• 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.

  • ...
0
 91
 866

Chapter 5

I've felt the icy claws of terror sink into my guts more times than I can count-- but as I sat across from Carrot Top, I felt a somewhat novel (and all the more worse) variation. It was one thing to have to worry about my own hide, but something else entirely to worry about the state of somepony else.

Carrot Top had dragged me away from the mystery villa, and the two of us took refuge from the summer rain underneath the awning of a noodle shop along the outskirts of Cowloon. Under other circumstances, the steaming bowl of noodle and vegetable soup would've made my stomach growl, but at that moment, I didn't have much appetite.

And the worst part was, Carrot Top just carried on like it was nothing. She dug into her noodles with gusto, taking a moment to savor the taste, smiling at some lost memory. Finally, she set her spoon aside, dabbed a bit of broth from the corner of her mouth, and asked me a question.

“Did you ever wonder how I learned to fight?”

“Not really?” I'd long since concluded Carrot Top's fighting prowess to be of the givens of the natural world, like how changelings could change shape, or how dragons could breathe fire.

“Of course you didn't.” The corner of Carrot Top's mouth turned up in the barest hint of a grin. “I won't bore you with my whole life story-- the important part is that I would never be Golden Harvest if I didn't meet Master Zhi.”

“Who?”

“Master Zhi. He is-- was the greatest martial artist in the world.”

“Was?” My voice may have cracked, if slightly. “Oh, oh no. Somebody's killed him, and now you're off on some damned blood-honor-vengeance-quest, aren't you?”

“It's not that simple.” Carrot Top said.

“Of course it isn't.”

“Master Zhi died of natural causes.” Carrot Top paused, thinking. “Probably. He died in his sleep, either way. I didn't come here to avenge him.”

“Then why did you come here?”

“I wasn't Master Zhi's only student-- there were four more. I was the second-- the other three enrolled after I left. Now that Master Zhi's dead, the five of us are gathering for the first time, to bury him.”

“Oh damn, you're going to bury yourself with him in some perverse display of loyalty, aren't you?”

“No.” Carrot Top said, flatly. “Nobody dies at the funeral. It's ... what comes later I'm afraid of.”

“And that is?”

“Master Zhi's students will fight to determine which of us will be his successor. I ... I don't know if I can win.” Carrot Top looked down into her bowl of noodles and let out a wistful sigh. Bit by bit, her bravado ebbed away.

“Then don't!” I pounded the table, harder than I expected. “The hell with Master Zhi, the hell with Tempest Shadow, and the hell with this whole filthy city. You don't have to do this, Carrot Top.”

“It's not just bragging rights, Sentry. Whoever succeeds Master Zhi will have access to the Manual of 36 Hooves-- a book full of secret, deadly techniques. Legend says there's even dark sorcery in the manual, the sort of power to rival the Alicorn Amulet, or maybe even the Elements of Harmony. Can you imagine what would happen if it fell into the hooves of someone like--”

“Tempest Shadow.” I groaned.

“Exactly.”

“But ... you can beat her, can't you? You're the toughest thing on four legs.”

“Maybe.” Carrot Top said, though without much conviction to it. “But that would still leave the other three to deal with. If Tempest Shadow wears me down, it'll be easy for one of the others to swoop in and take me out while I'm wounded. I can't beat them all by myself.”

“Then you're lucky you've got something that the rest of Master Zhi's students don't.”

“What's that?”

“Me.”

Carrot Top's eyes went wide, and she held a hoof up to her open mouth. I couldn't tell if she was trying to keep herself from laughing or crying, and frankly I didn't care either way.

“I'm serious.” I said. “You should know, more than anypony, that the only thing I'm good at-- really, the only thing I'm good for – is staying alive in the most insanely dangerous of situations. So just stick close to me, and I'll ... I'll think of something.”

Carrot Top's lips curled up in a wan smile. “That's ... uncharacteristically optimistic of you, Sentry.”

“I know.” I groaned.


We finished our noodles, and a bottle of rice-wine after that. Thusly fed, Carrot Top and I adjourned to the halfway-decent (and presumably fully-secure) hotel room that she had rented. A good thing, too, as I hadn't the foggiest idea of where to stay in Cowloon. We didn't talk about Master Zhi or his secret book for the rest of the evening-- we didn't talk about anything, to be honest. Instead, we passed those scant few hours in the manner one would expect of two ponies who didn't know if they'd see the next sunset.

I'll spare you the details.

By the time I rolled out of bed, Carrot Top was already running through one of her practice exercises, the morning stretches and poses I'd seen many a time before. She cycled through her fighting forms, each movement slowed down a thousandfold. The mere change of tempo transformed what would otherwise be a terrifying engine of destruction into a slow, mesmerizing dance, highlighting the toned muscle beneath Carrot Top's coat. It was a pleasant enough sight, but one that also meant I couldn't just fly Carrot Top to the first ship out of Cowloon while she was sleeping.

She finished her exercise with a languid, feline stretch, and then turned to look at me. “You're awake. Good.”

“Mmf.” Sore and bleary-eyed, I flapped my wings to disentangle them from the sheets. “They've got coffee in Cowloon, don't they?”

“They've got everything in Cowloon, if you've got the money for it.”


Cowloon was just as chaotic during the morning as it was late at night-- even more so. The rains had passed, and a bright, nigh tropical sun beat down on the city. Of course, the sunny weather didn't help the city's uniquely pungent odor, so I suppose it was something of a wash.

Carrot Top wound her way through the streets with a native's ease, first leading me to a cafe that specialized in Saddle Arabian coffee (the concentrated stuff, in the tiny cups) before heading to the outskirts once more. Again, she was maddeningly casual about it, just running errands instead of marching off to inevitable violence and mayhem. Somehow, the idyllic bamboo forests looked more intimidating in the daylight-- the morning sun cast long shadows over everything, vaguely reminding me of prison bars.

Tempest Shadow waited for us at the door to Master Zhi's villa, glaring at us with a disapproving eye. “You're late.” She sneered.

Carrot Top only replied with a haughty glare of her own, and walked through the villa's gate, into the rectangular, cobblestoned courtyard beyond. A casket of dark, polished wood sat in the center of the yard, with a sizable arrangement of flowers and incense sticks set up at either end. A large easel was set up next to the coffin, bearing a black and white photo of a dour-looking old stallion with long and narrow moustaches that vaguely reminded me of a catfish. Master Zhi, I presumed.

A good dozen or so ponies in silken robes milled about the courtyard, making politely awkward conversation. Tempest Shadow cleared her throat behind us, and everypony turned our way.

It was easy to pick out the important ponies, as they were the most dangerous looking. Perhaps I'd spent too much time around Carrot Top, as I quickly recognized the same confident wariness with which several of the other ponies carried themselves. Of course, said confident gait was far less interesting (and far more intimdating) on a pony other than Carrot Top, but that should go without saying.

“Golden Harvest!” A pegasus with a shaved head and an orange tunic was the first to trot over-- smiling, even. As he neared, I couldn't help but notice he was taller than I. He smiled a bit wider than one reallly should at a funeral, and then leapt upon Carrot Top faster than I could follow. For a moment, I thought the martial arts mayhem was about to begin-- but instead, it became clear that the bald pegasus was pulling Carrot Top into a lingering hug.

I think I would've preferred the fighting.

“Orange Sky.” Carrot Top's tone was friendly, but guarded. She wriggled out of the pegasus' embrace. “It was a ... long trip.”

“I always said you should've stayed in Cowloon.” Orange Sky said with a little ruffle of his wings. “But I'm glad you made it. Even if Porcelain Song got here before you did.”

At that, Orange Sky looked over his shoulder at a familiar-looking mare with a familiar-looking glare. I recognized her face in an instant, even though I knew her by another alias: Cutie Cue.

I would have bolted (and damnation, did I want to), but I knew I couldn't. The moment I showed the least bit of weakness, Cutie Cue (and who knows who else) would come a-hounding after me. That, and I didn't much fancy leaving Carrot Top alone with the likes of Orange Sky, either.

Luckily, Cutie Cue (or Porcelain Song, as she was going by) didn't launch herself at either me or Carrot Top, so we were left to pretend everything was normal. I hid behind a polite mask of a smile, just in time for Orange Sky to turn his eyes on me.

“Who's this?” He said. “Your valet?”

“Allow me to introduce myself,” I said in my most heroic baritone, and flared my wings out a little. Too late, I realized I should have worn my dress uniform. I cut quite an impressive figure in all my medals and epaulettes, after all. “Lieutenant Flash Sentry, of the Equestrian Royal Guard, at your service.”

Had I been in Equestria, my much-practiced introduction would have earned some oohs and aahs and possibly a free cocktail. In contrast, Orange Sky just looked at me with the sort of condescending expression one uses when humoring a child, and nodded. “It is good to meet you, Lieutenant. I am First Student Orange Sky.”

“Orange Sky and I trained together under Master Zhi.” Carrot Top said, entirely too casually.

“Did you, now.” I arched a brow.

“We did!” Orange Sky said, smiling at some fond, hazy memory. “I only wish she stayed longer. If she'd kept to her training--”

“I wouldn't be the mare I am today.” Carrot Top said.

“It's still good to have you back.” Orange Sky said. He glanced between Carrot Top and I, and then cleared his throat. “I'd like to have a word with you before the ceremony, Golden Harvest. Privately.”

I ground my teeth together, but Carrot Top waved me off with a little gesture of her hoof. “Of course. Don't worry, Sentry-- I won't be long.” And with that, the two of them trotted off to a far corner of the courtyard to conspire.

I glowered after them for a moment-- that is, until somepony behind me spoke up.

“Flash Sentry. I've heard that name before.”

I turned, and there stood one of the most beautiful unicorns I'd ever seen. Her meticulously groomed coat was a peachy cream in color, while her mane was a blue so dark it was almost black. She had her dark hair styled up in a complicated looking array, held in place with long, silvered pins. Her horn curved upward, just slightly, giving her a vaguely exotic air. A deep blue robe clung to the curvature of her body, meticulously tailored to draw the eye.

She was gorgeous and she knew it, which made her dangerous. Then again, I figured just about every pony at that funeral (save myself) was ludicrously dangerous, so at least she was pleasant to look at.

“You seem to have the advantage of me.” I sketched a gallant bow.

“Silken Lotus.” The unicorn said, holding out a hoof.

“A pleasure.” I favored that hoof with the lightest of kisses, earning a pleased giggle from the unicorn. Not that it did any good, as Carrot Top wasn't there to witness it.

“What brings a stallion like you all the way from Equestria?” Silken Lotus said with a little flutter of her eyelashes.

“Happenstance, to be honest. Golden Harvest and I are ... well acquainted, and it was luck that put us both in Cowloon at the same time. When I heard about her loss, well ... “ I trailed off and glanced over at the coffin once more. “It seemed best to tag along. You know, for moral support.” It was a half-truth, which meant it was the best kind of truth.

“How chivalrous of you.” Silken Lotus said. “But I suppose we should expect as much from a noted Hero of Equestria.”

“I'm surprised my reputation's reached this far.”

“Oh, there's a brisk trade in Equestrian newspapers here. There's something of a delay, of course, but late news is better than no news, don't you think? I mostly just like to read the makeup tips, but I found the accounts of your exploits to be quite ... interesting. And now, to see a pony such as yourself in the company of a pony such as Golden Harvest?”The beautiful unicorn narrowed her eyes, and her smile grew just a degree wider. “It's enough to make a mare ... wonder.”

“Wonder?”

“It's not yet certain who will succeed Master Zhi.” Silken Lotus tossed her luxurious mane a little. “Who knows what some ponies might do to ... tilt the scales, so to speak?”

“That ... shouldn't be a problem. I'm sure Master Zhi's legacy is a prestigious one, but it's no business of mine who gets all, er ... this.” I gestured vaguely at the villa.

“No? Then perhaps you should make it your business, Flash Sentry.” Silken Lotus edged closer, so that I might get a whiff of her flowery perfume. “You're new to Cowloon, but I can tell you're smart. Orange Sky is a boor, and Golden Harvest and Porcelain Song both abandoned Master Zhi to run off to Equestria. As for Tempest Shadow, it's fairly obvious why she shouldn't take Master Zhi's place. Logically, the duty falls onto the last of Master Zhi's students-- me.”

“That is a compelling argument, I admit. But it's not as if there's anything I can do about it.”

“One never knows.” Silken Lotus said. “The right word, murmured into the right ear can often do more good than a thousand pointless battles. If you were the one to murmur those words, Flash Sentry, I could be very appreciative.” She reached out and ran one hoof down my chest, making me shiver, if involuntarily. There was the little thrill of a gorgeous mare's caress, I admit-- though the more sensible parts of my brain reminded me that, as one of Master Zhi's students, Silken Lotus could easily kick me apart if she really wanted.

“I'll ... keep that in mind.” I said even as my mouth went dry.

“Please do.” Silken Lotus smiled a perfect, beguiling smile, and then sashayed away.

I cast a wary glance over at Carrot Top and Orange Sky's corner-- as far as I could tell, neither one of them had seen the little interchange between me and Silken Lotus. Before I could even start searching for a liquor cabinet, a gong rung, and the funeral service began.

I've attended more funerals than I can count, especially now that I'm getting on in years. Funerals aren't nearly as depressing when you're a coward-- every time I see a casket lowered into the ground, there's that little craven voice at the back of my mind noting: “better him than me.” That is, assuming there is a casket.

I've listened to yaks singing their death-ballads around funerary pyres, watched griffins leave their dead on lonely mountain peaks to feed the vultures, and gotten hellaciously drunk to the sound of a brass band in Neigh Orleans. In comparison, a Cowloon funeral is downright boring. There was some chanting and some praying and some waving of incense, and Orange Sky stood up in front of everypony and delivered a long-winded eulogy. I tuned him out, of course, since I'd never heard of Master Zhi until after he died. A good thing, too, as if he was able to create so much trouble just by dying, I shuddered to think what it'd be like to meet him while he was still alive.

As Orange Sky blathered on, I watched the reactions of the other ponies present. Most of them sniffled and sobbed as was expected, but Master Zhi's students kept their faces stony and stoic. They all had a hard, far-reaching stare, like sailors squinting at the incoming hurricane on the horizon.

The five of them-- that is to say, Orange Sky, Tempest Shadow, Siken Lotus, Cutie Cue, and Carrot Top –hefted Master Zhi's heavy coffin together, and led a winding procession to a graveyard at the top of a hill, marked by large, upright slabs of granite. As graveyards went, it was rather idyllic, surrounded as it was by green bamboo and chirping songbirds.

There were more prayers and more chants and more sticks of incense, until Master Zhi's casket was put in the ground, and a good deal of dirt thrown on top of it. Somepony rang the gong again, and the procession turned about to head back down the hill. Ponies broke off into little clumps and groups, ostensibly comforting each other, but most likely conspiring.

At least, that's what Carrot Top and I did.

“Are you ... alright?” I said, falling into step beside the earth pony.

“I'm fine, Sentry.” Carrot Top didn't take her eyes off the path. “For now. Things get ... complicated, later.”

“About that.” I sidled close enough that my shoulder just barely grazed Carrot Top's. “I ... may have an idea.”

“You do?”

“I spoke with Silken Lotus. Or, er, I should say, she spoke with me.”

Carrot Top arched a brow.

I went on anyway.

“She said she'd be, er, willing to take up Master Zhi's mantle, as it were. It'd be easier for her to do it if she had, er ... help. If two of Master Zhi's stood against the other three while they were still divided, well ... it makes sense, no?” I stumbled over a rock in the paths, and flapped my wings a little for balance.

“No.”

“Why did I have a feeling you would say that?”

“Silken Lotus used her training to take control of Cowloon's underworld. Every gang, every casino, every opium-den in town pays her a cut. Even the city's legitimate businesses pay her protection money. If she learned Master Zhi's secrets ... “ Carrot Top stared ahead in grim determination. “I can't let that happen.”

“And you know this ... how?”

“There's more to my job than babysitting you, Sentry.”

“Point.” I said with a shrug. “Still, that narrows our options, doesn't it? If things are as dangerous as you say, we're going to need one of the other students' help to make it out of this alive. Silken Lotus is a criminal mastermind, and so is Porcelain Song-- or Cutie Cue, I forget what we're calling her now. Obviously we can't trust Tempest Shadow, which leaves us with--”

“Orange Sky.” Carrot Top didn't sound too happy about it, either. “He'll help us ... under one condition.”

“What's that?”

“He wants to marry me.”