• Published 21st Nov 2014
  • 1,498 Views, 106 Comments

Equine, All Too Equine - stanku



In the grim future of Canterlot, the volatile relations between the three races and the griffon minority are nearing the point of no return. And the only pony who could stop the outbreak of a civil war cannot afford to do so.

  • ...
8
 106
 1,498

Chapter IV


It had not been a good day for Helm Cleaver. In fact, so far it had possibly been the worst one he had ever known. For one, he had slept the night on the couch, courtesy of his wife. She hadn’t believed that any officer would subtract a guard’s pay for swearing, which had left her theorizing on the subject of mysteriously lost money. It was cruel irony that, on the one time he actually hadn’t spent it on booze, he had been scolded for it.

After that, things had only gone downhill. When he got to the station, he found out that his usual partner Mill Stone was MIA, which meant he was assigned to patrol with Brightmail until he turned up. Apparently they couldn’t stand him a day longer in accounting from where he had been moved from the depot, where he had originally ended up because nopony wanted to do tours with him. A pony could only take on so much religion before losing their faith.

Not in the case of Brightmail: he was all about religion, to the point where one could doubt whether there was anything else to him. He didn’t even have to preach about it – although he most often did, in the subtle, persistent way in which water eats away rock – to make ponies sick of him because the Faith beamed from his person directly. Spend too much time with Brightmail and feelings of piety would seep into your soul, shadowing everything you once had taken pleasure in thinking. And the leaflets… Nopony in the guard wanted to get started on Brightmail’s little leaflets.

After an hour of patrolling with him, Helm was ready to accept any corporal punishment if it could redeem him from the pony’s company. The day’s pious theme was the Prophecy, one of Brightmail’s favourite topics. “The day would be near,” he said,” when the alicorns will roam the land again, and banish the nonbelievers from the face of the earth,” and so forth. At times he hummed some celestial song. Helm was certain they had originally been invented as a sort of torture.

Despite everything, it was actually unclear to Helm which sect of the Unity Movement Brightmail belonged to. There were dozens of them in the city, all preaching for harmony, unity and friendship of all ponies regardless of race. That was basically where their points of agreement ended. Fighting, both scholarly and physical, was common among the groups. Apparently it was highly important whether Twilight the Last Alicorn had in her speeches vouched for the unity of “sky, land and magic” or ”magic, sky and land”, or in which order the Element Bearers should be depicted in holy paintings. The fact that Brightmail, like everypony else in the Guard, was a unicorn wasn’t a decisive clue. Lately, even cultists of the same race had been fighting.

Against all odds, Helm’s prayers had been unexpectedly answered when a couple of other guards had come to them and ordered him, but not Brightmail, to make rush to the West Gate. There was some special task waiting for him there, but he had been way too relieved to ask more about it. It couldn't’ be worse than spending the day with Brightmail. Well, of course it could, but the odds were definitely against that.

The Lieutenant from yesternight had been there, along with Stone Mill. His face hadn’t boded well – it was as if Heart was still pointing him with a crossbow. The Lieutenant had briefed them about the mission, asked if they had any questions, told them three times not to do anything stupid without his explicit order, and then they were on their way. To the Cliffs.

The Guard didn’t go to the Cliffs in numbers smaller than thirty, and even then only if there was no other way. And now the three of them were climbing the steep mountain trail like they were on a hike. It confirmed Helm’s belief that Heart was terminally insane. Sure, he had explained the events of the last twenty-four hours and why they were doing this, and from an impartial perspective there probably was some sense to his plan. But from the perspective which Helm occupied, it was definitely insane.

“We should run for it,” he whispered to Mill. The two of them were walking behind Heart, not because the Captain should go first, but because the road could not fit three ponies walking side by side.

Mill gave him a quick, nervous glance. “He’s the Captain now, remember? That’d be desertion: the worst kind.”

“Still better than getting skinned alive,” he hissed. His hoof kicked a loose rock, which rolled over the edge. The drop was some two hundred meters, and he felt every centimeter as he watched it disappear beyond his vision. “We’re lucky if we get there. Getting out… Well, maybe they don’t need all our bones for decoration.”

Helm kept his eyes firmly ahead. “Sorry. Can’t do it.”

Why?

“Because I… I trust him.”

Helm looked at the back of the Captain. It couldn’t be denied that he hadn’t seemed worried at all as he had explained what they were going to do, as if visiting the Cliffs was something that he did on a daily basis. Hell, maybe he did. Even Helm could not deny that Heart had guts, and more: determination that ran bone-deep. There was this aura of authority hanging around him, like an invisible cloak that kept drops of doubt and hesitation off him. A natural leader if Helm had ever seen one.

But that didn’t change the fact that they were on their way to the bucking Cliffs. Helm had nothing against the griffons, not personally. Only… well, they were griffons. They ate fish and, if the rumors he had heard were true, animals that were much closer to ponies in the evolutionary sense. They had claws that could slice through iron, and in speed they could match any pegasus. They didn’t know about magic, thankfully, but the problem was they knew that, too. They had known that for centuries. They had come up with ways to compensate, and ripping your throat open was only one of them.

Helm was thinking of ways to persuade Mill to join his little rebellion when he realized that, despite the cloudless sky, a shadow loomed over him. A shadow with wings. He looked up and regretted it immediately.

“C-Captain,” he said, staring above.

“I know,” said Heart. Helm looked at him and cursed under his breath when he saw that three more griffons had appeared seemingly from nowhere, blocking their path.

“Going somewhere?” asked the biggest one. His feathers were a deep shade of violet save around the head, which leaned closer to the red of dawn. The predatory eyes studied them in turns, and when they met Helm, he felt the hairs on his neck jolt upright.

Heart fixed his already flawless bearing. “I ask for an audience with the King.”

The griffon’s eyes snapped to him. “Who asks?”

“The Captain of Canterlot’s Citizen Guard.”

There came a silence. Helm could hear the slow, rhythmical wingbeats of the four other griffons above them, see the fluxing shadows under his feet. If they decided to charge, he might have just enough time to hurl himself over the edge and hope it would mean a less painful end than what they had in store.

“You’re not him,” said the big griffon. “I’ve seen the Captain. He’s old.”

“I’m the new one,” said Heart. Helm saw a green-grey halo appear around his horn.

The griffons stirred.

“I’m just going to prove that I am,” continued Heart slowly. He produced a piece of paper from his pocket and floated it to the griffon, who snatched it from the air and gave it a look.

“Proves nothing,” he said, letting the paper fall from his claws. The wind caught it and would have thrown it over the edge, but Heart’s horn seized it before that.

“I’m afraid it does,” he said calmly, folding the paper back into his pocket. He looked the griffon into the eyes. “You saw the signatures. The document is valid under all the rules of Equestria, a part of which this mountain is. Now let us through.”

The griffon snapped his beak sharply. “Pony laws, made of grass. Don’t grow in the mountain, grass.”

“It grows where the buck I tell it to,” said Heart. He looked the griffon up and down. ”What is your rank? I have no time to waste with underlings. Let me pass or bring the King here, either way is fine with me. I will also settle for arresting all of you for resisting a government official.”

The griffon flexed his clawed fists and, to Helm’s horror, grinned.

“A brave little pony, making threats so high up.”

“It’s not a threat. It’s the law. Your law.” Heart paused, waiting for the words to sink in. “However, if it in any way hastens this conversation, I plead for One Peaceful Night. Now.”

For all their tenseness, the griffons had thus far remained relatively calm. But as they heard Heart’s last words, they let out a kind of a collective snarl. “Have no right!” the leader screamed. “You’re a pony, not avelin!”

Helm didn’t know ten words of the griffon tongue, but he did recognize the one they had for themselves. Translated to common Equestrian, it meant something like “favored by the wind”.

“Where does it say in the Five Laws that I must be?” asked Heart. “Show me that and I’ll leave. Otherwise, get the buck out of my way.”

Ten strained seconds passed, then ten more, during which Helm started praying in his mind. Right now, he would take a lifetime of tours with Brightmail in exchange for this. Well, maybe not a lifetime, but at least a week. Without earplugs.

Without a single word, the griffons parted. Heart watched them settle a charge-distance above them and then pressed onwards as if they hadn’t been stopped in the first place. Stone Mill cantered after him, and Helm followed only because staying put or returning back were even more horrible options. When he was relatively sure he could talk without his teeth clattering, he whispered to Mill: “What night did he talk about?”

Mill shaked his head. “It’s some griffon thing. You know about the Five Laws, right?”

“A lawyer like me? Sure.”

“One Peaceful Night refers to the Third Law,” said Heart without turning to look at them. Either he had the hearing of a bat or he had simply guessed what they were whispering about, thought Helm. “I begged for shelter, which they must offer us until the next dawn,” continued Heart. “In theory.”

“In… theory?” braved Helm. Every effortless wingbeat above him send shivers running down his spine.

“Don’t bother yourself with that,” said Heart. He glanced at them. “And keep your head up: you look like prey.”

Helm’s neck straightened immediately. Okay, two weeks of tours for getting out of here, he thought. And I’ll even read the bloody leaflets.





***





“Chancellor?” repeated Chip, slightly more insistently.

“Hmm?” said Feinsake, turning away from the window of her office.

Chip nodded at the direction of an oaken grandfather clock. The heavyset pointers showed that midday was only a quarter of an hour away. To the secretary’s’ confusion, Feinsake showed no signs of comprehension.

“The voting for the new housing act will take place soon,” said Chip carefully. “Shouldn’t we be on our way already?”

Feinsake smiled, but in a way which Chip recognized as an attempt to cover a momentary lapse in thought. In what came to her employer’s smiles, Chip considered herself as only a diploma short of an expert.

“Yes,” said Feinsake. “Yes, of course. I was simply waiting until the last minute.”

Chip nodded slowly. That had almost sounded like an excuse. The thing was, Feinsake didn’t make excuses, ever. Not ones that obvious, at least.

As they left the office, Chip couldn’t help but think that her employer had lately acted… uncharacteristically. Yesterday’s trip to the morgue was only one example: it basically ruined the day’s schedule, and for what reason? So she could spent a few informal hours with the new Captain of the Guard? Chip couldn’t see how that had been necessary in the slightest. And why had the Chancellor lied to him in the coach about how she had found out where he lived? Chip had never solved that, although she probably could have. It bothered her to think that Feinsake wouldn’t have trusted her with such a simple thing. On top of that, she had gone somewhere alone that night, into a place where Chip hadn’t been welcome. And this morning, Feinsake had been more nervous than Chip had ever seen her be – she had found her in her bed chamber, fighting to get the chancellor’s uniform on. In the end, she had had to help her get dressed.

It all probably connected to the pregnancy, Chip has reasoned. Even a bedrock of a mind like Feinsake’s had to face some quakes in the face of motherhood. The notion reminded Chip that she should order the cake for the surprise party, and to send out the invitations. Keeping the event a secret from Feinsake had stretched even Chip’s limits, but it would be worth it.

The secretary’s thoughts were interrupted when Feinsake fell to her knees right before her.

“Chancellor!” she yelped while hurrying to help her. “What’s wro–”

She froze when she saw that the mare’s face was disfigured by pain.

“My… stomach…” Feinsake gasped, holding her distended belly. Chip could see the fur bulging from the kicks of the foal within. “It’s… time…”

A switch turned on in Chip’s mind, setting in motion a plan which she had written just for this moment. “It’s okay, Chancellor,” she said with the tone she had been practicing. “We have prepared for this.” She looked quickly at both ends of the corridor. There was nopony else around. “Wait here, I’ll call for Doctor Grain and–”

“No!”

Chip didn’t recognize the voice. It didn’t even sound equine, let alone belonging to Feinsake. Naked panic was not her forte. Chip looked down at her. In one sweep, all her carefully laid out plans, backups included, shattered in the face of Feinsake’s terrified eyes.

“Not Grain!” she said, tears falling on her cheeks. Another contraction forced her eyes shut, and for a second Chip thought she’d faint. “Send me… someone else…”

“W-who?” managed Chip.

Feinsake pulled her closer and whispered a name. The secretary’s eyes grew wide.

Him? But he’s a–”

“Do it,” hissed Feinsake, letting go of the secretary. She drew a deep breath, twice, and opened her eyes. They were her’s again, not fear’s. “And tell nopony of this.”

Chip fidgeted in indecision. She was no professional, but she was pretty sure that Feinsake’s pain wasn’t normal: one moment she had been fine, the other she wept tears of agony. “But… but… I can’t leave you like this!”

With a muffled grunt, Feinsake stood on all fours. “You can and you will. I’ll… make it to my office, where you’ll bring him. Now.”

Chip batted her moist eyes. “Chancellor… I don’t understand…”

Feinsake looked at her. Chip stopped wavering about, along with breathing. She stared into her eyes, and felt like falling from very high.

I said do it.”

The secretary ran away, even leaving her notebook behind. Feinsake watched her disappear around the corner, after which she fought to endure another contraction, the strongest thus far.

The time had come… but too early, again. Much too early. She still lacked the ingredients, all but one of them, which she had acquired yesternight. Why there hadn’t been more already, she couldn't say, for the place had been empty, contrary to what had been agreed. That was worrying. Very, very worrying.

With steps shadowed by pain she headed towards her office. She would pull through this time, just like she had pulled through all the other times. With Mister Gruff’s help, just about anything was possible. Even the unthinkable. Especially the unthinkable.





***





Heart had no illusions that he was gambling, not just with his own life, but possibly with hundreds. The griffons held honor in high esteem, that was true, and under the protection of the One Night they could not lay a claw on him as long as he did not show aggression. That was all theory, though: simple tricks they taught in the Academy. All that was based on knowledge before the Catastrophe, when there had been no lack of resources either in Equestria or in the Kingdoms. It was easy to be honorable with a full stomach, less so when your own leg started looking delicious.

Heart, Helm and Mill were escorted into the network of caves. What little intel the Guard had about the Cliffs was easily affirmed then: the griffons were starving. Hollow faces and empty stares followed them in the corridors and halls through which they travelled. The only sign of food was the breathtaking smell of fish, which meant that the supply lines to the sea must still be at least partially working.

It seemed that most of the refugees were packed close to the surface where space was scarce. It made no sense to Heart. The mountain had once been home for dragons, and deeper in the mountain there were halls that could fit half of Canterlot within. There was no way they could be filled, so why did the griffons pack up so tight? By the look of the haystacks that littered the place they even slept here.

After several twists and turns in the suffocating tunnels they made it to a part of the cave where some sort of structures had been put up. A crude wooden wall spread before them, along with a gate. Four guards stood there, and the big griffon went to exchange some words with one of them. To Heart’s ear Griffonian always sounded like somepony was being eaten alive, but these two were clearly arguing about something. It seemed strange that they were willing to show internal disagreement so openly. When he thought about it, the fact that they were allowed to pass this deep into the Griffon territory without any argument was disturbing. Most griffons they had passed by seemed only interested to find out if they had any food for them. Had the word of his coming somehow reached the King beforehand?

The argument seemed to reach an end. At least the two griffons separated, although the looks on their faces suggested a bad compromise. The big one walked to Heart.

“The King’s busy. No time for little ponies now. You wait.”

This at least had been expected. Royalty rarely received uninvited guests immediately. Having to wait was a good sign: at least something was working as it ought to be. The three ponies were guided yet deeper into the mountain, to a corridor that was too corrupted by dampness to serve for living. And then they waited.

They waited for a good long while.

“We’re going to… aren’t we?” whispered Helm, who had withdrawn a bit deeper into the corridor with Mill. What he said probably wasn't meant to Heart’s ears, but the slight echoing of the walls let him catch some of the words and guess the rest.

“…can’t know…” said Mill’s ghastly voice. “Need to… cool.”

“I am cool,” said Helm a tad louder. There was a pause, and then he continued: “Why didn’t… sign in… today?”

“Had… Business…”

“Business?”

“…ask…”

Heart knew very well what that business was, and recalling it here, amidst the stench of mold, fish and griffon, made his stomach twist into knots. When the Unity Guard had taken him the day before yesterday, he had resisted so fiercely because he had thought they’d take Lily along – or worse, that they wouldn't. Contrary to all his instructions, Mill had burst through the front door and helped to calm down the situation. He had promised to take care of her until he’d come back, whenever that was. And now Lily was with Violet, who had promised to take her to the station. He could only thank the stars that the two had made natural friends instead of enemies.

What kind of a father shoves her daughter from stranger to stranger like that? The answer came to him all too easily. The kind who knows of nothing better. The image of Hilt surfaced again, but not the one he had seen in the mortuary. That corpse hadn’t been his father, not really. The image he had was of a strong, proud stallion who had a mane like a silver mine and eyes to match it. All four legs, too. There was a pony who had dedicated his whole life to the city, to save it from the greatest of enemies, itself. It was only logical that, in the end, he had ended up fighting with himself. With his own blood.

And now he was dead. The thought still had an unreal taste to him.

Approaching steps made him stand up. Three guards emerged from the darkness, torch flames dancing on their solemn faces.

“You, the Captain?” said one of them, pointing at Heart. These griffons carried neither any kind of uniforms or even insignia to give away their rank. It was probably a safety measure of sorts, but the notion still bothered Heart. It wasn’t a part of proper military code to hide your identity.

“Yes?” said Heart.

“Come with us,” said the griffon. He looked at Helm and Mill, who had also stood up. “These two stay here.”

“I need two reliable witnesses in the meeting with the King,” said Heart.

The griffon looked at him in the way his teacher had in the primary school when he hadn’t done his homework. It was then that he realized he was talking with a female. With griffons, the question of sex was almost a matter of opinion, like the saying went.

“You won’t meet him,” she said. “But me.”

“I specifically requested an audience with the King,” said Heart. “You’ve made us wait long enough: my cause is of extreme importance.”

The griffon’s expression remained unimpressed. “The King’s very busy. So am I. You come with me or stay here, it’s up to you.”

Heart’s eyes narrowed. This was definitely a setback, but the griffon didn’t seem to care if he indeed stayed in this cave until his mane fell off. It also occurred to him that she might be faking, to test how badly he really wanted to see the King. Anything was possible, which told a great deal about the mystery that surrounded the King of Four Winds and Five Laws. Nopony had seen the current one alive, and there was even some confusion about his actual name. Griffons, lowly punks and high delegations both, only ever talked about “the King” and what he had decreed, supposedly or no.

But the truth was that Heart was already all-in in this mess. It was time to show the cards.

“Very well,” he said. “But I would still like to have at least one of my guards as a witness.”

The griffon shook her head slowly. “We talk alone or we don’t talk.”

Heart stared at her. It was hard to say in the dim torchlight, but the griffon female looked very young. Her plumage, which ranged from clear copper of the head to the deepest azure of her wings, practically radiated health, strength and, first and foremost, speed. Only her eyes matched her curved talons in sharpness. All this told Heart that he could very well be talking with the King’s daughter, another sign of which was her apt knowledge of common Equestrian. She barely had an accent, unlike most griffons Heart had met.

“If you insist,” he said, and turned to Mill and Helm. “Take it easy, lads. Take it easy.”

They nodded stiffly.

“And now,” continued Heart while looking at the could-be-Princess. “Lead the way.”




***



Mister Gruff was not a jolly sight. In fact, he was the very opposite of what ponies usually understood with the word jolly. He could send a tent full of laughing clowns to a terminally depressed ward just by staring at them for ten minutes. Those who talked with him often found their hearts a great deal heavier afterwards, even if the topic had just been about the weather. Some said he had born that way, but others knew better. In his line of work, Mister Gruff’s character traits, obnoxious as they would have been in any other profession, were not a disease but a necessity. A face like his was expected of ponies who for their living made sure that foals were not born.

Feinsake knew that most rumours around Mister Gruff were just that and nothing more. In truth he could indeed smile and honestly some of his jokes were good. He just never got the chance to use them, because ponies seldom wished to spent time with a person who regularly extracted foals, dead or alive, from mares’ bellies. It wasn’t that they hated or feared him – they simply wanted to know nothing about him and to forget him as soon as possible, because they wanted to forget the reason why he existed.

Yet every once in awhile, somepony somewhere needed the help of Mister Gruff. When they did, he would appear from somewhere, talk with, and only with, the mother and then do his work. Sometimes it required the knife, sometimes not. Mister Gruff didn’t fall short of imagination when it came to his work. It saved a lot of pain and a great deal of mess, at least in the physical sense.

Feinsake’s office’s door was knocked on, and she knew immediately it was Mister Gruff. Nopony else had such a terminal knock.

“In,” she said. Her pain had reached the point where every moment, and every word, came with a needle.

Mister Gruff entered the office and closed the door behind. He glanced at the room at large, then at Feinsake, who lay on one of the couches. The windows had been drawn, but enough light filtered through so the pearls of sweat were plain on her forehead. He walked to her, his black doctor’s suitcase flowing quietly by his side.

He stopped by the couch. “Chancellor,” he said and gave her a small bow. His voice was quiet to the point where ponies had to hold their breath to catch every word.

“What’s… happening to me?” said Feinsake. She writhed on her back, staring at the roof with wide eyes.

Gruff’s grey eyes studied her convulsing body. “I should say you are in labour, my lady.”

I noticed,” she said through gritted teeth. She had to pause to choke a scream. “How? You promised me–”

“I promised you nothing, my lady,” he said. His bag dropped heavily to the ground and opened with a snap. Feinsake couldn’t see what he pulled out of there, but she could hear the faint cling of metal.

“Would you have me cut it out?” he asked.

“No!” she yelped. Tears pushed past her wild eyes seeking his face. “You must… prolong the pregnancy. Like you did before.”

His face remained impassive. He seemed to be completely immersed in going over his various tools. “Before was before. It is clear to me that this foal will be born now, and that there is nothing I can do to stop it. Nothing that would include keeping the infant inside you, anyway.” He raised a small, brown bottle for closer inspection of his half-moon glasses. “You should have called a midwife. But I will do my best.”

Feinsake tried to sit up. “No! No! You can’t! I order you to delay this birth!”

Gruff produced a syringe, which he filled from the bottle. “You might as well ask me to end your life, then. That can be arranged much less painlessly, you know.”

Feinsake managed to sit up. Her breath was erratic, and the pain had turned red hot. “What’s… that?” she panted.

“Something to ease your agony,” he said. The syringe turned towards her in the air, carried by a dark white halo. “I must ask you to lay down.”

“Are you deaf!” screamed Feinsake, staining Gruff’s suit in spit. “This foal will not be born today!”

Gruff frowned very lightly. “That is not up to you to decide. Not anymore. Please, allow me to–”

He stopped when he felt the touch of cold metal on his throat. He didn’t even need to see the blade to know it was one of his own.

“If this foal is born now,” began Feinsake, her horn painting her sweaty face in eerie glow. “You’ll die. What happens to me, I don’t care.”

Gruff stared at her. In the state she was, there was a reasonable chance he could wrest the knife from her. The trouble was that his work, whatever else might be said about it, had a pension. He was not about to throw it away on light grounds.

“If I told you there was a way… would you put down the blade?” he said.

She smiled. It wasn’t her best one, but in the circumstances no angel could have done better. “It’s worth the try, isn’t it?”

Gruff tried to withhold from swallowing. “There is a price.”

“I can take more pain.”

“I’m not talking of pain.” He grinned like a ghost might. “Although you won’t be left wanting in that regard, either.”

Feinsake pushed her face inches from his. “I ask you one more time. Will… you… do it?”

For the longest while that he could remember, Mister Gruff hesitated. He had had a bad feeling about this case right from the start. Ending a pregnancy was one thing, prolonging it beyond its natural limits was… beyond him. But the fees had been timely and hefty, and that went a long way. This, however… He was not sure at all if any earthly fee could cover what she asked of him.

Right on time with his moral pause, the blade pressed a bit tighter against his throat.

“I will,” he whispered. “But you will regret it.”

The two were now close enough so that a drop of sweat from her brow could fall on his cheek. “For this foal, regret can do no harm,” she said. “If she is not born before her time, that is.”

***

The griffon female led Heart into a small chamber with masoned walls and even some furniture. Griffon culture was not big on luxury, he reflected. The simple, heavy table and a few chairs probably were extravagant in their mind. He looked at the chair once, decided it would break if he tried it and sat on the floor instead. She didn’t even bother to settle on the table, but walked in a corner, leaning her shoulder against a wall. Like she had promised, they were alone in the gloom.

“Why do you want to see the King?” she asked after a short silence.

“In the long term, to discuss the future of our two races,” he answered. “However, for now I could settle for one simple question.”

“Spit it out.”

“What does he know about the murder of Berry Pie?”

Not a feather stirred on her face, although it was difficult to say for all the shadows that covered it. “Who?”

“A pony who was found dead the other night,” said Heart. “Throat sliced. Cutie mark flayed.”

“And why should the King know anything about that? Or care?”

“Because we found the Amber Peak painted on the wall next to the corpse,” he said, studying her reactions. It was extremely difficult, because there seemed to be none. It was as if he was talking with the walls.

“So? Ponies can paint pictures too. The Guard included.” She pushed herself off the wall and started walking around the room. “And what if one of us killed the pony? Or saw the corpse and painted the Peak? What do you want the King to do about it?”

Heart stood up. “I want the King to offer whatever help he can to aid the investigations. Don’t you understand what I’m talking about here? If the word started spreading that the Brigade has killed a pony–”

“–then we’ll have a war,” she finished, still strolling around the room without a worry in sight. “That’s all you ponies ever talk about.”

Heart’s ears pricked up. “Are you… admitting the crime?”

She let out a short, high-pitched laugh that bounced around the room before dying abruptly. “You’re so lost, little pony… You have no idea what goes on inside the mountain.”

“I asked you a question.”

She gave him a mocking grin. “But not the right one.”

She is playing with me, Heart decided as the griffon circled around him like a cat. She knows something. And this is not definitely a simple hearing or exchange of agendas. So what the hay is this?

“Is the Brigade behind the murder?” he said.

She shrugged. “Who knows? Could be. Does it make a difference?”

Heart’s skin crawled. She was acting as if they were actually playing a role game of sorts, and she got her kicks out of breaking her character. She had to hold a high position in the griffon hierarchy to dare behave like this.

“It makes all the difference, as you well know,” he said.

“And why is that, exactly?” she said, turning sharply to him. “We’re all part of the ‘Brigade’ anyway, right? Everypony knows it, right?”

“Are they correct?”

She laughed again, longer this time.

“You do seem to find the prospect of mindless slaughter extremely hilarious,” he said when the last echoes died away, along with the keenest edge of his rage. “It makes me think you actually desire it.”

She hung her head, still smirking. “You ponies can’t see beyond your little laws, your little world of paper. You can’t understand, never could.”

Heart snorted. “Understand you griffons, you mean? I cannot agree more.”

Very slowly, she pulled herself to her full height, right before Heart. Standing on two feet, she towered over him, almost touching the ceiling. Her smirk was long gone.

“Not us, stupid pony. The world. You’re afraid of the future that lies behind you. You’re blind.”

Heart’s ears pressed low. “What do you mean?”

There was a blur, and then Heart found the griffon kneeling right in front of him, her clawed hands holding his temples from both sides. “The war,” she whispered, “Is not before, but behind you. It happened a hundred years ago. You call it the Catastrophe, falsely. Only we know it by its true name.”

Heart would have answered, but the griffon’s iron grip kept his mouth shut. Her pupils were two spots of blackness swimming in pools of amber. They sucked in not only his full attention, but his memory as well, hurling him down the steps of history.

“A catastrophe would imply an accident,” she said. “Whereas in truth there was but a punishment. And that’s why we call the Last War… the Fall.”







***




Chip walked in a circle in front of Feinsake’s office, not because there was nothing else left for her to do but because it was the only thing she could do to stop herself from doing everything she was supposed to do. She should have called a real doctor, not mister Gruff. She should be with the Chancellor right now, not listening her screaming behind the door. The fact that she had stopped half an hour ago had only made her imagination run wild. Anything could be going on there, and when they’d ask Chip why she hadn’t acted there and then, what could she say? That the Chancellor had ordered her not to? If Feinsake died, would they believe her then?

It was pure luck that nopony had come to visit the Chancellor yet, or come asking after her. There were a dozen meetings she had missed. Sooner or later somepony would come, and what they would find in the office, Chip didn’t want to know. All she wanted was to be far away when that would happen. She could not run away though, not while there was a chance that Feinsake was alive. It didn’t bear thinking what she would do, should she find out that her trusted secretary had deserted her at a time like this. Those eyes she had… even the memory of them made Chip feel hunted.

The door creaked open. The sound stopped Chip dead on her tracks. She looked at the opening and into the darkness, expecting to see a face appear. None did.

“H-hello?” she said, peering closer. “C-chancellor? M-mister Gruff?”

No answer. She peeked through the door. The sound of rushing blood filled her ears.

“A-anypony?”

There was a brief moment when she felt a tingling sensation all over her body, and then an unknown force yanked her into the room. The door slammed shut at the same moment the magic let go of her, dropping her to the floor. She scrambled to her feet, scanning the gloom in mindless terror. It shouldn’t be this dark here, she realized. The sunset was still hours away.

“Calm down, Chip,” said a voice from the darkness. “It’s me.”

Chip gasped. The voice sounded like it came from beyond the grave, but there was no mistaking the slim elegance of it. “Chancellor?”

“I’m on your left. On the couch.”

Chip squinted, trying to make sense of the utter darkness. Had somepony painted the windows black at some point? How could it be so dark here? With tenuous steps, she made it towards the direction where she remembered the array of couches to be.

“A little closer,” the voice said. “A turn to the right… good… you’re almost there…”

“Are you okay, Chancellor?” Chip said. “You sound so… uhm…” Weak wasn’t the right word, eerie was too strong. Thin might have been it. Frail would hit the mark perfectly.

“I’m fine,” the voice assured. “Please. I need your help.”

Chip blinked away her tears. “I’ll do anything, Chancellor!”

“I know you will, Chip. I know you will.”

Chip hurried her steps: she knew she was close. “Chancellor, I’m coming! I’m sorry I left you alone, I shouldn't have but he wouldn’t let me in! I–”

“Did anypony see you bring him here?”

Chip’s leg bumped against the couch. She sighed in relief. “Ah, no, I don’t think so. We used one of the secret passages, and he came in a disguise.” The secretary fumbled her way in the dark. Now that she thought about it, the room wasn’t just oddly dark but cold, too. Freezing. “Where is he, anyway?”

“Right here,” said Mister Gruff behind her. He moved quickly.

The scream never made it past Chip’s lips. A sharp pain bloomed in her shoulder, although it was soon replaced by terrible numbness that coursed through her veins. It was as if somepony had injected her with liquid weakness.

“Whah,” she tried. Everything felt so heavy. And cold. So very, very cold. “Whah…”

A light appeared in the darkness: too small to illuminate, too weak to even guide. It grew a bit stronger, and Chip realized it came from the tip of a horn. The Chancellor’s horn.

She reached towards it. A familiar hoof met her midway, gently seizing hers. But something was not right: the hoof was Feinsake’s, Chip was sure of that, but it looked strange.

And then, in the faint light, she saw a face.

“Ga,” said Chip. “Ga.”

“You always were my most trusted servant,” said Feinsake, her voice rustling like a thousand-year-old paper. A stench of decay hit Chip in the face, making her gag. “You will be remembered. As a heroine.”

The numbness was now seeping into Chip’s mind, clouding her thoughts. She was not sure where she was anymore, or if she was at all. The last thing she saw were teeth. Rotten, black teeth.

“You will be remembered,” rustled Feinsake as Chip slumped on the couch. She smoothed the secretary’s mane with a withered hoof, the light of her horn slowly fading away. “Remembered…”

A moment passed in reverent silence, and then Mister Gruff started working. It was true that his work demanded a great deal of imagination – the kind of which other ponies’ nightmares are made off.






***








“The Fall?” echoed Heart.

The griffon let go of his head and pulled back. “Or a banishment. You ponies have no good equivalent for our word because only one third of you knows how it feels to drop from the sky. You should try it sometimes, to get the idea.”

He ignored the taunt. “How does that connect to anything?”

“It is everything,” she said, rolling her eyes in frustration. “It’s the reason you worry about a possible war when every griffon knows that we’re already in it and beyond it.” She continued circling around the room, stirring her wings occasionally. It was clear that the cramped space was getting on her nerves. Heart classified the observation to the “might be useful later” file and focused on making sense of what the griffon was actually saying.

“You mean the Brigade is ready to launch a major attack against the city?” he said.

She glanced at him like he was a mere foal asking why the sky was blue. “There is no bottom to your stupidity, nor to your blindness. There is no Brigade, never has been. All there is is the word, and even that came from you.”

It was Heart’s turn to laugh. “If you want to fool me, consider choosing a less blatant lie next time. We know the Brigade exists: we have enough intel about it to fill this room!”

The avian eyes gleamed in the torchlight. “Doubtless you have. It’s the only sport we have here, giving you ponies ‘intel’ about the Brigade. We even have competitions based on it.”

Heart kept on chuckling, but never let the griffon out of his sight. If she’d try anything funny again, he’d be ready. “Right, right. Next you’re telling me the King doesn’t exist, either.”

“He doesn’t.”

Heart stopped chuckling. “You must realize I can’t believe you. So why are you openly lying to me?”

The griffon sighed. “I don’t expect you to believe a word I say. You can walk out anytime you want, to find a griffon who’s in the mood for playing along your script. There’s plenty of us who have nothing better to do.”

“You are right,” said Heart, striding for the door. “This is a waste of my time. Goodbye.”

He opened the door and walked around four corners before looking behind him. No one was following him. The few griffons visible were giving him poisonous looks, but otherwise they seemed to have no intention of stopping him. Then a mad idea struck him, and he walked to one of them.

“Hey, you. Do you understand me?”

“Bucker off, nag,” said the griffon.

“What is behind the wooden wall nearby?”

The griffon looked at him in despise, but decided that the fastest way to get rid of him would be to answer the question. “A food storage. If you can call it food.”

Heart marched back to the room where the griffon female had been, but it was empty. He rushed out and to the opposite direction where he had first gone and found her a few corners away, talking with some other griffon. He grabbed her by the shoulder and turned her violently around.

“What the hay is going on here?” he asked.

She snarled at him and fended his hoof off. ”I tried to tell you, remember? It’s the King you want to see? Well you’re in luck, because I was just addressing his Majesty.” She nodded at the other griffon, who grinned widely.

“Bow low, little pony,” he said. “For I am the King of Four Winds and Five Laws.”

Heart looked him up and down. If anything he looked like the Cliff’s version of village idiot. He turned at the female again. “This is insanity.”

“Yes,” she said. “I’m glad you’re finally open with yourself.”

Heart backed away. “I… I want to see someone who is in charge of something around here. Now.”

“Everyone is in charge around here,” she said, closing in on him. “And no one is.”

Heart’s horn illuminated the corridor. “Stay back!”

She stopped her advancement. Behind her, the other griffon’s face twisted into a snarl. “That’s not a good idea,” she said.

Heart kept on walking backwards. Behind him, he could hear claws scraping against stone, but he didn’t dare looking there. Suddenly, his whole plan of coming here seemed like a terrible mistake. “I’m the Captain of the Canterlot Citizen Guard! Stay back! And get my soldiers here, now!”

The self-proclaimed King crouched dangerously, but the female said something in quick Griffonian which made him stop his imminent charge. The griffons were not fond of magic, Heart knew, and in the circumstances his provocation probably wasn’t the wisest of moves. On the other hoof, right now he wanted nothing more than to leave this madhouse. The thought was so pressing in his mind that he utterly failed to hear the faint wing beats behind him before it was too late.

Something hit the back of his head like a mallet. He swayed for a moment, the light of his horn flickering along with his awareness, and then he collapsed on the cave floor.

“Throw him off the cliff?” he heard suggested, somewhere from the mist that rapidly filled his vision.

“Bet you half a salmon he bounces thrice before splitting,” said another voice, the last one Heart heard before the darkness took him.

“No need to,” said the female, prodding Heart’s unconscious, bleeding head with a leg. “I expect this one will jump himself. If he wakes up.”

Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!
Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!