• 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.

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Chapter V

The first thing Heart’s waking mind registered was of course the pain, but the smell of fish and mold were not far behind. Bile rose up his throat, making him turn to his side and gag. I’m still in the cave, he thought, as a thin strand of stomach acid dropped past his lips, pulling an even more scary thought behind. Someone is watching me. He raised his head slowly and stared into the darkness. Right at the edge of the torchlight, the tail of a lion pulled lazily back.

“Who’s there?” he asked and coughed weakly. His throat felt like a desert, and the bitter slime lingering there did little to improve his condition.

The tail’s owner said something in Griffonian.

Heart tried to light up his horn, and to his surprise he succeeded. Greenish light filled what turned out to be a small room. The griffon leaning against the wall squinted in the new light, but didn’t move a muscle to stop him, not even as he stood up. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but he managed to stop swaying on his second attempt.

“I’d take it easy, were I you,” said the griffon. “We tied the wound, but you won’t forget it anytime soon.”

Heart touched the back of his head, or at least tried to. Coordination wasn’t that simple when your vision kept on changing resolution every other second. Some soft fabric covered his head, and the pain crystallized when he pressed it.

“You were lucky Slice was drunk when he got to you,” the griffon continued, his tail swishing back and forth on the floor. “Ever since one of you burned a few of his feathers with a fireball, he’s been a bit edgy around magic. You should’ve known better than to turn on your horn inside a griffon lair.”

Heart focused on the voice, then on the face that spoke the words. The meaning of them was still lagging behind, but there was only so much thinking you could do with a smashed skull. Clearly they didn’t want him just dead, or he’d be that already. But if he was a prisoner, why did they let him have his horn? Griffons had a dozen ways of turning that to little more than a paperweight.

“Ah, you’re alive,” said a familiar voice behind him. He turned and saw the griffon female standing by the doorway. “Good,” she continued. “That saves a lot of trouble.”

Heart knew enough about griffons to know that was the closest thing to an apology he was going to get. That was fine with him though, for apologies were the last thing he wanted at the moment.

“Am I a prisoner here?” he asked.

“Only if you insist,” she said. “We don’t have real cells, and the food will probably make you sick, but I’m sure we can arrange something.”

Heart gave her a deadpan look.

“You don’t believe me?” she said. She stepped aside, showing him the way. “Go on. No one will stop you. Well, someone might, but I won’t have anything to do with it. It might be safer if you just telepathied yourself away.”

“It’s called teleporting,” muttered Heart. “And if I can’t see where I’m going, I might end up in a spot I’d rather avoid.”

“In the middle of solid rock, that sort of thing?” said the other griffon.

Heart looked at him, or as a part of his brain suggested, her. Save the colors all griffons looked pretty much the same to him, but this one had a voice he remembered hearing somewhere before. And the way she, or he, was smirking at him told that the feeling was mutual.

“Do I know you?” Heart asked.

The griffon nodded, then shook her head. “We have met, but not in person. You remember the ball you ponies had last year, in celebration of midwinter? I was there, too. Held a little speech, I did.”

Heart closed his eyes, seeking grains of recollections amidst the sea of dull aching. He remembered last year’s Hearth’s Warming Eve’s ball, but the pictures were fuzzy, spoiled by too much alcohol. Lake had been there too, but she had left after their second argument of the night. He couldn’t remember what that had been about, anymore. But he could remember it had happened at the time of some important griffon’s speech.

“You’re a councillor,” he said, opening his eyes. “You talked of eternal peace between our races. And something about fish.”

“Sounds about right,” said the griffon, idly studying her claws. “Fish is what we mostly talk with you people. Peace, too.”

“So you do have a hierarchy here,” said Heart, looking at the could-be-princess griffon.

“Not in the sense you mean,” she said. “There is no a hierarchy, only hierarchies, criss-crossing one another. We make them up because your leaders won’t talk with a griffon unless they’re called a councillor or ambassador or something like that. For a while, we tried to play by your rules. That almost got us all killed. So nowadays when we need to talk with you, we gather up a ‘delegation’, throw around titles until everyone's happy and order an appointment.” She switched a shoulder to lean against the wall. “You ponies have come up with weird stuff, but politics takes away the prize every time.”

“That’s not politics,” said Heart, eyes wide in disbelief. “That’s anarchy!”

She shrugged. “It’s the only way to deal with you, so we put up with it. Some of us do, anyway.”

Heart put a hoof on his temple. His headache was getting worse. “You can’t be serious… This must be a joke… Or a dream…”

The princess gave him a long look, then glanced at the other griffon, nodding at her. The councillor walked away, leaving them alone in the room.

“What is your name, little pony?” she asked after a while.

“Heart… Deck Heart,” he said, still holding his head.

“Why did you come here, Deck Heart the Captain?”

“To find peace. To solve a murder. I told this to you already.”

“That is not just why you came,” she said. “In that case you would have done it ‘by the book’, like you ponies say. But you marched right into the heart of your enemy, alone, uninvited. Why?”

Heart lowered his hoof, raised his head. The griffon’s tone was different now. The change was subtle, barely existing, yet it bothered him all the more.

“Because the book had failed. Because I needed to try something different.”

She started circling the room again. “Needed? Because your conscience demanded it? Or because you’re desperate?”

It was difficult to describe the shift in her tone. It was build on the familiar irony, but reached towards something nobler. Something resembling pity, but sweeter than that.

She moved behind him, but Heart made no attempt to turn. There was little point anymore. “If I knew the difference, I probably wouldn’t be here,” he said.

She snapped her beak, which might have been a sign of anger or amusement. “Do you know what really separates our races? Aside from the number of legs and feathers?”

“You’re born from eggs?” he ventured.

“It’s that you think the world was made for you,” she continued without missing a breath. “Whereas we know it wasn’t made for anything. It simply appeared. One day it will disappear. Perhaps tomorrow. And it won’t care a damn what you ponies think about it.”

“You are right,” he said. “But not completely. For once, the world was ours. Yours, too. When we still knew about Harmony. When alicorns still walked among us.”

She cursed in Griffonian. Heart knew this because it sounded like someone had pulled out a few of her feathers.

“Alicorns… they’re the ones who caused all this in the first place,” she said. “They were the first to fall. A fitting end for false gods.”

“What is it that you want?” Heart asked, looking over his shoulder.

“To live.”

After a pause it dawned to Heart that she wasn’t going continue. “And that’s it?”

“It’s a grander wish than you realize,” she said. Her eyes shined in the light of the torch. “For millennia, the griffon race lived in communities no larger than a hundred beaks. When there were too many, some left and set up a new tribe. That’s how the Kingdoms were born.” She flexed her wrist, straightened her knife-like claws. “Then came the Fall. Half the tribes were wiped away in a single night, half more didn’t make it over the next winter. What remains now flocks here, on these forsaken cliffs, seeking shelter and food. But griffons were never meant to live like this, trapped in stone, cramped together in darkness. We are dying here.”

“Then why do you come?” Heart asked. “I know that parts of the coast are still habitable.”

She glanced at him, and for the first time he saw the defiant glint shimmer in her eyes.

“There are griffons living there, yes. Someone has to fish, even in the face of…” She shifted her position. Her tail kept swishing nervously back and forth. “A sickness roams there. A hungry, vicious disease. Not of body, but of mind. Griffons… lose themselves. Some fly to the sea and never return. Others… just stop. Everything. The coast is not a good place to live,” she finished, clenching her fist.

But that’s not everything there is to it. though Heart. The unspoken words were written all over her appearance; suddenly she was nervous to the core, and not just because of the lack of space.

“That still doesn’t explain why you come to Canterlot,” he said. “The sea is far away. The caves don’t suit you, like you said.”

“It’s for the winter,” she said. “They are harsher now than ever, you know that. The stone keeps the winds away.”

Heart stood up. “There are other caves, other shelters. Yet every griffon in Equestria gathers here. Why?”

“I don’t know,” she said, furiously tapping the stone wall with a claw. “My family lived here before the Fall, I’ve lived here my whole life, I don’t know why others pour here!”

“I think you do.”

Her eyes snapped to him. “And what if I do? What are you going to do about it, Deck Heart the Captain?”

They stared each other in the eyes for a good while. Then Heart looked down at her claw, which had grown still. White scars ran on the stone where she had scratched it.

“I told you my name,” he said. “Would you mind giving me yours?”

She eyed him a moment longer and crossed her arms over her chest. “It’s Cecil. You think we’re friends now?”

Heart shook his head. “I don’t understand you Cecil, nor your people. You can’t stand us and our rules, yet hundreds arrive every week. There is no food here, no better shelter than anywhere else. You’re trying to convince me you’ve lost all hope, yet when I ask you why, you get angry.” He sighed. “We are not friends, Cecil. But somehow I can’t see you as my enemy, either.”

“Maybe you should,” she said quietly. “Maybe you really, really should.”

Heart turned a frown on her. “What do you mean?”

Her arms fell on her sides as she leaned against the wall behind. “You know about the Five Laws?”

“That’s how I got here,” he said. “I asked for One Peaceful Night.”

She gave a short laugh. “A clever pony. It goes to show what a joke the Laws really are.”

“A joke? But they have lasted a thousand years. They’re the essence of your culture.”

The brief moment of amusement died on her face. “Yes, that’s probably what it says in your little books on us. None of them were written by a griffon, I bet. How could any law last for a thousand years without changing? Can you guess?”

“Because no one follows them?”

“Yes and no, little pony, yes and no. The Laws aren’t real laws, not like you think. They’re too vague for that. ‘Never kill without a purpose?’ A fine rule for sure, as long as you don’t ask what counts for a purpose. ‘Never deny One Peaceful Night from one who asks it?’ Some say it only applies to griffons, and who could deny them? No one wrote the Laws. They’re something everyone knows. In one sense or in another.”

“You are right,” said Heart. “That’s not what they teach us about you.”

“Amazing.”

“They teach us that griffons are a noble race with a sense of pride second to none. They teach us of Red Beak, who defeated a changeling Queen in a single combat, and of Gilda, the High Feather, who befriended the Element Bearers themselves. They teach of griffons who wouldn’t give up a fight in the face of all the hordes of Tartarus.”

The torch flame flickered on the cool walls, engaged in a tacit battle with Heart’s hornlight. Depending on the point of view, they either fought back the darkness together or devoured each other in a meaningless effort to escape it.

“There is a rumour,” she said, her voice like a whisper of a ghost. “A rumour which no one speaks and everyone hears. No one knows where it started, or when. For all we know, it might have been with us since the First Dawn.”

Heart blinked. The headache was gradually releasing its grip, giving ground to a sensation even more obnoxious. A cold feeling dwelled in his stomach, slithering around like a snake.

“The Laws are a joke because really they can mean anything you want them to,” she continued. “That is how they have survived for a thousand years. But despite everything, they set some limits. A bottom line below which there is nothing. Cross it and you lose yourself. That’s why all the Laws are prohibitions.”

Heart could swear he saw the shadows grinning at the edge of his vision, yet every time he looked, there was nothing of note there. While parts of the caves were humid with sweat and breathing, this room felt freezing. And even though he was certain there was no one listening around the corner, he could not help but to think they were not alone.

“‘Never eat anything that knows its own name’,” she said. “The Fifth Law. Sounds simple, right?”

Heart swallowed. “What are trying to say?”

“The rumour says,” she began, hollowness echoing in every syllable. “That dead things don't know their name. You were wrong, Deck Heart the Captain. There is food in Canterlot. Canterlot is the food.”

***

“Foot, tooth, sooth, moot…”

“Whaddya say?” said Gambit.

Stick blinked. “Ah, nothing. Just thinking of a rhyme.” He noticed the look on his companion’s face and added, “It’s a hobby of mine. Please don’t tell anypony.”

The youth winked at him. “Element of Loyalty, remember?”

He returned his smile in kind. “Got me there.”

They carried along the street, Stick cantering amidst the traffic, Gambit flying easily just above the current of ponies. The sun had started its descent from the zenith already hours ago and was now nearing the horizon. Dark clouds had again appeared to accompany it, promising rain.

Gambit eyed them ponderously while effortlessly dodging a particularly high stand. “I could clear those in a minute, you just bet. The weather team around here are a bunch of geese. Couldn't keep the sky clean with a bucking mob.”

Stick glanced at him, noting what a little show-off the pegasus had turned out to be. Or perhaps it was an effect of his newly found heritage? The idea amused Stick a great deal. The look on the brat’s face would be worth the trouble he had given him, in the end. But before that he would make good use out of him.

“I’m confident you could,” said Stick. “And who knows, perhaps one day you will. Saving the world is bound to count for something in any résumé.”

“In any what?” asked Gambit.

“I’ll explain that some other day. Right now, we can’t afford to lose focus on the mission at hoof.” He gave him his most serious look. “You're certain this is the fastest route to the address?”

“No worries – I know the place.” The youth bit his lip. “You sure it’s the right one, though?”

Stick fished the list from his saddleback. Reacquiring it had been easier than he had dared hope. Celler had turned up to the school a few hours ago, which had led to a lengthy discussion, in which even Stick’s lying abilities had been stretched. Gambit’s help had been essential there, and at the end of the meeting the filly had hoofed the list back to Stick, with a tiny “sorry” even. The memory would warm Stick’s heart for years to come.

However, the whole episode had swallowed way too much time. Stick hadn’t even been able to return to the hideout since yesterday, for there was no telling what ideas Gambit might get if he wasn’t there to ensure the integrity of his illusions. That was bad, very bad. Stick had been supposed to meet her that night, to deliver at least three of the six cutie marks. It didn’t bear thinking how she had reacted after finding only one bottle and no Stick to explain.

If she find outs I’m late on schedule, she’ll make me look at her eyes again.

“Yo, you okay?” asked Gambit.

“Hmm?”

“You’re real pale. Saw a ghost or something?”

“Or something,” muttered Stick under his breath. He coughed and forced the image of her gaze into the darker depths of his mind. “The list is unmistakable,” he said while handing it over to the pegasus. “It was formed by the most brilliant minds of Canterlot. See for yourself: it has been approved by all three Chancellors.”

Gambit accepted the piece of paper, eyed it for a moment and then hoofed it back. “Yeah. You’re totally right.”

Stick shoved the list back to the bottom of his saddlebag, confident that his intuition had been right: the colt couldn’t read. Nopony who knew the true meaning of this list would put their name on it, least of all a Chancellor.

“I just can’t see how the fate of Equestria could lay in the hooves of Aunt Apple,” said Gambit. “I mean, she’s half deaf and has more teeth in her mouth than hairs in her mane. Or was it the other way around?”

It relieved Stick a great deal to hear that. At the very least they could make up for some of the time lost. An elderly mare shouldn’t offer too much resistance, and the coat would probably come off by itself.

“As long as she has the right cutie mark, nothing else matters,” he said. “How come you know this Auntie Apple, by the way?”

Gambit gave him a surprised look. “How come you don’t? Everypony knows Auntie. She runs a bakery on that address. Do some odd chores for her and she rewards you with a slice of apple pie.”

“She lives there too, I expect? Possibly alone?”

“I guess. Her husband died when I wasn’t born yet. And there can’t be too many ponies in the world who can stand her snoring over a night. The pies are great, though.”

“Losing them will be a great blow for the community, I expect.”

“What?”

“I mean,” said Stick quickly, “That a pony of her age can’t possibly be baking pies and saving the world at the same time.”

Gambit nodded in agreement. “Yeah. It’s a shame. She always gets the crust just right.”

They arrived at the place half an hour later. It was nothing Stick hadn’t expected: a small boutique on a side alley, just in touch with the din of the main street a few blocks away. A little sign hung over the door. It read “Bakary” there.

There’s bound to be one, maybe two cats inside, thought Stick. Nothing else would make sense. And maybe some little helper cleaning the place or making dough while Auntie had her midday nap. In from the front, out from the back, five to ten minute job altogether, give or take. The script was there, right behind Stick’s eyes. There was but one problem, floating by his side.

“Aren’t we gonna go in?” asked Gambit.

“And tell her what?” said Stick, studying the facade of the bakery. “That Applejack the Honest was her grandmother? That her fate is to save Equestria? If she’s not already aware of the first point, the second one will give her such a hearty laugh it might kill her.” Which would arguably save a great deal of mess, he added internally.

The pegasus landed next to him. “So what do we do, then? Stand here until the end of the world?”

“I have a plan in mind,” said Stick. He looked at his companion. “But it includes me going in there alone.”

Gambit raised an eyebrow. “Why? Don’t you remember: I know Auntie. If it’s one of her good days, she’ll even remember me. It might help convince her.”

This was a reaction Stick had been afraid of. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t have figured out a credible reason to keep the colt outside the shop. That left him with two options. The first one was to leave the site with two cutie marks instead of one. That plan had its obvious risks, which left him with one real alternative. That had its risks, too, but not none that included getting beaten to a bloody pulp by a frenzied lightning bolt.

“That may be the case, and honestly I could use your help in there… but I need you to do something else,” said Stick. He let the expectant gaze in the youth's eyes turn a bit more expecting before saying, “I want you to find the second address on the list on your own. Can you do that?”

Gambit seemed taken aback. “Uhm… Really? I mean, ah, sure. Sure I can.” He blinked a couple of times and added, “Why didn’t you suggest this right away?”

“I got here faster with you guiding me,” said Stick. “And considering your abilities, the detour shouldn't be much of a problem.” He put a hoof on the pegasus’s shoulder. “Time is our enemy, Gambit. You’re our ace in the sleeve – a real gambit. Many agents in my stead would hesitate to give this much responsibility to you so soon, but my hunch tells me otherwise. It hasn't been wrong before.”

Gambit nodded valiantly. “You can count on me, sir.”

“I know I can. Good luck, lad.”

There was a brief whooshing sound as a pair of wings unfolded, after which there was no trace left of the pegasus in the alley. Stick looked up to the sky and saw a dot speeding out of his vision like a living arrow.

“What an idiot,” he said and walked into the bakery.

***

The door to Feinsake’s office opened, and in strode Ember Trail. Pain blossomed rich under the bandage on his shoulder, but he wasn’t about to let such a minor thing ruin his noble gait.

He stopped in centre of the room. “You summoned me?”

Feinsake, without turning from the massive window that she faced, said, “What’s the latest word from the City Guard? Have they found the perpetrator of the recent murder?”

“Er. No, I suppose not. Why?”

“Any other news concerning the case? Any at all?”

Ember Trail hesitated. Why would the Chancellor ask such a thing from him? She had the bloody secretary, whatever her name was, for that sort of thing. This must be some sort of a test, he reasoned. If there was but one thing Trail was certain about Feinsake, it was that she loved to test ponies, often times without them knowing about it.

“Not that I know of,” he said. “The new Captain’s little adventure is what it has been about for the whole day. What nerve! As if it wasn’t insane enough to shoot a serving Senator! I can’t understand how you could–”

“What adventure?”

Trail stopped, yet his mouth remained open for a moment longer. It wasn’t possible that she was seriously asking that, was it? No, it couldn’t be. The janitors of the Parliament were talking about what Heart had done.

Although… It was true that Feinsake had been mysteriously absent for the whole day. It was even possible that he was the first pony to have seen her since yesterday. The thought was quickly expelled from his mind – the secretary, at very least, would have met her. The little nuisance practically slept with her, and it amazed Trail that she was nowhere to be seen now.

“Er. Well, the adventure to the Cliffs. That Heart made. This morning. That’s what everypony has been talking about. It wouldn’t be a wonder if some petty murder was left in the shadow of that.”

In a hypnotically slow fashion, Feinsake looked over her shoulder at him. “What?”

Ember Trail was not a wise pony. He was too clever for that. But even he could spot truth when it was shoved down his throat. She doesn’t know. By all things holy, she doesn’t know.

“Feinsake, my love… You might want to sit down for a while.”

To his amazement, she obeyed him. As he updated her on the situation, rumours included, she never made a sound, never made an expression that would betray her reaction. And still Trail felt like he was slapping her to the face the whole time. Needless to say, the sensation was overpowering.

“How come your secretary didn’t inform you of this?” he said after he had finished. “That little filly: Nip, was it? Dip?”

“Chip,” whispered Feinsake. Her gaze aimed at nothing, and the corners of her mouth twitched gently. “Her name was Chip.”

“I take that to mean you fired her already,” said Trail. “Good thinking. A secretary like that is a disgrace for the whole profession.” He shook his head and suddenly noticed that Feinsake’s eyes, while definitely still glazed, had wandered to a certain spot on the floor. The sight of it made him sneer. “Gods, she couldn’t even keep your office cleaned, could she? Where did all that dust come from? Let me call somepony to wipe it off.”

Feinsake blinked. “No!”

Ember Trail looked at her with an eyebrow raised. The other one soon joined it. He had hardly ever witnessed her frown, and now she was… her face…

“What is the matter with you?” he said carefully.

Feinsake looked away. “Could I have a moment alone? Please?”

“You certain? Should I call a doctor? You might be sick: this room is freezing.” He took a step closer to her. “Allow me to–”

She looked him in the eyes. “Leave me alone.

Seized by a vague feeling of compliance, Ember Trail turned on his heels and marched out of the room, closing the door behind. It took him ten whole minutes to think of anything else than leaving Feinsake alone in her office.

Feinsake stared at the pile of dust. Eventually she seized one of the pot plants of the room, emptied its contents on the floor and, with utmost care, swiped the dust inside. The pot she put next to her desk, out of sight. And then she returned to her window.

She wondered whether there would be a special place in Tartarus for creatures like herself. She hoped there wasn’t.

She touched her distended belly. The foal within had been very still ever since Mr Gruff had left. That was a good sign, she told herself. Over and over again.

She looked at her hoof. The coat was smooth again, and the fur gleamed with youth and life. It made her sick beyond reason.

There was so much she could hate about herself now. There would come a day, she knew, when she wouldn’t be able to ignore that. That would be the deadline of her mission.

Yes. There was so much to do, too much to wallow in what could never be undone in the first place.

“You will always be remembered,” she whispered while looking at the faraway cliffside. “But first I must ensure that there will be anypony left to remember.”

***

Even if he would never admit it to anypony alive, Heart considered himself as a pretty tough stallion. There wasn’t much that could truly upset him, and although the recent events had tried his limits, they were far from ruining his mental stability hardened by a decade spent in the Citizen Guard.

At the moment though, he felt like a little foal lost in the woods at night. The griffon’s last words kept on bouncing in his skull, never settling for a proper processing.

He threw up.

Cecil watched him for a time and then said, “You have to clean that up before leaving.”

Heart looked at her, a thin strand of vomit hanging from his trembling lips. “Food?” he managed. “Canterlot is… food?

Silence of a grave descended into the small room. Shadows kept on teasing Heart’s vision at the corners. If he concentrated, he could hear tiny flakes of reality rustling into oblivion.

“There’s hardly enough fish to feed everyone as is, and the catches are growing smaller,” she said. “One day, we might run out of fish. After that, nothing is certain. Nothing except…”

“The hunger,” heard Heart himself say. He spat on the floor. “How long?”

Cecil shrugged. “It might have happened already. There hasn’t been any news from the coast for a few days.”

Heart wiped his mouth and fixed his bearing. Shivers of cold nausea vibrated from his very bones. When he was certain he could push them back, he looked at her.

“Why are you telling me this? If there’s no hope, if we’re already at war, why bother? Why?”

“Because I believe there’s still hope.” After a pause she continued, “Isn’t that what you wanted to hear?”

“There has to be!” he shouted. The echo died away quickly, leaving another graveyard of sound behind.

There has to be hope, he told himself. She had been playing him from the start, that was obvious. Suppose everything she had told him was true: there was no Brigade, no King, no Laws worthy of the name. Suppose all there was was a mountain full of starving predators, confident in the knowledge that the world had ended a hundred years ago. Why’d she give away the game? Why wouldn’t she continue acting?

“You’ve played with our rules,” he said. “Perhaps your heart wasn’t it, and for sure your brains weren’t, but still you’ve kept at it for years. You’ve tried to come to terms with us.” He took a step closer to her. “Don’t tell me that wasn't for hope of something.”

“Perhaps it was,” she said. “Like I said, no one planned any of it. Things just happened. Because they needed to.”

“Nothing happens without a purpose.”

She gave him a disgusted glance. “Not even the Fall? What might have been the purpose of that?” Her claws screeched against the bare stone. “Tell me, little pony. Why did thousands die? Why did the world end?”

“It hasn’t ended,” he said. “We’re still alive. We’re still breathing.”

“Wasted breathe.”

“Then why,” he said, “Have you not killed me yet?”

Their gazes interlocked like two blades in a battlefield. There were no sparks, no scream of steel, but Heart could not remember a more intense fight in his life. He wished he knew what it was all for, exactly.

“You should leave now,” she said eventually, “Before I have to answer that question. I might not like the answer, you see.”

The same thought had visited Heart’s mind a few times. But he had a feeling that if he left now, they wouldn’t meet again. Not in such a cordial atmosphere, at least.

On the other hoof, he must’ve spent hours here already. There was no telling what was happening in the city. At the very least he had missed the press conference, which probably gave the reporters more material to write about than he could have ever given them intentionally.

“Before I go,” he said, “I would very much like to have your word on something. In fact, I insist.”

She snapped her beak.

“No matter what you say, a place with this many people needs to have some sort of order to stay together over a night. You have guards watching the road here, more on guarding the food. Such things don’t happen just by themselves.”

“Get to the point,” she said.

Heart drew a deep breath. “I ask you for a week. One week of peace.”

Her eyes narrowed. “And what would you do with this one week which no one in the world could give you?”

“Build a future. A shared one.”

How?

A faint smile appeared on his lips. “Sounds as if you cared about that.”

She opened her beak quickly, but closed it slowly. A smile very much like his followed. “If I didn’t know how easily it gets hurt, I’d say you have a very thick skull, Deck Heart the Captain.”

Heart offered her his hoof. “One week. Somehow, anyhow. That’s all I ask.”

She eyed the extended limb with a mixed expression of doubt, annoyance and frustration. It was a combination that very much resembled curiosity.

Her claws closed around his hoof.

“It’s not like I got anything else to do,” she said.

Heart nodded. That’s what I hope. From the bottom of my heart.

***

It took Gambit virtually no time at all to get to the address where the next descendant of the Element Bearer’s should live, not even as he had to stop a few times to ask directions from fellow pegasi. He landed on the busy street and smiled smugly as he spotted the number of the house across. Right on the first go, he thought while taking the first steps towards the yellow door. It was the second step that came with the doubts. What am I doing, exactly? Do I just march in and hope it’ll work out? Will she believe me?

He noticed a pond on the cobbled street and the reflection that stared back at him. His mane was shaggy and could only be called clean in comparison to rest of his body. Living in the streets tended to make you look like you had been walked on for your whole life. The real question then was, how could she believe him?

When he thought about it, Stick hadn’t actually told him to make contact with the target – only to find her. Was he supposed to just wait for him to arrive? But if that was the case, why couldn’t they stick together in the first place?

For the first time in his life, Gambit felt he actually had rushed things a bit.

He was about to return to the bakery when he saw the front door of the house open. An elderly unicorn stallion, dressed in a fine suit and a top hat, walked out. A cage with some bird inside flew after him, along with a young pegasus mare. The two exchanged a few words, which Gambit had no chance of hearing through the din of the street, and then the gentlecolt continued on his way with the caged bird.

Suddenly, the mare noticed Gambit looking at her across the street. She blinked, smiled briefly and returned inside.

Gambit stood amidst the afternoon traffic for a while and then flew over the crowd and stepped inside. A bell tinkled above him as the door closed. As it faded away, a nasty feeling hit the bottom of his stomach.

He had entered into a pet shop.

Rows of cages filled the many shelves of the interior, all harboring some creature covered with fur, feathers, scales or all of those. The noise they made all but drowned out the din of the street. There was no single word, not any that Gambit knew, for the smell of the place.

“Uhm, hello!” called a voice behind a counter on the back of the shop. Her lips kept moving, but the words were lost somewhere between the whistle of the little tit in the corner and the hissing of the snake next to Gambit’s ear.

“What?!” he said.

The mare shook her head, bended over the counter and reappeared a moment later, holding a sign which read, “Welcome to the Pearl Square Pet Shop! Please look around and consult the vendor when necessary.”

Gambit, who still couldn’t read, walked to the mare and yelled: “Is your name Flitter?!”

The mare blinked in confusion. She shook her head.

Gambit leaned over the counter and looked at her cutie mark. The pink butterfly there looked exactly the same as the ones he had seen in the list.

“You sure?!” he asked, still leaning over.

The mare looked even more confused. “Uhm. Yes. Pretty sure.”

“Pretty sure?”

The mare batted her eyes with growing vigor. Already it was clear to Gambit that she was quite used to this.

“I am sure,” she said, slightly more insistently. A pause ensued, one which she apparently felt obliged to end. “Uhm. I’m sorry to disappoint. Is there some other way I could help you?”

Gambit’s ears twitched – the mindless, chimerical choir of the animals awoke in him all too warm memories of Two Hill’s headteacher. Especially the volume was pretty exactly the same.

“Do you know who you are?” he asked.

The mare smiled a wavering smile. “I… I do?”

“I mean, d’you know who your grand-grand-grand-ma was?”

She gave him a guarded nod. “Uhm, yes. Her name was Fluttershy. Fluttershy the Kind, as they call her nowadays.”

It was Gambit’s time to look confused. “You know that? And you’re still working here?”

“Uhm. Yes, I do work here. It’s very nice, in fact.”

His eyes grew wide. “But you’re a saint! Don’t you get it?! There’s like a thousand ponies out there who’d like to make you a Princess!”

She seemed to shrink behind the counter. “Y–yes, I’m aware of that. Uhm. Could you please maybe not tell them where to find me?”

Right before Gambit could answer, the tit in the corner emitted another ear-piercing whistle, making him grimace. “Can’t you tell them to shut up!?”

She raised an eyebrow. “They’re animals. I can’t tell them anything. Nopony can.”

“Look, it’s really, really important that you listen to what I got to say. Couldn’t we go somewhere quieter to talk?”

“I’m sorry, I’m not supposed to leave the counter.”

“Then just listen, okay? So you know you’re the grandfoal of one of the Element Bearers: that’s great. Means we can skip that part.” He drew a deep breath, went over the words one more time in his head and said, “Equestria needs you to save it. Now.”

Her face remained blank.

“I know it’s hard to take it in at once,” he continued, “But I’m telling the truth. You know I am. Deep inside yourself, you’ve known it all along.” He stopped to retroactively listen to himself. Strange, he thought. That sounded so much better when Stick told it to me.

“From what does it need to be saved?” she asked carefully.

“The griffons, duh. And, uh, corruption and darkness,” he added when her expression didn’t change. “Hey, come one, you know what I’m talking about! The world has been ending for, like, a hundred years! It’s time somepony did something!”

“You’re blaming me for that?”

Gambit grimaced, and not just because the tit screamed again. “No no no! You, I mean we, must fix it, that’s what I’m trying to say! We’re the new Element Bearers!” He whirled around, showing her his flank. “See? I’m the heir of Rainbow Dash the Loyal!”

She smiled her fragile smile again. “Yes, I can clearly see that. Uhm. Would you mind if I visited the backroom real quick? I… I think I left the stove on…”

Gambit frowned. It didn’t seem like she believed him, which made no sense. It was all so clear in his head.

“There’s no time,” he said, turning around. “I know this one guy who can explain all this way better than I can. You should meet him.”

“I–I’m sure we would get along great,” she said, inching her way backwards to the curtain behind her. Her smile flickered on and off on her lips. “Just a moment, please…”

Before she could bat an eye, he had suddenly flown over the counter right before her.

“A funny thing, having a stove in a house with no chimney,” he said, staring her in the eyes. “Don’t you think that’s funny?”

Her smiled had frozen into on-position. “Uhm. Uhm. Yes. Funny.”

Gambit rolled his eyes. “Yeah, glad we agree on something.” He grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her in what he thought would be a gentle manner. “Now come on, we don’t got all day to–”

“F–Flitter!” she suddenly yelped. “C–could you come over here for a second?!”

In short order, the curtain to the backroom was pulled aside. A pegasus stallion, his fur the exact same, wheat-yellow shade as hers, strode in. He looked once at Gambit, then at the mare.

“You called, sis?”

Sis? thought Gambit. He looked the stallion up and down. Aside from the sex, he seemed to be the exact clone of the mare, the cutie mark included. The most notable difference was that, unlike hers, his eyes didn’t bat all that much. To the contrary, they were nailed at him.

“You two, like, siblings?” Gambit asked.

“Twins,” said Flitter matter-of-factly. “Who’re you?”

“He tried to take me away and introduce to some guy who knows why the world’s going to end,” blurted the mare before Gambit could even think of an answer.

Flitter’s gaze narrowed down. “Is that so?”

Gambit groped for the words, but suddenly his all too clear plan appeared awfully muddled. “Ah. Eh. Look, I got a good explanation for this. I’m not just the right guy to explain it. If we could just go see my friend–”

“I don’t think so,” interrupted Flitter. “What I do think is that you should either make a buy or leave. Please.”

“We all started off on the wrong wing here,” said Gambit. Suddenly, a revelation struck him. “Hey, maybe if you’re really identical twins, you’re both supposed to come along with me? If you’re both equal heirs of Fluttershy, then we need both of you to save Equestria!”

The siblings exchanged a quick glance, then looked at him with the exact same, overly friendly and slightly guarded smile.

“Save Equestria?” Flitter echoed with a hint of amusement. “From what?”

“That’s what I asked, too,” muttered the mare.

It occurred to Gambit that his credibility account was so frozen it might not melt until next spring. The sensation was completely alien to him. Amongst the Crusaders, his bare nod had been the gold standard of authority. They had listened to him there, even if that was only because he could drop a bit off his extended hoof and fly under it before it hit the floor. He had gotten so used to being listened to that he no longer remembered what it meant to not be heard.

He recalled fine how infuriating it felt, though.

“So you don’t believe me, huh? You think I’m crazy, huh? Huh?” His slim chest puffed up with every word. “Is that ‘cause you think you’re better than me?”

The siblings stopped smiling. “Hey, take it easy, kid,” said Flitter. “We’re just trying to run a shop here. Now, if you’re not going to buy anything, I have to ask you to leave.”

Kid?” echoed Gambit. “You’re calling me a kid?”

Flitter, who was slightly taller than he, snorted. “Would ‘brat’ suit you better?”

“Flitter!” blurted the mare.

“That’s a cute butterfly stuck on your ass, that is,” said Gambit, his eyes drilling into Flitter’s. “How’d you get it? Beat one in a flight contest? Or inna fight?”

“Seeing how you can’t even afford a decent bath, I’d say you’re not going to buy anything from here, either,” said Flitter slowly. “Get out.”

“We should all calm down,” said the mare, anxiously eyeing both stallions.

“After you,” said Gambit. “The street’s waiting.”

Flitter’s laugh was like a lash of a whip, slashing Gambit across the face. “You really are a brat, aren’t you?”

Three things happened after that, roughly in the following order. First, there was a shove. It didn't really matter whose it was. Next, and to the immediate interest of the bypassers, Gambit and Flitter broke through the shop’s front door in a mismatched ball of feathers, hooves and teeth. Thirdly – and this happened a considerable time later – the Guard arrived. Far from ending the fight though, this actually caused a riot as the crowd sought to stop the guards from ending the fight in which quite hefty bets were already at stake.

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