• Published 24th Oct 2016
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Freeport Venture: Trust Issues - Ponibius

As Freeport’s foremost problem solver, Puzzle Piece finds himself needing to protect Sunset Shimmer, whose acquisition of the Black Codex—a potent, ancient book of black magic—has caused her to run afoul of warlocks who want the Codex back.

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Chapter 1: When Trouble Follows You

Freeport Venture: Trust Issues
Chapter 1: When Trouble Follows You

Someone was following this one.

That in itself wasn't unusual as this one walked on the roads leading away from the bustling docks. As a highly effective spymaster, information broker, and problem-solver for hire, people followed this one all the time to know what it was doing day to day. Between the various national spy agencies, personal agents for various mercenary companies, businesses, rivals, and the Council itself, this one sometimes had a small procession of people trying to look inconspicuous while following it around the city.

What was different from the norm was who was following this one. Normally, this one’s followers were at least relatively competent at the job of tracking someone through a city, either due to training or experience from living in a city like Freeport. That usually meant they knew from what distance to follow from, how to quickly duck into alleys for a quick change of costume, and how to coordinate with others to avoid the suspicion of the target.

They also didn't tend to be a hulking bear of an earth pony stallion whose scarred face suggested that he had been in more than one street fight. This one had already already taken a couple of seemingly random turns down different streets to make sure that the orange-coated tail was indeed following it. This one’s suspicions were confirmed when this one stopped at a store and pretended to window shop. Obviously being a novice at this, the large earth pony stopped a short distance away from this one and hesitated before finally settling on pretending to browse the wares in another window.

This one wasn't dealing with a professional then, unless the established organizations were really letting their standards slip. This one craned its neck as it used the reflection of the window to look around for any other tails. It didn't take long to spot a thin, azure-coated pegasus mare hovering not too far above this one. She was barely even hiding the fact that she didn't have another reason to be flying over the city streets, doing little more to hide that she wasn't watching this one other than not facing it. It must have been her task to make sure this one didn't get away by flying or simply by ducking down an alley.

After more looking, a few others across the street caught this one’s eye. A slim zebra mare was busily whispering to her compatriot, a muscular male gryphon whose head reminded this one of a osprey, occasionally glancing at this one out of the corner of her eye. This one was sure it recognized him from somewhere, but couldn’t put its hoof on it.

That was one of the problems with this one’s growing status and success: this one no longer knew every minor mover and shaker on the street. This one had delegated such things to individuals in its employment in order to to avoid a complete information overload. No, this one had quite a bit of information to go through every day just to keep up with the more important persons in and beyond Freeport. Thus this one didn’t know who these newcomers were.

This was most bothersome. This one had been hired personally by the Council to do a job simple enough to make this one itch under its carapace. They requested (‘ordered’ would be a more accurate word) that this one to pick up a package which had arrived in port just this morning. This one was to get the package, say a few very specific words to the captain that were probably some code, and then deliver it to the Council. No questions, no hints about what was going on—this one was to be completely oblivious to the contents of the package. Also importantly, no one was to even know that the package even existed.

If the Council was going to pay this one for its secrecy, they could at least have had the decency to give this one a little information to work with. They hadn't even bothered to tell this one why they didn't just send a detachment of their guards to retrieve their package, a simpler and far less expensive option available to them.

The package itself was remarkable in its unremarkability, a box about the size of a brick and wrapped in simple brown paper which, if the captain’s unamused scowl was any indication, should not be shaken. This one didn't like these types of jobs. They often came with complications, such as the group of toughs around this one. It was possible that they were only a group of common muggers looking to steal this one’s coinpurse, but this one hadn't survived as long as it had by ever trusting coincidences.

No, there was a game being played here, and this one didn't even know who the other players were.

Before this one could decide on a course of action, the large earth pony waved for his two friends across the street in about the least subtle way possible. Really, these people didn’t even have a proper set of signals to tell each other what to do.

This one considered making a break for it. It wouldn’t be the first time this one had made a getaway on Freeport’s streets, and it knew well how to do so. This one was even disguised as a pegasus at the moment, so it taking flight wouldn't even be all that notable. Running would probably be the safer option, especially if this one could find some condottieri to bribe.

Instead this one stood its ground. This one’s professional pride had been pricked by being targeted by such a group of amateurs, and more importantly, this one badly wanted to know who thought they could pull a fast one on it.

While this one waited as they approached, it took the time to study each individual for strengths and weaknesses. The large earth pony seemed to be the leader of the bunch. The pegasus kept looking to him and he had signaled to the others to move. He possessed the type of scars typical of street brawlers, and while he was naturally muscular, there was more than a hint of flab in his figure. The pegasus struck this one as nervous as she looked between her compatriots and up and down the street. The diminutive zebra had an unsettling, hard, sunken look to her eyes. That one had probably killed in the past and would have to be watched carefully.

This one finally remembered who the gryphon was as he flanked this one with the earth pony: Golden Roar, a winning prize fighter back in Westmarch. At least he had been before he threw a fight, took the gambling money he had won by betting against himself, and fled to Freeport before a considerable number of unhappy gryphons could have a word with him. This one had briefly considered hiring the gryphon, as it was always on the lookout for new talent that came to Freeport, but in the end this one didn't feel safe dealing with someone willing to throw everything away for one big score. Someone like that could never be completely predictable, especially if enough money could be waved in front of his face.

In any event, there wasn't much time to ruminate on all the possible reasons this gang was about to give this one a problem. “Can I help you?”

There was a long moment of silence before the earth pony replied with a gruff voice. “You can start by giving us all your things.”

This one made a put-upon sigh. This was going to be difficult. Already passers-by were gathered around to see what was going on. Shame none of them were the condottieri. This gang had probably been waiting until none were within sight before confronting this one. A pity.

“You want my money?” This one pulled out its coin bag to present to the gang. “You can have it as long as you leave me alone.” Hopefully this one could simply pay off the gang to make them leave. Losing this one’s coin bag, while unpleasant, was preferable to getting into a fight with four individuals who looked like they knew their way around a streetlight brawl.

The big earth pony gave this one an ugly grin. “We’ll be taking that—as well as your saddlebags.”

Now that was curious. Most muggers would be happy to take this one's coin and be done with it, but they wanted what was in this one’s saddlebags too. Best to see what else could be found out. This one spoke with the worried tone of some hapless pony who had found himself being mugged. “There isn't anything valuable in my saddlebags.” This one shook the coin bag to make the ducats inside jingle. “Look, just take this and go.”

“Not a chance.” The earth pony stepped towards this one.

This one didn't let him move more than a step. With a hard fling, the coin bag hit the earth pony in the face. He stumbled back, mixing his profanity with the sound of clanking metal. At the same moment, this one whipped a tanglehoof bag out of its saddlebags at the hooves of the diminutive zebra, adhering her mid-charge.

With that threat temporarily disabled, this one spun to face the charging Roar-gryphon. This one threw a quick jab at his chest, and as this one hoped, he threw up his arm in a block that had no doubt become instinctive through many hours of training. Shame for him this one had no intentions of getting into a slugfest with a trained fighter. Immediately upon on contact, this one activated its magical shock bracer. The Roar-gryphon convulsed as electricity shot through his body, and he jerked painfully as he fell to the street.

As this one predicted, the pegasus was the slowest to react to the sudden outburst of violence. She came down at this one, front hooves outstretched to smash into this one. This one dodged to the side, barely avoiding being hit as we scraped up against one another, and those hooves slammed into the cobblestone.

This one pivoted in place and grabbing the pegasus’ wing, then rammed her face through the show window. Not content with leaving the possibility the gang member could recover, this one held the pegasus’ wing in place with one leg and brought a hoof down on it. The hollow bones cracked under the blow, and the pegasus wailed in pain. She fell to the ground, clutching her broken wing.

While the big earth pony had recovered from having this one throw its money at him, he wasn’t quick to go back on the offensive with his companions now lying on the ground injured or disabled. The zebra had turned her dagger on the glue holding her in place, but it would be some time before she cut herself loose.

Noting his hesitation, this one flashed him a predatory grin. “Last chance to run away. Better take it, unless you want to end up like your friends.”

The earth pony’s face hardened into a scowl, and instead of doing the advisable thing, he attacked. Pride was the downfall of so many. He launched his anvil of a hoof at this one’s head, forcing this one to duck to the side. This one countered with a quick whip of its hoof that made the edge cut along its opponent’s brow. Undeterred by the comparatively light blow, he bore down on this one. This one gave ground, ducking and weaving as it drew the earth pony away from his companions.

The earth pony’s glare deepened as he failed to connect with any of his punches. “What’s the matter, punk? Scared?”

“No,” this one stated calmly. “I’m just waiting for the bleeding to really get going,”

The cut over earth pony’s eye bled more and more profusely due to his exertion. He pressed the attack with heavier and heavier blows, but while the swings were powerful, they were too slow to hit this one. Then the moment this one had waited for came.

Blood seeped into the earth pony’s eye, and he blinked in discomfort. This one used the momentary pause in the onslaught to launch its counterattack, halting its retreat and instead charging forward. The earth pony punched out with a hook that this one stepped inside of. Carrying through with its forward momentum, this one slammed its forehead into its opponent’s muzzle. This one felt the nose break, and the earth pony’s face quickly become a crimson mask.

The earth pony staggered back and threw a klutzy punch out to try and keep this one away. Instead, this one wrapped its leg up and around his leg, stretching it out. Being as big and heavy as this earth pony can be terrible on one’s knees. This one showed that as it slammed its hoof into the vulnerable joint, and the earth pony screamed as it broke.

Not content to leave it at that, this one twisted the broken leg and drove the earth pony to the ground. Holding onto the leg to maintain its leverage, this one repeatedly drove its hoof into its opponent’s side, both to drive the air out of his lungs and break his ribs, thus preempting any chance of him recovering. This one finished the onslaught with a blow to the jaw that probably dislocated it, then stood up and stepped away from the whimpering mess.

This one turned its focus on the diminutive zebra as she finished cutting herself free. Her eyes flicked to her three incapacitated allies, and—in what was probably the gang’s smartest move that day—she turned and bolted as fast as she could.

This one’s instincts screamed for it to chase after her as she shoved her way through the small crowd that had gathered to watch the fight. Instincts cried out for this one to catch her, bear her down, and feed. She was alone, small, weak, and without her herd. Clamping down on those primal instincts, this one took a moment to think the situation through before it did something stupid.

The most important thing this one needed to do was to deliver the package to the Council. That hadn't changed. Chasing after the zebra could backfire if she led this one into an ambush, and given the bad feeling it got from her, she might very well do so. Without any kind of backup, going after her would have been a bad idea.

Though that didn't change that this one wanted to know why these thugs had attacked it. Had the mugging merely been a coincidence, or part of the designs of someone higher up the food chain? The problem was that the condottieri were probably going to be here soon to investigate the fight, which didn't give this one much time to interrogate the thugs properly.

This one glanced around the ground to try and find its coinpurse, only to come up empty. This one silently cursed. Some enterprising individual had probably stolen it during the confusion, and if they knew what they were doing they were now long gone.

Losing the money didn’t bother this one too much per se; the problem was that this one no longer had its on-hoof bribe money. Go figure, this one hadn't been overly concerned when its life was on the line. Shame that was very inconvenient at the moment. With that money, this one could easily have come to an understanding with the condottieri. As it was now, the guards were liable to arrest this one for assault.

While this one was confident they would agree with this one that it had acted in self-defense, they would still want to interview this one about what happened. That could lead to the type of questions this one didn't want to answer, such as about the Council’s package. If they opened the package that the Council had very specifically ordered not be opened...

This one walked away from the scene, careful not to appear in a hurry. Running would only catch the attention of any condottieri who might be arriving on the scene. Figuring out what would happen was simply going to have to wait until later. After all, it wasn't like the thugs were going to be getting anywhere fast anytime soon.

This one arrived at the Council’s Palace not long after the fight with the gang. When this one reached the more secure sections of the building, this one reverted to its natural form. A pair of guards in black plate mail stood by the doors to the Council's personal quarters. They weren't mercenaries like most of the other soldiers, but full-time professional military guards whose sole purpose was to protect the Council. While the Council Guard wasn't a large unit, it was well-trained, disciplined, and loyal solely to them.

One of them scanned this one with a magical rod intended to detect if this one was using some sort of magical disguise, inherent to changelings or otherwise. Not an unjustified worry in a place like Freeport. After confirming that this one was who it said it was and confirming it had business with the Council, this one was escorted further into the building by a pair of guards.

This one soon found itself inside of an arduously audacious auditorium at an allotted appointment, if a relatively small one in comparison main Council audience hall or the throneroom of the Canterlot Palace. Also, unlike the main Council audience chamber, this room only had three throne-like chairs sitting behind a large desk. That was the thing with the Council: even for smaller and secretive meetings, you never met just one councilor. After all, the Council had been designed to prevent anyone from playing politics to try and divide its public solidarity.

Each of the three seats was occupied by an anonymous councilor, decked out in their typical heavy black cloaks and plain silver masks. That always made it difficult for this one to deal with them, as this one liked to know whoever it talked to. As the old saying goes, knowledge is power. If you knew what someone wanted, what their needs were, and where their weaknesses lie, you could hold power of them. Even though this one knew who everyone on the Council was, the fact that their magically augmented disguises and uniforms of office kept this one from knowing exactly who or even what it was dealing with. Add a few parlor tricks on top of it all, and this one had to start at a disadvantage with every conversation.

Still, there was a game to be played when dealing with the Council. This one flashed them a confident grin. “Hello, Councilors. This one hopes you are all doing well today.”

“Did you get the package?” the central councilor asked, dispensing with any attempts at small talk.

Not letting the slight rudeness cause this one’s smile to fade, this one pulled out the plainly wrapped package and placed it on the table. “This one did.”

The councilor in the left lifted up the package and looked it over, though for what I could only guess. After few moments of study, the councilor nodded to his compatriots. The central councilor turned his gaze back to this one. “Your fee will be transferred to you bank account. You are dismissed.”

Well, that was sudden. This one wasn't used to being so casually dismissed these days, and this one had too many questions to be pushed aside so quickly. “There was one problem: this one was attacked on the way to the Palace by some street ruffians. They seemed to be interested in whatever this one was carrying, and all but ignored this one’s coin purse when it offered it to them.”

The councilor on the left spoke up with a edge of warning in her tone. “We said you are dismissed, Puzzle.”

Now that was curious. This one would have thought the Council would take an interest interest in the attempted theft of their oh-so-important package. That lead to some uncomfortable questions: Had they know that this one was going to be accosted on the trip here? An even darker thought was that they might even have arranged the mugging themselves. Not everyone on the Council was this one’s friend, far from it. It would have been a major loss of face if this one had lost the package, and if this one had been injured or killed during the attack...

This one bowed respectfully before the councilors as it turned to go. “Until next time you need this one’s services.” The councilors would not be giving this one the answers it sought. No, this one going to have to do that on its own.

This one headed directly back to its office building after its business was done at the Council’s Palace. It was a simple two story building made of a thick grey stone with a sign reading Puzzle Piece’s Problem Solvers over the door. It wasn't the only building this one operated out of, but it was the public face of this one’s enterprises. It was important to remain presentable in Freeport, especially for the higher class clients this one dealt with. They wanted the assurances that this one’s business was perfectly legitimate when they walked in, and this one catered to those desires.

This one had planned on investigating whoever was behind this one’s attempted mugging, but it was minorly surprised to see one of its senior agents sitting outside its office reading a newspaper. While actually a fellow Free Mind, Silken Shadow was currently in her preferred disguise as a sea-green earth pony mare with a dark-blue mane, clad in a simple brown vest and black tricorn hat. She had been tasked with keeping an eye on this one’s agents and interests on the dockside of the city to gather information, build up and maintain this one’s support network, and anything else that this one required of it.

She placed the newspaper to the side as this one approached it and stood. Giving this one a smile that lacked a certain among of joy to it, that one said, “Puzzle. This one hopes now isn’t a bad time?”

Her tone was outwardly calm, but it had an undertone this one recognized: she had something important she wanted to discuss privately. Whatever had brought Silken to my office, it would be worthwhile to hear out. This one nodded and led the way to its personal office. “Not at all, come on in.” This one paused to wave to its secretary Merry Penny on the way, then closed the door once we were inside. Sitting on its cushion behind its desk, this one gestured for Silken to sit opposite of it. “So, what did you have for this one?”

“Not good news, this one is afraid,” Silken said in a matter-in-fact tone. “The Esoteric Order is in town.”

That was certainly not good news. The Esoteric Order of the Greater Mysteries was a cabal of warlocks that had managed to keep from getting squashed by one group or another over the centuries. At least from what this one had gathered, they were staunch believers that laws constraining the use of magic—be it necromancy, magic that bent the wills of others, summoning beings best left forgotten, and more—also constrained magical and societal progress.

Naturally, they tended to be very dangerous people who didn't think the rules applied to them where magic was concerned. Rules this one had come to understand from far too much firsthoof experience existed for very good reasons. Even the Council, which held a very live-and-let-live stance on most issues, still had a number of laws involving the use of magic. As independent and free-willed as people of Freeport were, they still didn't tolerate others reaching into their heads to pull out their secrets or committing blood sacrifices.

Worse still, this one had some very good ideas for why they were probably in Freeport: the Black Codex had gone on sale at a local auction house not too long ago. The Codex was made by a famous (or infamous, depending on who you asked) warlock by the name of Hidden Facts and the followers he had gathered, reported to be a comprehensive beginners guide to the dark arts. Little surprise, the Equestrian Intelligence Service hadn't been keen on the Codex going back into circulation and had hired the Shimmer-mare to bid for the tome. Pity then she had outbid a warlock by the name of Marius; the resulting fight had not only led to his death, and a fair portion of the local market square as well.

This one wished the EIS had hired it for that job. It could have procured the book far more cleanly, or at least in a way that didn't put the Shimmer-mare in danger. It would have been easy enough for this one to have arranged for Marius to be removed from the equation, and far less publically. But there was nothing to be done about it now but to deal with the consequences.

“How many of the cultists are there in Freeport?” this one asked.

“Two,” Silken said. “At least that’s how many were traveling on the Dreamy Voyage when it came into port this morning. This one was doing its usual rounds and going over the incoming ship manifests when it caught the names of the warlocks Magna Gravitas and Coptic Binding.”

This one was glad it had set agents to keep an eye out for the Esoteric Order after the auction house incident, because these visitors would have been a nasty little surprise. From what this one could guess, there were two things the warlocks most likely wanted: First and foremost, they would want the same thing which had drawn their now-dead compatriot to Freeport. Pity for them the Black Codex was long gone. The EIS had taken it to the collection of forbidden artifacts in Canterlot’s Sealed Repository, a vault that this one would have to plan for years to even try to get close to. That put it all but out of reach for the Esoteric Order, as long as they weren't crazy enough to try and tackle one of the most heavily defended locations in the world.

The second thing they would desire was more troublesome for this one: it was likely they would seek revenge for their fallen companion, at least once they figured out who had killed him. That was a problem, because it was widely known in the street that the Shimmer-mare and the EIS were heavily involved in Marius’ death. This one had plans for the Shimmer-mare and rather liked the Heartstrings-mare to boot, so either of them dying was simply unacceptable.

A plan already forming in this one’s head, it started writing some letters while continuing the meeting with Silken. “Do you know where they went?”

Silken nodded. “This one and its associates managed to pick up their trail and we found them on the street. From there we started to follow them to see what they were up to.”

This one loved competent subordinates. They make life so much easier. “Where did the warlocks go then?”

That one frowned. “No place you want to hear about. They went to see Secret Signs.”

This one joined Silken in frowning. Secret Signs was a fellow information broker in Freeport, and one who had been starting to move in on this one’s territory recently. Most information brokers, and others in similar career fields, knew to keep their distance from this one. But she had begun the process of trying to convert this one’s agents and contacts, in addition to other provocations. As a rule, this one did not let provocations go unanswered.

And now the Signs-mare might be helping the warlocks by giving them the type of information on the Shimmer-mare this one would not approve of. That would not do. This one had put word on the street that anyone who tried to take a job against Freeport’s magus could expect a visit from this one—a very unpleasant visit. If the Signs-mare had taken a job against the Shimmer-mare despite this one’s warnings... Well, this one would act accordingly.

This one looked up from its writing. “This one guesses that this is when the other one came to report to this one?”

“Yep, there wasn't much we could do once they had gone inside.” Silken fished inside of its saddlebags and pulled out a sapphire gem. “This one’s agents will activate this gem’s opposite when they see the warlocks exit the Signs-mare’s headquarters, then follow them around the city.” It pulled another gem out of her bags. “And we can track them with this gem.”

This one nodded in understanding. Such gems were commonly used among this one’s agents, even if they had to take care with them since they could fall into anyone’s hooves.

“Was there anything else that one wanted to report?”

Silken shook its head. “This one didn't want to approach such dangerous ponies without first telling you what it knew.”

“Completely reasonable,” this one agreed. “Warlocks must be dealt with the utmost caution.”

“Are they going to be a problem?” This one could see the wheels turning behind Silken’s eyes. That one knew enough about the situation to understand there was a problem. A pair of warlocks who had reasons to hate important contacts of this one and were now talking with one of its rivals could only mean trouble.

This one shook a hoof. “Nothing that can't be handled.” This one gave the other a confident grin. “This one already has a plan to deal with the issue.”

“If the other one says so.” While Silken’s words had been neutral, her shoulders relaxed. That one knew this one did not boast with empty words.

“It does.” This one stood up and opened the door to the Penny-mare. She glanced over her shoulder to look at this one. “Penny-mare, this one has a few letters that need to be delivered immediately. Do try and get some fast messengers.”

The Penny-mare smiled. “Of course, Mr. Puzzle. Who are letters for?”

This one gave her four letters. “First a letter for the Shimmer-mare, and the second is for the Wellspring-stallion.”

This one had set up a number of contingencies in the event there was a need to get the Shimmer-mare out of danger. One of those was a small plantation owner by the name of Green Wellspring. This one had bought a small plantation island a few years ago and hired the very inventive and industrious earth pony to manage it, with relative free rein to experiment with new farming techniques and tools to try and make the island more productive.

Right now, though, this one needed him to get the Shimmer-mare off the central Freeport island for a few days. This one had introduced the two of them some time ago. He had already hired her for a few jobs around the plantation, such as making the local distillery more resistant to fire and enchanting a number of heating and lighting gems for the plantation’s use. So the Shimmer-mare shouldn't question getting a message telling her the Wellspring-stallion wanted her for another job. A job this one had outlined to the earth pony, with clear directions to keep the Shimmer-mare on that island. If all went well, that would keep the Shimmer-mare well away from the warlocks while this one went to work.

This one had to be a bit circumspect with the Shimmer-mare in this instance. If this one came out and told the Shimmer-mare there were a pair of warlocks out looking for her, she would quite likely go out and try and fight them rather than do the intelligent thing and lie low for a while. Not to mention the Council was already moderately unhappy about all the property damage caused the last time she had duked it out with a warlock. No, for now it was best that the Shimmer-mare didn't know that the Esoteric Order was in town.

“The third letter is for the EIS, specifically the Heartstrings-mare,” this one instructed. The letter for the Heartstrings-mare told her everything this one knew at the moment about the situation. As nominal allies, it seemed best to tell the EIS about the potential threat. After all, they were the ones who knew what had happened to the Black Codex. Telling them there was a threat to themselves and the Shimmer-mare would help keep them happy, and paying this one for its services. They also might be proactive enough to deal with the warlocks themselves, which this one wouldn’t object to.

“And the fourth is for the Sulidae.” The Penny-mare froze and Silken tilted its head ever so slightly. This one grinned disarmingly. “That’s not a problem, is it?”

“No, of course not,” the Penny-mare said a bit too hastily. “I'll get these out right away.” She took the letters and departed.

This one closed its office door and turned back to Silken. That one tapped its hoof on the floor a couple of times before saying, “Is it wise to bring the Sulidae into this?”

This one waved the worry away as it sat back down. “It won’t be a problem as long as this one doesn’t directly violate his rules. Though while we wait for him to arrive, this one would like to talk about what it wants you doing.”

Silken leaned forward. “Oh?”

This one nodded. “Yes. First, this one wants that one to spread some rumors about the Signs-mare and the warlocks on the streets, and a few other minor matters. Second, this one wonders if it might be possible to find a few individuals that had accosted it earlier this morning...”

After having sent Silken on her way and written several more letters, this one pulled out the files it had on the warlocks who had come to Freeport. Knowing its enemies had been key to its success in the past, and that was doubly true where enemies like warlocks were concerned. The better idea one had about what they could do, the better one could prepare and counter those abilities.

It was as this one studied its files that the office door slowly and silently started to open. This one didn't look up from it papers as it greeted the newcomer. “Hello, Thorn-stallion. Good to see you came so quickly.”

Forgoing subtlety, the door swung the rest of the way, revealing a pegasus stallion of average height, though his frame was well-muscled. Though his light grey coat and cobalt-grey mane were somewhat plain and generic, his stone-grey eyes exhibited focus and acumen as they scanned my office, lingering on every minute changes since his last visit. While he wore a seemingly ordinary drab green cloak, this one could still see his vest interwoven with steel plates and the gauntlets encasing his hooves. And this one did not doubt he concealed countless weapons, gems, and other tools still.

Behind him, this one could see its secretary’s startled expression, as though she had not realized our guest had arrived.

One of the most dangerous assassins in Freeport walked towards this one with measure and deliberate steps. “Too obvious?” he asked, his lips curling in a self-depreciating smile that did not quite reach his eyes.

“Not at all. Had this one not known you were coming, this one would never have noticed.”

What trace smile there was on his face vanished. “Feigned ineptitude does not suit you, Puzzle. There are countless ways to sense without sight or sound.” He glanced back at the door. “Just a question of which.”

This one looked up from the files to smile for him. “Now why would this one ever tell the Thorn-stallion that? For all this one knows, you might take a job against it someday.”

He faced this one with a raised brow. “Oh? Were you not the one to reassure me that I would find no cause to?” He sneered. “My. How dire is your plight to shake your confidence so?”

With a patient sigh, this one pushed the files towards him on the desk. “A couple of warlocks have come to town, and this one wants them dealt with in your permanent fashion.”

Though he did well to hide it, this one still noticed his ears perk and his eyes light up with interest. The Thorn-stallion specialized in assassinating anyone practiced the arcane arts, and liked jobs for warlocks perhaps more than was strictly professional, but he would still serve quite nicely for this one’s purposes. “Warlocks?” He reasserted his mask of professional disinterest. “Let’s hear it.”

This one leaned back and smiled calmly. “This one is offering a hundred thousand ducats for each for them.” This one gestured at the folders. “One of them goes by the name of Magna Gravitas: former noble and magus from Equestria, and powerful magically. Or at least she had been a noble and magus, before she lost a conclave's vote for one of the archmagi seats.”

“Is that so?” the Thorn-stallion asked.

“It helps when she belonged to an old and well-connected family with a long history of producing strong magi. It gave her enough contacts and votes to make her a serious contender.”

“Typical,” he muttered. Ah yes, the Thorn-stallion has never been fond of nepotism. He will be much less reluctant to take this contract. “But she didn't win in the end.”

This one shook its head. “No, and she took it very poorly. She ended up attacking her fellow magi at the conclave and managed to hurt several before she was subdued and arrested. The only reason she managed to avoid more serious repercussions was because the Esoteric Order and her family helped break her out, probably through bribery.”

“The Esoteric Order?” The Thorn-stallion’s eyes narrowed. “I see. The ripples of the Auction has finally turned to waves.” Ah. Likely he understood the purpose of this enterprise. While this one does not like exposing its interests, this will at least save it some time. He picked the folder up to start reading it over. He was a professional at the end of the day, and knew the value of being well-informed about his targets. This one quite liked his sensibilities. “I need to know exactly what I'm dealing with. How dangerous is she, magically?”

This one recalled everything it had just read from its files. They were quite thorough, thanks both to this one information network and the notes this one had exchanged with the EIS. Both the Heartstrings-mare and this one had considered the possibility of Marius’ friends coming to Freeport and made sure we would be as well-read about our opposition as possible.

“Quite. The Gravitas-mare is a high Beta with magi training, and has been affiliated with the Order for a decade now. She’s a talented geomancer and skilled in magnetism, and we shouldn't be surprised if she’ll fall back on using the dark arts. She doesn't strike this one as the type to hesitate, not when she was willing to attack a room full of her fellow magi.”

He huffed. “Emotions were the downfall of many. If she has so little self-control, then even were I to take the direct approach, the only real danger would be any death-fueled spells she may concoct.” He shook his head. “But why take the risk?”

This one grinned slyly. “This one quite agrees. It’s why this one is working on a plan to make things much easier for us.”

“That so?” His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Playing your games again? You just can't keep anything simple, can you?”

This one chuckled to try and disarm the Thorn-stallion. “You know this one too well.”

The assassin groaned and ran a hoof through his mane. “And here I was hoping this would be a simple job.” From beneath his hoof, he glared at this one. “Presumably, you will brief me on the details soon enough.” He sighed. “After which, I’ll need to figure out how much you left out … and how much is credible.”

This one placed a hoof over its heart and puckered out its lips in a hurt look. “The Thorn-stallion wounds this one with its lack of trust. This one has always dealt with you in good faith.”

The Thorn-stallion grunted. “Maybe.”

“‘Maybe’?” Not content for him to be quite so ill-at-ease with this one, it walked around the desk and wrapped a leg around the Thorn-stallion’s shoulder. “Come now, you've done quite well working with this one.”

The Thorn-stallion turned a frigid eye on this one, and this one could feel his muscles coil. “So far. But let’s not kid ourselves, you’d sell me out in a heartbeat to a high enough bidder.”

This one chuckles and withdrew its leg. No sense pushing the Thorn-stallion too hard. “It would have to be a very high bid—more than it would be worth for anyone to pay, this one thinks. This one likes the Thorn-stallion, and finds him very useful. And this one doesn't do away with useful things casually.” This one smiled predatorily. “This one thinks in the long term, and you don't succeed in the long term by destroying valuable allies.”

“Likewise, you don’t succeed in the long term by trusting the wrong people.” With a slightly exaggerated motion, he picked up Coptic Binding’s folder. “The other target.”

“Of course.” This one gestured at the folder. “Coptic Binding isn't to be fooled around with either. He has magi training too, and he's clever. At some point, he joined the Esoteric Order and spent years in Equestria’s Magi Order, giving intel to the Esoteric Order to help keep them from being caught by the Magi Corp or the EIS and help them find objects they would find interesting.”

The Thorn-stallion flipped through the pages of the report as his eyes quickly scanned the pages. Good; for all his wariness of this one, he was still being drawn in by the nature of the job. Just like this one knew he would be. “Skills?”

“Low Beta, but is skilled in a variety of magics,” this one stated. “A jack-of-all-trades type. Doesn't really stand out in anything, but he doesn't have any major weaknesses either. Still, this one would still say he is dangerous. He still has the training of a magi and warlock.”

The Thorn-stallion growled and turned another page. “Hate those. Specialists are easier to deal with, since you generally have a good idea of what they’re gonna throw at you. But the ones that don't seem to have any preference...”

This one nodded in agreement. You could plan for relatively predictable opponents, which was why this one found the known spell lists in the folders to be so useful, even if you had to be careful about not thinking that was all they could do. The Shimmer-mare may have favored pyromancy, but this one had seen her cast a wide variety of spells in the past. Her specialization was far from crippling in nature.

“He's also smart. He managed to keep from being detected as a spy until he applied for a position at the Sealed Repository. He was discovered during the pretty thorough background check they have there, though only after they found he had enough contingencies in place to let him escape.”

His eyes looked up from the folder to glance this one’s way. “I see they both have bounties.”

Ah, always thinking about money, or at least much of the time. He did also have those rules of his. Though to be fair, he was an assassin for hire. We all had bills to pay at the end of the day. “They do, and as you can see in the files, they're aren't insubstantial either.”

“And do you plan on collecting?”

It wasn’t hard to figure out where this was going. He was worried this one was going to fleece him of the bounties. No sense letting him worry about that issue. This one wanted the warlocks to stop being a problem; money was purely secondary. “We can split the bounties if we can collect. But bounties or not, this one will pay you the agreed amount as long as the warlocks end up dead,” this one clarified, making sure the Thorn-stallion perfectly understood our arrangement. “And it doesn’t particularly matter how they end up dead. If the Thorn-stallion kills them, you get paid. If this one kills them, you get paid. If they fall off the docks and drown, you get paid. If a random lightning bolt kills them, you get paid.”

“And if they live as a result of your plans?” he questioned. “You have no personal connection, no grudge against the two, meaning they are simply causing trouble for you and for anyone they cross. But should a change in circumstances make them retreat…?” His eyes turned accusing.

“Then still, the Thorn-stallion shall be paid in whole.” This one smiled. “Relax. This one has no plans on cheating you of your hard-earned ducats.”

“Glad to hear it.” For the first time in the conversation he smiled. It was an intentionally ugly smile that promised many unfortunate things if this one didn’t live up to its end of the bargain.

In all honesty, the idea of the Thorn-stallion being hired to kill this one was something that had worried it for some time. He certainly had the talent, training, and experience to stand a far higher chance than this one liked. If he came for this one, it would have to try and kill him first. That would be a messy fight this one didn’t like the thought of. No, better to try and foment a healthy working relationship with him and make him far less likely to take a job against this one. After all, you were less likely to want to kill someone who helped you keep food on the table and a roof over your head. “So let's avoid such unpleasantness. This one much prefers mutually beneficial relationships.”

“Likewise,” the Thorn-stallion replied simply.

“Good to hear we’re in agreement.” Out of the corner of this one’s eye, it saw the gem Silken had given this one to signal when the warlocks had left the Signs-mare’s establishment. This one smiled, headed over to its mirror and transformed into a tall and thin zebra this one often took the form of. “Ready to head out then? The Thorn-stallion is going to be on escort duty for now while it puts its plan into motion.”

The Thorn-stallion blinked, surprised by how quickly this one was moving now. Still, he recovered quickly and nodded. “Fine.”

This one opened the office door and waved for the assassin to exit first. “This one is going to have a talk with our visiting warlocks. You know, to get a measure of our opposition for the evening.”

The assassin’s smile was as dry as the desert. “Sounds fun.”

This one matched that smile. “It thought the Thorn-stallion would think so.”

Author's Note:

I would like to thank my editors Chengar Qordath, Comma-Kazie, and JaketheGinger, and my prereaders, Swiftest, Trinary, and 621Chopsuey for all their help with this story.