• 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 Second Night - Part 1

The Reluctant Pilgrim

Soaring over Coneigh Island on your way back to your kip is a good way to test your resistance to temptation. If you stop for a savory dog, a basket of fried fish and chips, any one of ten kinds of cotton candy, or queue into a ride, you’ve failed. Really, if it weren’t for what’s waiting for me at Rarity’s, I probably would have soaked that temptation right up into my veins, maybe played in the white sand and surf for the hell of it.

After making fun of the name, of course. Fifteen years, and I still can’t get over the horse puns. Daphne can talk about how we influenced each other all she likes, but we aren’t the ones who wound up with punned cities.

C’mon.” I say towards the green star ahead as it hangs in the twilit sky. “Just one kebob. I’m not a vegetarian you know. Call it an appetizer.”

The star twinkles merrily. Tauntingly, more like.

I sigh dramatically and wing my way past the vast dark blue canvas that is Luna Park, which is without a doubt the best series of themed attractions in the whole of Coneigh Island. On another time, I’d take Leit here. She’d love the cool darkness inside, with its stars and looming moon, not to mention the attractions. A line heavily peppered with thestrals wraps around it twice in anticipation of nightfall, but even that would be worth it.

This time, my sigh is entirely real as I pick up speed and race north along the Manehattan shoreline until I come to a collection of large, well-kept houses on a hill near the north river. Rarity could easily have afforded the gaudy, extravagant mansions along the central park, but apparently some things are too big even for her pretty head. Tucking my wings in, I land with a graceful clatter in the garden. It’s a vast collection of flowing bushes and vines. Most of the work of maintaining it is done by an elderly zebra who manages the entire neighborhood the backyards as if they were his grandchildren, though a bed of well-tended orchids testifies to Talon’s careful, keen hoof. I trot along the stones and slide the rear door open to step in.

Perhaps for the sake of her husband, Rarity had toned down her baroque tendencies too, leaving only a few plus-sized gems to glitter here and there in the kitchen. That and a few touches of rose marble here and there. I trot up, sniffing at the oven. “Smell that, Daph? Seems I spoke too soon. You know, I swear that artificial meat didn’t smell this good last year.”

Another twinkle.

“Seems to me there’s another goody nearby, too,” I sniff along the counter, passing a covered bowl of roasted eggplant blended with tomato and spices and a baking dish filled with assorted vegetables, and stop at a glass lid covering the most exquisite apple pie I’ve seen in years, and that’s saying something with the company I keep. “Jackpot.” I lick my lips and reach for the lid, before a blue teleportation flash erupts at my side and an alabaster wing swats my hoof. It keeps swatting until I back up, grinning as I fend Rarity off. “Easy there! I give, I give.” I peek at her through my warding wings. “You didn’t seriously alarm the pie, did you?”

Rarity sniffs and lifts a hoof disdainfully. “With my husband? I set alarms on the entire kitchen.”

“Yeah, he always did have an appetite.” I swish my short tail. “Seriously, though, it looks great. Totally worth bypassing a rich, juicy bratwurst for.”

“It’d better,” she warns, but her own pleased smile betrays her. She laughs and leads me into the living room. “How’d your search go?”

“I’m pretty sure my badge has been rubbed to nothing by now,” I groan. “Not that I can really blame elementary school administrators for being suspicious of some random stallion asking after their student body.”

“Didn’t the police already check their databases this morning?” she asks.

I shrug. “Yeah, but most schools in town don’t actually keep databases on that stuff. Privacy and all. Makes my job harder, but I can’t really object.” I perk my ears at the sound of a television running in the family room, and a foal’s squeal of glee. “I thought Luster was going to some sort of concert thing?”

“A gaming tournament, actually, and yes.” She nods. “Talon will be along to take him after dinner.”

“That’s cute,” I smile. “Any word from Fluttershy yet, by the way?”

Rarity shakes her head. “No. I’m not surprised. Even getting a message that far south is difficult. Applejack called me, though. Three times.”

“Doesn’t surprise me. Hope they don’t have to sedate her.”

“Oh, she certainly looked it in her last call. Not to mention puffy.” Rarity giggles. “Really, is there any mare as bad at giving birth as her?”

“Yeah, yeah, we’ve all heard about how Luster came out smooth as silk.” I chew on my cheek. “Celestia’s still on her vacation on the human side, but Luna can get in touch with her. Even then, teleporting over there can be tricky without knowing the land well enough. Twilight’s in Saddle Arabia, so she won’t be able to get here before the week’s out. Princess Rainbowbutt the First is also on my Earth, with Daphne and Leit.”

“Does she know you call her that?” Rarity raises a brow.

“What? I’m surprised you haven’t heard.” I smirk. “She coined it herself.”

“You are pulling my tail.”

“Oh no.” I lift a hoof defensively. “Not with your husband.”

She laughs, but it’s a brief one as she considers the situation soberly. “It is rather as if this is happening rather coincidentally when everypony we know is incapacitated or apart, isn’t it?”

I stamp a hoof. “Coincidence nothing. Still, worst case scenario, there’s an airship standing by.” Tilting my head, I reconsider. “Well, no. Worst case scenario is Luna drops her vigilance and teleports halfway across the country, and maybe Daphne pulls her iris trick and crosses the dimensions herself.”

“You’d rather she not, wouldn’t you?” Rarity asks quietly.

“What she’s doing is important.” I shake my head. “Daph and Naomi rely on me, Rarity. I go where I’m needed. If she needed to come, she’d have come.”

She considers me. “You aren’t an errand boy. You mean a great deal more to them than that.”

“No. I’m a troubleshooter, and trouble is what I shoot.” I start towards the family room.

“You know well that’s not what I mean,” she says. “You’re making it sound like you’re the last filly picked at recess. I don’t believe you were sent here because all the ponies who could handle it are doing more important things.”

I stop, laying my ears back. “That’s not how I intended it.”

“Well!” She ruffles her wings. “It’s how it came across.”

Resisting the urge to sigh for a third time tonight, I half-turn towards her. “You know, when Los Pegasus was getting sucked down that storm cell, it was all I could do to keep airborne. I managed to struggle through to the eye, eventually, but when I confronted Tattered Sail, I might as well have been talking to a brick wall. Maybe I could have made headway, but I was ripped away back into the storm. Rainbow’s the one who blew through it and talked her out of sinking the city, not me.”

Rarity touches my side with her wing and a hoof. “I didn’t know, actually. Rainbow never talks about it. Even so, we all have our talents. Rainbow’s the strongest flier to ever live. You tried, though, you had a shot. Maybe if she hadn’t of been there, you could have pulled back.”

“Well, speaking as the guy who tries, knowing that maybe if the stars are right I’ll be first rate doesn’t really help.” I bump my shoulder against hers. “Look, it’s selfish meanderings anyway. Yeah, maybe it bothers me, but what I really care about is seeing a job completed by any means, and I’m not going to let pride get in the way of doing what needs to be done. If things start looking bad, I’ll call in the cavalry. You’re all horses anyway, so you count.”

She rolls her eyes amusedly and gives me a nudge. “Very well, Marcus, but you do matter, and you do have skills that make you unique.”

I glance back at my sides. Under my jacket, a thunder cloud with two striking bolts lurks. It takes up pretty much my entire back when I’m on two legs, so I can’t miss it. “We’ll have to see if that’s enough, then.”

In the family room, Luster is sprawled on a cushion near his laptop screen, rather than using the wall one. More personal, really. Smooth as silk or not, the very pretty Rarity gave birth to a very pretty son, with fine dark purple hair and a well-groomed silver coat. Like his dad, his feathers are tinged in black.

“I swear, he’s gonna kill the ladies when he’s a little older,” I whisper to Rarity, who giggles. Luster flicks an ear back, but doesn’t seem to have really noticed. He clutches his hooves around a golden-haired plush and turns the volume up a hair.

“Queen Honeycomb,” a little filly asks a mare dressed in black and yellow stripes, “can you wish upon a star?”

“Yes! But only very special stars,” the mare answers, booping the filly on the nose with a cheerful smile. “There’s a star out there just for you, I’ll bet, but so you get some good practice in, why don’t you tell me what you’d ask for?”

“Really,” I say. “I’m surprised they run this in the evening, too. Oh, right, nocturnal kids.” I glance at Rarity. “Didn’t you and the others bust her for being a changeling a few years back?”

Yes, and our children forgave us eventually.” She pats at her mane embarrassedly. “That’s the last time I invade a television studio without checking to see if we’re on air.”

“Also not assuming every changeling is evil?”

“Oh, she’s certainly supping on their love,” Rarity protests. “We just didn’t realize that foals provided a renewable method of feeding.”

“So not evil.”

No.” She groans. “And even behind the scenes she’s terribly chipper. When we dropped the charges she even apologized, as if we were the ones inconvenienced.”

I snigger, and Luster shoots a furious look our way and turns the volume higher still. Rarity trots off to the kitchen again, and I mosey over to glimpse past the kid’s shoulder. It’s an awfully saccharine show, intended more for very young children, and I open my mouth to ask if he’s a little old for it.

Hesitating, I take in the warm joy on his face and the way he holds the plush doll so tenderly between his hooves. It’s hard not to be reminded of my own kid siblings – or, more directly, when I was still watching Sesame Street and other shows like it into elementary. Someone, an uncle or a cousin or the like, opened their mouth and asked that very same question. It wasn’t really the same after that.

Instead, I settle down beside him. We’d gotten to know one another pretty well over his visits to Ponyville, and he glances my way briefly with a welcoming smile. After a bit, he even shifts a bit to settle in between my legs and rests his chin against a hoof, and I was pretty much paralyzed from then on.

“Is Auntie Leit visiting, too, Uncle Marcus?” he asks during a commercial, his tail wagging hopefully.

“Nope, but she said she’ll have another figurine for you next time she visits.”

“Aww,” he lowers his ears. “We’ll go flying though, right?”

“Sure thing.” I ruffle his mane. “I know an actual pirate cave I can take you and your Dad to, once I’m done here.”

“That’d be a trick,” Talon himself says as he alights on the window, “I didn’t think there were pirates in Equestrian history.”

“Give or take a few thousand years, you’d be surprised. Hey Talon.”

“Marcus.” He brushes himself off outside before coming in. “See you’ve arrived in time for dinner.”

“Speak for yourself. I’d greet you properly, but your son has me pinned.”

“Just like his old man.” Talon ruffles Luster’s mane as well, and the colt makes a little noise of protest and starts patting it back down. In many ways, they look almost nothing alike, but there’s similarities in the shape of their hooves and the turn of their legs, not to mention the black tips of their feathers. Talon’s are a grey green, and his cropped mane is a two-toned green, but his eyes are his oddest feature. They’re always a little lidded, as if he’s sleepy or disinterested, but I’d never seen quite that striking a yellow in other Equestrians.

“Do you think Daddy’ll help you with your mission?” Luster asks excitedly as the program ends.

“He might.” I glance up at him. “Were you called into duty?”

“No, but the night’s still young. Seems unlikely, my unit’s halfway across Equestria right now.” He smiles his slow smile. “Not that it’ll stop me once Rarity’s involved. Orders or no orders.”

“That’s the spirit.” I nudge Luster. “Why don’t you go ask your mom when dinner’ll be ready?”

“I never get to hear the big pony talk,” he grumbles, but pauses to give me a quick nuzzle before racing off regardless.

“Still cute.” I chuckle as I get to my feet. “Gods, feels like he’s grown five inches since last time.”

“Not quite, but close,” Talon takes a seat on the couch, regarding me in his inscrutable way. “How bad is it? Wait – check the door first.”

“Way ahead of you,” I kick the wall lightly a couple times. There’s a squeak, and then the sound of tiny hooves racing off. “I did have five siblings, you know. Anyway, how bad? Amulet bad. Nothing on our radar yet, aside from him demolishing a small crime ring with extreme prejudice. Actually, if it weren’t for a detective in the MPD I wouldn’t know as much as I already do.”

“What do you know, then?” He folds his powerful legs. I don’t know if I’ve seen them that wiry and strong on a pegasus before.

“Earth pony.” I go to sit on the opposite side. “Looks ex-military, which, combined with knowing his coat and mane combination narrows the suspects considerably.”

Talon shifts. “No one I’m likely to know, I hope?”

“The guy could be fifty, sixty, maybe older.” I shrug. “It’s possible he’s been active recently.”

“Old school, huh?” Talon narrows his eyes further. “The Guard was largely ceremonial when he started, if so, and that didn’t really change until the changeling invasion, and then the military reforms. Even so, there was a core of careerists who pulled the really serious duties.”

“Then we probably already know who he is, and no one’s seen fit to tell me.” I ruffle my wings in annoyance.

“I might recognize him if I saw a picture. I wasn’t with the old Guard, but I knew a lot of the hardcore group.” He sets his jaw. “Though, I’m not sure I’d be happy knowing.”

I Produce one of the copies of the museum stills by miming reaching into my coat, and hand it over. He takes a look and frowns. “No. He’s old, too. Retired before my time, probably.”

“Shame. Still, if it comes to it, I have your spear?” I ask.

He looks up at me, almost surprised, and smiles again in his way. “You know just how to ask.” When Rarity returns with Luster on his back, he gives a firm nod and goes to meet his wife.

“Dinner’ll be ready in twenty minutes, dear,” she informs him, the two sharing an affectionate nuzzle. In spite of myself, I glance away and wonder what Leit’s up to. Most likely chilling on a Pacific beach with Daphne. It’d be around sunrise where they’re supposed to be. Not that you can find many beaches in what’s left of southeast China, unless the government's seen fit to import sand to the new ones.

The gentle chimes of the doorbell draws everyone’s attention, and Rarity tilts her head. “Now, who could that be?”

“Were you expecting someone?” I ask.

“Not really.” She shuttles Luster to my back and trots over to the front room.

Talon watches her go and gives me a conspiratorial look. “Think you can watch her while I sneak a bite? There’s one in it for you.”

“Go for it.” I grin and trot off after Rarity.

As she starts to open the door in the entryway, her eyes narrow. “Mind the door for me, Marcus?” she asks, and vanishes in a flash of blue light. A series of muffled “Ow”s echoes back, and Luster giggles into his hoof while I smirk and finish opening the door.

“Well, well. Look who I wasn’t expecting,” I say, leaning against the door frame. “My two favorite detectives.”

Violet Rose smiles and fans herself with a hoof. “Aww, that’d be sweet, but we’re probably the only detectives you know.”

“Well, yes.”

“Mind if we step in, Mister Flores?” Trace Prints asks, as sedate and focused as she was last night. Have to wonder if she ever takes a break.

“I ain’t in trouble, am I?” I step aside to let them into the foyer. “Also, it’s Marcus. My Dad is Mister Flores, and even then not very often.”

“Depends how you define ‘trouble’,” she says, walking in and looking around, as if anticipating yet another kind of trouble. “We could all be up a creek without a river right now, depending.”

Nodding, Violet joins her. “Yeah. Have you found anything new about last night? We’ve spent pretty much all of last night and today questioning street thugs, but they’re in short supply. That in itself is a clue – means they’re up to something.”

“What, you haven’t slept?” I give her a skeptical look. “You look great for someone who’s been up for forty-eight hours.”

“Oh, don’t make me blush,” she waves a hoof and grins. “Besides, thestrals can store sleep. Once this mess is over, I’m going to collapse onto a cloud and sleep like the dead.”

Trace sniffs the air. “Wow. Is that curry?”

“I’m expecting a call back pretty much any minute.” I gesture to the coat tracks by the door. “And yes. there’s some curries on tonight’s menu. You girls eat yet?”

“We couldn’t intrude. The night’s just getting started, and duty calls,” Trace says in a tragic, yet determined tone.

“Like hell we can’t.” Violet takes her coat off and hangs it up. Only in Equestria do people get naked to have a casual dinner party. “The lady of the house won’t mind?”

“Mom loves company,” Luster pipes up from my back, standing on all fours. I’ve decided that foals riding on people’s backs are among the cutest things.

The three of us stare at Trace until she sighs and floats her own long coat and hat up. A trail of hoofprints mark her flank like ink, and her long tail and chin-length mane are inky black as well. She’s actually rather cute, though a bit young for me now, even if I weren’t taken.

Bit young? Isn’t that a tragic thought.

Talon is just answering a call on the wall screen as we enter the living room, and it smoothly lights up and colorizes to reveal a pretty young human woman in casual business attire, freshly loosened for the day. A number of pregnancies, including the one she’s smuggling in under her shirt now, have done wonders at filling her skinny frame out, and her shock of red hair is still vibrant and full down her back. She smiles and waves. “Talon! Luster! It’s evening over there already, isn’t it? I hope I didn’t interrupt dinner.”

“I have been judiciously informed that it will be ready in ‘just a little while, and not a moment sooner’,” Talon says in his languid way. Luster hops over to nuzzle his dad and wave at the screen. “Hi, Auntie Naomi!” he calls.

“And there’s Marcus,” she says, glancing over as I step into view, “and friends.”

“Detectives Violet Rose and Trace Prints of the MPD. How’s tricks, Naomi?” I rub a hoof on the carpet. “Any word from Leit Motif?”

“Yes, actually. She says she’s doing fine, they’re in Hong Kong right now and Rainbow Dash is about ready to burst out of her skin.” She grins. “Though I wonder how much that has to do with all the numbers she’s getting. She makes for an extremely cute human.”

“Really?” I snort. “I’d expect the opposite; she thrives on that sort of attention.”

A teenage filly, a match for her mother right down to the gold coat and explosively red hair, trots into view. She’s followed shortly by a red-headed human boy and girl, about seven and six respectively. The latter two go and hop up on their mother’s legs, cuddling in, while the filly pauses hesitantly before hurrying over to stand beside her mother and lay her chin on her side.

“And hello, too, Ethan, Shanna, and Copper Kettle,” I grin. “Helping Mommy with work again, Kettle?”

She glances up at Naomi, her eyes momentarily sad. “Yeah. I’m trying to learn the ropes, Uncle Marcus.”

Naomi smiles, one filled with almost overwhelming love, as she strokes her eldest daughter’s ear with one hand and tucks the others close with the other. “She’s very good, and that’s not just pride talking.” She glances up. “Unfortunately, this isn’t a social call. I just found out that we hadn’t gotten the information you asked for last night. I’ve had it sent to the house’s computer.”

Talon obligingly touches the on-screen keys near the side, accepting a transfer and popping up a series of photos and documents. The symbol, in all its variations, are shown from different sources. All of them incorporate at their core a Star of David inscribed in a circle with at least six dots, with different lettering in different languages or other symbols.

“What you’re looking at are versions of the Seal of Solomon, also called the Great Pentacle,” Naomi says in a more serious tone. “Legendarily, they were used to imprison, command, or control demons, jinn, or whatever the spiritual heritage of the teller referred to.”

“The he-” I glance at the various children watching. “What exactly are they doing in Equestria?”

“It’s the researchers’ belief, and I’m inclined to agree with them, that they were made before the split, and wound up on the Earth B side of the barrier.” Naomi’s face twists into annoyance. Were she in her pony form, she’d be scrunching it. “It’s a pointed reminder that we need to have stuff like this catalogued and contained, before situations like this arise right under our noses.”

“Make a memo, you’re good at memos. Shoot it off to the Royal Antiquities thingajig.”

“Royal Academy of Archaeology and Antiquities,” Trace corrects absently, laying on the couch.

“Yeah that one.”

Naomi rolls her eyes. “I’ll get right on that, thanks. Someone’s coming soon to deliver you a dossier on the Guardspony you’re after, by-the-way. Oh, and I’m sending you backup. I’ve recalled two rangers from Mag Mell, they should be there tomorrow afternoon at the latest.”

I grunt in acknowledgement. Among other things, I trust Naomi’s sense of a situation, and she’s right to think this may be in over our heads. “Fair enough. I won’t lie, we’ve been pretty stumped. Last night was basically a wash.”

“Maybe yes, maybe no.” She smiles. “We’ve come a long way from being Daphne’s hanger-ons, Marcus, and she chose you for this for a reason.”

“Mmhmm.” I nod. “She likes watching me squirm.”

“Well.” She considers. “Yes, but also other reasons.”

Rarity pops in. “Dinner’s ready, everypony, and – oh! Naomi! Why didn’t anyone tell me you were on?”

“Hey Rares.” Naomi waves. “Sorry, was a business call. I have to go anyway, but I’ll call back tomorrow morning and we can talk, mare-to-mare.”

“Is all that transformation really good for your foal?” I ask skeptically. “Err. Baby. At the moment.”

“Psh.” She waves me off. “Daphne told me they’re just fine. Worry about yourself!”

“I’ll try. Good night. We’ll catch up,” I say.

“Good luck.”

Copper Kettle lifts her head and swishes her bushy tail slowly. “Be careful Uncle Marcus. Please?”

Giving the filly my most confident grin, cocked on one side, I salute her. “You can count on me, kid.”

With that, we hang up and wander into the kitchen, eschewing the dining room in favor of the less formal atmosphere of the kitchen table. A bay window looks out over Rarity’s garden and the stars of evening that are rising over the garden wall to the east, including Daphne’s own vibrant green one. I feel a pang at that, and step outside long enough to pour a little wine out for her. It’s hard, watching someone you were close to become distanced from everything around her. If it weren’t for Leit Motif, I wonder if she’d be tethered to the physical world at all, or if she’d become just like Pirene on her island. A daemon, watching over us all.

With the addition of Trace Prints and Violet Rose, the dinner has almost a raucous air that reminds me of home with my folks. Not quite as insane as having all my siblings, aunts, and uncles in one place, but Violet and Talon trading jokes, Rarity telling about her adventures and treating Violet to illusionary displays of her clothing lines, and my own contributions help drive the atmosphere. Heck, even Trace Prints loosens up as she tells a story about one of her cases, a smile touching her face. She’s stolen most of the curry for herself, and seems to have an unlimited tolerance for spice. Me, I dig quite heavily into the white wine chicken. My nose hadn’t deceived me – it’s loads better than the stuff they were making last year.

Before Trace can finish her story, there’s another chime at the door. “I swear,” Rarity says, rising to her hooves, “I feel like I’m running an inn.” She trots off and the door creaks open. “My goodness!” she calls, stunned.

We four adults tense, but Rarity returns with a vast smile on her face. On her heels is a middle-aged mare with a rich brown mane, dark hooves, and a roan coat, while a tough mare and stallion follow in her wake, wearing suits, ties, sunglasses, and earpieces. Trace, Talon, and Rose all get to their feet. “Consul Loam!” the last says in surprise. “We didn’t hear that you were coming to town.”

“I’m here on behalf of my co-consuls and the Senate to establish a diplomatic headquarters for all the nations of this earth,” the mare says in a clipped, formal tone. “I have not yet seen fit to announce the date. Particularly,” she says, with a stony look in my direction, “with what appears to be both a titanspawn and an alicorn amulet on the loose in the city of choice.”

I cough delicately. “We’re working on it.”

Luster tugs on Talon’s wing with mouth. “Dad, can we go to the tournament now?”

His father nods, passing a salute to the one-third of the nation’s executive branch and a kiss to his wife’s cheek, though not in that order, before collecting his son on his back and flying out.

Loam watches silently, and steps over to the table. “I’ve also come to personally deliver certain classified material, to aid with your efforts, Ranger Marcus Flores.”

“And here I thought Mister Marcus was a mouthful.” I watch as she places a folder filled with papers and a weird rod on the table. It’s an elegantly twisted thing of silver and gold wire, with a six-color jewel in the center. It looks so delicate I’m worried I’ll bend it at once, but when I pick the thing up it’s ridiculously solid. Naturally, I start to play with it, looking for an on-switch. “The hell is this?”

“Something our archaeologists dug up in the Crystal Mountains. It dates back at least ten thousand years.” The mare narrows her eyes at my irreverent attitude, but her voice remains steady. “It’s an anti-chaos weapon, we’re fairly sure.”

“How sure?”

“On investing it, we had it brought to an infestation of titanspawn insects. It transformed them into clumps of clay and poison.” She purses her lips thoughtfully. “Our scientists believe it to be a sort of harmonic weapon, one that imposes order on chaos through a sort of magical musical action, like some sort of Elements of Harmony precursor. We doubt it could bring down a powerful monster, but it will probably be more effective than your current arsenal. It may even help if our criminal is under the influence of dark magic, though no promises in that regard.”

“Oh, I bet Discord just loves that.”

Loam smiles tightly. “Not even a little. Rest assured, I doubt he’ll come anywhere near it.” She nods towards it. “Take care of it. If we’re sure of one thing, it’s that it’s far in advance of anything our two worlds can replicate. Without more alicorns of the right speciality, I’m not sure we ever will.”

I flick my hoof, and she grits her teeth as I Vanish it. “Straight into Gunspace. It’ll stay nice and sound right there.”

“Gunspace?” Trace mutters.

Rarity ruffles her wings, drawing attention to herself. “Consul, dear – why don’t you stay for dinner?”

Loam frowns, but Rarity insists, and celebrity has its advantages. While she shepherds the Consul and her bodyguards to their seats, I head off to the bar with Trace and Rose, laying out the folder. It becomes immediately apparent why it took so long to peg this guy.

“Holy hell, he’s a cripple,” Rose mutters as we look over the photographs. It’s our stallion all right – all four legs immobilized while a doting younger mare stands by. Celestia herself is pinning medals to his crisp uniform. “I’m surprised the folks back in Canterlot even looked at the file of a paraplegic.”

“Not to be obvious, Purple, but he was a cripple.” I lean back. “He could dance with the legs he has now.”

Trace reads off the page, her eyes flicking “Redbud, rank: Centurion. Considered for Legatus, possibly on track for Primus, until he was severely injured in the line of duty. That was eight years ago, a couple years after the army reforms. He was a Lieutenant in the old Guard. Fought with distinction against the Changelings, in the Bridle incident, the Black Swarm, and during the Winter Wolf Invasion.”

“What got him in the end?” I ask. “Goblins? He sure seems to have a grudge there.”

“No. He was in a disaster relief mission at Dodge City, when a sandworm emerged from tunnels under the Everfree and attacked. Most of his squad – and a fair chunk of the town – would have died if he hadn’t of thrown himself on the beast and redirected it. He rode it for ten miles while they called in an airship. When they plugged it full of holes, they found him under it, with a broken spine from the neck down.”

“Aren’t there treatments for that?”

Rose shrugs. “Nerve regeneration and reconnection is still a new field. We can repair recent breaks, but after a few years the nerves start to atrophy. Full denervation is irreversible with existing techniques, though I know there’s some stuff with stem cells in the pipeline.”

“He was also exposed to some of its poison, since he broke through the shell to get to it,” Trace says, tapping the page. “That would have inhibited healing. Any grace window would have been lost. I think we can safely assume that either the amulet or the titanspawn he’s with healed him with their magic.”

“So he’s a hero,” Rose says, exasperated. “Where does that get us? What’s he doing? Is he under control?”

“He’s a soldier,” Trace and I say at once, talking over one another. I smirk. “You go first.”

“He’s not a hero,” Trace says, shuffling through the photos and pages, sifting through it like a prospector. “He’s a soldier. A consummate soldier. He did what he did not because it would reward him or glorify him, but because it was his duty.”

“How do you get that from this?” Violet asks, raising an eyebrow.

“Commendations. Service record. Test scores. Virtually every duty request he made was in search of the most unwanted, dirty, dangerous assignments a career soldier could hope for.” She shrugs. “You read between the lines.”

“What about killing Quicklime?” she crosses her legs on the counter. “Equestrians soldiers and service personnel of any stripe are sworn not to cause harm unless it is absolutely necessary.”

Trace Prints meets my eyes. “I think Marcus knows.”

I quirk another small smile and look down at the photos. The stills from the museum leap back at me as well. For a moment, it’s like they really have captured a slice of his soul, and I’m looking into it. “He’s still at war. When Celestia pinned those medals on him, he was still fighting. He had the same look in the museum, and I’ll bet the dock workers who saw him on the tour told you he had a weird intensity about him.”

They glance at one another. “You actually read my report from this morning?” Trace asks. “I’m not sure if I should be surprised you did or offended that they gave you access without telling us.”

“I’m not the kid I used to be.” I grimace. “He’s someone who believes. Really, that’s the worst sort of enemy. A monster will rampage through your town, sure, but it rarely thinks about what it’s doing and why that’s a bad thing. A person who thinks that by doing bad things he’ll achieve a greater one…” I look at them thoughtfully. “Can we use this to find him?”

“Maybe,” Prints murmurs, her eyes soaking in the reading material.

“I think we can,” Rose says more confidently. “With personal information we can develop a more solid profile. Lab Work promised us test results soon from the stuff we recovered at the crime scene yesterday, too.”

“Let me call the lab,” Prints says, floating her phone out and dialing. “See if I can’t get an ETA.”

Behind us, Loam chats with Rarity. “Really, I will see what I can do in the Senate. Ever since Princess Celestia passed over the reins of government to the people, it’s been the right of the people to decide who will represent them, even in a ceremonial capacity – though few would have the heart to refuse the Princesses anything.”

Rarity’s eyes shine. “So, say, if I had public sanction from all of them…”

“Hey,” Trace says into her phone quietly, “Dusty? Yeah, it’s Trace. What’s the progress on last night’s homicide tests? Uh huh. Great.”

She clicks it off while the two of us wait, then she floats the dossier up and neatly packs them together. She rises to her hooves. “Well? What are you all waiting for?”

“The lab results are done?” Rose asks hopefully.

“They will be by the time we get there. Let’s go.”

* * * * * * *

Author's Note:

Wow, that entire chapter was a single scene? Crazy. Time really can fly when you're enjoying yourself.
Speaking of, we're moving along briskly here. I see few deviations from the pattern I've set up - alternating main character chapters, with two short antagonist interludes. Whether or not he gets the epilogue - we will have to see.

To elaborate on the post-war government of Equestria, Celestia has spent the last 1000 years beating racism and other ugly societal traits out of ponies, then teaching them to think for themselves. Equestria already had local government, as seen in the Mayor. The Bridle incident, which totally crippled her and thus the nation for a time, convinced her to take the next step and pass over the reins of government, first by forming regional authorities, and then by forming a national government with a technocratic placeholder bureaucracy until elections could be held. Free elections were held a couple years post-Pirene, and the people elected regional senators with proportional representation and three consuls through Range voting (ie, you can vote for as many candidates as you like, so it forms consensus), the latter of whom together form the executive branch. The technocratic government ceded power and became the bureaucracy.
Though the consulship is not limited to 1 from each race, it tends to work out that way just by probability.
A few years after that, the reform of the Equestrian military was mostly completed, becoming a Western-style organization with titles derived from ancient Rome. Navy runs the wet water fleet and has a marine corps, Army runs ground-based logistics and close-air support craft, including transport aircraft. Air force runs the aerial fleets and employs a fair number of fighters and pegasi as - whatever an aerial marine is.

Coming back to Pirene has been a real treat. It's given me some catharsis during a difficult time in my writing, and it helps remind me that once you work out the kinks, a story can really live and breathe. I could tell unlimited stories in this universe.

I, sadly, won't be able to do that, but I can at least offer you some tasty morsels of that pie.