• Published 20th Aug 2015
  • 2,945 Views, 303 Comments

Pirene's Well: Three Nights in Manehattan - Ether Echoes

A noir tale of anxiety, pain, loss, and hope in Manehattan. Sequel to Through the Well of Pirene.

  • ...

The First Night - Interlude

The Old Warhorse

Manehattan. Summer.

Ocean or no, you can’t beat the heat. I’ve been in this town on three separate occasions in my life, and it was either too hot, too bright, or too noisy.

They’re all jumbled together these days. You can’t escape it.

Everywhere you look in this town, people pack it like the mulched fish crap they feed their pets. Thirty years ago it was a big town, but a quiet one. Too sophisticated for my tastes, but it functioned. Fifteen years ago it was raucous, but it knew order.

Now? Now it’s just chaos.

I stare down at a hoof, regarding the blood dried in the cracks that never healed right. I’ll need to wash that off soon, but really it’s nothing new. Even the Guards they churn out today – too many – learn the old ways. You never know when someone’ll come along who can shed those fancy new bullets like rain. Ponies think the Guard only found meaning after the Changeling attack. They forget that, even in the fairy tale days, there was always a job that needed someone willing to do it.

It’s late, but who can tell? They never turn the lights off around here. A mare in a nice dress is walking her daughter home, the filly bouncing along at her heels. They’re chatting, probably about the concert at the music hall down the street, its maws disgorging ponies by the dozen.

When the filly runs ahead, the mare calls out to her in a note of worry, and my eyes tighten as I see the faint hesitance in the girl’s legs, the way her ears lower just so towards her head. Even her tail threatens to tuck in under her legs as she scampers back to her mother’s side.

Once, not so long ago, a kid could wander from here to Vanhoover at any hour and never fear anything worse than a scrape, so long as they kept to the path. Strangers would give them rides and there’d be no question of safety. Their eyes would never be shadowed by worry.

But that’s the sick world we’ve come to.

The world they made.

I grind my hoof against the pavement, the sallow, smug face of the ram swimming up. He thought he could reason with me. Thought he could appeal to my basic equinity and respect for fellow sapients if he just didn’t fight.

Someone should have told him that for some of us, the battle never ended. He was at war, whether he knew it or not.

I turn and march into downtown, making sure my amulet is tucked into my camo jacket. Past sloppiness is no excuse for future laxity.

Regarding the enormous towers in the most exclusive part of Manehattan, I tighten my jaw. I respect the Princesses’ decision to open the borders, but they always taught us to disagree if we felt the need.

Stars, do I feel the need.

* * *

Why are we here? a voice asks from the darkened corner of the elevator. Normally, an elevator corner wouldn’t be darkened, but then I did just slam a goblin into the ceiling and leave him groaning beside me. You are wasting time. This is not where the girl is.

“Funny,” I wipe my hooves on the mook’s shirt, “I remember you saying you couldn’t see her.”

The green witch blocks my sight.

“And you hers.”

She is not here. This, I know.

“No, but I sure as hell ain’t going to find her on time on my own.” I watch numbers tick up. “That’s why we’re here.”

If you insist.

I don’t dignify that with a response. The elevator dings, and I step out to find a forest of automatic and semi-automatic weapons pointed my way. I come to a stop, casually, and reach into my jacket to pull out the amulet. Only a very creative mind could consider the shape of it to be in any way evocative of an alicorn, with four points representing hooves pounded into its bronze surface and a horn curved like a sword across the top. I don’t need anyone to tell me what it is, though. The burning heat radiating from the jewel and through my bones does that for me.

I can feel what’s left of him in there. He doesn’t talk like the other guy.

He seethes.

“You here to sign your death warrant?” a mare – woman, gotta be precise the these days – asks, and they part enough to reveal a stony woman. She’s probably attractive by human standards, but I couldn’t tell. Long black hair cascades to her hips, and she wears an amulet of a spider embraced by a silver and gold ring on her chest. Perhaps more notable is the goblin steel blade she’s tapping against her leg – that, now, might actually be a threat.

“Funny. I thought I already had one,” I walk forward, and the nervous mass of goblins moves with me, but apart. They flank me on all sides, though frankly they’re more liable to hurt each other than me. “I walk into Quicklime’s place, and they see fit to jump me.”

“You got an entire ring of his best people captured. Did you expect a parade? They were sending a message.”

Polished black mirrors space the doors along the hall. I pause to look into one, touching a hoof to a fresh scar. I don’t remember that one, maybe one of his men gave it to me. “I had nothing to do with it. It’s not my fault they were sloppy.”

“Well. As my mother would say, no spinning silk back into the spinnerets.” She smiles coldly. “Quicklime’s dead, and you owe me a great deal of blood money.”

“How much?”

They always said the Ring types were level-headed, and she doesn’t disappoint. “Five hundred thousand bits. Gold.”

“Pricy blood,” I say skeptically.

“Factor in the cost of lost opportunity costs, the need to find and train a replacement. It adds up.”

“Hmph.” Not that I actually care. These chaos-born scum get suspicious if you don’t offer up a token effort. “Fine, but only because I need another job.”

There’s a scattering of rough laughter, and the crime lord shows her teeth. “Why should we deal with you again after tonight, soldier?”

“Because one, I have a lot more in stolen goods that I don’t particularly care for, and two…”

I don’t really need to do anything. I just reach in with my mind and let the gem do its thing. It’s a subtle thing, as I seem to swell without really growing, as if the room were shrinking around me. The heat is especially real, though, and it pours off me in waves as the cracks in my hooves fill with a dull red light. A corona of burning fire dims the lamps, and when I speak again, my voice is heavy with ash.

“Call it an apology for the hastiness of Quicklime’s men. I’m a forgiving type, properly motivated.”

People like her, the parasitic rats scurrying in the floorboards of the universe, are used to making quick calculations. She weighs me, weighs her men, and comes to a sensible conclusion.

* * *

The amulet doesn’t want to shut up on the way back. I massage my temples with a hoof, not for the first time wondering how quickly it’s getting to my head. The mare in Los Pegasus had only had it for three days at most, and that Trixie kid not even one. No one knows what happened at the last one except for top clearance, which hasn’t been me for a long time now. Maybe the damned thing’s already got a hold of me.

You are sane enough. For now.

“Charming, thanks,” I tell the darkness as I stomp in to clear the earth from my hooves and then flick a switch. The lights in the old house flicker terribly, but they do turn on, revealing crates packed with artifacts labeled from a dozen museums. It’s hard work, covering your tracks. Best way to hide something is often in plain sight.

Right now, they’re not so much hidden as they are stacked against the kitchen wall – seven jars in seven colors, each with a lead seal across the top, and all, and to a one only remarkable to history buffs and their ilk.

That, and a very nosy monster.

It is unlikely, of course, that you will significantly outlast the ceremony.

“You sound almost concerned,” I say, grabbing a jug of orange juice from the fridge and pouring a glass. “That seems unlike you.”

The fullness of your cooperation has always been a vital part of this endeavor. If you are experiencing doubts or worries about your security, now is the time to clear them.

I walk up to the window and peer through the blinds at the city lights. They shimmer across the water, rippling like strings of pearl. I wish I had some sort of story to go with that, some marefriend who lifted pearls to her side and laughed for me, or a brother who’d play in the surf with his wings shining with droplets of seawater, or a picture of a foal with my nose, but the truth is that I don’t have anything like that. All I have are a chest of medals, an old uniform, a shiny piece of jewelry with a serious attitude problem, a host of unpleasant memories, and a voice to keep me company. Dawn's first light touches the horizon.

“I’ve made my share of sacrifices to the crown. Since no one else is stepping up to the plate and protecting it from itself, though, I can stand to make a few more.”

If nothing else, I can respect that.

I grunt. At least we have that.


* * * * * * *

Author's Note:

And thus ends Night 1.

Short chapter, I know! But I think I give quite enough to go on. Now all the pieces are in place.

Stay tuned - next time we pick up with Night 2.