• 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 XII - An Ugly Smug

Interlude XII

An Ugly Smug

As it so happened, Red Ink and Somnambula had a dramatically more direct investigation into the mysterious hippogryph crime lord they had been tasked to find than Sunset and Tempest had for their respective pursuit. After a brief stop to talk to an Abyssian informant named 'Capper Dapperpaws' (an acquaintance of Tempest's from a prior misadventure), the duo were pointed toward a tall rectangular windmill barely scraping a head of clearance above the other tall, flat-surfaced rectangular wooden shanty-skyscrapers that made up the dusty city of Klugetown.

The building was, as strange as this sounds for the cut-throat capitalism of the crime-ridden backwater, a public utility: the mill's main shaft both pulled up buckets of fresh water from a subterranean aquifer (albeit on rusty, oft-jamming chains), and also gave power to two heavy millstones. One the locals fed with dry yams, producing a sort of orange-grey (or sometimes purple-grey) yam meal that was then combined with water to produce a kind of porridge reminiscent of the poi favored by the denizens of the islands Equestria knows as the Siren Archipelago. The other served a similar function for bones—both those of creatures whose meat was eaten by Klugetowns carnivorous denizens, but also mined from gigantic skeletons of megafauna left jutting out of the sandy rocks of the Bone-Dry Desert (a cartographic crime which ought to have come with a prison sentence). The bone produced a surprisingly savoury bread (albeit one which perhaps pushes up against the threshold of carnivory…), but was also the basis for Klugetown's cement industry.

As amusing as that long diatribe might be purely for an understanding of life in Klugetown, I record it for a more practical purpose.

It took Capper relatively little effort to get in touch with a particularly orb-shaped member of the hippogryph's gang, and from there to arrange a meeting. Thus, in the early evening hours, as the sun had begun to cast a wide orange stripe on the horizon, half our heroes in Somnambula and Ink went to the uppermost floor of the aforementioned mill (where the shaft from the blades of the windmill shot in horizontally before reorienting its torque by means of a pair of orthogonally mounted massive rusty iron gears).

Ink and Somnambula chose to fly up the outside of the building and enter via the same hole that allowed that driveshaft to pass (the gap being wide enough for them to pass quite comfortably, albeit only one at a time). When they did, they found a cluster of six of Klugetown's denizens waiting for them in the not-quite-dark shadows, surrounded by huge barrels of grease and oil and crates of spare gears and beams to maintain the structure. Only one of the figures was a hippogryph, and he smiled around his beak as he stepped forward. Not a friendly smile, but not a predatory smile either; his was the smile of someone who wanted very badly to sell you a used wagon and a competitive price point—a comparison made only the more obvious as he stepped forward into a ray of sunlight slipping into the shadowy room by a dark window, sat down on his flanks, and clasped his own talons together as if he were manipulating something particularly slippery.

"Ah, Mr. Krovyuh!" Ink slightly winced at the butchery of his birth name, and the hippogryph obviously noticed, rushing into his next thought. "I admit, your associate doesn't come with quite the same reputation, but nevertheless, miss, welcome to Klugetown. Welcome, both of you. Please, uh, I know the windmill isn't the most comfortable but do make yourselves at home as much as you like. And please, please, hear me out before you get too involved in asking questions the, uh, Stalliongradi way. I promise, I'm more than willing to tell you whatever you need to know, and then get out of your way. Yam wine?"

I should stress the… colt? Tercel? I've never really known with hippogryphs; we'll go with 'tercel' since in this story, the crook's face was far more important than what lay between his legs. Trying that sentence again, I should stress that the tercel barely paused for so much as the span of a blink in between those words. And while birds don't sweat, the creases in his forced brow made it painfully obvious that behind his forced happiness act, he was terrified out of his mind.

Ink raised a brow. "Yams are like potatoes, right? Wouldn't they make a vodka or something?"

"Uh, I… well—Yes, I suppose that would be true. It's interesting, actually, the history; but, let's be honest, that's not why you're here. Should I cut to the chase?"

Somnambula fully cocked her head. "You know why we're here, Mister…"

"Oh, I'm so sorry." Grinning even wider, the hippogryph lifted his left talon to offer it for a shake, only to pull his eyes off of Somnambula, meet Ink's gaze, visibly shudder, and recoil back. "Um, perhaps best not. But, uh, my name's Flin."

"Nice to meet you, Flin. I'm Somnambula. And you seem to already know Mr. Ink, or at least you've heard of him."

"Ink?" Flin swallowed. "Is, um, is that what you go by when you're speaking Equiish? I would have guessed the Demon of Stalliongrad wouldn't have to change his name for anypony—"

Ink scoffed. "Ah. You've heard those stories." Then, with a shake of his head, he explained "I go by 'Red Ink' because I got tired of hearing everypony butcher my real name." The emphasis on the word 'butcher' made Flin recoil and shrink from the much smaller stallion (Flin, being a roughly average hippogryph, would have been bigger than even an average pony stallion, let alone one as slight as Ink). "And no, we're not here for Tempest Shadow. She came here with us."

"Tempest… the Storm King's captain?" Flin frowned in confusion. "Wait, are you not here for Soldier On?"

There was, Somnambula would later tell me, suddenly less water in the air, and though Red Ink did not burst into literal flames, the effect on the temperature was much the same. Somnambula's lips cracked and bled. The yam wine Flin had offered quickly found its way down Flin's throat, only for the flask to be discarded in favor of a hastily retrieved canteen.

Were it not for the very observable change in the local weather, Ink would have seemed to a viewer not to have changed in mood at all. Amusingly, for all his proclivity toward wincing at poor pronunciation or minor slights, in that much deeper moment his expression did not so much as shudder. Calmly, but with bladed intensity, he asked "She's here?"

Flin's throat bobbed. "I swear, she's not with me. I… um… that is, I figured because we have the little gang, when I heard you wanted to talk, I… well, I figured you'd assumed I would be working with her—but I swear, I swear, we don't get involved in that kind of thing. I just heard word on the street she was here. And—look, we know our way around Klugetown; we can help you find her, so you know you can believe me, right?"

Somnambula leaned over toward Ink, though she didn't particularly lower her voice. "You were warning me this was going to be dangerous? They're shaking like little kids."

"Gang scum learn fast when they're out of their depth, or they don't live long," Ink answered, not even pretending to lower his voice, though it seemed less like he was actively making a point to insult Flin and his shadowed colleagues, and more like his mind was elsewhere. Forcing a heavy breath, he continued "Let's finish here quickly and get Sunset and Tempest back to the ship."

"I can fly and warn them," Somnambula offered. "Or help them, if there's a fight."

Ink shook his head. "If we meet Stoikaja, you and Sunset need to get away as fast as possible. Tempest carries herself well enough she might not be dead weight if it comes to that." After a moment of silence following that thought, the red stallion noted "Don't tell her I said that."

Somnambula chuckled, though there was a worry to the humor. "What's so scary about this 'Stoy-kuh-jah' Soldier On mare, anyway? I know you said she killed your brother, so I get why you wouldn't like her."

"You haven't heard of her?" Flin asked, and then as Somnambula watched, he nervously glanced to Ink again, as if looking for some permission to continue the thought. Ink said nothing, but the slightest shrug of a shoulder would prove enough permission for the tercel to continue. "She almost killed your princess—the new one, uh… it's Luna, right?"

Ink rolled his eyes. "She's been back for years. Yes, it's Luna."

A little resistance, notable only in that it surprised Somnambula, appeared in Flin's voice when he answered "She's not my Princess," before turning back to the other guest. "Rumor is she's the most wanted mare in the world. Your friend, Mr. Ink, has had a price on her head for as long as I've been alive. And… well… after what happened to Luna, Celestia blew that out of the water." In a conspiratorial stage whisper with talons to his beak, he explained "One hundred million bits. And that's just for information if it leads to catching her. I've heard a joke that if you actually brought her back to Canterlot, Celestia would give you the whole mountain."

Ink sighed. "We're not here for Stoikaja. We're here for your tattoo."

"I… wait, what?" Flin briefly glanced to his own flank, and then turned to sit with his right side slightly further away from the outsiders. "What are you talking about?"

"Flin," said Somnambula, "we know you have a magic tattoo that makes you more cunning. You might not know this, but it has part of the soul of a very old pony in it, and we're trying to put him back together. So, please, can we do this nicely? We can pay you, if that helps."

Something about Flin changed before Ink and Somnambula's eyes. Or, to be more accurate, an enormous number of small things changed. Little aspects of his posture corrected themselves, his shoulders rolling forward, his back straightening, his hands stopping that pathetic wringing. His smile fell into something dramatically less insincere and frighteningly more confident.

Most noticeable, though, was the seven pointed star that literally slid under his skin until it came to rest framing his left eye.

"Well… if that's what brings you here, perhaps we should talk with all our cards on the table." Flin looked around the room at the other assembled figures. Ink tensed, ready for an attack, but none came. Instead, the hippogryph said "All of you, go."

"What? We're not leaving you!" said a reptilian thug in the corner.

A fishlike gruff voice followed. "Yeah, Flin. Ravine Street won't leave you. We—"

"I'll be fine," Flin interrupted. "One way or another. But I can't watch out for you all."

The confidence in those words was enough to get the desired reaction. One by one, the other members of Flin's group left him alone with Red Ink and Somnmabula in the maintenance room at the top of the windmill.

"I don't want a fight," said Ink.

Flin chuckled. "Well, that's good. Door's behind you then. Good talk."

Somnambula sighed. "This is really important, Flin. He's my friend. And Princess Celestia's."

"Even if I believe all that," said Flin. "Which I don't, because your prissy pony princess would never stoop to using a blunt tool like 'Mr. Ink' directly—even then, I wouldn't give this up."

Ink was, perhaps, a bit dumbstruck, and his ensuing blunt threat came off less intimidating and more curious. "Look, you are not too stupid to get this. We are getting this tattoo. If 'no deal' were option, I would not be here. If you don't take us buying it, I don't mind beating your scrawny hollow bones, and I would expect taking that chance from somepony who thinks I am just some short buff pony. But you know who I am… you think you are, how do you say, flame-retardant? Is your shampoo asbestos-scented, maybe?"

"Huh, your accent gets worse when you're confused. I wouldn't have guessed." Flin glanced idly around the room. "I'm not too worried about fire. See, this room's absolutely slathered in old grease and oil."

A single dark red brow rose on Ink's face. "Okay, I know Equiish is stupid language. I will explain. 'Flammable' and 'inflammable' mean same thing. Grease and oil make it worse, not better." When Flin made a show of rubbing his temple with a feather, Ink frowned. "Oh, not that? Then… You do understand that my own fire doesn't hurt me?"

"No. But it'll sweep down the windmill. To the rooms where decades of flour and bonemeal powder have been ground into the floorboards, and there's even more in bags against the walls. And around all that flour, there's people. A very specific category of people, in fact: civilians. In case you aren't familiar with that word between all your foal murdering—" (Somnambula assumed that was an idle jab until she saw Ink wince) "—and burning down random apartment buildings in Baltimare, a 'civilian' is somepony who doesn't fight. And in addition to being civilians, there's something these people aren't, Mr. 'Ink':" (the name was accompanied by sarcastic feather-quotes from Flin). "Namely, these people aren't Equestrians. And while Klugetown is sort of political 'nowhere', I'm sure Equestria's old friends like Queen Chrysalis and the Prince of Saddle Arabia, and the Council of Eels, not to mention my own beloved Queen Novo, would have some strong words for the mare you say 'sent you'." With a grin, Flin continued "Words like Cassus Belli and Coalition and Extradition."

"I liked it better when you were afraid of me," Ink muttered, making a show of rolling his neck and getting more than a few satisfying pops out of the motion. "Alright. So instead of money or a favor, you want me to beat the tar out of you the slow, low temperature way?"

"No, I'll be completely honest, that long-winded bit was mostly just me buying time."

"Okay, now he really sounds like Morty," Somnambula whispered.

Flin continued "Even if you beat me to a pulp and torture me, you won't get the tattoo. And I can't trade it for money, even if I wanted to. It only moves if the owner actually dies, or if you can prove you're more cunning than me, even with it. Good luck on that, muscles."

"Ah, yes, notoriously physically fit ponies are stupid, not keeping care of minds as well as bodies." Ink shook his head. "But you're the one slowly eliminating every possibility except me killing you. And if you think I can't kill you with my bare hooves, well… I killed a dragon once. You won't stack up."

"There won't be a fight," Flin answered. "What I was buying time for was for my friends, who you so kindly let leave without any kind of fight, to get in position around the windmill. With matches and jars of pitch. If I don't fly out of here first, unharmed and unfollowed, then as far as history will remember, you'll be the one who committed an unprovoked war crime off of Equestrian soil. I doubt it'd even be much of a stretch, if even half of what I heard about Baltimare is true."

"Ah. Well…" Ink glanced to Somnambula. "Forgive my mother tongue, but that's чертовски дно."

"What happened in Baltimare?"

"I burnt down an apartment building," Ink answered. "Trying to save Princess Luna when she got poisoned. And trying to catch Stoikaja. Long story, but that's the short. You got any ideas?"

Somnambula nodded. "Um… Morty, are you in that tattoo? It's me, Somnambula! I know it's been a long time, and that might sound completely crazy if you haven't heard, but Star Swirl and all of us are back out of Limbo, and—"

"Miss, I'm gonna cut you off right there," said Flin. "It's a tattoo. It's not alive."

"There's no mysteriously… asshole-ish voice in your head?" Ink asked. "Possibly telling you to use magic to kill us?"

Flin cocked his birdlike head. "I thought the dead guy was her friend…"

"Yeah, he is," said Ink. "But he's got a hero complex." And then, slowly, a glimmer of joy sparkled in the guardspony history teacher's eye, and he slowly lowered his wings from his sides until they touched the floorboards at the top of the windmill.

The motion wasn't lost on the hippogryph. "You know what happens if you make a spark."

"I do," Ink answered, and then flung himself forward on both wings like a bobsledder… doing whatever the term d'arte is for launching a bobsled. Whatever its name, this motion led the shorter but dramatically denser pony to tackle the far more limber hippogryph, with a sound like a sack of rutabagas hitting a small bundle of firewood. After a couple rolls, Ink wound up on top with a hoof pressing down heavily on Flin's neck—not quite choking him, but making it very obvious that the shoes Ink was wearing had their leading edge sharpened to a razor-like blade.

After coughing, Flin spoke in as controlled a way as he could to avoid being cut by the motion of his throat. "Fuck."

"You were bluffing," Ink told him. "You're a kid."

"No," Flin answered. "That's part of the point of sending the gang away. Prisoner's dilemma, or whatever; you can't hold me hostage to get them to give up, or trick me into calling them off. I just said 'fuck' because I was hoping this would end in no one dying, instead of the maximum number possible."

"Ah," Ink nodded. "So you were counting on mercy from the… how you said, 'Demon of Stalliongrad'?"

"I only had a few minutes' warning after Capper's man called for the meeting. And I only know you by reputation. Not bad for short notice, you have to admit." Then Flin shrugged. "Plus, I knew about your 'friend' Stoikaja, so it seemed like an unlikely contingency to need. Really a longshot getting to this point at all." Flin sighed. "Can you at least make it quick?"

"Well, there is one more chance," said Ink, glancing back to Somnambula for a short wink. "Morty's Cunning, you сука блять, I know you can hear me. If you can read this kid's mind, you know a lot of stories about me. Most of them are true. I really did burn down that building in Baltimare. I really did kill a dragon with my bare hooves in peacetime. And I really did kill Stoikaja's kids."

Somnambula could not miss the way Ink's voice hitched after that admission, despite his damnedest (maybe literally) effort to be intimidating.

"I like to think I'm a better pony than I was then, and that's why I work for Celestia doing the work I do now. But it's still dirty work. Often wet work. Heh. I don't care about killing this kid. I'll try and save whoever's in this damn deathtrap building when it burns down. And I'll take the blame when it goes sideways. But between your body trying to kill me, and whatever Celestia wants, I know this is important. Worth a few casualties. What's another few bodies on the pile? So now, you have choice, big hero. Either you play make believe that me calling kid's bluff means I'm more cunning than him. Or I carve your stupid tattoo off his face, and we reach same end state, but with a lot more misery. I know the stupid Mentor amulet doesn't care about body count, but I am hope you do."

It was that last sentence which, very suddenly, caused the seven pointed star tattoo to being to glow, and then to slide down Flin's throat and up Ink's foreleg, before disappearing under the sleeve of his heavy black coat. And inside Ink's mind, a familiar voice could be heard.

"You have Mentor? You should've led with that."

"You can talk?" Ink asked aloud, and then instead of swearing in Stalliongradi, he contented himself to spit on the floor.

"Very little. I'm not… built for it the way the amulet is."

"Thank Celestia." Ink sighed, and then stood up. "Well, Flin, it was… Brief. Which is good."

"It was nice to meet you!" Somnambula called.

Ink sighed. "He threatened to blow up a building full of innocents."

"Ah, right. But didn't you—"

"I'm worse, yes," Ink answered, fully turning his back on the toppled hippogryph and stepping back over to Somnambula. "But sometimes being worse pays off. Nopony got hurt my way. Flin, one last question, then you can leave."

"Hmm?" The hippogryph, midway through dusting himself off and feeling along his neck for a shallow cut that wasn't there, raised an avian brow. "What else do you want?"

"Stoikaja went to a bar, didn't she? What did Daring call it? Verka's?"

"Verko's," Flin corrected with a nod. "You already knew? Why—"

"Lucky guess," said Ink. "Now get lost and call your friends off."

Barely three seconds later, Flin was gone, and Ink gestured with a wing in the direction of the opening through which he and Somnambula had entered.

"Well, all danger aside, that was a lot easier than getting Mentor," Somnambula said. "Was Cunning how you guessed where Miss Stoy-whatever would be?"

"Call her Soldier On," Ink muttered. "I guessed she'd be where Tempest and Sunset were going, because there's not a ballsack's chance in Tartarus of her showing her face at the same time as us for something unrelated. The more we dig into this, the more Luna getting poisoned keeps coming back."

Somnambula chuckled. "Isn't the metaphor a 'snowball's chance'?"

Ink shrugged. "Mine carries the pain better. Stoikaja—Soldier On—hurts." As Somnmabula spread her wings, Ink lunged forward to grab her by the shoulder. "Look at me."


"This was the easy part. Soldier On isn't like this idiot and his excuse for a gang. She learned from Mentor… Er, from Hurricane. Same as me. She's ex-Honor Guard. If it turns out she's there, I want you to get Sunset and run. Honestly, Tempest too, but I doubt you can get her to run. And don't look back. No tricks with the magic feather, no coming back to check later. If we don't come back, you fly back to Canterlot and tell Celestia."

"Okay, if you say so… How will I know what she looks like?"

"If she wants to be seen, you cannot possibly miss her," Ink answered, before letting go of Somnambula's shoulder. "Now let's fly, and see if that 'Capper' cat can point us in the right direction before she kills our partners."

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