• 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 VI

Author's Note:

Finally, an update. The final chapter will appear in a week or two, perhaps in two parts, but it will appear, I swear! In the meantime, thanks for ya all for reading!


In the backyard of a small bakery, a cat basked in the afternoon sun. All things considered it had a comfortable life, or nine, to live.The nice mare of the bakery often put a saucer of milk out at nightfalls, a prize for which the cat would go through the trouble of fighting off any number of rivals. Its missing ear and scars on his back were the proof of that.

The expected moment seemed to arrive ahead of schedule today. The small door to the back alley opened with a creak, and the cat was up before the noise had died away. The sweet taste already fondled its tongue as it paced to meet the pony stepping through.

To the feline’s great confusion, the comer did not smell of apples and liqueur. Its limited capability to perplexion was stretched further by the observation that it had never met this particular pony before. However, none of this compared to the utter bafflement the cat experienced when the stranger, after wiping some sticky stuff off his hooves, tried to kick it.

“Damn cats,” muttered Stick as he watched the animal disappear among the trash cans. “Can’t stand them. Always up to something.” He wiped his hooves one more time, just to make sure, and then left the scene without closing the door.

After a while, the cat returned. It sniffed the sticky stuff once and hissed, its one remaining ear pressing against its head.

It peered inside the bakery. On the edge of lamplight, sticking from behind a counter, it saw a familiar leg. It wasn’t moving. The scent of blood was overwhelming.

Well, a meal’s a meal, thought the cat and skittered inside before anything bigger could show up.

A little farther away, Stick cantered determinately onwards. The script had ended up including neither cats nor little helpers. It had been a clean job, in the figurative sense at least. If things keep on running this smoothly, I might still be able to stick to the schedule, perhaps even get ahead. The thought relieved him a great deal. It offered him a vision of a world where she would not allow unimaginable agony to consume him.

With the aid of some helpful passersby and the Canterlot map he eventually made to the address where he had sent Gambit a little over an hour ago. It was about an hour longer than he would have liked to let the colt out of his sight, but there had been no helping it. Anyway, what was the worst thing that could have happened?

Turning a corner, the answer hit him straight in the face.

The street looked like the aftermath of a large scale battle. Several ponies lay on the ground, unconscious or dead, Stick could not say. At least a dozen guards roamed the place, either interrogating ponies or trying to figure out in which category the aforementioned bodies belonged to. Broken glass, bent street lights and smashed carts filled the site.

Stick wandered to one of the guards with apparently nothing else to do than general guarding and asked, “What the hay happened here?”

“A riot,” he answered. “Two pegasi ruffians started a fight, which turned into an illegal entertainment the moment the bets started flying.”

A nasty premonition nagged in the back of Stick’s skull. “Where are these two hotheads now?”

“In the station. It took five of us to get them there.” The guard gave him an up and down look. “Why do you ask?”

“General curiosity,” answered Stick with an innocent smile. He left the guard quickly before the tide of questions could make a full U-turn.

Circling a few bodies, he walked to the door of the nearby pet shop. A sign there read, “Closed under exceptional circumstances. Will be open tomorrow as usual.” He knocked on it, receiving no response. The thought of breaking in crossed his mind, but the squadron of guards behind him made that a hazardous move. He sat down to consider his options.

While he was at it, he started hearing voices. This was nothing new to him. All kinds of ideas had the habit of presenting themselves to him in a guise of a foreign voice. Some of them he considered his best friends.

The more he listened, the clearer the words became. The tone also gained a distinct character. And then he knew.

It was her voice.

Return home, it said. Return home. Now.

Stick’s eyes were as wide as they would get yet all he could see was darkness. It reverberated around him, as if it was but a veil behind which a creature moved, closer to him than his eyelids.

“You alright there, buddy?”

Stick blinked. The guard whom he had spoken to stood in front of him.

“Saw or a ghost or something?” he said.

Stick stood up. His lips moved to form a few words.

“Come again?” said the guard.

“Need to return home,” he said mechanically. “Need to return home.” With glazed eyes, he cantered away.

***

Violet tapped the corner of the table with a pencil, not once missing a beat while her horn raised the coffee mug and emptied it on one go. It was her fifth dose of the meeting. Some would consider such quantities of caffeine unhealthy, but they wouldn’t be aware of the balancing effects of the brandy that made for one fourth of every mug. Even then her nerves had been under considerable duress during the last few hours.

“We have to do something!” said Lime Light, the head of forensic team A. He gave the others around the table a pleading look. “The Captain has been there since the morning, and it will get dark soon! We can’t let him stay lost for over a night!”

“And why is that, exactly?” asked Amber, the head of team B. “He explicitly said we were not to interfere under any circumstances.”

“He also said he wouldn’t stay for no longer than a few hours!” Light turned to Acting-Captain Cowl. “I tell you, we have to get him back before the night. We can’t be fighting in the Cliffs without daylight.”

“Fighting?” snapped Amber. He, too, looked at Cowl. “You hearing this? He’s talking of starting a war!”

“It’s our Captain we’re talking about here!”

“And he knew the risks involved,” said Violet. She paused, shaking the last drops of liquid from the bottom of her mug into her gaping mouth. “We’re treading a circle here. And I’m thinking that’s already playing into the claws of our adversaries.” The mug hit the table hard. Her eyes focused on Cowl, whose head had been buried in his hooves for the most part of the meeting.

“We need a decision, Cowl,” she said. “And we need it now.”

Cowl looked up from his hooves. In a matter of hours, he seemed to have aged a decade. The room held its breath as he stared at nothing.

“We’ll go in,” he said.

Amber’s face fell. “You can’t be ser–”

Cowl slammed his front leg on the table so hard that Violet’s mug jumped a bit on the other end.

“Damn right I am!” he shouted at Amber’s face. “And if that doesn't suit you, I’ll gladly accept your resignation!”

Amber’s normally dark fur paled in a flash. Just yesterday he could have had Cowl whipped for even spitting in his direction.

“Then we need a strategy,” said Light. He turned to one of the guards standing by the door. “Go to the archives and tell them to bring here all the premade plans we have on attacking the Cliffs.”

Cowl waved a hoof irritably. “Cancel that. Those plans weren’t made for a scenario where the Captain was held hostage by the enemy. Anyway, we don’t have time to set them up.”

“So what is your plan?” asked Violet.

Cowl’s moustache twitched. “We’ll gather every soldier available, pegasi corps included, and march to their front door. Then we’ll ask really nicely if they’d let our dear Captain back home.”

They all stared at him.

“And in the case they refuse?” asked Violet carefully.

A few hairs dropped from Cowl’s moustache as it shivered. “A blockade. We’ll put up a blockade. No fish gets in, no griffon gets out, not before we get our Captain back.”

The Lieutenants exchanged glances. Everypony knew that as far as diplomacy was concerned, a total blockade was a stronger declaration of war than charging head-on to the caves.

“Should we inform the Parliament?” asked Amber.

Cowl snorted. “And let the bloody Unity Guard get involved? Hay no. Besides, I’ve a gut feeling that they’ll get to know sooner rather than later anyway.” He drew a deep breath. “Okay. First we need to–”

The door burst open and a sweaty, panting guard stumbled in, to be immediately seized by his comrades inside.

“What is it?” snapped Cowl.

The comer saluted. “A report of a riot, sir. On the west-side of town. We rounded up twenty two heads.”

Cowl’s expression didn’t change. “Is that it? Lock them up for a night and be done with it.”

The guard hesitated. “Uhm, well, one of them insist to see, and I quote, ‘whoever idiot runs this place’, sir.”

“And you’re telling this to me because…?”

The guard sweated under Cowl’s gaze. “Uhm, he really insisted, sir. And he claims to be a descendant of Rainbow Dash the Loyal.”

Cowl rolled his eyes. “Is that so? Well that changes everything, doesn’t it? Of course we can’t have the grandson of Rainbow Dash the Loyal share a cell with common rioters. If he insists on anything else again, throw him in isolation,” he added after a pause.

“Now,” he continued after the guard had rushed away, “Let’s go get our Heart back.”

***

Deep within the caves of the Cliffs, Helm Cleaver was in the process of drawing up his will. It wasn’t much to look at, he would have had to confess, and not just because he was writing it on a used hoofkerchief. His earthly wealth was mostly limited to a few pieces of old furniture and clothes. The rented apartment was the courtesy of his father-in-law, and a guard’s pay could buy only one real future, which was reserved for his son. It pained him to speculate what his offspring would think of his legacy, or the advice he had scribbled on the edge of the tissue. The best ones he had picked from fortune cookies.

“I’m pretty sure ‘dignified’ doesn't have ‘k’ in it,” said Mill Stone, who had been reading over his shoulder.

Helm glared at him. “Oh yeah? Well I’m pretty sure you can mind your own bucking business!”

“Hey, no harm meant.”

Helm’s chin fell. “Right. Whatever. It’s not like anypony’s ever going to read this.”

Somewhere near them, droplets of water kept on eating stone, every drip drilling slightly deeper.

“They wouldn’t dare hurt the Captain of the Guard,” said Mill. After a pause he was forced to add, “Right?”

“There’s nothing these feather brains wouldn’t dare do,” said Helm darkly. “They’re practically animals.”

Mill gave this a thought. “Aren’t we all?”

“They’re in a bad sense.”

“Says the prey,” whispered a voice from the darkness. Helm and Mill jolted to their feet and backed against the wall.

The griffon who had taken Heart away ages ago stepped into the torchlight, grinning. “Evening, little ponies.”

“I have a small son!” wailed Helm. “Please! I don’t want him to grow up without a father!”

“Where is our Captain?” asked Mill sternly.

Cecil’s eyes turned from the sorry face of Helm to him. “He had to leave in a hurry.”

“They threw him off the cliff!” whispered Helm into Mill’s ear.

Cecil raised an eyebrow. “And waste food like that? What, you take us for barbarians?”

The joke had the expected effect on the two ponies, and in the normal circumstances she might have carried on the game for quite a while. A promise was a promise though.

“Relax,” she said. “You’re our guests, and as long as you behave accordingly no one will touch you. Not without crossing my dead body first.”

“So where is our Captain, then?”

“Like I said, he had to leave in a hurry. I’m sure he will explain everything to you once you meet again. In the meantime, he asked me to give you this.”

She offered them a small piece of paper, which Mill accepted without taking his eyes off her.

“He orders you to take it to the station at once,” continued Cecil. “Come. I will lead you out.”

“Now hang on a minute,” said Mill. “What proof we have that the Captain really ordered this? Your word?”

“That’s not good enough for you?”

“It is!” said Helm before Mill could answer. He pulled him closer. “Don’t start playing a hero on me. She’s offering us a way out. We should take it.”

“And what if it’s a trap?” whispered Mill back.

“We are in a trap. They could do whatever they wanted to us. Besides, we’ll find out if they’re lying the moment we get back to the station.”

“And if it is a lie… What about Heart?”

Helm’s jaw clenched. “Are you even listening? If they’ve captured him, the best we can do about it is get out and tell somepony higher up.”

As hard as Helm found to admit it, his friend made sense. Cowardly sense, true, but perhaps it would have to do. He looked at the griffon again.

“Fine. Lead the way.”

She did. As they made their way to the surface, she asked, “Aren’t you going to read the letter, at least?”

“If it’s genuine, we have no right to,” said Mill. “If it’s not, then it’s not worth the trouble.”

Cecil shrugged. She could respect that logic, even if she couldn’t understand it. She had read the letter over Heart’s shoulder as he had written it. The idea therein was noble, if nothing else. Noble enough to make her wish she had actual hope left to cling to.

***

Fear is basically a very rational emotion. The world has little room for lifeforms that do not know fear in one sense or another. The lack of it might earn you a place in the history books, but not in the spin of evolution. Fear is essential for survival, at least in the right doses.

Stick had lost his ability to fear on the day when, so long ago, they had found him in the cellar of his so called home, chained to a wall from a leather collar. Whatever part of him that could feel terror had stayed tethered while the rest had been carried away.

But being fearless was not the same thing as being brave, for bravery is the act of defeating one’s fear. Stick had never defeated anything. He had simply seen the bottom of fear and pushed right through to the other side of terror and courage both.

Lacking fear, Stick’s mind had come up with a new foundation for cohesion, which unfortunately appeared as simple lunacy to most around him. Eventually it had led him into another cellar, where he would have spent the rest of his life, were it not for one particularly strange mare. Yet, on his rare moments of comparative clarity, Stick wondered if her gaze was yet another cellar.

He didn’t need to see the glow of dozens of candles to know she was already waiting for him – this was something he knew in his spine.

In the middle of the damp, stenching room, she sat with a hood on her face. A circle of runes, or what Stick imagined were runes, covered the floor under her. They looked they had been burned to the bare stone.

Approach, said the voice inside his head. The command moved his legs before he could. He stopped directly in front of her. The sound of flickering candle flames filled the air.

Where are the rest of the ingredients?

Stick tried to think of a good answer. When that failed, he tried to make one up. Before the lie could make it to his tongue, the voice within him turned into a red hot blade. His knees buckled and his mouth tore open, only to close as his own tongue refused to let him scream.

Do not lie to me. Do not even think of lying to me.

The pain ceased as if it had never existed. A suffocated gasp fled him, followed by a few lines of muddled speech.

I don’t care if you were robbed. Do you know where to find the rest of the ingredients?

“Yes,” he blurted. “Yes. The addresses have been solid. All I need is time.”

How much?

“Not long! I’ve already made contact with another target! And, and I have one cutie mark right here with me!” He hurriedly scrambled around his saddlebag and pulled out a bloody piece of deep orange coat. The two red apples were clearly visible as he waved it about. “See? See?”

Without a warning, the runes on the floor grew dim at the same moment the last traces of the eerie voice died within him. Near absolute darkness flooded in. Stick stared into it, suddenly frozen where he stood.

A touch like a gentle breeze caressed his cheek.

“Yes, I see that,” said her voice, inches from his ear. How she had gotten there without his noticing, Stick did not want to know.

A magical aura picked the cutie mark from his mouth and tucked it out of sight. “That still makes only two,” she said.

The hoof travelled around his neck and stopped there. Even though no feather could have pressed him less, it felt to Stick that the weight of the whole city hanged above him.

“There’ll be more,” he whispered. “I promise.”

“I already have your promise, and it has left me wanting.” The edge of the hoof travelled down his spine. “You said you’ve made contact with another target?”

“Yes. With Rainbow Dash the Loyal’s heir. Just a kid. I sent him to find a new target.”

“Why?”

“So that I could acquire the one you just got,” he said. He had intended to stop there, but for his horror the words kept on coming. “But… but I’ve lost him now. The Guard has him. Probably along with the pony I send him after.”

The hoof left his fur. Somehow, its absence was even more horrible than its presence.

“It is a precarious position you have led us into,” she said, now farther away from him. “It will not do. Not at all.”

Stick swallowed. “I can fix this.”

“Oh, I know you can. You can because you must. And now that makes two of us.”

Silence filled the emptiness again. Somewhere in its folds, a gutter flowed peacefully.

“By happenstance it would seem that all the rest of the targets are within the Guard’s premises at the moment,” she continued. “A coincidence of intriguing prospects, wouldn’t you say?”

Stick nodded fervently without any idea of what was actually asked of him.

“We shall go there together,” she said. “To finish this once and for all.”

Stick’s head made an emergency brake. “Together?”

“Quite so. Some arrangements will be required, of course. And a little bit of commotion may be unavoidable.”

A little bit of commotion? revised Stick internally. That wouldn’t have been his choice of words to describe an intrusion into the Guard’s quarters – and he was supposed to be the insane one.




***




Sometime later…

…Stick was really, really hoping that it would be earlier still. He longed for the lost time in the nice, comfortable cellar of the Everdream Hospital. Three full meals a day plus an hour outside seemed like the winner deal in hindsight. The lonely hours in the cell might have been dull if the voices had a quiet day, but at least he’d been able to work on his rhymes then. It hadn’t been an ideal life, but at least it had been his.

Of the life he now lived, Stick could not say the same. It wasn’t that he had no say in what he did – that had mostly been the case in the hospital – but that now even the thoughts he could sincerely call his own were a rare treat. Her voice, which never quite grew silent, was a web, and he was the fly. The analogy was completed by her eyes, which consumed a part of him with every new glimpse.

He wondered to himself, just briefly enough not to stir the strings, what she would do with him whenever he’d cease to be useful. Maybe she sends me back to the hospital, he thought. The idea had a wistful taste to it.

Along the fine seams of his consciousness, a strange disturbance travelled. Stick the fly grew very still. When she moved, it was better not to think of anything. She might take notice.

Feinsake entered the shady alley where he had been waiting, carrying a pile of clothing on her back. “It appears we are in luck,” she said while offering them to Stick. “The Guard has shown unexpected initiative and marched to the Cliffs all on their own. There is hardly anypony present. Nonetheless, it’s better you suit up.”

Stick studied the piece of clothing with suspicion. It was a guard’s uniform, but that wasn’t an issue. It smelled like somepony else had just worn it. What had happened to the pony was not a question he was keen to know.

“We shall proceed as follows,” she continued while he pulled the uniform on. “You are Hill Lock, my bodyguard assigned from the Citizen Guard. We are there to visit and interrogate a prisoner who is suspected of having intricate information concerning an intra Parliament issue. He will be our first target. With the knowledge gathered from him, we will visit the second target, after which both ponies will come along with us for further examination.”

Stick gave her a dutiful nod, or what he hoped one looked like.

“I’m glad you agree,” she said. Now, follow.

They crossed the street and, with not so much as greeting the guards standing by the door, entered the Headquarters of the Canterlot Citizen Guard, more commonly known as the station.

The lobby wasn’t very impressive, not to Stick anyway. A few clerks sat behind a row of plain wooden counters. Two sad, obligatory pot plants and a tasteless statue of some dead stallion named Shining Armor the Pure dominated the space through which they quickly marched. As Feinsake was engrossed in a discussion with one of the clerks, Stick kept glancing at the soldier leaning against the nearby pillar. He didn’t seem to have the slightest interest in them.

“Marvellous,” said Feinsake at the clerk. “We shall proceed to the cells right away.”

“Just a moment, Chancellor,” said the clerk. He looked at the guard by the pillar. “Hey, Green! Mind escorting the Chancellor to the cells?”

The soldier addressed as Green gave a lengthy sigh and started approaching Feinsake and Stick.

“Oh, that won’t be necessary,” said Feinsake. “I’ve visited the building in the past and know my way around it. Besides, I’d loath to stretch your already thin ponypower.”

The soldier made a 180 degree turn, but stopped as the clerk coughed meaningfully. “That is very considerate of you, Chancellor, but the rules require that every visitor to the cells needs to be escorted.”

Green made another full turn. From the corner of his eye, Stick saw Feinsake’s smile tensing like a noose.

“Do you believe it is absolutely necessary?” she said sweetly. “I really don’t want to be a bother, and, frankly, the issue I have with the detainees is, well… Let us say that the fewer ears hear about it, the better for all of us.”

The clerk’s expression remained the epitome of blankness. “I’m sorry, Chancellor, but I must insist. The new Captain is very precise about rules being followed, I hear.”

There was a pause on Feinsake’s part, although it was brief enough that only Stick noticed it, for he was expecting it. In the back of his head, he could swear he heard faint curses echo.

“The rule enslave us all,” she said cordially before turning to the soldier Green. “Lead the way, please.”

Before he could, Feinsake turned once more to the clerk as if something had just crossed her mind. “Oh, one more thing. I understand Captain Heart’s daughter is in the building, is that correct?”

The clerk gave her an odd look. “Well, as a matter of fact, yes. Why?”

“I only wish to greet the poor filly. Heart and I are close friends, you see, and I take it as my duty to comfort her daughter in such time of peril. You don’t happen to know where is being held?”

“She’s somewhere in the second floor offices, I understand,” said the clerk.

Feinsake smiled at him. “Excellent. Thank you so very much.”

To Stick’s pleasant surprise, the cell section was located underground. The atmosphere there, made up of stuffy air, dim lights and distant shouting, struck as kind of homely to him. Most of the cells they passed by were on the average side though, and judging from the odd plates that he saw the food around was probably made of homegrown ingredients. Still, it was something he could see himself coming to terms with, in the long run.

The cells they were looking for were at the back of one long corridor. Most of the rioters had been put in one large cell, Green explained, but these two deserved special treatment, being the cause of all the hassle. As they got to them, Feinsake kindly asked if they could interrogate the prisoners in peace. When Green refused her, on account of that being against the rules, she sighed deeply. Her horn flashed brightly, and when Stick’s eyes recovered he saw the guard all limp on the ground.

“He won’t come around for a while, which doesn’t mean you should be idle with your time. Somepony else might come.” She picked the cell keys that the clerk had given them from Green and offered them to Stick. “When you’re done, meet me in the lobby.”

Stick nodded, took the keys and watched her disappear back the way they had come. Next he opened one of the empty cells and dragged Green’s unconscious body there, out sight. After a frustrating few minutes of trying to find the right key he finally got the first door open. It was pitch-black inside, yet he could hear somepony breathing. The strange thing was that the rhythm was very erratic: as if they had breathed in and out at the same time, or as if–

“Is it morning already?” asked a mare’s voice.

“Can’t be,” said a stallion. “It’s only been a couple of hours. Either that or this place really messes up your internal clock.”

“Er,” said Stick. “How many of you are there?”

There came a silence.

“What, you don’t know?” said the stallion. “You’re the ones who put us here.”

“I… I was told there’d be one pony per cell.”

Someone moved in the darkness. Soon, a buttercup pegasus mare appeared in the faint light that spilled into the cell from the corridor. Her face had a definite stern look on. “Yeah, well, I don’t know how many times we have to explain this to you people, but if one us is going to have to spend the night in this horrid place, then you have to lock us both up. Flitter didn’t start the fight. Maybe he didn’t end it either, but that doesn’t mean–”

“I’ve come to save you,” said Stick before she could get another word out. “Come quickly: there’s not much time.”

Another pony appeared from the darkness, this one the identical copy of the mare save the sex. Their cutie marks, which drew Stick’s eyes like magnets, made his already spinning mind switch a gear a few notches up. Two Element Bearers in one was not something his already fragile plan could easily accommodate.

“Who are you?” asked the stallion.

“I…” began Stick, the old lie surfacing in his mind like a whale, “...am the Envoy of Harmony, tasked to save this city and country from certain destruction. And you are the only ponies in the world who can help me do that.”

***

Violet travelled her hoof along the edge of a coffee mug with increasing velocity while staring intently through the window of her office. Above all the rooftops and chimneys, the Cliffs loomed, seemingly at peace with the world. Every now and then she could have sworn she saw two dots clashing in the sky before falling to their doom. Whether those were the signs of an ongoing battle or figments of her imagination, she had no idea. She wasn’t completely sure if she wanted to find out, either.

That was one reason why she had stayed back, besides the fact that somepony had to stay back in the first place. Most who knew her knew she was no fighter, and she would have been the first to agree with them. Quiet hours spent with a microscope were more her cup of tea. And then there was the third reason she had stayed, happily playing with her stuffed, purple dragon on the floor.

Violet was not what she herself considered “a natural mother” type, but taking care of other ponies’ foals was fine. At least for a time. And Heart was not just anypony. The stars knew that he hadn’t been dealt the most favourable cards in life lately. Not that I pity him for that. It’d be a terrible offense, pitying a pony like Heart.

“And now you can sent the letter to the Princess in her castle,” said the filly to the dragon. The creature was called Spyke, Violet reckoned. The name reminded her of something distant, of some speck in the cloth of history. Probably nothing special, she thought and turned back to the window. As she did, the door to the room opened.

“Hello,” said the comer after what seemed to Violet an awkward pause. “Ah. Am I in the right room?”

Recognizing her visitor, Violet stood up from her desk. “Who were you looking for, Chancellor?”

Feinsake tore her eyes off the filly and gave Violet a brief smile. “Oh, you know me? Of course, of course. I suppose a reputation like mine tends to precede me everywhere.” Another smile, another glance at the filly who hardly paid her any attention.

“Uhm, sure,” said Violet, frowning slightly. She had indeed seen the Chancellor before, and certainly she had heard of her. And what she had heard did not fit well with the nervous, furtive mare who now stood in her office. “Is there something wrong?”

“Not at all, dear, not at all,” assured Feinsake. She bit her lip furiously, practically chewed it. “You see, I thought… I was led to believe she would be alone here. Lily, I mean. Pardon me, I have no idea why I thought that would be the case – of course Heart would have at least a secretary watching after her.”

“O-kay,” said Violet, to whose ears both “dear” and “secretary” rang like a claw against a blackboard. “Is her excellency in the habit of checking how her subjects organize their foalcare?”

Feinsake flinched. “Ah. No, not at all. Pardon me, I’m in a funny mood today. You see, Heart and I had this agreement that if something happened to him, I would take his daughter under my personal protection. Surely he mentioned of this to you?”

Violet shook her head slowly. There was something terribly wrong with the mare before her, but she could not quite put her hoof on what that was. Perhaps it was the way she kept on glancing at Lily like she was the most extraordinary thing in the world.

“I can’t say he did, Chancellor,” Violet said.

“Pity,” said Feinsake smoothly. “Well, I’m sure he had his reasons. A busy pony like him can’t remember every single little detail.” She made a move towards Lily, who was mostly occupied with feeding a spoonful of invisible soup to her pet.

“I’m pretty sure Captain Heart wouldn’t have failed to mention anything concerning his daughter,” said Violet. She, too, took a step towards the filly. “When exactly did Heart ask this favour from you? And why? And how come you knew she was here in the first place?”

Feinsake glanced at Violet. The corner of her mouth twitched. “Why, it was a few days ago when we discussed the issue, and where to find Lily when the time would come. As for the reasons, I believe Heart would have mentioned them to you, had he seen it necessary.”

In the silence that followed, the two mares stared each other. Little by little, Lily stopped her play and looked up at them. Both were smiling, yet some instinct told her they weren’t as happy inside.

“Perhaps you should come again later when Heart has returned,” said Violet sharply. “I’m sure he won’t be away that long.”

Feinsake opened her mouth, but closed it after she noticed the filly’s big, round eyes looking at her. She flashed a kind smile, then looked at Violet with an even sweeter smirk. “I’d love to wait for Heart’s return, I’d really do, but the whole point of my visit was, well… caused by the general impossibility of that state of affairs.”

Lily blinked, then turned to look at Violet. There was something in that sentence which made her heart race, even though she could barely recount two words of it.

“I’m sure he’s on his way to us right now,” said Violet.

“Quite,” said Feinsake. With a sudden move, she kneeled besides Lily and laid a hoof on her shoulder. “Now, little one, how does a big, sweet ice cream sound to you?”

“Not before dinner,” said Violet. She walked next to Lily and pulled her behind her gently but determinately. She wasn’t smiling anymore. “I’m sorry, Chancellor, but I can’t give her to you without knowing Captain Heart’s opinion.”

The Chancellor laughed heartily. “Oh, don’t be silly, dear. What do you take me for – a lowly foalnapper? What reason in the world would I have to lie to you?”

“I don’t know, but I’d rather not find out.”

Feinsake laughed again, yet not that heartily. She leaned a bit closer to the other mare, unblinking.

A strange sensation swept over Violet. It was as if a hood had been pulled over her head, coating the world in utter darkness, Feinsake’s gaze excluded. It drew her in like a sinkhole, like a massive gyre, spinning a spiral of numbness around his mind. Enthralled, she let herself descend…

“Violet?” said Lily’s voice from the darkness. Violet blinked, and suddenly the hood was gone, leaving Feinsake present, so overwhelmingly present.

“Wh–” began Violet. A surge of energy lashed at her horn, and pain bloomed all over her brain. Even when her mind could not believe it, her body had no doubts at all: Feinsake had just neutralized her horn.

Violet may not have been a fighter, but she was not devoid of instincts. Messing with a unicorn's horn was like showing a red cloth to a bull, with the exception that no matador would ever live to repeat his trick in the former game.

Violet tackled Feinsake to the floor. A fierce struggle ensued. Feinsake tried to use her horn again but Violet foiled the attempt, strangling her opponent and bringing her weight down on her chest. Feinsake grunted, her hind legs kicking the air mindlessly, all the while Violet pressed more with her hooves. Red mist filled her vision, igniting her senses. Somepony screamed – it was Lily. The thought pierced the mist, let her steam rush out at just the instant when Feinsake realized she was dying, and her foal along with her.

A halo no thicker than paper appeared around Violet’s neck, formed a circle and twisted. The snap of bone was a gunshot: short and final. Violet’s body fell limp, her wide eyes now focused on nothing. Feinsake stared into them, panting. Then she pushed the mare off her, stood up and closed her eyes. For ten seconds she waited like that. When nopony had walked in after twenty seconds, she opened her eyes again.

Lily was staring at her, mouth agape.

“There wasn’t supposed to be nopony else here,” said Feinsake quietly. She bit her lip, glanced at the corpse and sighed. “So much hate to pave the way of love,” she said under her breath. “So much death for life’s sake.”

Lily took a wavering step backwards and hit the wall behind. Tenseness melted off her like wax, kindled by the flame of terror. In truth she screamed still, her voice reverberating in her very bones.

Feinsake kneeled in front of her. “Now,” she said, smoothing her mane, “The ice cream’s still on the table, if you’re interested.”

Lily drew a deep breath, but Feinsake caught her gaze just in time to turn the surfacing cry into a little more than a sigh.

And I thought Stick would end up with the messy part of this, she thought as they made it towards the lobby, Lily following her like a dog in a leash. The few ponies they passed by either forgot them immediately or raised an odd eyebrow. It wasn’t like the Chancellor was taking the Captain’s daughter anywhere against her own will, right? Not that such a thought could be conceivable in the first place.

In the lobby, Stick was waiting just as had been agreed. He seemed quite uneasy, but Feinsake took it as a side-effect of her extended influence on him. Splintered as his mind was, it could only take so much magical manipulation before crumbling. But it wouldn’t need to last that long anymore.

“You have the information?” asked Feinsake as he got to Stick.

He jumped a bit, rubbed the back of his neck with a hoof, glanced at the ceiling and then nodded.

“Splendid. So did I. Now, let us–”

“They’re still on,” said Stick, still staring at the ceiling.

“Excuse me?”

“The cutie marks. They’re still on their bearers. I couldn’t remove them.”

“Stick…” said Feinsake, pulling him closer and out of possible earshot of the clerk. “Are you telling me that you failed?”

“No,” he blurted. “No, I got the bearers, they’re in the corridor to the dungeons, waiting for me to pick them up. They think I’m here to free them so we can save the world together. They trust me. At least one of them does.”

Feinsake considered this, for the other option was to turn Stick into a wet spot on the floor, which obviously wouldn’t do quite yet.

“Can you get them to follow you to the hideout?” she asked.

Stick nodded his head furiously.

“Good. You had me worried there, for a moment. It has been a long day. I could not bear another worry now.” She pulled away from him. After a thoughtful pause she said, “We shall meet in the hideout in an hour. This affair will be finished today. Go on, then: bring them out. I’ll deal with the clerk.”

Stick didn’t budge. “There is something else, too.”

“Yes…?”

“There’s three of them. The kid I talked about and two siblings: twins. They have the same cutie mark.”

“The more the merrier,” said Feinsake. “It matters none. Bring them out and bring them in. And no failures.”

As Stick scampered away, Feinsake allowed her shoulders to sag. Long as the day had been, she had the premonition that it would get longer still.

With an unpleasant surprise, she found Lily looking at her. Instinctually, she averted the filly’s mesmerized gaze, only then noticing a certain lack on her hindquarter. She still has no cutie mark, she thought.

Feinsake swallowed, and her hoof travelled idly to her stomach. The foal within hadn’t shown signs of life for several hours now. A feeling of tightness gripped her throat and heart. A void pulled her in, an emptyness as absolute as the one she saw on Lily’s flank. There is nothing there, a voice kept saying. Nothing at all. Stupid filly, playing with nothing, wishing it was something.

She forced the lump in her throat into her stomach, where she prayed it would stay. There was still hope: a hope like only a mother can know.



***



In the corridor leading to the dungeons, three pegasi waited in strained silence. Gambit and Flitter stood by the opposite walls, throwing glares at one another over the mare between them. The position left her oddly related to a funambulist, although in theory she should have had no problems choosing the side she fell on. But somepony needed to hold the middle ground, she felt, or there would be nothing stopping the two stallions from starting another fight.

“What’s taking so long?” said Flitter suddenly. “Why can't we just walk out? If he’s really a sergeant, why do we have to sneak like this?”

“Because the fewer ponies who know that we exist, the better,” said Gambit. He shot another frustrated look at the other stallion. “I thought Stick explained all this to you when he got you out? We’re the new Element Bearers: destined to save the world and stuff like that. Besides, the whole building’s practically empty.”

Flitter snorted. “Look, I don’t care what dream you’re living, but leave me and my sister out of it. You’ve caused us enough trouble as is.”

“Me? You started the fight! It’s you who should–”

“Guys, please,” pleaded the mare. “Can’t we all calm down a bit? It’s no use blaming each other.”

“All I’m saying,” said Flitter, “That hadn’t we ever met this… person… we’d be home right now, maybe closing for the day. That’s all I’m saying.”

Gambit turned slowly to fully face Flitter. “Don’t you get it? This is not about you and me: it’s about the whole city. You can’t fly away from your fate.”

Flitter, who had moved the moment Gambit had, rolled his eyes. “Oh, please. You really believe in that stuff? I’ve met ten-year-olds who know that the Element Bearers are just a myth, nothing more.”

Gambit’s face fell in utter disbelief. “You don’t believe the Element Bearers were real?”

“Aren’t you the clever one? No wonder this Stick guy picked you to his personal army. There’s just no hiding the obvious from you, is there?”

Gambit pawed the floor, but stopped when the mare’s face crossed his vision. She said not a word, yet there was no mistaking her message. It was a prayer many a god would have envied to hear.

“Yeah, whatever,” said Gambit, leaning against the wall. “It ain’t my job to convince you.”

Flitter opened his mouth again, but closed it when the mare turned to face him in turn with the same look in her eyes. Kindness such as hers was a barrier few ponies would dream crossing.

As Flitter looked away, she turned to Gambit again. “If it helps any, I do believe in the Element Bearers.”

He gave her a suspicious look. “Well, duh? How could you not believe? You told me in the shop that you know you’re Fluttershy the Kind’s heir. Which means he must be, too.”

“Yes, I do know that,” she said. “But it’s a different thing to believe one’s grand-grand-mother was a saint than that she existed.” She looked at her brother, who was staring straight ahead of himself, face blank. “Flitter didn’t mean Fluttershy never existed. He meant he doesn’t believe she was the god they now think she was. She was a pony like us, not a deity.”

“But she did save world a couple of times, didn't she?” asked Gambit.

“And that means we built statues, temples and whatnot in her glory, does it? said Flitter. “All the while countless ponies are starving or without a gutter to call a home?” He looked at Gambit, not in mockery but in pity. “There’s a thousand ponies out there ready to kill another thousand just because Fluttershy was a pegasus and they’re not. That’s religion for you. If that’s what counts as believing in the Element Bearers then call me an atheist.”

Gambit stared at him, then at the mare. “That’s… That’s not what I meant… That’s not right. That’s not what believing in the Bearers means.”

She smiled weakly. “I know. I don’t believe that either. But many do, and that’s why our family has kept a low profile ever since the Catastrophe. I think that’s what all the others decided, too.”

Gambit blinked and shook his head in confusion. “Is… Is that why my parents left me? To protect me from who – what – I am?”

“You’re an orphan?” she asked, deep worry translucent in her voice. “Oh, I’m so very sorry. Life must have been so hard for you.”

Gambit kept on blinking and shifting his weight between his legs. “I… It’s okay, I’ve made my peace with it. Yeah, it’s… okay…” He rubbed his eyes, blinked some more and started sobbing. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he muttered while seemingly trying to sink into ground. “Argh, why now, why now, why the buck now: of all the times, why now…”

Foreign feathers caressed his own, and just like that he found her embracing him, spreading her wings over him like a blanket of the softest velvet, of kindness come flesh. That was the last drop that broke the dam: the tears swept over him, carrying him in the wake of fifteen years worth of doubt, hate, fear and other emotions he could not even name. Why now? he thought, for one last time. Why at all? Why?

There’s no escaping the past. Especially not when the past in question is but a single question.

“Somepony’s coming,” said Flitter.

Gambit and the mare separated. They all peered into the stairs leading up, from where quick steps echoed.

“It’s me,” said Stick’s voice before the rest of him appeared. He gave each pegasi a quick glance, as if to make sure they were all really present. “Come quickly: the way is clear.”

Gambit hastily dried the last of his tears and then flew after him. The mare was next to follow, and after one last clench of his jaw Flitter joined them. Together they made it carefully to the lobby, which seemed all but abandoned. Even the counter stood empty.

“Where is everypony?” whispered Flitter.

“On a break,” said Stick. He gave the room one last look, then cantered through it, the pegasi flying in his wake. Inaudible wingbeats paved their way to the main doors and beyond. Two guards stood at the outer gates, but after seeing Stick’s uniform they hardly bothered to glance at the others as they exited the Guard’s premises in swift order. After half a dozen blocks they finally stopped at a quiet alley.

“Well then,” said Stick, braving a victorious smile. “That went smoothly.”

“Why shouldn’t it have?” said Flitter. Suspicion shined from his eyes as he studied Stick from head to heel. “What do you want from us? Are you really even a soldier? How do you know Fluttershy was our grandmother? You better start answering these questions.”

“All will be explained in good time,” said Stick. “But that time is not now: we’re all still in mortal danger. Come, there’s a place we need to visit. Now.”

“We’re not going anywhere except home,” said Flitter.

Gambit, who was still floating in the air, spat on the ground before his hooves. “Get on with it, then. This ain’t a trip for cowards.”

“Shut up!” snapped Stick at the youth before turning an apologetic smile at the twins. “Youngs these days – so very impulsive. Do ignore him for now. This matter is too important to lose for trifles.”

Flitter’s eyes, tinted with casual disgust, turned from Gambit to him. “I think not, pal. I don’t care how you did it, but you got us out. Thanks for that. Now, goodbye.” He turned around and headed towards the end of the alley.

“If you leave now you won’t live to see the next morning!” cried Stick. In desperation, he seized the mare from a shoulder. “Please! You don’t understand! The griffons are about to attack the city, we’re all going to die, we–”

“Hooves off her!” shouted Flitter. He glided in between Stick and her, shouldering him away. “Didn’t you hear? We’re out.” He nudged his sister and said, “Come on. Let’s go home.”

“No!” cried Stick, but too late. All he got in return was a sad glance from the mare before she joined his brother on their way to the sky. In horror he watched them fly away and disappear behind the rooftops. “Stop them!” he finally cried, whirling around. “Gambit, stop them!”

“Why?” said the youth, floating above his head. “We don’t need them. Heck, the Kindness cutie mark is probably broken, split in two like that.”

“Idiot!” yelled Stick, stomping his hoof in fury. “We need all the Bearers, all the cutie marks! Get them back now, I don’t care how!”

The pegasus sneered. “What’d you call me?”

Stick, unaware of the subtle shift in the youth’s tone, kept on staring at the disappearing backs of the twins. “Hurry up, they’re getting away! If we lose them we lose everything! She will tear me to pieces! She will cook my brain! She will–”

He looked around and found himself staring at empty air. “Gambit?” he said after a moment. “Hello? Gambit? Where’d you go, friend? Where are you? Gambit? Gambit! Get back here! Get the buck back here now or, or…”

As his own voice died away, it got really quiet in the alley. It got so quiet he could hear sounds that weren’t there, whispers that reached for him beyond space and time, along the strings of a web made of thoughts. In the darkness, it kept on calling his name. The tone was urgent, insistent. Final.

In the darkness looming behind his eyelids, her gaze awaited him to blink.

Something gleamed in the edge of his vision: a piece of broken glass caught by sunlight. After some thought, he picked it up for closer inspection, after which it found a place in the pocket of his uniform.

Just in case, he assured himself. Just in case.

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