• Published 7th Oct 2012
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Dusk's Dangerous Game - Airstream

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Gambit's Beginning

Canterlot was beautiful in daylight. The ivory and marble of the city, combined with royal purples and shimmering gold, copper, and brass, were far more striking by the light of Celestia's day than Luna's night, which reduced the colors of the streets to grey and black. Smart business owners took full advantage of this, hanging colorful flags outside of their shops to draw the eye towards their expensive wares, displayed proudly in well-cleaned windows. At least, that was normally what the streets Sweetie Belle now walked were like.

The flags still flew, of course, and the windows were well shined. But the walls, Canterlot's beautiful walls of marble and stone, were under seige. Painted, burned, and in some places even carved, were slogans and symbols that appeared faster than the unicorn street crews could make them disappear. "Don't live the lie" and "EF lives" vied for attention with the same symbol, repeated over and over. A six pointed star with a burst behind it. Sweetie Belle was familiar with the mark. She had borrowed books from the mare who had borne that symbol on her flank back home in Ponyville for years. There were supposed to be five smaller bursts around the first, but Sweetie had heard that the "artists" who made these marks equated those five bursts to Twilight Sparkle's friends, who had supposedly been among those who had first captured her. There was very little love for them among the ranks of the Ever Free if that was the case, Sweetie Belle realized. Speaking of realizations, she was abruptly aware of the fact that she had been standing in one place and looking at this Mark for several minutes. Shaking her head, she continued onward, towards Canterlot's Mage District.

The great city's architecture may have been more aesthetically pleasing and intimidating during the day, but at night, the Mage's District was far more interesting. Arcane lightning cracked among the spires of its towers, mysterious flashes of light and otherworldly noises spilled from its windows, and unusual constructs wandered its streets. During the day, the District was packed, its doors wide open to Canterlot's largely unicorn population. The shops were unmarked, and no stalls lined the streets. Such common street magic belonged in the bazaars of Fillydelphia, or on corners in Manehatten. And anypony who wandered into the Mage's District knew exactly what they were looking for, and where to find it. The bags and boxes carried here were made of subdued fabrics and dark wood, tied and locked tightly against prying eyes such as hers.

The fountain of Shimmerstone the Wise, who by all accounts had been a bit of a vainglorious bastard, was made to dominate the night. Its dark stone was inlaid with shimmering magelights, as well as the black basin in which water cascaded, flowing from the horn of the great Mage himself. It eschewed the Classical architecture of other such decorations, instead resting on a pillar tiled in intricate gold and black, which extended up from the basin in three tiers, clearly Gryphonian in design. Were this in any other District of Canterlot, it would have surely been the site of many a romantic declaration. However, due to its location, many ponies were unwilling to make a trip to it on even the best of days. It was located in the center of a large public square, packed with ponies, at the height of the day. Sweetie was acutely aware that this ensured that even if something were to happen to her, it would likely go unnoticed. Had it been noticed, help would likely have had difficulty reaching her. A perfect place for a meeting then.

A small clock hung in the window of one of the shops, and Sweetie settled down by the fountain at five minutes till noon. At least, she thought it was. The symbols on the clock's face were a bit...unclear. One appeared to be a Gryphonian number, and another she recognized as Quilinese. The others were not numbers by any stretch of the imagination, and their ranks included a picture of a bear, three crescent moons, a spinning wheel, and an anatomically accurate heart of some description. So, it was either coming up on noon, or crossed swords until pentagram. The unicorn contemplated the clock for another brief moment, and turned to wait on the arrival of her informant.

"I will never understand mages." a voice came from the bench beside her. A tan unicorn mare with a rose Cutie Mark stared at the clock, ignoring Sweetie Belle's startled jump. Her voice, while pleasant enough, was bland and forgettable. "Yesterday, it was going backwards and had a completely different set of symbols."

The pastel unicorn calmed herself. "You're a bit early." she said, noting the small saddlebag the unicorn carried.

"So are you." she replied, making eye contact. Her eyes, again, were an unremarkable shade of brown. Brown coat, dirty blonde mane, brown eyes, forgettable Cutie Mark, unremarkable voice...Sweetie Belle had an eye for detail, and even she was unsure if she would be able to pick this mare out of a lineup. "At least you're prompt. I appreciate that. Now, to business. This bag," she said, indicating a small, dark green saddlebag without any identifying marks and a few boring stains, "Contains a bit of information on us. Nothing that we don't already want other ponies to know, and certainly not anything sensitive. The information is secret, yes, but more along the lines of poorly known, and less along the lines of things we don't want ponies knowing. Unfortunately, that is all I am authorized to offer. Canterlot's security is too great for us to show you more. In fact, we're pulling out soon, abandoning the city and focusing elsewhere."

Sweetie Belle interjected. "Why? I've checked police reports and listened to rumors. There haven't been any high-profile arrests recently, and as far as I can tell your cover is completely safe."

The mare gave her a look that was equal parts respect and pity. "Ms. Belle, your reporting is admirable, fair, and unbiased. However, you are massively uninformed. There is a war on, and even now battles rage in the back alleys of Equestria's cities. The fact that you hear nothing is a testament to the secrecy of both sides, and when armies clash, it is because we have failed in our duties. Now, as I have said, we are abandoning Canterlot. However, there is a city nearby that is very much under our control. I'm sure you can guess as to which."

Sweetie's eyes widened. "Trottingham." she said.

"Indeed. The information you shall recieve contains a set of instructions for a meeting in another public place in Trottingham, two days hence. There you shall recieve much more information, and the information you have now shall be much clearer. We know you show a great deal of promise in illusion magic, so escaping notice should not be an issue."

Sweetie Belle came to a realization. "Ponies are going to notice if I don't show up for my broadcast tonight." she said, watching the crowd go by. "Not a big issue, but I'm going to need an excuse for my boss."

The dun colored mare nodded. "We have prepared for this eventuality." She opened the saddlebags, withdrawing a small beige folder and a clay pot. "In this pot is honey. The honey is for use as a base for a compound which is rich in Lacucrium sap. We've refined and modified it into something less...potent. And relatively harmless if you eat it with bread to absorb the chemical."

Sweetie surreptitiously took the jar and folder, placing them in her bag. "What will happen after I eat the honey?"

"You'll begin vomiting almost uncontrollably for the space of an hour. So prepare for that. Contact your employer during that time, and prepare to leave quickly. You'll need papers to enter the Rounds, so we've included those."

"What if I decide that I don't want to go?"

The mare looked at her intently. "I know that you want this, and badly. But if you were to loose your nerve, then we would simply disappear. Trust me, you would not be the first."

Sweetie Belle frowned. "You're right, I do want this. But I want some measure of security from you. This is treason if I don't turn it in. How do I know that you haven't been followed?"

The mare sighed. "Very well. I can ensure that I haven't been followed because my tail has been quietly killed by breaking his neck, dousing him in some wine, and laying him in an alley. The four other agents in this square have lost their tails and are now observing all entrances and exits for enemy agents. We know you haven't been followed because we have been tailing you since you left your home this morning, and we know that there are no magical recording devices around, because the interference from so much magecraft fries them like eggs. Most of Canterlot's other agents are busy chasing down a pony that no longer exists, and we have been behaving perfectly normally, so no attention shall be drawn to us. Now, I'm afraid I must depart, Ms. Belle. I have much to do, and very little time in which to do it. The same applies to you."

Sweetie Belle slung her bags back over her shoulders. "Right. I should get going. And thank you."

The mare smiled for the first time, exposing dainty fangs. Her eyes flashed green, and suddenly her Cutie Mark changed, forming into a violin. Her horn vanished. "You're quite welcome, Ms. Belle. Good luck."

Sweetie Belle watched in horror and fascination as the Changeling pushed her way through the crowd, vanishing in a sea of oblivious ponies.

Silver Chip knew that today was going too smoothly. Not much in the way of breaking news, a couple filler pieces, an appropriate guest for the afternoon slot, and a newsroom that was busy humming with the quiet sound of industrious research. So, he was not entirely surprised when the scrying glass in his office chimed gently, alerting him to an incoming call. His horn sparked gently, and the opaque surface of the mirror cleared to reveal his newest broadcaster, Sweetie Belle, with her mane disheveled and a haggard expression upon her face. She appeared to be looking down, so she was obviously using a pool as opposed to a glass.

"Sweetie! You're not looking too hot, hun. Up too late?"

The mare shook her head miserably. "Chip, I'm dying here. I woke up this morning feeling queasy, and I haven't been able to keep anything down today except for some bread, not even medicine. I called in a neighbor who works in Canterlot General, and he took one look at me and said it was flu. I'm not going to be in tonight, I'm so sorry."

Silver Chip grimaced. "Are you sure it won't clear up? It's just one night, and then you have a three day break to rest and recover."

Sweetie Belle gulped. "I'm not sure, but I could try to-" She gulped again. "I could-" Again she tried valiantly to keep her stomach calm. Silver Chip watched in horror as Sweetie displayed exactly what kind of bread she had eaten, right into her scrying pool. Her voice came over the glass, everything else now obscured. "Dammit, I'm going to have to clean that..."

Silver Chip, much to his credit, remained cheerful even as he watched regurgitated food swirl gracefully in front of him. "Alright, kiddo. I'll find somepony to cover your shift tonight. You're too sick to work. See you in a few days?"

Sweetie's voice was the very soul of misery. "Yeah. A few days. I'm going to lie down for a bit."

Silver Chip winced as he heard her vomit once more. "Ok, Sweetie. Have a good one, get some rest." He cut the feed quickly. Poor mare, she must have been hit really hard.

Sweetie Belle spent another half hour in front of her toilet before the effects of the honey began to subside. Moving quickly, she dumped the rest of the horrible concoction down the basin before flushing the whole thing clean. Her scrying basin was next to be cleaned, and she took a quick shower to regain some of her constitution and dignity. She left the newly cleaned basin under the shower while she packed a bag with a few bits, bobs, and sundries.

At last, she was prepared. She set the basin back in its holder upstairs, watching as the water settled into a smooth, mirror like surface and gaining a silvery quality that meant it was ready to use. The beige envelope was quickly seized and torn open. She would have done it when she got home, but she was pressed for time, and needed to call her boss before he expected her to be in, otherwise he would likely have sent somepony around to collect her. Closing her curtains and locking her door, Sweetie Belle spread the contents of the folder out on her kitchen table, reviewing what she had with a practiced eye.

The picture was the first thing that had caught her eye. Several ponies around the edges had been blacked out, but five ponies stared back at her, five very familiar ponies, on posters across Equestria above very large rewards. The picture was labeled with names and the date. This had been taken recently, no more than a month ago. The group sat around a table, which was suspiciously clear, save for one item. Sweetie Belle memorized the names. Next to a massive Earth pony who had been thought dead, a neat caption was placed. "Iron Oak." A sleek Pegasus mare, who was half-hidden behind a mane of messy hair. "Nightshade". A cheerful looking unicorn with a carelessly piled bun gazed back into the young reporter's eyes. Sweetie decided that she liked this one, a unicorn named "Radiant Zenith". Next came a pony apparently made of paper, sitting at the right hoof of the one at the head of the table. The strange unicorn was clearly labeled "Golden Radiance". And at the head of the table, wearing a crystal the shade of a winter storm, was the unicorn Sweetie Belle used to know. Twilight Sparkle's right hoof rested on top of another familiar piece. The Element of Magic looked oddly fragile to Sweetie, its gold tarnished and its stone dull. She set the picture aside.

Sweetie Belle looked over some of the paperwork. A slim stack of papers, each apparently referencing the deaths or disappearances of several prominent nobles, military leaders, and vigilantes who had taken it upon themselves to uncover the location of EF members. Sweetie Belle was disturbed to see her name included along with a terrifyingly accurate description of her habits, location, and friends in Canterlot. She looked over other reports as well. One on Cadance, heavily redacted. Another for Celestia. And five for each of the Bearers, her sister included. Sweetie Belle felt as if she was intruding into the lives of the five ponies she admired most, but she couldn't stop herself. When she was finished, she knew their last locations, the locations of their loved ones, their financial situations...all of it written with the same clinical detachment, but in the hoofwriting of several different ponies.

What she had here wasn't nearly what she had thought the EF to be. The impression given in Canterlot was one of a loose band of rebels and outlaws, constantly on the run, hitting vulnerable targets only, always on the brink of collapse. What she saw, however, she knew to be a small sliver of an extremely well organized group that had suddenly taken an interest in her. What's more, she realized that she would never be able to publish this. She should have realized it earlier, of course, but the full impact of this information would be far too great for anypony to allow it to go public. It would cause irreparable damage to the war effort. But she had to find out more, she had to know. What else waited for her in Trottingham, if this was considered to be on the same level as scraps to be flung at her in order to sate her?

Sweetie Belle was snapped out of her reverie by the soft chime of her scrying pool. Thinking quickly, she gathered up the documents, piling them neatly in her bag. Seizing a towel, she wrapped it around the top of her head, concealing her mane. If it was Silver Chip, she could pretend she had just got out of the shower and hopefully get rid of him quickly. Trotting over to the pool, she let the water clear. What she saw was possibly the only thing worse than Silver Chip.

"Sweetie Belle!" a cultured voice chirped from within the basin. "How are you, darling? I hope I'm not interrupting anything."

Sweetie Belle fixed a simple smile onto her face. She hated to pass herself off as a brainless socialite, but that was what her sister decided she was, so that was the role she played. "Hiya, Big Sister! How's Manehatten?"

Rarity returned the smile. Age had seemingly avoided the mare entirely, kept at bay by unicorns' natural longevity and a variety of beauty treatments. Her hair, still in her signature curl, hung slightly higher now, more of a bob than anything. Aside from that, she very much resembled the mare Sweetie Belle had practically grown up with. Her voice, though shot through with the nasal undertones of upper-crust Manehatten, was still warm and inviting, and every interview she gave resulted in a new group of admirers, who loved her for her voice alone. It had been Rarity who had landed Sweetie Belle her job at CBC.

"I'm doing quite well, dear. Golden Rule and I have a bit of time off between fundraisers, and I was wondering if you were going to be in town this weekend? I'd love to spend some time with you, you're always so busy now."

Sweetie Belle cursed internally. Of course this would be the one weekend Rarity would pick to visit. Sweetie Belle could think of only one thing that would allow her to escape Rarity's plans. And it would take quite a bit of magical ventriloquy. Thankful the towel hid her horn, Sweetie began channeling magic. "Actually, Rarity, I'm going to be in town this weekend, but...I'm kinda busy with something I'm not supposed to be...I actually got the night off of work for it."

Rarity frowned. "Why, whatever do you mean, Sweetie?"

Sweetie Belle's smile turned embarrassed, and she manipulated the skin under her cheeks, which reddened slightly. A completely fabricated voice, deep and masculine, came from behind her. "Sweetie Belle? Who's that?"

"Give me just a minute, I'll be right there!" she called, turning her head over one shoulder.

It was Rarity's turn to flush. "Oh, goodness...I didn't realize you had...company over. I interrupted, didn't I?"

Sweetie fought down the urge to vomit again. "Not really. We're just getting started. Either way, I'm not going to be out at all this weekend. In it for the long haul." she said, with a knowing wink that almost caused her physical pain.

Rarity's sense of impropriety kept her from enquiring further. "Very well, Sweetie Belle. I can see you're going to have your hooves full this weekend. Perhaps another time?"

Sweetie Belle nodded. "Sorry, sis. Any other weekend would have worked. And I'll be more than happy to show you around next time you come up, alright?"

Her sister nodded. "Alright, Sweetie Belle. I'll leave you two alone then, shall I?"

Sweetie smiled. "Thanks, sis. Sorry it couldn't work this time. Now, gotta go. Talk to you soon!"

"Likewise, little sister. Have fun." Rarity said, mortified, as the connection broke.

Sweetie whipped the towel off of her head, turning back to the documents. She had to get out of town. She had to track down more news, get more of the story she needed. It wasn't for her work anymore. She had to know, and nothing was going to stop her, save Celestia herself. She found her paperwork. Unicorn, which was nice. Pink coat, purple mane, Cutie Mark of two dolphins, one gold and one silver. Name of Dawn Breeze. Hometown of Hoofington, which was only accessible through the hub at Trottingham. Sweetie Belle worked on her physical appearance as she read over her supposed new life. She filled in the gaps easily enough. She worked as a secretary for one of the logging companies there. There were so many that she would never be questioned about it, and if she was, she'd make one up and say it was new. She had gone to Canterlot for a brief vacation. And she was a bit slow. Sweetie Belle was quite good at playing dumb, and nopony wanted to talk to an idiot for long.

Soon enough, Dawn Breeze, idiotic secretary from Hoofington heading back to her job in Trottingham, left Sweetie Belle's home and headed for the train station. In her bags were a few supplies, a small bag of bits, some few articles of clothing, and all of the evidence she had collected, stored safely in a hidden pocket in the lining of her saddlebags. Catching the last train to her destination for the day, Sweetie Belle watched as the city she knew so well faded into the gathering dusk behind her. She was on her way.

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