evil implements of evil magic. What was I talking about again? Well, anyway, what I'm getting at is you're a sore loser.”

Bondye snarled slowly, and then he slammed a claw down beside Hel, leaning towards the icy figure and hissing: “I do not play games like you do, Hel. Any more than I will tolerate being treated like a stupid child.”

But the frosty figure only smiled pleasantly in return as her eyes suddenly darkened, and then she rose a hand and said kindly: “You will when I'm around, sweet-pea. Because it seems that you've forgotten which one of us here is the newt, and which one has the funny hat.”

Hel only absently flicked her wrist, and Bondye gasped in shock as the swirling vortex of energy turned to solid green ice around his body, making it impossible for him to push forwards or pull back. The vibrations of the vortex made the green crystal shake and grind against his body, large pieces of emerald ice slowly starting to grind through the god's armory hide.

Bondye snarled slowly, turning his eyes towards Hel... and then he froze up as she fearlessly seized him by the nose, smiling contritely and saying almost gently: “There's always a bigger fish, sweetie-pie. And fish aren't as good for you as people think! You can get poisoned, eating too much fish, did you know that?”

The enormous alligator deity shook his head free, then he roared furiously at Hel, the frosty goddess stumbling dumbly backwards as her eyes widened before Bondye lunged at her, cracking the sheets of ice covering the vortex-

Hel simply caught him by the nose, stopping him with one hand as a dark, displeased expression passed over the goddess' face, before she said softly: “What a dumb brute. Honey, don't you know? It's my job to punish dumb brutes like you.”

Hel looked up at Bondye, who stared down at her with disbelief before the goddess suddenly smiled, saying happily as she hopped backwards on one foot: “But if you really want to show off, you should do something like this. Watch, no hands!”

The frosty figure held both her hands up in almost a gesture of surrender as she kicked a leg childishly out, even as her eyes flashed, and Bondye growled before his eyes bulged and he howled in misery as the sheets of ice around his body suddenly transformed, becoming enormous, frozen claws that stretched out of the green whirl and seized the sides of the alligator's head. He writhed helplessly for a moment, and then the enormous claws suddenly jerked backwards... and Bondye roared in anger and denial and pain as he was dragged backwards into his own portal, one claw grabbing wildly at the air for a moment before it too was sucked back into the vortex.

The eldritch rip in reality trembled violently, then simply vanished with a spark of energy, and Hel clicked her tongue loudly and put her hands on her hips as she said mildly: “What a lout. I mean, honestly, how could even a Tyrannosaurus Dumb like him imagine that he was going to take on the Super Queen of the Big Frozen Place Named After Her? Just look at me!”

Hel struck a few quick poses, flexing her nonexistent muscles and dancing from foot-to-foot as the princesses gaped from beyond the doorway, and La Croix only sighed quietly and picked himself slowly up. Then the goddess suddenly became serious as she spun towards the zebra, looking down at him coldly and saying softly: “But I don't appreciate being used, either. You summoned me up like... well... a magical summon. You know, there's laws against using my name, little Loa. Laws I know you're perfectly familiar with. And clearly your boss just gave you the pink slip... which you don't look very good in, by the way. And even if you did, he still totally set you up just so he could make an example of knocking you down, scarecrow.”

La Croix laughed weakly, and then he said quietly: “I gotta say, Nanny Hel. I ain't missed you or your mouth... but all the same, I can't help but be glad to see you.”

Hel pretended to blush and sketched a curtsy, and then she meditatively tented her fingers together before looking down at them thoughtfully. There was silence for a few long moments, until the goddess' eyes flicked suddenly towards the princesses, and she huffed at the sight of the winged unicorns, saying loudly: “Hey, I may be real pretty and all, but you don't have to stare! Horses! None of you have any manners!”

Luna and Celestia both winced and looked at each other... but before either could speak, Hel simply flicked her wrist, and they both simply vanished. Then the goddess' eyes drew towards Zecora, and she clucked her tongue quietly before she murmured: “Look at that poor thing. Poor thing!”

“You got no idea, Nanny Hel.” La Croix slowly climbed to his hooves, and then he licked his lips before looking up at her and asking quietly: “Do... before you take me, can I say goodbye to her?”

“What the me are you talking about, 'take you?' I don't want to take you anywhere.” Hel said mildly, and La Croix blinked in surprise, but Hel only smiled and calmly placed her hands together, saying pleasantly: “You silly Darkwater types claim to be all about the balance, about neutrality and equality. That's all you talk about. So of course, none of you really are, you're all hot air. But me, on the other hand? My job is to punish the bad guys and make them sorry for what they did. I'm evil, sure. But I'm real balance.

“You aren't such a bad guy, La Croix. You're a dick, sure. But you have good intentions. You helped my little darlings in spite of not liking them much, and you took the heat for it from Tyrannosaurus Dumb and his disciples, and yet, La Croix... without you, everything would have turned out so very differently back then! I owe you one!” Hel paused, then leaned down and smiled slightly, reaching out to teasingly poke La Croix's nose. “Actually, make that I owed you one. We're even now, cookie crumble. I suckered you into doing something for me, and you suckered me into doing something for you. Even-Steven.”

La Croix looked uncertainly up at Hel, and Hel looked back before she suddenly smiled softly, lacing her fingers together and leaning down over him as she said softly: “I don't care much about the fact we saved all of creation together or anything silly like that. I care that you helped me conserve the legacy of someone very dear to me, and you helped me set my darling little dearest free. We had a great time, kid. Giving you a chance to escape is the least I can do. Heck, maybe I'll even put in a good word for you with some of my friends! You know. The imaginary ones. Then you can live happily ever after in imaginary world or something.”

The zebra bit his lip, then he nodded hesitantly before looking up and whispering: “Bondye... he gonna come for me, ain't he?”

“Yes, he is. And no, I won't help you. It's up to you to survive.” Hel poked the zebra's nose gently, and then she sniffed loudly before stretching and saying mildly: “But okay. I better get going now. And you better start running soon, too. You know it won't be long until Bondye starts sending out his spirits to hunt you down. And if they get you, well...”

“Yeah.” La Croix bit the inside of his cheek, and then he looked over his shoulder, gazing silently at Zecora before he whispered: “I just gotta do one last thing, Nanny Hel. Merci, though. Merci beaucoup, vraiment.”

Hel only shrugged, then she suddenly smiled before clapping her hands together and saying positively: “Don't ever forget, La Croix: the reason we have 'abandon hope' etched above the Gates of Hell isn't because there's no hope in Hell. It's because when you end up in the pit, that's when hope is needed the most... and at its absolute strongest if you can find it.”

With that, Hel winked before she simply vanished in a burst of blue smoke, and La Croix gave a faint smile before he shook his head slowly and turned his eyes back towards Zecora. He swallowed a bit at the sight of her, trembling a little... and then his eyes widened slightly as he saw her body shift.

La Croix staggered into a run, hurrying towards her... and then he smashed face-first into what felt like an invisible wall before the strange force repelled him violently, knocking him crashing onto his back. He swore under his breath, then trembled before looking up and gritting his teeth, seeing the line of crushed herbs and powders and other sanctifiers filling the doorway.

He was a Loa, and that was a mixture used to stop spirits from crossing the threshold of a room. La Croix shook his head weakly, and then he slowly looked up as Zecora whispered: “You need to go, my friend... this... this is the end.”

“No. No!” La Croix shouted, stepping forwards and trembling... but his voice wasn't filled with anger, but instead raw with his pain, as he said roughly: “You ain't no coward, Zecora, so get up and break that line so I can get to you. Then I'm gonna give you this energy back and we gonna get out of here, you hear me?”

Zecora smiled faintly, and then the ancient, emaciated zebra slowly forced herself to raise her head. And La Croix trembled at the sight of her face, etched deep with so many scars of age, pockmarked and crevassed and yet still, still her eyes had such determination in them, such beauty... “That won't work, and you know it yourself, La Croix... and besides, the anger of the Oricha that we both saw...”

“He's no Oricha no more, for better or worse... but all I've learned about gods is that they ain't nothing but pedants and tyrants, they...” La Croix trembled, and then he snapped: “Look, we can argue 'bout this later, you damn fou chaoui! Get on your damn hooves, I still got enough strength to get us both out of here. Stop wastin' time rhymin' and let's get movin'!”

“I don't think I can.” Zecora said quietly, and La Croix froze up, staring at her before Zecora slowly lowered her head, breathing softly as she whispered: “All I am... I gave to you. My life is running out; but La Croix, please don't pout...”

La Croix laughed weakly at this, and then Zecora smiled faintly and whispered: “Old habits, I suppose, but I feel... the end of my journey is here. No more time for praises to the sky, no more smiles for the spirits... no, instead it is time for me to sleep. I go to a place like Darkwater now, La Croix, watched over by He Above-”

“No, I... I won't let you! Stop it!” La Croix shouted, throwing himself up against the invisible barrier as tears shone in his eyes, hooves shoving into the wall. “I... dammit, what about me? I don't want to lose you, I... I won't, I can't lose you! You... you the only damn friend I ever had!”

“And you have the power to make that happen, I know. You can draw back my spirit, La Croix, force me to walk beside you, even raise my body from the dead...” Zecora smiled faintly, whispering: “But I know you won't do that to me. You're stronger than that... you're better than that, and so much less selfish than I thought you were at first. You'll let me sleep. You'll remember me. And one day you'll find me again, after it's time for me to wake up and come back to this world.”

“You... y-you don't know me at all...” La Croix whispered, dropping his head forwards and trembling violently. “Fou... stupid... beautiful you... always thinking the best of all of us, always imagining things are gonna work out... but I ain't that, Zecora, and things don't work out like fairy tales, and... I just... I... I...”

“You'll let me go, La Croix. You're stronger than even you realize... and you know that I'll always be beside you.” Zecora whispered, and she shifted a little before smiling faintly. “Our paths diverge here... but death is only sleep. If we're meant to be together... again, I know we'll meet...”

“That's... not even a half rhyme...” La Croix whispered, trembling a bit, pushing uselessly against the barrier as he stared at her miserably... then he clenched his eyes shut and dropped his head forwards, tears rolling down his cheeks. “Don't... don't make me go alone, mon amour. Don't make all of this for nothin'.”

But Zecora didn't respond, and La Croix swallowed thickly as he looked silently through the invisible barrier at her. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he stared at her, watching as she simply... faded out. The last breath left her, and she shifted once, but it was so peaceful, so serene... it lacked the violence of the ten thousands of deaths he had seen. She accepted, she was ready, and she went willingly... and La Croix gritted his teeth and slammed his head into the invisible barrier, crying out: “Why the hell did you do it? Why save me? Why? Why? W-Why...”

He collapsed forwards, trembling as tears leaked down his cheeks from his reddened eyes, before he looked sharply over his shoulder and stared in disbelief at the figures he saw standing there. Three zebras, glowing with radiance... Loa, but not Loa like him. Loa like had once been, so long ago, gazing at him with such purity, such balance in even the stripes of their bodies...

“Because Loa cannot be reborn, but she will. One day, she will: the cycle is eternal. Life begets death, death begets life. Souls take on flesh, then shed it to sleep, then take on new flesh when the time comes for it.” said the Loa in the lead, shrugging slowly before it smiled at him, and La Croix swallowed thickly, pressing himself up against the invisible barrier almost fearfully. “We wanted to see you, ancestor. It's been many, many years. You've changed so much.”

“I don't recognize any of y'all. Get... get away. Haven't you ever heard of privacy?” muttered La Croix, and the spirits only smiled at him before the zebra scrubbed at his features, looking silently over his shoulder and whispering: “I wanted to be with her now.”

“You can't always have what you want, La Croix. But that is the gift of balance: when something is taken, something else is given. And when you give away, you receive something else in return.” said the lead Loa again, and then it glanced up and said softly: “Bondye's spirits are coming. You are finding your way home, brother, slowly but surely. We will cover your escape.”

La Croix hesitated, then looked over his shoulder at Zecora before he clenched his eyes shut, his heart thudding in his chest. She had given him this gift of life... his life was all he had left of her. His life and...

He reached up, silently touching the bone charm hanging from his necklace, and then he nodded shortly before whispering: “I ain't your damn family. I ain't anyone's family. But... merci beaucoup all the same... guess we ain't all bad people after all.”

The Loa only smiled at him, and La Croix took one last look over his shoulder at Zecora before he swore under his breath, then clenched his eyes shut. And with a sudden burst of eerie green light, he was simply gone.

La Croix sat at the back of a crowded bar, breathing quietly and trying to just... keep himself calm. He shivered a little as ponies passed back and forth, shouting and calling happily to each other, most of them completely ignoring him. He was just another stranger, passing through Manehattan, that was all: there were plenty of misfits through the bar every night.

His head ached, but he didn't dare leave quite yet: crowded places, places full of life and energy, were the only places he could safely hide. Even with this charm that Zecora had made for him, it only protected him from being hurt by evil spirits. It didn't do much to cover up his presence otherwise, and there were more things than just ghosts combing the world for him.

He had made the stupid mistake of trying to jump to Zecora's hut first, thinking he'd be safe inside: instead, birds and timberwolves had attacked, driven into wild frenzies by Bondye's spirits and trying to pin him in place until the rest of Bondye's lackeys could arrive. La Croix had barely been able to make another jump through reality and escape.

He was sore, he was tired, he was... scared as hell. There was no way he could keep away from Bondye forever, and it wasn't like he had anywhere to go, either. And as long as Bondye had his lackeys keeping him on the run and putting on pressure, he wouldn't be able to regenerate the strength he needed to make a jump between worlds.

La Croix silently swirled his glass of beer, then he sighed a little as he shoved it away. He wasn't thirsty at all. And all this noise... it was starting to get to him. He had to get out of here, and he had to find a place where he could settle down. But as a Loa, almost anything he did to protect himself against spirits would have a negative effect on him, too.

The stallion pushed himself away from his table, then shoved his way through the bar to the exit, grimacing as he pushed out of the crowded interior and into the cold night air. He brushed at himself absently, scowling up at the dark, cloudy sky, then he turned into the blowing wind and began to trudge down the street, swearing under his breath.

It was late and dark and awful. It was cold and he was miserable. He wished he was dead, and Zecora was an aching hole in his heart. He felt... hollow, and empty, and lost. He felt like it was all pointless, and the only things that kept him going were a mix of stubbornness and that strange, almost-surreal feeling that if he didn't protect his life as best he could, he wouldn't be protecting Zecora's last act, Zecora's last gift to him.

La Croix sighed quietly as he walked down the street... then he suddenly frowned and glanced to the side, staring in through a lit-up display box at a set of finely-tailored clothes on display in the window of a shop. He studied it silently, then smiled briefly: nice clothes. Imported too, he guessed, styled... well. In a way that was almost familiar...

He walked slowly to the other display window on the far side of the entrance, and saw something in more of an oriental design. That intrigued him: it looked very well done, very authentic. He liked that.

The zebra bit his tongue thoughtfully, then he headed quickly back into the little nook where the entrance door was hidden between the two display windows. He attempted to squish his face up into the tiny window that looked in on the shop, but it was covered by a panel, and La Croix grumbled before grasping the stiff handle and muttering: “Ouvrez.

There was the faintest spark, and then the door clicked open before La Croix quickly slipped inside and shoved the door closed behind him. He grinned a bit as he looked back and forth through the dimly-lit shop... and then he winced when a voice called querulously from the back: “Hello? Is somepony there?”

La Croix looked wildly back and forth, and then he slapped his forehead and swore at himself. He had his powers back, so he could just turn invisible or transform himself or-

“Hello, is anyone... oh, excuse me, sir, my shop is closed. You'll have to come back tomorrow.” said an elderly stallion who had emerged from the back, frowning at La Croix through his pince-nez, and the zebra looked awkwardly back at the pony, feeling like an idiot. He'd been so busy thinking about his own stupid powers that he hadn't bothered to use any of them.

And here he was, still standing here awkwardly, and the stallion was looking up at him uncomfortably. La Croix stared back down at him, then he quickly cleared his throat and shifted awkwardly before saying lamely: “I'm cold.”

The old stallion frowned a little... then sighed tiredly, shaking his head briefly before he muttered: “I don't take in street people, sir. But I suppose... you can spend a few minutes here to warm up, if you really need to...”

“Oh, uh. Merci.” La Croix said awkwardly, and the elderly stallion gave him a meditative look before the zebra said finally: “I ain't no hobo, though. I meant, I was lookin' for... well, I got somethin' real specific in mind.”

The old stallion scowled up at him, then he asked dryly: “And this really could not have waited until business hours tomorrow? How did you even get inside, I thought I locked that door...”

Magie. Now will you listen to me or what?” La Croix asked crankily, and the old stallion gave him a grumpy look before the zebra said mildly: “I need to see your hats, and I want a cape. Fashionable, spider-silk... except maybe that's askin' a little too much of you, old papere.”

“Excuse me, sir!” The stallion drew himself creakily up to his full height, raising his head and looking with indignation at La Croix. “I happen to be the former tailor to Princess Celestia herself! My fashions have won dozens of competitions, and-”

“And that don't matter worth a damn if you can't provide me with what I'm lookin' for, now does it? It's real impressive to go bragging about your exploits, but I ain't interested in the past. I'm interested in the here and now, hear?” La Croix said pointedly, stomping a hoof a few times. “You don't show me your best in show. You show me what you got on sale in my department.”

The stallion scowled a little, looking over him before he asked pettishly: “And why precisely should I do that? You came in off the street because you were cold.”

“Okay, fine. Be that way.” La Croix said blandly, shrugging a bit before he said mildly: “Guess you ain't so excellente after all if you refuse to even show me your work. I'll just take my business elsewhere, then, and hopefully you can find some dumber suckers than me in the future to pawn your rags off to.”

“Rags! Rags!” The old stallion nearly shouted, and then he shook his head violently before storming over to La Croix and seizing him by one ear, making the zebra yelp before the Loa was dragged painfully along, his plan working... although not quite as intended, as the stallion pulled him deeper into the shop and grumbled: “You just come right this way and we'll see what you think of these rags when you see them up close and personal, sir!”

La Croix muttered under his breath before he looked moodily up when they stopped in front of an enormous shelf filled with hats of every size and shape, and the stallion thankfully let go of his ear to gesture violently at these, saying boldly: “There! The finest hats in all of Equestria!”

“Only 'cause mine got torn apart by a great dumb crapaud.” La Croix muttered, looking slowly back and forth over the selection. His eyes caught on one hat in particular, the zebra studying this thoughtfully before he pointed up at it. “Lemme see that one.”

The elderly stallion began to look back and forth for something, and La Croix gave him a mild look before he helped up a hoof and clicked his tongue loudly. The hat immediately flew off its hook and down to his hoof, and the zebra grinned a bit as he began to tilt it back and forth before the old tailor chuckled and walked over to a pole with a small hook on it that had been left leaning against the wall. “Oh, here it is. Just a moment, and I'll get that.. down for...”

The pony stared at La Croix, who now had the hat on his head, the zebra grinning widely as he said mildly: “I think I got it, ol' papere. Don't you worry none over it.”

“I... what?” The tailor blinked... then he shook his head quickly before scowling, saying grumpily: “Fine trick, but please take that off. I have a strict rule about trying these clothes on. Not without special permission, you hear?”

“It's my chapeau now. I'm gonna pay for it and everything, so I think I'll just keep it on.” La Croix replied comfortably, nodding firmly before he looked thoughtfully at the old stallion, even as the pony gave him a sour, puckered look in response. “Hey. You do any sewing?”

“Do you even know what these clothes are made out of, or do you think I just garden and grow them all from trees?” the tailor grumbled irritably, giving La Croix a foul look. “Yes, I sew. I sew, stitch, tuck, weave, append-”

“Okay, okay, you cranky old vulture, y'made your damn point.” La Croix grumbled, shaking his head and waving a hoof irritably. “Fine. First, we gonna find us a cape for me. Then, you gonna do some alterations. I want it all to be perfect.”

The elderly tailor gave La Croix a moody look, and then he asked finally: “Where is all the money for this coming from? You don't look like the type who happens to be rolling in bits, after all.”

But the zebra only waved a hoof grumpily, saying mildly: “Believe me, money ain't gonna be no problem for either of us. Y'all gonna have all the bits you need. Or gemstones or... whatever you prefer it in. I dunno. I don't keep up with you fancy types.”

The tailor scowled a bit, but then nodded hesitantly. The two looked at each other for a few moments, measuring one another, judging where they could push each other... and then the elderly pony finally turned and said: “This way. I've got a lovely traveling suit-”

“Nope, cape.” La Croix interrupted, and the old pony frowned over his shoulder. “I want a cape. The showy kind, in that classy style where it's worn more to one side. I'm sure you got somethin' like that for me, right?”

The pony looked at him for a few moments, chewing on his lip before he finally nodded and muttered: “I suppose that I do, yes. It's not a completely uncommon style.”

La Croix grunted, not knowing if he should take offense at this or not... but ten minutes later, he thought he was satisfied with what the old pony managed to dig up for him. Not spidersilk, perhaps, but a very fine, dark cloth material all the same... he thought that it would do.

Then the old pony yawned and looked moodily over at La Croix, saying dryly: “Now. If you'll give me those, I'll put them aside and do the alterations on them tomorrow. You can pick them up the next day. It's getting very late and... as thrilling as this little escapade has been... I would very much like to go home and have a nice cup of tea.”

“I'll pay you triple your normal rate if you do the alterations now.” La Croix wheedled, and the pony immediately perked up and looked over at him, brightening quite a bit. It made the zebra feel a wry sense of amusement... and then, out of nowhere, came the thought that Zecora would have done all of this for free, and that same brightness would have come not from any promise of wealth, but just a simple 'thank you...'

The zebra dropped his gaze for a moment, closing his eyes, and the tailor frowned nervously at him... but after a moment, La Croix shook his head quickly and cleared his throat, muttering: “Sorry. Just... an ombre. Look, I'll even make you the stencils or whatever. We get this done within the hour, then I give you whatever you want. Je promets.”

The elderly stallion hesitated, then he nodded moodily and said finally: “Well, normally I don't really like other people helping with my work, but... I suppose this one time I can allow it.”

La Croix gave a brief smile, and the tailor gave him an appraising look before turning with a sigh, gesturing at him and muttering: “Well. Come along to the back, then.”

The stallion led the way, and La Croix followed: the zebra was surprised by how large the shop actually was, especially after they entered the workshop in the back. He was also surprised by the variety of materials, and the old stallion seemed to take no small pleasure in pointing out this trophy or that picture, bragging now and then about his illustrious past as a designer.

La Croix ignored most of it: even when they started to work on modifying his clothing, he'd gone mostly onto autopilot, muttering only a little now and then as he created the base of the patterns for the old tailor to follow. They worked surprisingly well together, but perhaps that was mostly because of how intensely focused they both were on the task at hoof: the old tailor had a challenge, and La Croix was trying to make something he'd need to stay alive.

It was only two hours of work: La Croix actually ended up sewing most of the addition for the hat himself, while almost all of the old tailor's time was spent on the cloak. And La Croix had to admit that he was pleased to see how things had turned out: done quickly, done well.

The cloak fit perfectly: flowing black, but with a silver border, held on by metallic brooches and a gleaming chain. The entirety of the cloak's edge was illustrated with violet runes that seemed to bleed from the dark, black velvet of the cloak's body, giving it a strange beauty.

His top hat had a similar design: deep, raven black, with a gorgeous peacock feather standing out of it, but a violet band of cloth inset with dark runes wrapped around the base of the headgear, just above the narrow brim. La Croix smiled as he stepped in front of a mirror to admire his new clothing... and for the first time in a long time, he felt safe while doing so. Even before he enchanted this cloak, the runes would offer enough protection to keep him invisible to evil eyes: once he got some privacy to put on the rest of the charms and enchantments, he might actually be able to hide out long enough to make a jump to another world.

The old stallion cleared his throat loudly, and La Croix glanced mildly up before the tailor gestured absently at the scraps of clothing on the table. “I assume you'll be paying for this waste as well. And that you'll pay me by no later than midnight tonight.”

“I'll pay you right now.” La Croix said mildly, and then he reached out and snagged up the tattered remains of the cloth they had cut up. The old stallion frowned, but La Croix only grinned and quickly crushed it down into a rough ball shape, saying thoughtfully: “Now let's see... what'll work best... uh... how about gold? Would gold be fine?”

“Gold would be fine.” The tailor frowned at the stallion, leaning uncomfortably back, but La Croix only grinned widely in response before there was a sudden flash.

The old stallion staggered backwards in surprise, before scowling as there was a tremendous thump... but then his expression turned to a gape of disbelief as he saw La Croix had just dropped a block of gold larger than his head onto the floor out of apparently nowhere. He mouthed wordlessly, stepping forwards and poking disbelievingly at this, but La Croix only smiled pleasantly and clapped his front hooves together before saying easily: “Well, I guess that's that!”

With that, La Croix turned and proudly strode away, heading back into the main room of the shop. His smile grew fainter with every step, however, until it was nothing but a ghost on his pale features when he emerged from the tailor's and back out onto the street.

He silently stroked his hooves up through the cape: there were still modifications to be done, but he could easily do most of them himself. He just couldn't stop thinking about Zecora, about how she'd given him his powers back... and what did he do with them? Stage magic and parlor tricks that made his own life easier, and cheated others around him. The first real interaction he'd had with a pony since that fateful afternoon, and what had he done? Cheated him out of these garments... and he hadn't even gotten the old guy's name.

La Croix sighed quietly, then he frowned a little and glanced down the street... before his eyes widened in horror as he saw several well-dressed zebras, standing motionlessly only a short distance away. He knew they were staring at him, even though he couldn't see their faces behind the polished party masks they wore. He could feel their glares from behind their covered eyes; the hatred emanating from their bodies almost threatened to suffocate him.

The stallion staggered around in a circle and bolted, and the three zebras shambled after him: he knew they had his scent now, though, and there was no way he was going to lose them unless he could make a jump... or... unless...

La Croix ran down the street: the zebras behind him weren't fast, but they weren't exactly slow, either. They moved at a steady pace that would overcome him sooner or later, because even with his powers restored, his body still had its limits. And if these creatures were on the ground hunting him, it meant there were likely already evil spirits in the air above, just waiting for him to either try and turn ethereal or attempt something stupid like flight.

The Loa shivered as he looked over his shoulder: the three had fallen more than a block behind him, but they were still shambling along with ruthless determination. He wondered how long they had been in this city, likely patrolling for any sign of him... he wanted to imagine it couldn't be that long, that he would have sensed them, but he was so tangled up in his own emotions...

La Croix cursed under his breath, then he turned a corner sharply and sprinted down a side alley. He stumbled over a garbage can with a tremendous crash and bang, and he heard a voice yell angrily at him from above, but ponies were the least of his worries right now. He could deal with ponies: they weren't immune to his magic. They weren't nearly indestructible.

The stallion staggered around another corner then rushed back out onto the street. He hoped that those things would be slowed down, but that was highly unlikely: unlike what most ponies thought, zombies weren't just bumbling, dull-witted beasts. They were only slow and awkward because of the atrophy in their bodies: they retained many of their memories and skills from life, and were perfectly capable of learning new ones for as long as they remained puppets of the evil spirit that had summoned them. That, combined with a sense of smell that could hone in on a single target like him from miles away, made them the perfect hunting dogs.

The zebra hopped a set of old boxes, then turned and bolted down the street, gritting his teeth before he grinned to himself as he caught sight of the one thing that might still be able to save his life. He rushed towards it, ignoring the few ponies he passed who stared or shouted at him as he sprinted by through this old quarter of town, the stallion concentrating solely on his objective...

And he made it. He could barely believe it, but he managed to make the squat, old wooden bridge just as the zombies emerged from the alley. La Croix wheezed loudly as he stumbled to the center of this, then dropped on his rump and leaned back against the half-rotten banister, looking up at the night sky and letting himself catch his breath before he grinned over at the zombies when they filed up to the other side, only glaring at him malevolently.

“Yeah, can't get me, can you? None of y'all can cross bridges... no evil spirit can. But me, I'm a Loa from the old days... bridges and running water ain't nothing to me.” La Croix slowly shoved himself up to his hooves, grimacing as he brushed at himself. “And in five minutes, I'm gonna be on the other side of the country, mes amis. So why don't y'all give up and go home?”

The zombies were silent... and then one slowly reached up and peeled off his mask, and La Croix shivered a bit at the sight of his stark, half-decayed features, his lips missing and leaving his teeth bared in a permanent grin, his jaundiced eyes looking up with hatred at La Croix. Not the hatred of the dead for the living; the hatred of Bondye for the one who had escaped him. “We will hunt you forever, La Croix. We will hunt until you are found... be it this world or any other. You will never know safety. You will never know sanctuary. You will never know escape. You are already caught in the snare, Baron La Croix: our master just hasn't chosen to take you yet.”

La Croix opened his mouth to reply... but he didn't have any words, any response. He was only able to look silently at the zombies as they looked callously, coldly back, before the dead zebra silently replaced his mask, then calmly turned and led his fellows away.

And La Croix was left sitting on the bridge, swallowing a bit and rubbing at his face silently as the zombies walked away... and yet he had never felt more trapped in all of his many long years of life.