• Published 13th Nov 2017
  • 1,039 Views, 20 Comments

Sunset Shimmer and the Last Trial of Daring Do - ChudoJogurt

Sunset Shimmer has nightmares. Trapped in the memories of her past adventures, she can't quite return home. There is only one creature in all of Equestira who can help her. Make her good and nice again, but how far will Sunset have to go to find her?

  • ...

There’s Rapture in Battle, Bliss

My next adventure began in Baltimare. It was a beautiful evening, the sun had already set, and I was drinking. Because believe you me, even in Equestria no great adventure ever began with a salad.

As you’d expect from a cheap watering hole in the harbour-side slums, the drinks were not great, and the glasses were probably last washed sometime before the Discordian era. But the place did not ask for an ID and sold the 14-proof, proper hard cider and that was good enough for me.

I took a swig of it from the glass I’ve been levitating while I grabbed the dice off the table. A heavy silence hung over the game board as my opponents waited for me to put the glass down and for my horn to stop glowing before I would roll for my turn. Heh. Suckers always expect a unicorn to use magic when she plays.

I did not need any fancy magics as I rolled the dice with my hoof.

"Easy Ten," I announced. A howl of pure anguish and a string of foulest curses I’ve heard so far split the stale air in reply.

Still, the dice were on the table, and even as I moved my token over the last snake and into the final square, I was already pulling my winnings into the heap of bits by my side with my magic.

Patented Lulamoon hoof-twist, it gets them every time.

"Twice or none at all!" the stallion bearing the cutie mark of a skipper demanded, throwing a hoof-full of bits on the table.

I took another drink and gestured for him to roll first.

We played in silence, and as the figurines made their way across the board, rising and falling on the whim of a die, I retreated into my thoughts. Thoughts that turned inevitably to the past.

A lucky throw and my figurine climbed a ladder as I thought of hot Arabian days and warm evenings, of first love and first loss. Of cold Arabian nights in the desert ‘neath Arabian moon; howling wind as my companion, and of the nightmarish things I saw and learned in the hidden ruins.

I nudged the die a little bit with a push of a subtle spell, forcing my token to slide down a snake almost to the beginning of the board, letting my opponents build up their confidence, and I thought of my second adventure. Of a prophecy and a curse, of a friend betrayed and murdered, of Kings and Lions, and of magic Deep and the one that’s even Deeper that bound them all.

Despite the setback, my little token was still climbing ever upward, avoiding the trapped fields, and I took another sip from the glass and thought of my return home.

Well, not home. Not exactly.

Whether the Lion lied or was as ignorant as I, I do not know, but I could not return home.
Oh, beyond the portal lay Canterlot, and Celestia, worried sick after my week-long sudden disappearance, welcomed me home, doting on me like a mother on a prodigal daughter.

Equestria had not changed in my absence; it was I who was different.

Restless, for months I'd haunted the marble halls of the castle, tailing Celestia like a baby duckling follows its mother. Neither the silence of the High Library nor the familiar scent of musty tomes and alchemical reagents in my workshop could quiet the iron smell of blood that followed me in my sleep and my waking hours alike. Everything felt wrong and hollow and empty, and when I dreamt of night raids and skirmishes, of red-hot forges and burning campfires, I could never tell which was a dream and which a nightmare.

Celestia herself was not quite right. She has always been a perfect mentor, a perfect… perfect everything. I could trust her with any problem or fear, and she would always find the right words to fix it.

But when I tried to talk to her about my nightmares, about the blood and the murder I saw, she could not help me — even Celestia, the once warrior-Princess, perhaps the only one who could understand what I was going through, looked clean through me saying empty platitudes and meaningless phrases, as if I’ve been speaking in an alien tongue.

Then Cadance came back to Canterlot, her new boy-toy of a Guard Cadet in tow, and Celestia had even less time for me, abandoning me to the pointless probing of counselors and doctors, and a feeling lurched within my soul, dark and heavy. A feeling I could not yet give a name.

Distracted with my drink and reminiscence, I stumbled with my token upon another slide downward, and now my winnings were in some serious peril.

I set the cider aside and prepared to forge me some luck from my skill.


The gentle buzz of hard cider and the ups and downs of the game distracted me from thoughts I preferred to avoid and let me relax. But, however fun was it to return to the golden days of my fillyhood, listening to the tall tales of the travelers and hustling the simple sailors and traders out of their meager earnings, I was back in Baltimare for a reason, and as the game was slowly coming to a close, that reason had finally made his appearance.

A cloak-clad figure, twice as big as any pony, entered the bar. Despite his great stature, he had no trouble making his way through the tightly-packed floor — everypony who would have stood in his way seemed to almost evaporate before he could approach them. The chatter and the clinking of the glasses died around him, and even before he arrived at the table, its previous occupants disappeared with a speed and efficiency of a master teleporter, their dishes and glasses vanishing as swiftly as the ponies themselves.He sat down, and his gaze, heavy and full of slow power, slid along the bar and as if by a wave of a director's wand, everypony immediately stopped watching and fully pretended to return to their drinks and games. The gaze relented as the cloaked visitor settled in his seat, but still, his heavy presence remained, hanging over the tables like a storm cloud. Talking grew hushed around him, gamers seemed to lose their ardour and a thin stream of ponies began to line up towards him.

My eyes lingered on the newcomer for a moment, as doubts I thought I had long since put to rest came back to haunt me again. There was still a chance to call everything off. The last chance, probably. Finish the game, go home...

I met his eyes, glinting in the dim light of a bar, for less than a second, and that's when the shakes hit me.

They came as they always did - suddenly, without warning or provocation. First I shook and trembled, then my breath hitched and my muscles cramped as if I were running. I gripped the edges of the table like a lifeline just not to fall off my chair and snapped my eyes shut, just as the second wave of mind-rending terror threatened to rip me apart, dragging me into a quagmire of half-memories-half visions.

She looked at me from within the gates, smiling, and all it took was for her sight to touch me, and all the breath left my body as if I’d been bucked in the chest.

I gritted my teeth, and I could hear a quiet "pop" of the glass imploding in the grip of my magic.

There was a quiet, wet popping sound when the tiny blade of the toy dagger found his armpit, separating the bone from the joint. He squealed a thin, grating sound.

All I could do was hold out against the whimpering almost ready to escape my lips, until the memories, sated with my fear and suffering, have retreated into the back of my mind.

Memories. Just memories.

I reminded myself, as I adjusted my mane and released the table carefully, straining my lips to smile at the stallions opposite me — memories had no power over me. No power to stop me, no power to scare me. No matter how much they'd torment and make me shiver and shake and wish I could just curl up in a corner, I'd do what I came here to do. Which meant that first of all I had to get my little game over quickly.

I took a large swig of cider, straight from the bottle, to calm my nerves and returned to the board. Despite the tremors and cramps in my foreleg, I managed to roll a double four, landing at the foot of a ladder going to the topmost row and granting me another die roll. A little hoof-twist and a bit of chicanery got me a five and a six, proceeding my token squarely to the finish line.

“Six Five, gentlecolts,” I announced to the collective gnashing of teeth. My voice wavered, but consumed by their sudden and crushing defeat they did not notice, “you ain’t got no jive.”

You could read all the stages of grief on their long little faces. The denial, swiftly taken over by anger, and then just as quickly - bargaining, the gambler’s best friend.

“Another round!” he demanded, “Double or nothing!”

“Sorry, colts, my evenin’s up. Things to see, ponies to do.”

...and just like that, we were back to anger. One of them grabbed me by the forehoof, pushing me back down, and I tensed up. I had no doubt I could take them all down in seconds - the whole bar if I had to, but that was not my intention.

“You give us a chance to win, lil’ lady.” One of them demanded.

“Yeah, or what, are you a cheater, huh?” the other chimed in.

There are seven working gambling disengagement strategies that give a good chance for a player to escape without foregoing his winnings or starting a bar fight. Three of them require a long set up, two others — a companion at the table, none of which I had. Luckily, if there was anything Celestia has ever taught me, it was to always be prepared in advance.

“Ugh.” I plopped back down on a seat, making it wobble unsteadily. “As if I care about your stupid money. Y’know what?” I grabbed the gold with my magic and shoved it to the nearest bar worker. It was an earth pony colt, barely into his teens, with large, cute eyes and floppy ears who was furiously scrubbing a table with an equally dirty mop. He grabbed onto the sudden riches as if his life depended on it. His eyes teared up, as he tried to stammer out mixed thank-yous.

“There. Nopony gets it now. You guys happy?” I said, feigning irritation.

They looked away - it would take a heart of stone to force such a cute little thing to give back what was clearly the biggest money he’s ever seen, and sailors may be a crude bunch, but robbing a child was very much beyond them.

They grumbled something, and using their confusion I slipped away, grabbing my cloak and my saddlebags as I went. I cared little for my winnings — I knew that the colt would be storing them in my room: I made quite sure he knew better than to try to cheat me.

The line was just beginning, one stallion or mare after the other, bringing things and requests to the new guest, hoping and fearing for his attention. I had no time for this, as I let my magic flare up, tendrils of green light pushing the ponies aside and making way for me.

Whines and whinnies rose from every side, and those few petitioners who were not complete pushovers reached for their knives, spells, and amulets, horns glowing every color of magic. The cloaked figure at the table raised his forepaw, silencing them. His eyes settled on me once again, as everypony waited for his verdict.

"Speak, little pony." his voice was a high, scratchy tone, contrasting sharply with his powerful frame. "What have you brought me, that cannot wait with the others?"

I chose my words with care. He was a power once, the sort none would dare to raise their hoof against, and even though fallen, not all that have fallen are vanquished.

“Not to disrespect you, Elder One, but I came not with a tribute or a gift. I came with a bargain,” I said, taking a cloth-wrapped item out of my saddle bag and throwing it on the table.

It unfolded when it hit the table, and the item within shone with a soft golden glow, lighting his face underneath the hood. The blue bristles of his coat, the long blunt muzzle ending in a jagged row of canine teeth and the earring that shone back with a dull glint of ancient gold.

Ahuizotl’s eyes lit up, greed apparent on his inequine face. “A feather of light!” He stretched his tail-paw towards it. “Is it Hers?”

The way he said “Her” sent shivers down my spine. It was hatred, and it was fear, and something else… envy maybe? Still, I whacked him across his tailpaw with a whip-smack of my magic, making him yip with pain and recoil away. The crowd gasped and wavered as if I just went all-in on a chance of a double-six.

“A bargain, Elder, not a gift,” I reminded him forcefully.

“Very well,” he said, his eyes only barely flashing with anger. “You have surprised me, pony -- a thing well worth your impertinence. What do you want in return for this treasure?”

"A knife," I said carefully. This was the moment that would decide the whole of the adventure. "A coin. And a name forgotten."

With every item that I named his expression grew darker, his face retreating further into his cloak.

"I know what you're after. I want in."

He said nothing, looking at me with quiet intent. I had thrown the metaphorical dice on the table, staggering him with my knowledge and my demand, and I could almost see the thoughts turn and roll in his mind... though I would not dare predict where they'd end up.

"Walk with me, little pony," He half-asked half-ordered, standing up to leave the bar. "This is not a place for such talk."

The hisses and whispers in the crowd intensified, as he stood up to leave, but all it took was a growl of displeasure from Ahuizotl to make them swallow whatever they had to say.

"Insolent pests," he grumbled, making his way to the exit, as I trotted along. "Pay them no heed, little pony. We have business to discuss."

The night enveloped us, chasing away the smells of burnt food and cheap drink with the salty wind of the harbour and the smell of flowers in early bloom. Nothing was said — we navigated in silence along the narrow alleys of Baltimare. Ahuizotl walked quickly, making me occasionally break into a canter to keep up with his longer stride, a pace that did not invite a pleasant talk.

We were followed as we walked. Large cats, silent predators in the darkness, jumped softly off the roofs and the trees as we walked by, no more than shadows in the night, detected — barely — by the light steps of the padded paws and occasional glint of moonlight in the slitted yellow eyes: Ahuizotl's pets making sure I don't run away from meeting with their master.

I ignored them, alcohol and adrenaline making me bold and cocksure; even if I did have any intention of running away, it wasn't like a bunch of kitties could stop me.

The Elder took turns and chose side alleys without hesitation, easily shying away from street lamps and crowds, navigating past the docks. Streets grew narrower and dirtier, more broken and abandoned houses, like skeletons of what once was here, appearing and disappearing in the light of the sickly-pale moon, surrounding us ever closer, with dulled bricks and rotten wood.

Even at night, I recognized this place - this was the bit of the harbour every filly in Baltimare knew to never walk alone in the darkness. The bit where only those that asked no question weren't told a lie and where everypony learned to watch the wall when the "gentlemares" went by. The bit of smugglers and pirates, rogue warlocks and refugees, where ships with no flags arrived in the night like ghosts, only to disappear with the morning mists.

There, in the very heart of the forbidden and closed part of the town, the Elder stopped and knocked on a door so grimy it could barely be distinguished from the surrounding wall. It creaked open, and in the portal of the house lighted by torches, an earth pony stallion bowed to Ahuizotl, prostrating himself on the ground.

"Tlatoani! You grace me with your presence. By your power our breath flows..." he mumbled nigh-incomprehensibly, prostrated before his master, the freshly drawn Coltec tattoos smudging against the bricks of the road.

"Be my guest, little pony." Ahuizotl invited me in, stepping over the bowed stallion as if he was less than nothing.

He led me to the patio of the house. A Griffon-style small inner court under the open sky, with balconies, perches and seats set at every level for the convenience of pegasi and griffin guests. Once green and lustrous, it was now an abandoned and barren bit of brownish cracked ground fenced by walls of other buildings, just as ready to surrender to the time and lack of care as the house we just went through.

The Elder chose his seat first — the sole chair-throne big enough to accommodate him in the yard. The construction groaned and strained under his heavy frame, and behind the tightened drapes of carpets and cushions, you could guess the awkward angles of once lawn chairs and sunbeds cobbled together. His cloak came unfastened, revealing more ancient red gold in plates hanging off his collar and bracelets on his forelimbs.

Ahuizotl’s cats caught up to us seconds later, taking their places on the roofs and balconies to bear witness to our talk.

"You!" He finally graced the still-prostrate host, who followed us crawling on his belly through the dust, with his attention. "Little worm! Bring us drink, and be hasty about it!

"And bring Green,” he added, after a short consideration. "We have a guest."

"I know." A mare's voice said from behind and above, startling me. A pale green pony, somehow unnoticed before she gave voice stood up on one of the inner balconies of the courtyard. She jumped down before I could turn to face her fully and landed behind me, softer than even Ahuizotl's cats, her hooves making no sound against the stone of the road.

"What do we have here…” Moving around me towards the Elder, she almost rubbed her sides against mine and gave me a long, evaluating look. “The Canterlot accent, the enchanted saddlebags, the prissy mane-cut... what's a little princess like you doing in the bad part of town? You got lost, little filly?”

“I am not little,” I said levelly, letting my startled fear turn to anger and spill from my horn in a wave of magic. It hit her straight in the chest, making her rock slightly on her hooves. “And we’d be the same height once I drop you on your butt.”

"Feisty." She clicked her tongue. "Reminds me of a certain ‘all that’ teen. Zoti, is she a gift?"

Ahuizotl chuckled. “The little pony wishes to join us.”

Her expression soured instantly.

“Oh no. No way. I am not babysitting - it is not in the job description.”

"I am not a foal," I repeated, the haze of magic around me thickening into an almost tangible aura. "I am a combat-sorceress. In Saddle Arabia they call me the Fire of Seven Oases. In the Beruna-forest they called me the Red Witch. I came with a bargain and a proposition, and you will have a use of me:

"A feather of light, a knife from under the hill, a coin of stone and a name long forgotten-"

"I do not have those things." Ahuizotl interrupted me casually.

"...what?!" He might as well had slapped me with a wet fish for all the effect it had on me. "But Señor Caballeron said—"

"Bah! That pompous buffoon talks too much of things he has no idea of,” the Elder dismissed the very notion with a wave of his paw, “but say I had them - what would you want out of it, little pony? A share of my power? Wealth? Knowledge? Patronage?"

"I want the other part. Whatever is left when you take the power will be mine to do as I please."

The Elder grew silent and sombre, considering my demand. His hand slipped idly to pet the snow-white kitten that jumped onto his lap. The silence stretched, as I watched him think, until the pause was broken by the host appearing once again with a tray of drinks and snack on his head, nearly falling over himself in his haste to please his master. Salty breadsticks and daisies, a wine bottle and tall glasses full of almost clear white drink.

"Drink my wine, pony." Ahuizotl animated again, awakening from his musings. "Eat my bread. You are a guest, after all." He gestured with his forepaw, giving me the first choice of the glass.

I took one, but I was in no hurry to drink it. Even if I was a guest, I was far from feeling at ease.

Ahuizotl chose the other glass without looking, his prehensile tail-paw snaking out to grab it. It looked tiny against his paw when he took a sip. The green mare took the last glass and settled back on the ground by the Elder's throne, almost hidden in its shadow.

"Drink," Ahuizotl ordered, seeing my hesitation. Something slipped into his voice, like a sharp glimpse of steel suddenly revealed on the bottom of the stream, and I found the glass at my lips before I could think of an answer.

The taste of it surprised me — I was used to the sweetness and fizziness of the cider, but this was almost bitter, rolling with undertones of salt and spice.

"So you know things, little pony." He considered the thought while I drank. "You know my purpose, and you know my means. Do you then know the name?"

"No..." I had to admit. "It was erased from Equestrian history."

"I remember it, little pony. My memories are deeper than your little records. Do you know where the knife is hidden?"

Sitting by this parody of a throne, answering the sudden questions, feeling the familiar desperate desire of a teacher's pet to get the answer right, the fear of disappointing the “teacher”; it felt like a twisted mockery of my lessons with Celestia, making me shiver with the same cold fear I got when caught without my homework. I shook my head, feeling my chances slip away with every failure to reply.

"I know where it is. I know were the things are, little pony, things lost and things secret, especially the weapon that she has once wielded against me."

There it was again, that ”she” he hissed like a foulest curse, though I knew it didn’t quite refer to Celestia this time.

"And you have no way of finding the coin," he concluded, satisfied and somewhat smug. "Why would I have any use for you then, little pony?"

"I have the feather," I reminded him.

He dismissed my argument with a wave of his tail-paw. "I have the use for the feather, true, but the journey would be long and arduous, and as Green said, I am not in the business of babysitting."

"Do you know what is the name of the wine you're drinking, little pony?" the mare asked me, from underneath Ahuizotl’s shadow, changing the topic suddenly.

I looked up at the Elder in surprise and shook my head, failing to answer again. I only knew the names of the Arabian wines, and this one tasted nothing like any that I've tried.

"They call it the 'Widow's Tears.'" Ahuizotl held his own glass, tiny in his tail-paw, up to look at the play of moonlight in its liquid. "Made from the fruit that grows in the Southern Jungle, drinking the salty waters of the Narrow Sea. Yet its name comes not from its salty taste, little pony. No, it derives its name from the tears shed by the wives and husbands of those little ponies that ventured into the jungle to collect the fruit — never to return."

It was not a random question, then. The Elder was testing me, seeing if I would get afraid. I finished the glass in a gulp and set it aflame in my grip, letting the glass melt and crumple it into a tiny glass ball.

“I am not a foal, Elder,” I repeated, for the third and final time. “I am a battle-sorceress. I can take care of myself."

He smiled. A most unsettling expression, entirely too many sharp teeth splitting his long and narrow muzzle almost in twain. “Can you now, little pony? Then I desire a demonstration.” He set his drink aside, the clink of the glass somehow echoing with the finality of the bear-trap slamming shut.


Green slipped from the Elder’s shadow, and we stood against each other on the narrow brick road winding through the patio. The demonstration Ahuizotl demanded would not be an exam or a spellcasting test - it would be against her that my mettle would be tested.

In the direct light of the full moon, I could now have a good look at her and take my new opponent’s measure. She was tall and lithe, higher than I was almost by a head. Her body was lean and taut, pale green peppered with a pattern of black diamonds and old scars even her short fur could not conceal, and her mane was as black as a raven’s feather.

She stretched in a single luxurious motion, sinewy muscles rolling under pale green coat, animating the green fire of her cutie mark. With the predatory look in her emerald eyes and the black spots on her coat, she reminded me of a leopard. I blinked and forced myself to look away.

“Well, little filly.” her hoof scratched the ground in anticipation, “let’s see what you’re made of.”

I was not afraid. Unlike the unexpected quiz I had no answers for or trying to guess the Elder’s mood, the battle is a simple affair, with one of her and one of me. A fair and clean fight - a fight I thought I could not lose. Student of the Princess, forged in war the likes of which have not been seen in Equestria for centuries, none, I believed, could rival me in the art of battle spellcraft, and not even an earth pony had any hope to fight me and win. My hooves shuffled with the feverish excitement of a coming fight, and my horn took aflame when I summoned my magic.

She jumped, swift as a striking cobra, and it’s only by reflex that I caught her in my magic, struggling to hold her against the push of her earth pony strength, adding height and speed to her jump. She sailed over my head - a long arc ending right in the brickwork of the wall behind me.

She twisted in my grip, her strength ripping my spell to shreds and landed on her hooves, quick and nimble, and just like that she was already charging right back at me, faster than a pale-green lighting. She’d be on me before I could even…

“Onyx.” I released the spell without conscious thought, pure battle instinct taking over. It hit her square in the chest, and she froze in the suddenly viscous air, like a fly in amber. I breathed a little sigh of relief. There’d be no way she could move now.

She did. Slowly, her muscles, overflowing with her magic, pushed her through the hold of my spell, even as I poured more and more power into it. The spell strained under the energies it was never meant to contain; my horn burned and sparkled with the energy I poured through it, trying to force her to stop - and still she moved, slow but steady. The distance between us - not too large to begin with - was closing fast, and I had to come to a decision.

I dropped the spell and rolled to the side, barely avoiding her sprint. Still, she tagged me, her shoulder throwing me aside with inequine strength, my breath knocked out of me. Not enough to stop me - I was back to my hooves, ready to attack and defend within seconds - but still enough to hurt.

Turning back again to me, she grinned.

“Not bad… for a frou-frou little princess.”

That little barb stung more than the fresh bruise. Well if she wouldn't stay put, I’d just have to put her down - hard. My horn took alight again and the Scourge of Shahab, weaved from street dust and the salty wind of the harbour appeared at its tip, whipping and snapping, ten yards of stinging, coiled sharpness.

It snaked out, my spell almost as fast as my thought, and brick and mortar exploded around us, where the Scourge hit them, filling the small yard with deadly-sharp splinters flying in every direction. The whip of my spell curled and twisted, not letting her close and chasing her wherever she would try to feint or dodge. Once I connected, leaving a red-raw bleeding mark on her barrel, and then another, the tip of the sand-whip ripping a chunk of meat from her side, and then, suddenly she turned and leaned into the strike instead of dodging, as if gluttonous for the punishment of the lash.

She grabbed on the Scourge as it wrapped around her, ignoring the winds and sand cutting into her skin, rivulets of blood marking the touch of the whip, and pulled. Her strength ripped me clean off my hooves and threw me right into the buck of her hind-hooves.

Stars and sparks danced in my vision as I rolled along the road, losing the hold of my spells, and feeling every bump and hole with my barrel. I panted and tried to stand up.

“Ooh, little princess got some skill,” she teased, licking the drops of blood of her shoulder and shuddering with pleasure. “but you’re not quite in my league!”. She leaned towards the earth and pounced on me again as soon as I was back to my hooves.

A shielding spell stopped her - just barely, the crash of her body against it making my teeth rattle and my horn pulse with the pain of feedback. I tried to think, to get my bearings, but before I could even breathe another buck shook me to the core of my magic.

“Gotta come out of there sometime, little turtle,” she mocked, unleashing another blow to the shield. It held - if only by the skin of my teeth, and I stepped back. “Can’t hide forever.”

She was right. I could not sit there forever — her stamina would last her much longer than my magic. I had to end this, and I had to end it soon.

Taking a few steps back, she scratched the ground again with her hoof, and then, from a standing start, she broke into a long gallop, gathering the momentum to punch through my defences.

I reached inside of me, for my magical reserves, for my fear and my anger. All that brought me to the dirty street of Baltimare and that I tried to drown in alcohol, I dredged up from the furthest recesses of my mind and channelled through my horn.

The shield blazed with green light, energized beyond what the spell was meant to take, and the semi-translucent wall shot towards her, no longer a shield, but more of a battering ram, meeting her half-way. No pony flesh could withstand the combined power of her run and the energy I gathered.

She didn't break her run. Instead, her forehooves took alight with fire - not the red-hot fire I could summon with my magics, but sorcerous green flame, thick and vicious. She jumped towards my attack, her body streamlining into a perfect straight line, and smashed clean through, dashing my shield into million splintering bits.

Reeling from the feedback of the violently shattered spell, and the sudden - impossible - magic that broke my shield like it was made of glass, I shot blindly, my fear erupting from the tip of my horn as a wave of flames.

The earth pony slid along the gravel underneath the stream of fire I released in a classic basebuck slide, haunches first, and my front-right ankle exploded with pain, my leg giving underneath me sending me face-first into the road. She twisted about, coiling around like a snake, and before I could even think of a spell to cast, she was standing above me, her hoof on my neck pressing my face into the dirt, pinning me down with more weight than her thin frame had any right to conceal.

Her tone was sneering, almost bored when she asked: “What will it be, little princess — pain or death?”

I tried to turn around and get out of her grip, to cast another spell, but that was the wrong answer. Her other hoof hit me in the ribs, knocking all the wind out of me and breaking my concentration.

It lingered on my side, tracing along my ribs “Pain or death?” she asked again, “Do I light up my right hoof and boil your little unicorn brain, or will I use my left and just leave a little… hickey?” she mused, almost to herself, as I snarled and struggled without any effect but her amusement and another bruise from her hoof.

“Or maybe… maybe I just take your little prize and leave you here, huh?” Her foreleg slipped into my saddlebag, searching for the feather I brought, and a cold wave of fear washed over me like a tsunami. Not even a threat of death scared me as much as the prospect of losing it.

This was perhaps the first time I truly understood how reckless and small and stupid I was. For no reason, save for my pride, have I believed that I could handle anything that anyone could throw at me and that's why I ended up under the hoof of an unfamiliar pony in a dark and damp alley, losing a treasure and aiding an enemy of Equestria.

I redoubled my struggles, even as I felt another shake coming on, spurred by despair, pain, and anger.

“No.” Ahuizotl stopped her suddenly. “She is my guest, after all. She drank my wine and ate my bread, and let no one say that Ahuizotl is not a gracious host. You came with a bargain, little pony, and that bargain I will take.”

Just like that pressure that held me down was gone. I froze, surprised and not quite believing my sheer dumb luck.

“And take her,” the mare tossed the comment over her shoulder, before picking me up with her teeth like a puppy, by the scruff of my neck. “Filly got skills, and she got spunk. We ain’t finding anything better this side of Griffonstone anyways.”

"So be it." Ahuizotl nodded, reaching into his cloak. Something shone in his paw with a dull yellow shine. "Will you take my coin, little pony? From this moment until my prize is reached."

I shook, from relief or from the almost-flashback, I could not tell, but still, I managed to nod.

“Woah there, pumpkin,” before he had a chance to pass me the coin, Green had inserted herself between me and Ahuizotl, ignoring her boss’ annoyed look and flopped a stack of papers in front of me. The wounds that already stopped bleeding that hardly seemed to bother her when she moved.

“Now, I don’t help newbies all too often, but you have some potential. So — I’m giving you a hint, free of charge. And the first rule of being a henchmare is getting a good, union-approved contract, like this one here.”

She flipped through the pages, semi-hugging me possessively as she traced out the points of the contract: “See? The no cloning clause, no mind-control clause, the 401k, the dental…”

I furrowed my brows as I read it. This was definitely a better deal than the Royal Guard at Canterlot were getting… though the necessity of the “no mind-control” clause did trouble me somewhat.

Filling the necessary details, I signed it and passed the other copy to Ahuizotl, who put his paw-print on the thing with the sour expression, before flipping his coin towards me. It was old, dimmed by its age, and much bigger than the usual equestrian bit. Somehow it felt heavy in my hoof, heavier than even the pure gold should have.

“We leave at dawn. Do not be late, little pony mine.”