• Published 6th Jul 2018
  • 866 Views, 91 Comments

Five Friendly Venoms - Tumbleweed

It was supposed to be a routine visit to Ponyville-- But, as always, things soon take a turn for the worse as Flash Sentry finds himself facing stunning news-- as well as a brand new mission.

  • ...

Chapter 4

According to dime-novel entertainments like, say, those Daring Do novels, no ship ever reaches its destination without running afoul of pirates, sea monsters, a hurricane, or any combination of the three. Thankfully the voyage of the Mistmane's Maid was completely uneventful. Some of the crew even made a few comments about how pleasant the weather was.

Not that I was in any state to appreciate it. I spent the whole trip in misery, alternating between sea and love-sickness. It was the solitude that did it, as I had little to do aboard Mistmane's Maid but sit around and feel sorry for myself (at least, whenever I wasn't heaving my lunch over the side of the ship).

Again, according to dime-novel entertainments, this would have been the point where I'd start writing bad poetry and singing mournful ballads to the stars. Thankfully, I at least had the tiniest amount of dignity left, sparing you, dear reader, from my maudlin verse.

Really, it says something about my emotional state that the sight of Cowloon rising up over the horizon came as a relief. As we got closer and closer, the water traffic started picking up as well. The captain gave a great bellowing, and the Mistmane's Maid fell into line alongside the various fishing trawlers and cargo scows moving in and out of Cowloon's docks, even as the sun began to set.

By the time the dockworkers secured the Mistmane's Maid to the pier, I already had my saddlebags packed. The reassuring feel of solid ground underhoof was a mixed blessing. It meant my entire world wouldn't go a-swaying back and forth with each turn of the waves ... but it also meant that the uneasy feeling in my stomach was Carrot Top's fault.

The city of Cowloon was a ramshackle collection of buildings clustered together at the foot of a great, green mountain that loomed overhead. The crowded streets held creatures of every sort: the expected minotaurs and ponies, of course, along with various griffins, hippogriffs, and even the occasional yak.

Really, once you get past the city's omnipresent fishy smell, Cowloon is a perfect place for a cad like me. One could hardly walk a block without passing a half dozen taverns, casinos, and other houses of ill-repute, each one with a slightly different style and flavor than the last. I picked a respectably disreputable looking watering hole (emphasis on 'hole'), and ducked inside to gather my wits. If nothing else, the harsh rice liquor they served was a welcome break from the bitter rum the crew of the Mistmane's Maid apparently lived off of.

As I sat there, sipping what I hoped wasn't paint thinner, I realized I had no idea of what I was going to do next.

I supposed my best bet would be my original plan. I could just lie low for a while, and lie shamelessly to Princess Twilight when I got back. The rub there, however, was that I didn't know how long I'd have to hide out. I figured myself to be safe enough from Cutie Cue, over on the other side of the world, but I didn't know how long it would take the proper authorities to catch her-- even if they could. Cutie Cue had given Carrot Top, the deadliest pony I ever met, a run for her money. Theoretically, I supposed one of the Princesses could bring her in, what, with the cosmic magic of immortality and all, but they typically had better things to do.

Not that I cared much; as long as Cutie Cue stayed half a world away, I'd manage. In fact, so long as I steered clear of anypony of particular importance, I'd manage. No princesses, no special agents, no professional assassins-- I figured I'd be safe so long as I didn't speak to anyone more interesting than a bored-looking bartender.

That's when Tempest Shadow walked in.

I choked down a scalding mouthful of liquor, and stared. Tempest Shadow was the biggest unicorn I'd ever seen, almost approaching a Princess-level physique. She didn't have the warm, inviting aura of the typical Princess, however-- instead, Tempest Shadow carried herself with a proud, measured gait, as if holding herself in from breaking into a fit of sudden violence. She might've been pretty. Once. I shuddered to think of what happened to the pony that had made such a ruin of her face. A deep furrow ran down from temple to cheek, the puckered scar tissue keeping her right eye in a perpetual, disapproving squint. Her horn was even worse, jagged and raw, like a broken bone. The occasional spark of magical static fizzling from the broken tip.*

*Due to issues relating to Tempest Shadow's broken horn, most photographs of her came out slightly blurry, due to ambient magical discharge altering the film when the photos where taken. Thankfully, Princess Twilight made it a point to have several paintings of Tempest Shadow commissioned when she found out about this. Suffice it to say, Sentry's description of Shadow is in stark contrast to her official portraiture. Whether this is due to certain liberties taken by the artists in question, or simply another example of Sentry's oft-confessed shallowness, remains up for debate.

As soon as I caught sight of her, I buried my nose in my drink in hopes Tempest Shadow wouldn't notice me. Not that she'd have any reason to-- while I'd caused enough trouble during the Storm King's invasion, the two of us had never met face to face. For possibly the first time in my life, my reputation didn't precede me, as Tempest Shadow's gaze passed over me as if I were just part of the decor.

I watched from the corner of my eye as Tempest Shadow waved the bartender over-- the two exchanged a few low words-- at which point the bartender took out a small pouch and dropped it on the bar in front of her. My ear twitched at the heavy clink of coin-- but, surprisingly enough, Tempest Shadow didn't take the obvious bribe. She just shook her head and pushed it back to the bartender. I winced and started looking for the back door-- Tempest Shadow must have been insulted by the paltry sum offered, and she'd start smashing up the place until she got the amount she wanted.

But she didn't.

Instead, Tempest Shadow left the money-- and, after exchanging a few terse words with the bartender, turned to stalk out of the bar, and into the night beyond.

Naturally, I followed her.

Now, if you've been reading my memoirs for any period of time, this would probably be the point where you start accusing me of embellishing my tale. You're right to be suspicious, too, given what a craven coward I really am at heart. Had I been younger, I would have bolted at the first sight of Tempest Shadow, and kept on a-flying until I made it back to Cloudsdale. But, over the years, every time I found myself thrust into terrible, blood-curdling danger, I learned something (whether I wanted to or not). Foremost amongst those hard-earned lessons was the fact that it pays to know who's out to murder you, not to mention where they are. Ideally, one can use this information to be somewhere else-- but, barring that, I figured if I could keep an eye on Tempest Shadow from a distance, that meant she wouldn't be gunning for me. If I could gather a few tidbits of genuine intelligence to pass onto Princess Twilight (with the proper embellishment, of course), all the better.

And so, I gulped down the last of my drink, tossed a few bits on the bar, and slunk out into the Cowloon night. I took to the air at once, though it was tough flying between the various clotheslines and power cables and other hazards stretching across the streets. I'd say whoever designed Cowloon didn't have pegasuses in mind when they did it, but that would imply that Cowloon was intentionally designed in the first place. The way the streets and alleys twisted made me think the city hadn't been built so much as grown. Still, Tempest Shadow walked slowly enough that it was easy to follow her. She walked at a deliberate pace: not in a hurry, but not idle dawdling, either. A couple of Cowloon's rougher-looking denizens made it a point to give Tempest Shadow a wide berth as she approached. Not that I blamed them, of course, but I surmised that Tempest Shadow had been in town long enough to make a name for herself.

The scar-faced unicorn headed for the outskirts of the city, where the crowded tenements soon made way for bamboo groves and rice paddies. An evening shower rolled through (it goes without saying Cowloon didn’t have a designated weather patrol, the barbarians) and soaked my feathers, but at least the pitter-patter of the light rain offered me a little additional cover.

Tempest Shadow's path finally carried her up a rocky hill, to a small but finely built villa at its peak. She rapped on the heavy oaken door, at which point it opened up and let her in without fanfare. I circled around the place, taking in details: it was built in the traditional, eastern style, all swooping rooftops and intricate carvings and the like. Honestly, it was identical to any number of similar houses built around the outskirts of Cowloon, save for the logo carved into the doors.

Four rectangles, arranged in a square.

Not trusting my eyes (or perhaps not trusting the rice liquor I'd been drinking), I glided down to the ground for a better look. Silent, I crept closer to the villa's oak doors. And, sure enough, even in the darkness, I could tell the sigil was identical to the little bit of paper Ditzy Do had shown me before I left Equestria.

And that, I decided, was my cue to run.

I flared my wings out and wheeled around-- which brought me face to face with none other than Tempest Shadow. She must have circled around from a side door and crept up behind me, using the rain as cover, just as I did. The rain started pouring harder, and there was even an appropriately dramatic flash of lightning to illuminate Tempest's mangled face.

The thunder drowned out my dismayed scream of terror-- which is when Tempest hit me.

It's been my awful luck to get worked over by far, far too many assailants than I care to think about. Yet, of all of them, none were as terrifyingly fast as Tempest Shadow. I stood there, gawping at her one moment-- and then the next, I found myself down on the ground with a hot jet of pain shooting through my jaw, and the vaguest memory of a blur of movement.

Before I could so much as get my hooves under me, Tempest Shadow captured one of my forelegs and twisted it at an agonizing (though oddly) familiar angle, threatening to wrench it from its socket. She levered my face harder into the wet, hard stone of the pathway, and leaned down to snarl into my ear.

“What do you want? Why are you following me? Who sent you?”

I murmured something unintelligible in reply, but you try being coherent when a murderous and mangled mare is doing her best to grind your face into gravel. But then, a third voice called out over the pouring rain.

“Get your hooves off of him!”

I heard a heavy impact behind me, and suddenly the hooves binding my leg into place were gone. Knowing an opportunity when I saw one, I rolled to my hooves, ignoring the pain in my shoulder, and prepared myself to make a proper escape. That is, until I saw the earth pony staring down Tempest Shadow, her orange hair still a riotous and frizzy mess despite the now-pouring rain. Tempest Shadow dwarfed her in both height and bulk, but my savior stood her ground, hooves planted in a fighting stance.

“You must be Golden Harvest.” Tempest Shadow said, and wiped a trickle of blood from her nose. “I expected you to be taller.”

“And I expected you to be better.” Carrot Top said.

“You got a lucky shot. You won't get another.” Tempest Shadow rolled her neck with a cracking of her joints. “I know it's not tradition, but I'm fine with starting this early if you are.”

“No.” Carrot Top didn't attack, but she didn't ease off from her battle-readiness, either. “We'll do things ... properly. Later. But for now, all you need to know is that he is with me.”

“Is he?” Tempest Shadow arched a brow. “You should keep better company, Harvest.”

“Is that so? I'm not the one who fell in with the Storm King.”

Tempest Shadow reeled as if she'd been struck, and glared at Carrot Top. “I'm done wasting my time here.” She declared, and turned to head into the villa. “I'll see you at the funeral.” And with that, she walked through those heavy oaken doors, and disappeared.

Once the doors closed, Carrot Top turned her icy glare onto me. “I told you not to look for me, Sentry.”

“You did!” I blurted. “And I didn't! Would you believe this entire escapade is just one awful coincidence after another?”

“I ... would, actually.” Carrot Top groaned, and rubbed the bridge of her nose.

“Princess Twilight sent me.” I added on, and looked over Carrot's shoulder towards the villa. “To look for her.”

“Of course she did.” Carrot Top said, and shook her head. “Doesn't matter now-- we've got to get you out of Cowloon.”

“That's the first sensible thing I've heard since I got here.” I said, standing up a little taller. “I've got a little cash, I'm sure we can book passage--”

“No 'we,' Sentry. You.”

“Beg pardon?”

“I can't go, Sentry. But you have to.”

“Why?” I blurted, for lack of anything better to say.

Carrot Top shook her head, frustrated. The defiant warrior of moments ago melted away, and with a simple slump of her shoulders, Carrot Top turned into little more than a wet, miserable pony. “You shouldn't be here, Sentry. I told you. I didn't-- I don't want you to--”

“Get hurt? That'd be a first.” I rubbed at my aching cheek. “Little late for that anyway.”

Listen, Sentry.” And there Carrot Top was, grabbing me by my shoulders and looking up at me with deep, green eyes. Rain trickled down her cheeks as she pulled in a ragged, barely-holding-it-together breath, building up strength before she spoke again.

“I didn't want you to watch me die.”