• Published 26th May 2020
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Tales from Everfree City - LoyalLiar

Princess Platinum and Celestia's first student face changelings, a magical curse, the specter of war with the griffons, and the threat of arranged marriage in early Equestria.

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Interlude XI - Aftermath of a Brawl

Interlude XI

In the Aftermath of A Brawl

Verko's was a genuine cantina; the real deal. You could tell a couple of ways. Instead of being ironic, the band on the cramped stage against the far wall was actually that bad. There were no menus, nor signs above the bar. No one—not nopony, for the place rarely saw ponies for patrons—ordered drinks with clever puns for names, and you could count yourself a good friend of the reptilian bartender if you could convince her to make you a drink with two whole ingredients. Instead, you read your poison of choice off the wall behind her: names like 'Glorm' and 'Kapzacin' and 'Nic-o-nyde', which were technically transliterateable into phonetic Equiish only in the same sense that, in the course of falling from a balcony to your impending death over one of Canterlot's cliffs, you would be eligible to receive a speeding ticket. And if you couldn't read the labels on the bottles in Suidan or Saddle Arabian or Cephalid, you probably weren't wanted in Verko's at all.

Sunset Shimmer wasn't quite ready for the fish creatures, lizardfolk, and other odd species of Klugetown—almost all of whom were more dangerous than the average unicorn—to wince and shrink back at her silhouette in the doorway. With a violent twang the band cut off their music abruptly. The bartender reached beneath the bar and produced a blade that could be described as a rusty khopesh, though I suspect it had once been straight-bladed, or at least less curved. All was silent.

"Is this because of you?" Sunset whispered to her only companion in that moment, Tempest Shadow.

Tempest shook her head. "I don't have this kind of a reputation. Especially not now that the Storm King is gone."

From across the bar, a voice finally spoke up in harsh, unfamiliar Equiish. "We donut serve ponies here. Getaway!"

"Well, that's a little racist," Sunset observed mostly to herself.

Tempest took the job of actually answering the address from the bartender. "We heard you were already serving a pony. We're here to see him, not to start trouble."

"Ponies is trouble. You kind broke three tables. Not serve anymore."

"I never got the sense Caballeron was the kind to start a fight like that," Sunset observed to her companion, before telling the bartender "We'll pay for whatever damages Dr. Caballeron caused. We're looking for him too; we just want to ask some questions and we'll be on our way."

"Not 'him'," the bartender answered. "But you pay, I will let you talk whoever you want. Just don't cause trouble."

"Not him?" Sunset asked. "You mean a mare broke your tables?"

The bartender violently held up two scaled fingers. "Two, uh, 'mare'. You pay up, I will tell more."

Every eye in the room followed Sunset and Tempest up to the bar, where Sunset withdrew a small back of golden bits from her pocket dimension and tossed a few on the table.

"Pony money," the bartender said derisively, but after biting into a bit to make sure it was at least mostly real gold, she swept it into her palm nonetheless. "Last night, there was a wing-pony, with black band in her hair. And big one. I thought it was a 'him' at first. No wing, no horn."

"An earth pony and a pegasus with a hairband, huh?" Sunset scratched her chin, and then glanced to Tempest, who shrugged. "Okay. Do you remember what they wanted?"

"They whisper," the bartender answered. "I… my rule is not listen."

"You made us pay for that?" Tempest accompanied the question by slamming a hoof on the bar.

The bartender raised a hairless brow, unimpressed. "You ask." Then, reaching out and gently shooing the offending hoof off the bar as if sweeping away dust or dirt, she continued "Whispers not go well. Big mare grab him pony, break his shoulder. Then fight start. End… quickly."

"The mares died?"

The bartender chuckled at the idea. "They not dead. Other pony hires: some dead.""

"The ponies killed Caballeron's workers?" Sunset seemed far more shocked by this idea than Tempest.

"Only big one," the bartender explained. "Him pony shout for help. Big pony pick up table they sitting at, break it over leopard's neck."

Tempest glanced around the room, and then her brow raised. "I find that a little hard to believe."

"How so?" Sunset asked, trying to follow her fellow mare's gaze. Around the room were dozens of ratty wooden tables, though most of the seats were in little booths carved in arches out of the sandstone walls of the room, with benches and tables likewise carved from the room's walls themselves. After a short moment more of parsing, reality struck Sunset: one of the booths was missing its stone table completely.

"How much do you think that weighs? Can you even pick a table like that up with your horn?" Tempest asked.

Sunset just shrugged.

In her head, from the amulet around her neck, a voice rather like mine suggested "I'd eyeball two or three hundred pounds. You could probably lift it. Swing it around, though; that's a whole different question."

The bartender shook her scaled head in the silence. "Well, you see damage. Believe or not, not matter to me. There big dust cloud. I not see much, except wing pony fly back, chased by griffon and gazelle. Wing pony throw bottle, both fall asleep after cough in big cloud. Then big pony tackle through table by saha… uh, shark person. He bite her leg, but she break him arm, then ribs, then use teeth to bite other guard head—Tybalt, a tall cat. When he keep fighting, she stomp on shark skull, and bit off other guard head with it."

"Damn…" Tempest muttered.

"He-pony try to escape; they chase. I not think he get away, even if not broke leg. Big pony very fast."

"And I'm guessing you didn't ask where they went?"

The bartender shrugged.

Tempest frowned. "Well, ponies are rare enough in Klugetown, somepony will have seen where they walked. But it won't be a fast way to find a trail."

"I can think of a better way."

Sunset couldn't help but frown at Mentor's voice, but before answering it, she said "Thanks for the information," to the bartender, and then stepped over into the awkwardly table-less booth Caballeron's crew had apparently left behind. Then, at last, she made a show of lifting the Mentor Medallion in her telekinesis, if only to give Tempest the courtesy of knowing who she was talking to. "So, what's your idea?"

Mentor answered with a heavy, tired sigh. "Do you really need me to hold your hoof on this? You have a name and, if you believe the Tilian through that awful excuse for Equiish, you also have a severed head."

"What? How is that… you mean seance Caballeron's guard? I don't know how to seance a tiger or whatever."

"The bartender might mean an Abyssian. There's a few around here in Klugetown," Tempest noted, following along with her half of the conversation. "If that helps," she muttered a moment later.

"Ah; alright, that's fair if this is an 'I don't know how to do that' and not an 'I didn't think of the obvious solution'. For your amusement, sapient cats and sapient birds' souls go to Magnus for judgement, so there is the risk you need to seance into Valhalla. And if that's the answer, we're up a creek, because that's fancier magic than I got to hold onto when I got split off from the rest of Morty. However, since this pony was a two-bit crook working for a crooked archeologist, and he apparently went out like a mook, I wouldn't rate his odds great of having 'lived a life of honor'. And for a second fun fact: Griffon, one-'l' Hel is the same place as Tartarus."

"Ah," said Sunset, and then lit up her horn. "Okay, so we're looking for Tybalt in Tartarus."

"Wait, wait! Is this your first seance to Tartarus?"

"Yeah, why?"

"Get something to lift your spirits when you're done. I usually suggest chocolate, but given the circumstances… What's your preferred libation?"

"I can't drink! I'm not old enough!"

"Really, you look like you're at least past twenty five."

"Aren't you secretly like forty-something?"

"Oh, um… hehe…" Sunset, horn still glowing, chuckled and scratched at the back of her neck. "Sorry, used to the other side of the mirror. Um, Tempest, can you get me a drink while I cast this spell? Something not that strong, and sweeter if you can."

Tempest skeptically glanced toward the bar. "I'll try, but if you're imagining a paper umbrella, I wouldn't get your hopes up."

As Tempest stepped away from the booth, Sunset reached back to the back of her neck and found the cord of her soul, before plunging her magic into the 'blood sea' that was the living perception of the Between. Using my preferred method of seance, it was only a matter of summoning up a sufficiently unpleasant memory to then plunge her magic into the distinct unpleasantness of Tartarus—and out of respect for my fellow student of Celestia, I won't record her memory of choice here.

"Tybalt," she muttered to herself. "Tybalt, Tybalt, Ty—"

"What in the—wait, am I alive?! Hah! Hahah! I made it out! Yes, yes, I—!" Sunset opened her eyes just in time to see the spectral form of the bipedal cat observe his translucent forepaws and for his expression to collapse. "Ah, fuck." Then, a moment after following the faint arcane glow connecting his ethereal form to Sunset's horn, he added "And another pony. Fuck."

"Nice to meet you too," Sunset replied, coming across more than a touch sarcastically thanks to what I have in the years since my youth come to call a 'Tartaran hangover'. "I'm not with the ponies who killed you. In fact, we're trying to find them so we can stop them, probably. Or at least talk to your old boss, Dr. Caballeron. Can you help us?"

"If I do, what are you gonna do for me?"

"I… well, actually, I dunno. What do you want? You have some family we can help, or something, or—"

"You think I was working out of a bar for some pony digging in the dust because I had a family I cared about, cabrón?"

"Doesn't that mean a male goat?"

"He's cursing at you."

Mentor's clarification proved useful if only because the soul of the dead cat scornfully shook his head. "I want out of hell; you have freaky horn magic. You hook me up, I tell you what you want to know."

"I don't know if I can actually do that." Sunset glanced down at Mentor. "Can I?"

"Even if I knew how, I wouldn't. Going behind Celestia's back is one thing; going behind Magnus' would be an international incident. Look, still alive ponies' lives are at stake, and he's already in Tartarus anyway, right? Just override his free will for a couple seconds, get your answer, and let's get going before we lose what stale lead we have."

"I'm not going to steal his free will! First murder, now slavery; what kind of a hero are you supposed to be?!"

"It's not slavery, it's at worst being the bad guard in a good-guard bad-guard routine!" Mentor sighed heavily enough that Sunset swore she could hear his non-existent nostrils flare.

"Who are you talking to, crazy pony? Where is that voice coming from?"

"Oh, you can hear me? That's fun."

Sunset's frustration built to an audible groan. "Mentor, can I offer to disperse him? That was one of your compromises with Solemn Vow, right?"

"Hmm? Oh, you want to know how to disperse a soul? That's super easy; just blast an unwinding surge into him like you're dispelling an enchantment by brute force. The more entropy, the better."

"You're going to kill me? Can I even die again?" Taking a step back (his legs merging into the bench seat opposite Sunset), the dead cat waved his forelimbs frantically. "Hold on, let's talk about this."

Sunset nodded. "Sorry; didn't mean to scare you. I can't bring you back to life, and I can't get you into a better afterlife. But instead of whatever you were going through in Tartarus, I can disperse your soul—just give you total nothingness. No feeling, no pain."

"Well, it'll hurt for a second or two, if we're being honest."

"Not helping," Sunset grumbled, before addressing Tybalt. "Do we have a deal?"

"Um… if I say no, how long does that last? Hell? And what comes after it?"

Sunset shrugged and looked down at her neck. Mentor took the cue. "Well, assuming nothing decides you look tasty, your soul slowly erodes from whatever particular environment you were experiencing in your particular circle of Tartarus. The flensing winds or the fire or whatever chip away at you until the little fragments of who you once were are fine enough to and unburdened enough to merge back into the sort of 'sea' of soul-stuff that makes up the universe on a magical level. Really, Tartarus is just a big, painful sieve. But you have probably even odds that some spirit or 'demon' or whatever you wanna call it decides partway through the process that what's left of your soul is better spent being added to its magical power and 'body'. Then what's left of you becomes, I dunno, Tirek's left nipple or something. But either way, 'you' stop existing eventually and become part of something bigger. Sunset's just offering to skip you past the slow painful part and get you to the ultimate end faster."

Tybalt stared down at Sunset's neck, but apparently didn't put together that the Mentor Medallion could be speaking to him without a mouth. "I'm gonna ask again, who's the other voice I'm hearing?"

"He's just… a friend."

"I'm gonna call bullshit on that, Miss Pony. Maybe Mr Ghost wants to speak for himself?" The irony of the speaker was lost on none save Tybalt himself, but Mentor humored him nonetheless.

"I met him in a field of grain,
And oer the gilded stalks,
I watched the sun glint off his scythe
That fated equinox.

"His face was pallid like a skull,
He wore a cloak of black,
And grim was his demeanor
With the world upon his back."

"Your name is a poem?"

Mentor sighed. "Illiterates. I'm a magic necklace, but I used to moonlight as Death. You don't want me to explain more. It would be… bad for you."

Tybalt blanched—as much as he could, given being colored mostly by Sunset's magic. "Understood. Alright, um, I'll take your deal." He drew a (as usual, unnecessary) breath, and then proceeded. "We were digging up a weird pony tomb in the canyons out west of town; have been for the past couple months. The other ponies apparently thought there was some kind of bell in it, and they wanted it. The boss either didn't know about a bell, or he didn't want to let on that he knew. I never saw anything but stone and paintings on the walls, but he's the one who figured out the tomb would be there in the first place, and he's pretty tight-lipped about that sort of thing. When he told them to get lost, the small one—the pegasus—claimed she was some kind of Equestrian spy or something… which, I mean, I didn't believe her because a real spy wouldn't just admit that, right? But the boss had a different problem; he said if she really was working for your big princess, she wouldn't be with other mare."

"He knew her? The earth pony mare?"

"It didn't seem like they knew each other personally," Tybalt answered. "More like by reputation. I never got a name, but the boss did say 'Celestia doesn't know me by name'. So whoever she is, it sounds like she's got enemies in high places."

"Anything else you can tell us about them?" Mentor asked. "Identifying features? Equipment? They wouldn't happen to have smelled like living corpses?"

"Hah, no. Actually, I'd bet twenty chips the pegasus uses whisper salt, if the scratch in her voice was anything to go by. She was sort of blue, and she wore a vest with a hell of a lot of pockets. The big one was pretty boring looking, beyond just being big. She was kinda off-white. Oh, she was missing the tip of one of her ears."

"Ring any bells? Any fun headlines springing to mind?"

"I haven't exactly been around Canterlot much recently, Mentor," Sunset answered. "Thanks, Tybalt; last question: how do we get to the dig site?"

"Ah; that's easy. If you go up to Chasm Street, and then start going down the scaffolding—"

"What's Chasm Street?" Sunset asked.

The abyssian ghost rolled his feline eyes. "Klugetown isn't the kind of place to have a creative city council to name streets after famous people. You can't miss Chasm Street, on account of it drops into a chasm. So like I was saying, you go down the scaffolding to the bottom of the canyon, and then you just hug the right wall whenever it forks. The place will be on the left, on the 'inside' of the canyon, but it's got a big carved stone doors. Super obvious. It was a pain in the ass to open, though."

"Maybe some doors shouldn't be opened…" Mentor noted cryptically, though he couldn't keep a straight 'face' after the comment for long before letting out a muffled chuckle. "Any lethal booby traps or cryptic warnings etched on the doors we ought to be worried about?"

"You're joking, right?" Sunset asked.

"You literally got me off of Daring Do's neck, Sunset."

"Oh, you stole the amulet from the 'Daring' bitch? Shoulda said so upfront; I'd have trusted you way faster." Tybalt chuckled, but then shook his head. "But no, if there's anything like that, we haven't gotten far enough in to find it. The boss is real slow with these excavations. Despite what Daring says, he is a real archaeologist." After a deep breath, Tybalt concluded. "So… I guess that's the end of me, then?"

"If that's still what you want," Sunset answered with a nod. "Um… Right, you said you didn't have any family or anything, so you wouldn't have a message. I guess… goodbye?"

"She's new to the psychopomp thing."

"She's a mental case?"

"What? No; a 'psychopomp' is a being who guides souls to their final resting places. I just meant she doesn't have a very good graveside manner yet. We're working on it. Go ahead and close your eyes; in theory this will sting for a moment, but then it'll all be over. Sunset, in your own time."

"Right… just gotta disperse an immortal soul. Forever."

"Do you want me to drive?"

"No! I—" Sunset hesitated even in her words, and heavily swallowed back the rest of the thought before speaking much more slowly and calmly. "I can do this."

"Good. You're doing a good thing, Sunset. You—" Mentor was cut off there not by another speaker, but by Sunset very abruptly following the directions she'd been given. In a rather sudden display of sparks, Tybalt ceased to be. "Well done."

"Still feels… weird."

A warm hoof on Sunset's shoulder made her jump, but she looked up into a gentle smile from Tempest Shadow. "Here's your drink. I don't promise it's good, but it should go down easy."

"Thanks," said Sunset, and drank from the offered mug like it was water. Her whole body shivered at the alcohol, and she struggled to swallow it, but the offering went down. "So we need to—"

"I heard," Tempest said. "Doesn't take that long to order a drink. I'm guessing on what the necklace had to say, but since the Abyssian did most of the talking, it wasn't hard to follow. Are you good to head out?"

Sunset nodded. "Sure, I'm… I'm fine. Let's go."

As they left the cantina, Tempests noted "I hope Stalliongrad and Somna-whatever are having as much luck as we are."

"With how long it took us to find this place, they might already be done."

"Ugh; look, I already said I'm sorry, okay? I never actually spent enough time here to learn all the streets." Tempest let out a groan as Sunset chuckled to herself. "You're not going to let me live this down, are you? It was like a five minute detour!"

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