• Published 8th Jul 2019
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The Rains of Vanhoover - kudzuhaiku

It was raining in Vanhoover. It was always raining in Vanhoover.

  • ...

What we miss while we are away

The windows went from dry to drenched as the train collided with the wall of rain. Nut looked up from his book, thankful to hear the reassuring, susurrant pitter-patter of Vanhoover’s ever-present precipitation. His eyes were strained, his vision blurry, and his face ached from all of his reading. Squinting to hold his monocle in place was less than ideal for marathon reading sessions and his farsightedness was ill-suited for studious endeavours. Perhaps it was time to pay heed to his father’s suggestion and get proper eyeglasses. Upon thinking of this, he scowled; he did not wish to be robbed of what he considered an asset, because farsight was a boon.

Life had taken a drastic change. He’d killed two undead abominations. Well, three, perhaps? Yes, three. It was complicated, and the book that he’d been reading proved that. The living rats were shadowborn, umbral creatures, mortal things of flesh and blood. Shadows and negative energy would coalesce in some weird, unknown way to form living flesh. That in itself was quite alarming, a worrisome development—but of course it only grew worse.

These rats lived to die.

Death empowered them. After dying, the rat’s soul went into an unknown location, some other plane of existence. At least, for a time. A sort of off-planar waiting room of sorts. These souls would leap into a vampiric body as soon as one became available. Which was, truthfully, far worse than it sounded, because these souls carried with them the knowledge and skills they learned in life. Killing the vampire rats would just send the souls back to whatever off-planar waiting room from whence they came—except for the rats killed by Flicker Nicker. Apparently, Flicker Nicker had some extraordinary means of causing soul-death, which just so happened to be a visible, observable phenomenon that was truly spectacular to witness.

For reasons unknown, the colt known as Flicker Nicker was a rat-reaper.

“It feels good to be home.”

More than a little surprised, Nut allowed these words to sink in before he replied, “So, is Vanhoover home to you now? You spent so little time here.”

“Feels like home, so it must be.” Tater Blossom squirmed in her seat, looked out the window, and the rivulets of wind-driven rain on the glass could be seen reflected in her eyes. “Now you got me a-thinkin’. Why does this place feel like home?”

After a few seconds spent in reflection, Nut concluded that he didn’t have an answer. He closed the book that Prince Blueblood had given him and tried to make sense of things. But there were too many things to make sense of and he found himself overwhelmed by just how complex his life had become. One trip to the Widowwood had thrown his life into total disarray. Chaos. He had an apprentice now. His return to Canterlot had changed everything. And now, as he headed home, he found himself in a position that he swore that he’d never be in.

While he wasn’t exactly a member of the guard now, he was close enough to be uncomfortable. He had no desire to be a soldier—yet he was now an unofficial member of the Underwatch. Not a soldier, but a courier. An agent. Of sorts. He specifically avoided becoming an agent, and now, he found himself on the verge of agenthood—or perhaps he was in denial and he was now an agent. A spook. While it was reassuring to tell himself that he was but a mere courier, a messenger, none of his reasoning felt honest and it was difficult to convince himself of the veracity of his own claims. A mailpony he was not, nor a parcelpony for some delivery service. He was a courier because of his unique talents and skills.

Soon, he would have a badge.

Life took unexpected twists and turns.

“I think I missed Mrs. Oleander the most.”

“Is that so, Tater?”

“Yes, that is so, Nut. There’s something about her that I like. She’s like you, Nut. But different, I guess. I wanna be just like her. Wanna make something of my life. Rise above my humble origins. She… she… she inspires me, I think is the right word. If she can do it, then I can too.”

“I do believe that Mrs. Oleander would be touched to hear you say that, Tater. When you get a chance, you should converse with her. Tell her that. ‘Twould create a bond, I think.”

“I want a bond,” the thoughtful earth pony filly replied.

He nodded; a bond sounded ideal, though he had a different pony in mind.

Smokestacks rose like sinister spectral fingers rising from the heavy fog, which clung low to the ground, obscuring the factories from view. So many smokestacks in so many configurations. The residents of the boroughs and wards had names for all of them, in much the same way that mountain peaks or prominent landmarks were also named. Like the factories, the slums, shanties, and millhouses were also buried in the fog, leaving only a forest of smokestacks that rose above the evergreens and deciduous trees.

They were coming down the ridge and soon, they too would be lost to the fog that hid so many sins. Nut was silent, pensive. Equestria faced a dire threat from within, even as the world succumbed to a state of war. He had no desire to be a soldier, no sense of calling. When the option had presented itself, he hadn’t joined the agents of S.M.I.L.E. Though, he could still do so at any time. Not that he would.

Right now, he found himself in an awkward place, because he was fond of a certain pithy phrase, a real chestnut of an expression. Yet, it applied to him—perhaps more so than it did to others. Evil prospered whilst he went off and played biologist. Princess Luna had so lovingly created him, honed his skills; she had created a perfect blade. But one content to remain sheathed. She had called him a success, and Secundus a failure—yet Secundus was the one going off to do something about the world’s many problems while Nut hung out in his sheath.

If he hadn’t have become involved with the crisis on the airship, not only would it have crashed, but the precious samples it carried would have been lost. How might this have hurt the world? It wasn’t that it was just one little thing, a long singular isolated action. There were ripples, so many ripples, with so many fates entwined, connected, woven together in inexplicable, unexpected ways.

And all it would have taken for evil to triumph was for him to do nothing.

For the very first time, Nut put serious thought into reconsidering his stance.

He had an intense dislike of the nobles of Canterlot for a variety of reasons, and as he matured, he found many of those reasons also applied to himself. Which was a source of much disquiet and disturbed thoughts. As he gazed out the window, pensive, pondering, he thought of Fiddle Riddle. Another noble off slumming. An exile from Canterlot. Together, they could cause so much more mayhem than either of them could do alone.

Getting involved meant making a commitment, and that was hard to do, for a variety of reasons. Committing to something sometimes meant sacrificing your own plans. Nut was who he was because of his plans. His mad, mad plans. It opened doors for him. Got him attention. His admittedly eccentric plan to visit the Gallopagos served as a way to get noticed, to stand out from the herd of cookie-cutter conformists. It was the ultimate form of advertising and the primary means that Nut used to distinguish himself without using his status as a noble.

And now, as the train descended into the fog, he felt his plans coming undone.

The glass ceiling of the train station protected those beneath it from the torrential summer downpour. It was almost warm, the rain, and there were hot breezes blowing in from the south. Thunder rumbled and lightning illuminated the fog, turning it a blinding, brilliant white. Visibility was almost nonexistent, and from where he stood, Nut could not see the other end of the far end of the train station where the locomotive sat parked.

At any moment, it seemed as though the sky might explode and shatter in some world-ending way, even with the heart of the storm still off to the south. Nut unfurled Susan, spent a moment to warily glance around him, and he could not help but notice just how few travellers had arrived on this train. Overhead, through the glass roof, he could see sheets and ribbons of rain whipped about by the strong, unrelenting wind. This was the summer in Vanhoover; when the hot winds blew upwards along the coast and collided with the arctic currents from the north, the weather became a fiendish nightmare of meteorological fury.

“I can’t wait to be home,” Tater said, her words muffled by the cacophony of the storm.

“First comes our errand,” Nut reminded her. “Say… do you want to wear your rain slicker?”

“I’ll save that for when it’s chilly.” She looked about, upwards too, and then returned her attention to Nut. “It’s warm, Nut. Kinda weirdly warm. That wind is like the hot that comes from an open oven.”

“Vanhoover has a few weeks of summer that have intensely hot winds. Does dreadful things to the weather. Once it blows out, autumn will begin in earnest. Then comes the long white winter. It might surprise you, but we’re on a similar latitude to that of Whinnipeg. But that’s tundra and this is a temperate rainforest.”

“Huh. Neat. Some call that city Winterpeg, and accordin’ to that monument I read, one of the absolute worst battles with the windigos was fought there. The ponies rescued the caribou and we’ve been friends ever since. Some of the marshes ‘round the city are still magically frozen to this very day, and there’s magical alchemical stuff that grows there that don’t grow nowhere else.”

He nodded. “I am impressed. Good job.”

“Thank ya.” She blushed, shuffled a bit, and then stomped her front right hoof. “Aw, shucks. I got the tinglies.”

Once again, he was almost overcome by his fondness for her. It was like… having a little sister. Or maybe not. He never had a sister, so what did he know? Pod was most assuredly not like a sister—she was intended to be his betrothed and that was established at an early age—so Nut wasn’t entirely certain what having a sibling was like. But he imagined that it would be a bit like now. Lots of tinglies, as Tater had so cleverly put it. Like little tap dancing spiders doing a song and dance number up and down one’s spine.

“Ready to go?” he asked.

“Sure am,” she replied.

“Then let us be off. I should be able to find our destination without any trouble.”

Ministry Row was a poor imitation of Canterlot. Stone towers. Dominating urban fortresses that housed bureaucratic bunkers. Ornate stone pillars were common and added to everything, including buildings that didn’t need them. All of this was the ostentatious display of government wealth and a monument to the power of the purse. While some—or perhaps most—ponies would find these structures impressive and awe-inspiring, Nut just found them tacky. These were monoliths of inefficiency, and Nut could not help but wonder just how much it cost to keep them heated come winter.

Constables were out in force here, walking in pairs. They wore pale blue uniforms, not dark blue as one might assume. As it turned out, the dark blue was seen as depressing and dull, so the constabulary uniforms were a bright robin’s egg blue, which Nut found absolutely hideous. He wondered what Princess Luna might have to say about the rejection of the dark, stately shade of midnight blue, and imagined that whatever she might have to say, none of it would be nice. Uniforms were to be manifestations of authority, and there was nothing commanding about robin’s egg blue.

They walked beneath the protective overhangs and awnings, never once stepping out into the wet. Even with their caution, they were still a bit damp, because everything in Vanhoover got wet. It was just the way of things. Nut had to stop because Tater Blossom was rubbernecking the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Exploitation Annex. Quite a name, that. Some honesty and truth in government. A whole bureau of ponies whose jobs were to find a way to most efficiently exploit the available natural resources.

“It’s huge. Like… a castle.”

“A very poor castle,” he muttered to himself.

The earth pony filly did not budge, but continued to look upwards. She looked left, then right, then left again, and right once more. Since she stood beneath the awning, she took a moment to shake a little water out of her tail, and kick out her wet hooves. Since Tater Blossom simply would not budge, Nut humoured her and allowed her to continue to rubberneck—but he was mindful of their package.

A bright-eyed, overly-eager pony approached, which caused Nut some anxiety.

“Say, do you need jobs?” The chubby bureaucrat came to a swaying halt, smiled, and waved with one extended wing. “Unlike other cities in Equestria, Vanhoover is the only city with a patented Promise of Prosperity. No matter your skill, the city can find you a job.” The smile became more than a little forced. “Even if your job is telling others that jobs can be found for them and offering promises of a rewarding career.”

Nut chose polite tact over annoyed sarcasm and said, “No thank you, good sir. We are both gainfully employed at the moment.”

Tater Blossom’s head swiveled around. “What’s this about a Promise of Prosperity?”

“Vanhoover is the first city to offer such a promise. We even patented it!” The pegasus folded his wing against his side, his smile vanished, and his demeanour became one of intense seriousness. “Even if I’m currently a bit unhappy with my job, it’s nice just to have work. We live in a time of trouble and social upheaval. Jobs are scarce even as industry booms. Vanhoover hopes to set a progressive standard for other cities to follow.”

“Surely this has nothing to do with leaving workers indentured to the city,” Nut remarked.

Nothing changed about the chubby pegasus, except for his eyes. No outward sign of reaction could be seen on any of his features. Nut studied him, watched him, and put his education to work. The tension in the air was thicker than the fog that blanketed the city. Why the silence? The lack of response? There were all kinds of reasons, none of which could be disclosed it seems. For Nut, it was a reminder that the world was broken; it was broken and the Royal Pony Sisters had very little power in Vanhoover, as well as the other cities. Their power was in Central Equestria, while the coasts held their own.

Vanhoover had deposed its nobles… and for what, exactly?


Corporate robber barons?

A year away from Canterlot had taught Nut much about the world; he’d learned a lot that he didn’t wish to know. He envisioned a corporate Equestria, with the Sisters’ influence shrunk down to the Canterhorn itself, with corporate nobles ruling over the wage-slave peasants. Mister Mariner had failed, but he had shown what could be done. Surely, another would follow. With each attempt, a way forward would be paved.

Unless somepony did something about this.

But what?

And who?

He thought about what his mother had said—all of it—and endured an unpleasant moment. He studied the sad-eyed pegasus, who stared back, all while Tater Blossom seemed to be lost in thought about something. No pony did anything about this, because no pony wanted to get involved—except for the ones who desired benefits for themselves, those who wished to exploit the system. Nut himself didn’t want to get involved, which meant that nothing would change.

“We really must be going,” said Nut. “Our own job awaits. Pleasant day to you, sir.”

At the far end of Ministry Row, on the very verge of Cliffside, Nut found the place he needed to be. There was a woodcarving on the front, a sign with a dead rat. You could tell that it was dead, too; it lay on its back, with all of its legs kicked up into the air, and each eye was a big black X. Just below it on the wall was a much newer brass plate with the words, Ministry of Plagues, Pestilences, Diseases, and Magical Maladies.

This structure lacked the pretension of the others along the street. It was squat, rather squarish, with only somewhat rounded corners—no doubt to maximise indoor space. There were no large windows, only narrow slits. The front door was plain, but fortress like, a slab of massive timbers and steel. This place wasn’t built to be showy, but to survive the toppling of civilisation, should it happen.

“No loitering,” a disembodied voice said.

“I’m here with a delivery,” Nut replied with the hopes that somepony or something might be listening.

“One moment.”

Something heavy thunked and clunked within the front door, as if massive unseen locks shifted and moved about. Nut heard a clank, then a ratcheting sound, followed by a series of clicks, as if a bank vault door were opened. It was an intimidating sound, and Tater Blossom scooted behind him. The front door did not open, no, not right away. It slid outward from its frame, revealing that it was at least two feet thick, and then began to silently open on perfectly oiled internal hinges.

Inside the doorway, there were two turret-mounted autoguns, and no sign of a friendly greeter. Nut peered around, uncertain of what to do or how to react; he’d never had two turret-mounted autoguns pointed at him before. The ancient wartime relics gleamed with fresh oil and puffs of steam ejected from the engines that powered them. He knew of such things, but seeing them up close was still awe-inspiring. The steam powered crank guns could spew clouds of remorseless metal at a truly unbelievable rate.

“Do come in,” the disembodied voice said, “we’ve been expecting you.”

The entryway had murderholes along the walls and grates in the ceiling that all manner of unpleasant surprises could be poured though. The floor had gutters for easy clean up, and Nut knew that whatever was left of unwanted visitors could be washed down the drain for convenient cleanup. A second steel door began to open as the door behind him began to close.

Nut had the feeling that this place was a sanctum for the paranoid.

Beyond the door, an earth pony could be seen. Old, though not ancient, the stallion waited with an easy grace. He was missing an eye; in fact, one half of his face was covered with a steel plate, and this even covered the spot where his left ear would have been. It might have been intimidating, except for the fact that the stallion was short; maybe two-thirds of the size of a regular, full grown adult. This marked him as extra-dangerous in Nut’s mind, because little ponies had something to prove.

“My name is Piston. Not Doctor Piston, or Professor Piston, just Piston. Normally, I don’t do the ol’ meet-n-greet, but we’re understaffed. Don’t make no sudden funny moves, or you’ll be a cloud of red mist and our apprentices will be stuck with yet another horrendous cleanup job. Follow me. Slowly.”

If Tater Blossom was scared, she didn’t show it now. Or maybe she did. She had her head held high, striking the same dignified pony pose that she had on the day they left the Widowwood together. Cautious, slow, and steady, Nut moved forward while he maintained his calm. Surely there was a reason for this security, and the good pay made all of this quite bearable.

Bleak stone walls awaited beyond the steel door, and this place felt more like a hospital than government office. The pungent tang of disinfectant tickled Nut’s nose and made his eyes water. He could feel eyes on him, and all of his senses told him that he was in grave danger. Yet, his intelligence told him that this place was necessary. A plague might wipe out most of civilisation, but this place would endure. Ponies would endure. In a way, it was quite reassuring.

“Welcome to North Luna’s Ocean Coastal Command,” Piston said as he led the way. “Odd name, but I had nothing to do with it. We used to be the Rat Catcher’s Guild, but now we’re the ministry with the name too long to say. Forgive us for the cold welcome; we used to be a good bit friendlier, but most of our number was recently killed off in skirmishes across Equestria. Our brethren and sistren in Manehattan got the worst of it, though Canterlot was decimated too.”

The earth pony passed through an open door and then continued, “We’re a research lab more than anything else. Vanhoover has always been a city of crackpots, free-thinkers, crazies, madponies, and radical intellectuals. They said that we were crazy. Paranoid. That we partook too much in the demon jitter bean. But when the rats came for us on that fateful day, we were ready. Lost my eye and part of my face. We fared better than every other guild and now our research center status is more important than ever.”

Nut followed Piston through the door and found himself in a stone room barren of all comforts, save for a stainless steel bench and table. Piston moved to a corner, turned around, and then just stood there. Nut heard the door close behind him, and then multiple locks clicked into place. He felt Tater Blossom press up against his side; she was damp from the rain and shivered, though he suspected that it wasn’t due to the cold, clinical chill present in the air. On the far side of the room, near where Piston stood, there was a narrow steel door.

“Those guns at the door”—Nut stood as rigid and unmoving as a statue—“something tells me those wouldn’t be exceptionally efficient when dealing with rats.”

In response, Piston snorted and said, “The flamethrowers are for the rats. Those autoguns, those are for Grogar’s agents should they drop by for tea unannounced. We had that happen too, not long after the rats failed to do us in.” The short, stout earth pony turned his single squinty flinty eye upon Nut and seemed to study him. “I understood you took out some vamps in combat.”

“No,” Nut replied.

“I heard wrong?” asked Piston.

“I ambushed them. There was no combat. Too risky.”

“Right.” Piston stretched out the word for several long seconds. “Assassin. You don’t get into fair fights. Doctor Tripper is really gonna dislike you. He thinks assassins are contemptible sots.”

“I am not an assassin—”

This made Piston laugh riotously and Nut grew frustrated—though he showed no visible outward sign. He kept his cool, partially because of his natural restraint and also because the paycheck made it worth it. This was the cost of taking professional work with his talent and reputation; ponies were bound to make assumptions.

“I’m not,” Nut said, repeating himself. “This is an issue that needs sorting out. I never chose that life. When the time came, I retreated from it. I avoided that career because of the negative connotations.”

At all of this, Piston only laughed harder, a sort of raspy, husky, hearty chuckle.

Nut set both suitcases and the case down upon the stainless steel table while Piston laughed. His magic was growing a little weary from carrying so much, and after a moment, he set down Susan as well. A quick check upon Tater Blossom revealed that she was jittery, and he wondered just how long they might have to wait in this tiny cell of a room.

“I don’t think it’s kind of you to laugh,” Tater Blossom said through bared teeth.

Piston ceased abruptly; he did so in such a way that it was downright disturbing and it left Nut unsettled. The short, stout earth pony’s face was hard to read, because a good half of it was a steel plate. But the other half, there was something that was almost… respect? Surprise? It could be any number of things. After a few tense seconds, Piston nodded.

“See, I had you pinned as a shrinking violet,” Piston said to Tater Blossom. “Just another soft pony to be undone in a crisis. But you show unexpected courage. It remains to be seen if this job suits you. For now, I’ll reserve my judgment.”

“You shouldn’t judge others,” Tater Blossom snapped.

“It’s my job to judge others.” Piston kept his scratchy voice low and soft. “When I judge others, it is often a matter of life and death. Prince Blueblood demanded my opinion of you. He wanted to see how you’d handle yourself under pressure. Don’t take this the wrong way, Miss, but you haven’t exactly proven yourself. You are only here because you are Nut’s apprentice, and it would be rude to make you wait outside.”

“You have my gratitude.” Nut bowed his head slightly with the hopes of smoothing the situation over.

“Oh, you’re being tested too. Assassins aren’t known as stable, dependable types. They’re not team players.”

Piston’s words made Nut think of Secundus, who loved violence.

“Even worse, you’re young,” Piston added. “Unproven. None of us know what sort of discipline you have, because you weren’t raised within our walls, by our standards, as an adherent to our way. Prince Blueblood put in a good word for you on Princess Luna’s behalf… but as far as I am concerned, their combined word don’t mean nothing. Even with our thinned numbers, I’d rather trust who I know than an outsider who’s had a good word put in for them.”

The earth pony shrugged. “With all that said, you still have a little of my respect. Killing the vamps isn’t easy. I don’t care how you did it, or if you call it ambush, or how you might dismiss it in your oh-so-casual manner. Maybe it was luck. It might have been circumstance. You might have some kind of murder-magic like Flicker Nicker does. Maybe you really did just catch them off guard, and next time, they might wear your guts for garters. None of that matters. The fact that you killed them… that matters. I’m pragmatic enough that I can appreciate that.”

Unmoving, Nut offered no response.

“Nut’s a good pony,” Tater Blossom said to Piston. “He saved me from my home. Things coulda got all violent, and didn’t. Sure felt like things were gonna take a turn for the worse. I might be a know-nothing hick, but I know I trust Nut with my life ‘cause I done seen how he respects life. We are more than we’re brought up to be.”

“Noted.” Piston’s response seemed sincere, even friendly.

“And I only got mad ‘cause it didn’t feel like there was no respect.”

“Also noted.”

“And if anypony else acts like a dirt clod, they’re gonna catch an earful from me as well. Nut ain’t the sort to speak out much or fight back. He’s the quiet type. Patient. Good. Kind. It don’t mean you can walk on him. Me, I’m the mouthy type, and I’ve spent the whole of my life gettin’ switched for it. Ain’t stopped me yet.”

Piston’s sole surviving ear stood rigid when he nodded.

Though he said nothing, at least not now, Nut felt immense pride for his apprentice, and he knew that he would have to do something special for her later to show his appreciation. It struck him how the same pony that could have anxiety attacks could also be utterly fearless. Some things didn’t make sense, nor did they need to. Life was full of perplexing mysteries to be enjoyed.

“Doctor Honclbrif will see you now,” a disembodied voice said. “Please, come through the door and make no sudden movements. Doctor Honclbrif is a twitchy, easily startled fellow. Thank you.”

After navigating a few claustrophobic hallways filled with all manner of mechanised murder, Nut found himself in a comfortable laboratory with a dedicated office space. In a strange way, it felt like home, because it was almost like some of his mother’s work spaces. There was an alchemy bench, various machines such as autoclaves and centrifuges of every make, model, size, and description, and other more fantastic things he failed to recognise.

In the middle of it all was a three-legged pony with a most curious feature; he had a duckbill. It was hard not to notice, and even harder to ignore. Bright orange-yellow, the duckbill dominated most of the pony’s face, and it was almost impossible not to stare. But Nut’s fine manners won out—though Tater Blossom failed completely—and he assumed a relaxed stance near the curious three legged duckbilled pony.

“This,” Piston began in perfect deadpan, “Is Doctor Honclbrif Droppamapantz.”

There was a snort from behind Nut and he worried that Tater Blossom might come undone.

“The name is Germane,” the duckbilled doctor said.

“Doctor Honclbrif, this is Lord Nut and his earth pony apprentice, Potato Blossom.” After a low bow of his steel-plated head, Piston added, “I’ll be going. Holler if you need anything.” And without further ado, the earth pony departed forthwith, vanishing through a fortified steel door.

Nut heard more snorts from his apprentice, and when he turned his head around to glare at her, she shrank away. He leaned in, she swayed back, but no matter how hard he stared, little snorts escaped, and these were joined by the tiniest of giggles. She was trying, but obviously not enough.

“You must forgive the bill,” said Honclbrif. “I was experimenting with chewing gum as a means of medicine delivery. There were side effects. The duckbill was quite unexpected.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Nut replied good naturedly, “when I go to the doctor’s office, I expect a bill.”

Tater Blossom’s giggles ceased right away and were replaced with sullen silence. Doctor Honclbrif shifted his weight around, his eyes rolled once, and then he shook his head from side to side. Pleased with himself, Nut allowed himself both a polite grin as well as a sensible chuckle. Meanwhile, the three-legged earth pony helped himself to the nondescript carrying case in Nut’s possession.

“Last winter,” Doctor Honclbrif began, “a new plague landed upon Equestria’s shores. A plague unlike any other. Yersinia pestis is an old enemy of ours, and one of the few organisms that Princess Celestia truly, truly hates. This new strain came to us from Windia, we think, though we could be wrong. The ship originated in Windia, that we know. By the time it arrived, most were dying, or already dead.

“But there were two notable survivors, both of whom had fared quite well. Erm, where was I? Oh yes… that’s right. This new strain of an old enemy doesn’t just focus its attack upon the lymph nodes, no. This new strain of Yersinia pestis attacks the thaumaturgic system directly, and rapidly mutates itself, becoming whole new strains with magical traits. It’s the damnedest thing that we’ve ever seen, and Princess Celestia herself has said that this could be the plague that destroys ponykind as we know it.

“Thankfully, those two survivors were exposed to the new plague. Boxcars and Domino have powerful luck magic. Not so powerful all alone, as we’ve discovered, but together, they practically warp reality. Boxcars, in particular. It’s her blood that we’re using to synthesize new cures as the new plague mutates. There’s been a little over a thousand deaths, which seems terrible, until one realises that this plague could be the end of our species. Maybe all species. It was an extraordinary stroke of good fortune for Doctors Needle and Bunsen to take in Boxcars and Domino. What you carry with you is the survival of our species.”

The hard, heavy harshness of reality sank down upon Nut’s back and he shuddered even as his metaphorical spine bent from the pressure. When one heard of the potential end of one’s species, one tended to be somewhat distraught. It certainly had his attention, and he understood the full importance of his precious cargo, more so now than ever.

“It was a fortunate stroke of luck that you were aboard the airship,” Doctor Honclbrif said matter-of-factly. “While others will dislike your profession and may not trust you, I believe it ideal. Assassins are ideally suited to dealing with other assassins. It is only logical. It is my opinion that you are the perfect courier for our endeavours… though I confess, nopony else agrees with me. Doctor Tripper had some rather unpleasant things to say.”

Eyebrow arched to intellectual perfection, Nut mused on what the doctor had to say.

“To deal with spies, one uses counter-spies. Intelligence has counterintelligence. To deal with an army of small undead assassins, one must employ counter-assassins. This shouldn’t even be an issue of debate, but it is. My views have long been controversial. Almost as much as my inventions. I was exiled from Canterlot for being a menace. I was welcomed here though. In time, Nut, you will be welcomed here as well. The Vanhoover Rat Catcher’s Guild, we’re not like the others. All of us, every single one of us, we’re all exiles. Cast asides. Throwaways. The unwanted untouchables deemed unfit for service with every other respectable branch. Make no mistake, you’re one of us.”

“Am I to find that reassuring?” asked Nut.

“Yes?” The doctor offered up a half-shrug. “No?” Again, another half-shrug. “Do you need to be reassured, colt? If so, might I suggest the protective refuge found beneath your mother’s belly.”

It was at this moment that Nut found his respect for Doctor Honclbrif.

“Ah, unexpected. I expected anger. Frustration, perhaps. Some kind of reaction. But your face remains passive. No murderous rage. Or maybe this is what I should have expected all along. What good is an assassin without passivity during periods of inactivity?”

“I am a sheathed sword,” Nut said to the doctor.

Doctor Honclbrif opened up the carrying case, peered inside, and quacked. It was an odd sound, but Nut did not dare laugh. Tater Blossom did though, and he knew that he’d have to have a word with her later about professional courtesy. Inside the carrying case was a notable amount of lead shielding, a layer of attuned iron, and twelve glass phials covered in a layer of frost. The true enormity of his task settled into Nut’s mind, and he found that he was rather pleased with his new career—even if it were only a part time job.

“That seems like a lot of blood,” Tater Blossom remarked.

“It is, indeed, a lot of blood,” Doctor Honclbrif replied. “Only so much blood can be taken from such a small filly. That is why it is so precious. We must not kill the goose that lays our golden eggs.” He removed the blood, closed the case, and then began to put the blood away inside of a stainless steel refrigeration unit. “Traditionally, when making antibodies and vaccines, we’d be able to grow cultures in the lab. Just a little blood is enough to begin synthesis so that new medicines can be made. But this is not the case with this precious blood. Our efforts at synthesis produce no magical effects—which means we must continue to draw from the source.”

This made everything click into place in Nut’s mind, and he understood why the blood was so valuable. It made sense now. These transfers would have to continue so that new cures could be researched and found. But the source of the blood remained in Canterlot… which left Nut unsettled. Could Boxcars be kept safe in the city that posed the most danger to her very existence? He didn’t know enough about the situation to answer.

“I must stress upon you the importance of your job,” Doctor Honclbrif said while he turned to face Nut. “Failure potentially means death for others, or immense suffering. As the new plague continues to spread, we continue to hold our own against it. So far, it remains a nuisance to our existence. Had this case not reached us, we might have fallen behind. We might not have synthesised new cures to deal with the new strains that appear so rapidly. In the past, Princess Luna herself has flown over some of the cases, but you must surely understand that she is a busy pony. She cannot be relied upon as a courier.”

“I understand.” Nut nodded with the hopes that he could win some favour with whom he believed to be his boss.

“We are Princess Luna’s guild,” the doctor said, his words almost a conspiratorial whisper. “She favours us. We’re rejects she’s collected. The unwanted. The castaways and cast-asides. Princess Luna ensures that we get our fair share of funding. She is our patron. Princess Luna encourages our ideas… and our… how shall we say… our questionable research methods. Nopony has nice things to say about us. We’re feared because we’re not understood. Princess Luna understands that… respects that. It is my opinion that, if you are here, it is because she wants you here.”

These words fell upon Nut’s ears with an almost physical force.

“You were exiled from Canterlot?” Tater Blossom’s hooves clopped against the stone tile floor as she moved up alongside Nut. “Can I ask why? I don’t mean to be rude. I’m an exile too. I got shunned and sent away from home.”

The duckbilled doctor froze for a moment and there was sincere pity in his eyes. “My apologies, Miss. Ponies often reject the strange and unusual. The things they do not understand. My inventions were deemed too dangerous. I made weapons… terrible weapons. Truly horrible weapons… my intentions were good. I wanted to stop conflict. Discourage it before it happened. But the weapons I made… well…” The three-legged unicorn sighed.

“Things did not work out the way I planned. My research methods were frowned upon. It didn’t matter that I got results and that studies in medicine saved lives. This, and a variety of other factors, it got me branded as a menace. The Canterlot Guild issued me my walking papers. I was told to leave. Princess Celestia offered me a reprieve though—this was before Luna’s return—and like so many, I ended up here. Here, I found brotherhood. And sisterhood as well, I suppose. We all arrive here through providence.”

“You make it sound like some manner of divine order,” Nut remarked.

“It is,” Doctor Honclbrif replied without a single second of hesitation. “We’re not like other guilds. You’ll discover that in time. We are brethren and sistren. Here in isolation, we’ve found our own way. This is why I know that you’ll be embraced… in time. This is our sanctum. Our sanctuary. Science and servitude is our faith. Our holy order. Our divine mandate. We recently survived what should have been the end of our order. I lost a leg. We all lost something. How did we survive? Everypony here will tell you the same thing. We have faith in what we do.”

“I’ve been a-wrasslin’ with my own issues of faith.” Tater Blossom’s voice had a vulnerable quaver to it. “Recently, it got all shook up. It kinda broke. I’ve been tryin’ to put all the itty-bitty pieces back together. Nut showed up and he done showed me the scientific method, and ain’t nothin’ been the same since.”

Doctor Honclbrif chuckled, but it was a sad sound. “My own apprentice was plucked from an isolated community to the north, along the coast. He showed a remarkable aptitude for science. A knack for chemistry.” The doctor turned his head and pointed with his nose. “He died right over there, valiantly defending the sample cabinet.”

“I’m sorry,” Tater Blossom said to the doctor.

“I am too.” After a sigh, the doctor shook his head. “Sea Ice was a brilliant earth pony. He took to molecular chemistry like a gull takes to water. That boy could make the most complex calculations inside of his head, with no need for slate and chalk. He had a promising future.”

“Do earth ponies and unicorns make for good pairs?” asked Tater Blossom.

“Oh, indeed, they do.” Doctor Honclbrif’s head now bobbed up and down. “Earth ponies of a certain type, they have keen intelligence, but lack the means of complex manipulation that we unicorns have. We unicorns have keen manipulation, and plenty of smarts, but nothing like the living calculators that are some select earth ponies. Working together, much more can be accomplished than anything done on our own. Our guild favours this tradition, and you will find many unicorn and earth pony pairings within our ranks. To accomplish greatness though, there has to be trust. Communication. There has be total familiarity with one another. This has long been our way. Even those of us in Vanhoover, the nontraditionalists and anticonformists that we are, we see the wisdom in this pairing. It has become part of our sacred order.”

“Over the past few days, I’ve been a-wonderin’ if Nut and I were supposed to be together.” Tater Blossom’s voice was little more than a hushed whisper now. “It’s been real troublin’ for me, because mares and stallions are only s’posed to be together in marriage. Like, it’s been real hard for me to understand what we are together. I was taught that everything was s’posed to be a certain way, and that’s it. There ain’t no more to life. But I done seen with my own eyes that this is wrong, and I’ve been a-workin’ real hard to sort everything out. But then I was called his apprentice, and that seemed real weird, ‘cause I ain’t no unicorn.

“Yet, here y’all are, together, and I don’t think that Nut had any idea that earth ponies could be apprentices to unicorns, ‘cause he seemed kinda stumped about the whole thing when it was brought up. It’s a relief that all of this is normal though, and it makes it easier for me to put all the pieces in place. Still a-sortin’ everything out though. It’s hard.”

“You poor dear.” Honclbrif sighed, his ears sagged against his temples, and he shook his head. “Sea Ice’s clan sacrificed one of their own to the sea every year during the Winter Solstice. That is, until Princess Celestia herself put a stop to it. Have no fear… your isolated upbringing can be undone. You can still grow and be everything you wish to be. You need only the drive to do it.”

“Thank you.” Tater Blossom took a step closer to the doctor, then stopped and chewed her lip.

“Come.” The doctor gestured with his head. “Come break bread with us. Have lunch. I’ll introduce you to the others. Perhaps if we all eat at the same table, we can accept the assassin as one of our own. As for you, my dear”—he paused as a quack that could not be contained somehow managed to escape and he was left embarrassed—“I want to hear your story. Tell me about your upbringing. I wish to know more about you.

“Lunch sounds good,” Tater Blossom said and her words were punctuated by a swift lick of her lips. “Nut, can we stay for lunch?”

“Certainly, Miss Blossom. I feel that it would be good for us to get to know our employers.” Then, to Doctor Honclbrif he said, “Prepare to be eaten out of house and home, Doctor. You will be astounded by her ravenous nature.”

“Ravenous nature, you say?” The doctor’s eyebrows rose. “Passive magical talents deplete the system, you know. Sea Ice was a prodigious eater. The more complex his calculations, the more rapacious his appetite. And Piston’s danger-sense. Piston is a bottomless pit now that his intense paranoia has left his danger-sense forever going. I’m working on liquid nutritional supplements for earth ponies. Compressed calories. Piston needs upwards of twelve-thousand calories a day to remain healthy and not sink into a malnourished state. But if he does physical labour of some kind, that number easily doubles. It’s become a health crisis.”

Nut blinked.

When he failed to process what had just been said, he blinked again.

“Tell me, my dear… to the best of your ability… did your appetite increase after you left home, or were you always this hungry?”

“I had hungry days at home too,” she said while her eyes grew unfocused. “But now that you mention it, since I left home, I’ve been downright hungry. Nonstop. It never goes away. How’d you know?”

“We’ll talk over lunch, dear. Perhaps we can reveal a few mysteries. Come, come… I am eager to begin. Follow me. I am beyond peckish myself.”

“That might be the bill,” Nut suggested.

Both the doctor and Tater Blossom sighed in unison.

“He does that,” Tater Blossom said to the doctor. “I don’t think he can help it. Like some sickness of the mind.”

“Some ponies are perverse,” the doctor agreed. “A most grievous social handicap. How do you cope, dear?”

“It’s hard,” she replied. “Real hard.”

“You make it sound punishing.”

Both the doctor and Tater Blossom winced at Nut’s interjection.

“See, there he goes. Ain’t that terrible?”

“It is indeed, my dear. Remember, gentle forbearance. We must show mercy to the socially inept.” The doctor peered at Nut through narrowed eyes. “Positively dreadful. Come, we can discuss this over lunch.”

Pleased with himself, Nut smirked and prepared for a witty, interesting meal together.

Author's Note:
TThe Great Equestrian Gamble
Boxcars crosses the breadth of the world to reach the promised land.
kudzuhaiku · 13k words  ·  194  6 · 1.2k views

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