• Published 2nd Jan 2012
  • 13,215 Views, 2,495 Comments

Jericho - Crushric



If you came to hear a story, I'm sorry to disappoint. I suspect this'll just end up as one big confession, really. Still, with enough wit, some Prussian ingenuity, a droll sense of humor, and wanton murder, I might just be able to survive.

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Chapter 6 — Justice

Chapter Six: Justice

“This is not a trial. This is a lynching. There is no law.”

“And that’s the place?” I asked, scratching an ear.

From our position at the bottom of the house’s hill, the two-story colonial house looked like a giant gravestone. The place had seen better days. Those better days were about a month ago, if the filly’s diary was to be trusted. Both stories had broken, dusty windows, and columns of moss hung from bits of the shingles. An insect droned past on its way to do whatever it was that insects did late in the afternoon. There was a big sign hanging above the door that once read “Doctor Dome’s Clinic & Pharmacy”, but so many letters had fallen—or, more likely, been torn off—that the sign now read “Doctor Harm”.

“Whenever I’d get hurt, I’d always end up here,” Card said, pawing a hoof at the moist grass.

Dust whistled. “Really? You went there? That place looks like it’s ninety-five percent tetanus.”

I looked around the dilapidated structure, peering into the shadows in the dark windows. A burgundy curtain on the second floor floated in an invisible breeze, even though the trees around us were all still. Reaching into my pack, I pulled out a pair of binoculars and stared at the curtain. “Was gibts?” I muttered.

“Well, it wasn’t always such a dump.” Card ran a hoof through her shortened mane. “It used to be a pretty nice place.”

“When? A hundred years ago?” Dust scoffed.

“I dunno; feels like it.”

“What I want to know is,” I chimed in, “how’s it legal to be both a clinic and a pharmacy. Did Doc Dome somehow have dual degrees?”

“I dunno,” Cards said.

“That your catchphrase?” Dust asked, cocking a brow. “‘I dunno’.”

Cards turned her red eyes to the smiling pegasus. “Well, maybe if you weren’t such a b—”

“Pardon me, ladies,” I interrupted, “but I think we’re being expected.” The girls turned their heads to me as I put away the binoculars. “There’s somebody in there. At least one. Expect two or three.”

“Wait. There are?” Cards asked, taking a step towards me.

I shrugged. “Isn’t it obvious? I think there’s a pony watching us from the rightmost second-story window. They absolutely suck at making curtains move. There’s no breeze at all right now, and yet I see a curtain moving.”

Dust shifted her weight. “Um, are they from the government?”

“Chief Blackout,” Cards offered, “forbade us from going near this place around the time the Doc’s family fled. I figured it had something to do with them government ponies, but...” She trailed off.

“Hmmm,” I hummed. “If they’ve any brains, they’ve also seen us, and they’re preparing a trap for us.” Turning my head to the left, I smiled at Cards. “Come, let’s spring it.”

“Have you gone crazy?” Dust scoffed, and I looked at her.

“It’s a possibility I haven’t ruled out yet.” I patted her shoulder, her wing twitching in response. The trees around us swayed, and the curtains stopped moving. “So, Dust, can you do a flyby and check if there are any ponies hanging out around this place?”

“Um, sure,” the pegasus replied, fluttering into the air. She flew around at a more breezy pace than she’d done at the Sheriff’s office.

“Are there other entrances to this house? Like, say, a backdoor?” I asked, and Cards gave me an affirmative. “Cool. That’s exactly what we won’t do. They’d expect that.”

Dust landed. “Didn’t see nopony at all, GB.”

I sauntered forwards up the hill, the mares following behind me. “Be prepared to scatter if they start shooting at us,” I cautioned. “I’m pretty sure Dust could avoid any arrows, but Cards and I would be in a jam. Blueberry flavor, if I’m not mistaken. That’s the worse flavor to get jammed in. Very deadly.”

Stepping onto the front porch with me, Dust asked, “What’s the plan, GB?”

“Don’t worry; I have a master plan,” I replied, standing before the door. “The Bardic Knock Spell.” The girls held their breath as I rose a hoof. I knocked on the door. “Hello? Hello? Anypony home?” I called out.

Card’s eyes literally popped out of her head, only to slam back in. She proceeded to spend about a minute rolling around the floor, screaming in pain. Or, at least, I imagined that she was. Truth was, she just gawked at me.

Dust’s jaw hung limp, and I figured her opened mouth would make an ideal nest for the Mouth Nester, a rare bird found on the Nekrischen Islands that had the rather unorthodox habit of making its nests in the mouths of dead things, but also had the tendency to nest in the mouths of people who slept with their mouths open. Those people were always in for a rude surprise when they woke up and the Mouth Nester, fearing for its eggs, pecked their eyes out. It was actually pretty funny to watch once you got past the whole part about it being cringingly horrible.

“What are you doing?” Cards hissed, just as a scratching sound came from the door.

One by one, somepony on the other side of the door opened a series of locks. The door creaked open as a green stallion in a fez peaked his head out. “Um, who are you—”

I slugged him in the jaw as I forced my way into the building. “I’m here to deliver the pizza... and pain!” I growled as he fell to the floor. Quick as I could, I stepped on his throat, putting just enough weight on him to stop him from screaming. The pegasus pony under my hoof wasn’t wearing anything, I noticed, and he looked so skinny that it was like he was malnourished.

The room I found myself in was a large den of sorts with multiple chairs. I instantly knew it was a waiting room, not because of the sign that said “Sick Room” but because—like all waiting rooms in the history of time—it smelled like impatience.

Dust and Cards slowly slinked through the door, still gaping. “How...?” they asked in unison, but stopped as they heard the other say it.

I just smiled. “I just used the ‘Bardic Knock Spell’. It gets them all the time.”

“How?” they both tried, repeating the same song and dance as last time.

“Simple. What kind of idiot would go up and knock on the door? None, that’s who. So when I knock on the door, the last thing they see coming is this idiot.”

“Jeepers,” a deep, throaty voice came from down the hall. “What was that? Are you okay? There’s a group of ponies coming here and...” The voice went silent as a large meaty hoof landed in the nearest doorway.

A stallion slid ungracefully into view and peered out at me. It was not difficult to surmise that this gigantic stallion had been the speaker. He was built in the way that one builds leather replicas of chickens: brown in color, hard despite the great deal of internal fluff, and generally unpleasant to look at because you’re afraid it’ll come to life and peck your eyes out. The suit into which the stallion’s body had been stuffed looked as if its only purpose in life was to demonstrate how difficult it was to get that sort of body into a suit. His face looked like a slapped ass. Something about his entire look felt familiar, like I’d seen something—something, not somepony—like him before.

“You,” the earth pony stallion growled in a voice that emerged from his mouth like a burly woodpecker.

“Holy hell, buddy,” I whistled. It wasn’t an actual whistle, because I’ve yet to meet the pony who could whistle out coherent sentences. “What kind of steroids have you been on? You’re a giant.” I glanced to the girls. “Dust, get ready to fight. Cards, pull out the baton.” The mares nodded and did as asked.

I looked back at the stallion, only to find him gone. The heavy sound of his hooffalls charged down the hallways. “Hey, get back here!” I barked, chasing after him. The dusty hallway become a blur as I charged after his sounds, only to have me end up in a waiting room at the other end of the house. Cards and Dust raced in after me, almost colliding with me.

“Where’d he go?” Dust demanded.

“Oh, he’s gone,” a suave voice said from a corner. We all turned to look at the stallion sitting in the corner, wearing shades, a stetson, and some sort of purple longcoat—an utter crime against fashion! He stood up and smiled. “And now you walk into the belly of the beast.”

“Um, who are you?” I asked, putting a telekinetic grip on my sword.

“I am Marty, Marty Stew,” he replied in a low voice, “the recon elite captain of this operation. I suspect you’ve heard of me before, that must be why you came, and I’ll tell you this: the stories they tell... are true.”

“Ah, so you can juggle,” I said, nodding my head. The girls shot me oblong looks.

“Born under the sign of the eternal warrior,” he went on as if he hadn’t heard me, “I carve my way through these dark times, searching for something. Maybe an answer, or a cause, or just a real reason to fight. Who knows?”

“That’s nice, but...”

“Abandoned by my parents, I was raised by wolves. But not just any wolves, demon wolves. They taught me their ways, and so now I wander this world as a half-wolf, half-demon, half-dragonkin warrior.”

I shifted my weight, accidentally bumping flanks with Dust. “Look, I’m pretty sure your math just added up to one-point-five—”

“Don’t use your fancy mathematics to muddy up the issue here! I carved a path of destruction through this world, destroying all those who would harm the weak, and all those with non-liberal ideas.”

“Hey!” I whined. “That’s my line. Er, except for the part about killing those with different opinions. And aren’t you currently picking on the weak—”

Stew laughed. “I am a master of all forms of combat, and pretty much everything else I try with pretty much no explanation as to how. It has not been an easy life, no. I am transgendered—twice!—and am now forced to walk this land a stallion. Yet in spite of all this, all mares I come across fall in love with me... for seemingly no reason. Probably my dashing good looks.”

“Okay, that’s stupid. And wouldn’t that mean you were a stallion in the first place?”

Cards poked me. “Shouldn’t you be, I dunno, murdering him or something?”

“I have been cursed,” Stew went on, “with absolutely no character flaws, too! Except for a few token ones like, uh, bipolarism, insomnia, depression—only the cool ones. I am now forced to wander this world with absolutely no character development in sight.” He paused just long enough to make me feel like I ought to say something, but then interrupted. “Oh, and I can speak to trees.”

“Are you making fun of me?” I accused. “You’re making fun of me, aren’t you!”

Stew smiled. “I sense that you are wondering why I’m here.”

“No!”

“Well, strangers, in truth I’ve been tracking you for a... I don’t know, ’bout twenty minutes now. Your day of reckoning has arrived. So come, face the perfection that is—” his horn glowed gold as he pulled out an iron mace “—Marty Stew!” He began to sway his body, bending and unbending his knees and elbows as he broke out into an off-key song.

Marty Stew, Marty Stew,

He’s a half-demon, half-wolf dragon king,

Marty Stew, Marty Stew...

I slammed a hoof onto the floor and pulled out my sword. “N-no! You can’t sing—only I get to sing!”

At that exact moment I blinked, and at that exact moment I found myself crashing against the wall on the far side of the room. My sword clattered to the floor next to me, skittering under a chair. More inexplicably, there was this terrible pain in my ribs, like I’d just been punched by a large rhinoceros. I sputtered a cough, and hacked up a spatter of blood onto the dusty floor.

There, standing just where I’d been a few moments ago, was that gigantic stallion, clad in bits of armor plating. His limbs were covered in plate gear, with large metal rods attached to the steel gear, but the rest of him was unarmored. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the rods were each a sort of in-built bludgeoning weapon, and that being punched by any hooves wearing that gear would pretty much ruin your day.

“Down,” he growled at me. Ponies as big and powerful as him didn’t need verbs, apparently.

The stallion’s displeasure was communicated partly by the barking, hectoring quality of his voice and partly by generically nefarious look of his armor and weapons. Whoever had designed that armor clearly hadn’t been instructed to beat around the bush. “Make it evil,” he’d probably been told, I imagined. “Make it haves lots of spikes and black pointy thingies and also pictures of fire to make to go faster! Make sure that whomever is on the wrong end of it is mince-meat!”

I had the distinct feeling of being at its wrong end.

The stallion’s eyes darted feverishly about the room and then settled back onto me, like a pair of flies distracted from their favorite piece of month-old meat. “Nice distraction, White Tongue.”

Formerly known as ‘Marty Stew’, White Tongue bowed his head. “Well, they were dumb enough to listen, y’know? I told you my attempted career as a literary critic would come in handy one day, didn’t I? So, which ones do you want?”

Taking hard, sharp breaths, I leaned against the wall and forced myself to my hooves. My ribs screamed out in a hot, wet pain as my right leg sang them a splendid chorus. This wasn’t just a minor fracture or a number of individually inconsequential flesh wounds; this was almost certainly a broken rib... or two... or three. Of course, that was ignoring whatever was wrong with my leg and the not unfamiliar feeling of severe hemorrhaging brought about via blunt force trauma.

Dust and Cards, I saw, had backed away from the stallions, and the two were now holding their ground against White Tongue’s leers. The liar snorted a laugh. “Know what, Boulder?”

I tested my leg and took a step. Suppressing a scream, I collapsed back against the wall. As I laid there on the ground, a shaky thought slithered across my mind. I put my focus into opening my bag and levitated a syringe out. Wrong syringe, dammit! a thought growled. This is the morphine... but it’ll have to do.

“What would that be, White Tongue?” the giant now known as Boulder asked. It was a fitting name.

Extending my left arm out, I pulled the cap off the needle. The syringe looked to have about two milligrams of morphine in it. I held the syringe as steady as I could as I threaded the inch-long needle into my most prominent vein. A few seconds later as I pulled the empty needle out, tossing it aside. The pain continued to burn as I continued to writhe on the ground, forcing back every last urge to shout.

The unicorn stallion trotted over to me. “Hey now, no drugs,” he chuckled, grabbing my bags in his magic. Tongue tossed them across the room, though not before kicking me in square in the ribs. I shouted as the pain tore my ribs in half, and the stallion trotted back over to where he was.

Boulder looked over at his associate. “What was that about?”

Tongue shrugged. “The idiot was trying to do something, so I took away his stuff. He probably isn’t getting back up. You sure did a number on ’im.”

“I try my best,” Boulder snickered as he looked over at the girls. “Y’know, I’m thinkin’ that these two ladies are going to find out why ponies ain’t supposed to pry into other ponies’ business, hmm?”

“Don’t you dare, you creeps!” Dust snarled. Cards pathetically waved her baton in a show of support for the pegasus.

“What?” Tongue chuckled. “You think a down-on-her-luck reporter and the town’s worst deputy are somehow gonna stop us?” He took a step towards them. “’Cause lemme tell you what’s what: Boulder here and I ain’t evil.”

“Liar!” Cards said with a hoofstamp. “You’ve been making all of our lives a living hell for the last two years!”

“Now see here, girl,” Tongue went on, “we’re a couple of intelligent, caring guys that you’d probably quite like if you met socially.”

“Great,” Dust groaned. “We’re about to get killed by a bunch of retards.”

White Tongue smiled and lowered his voice. “Here’s how it’s gonna work, and it’s going to be very intelligent, quite interesting, and humane: either you give yourselves up now and let us beat you up a bit, though not very much, of course, because we’re firmly opposed to needless violence—”

Boulder let out a snarl. “Or we’ll play a game of ‘loves me, loves me not’ with your limbs.” Whenever he talked, it looked as though the muscles on either side of his mouth were clambering over each other to get out of the way.

“You wouldn’t do that!” Cards cried, knees shaking.

“Oh yes, we would, wouldn’t we?” the giant replied.

“Oh yes, we’d have to,” White Tongue chimed in. “Wanna know why?”

“Why?” Dust asked, a hard expression on her face. It softened for the briefest of moments as she glanced at me.

Boulder smiled a horrible smile that would have turned a mare lesser than Dust into stone, carved her into a smart little statue, and then sold the statue for a pretty penny to some rich guy. Then he sighed, his smile dying as he said in a somber voice, “We don’t do this because we’re evil. We do this because the alternative to us harming you here is worse than death. Please forgive us, ladies.”

“He’s right, ” Tongue added, all traces of humor gone from his voice. “Sleepy Oaks is under quarantine for a reason. A good reason. And by coming here, reporter girl and strange buck in the duster, you have become infected. We don’t know exactly why the report came here, but to you, sir,” he went on, looking at me, “we had completely wiped Sleepys Oaks off the train lines; we truly have no idea how or why a train brought you to this town, and we deeply apologize for this failure on our part.” He sighed. “Trust us when I say that we’ve tried everything we can to prevent the spread of this illness.”

Illness? I thought. There’s no way there’s any sort of infection in this town. Everypony’s so healthy!

The big bastard nodded. “And we’ve done such terrible things to try to keep Equestria safe here that even if the Elements of Harmony were predisposed to help us, they’d first crucify us for the evils we’ve committed trying to keep this kingdom safe.”

“With all peaceful methods exhausted, this has proven itself to be the only viable and least painful way to protect the realm.” White Tongue bowed his head. “Now, let battle be commenced.”

I watched from the floor as the two stallion converged on each other’s position, then stalked up to the mares. Dust whispered something into Cards’ ear, and the little unicorn nodded. A second passed. Two seconds. Three. The pain within me wasn’t giving in. Four. Five.

“Go!” Dust shouted as she jumped into the air, wings pumping hard. She kicked off the wall and rocketed herself at White Tongue. Tongue didn’t even have the time to blink before Dust smashed full force into his face. The two of them crashed to the floor, rolling end-over-end until they hit the row of chairs lining the wall.

With a grunt, Tongue bucked Dust in the ribs and shoved her off. “Bloody hell!” he whinnied, then spat something to the floor. “The bitch knocked out a tooth!”

I looked over at the other stallion. Boulder jerked his head in Tongue’s direction just as a baton smacked across the back of his neck. He shouted, flailing his arm out in the attacker’s direction and hitting thin air.

“Oh Celestia, I hit him!” Cards cheered as she jumped away from Boulder’s awkward flails. “I actually hit him!”

How long’s it been since I took the morphine? A minute? Two? Three? I wondered as I felt the throb of pain die down by the slightest of margins.

“Yeah, nice shot,” Boulder said, raising an arm to Cards. “My turn.” He threw out a massive punch with enough force to probably impale the little unicorn.

“Eep!” Cards yelped as she threw herself to the ground and rolled away. His blow struck the wooden floor and broke through it. In a moment, he was stuck as he tried to free himself, only for Cards to let out a cute little warcry and charge. Maybe it was just me, but I never found female warcries anywhere as threatening as a deep, throaty male one. Cards freely landed baton blow after baton blow to his neck. A heavy, meaty blow to the throat later and Boulder collapsed, gasping for breath.

“Ha! Not so tough now, are you?!” Cards barked.

Dust yelped. I jerked my head in her direction and saw the blood flowing from her nose as she clutched it. Tongue smiled a bloody, one-tooth-missing smile at the pegasus. “You stupid girl,” he hissed. “You have no idea who you’re messing with, no idea the stakes of the game we play. You just waltz in here and think you’re gonna save the world, is that it?”

The pegasus grunted hard as she threw a punch at him. Tongue ducked his head out of the way and grabbed Dust’s hoof. “Let me go!” she howled, jerking her whole body. Her wings began to flutter hard. In another moment the unicorn tackled, and then Dust was pinned to the ground, her wings beating uselessly against the ground.

“If it’s any consolation, I’m sorry,” White Tongue said in a soft voice, pulling a knife out from his coat. “This really wasn’t what momma raised her colt to be.”

Dust’s eyes went wide. “Um, help! GB? Cards? Somepony!”

A blur rammed into White Tongue, knocking him off Dust and into the nearby chairs. Cards jumped in place, looking at the pegasus. “Woo! Did you see that? Did you see that? I’m kickin’ ass! We’re so gonna arrest them and—”

A knife stabbed her in the chest. The deputy mare gasped and flinched backwards as the knife came again. And again. White Tongue jumped to his hooves, the knife clenched hard in his magic. Gritting his teeth, he rammed her again with the blade. And again. And again. Presumably, he did it because nothing livens up a party quite like multiple stab wounds.

“Really wish I didn’t have to do that,” Tongue snarled as Cards fell to the ground. He jerked his attention to Dust, who was just staring up at him. “Now, reporter girl, I’m sorry that had to happen, but it’s either me or you.” He stepped over her body. “And to be honest, I need this job more than you need your life.”

The pegasus gritted her teeth and grunted. Her leg swung upwards. White Tongue yelped just as Boulder let out a growl. My eyes went to the giant as he wrenched his arm free from the ground and stood up. The armor over the arm did not come up with him, only the raw flesh and fur; it remained buried in the floor. As he stood, something was off about him. His neck was too... flaccid? He held it high, but it didn’t quite move like a proper neck should.

“Boulder, could use a hoof here!” White Tongue cried out in an unnaturally high-pitched voice. Then he squealed. “Celestia’s blood! How are you alive?”

I looked over and saw Cards stumbling up into a stand. She was holding a hoof over her stab wounds, a disbelieving stare on her face as she looked at the wound. Or, rather, as she looked at the unperforated duster, then to Tongue’s bloodless dagger. “I... don’t know,” she sputtered, and then spun around.

“Hey, little girl,” Boulder said, smiling as he raised his still-armored leg. “Au revoir.”

You didn’t roll your R’s at all! a voice inside my head shrieked with rage.

“Look out!” Dust shouted as the earth pony readied up a massive punch. But the deputy mare was way ahead of the pegasus. Cards jumped out of the way... and tripped on the tail of her—my duster.

Cards hit the ground hard, grunting as the hat flew off her head and slid over to my corner of the room. Her face in the ground and her rump sticking high into the air, a gleam slashed across Boulder’s eye. He turned his arm to the side and brought it down hard on her butt, spanking her with what looked like enough force to guarantee she wouldn’t be sitting well for a week solid, to say nothing of how nightmarish it would make using the bathroom for that week.

The deputy mare shrieked like a little girl as she tumbled across the floor. She ended up mere feet away from me, furiously rubbing her hindquarters. “Owie, owie, owie!” she cried out, tears in her scrunched-up eyes.

“Cards,” I moaned, grabbing my hat. An eyelid popped open, a teary red eye staring into my face. “Check pocket... above where your baton is... red vial. Drink.”

“Wha’?” she whimpered.

“Drink,” I said in a harsher tone. I grabbed my hat off the floor and put it on.

Cards nodded, still rubbing her backside. To my amazement, she opened the right pocket on the first attempt. Her magic slid into it and pulled out a small vial filled with a red serum. She looked at me for approval, and I nodded. The mare hesitated for a second, then popped the vial’s little cork and poured the liquid into her mouth.

“What... did I just drink?” she coughed.

I forced a smile. “Tiny, tiny healing poultice. Not too helpful for most wounds... might help you...”

“But it’s the wrong color,” Cards whispered, and I inclined my head. “W-why aren’t I dead? Why didn’t the knife kill me?”

My smile went from forced to legitimate. “I don’t just wear the duster because I look good in it.”

“Don’t touch me!” Dust snarled in the background.

“Now, just play it easy, dollface,” White Tongue cooed. “Just come here and—” He let out a blood-curdling shriek. “My ear! My motherfucking ear!” Tongue wailed.

“Cards, go!” I urged, turning my gaze to the fight.

White Tongue was holding his right ear, a torrent of red staining his fur as he screamed. Dust stood there, nostrils flaring and panting hard. And then I saw the disembodied ear clenched in her quivering teeth, and the deep gash running across her shoulder. Dust spat the ear out at him, even spitting Tongue’s own blood into his face, and growled, “Don’t. Touch. Me!”

“Holy Celestia, Tongue!” Boulder roared.

Dust slugged the unicorn in the face, and he stumbled backwards. He twisted around, still screaming bloody murder. And then he shut up. In fact, the whole room went silent. Everypony stared at White Tongue, all staring at the steel blade sticking deep into his breast.

Holding my body up against the wall, I smiled up at the bloody unicorn. He just stared at me, his jaw hanging wide. His eyes went from me, then to the sword, and then back to me. The blade was exceptionally deep within his body, his own body combined with my thrust having helped the deed.

“Now then,” I said, struggling to stay on my hooves, “do you see that metal thing in your chest?”

He nodded.

“Good. See, judging by the fact that you’re still alive, this sword’s probably the only thing keeping your internal organs in place. I can even feel the beat of your four-chambered heart against the weapon’s tip. If I took the weapon out, you’d die. And here’s the deal: you have five seconds to convince me to keep the sword in there, giving you just a slight chance of not dying.”

He squeaked in terror.

“Tell me, Mister Marty Stew, whom do you serve?”

He hesitated, shivered, and then finally muttered something. “The-the one pony…”

I cocked a brow. “The one pony who?”

“The one pony in this… nation willing… willing to do what must be done to protect the realm,” he croaked.

“Speak me this pony’s name,” I ordered.

“Never!” he hissed.

“Speak it or die, cur,” I said with a harsh finality.

“You’re a motherfucking psycho...!” he whimpered. The room was so still that I was sure everyone could hear his whispers.

“No,” I replied, lowering my voice, “I’m a fuckmothering hero. I killed a lot of people to get that title.” Grabbing the hilt with a hoof, I gave the weapon a slight wiggle. “I’ll admit, I don’t quite understand the Equestrian religious philosophy, or if you even have one that I’d understand. If you did, then I’m guessing the Princesses would be your deities, yeah?” I shook my head and chuckled. “Well, in that case... you better pray to your damned heathen goddesses, because you’ll get no mercy from my God. And do you know why?”

“Why...?” he whispered.

“Because He offers no forgiveness to one such as you who has forgotten the face of his father! But more importantly—that outfit you’re wearing is a sin against fashion.”

With a jerk of my hoof, I wrenched the sword out of his body. His was on the ground in an instant, probably dead even before that. I wasted no time wiping the blood off my blade using his atrocious coat and then sheathing the blade. “There’s a moral or two to this story,” I said to nopony in particular. “One is that you don’t wear such nasty outfits. The second is that you do not hurt my friends and associates.”

“I’ll kill you!” Boulder bellowed, charging full speed at me.

“Oh, hell,” I groaned as I realized there was no way I was going to dodge him. Why the hell did you sheathe your sword, you idiot?!

“Hey, you big bastard!” Cards called out. The mare, practically half his size in every way, charged at him. She raised her baton and swung it like a baseball bat. “Payback’s a bitch—and so am I!”

Wherever Cards had been aiming became irrelevant as Boulder’s unarmored leg collided with her, knocking her blow off course. But the metal baton slammed into his throat. Without warning, the stallion uttered a horrible gurgling choke as his limbs went limp. Cards was knocked to the side as the stallion crumpled into a heap. A stallion’s neck didn’t bend like that, I knew.

Lightning Dust let out a single sob as she collapsed to her knees, blood running from her nose and the gash on her shoulder. Cards laid on her back, panting heavy and hard. White Tongue’s body sat before me, a huge hole in his chest. And Boulder was... a little bent out of shape.

Gritting my teeth, I limped over to the fallen pegasus. As strong as she was, the mare couldn’t hold back all her sobs. I sat down next to her, leaning my back against the wall, trying to ignore the raging inferno of pain still living in my leg and ribs. “Hey now,” I cooed, putting a hoof on Dust’s shoulder. “Don’t cry. It’s all over.”

The pegasus looked at me with teary eyes. They were not the eager eyes she had earlier, nor the strong eyes of Chief Blackout; they were more like the terrified eyes that Cards had had only a few hours ago. She hesitated for a moment, then buried her face in my chest, bawling.

Why can’t people ever say, “Oh cool, we just killed some evil ponies. Champagne, anypony?”

Because these Equestrians probably aren’t used to the whole killing business, don’t you think? Might as well play along and act compassionate.

I hugged the pegasus, letting her cry. “How much does it hurt?”

“A lot,” she whimpered.

“Have you eaten recently?”

“What?” she sniffled.

“Have you eaten recently? Is there still food in your stomach?”

“I... yeah, I guess. Wh-why?”

I looked over at my bags. There were just barely within reach. Reaching out with my magic, I tugged on a strap, pulling them nearer to me until I was able to properly grab them. I pulled out a bottled filled halfway to the top with a healing serum. “Drink this. It’ll make you feel better.”

Dust grabbed the potion, hesitated, and downed it in a single swig. She fought back her tears, shaking as the potion affected her. The blood stopped flowing, and she stopped shaking. Then, looking up at me and my offered smile, she hugged me.

I noticed Cards shambling over to us. “I think I knocked him unconscious,” she murmured. “And why does she get comforted when she’s crying, but all you do for me is yell?” She sat down next to me, opposite Dust.

“I was under the impression you didn’t want me to touch you,” I replied.

“Yeah, I don’t. Doesn’t meant I don’t want the chance to say ‘Don’t touch me!’ and bite you...”

I chuckled. “That was dark.”

“I... yeah, it kinda was... Ugh, I need a drink and a long, hard nap.”

“You know,” I said, pointing at Boulder’s body, “if you want to make sure he’ll stay down, you’ve got to beat him right.”

“How’s that go?” Cards asked. Apparently remembering the bottle of Bucking Bronco was in the duster, she slid out the bottle. She took a pull of it and sighed.

I smiled. “You’re supposed to keep beating him after he falls, yelling ‘Stop resisting!’ until he’s practically dead. ”

She frowned. “How can you crack jokes at a time like this?”

“What? You can make jokes but I can’t? You know, if I didn’t make jokes, I’d be so terribly boring. So come on—you’re supposed to become ‘police brutality cop’ and save the world... one incident of police brutality at a time.”

“But I’m not a killer like you, government boy.”

The stupid girl doesn’t realize it yet, does she?

“You keep telling yourself that, Cards,” I said, grabbing a tissue from a tissue box that had somehow wound up by my hooves. I wiped away the tears that had rolled onto Dust’s neck. A few tissues later and I’d helped clean Dust’s pretty face of blood.

“Thanks,” Dust sniffled. “I can still taste it, you know? That awful, awful taste.” She shivered. “I... I just...” She freed herself from my hug, a blush on her face.

The three of us sat there for what felt like ever, shoulder-to-shoulder as we surveyed the destruction. I knew it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes at most, because my pain finally died down. The morphine had taken its sweet time and had finally kicked into effect.

Taking a deep breath, I reached into my bag. I pulled out a titanic needle, an intraosseous needle, the syringe at the end of it filled with that familiar red liquid. Both mares saw it, and both mares gasped. I pulled off the needle’s cap with my magic, holding the actual syringe with a hoof.

“What is that?” Dust asked.

“A syringe,” I replied, holding it above my leg.

“What for?”

“’Nen intraossären Zugang,” I said. “I’m damn sure Boulder broke my leg, so I’m going to inject myself directly into the bone marrow. Besides, a needle through the bone hurts like you wouldn’t believe, and right now I’m hopped up on morphine. This might be the only time I can stomach the pain and use me the shot.”

Rubbing my leg with a hoof, I found where the fractures weakened the bone the most. Before anypony could say anything, I stabbed myself with the needle, digging through bone fracture. The mares both flinched from the wound as I grabbed the screw-top of the needle and began to drill into the bone. Even with the dose of morphine, I couldn’t help but scream.

Gritting my teeth and continuing to drill into the bone, I growled a prayer:

Vater unser

der Du bist im Himmel,

Geheiligt werde Dein Name.

Dein Reich komme.

Dein Wille geschehe.

Wie im Himmel, so auch auf Erden—!

I felt the needle pierce into the marrow. Panting hard against my broken ribs, I injected the healing serum directly into the bone. Just as soon as the contents where in, I grabbed the corkscrew-like top and drilled out. Between grunts and gasp for breath, I continued the prayer, anything to distract myself from the hole in my bone.

Unser täglich Brot gib uns heute.

Und vergib uns unsere Schuld.

Wie auch wir vergeben unsern Schuldigern.

Und führe uns nicht in Versuchung,

Sondern erlöse uns von dem Bösen.

Denn Dein ist das Reich und die Kraft und die Herrlichkeit in Ewigkeit!

The needle was out. It was finally out. I tossed the bloody, dotted-with-bits-of-my-own-bone needle onto a chair. My body collapsed back against the wall as I growled in pain, grunting to keep the agony at bay as I felt the serum begin to heal my broken bone. But as the bone slowly reassembled itself, I realized that I had to move the leg to make it work as efficiently as possible. When leg bones move, they help pump the blood in your extremities, I knew; that’s why if you stood at attention for long enough without moving, you’d pass out. And as the healing potion eventually seeped out of the bone and into the rest of my leg, I’d need that pumping ability to clean up everything.

So I flexed the leg, the bone still not healed. I fought down the urge to put a hoof in my mouth and bite as I pumped and flexed the leg. Soon—I wasn’t sure how long—the pain died down in my leg and ribs. I couldn’t imagine how horrible the pain would have been without the morphine circulating within me. And to that end, I didn’t want to imagine.

Somehow, I realized, I wound up splayed on the floor. Looking up, I saw both mares staring down at me. Dust was gnawing on her hoof, and Cards was glancing between me and Boulder. I smiled. “I think we won.” Then my face grew serious. “For a moment there, I didn’t think we were going to survive that.”

Dust brushed the hair out of her eyes. “Yeah, I... neither did I.”

I swallowed. “If that kind of thing ever happens again, and you honestly think we’re going to die, and I’m incapacitated, go into my bag.”

“Huh?”

“In my bag there are two weapons, a pair unlike any other weapons on this Earth. They were crafted by the Hand Gottes, given to me by an angel.” I grabbed her hoof. She didn’t resist as I took her hoof and slid it over to my right bag. “They are powerful, but limited in use. That’s why I never use them: I’m always convinced there’ll be a more pertinent time to use them later. They’re weapons of utter last resort. But if I can’t help you, if you’re going to die, and if you can’t find any other option, use them. ”

The pegasus hesitated. “What do they look like?”

“Sort of like the letter P if you put it on its side.” A moment went by, and then I added, “Just point the skinny end at the bad guys, and then think of it like a crossbow.” Dust didn’t reply to that, just stood there. Slowly, she withdrew her hoof from my grasp.

Cards took a breath. “You said that being unconscious for more than five seconds probably meant brain damage, right?” she asked, and I nodded. “Then... what does ten minutes unconscious mean?”

With a grunt I shambled to my hooves. I rubbed my newly healed leg. A jerk of the leg later and I managed to pop several joints, eliciting a pleasant snapping sound that made both mares flinch. “That means he’s dead,” I said in a matter-of-fact tone.

The unicorn’s face went white. “That’s.... that’s not true. He can’t be dead!”

I pointed at the earther’s body. “Tell me, does a pony’s neck bend like that?”

“I... I...” She tried to stand, only to collapse to the ground. “No, that’s... No!”

Shaking my head, I sauntered over to the corpse and knelt down. I rubbed his neck and windpipe. “Yep. It appears that you smashed his windpipe when you hit him.” I touched at his spinal column. “What’s more, you decapitated him.”

“But his head’s still on his body!”

I sighed. “Let me state that better: you internally decapitated him. This head is no longer attached to his spine, but the flesh and muscles still are.” I shrugged. “Ever see a pony get hanged? That’s how they’re supposed to die: the weight of their own body tears their head from their neck.”

“I... I...!”

Touching his body, I found a pocket on his suit. In it was a wallet with ten bits (which I pocketed) and a... a picture? I stared at the picture and put the mental pieces together. “And to be honest, I need this job more than you need your life,” Tongue had said. “This really wasn’t what Momma raised her colt to be.” I turned around and held the photo out to Cards.

“See that?” I asked.

“N-not from this far away,” the Cards murmured, staring at the body.

I walked over to Cards and showed her. Smiling back at Cards from the photo were two foals, a little filly and a colt; they were hugging Boulder’s huge arms. The stallion smiled an honest, happy-to-be-alive smile at the camera. I noticed that there was no mare in the photo at all, and that got me thinking.

“What’s that?” Dust asked, running a hoof through her mane.

“It’s a family photo, I’d think,” I said. “Notice anything odd about it?”

Cards sputtered something utterly incomprehensible. She panted hard, pressing a hoof over her breast.

“Where’s Mom?” Dust asked, tilting her head.

“How much are you willing to bet this guy was a single father?” I asked, pulling out the Bits from a pocket. “I’m willing to bet ten Bits. You?”

My heart froze in my chest, and I dropped the photo, though I did re-pocket the ten Bits. “Scheiße!” I barked, jumping up and running for the doorway.

“What?!” Dust gasped.

“We forgot that one agent from the door!” I shouted back, tearing through the hallway. As I practically dove into the waiting room by the entrance, I found the pegasus stallion standing there, a pensive look on his face. “Freeze!” I snarled, and he didn’t move.

“They weren’t bad ponies, Tongue and Boulder,” he said. “And you really don’t know what you’re dealing with here, you so-called ‘government boy’.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” I scoffed. I pulled out my sword just as Lightning Dust scrambled into the room. “So make me understand what I’m up against.”

He shook his head.

I pointed the sword at him. “Okay, let’s try that again. What happened here?”

“I can’t. That is a question about the times of days gone by, no?”

“Excuse me?”

“How can I tell,” the stallion said, “that the past isn’t merely an illusion??”

“Do you answer all questions like this?” I asked.

“I can only say that I’m probably not a rapist,” he said quickly. “More than that I cannot say.”

“That’s stupid. You’re stupid,” I accused. “And who are you, even?”

He shrugged. “What’s the use in giving a name to a bundle of vague sensory perceptions? Boulder and White Tongue just called me ‘Jeepers’. Don’t know why. I helped them clean the place up, made it look dirty from the outside. Important business, you see.”

“Uh... can you at all help me?”

Jeepers inclined his head. “I’m useless to you. Not that I know anything, mind you.” The stallion hesitated. “There’s a room upstairs. Used to be the old doctor’s study, now it’s our sort of command center. You’ll find things there. I wish I could help you more.”

“Do you not want to work with this... conspiracy?” Dust asked.

He hesitated. “There’s no easy answer. They pay good, and the money is... money’s money.”

“And that means?” I prodded.

The stallion glanced to the side. “Boulder and White Tongue found me in a ditch by the side of the road. I couldn’t remember my name, and they were so kind as to help me.”

“Are we having two or three different conversations here?” I asked, rubbing my cheek.

Jeepers sighed. “Look here, so-called government boy—do your business and leave me be. I’ll just do as the butler always does: tidy up.” He tightened his black fez and tried to step forwards, but I wouldn’t let him. “The least I could do those two good ponies is bury them.”

I noticed a piece of rope lying on a nearby table. A part of me jousted with the idea of knocking him to the ground and tying him up, but I held that part of me down. “Stay here,” I ordered, pointing at the ground. “Leave this room, Jeepers, and I’ll make sure you find your way back into that ditch.” I looked over his naked body. Barring taped to his underside, there were only two place he could’ve been hiding a weapon. I grabbed his hat, shook it about, and put it back on his head. No weapon. That left only one place left, and I really didn’t feel like searching there.

“We clear?” I asked, and he nodded. I backed out of the room, almost knocking into Dust as I entered the hallway. Turning my head, I saw Cards stumbling through the hallway, gasping for breath as tears streamed down her face.

“No... no... no...” she begged the air around her. Cards took a swig from the Bucking Bronco as she ambled forwards. “I’m not a killer... I’m not a killer...” the mare sobbed.

I walked up to her and grabbed the bottle. “Give it to me,” I said, and she grunted.

“No! It’s mine! I want it!” she snarled, fighting me for the bottle.

“No,” I said with finality, jerking the bottle from her hooves.

Cards looked at me, her lips quivering. “I’m not like you,” she whispered, and collapsed to the ground. Tears streamed from her face and unto the wooden floor.

Setting the bottle off to the side, I sat down next to her. “What’s wrong, Cards?” I asked, and she didn’t reply. “Are you scared? Afraid?” I went to put a hoof on her shoulder, but stopped when I recalled her desire to bite me. Lightning Dust was standing in the nearby doorway, watching us.

Cards looked up at me, still crying. “Afraid?” She sniffled. “I’m hanging out with a murderer who killed the only friend I ever had—I’m fucking helping him! I ate cheesecake with him, Celestiadammit! And now... now I’ve... Boulder... I...”

I shook my head. “No, I didn’t mean it like that. That’s not what you’d be afraid of. So I’ll be more specific.” She looked down at the floor, watching the tears drip onto the wood. “Are you afraid for your mortal soul?”

Cards sniffled. “What?”

I sighed. “The pony is a social creature. That is why we’ve been able to form societies held together by complex, intricate cultures. We instinctually seek the company of others. That’s part of the reason why a pony left to his or her own for long enough will eventually go insane. And you, Cards, have just killed—a mortal sin in most all cultures, one way or the other.

“In the faith of my homeland, you see, there are a set of tenets that ought be followed. They define the basics of what’s right and what’s wrong. And the sixth tenet of the faith is ‘you shall not murder’. It does not say ‘you shall not kill’. I mean, yes, you could interchange those two things sometimes, but to murder and to kill are two different concepts.

“What you did back there was a killing, yes. It was not a murder. Murder is wrong. Killing is just a fact of life in this world we live in. The faith makes the distinction quite clearly. The faith teaches that there is no shame in taking somebody’s life for the right reasons.” I glanced up at Dust, her pensive eyes staring at me. “I think I can guess that this is beyond your comfort zones, eh, girls?”

“No...” Cards whispered. “No, there is no difference between murder and killing. Both are wrong and horrendous! I... you can’t... we can’t...”

“Do Equestrians believe in the concept of Hell?” I asked.

“Huh?” the unicorn asked, tilting her head.

“Do you believe in Hell? I’ve seen you use the phrase ‘the hell’, which I’ve since tried to imitate, which implies you have something with the word. Our word is die Hölle. Yours is Hell. Do you have one, that place where bad ponies go when they die called Hell?”

“Hell is an actual place?”

“Ah, so you don’t. And yet... why do you seem so distraught by your perceived sin, Cards?” I asked.

“Because ponies shouldn’t kill other ponies!” she shouted, burying her face in her hooves.

“Yes, I’ve come to understand this is the Equestrian point of view,” I said. “To you, it’s all wrong. To me, there’s a very fine, very distinguished line between what’s wrong and what I must do to protect the ones I care about.”

Dust spoke up. “Does, does that mean that we’re the ones you care about? A-at least in this case.”

I gave the pegasus a look. “I’d be lying if I said I’d want any harm to come to you ladies. That, of course, could just be my culture speaking, but I’d like to think it’s because I’m just a nice guy who doesn’t want to see nice girls get hurt by bad ponies.”

The pegasus, rubbed her shoulder. “I , uh, see.”

“It’s the kind of thing I’ve done my whole life, really,” I chuckled, “helping ponies, stopping bad ponies, and so forth. It’s just the thing you do in lieu of a hobby in Teutschland.”

“Your nation sounds... strange,” Dust remarked, glancing at the pony in the other room.

I smiled. “Ma’am, you don’t know the half of it, like how strange our government is. You might get a headache if I tried to explain to you the role of Mister Pendergast.”

“Mister Pendergast?”

I sighed a ‘here goes’ kind of sigh. “Also known as King Pendergast, but don’t say it to his face. If you called King Pendergast ‘King Pendergast’ to his face, that would be considered an insult; it implies he’s somehow inherently better than you, which would imply you’re lower than him, which would mean a whole slew of things that throw our whole system out of order. If you ever meet him, you should call him ‘Mister Pendergast’ in Equestrian, ‘Herr Pendergast’ in Teutsch; otherwise, when speaking of him in the third person, you’re free to refer to him as King.”

“Huh?”

“Don’t get me started on how convoluted that whole thing gets—how Teutschland doesn’t technically have a king because we’re a constitutional republic, but the king is the ‘König der Teutschen’, the King of the Teutschen, which is somehow a different thing despite Mister Pendergast being the de facto Oberkommandierender. I don’t have time to explain it to you, really.

“Look, the moral of that whole story is that, well, everyone is equal in Teutschland.” I shook my head. “Just rest assured we Teutsche are the only reason you can sleep soundly at night; we defeat, we kill, the monsters that want to hurt you.” I adjusted my hat. “As the only Teutscher in this half of the planet, I guess that job falls to me. The strong do what they can; the weak suffer as they must. But if the strong are righteous, the weak need not suffer, for the strong provide.”

Cards grunted. I looked over to see her curled into a ball on the floor, a drip of drool on her lips. Her eyes were closed, a cute little snore escaping her lips. Dust pointed down at her, “Did she just...?”

“Yeah, poor thing,” I muttered, picking Cards up. “The girl’s day has probably been a literal hell for her. I think she just finally collapsed from it all. And, to be honest, I can’t blame her.”

“Wait. What are you doing to her?” Dust asked.

“I’m hefting her over my shoulder so I can carry her, Miss Dust,” I said, tossing Cards onto my back.

“Okay, but why?”

“You expect me to just leave an emotionally traumatized mare all alone down here?”

“And what about that other guy. Jeepers, right?” She pointed over her shoulder. “What about him?”

“What about him?”

Dust looked over her shoulder and froze. “He’s gone.”

“What?”

“I said, he’s gone!”

I pushed past Dust and entered the room. Sure enough, no Jeepers. No matter how much I searched, I couldn’t find him. I didn’t think to actually check the door until I’d scrounged the rest of the room. “Scheiße!” I hissed. “Ten Mark says he opened the door and strolled away.”

“Mark?” She shook her head. “Nevermind that. I’m sure I would have heard him leave.”

“Apparently not,” I sighed. The mare on my back gurgled something. “Quiet, you,” I said. In response, Cards groaned and wrapped her arms over my shoulder, her face snuggling up to my neck. I shook my head and wandered into the hallway.

“What now?” Dust asked.

“Upstairs. I get the feeling that things are about to get worse. We see if there’s any information in here, and then we’re going to leg it.” I made my way through the hallway and up the stairs. On the second floor, which looked very clean and proper, I poked through the rooms until I found the study. Dust made her way in behind me.

“Hey,” she said in a quiet voice.

“Hmm?” I hummed.

“When Cards said that she was hanging out with the stallion who killed her only friend, what did that mean?”

I sighed as I looked at the large desk near the window. “My father used to tell me that there were three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth. It would be pointless to tell you, really—just know that I’m willing to defend myself, even if the attacker is your friend.”

“I...” she tried, but fell silent.

I opened up a large drawer and found one of those gutted records. After putting it upon the dark, wooden desk, I found the play button and hit it. The voice that came out was soft and had a vaguely arrogant tone that made me want to smash his head against a birdbath.

“Listen up, boys. You’ve been dispatched to this little town to make sure it stays put, and to prevent anypony from getting hurt. A local couple’s already gone missing when they went into the swamp, our effort to keep them out of it earlier failed hard.”

He sighed. “We’re going to have to do everything we can to keep the peasants here safe. If that means having to ruin their lives to ensure they still have lives, so be it. Keep them safe. Keep the people from knowing. They must never know what we had and still have to do for them, and in exchange we’ll keep your loved ones in good health. You are authorized to use any means you see necessary save for outright murder to do this.

“And remember: without the you-know-what, anypony going too far into the swamp will be killed by the entropic fields. If, for some unfathomable reason, you need the thing, contact me; I’ll see if I can arrange it. I wish you two well—” he hesitated, then added “—and pray that, in the end, the Princess—no, that the Princesses forgive us for keeping this nation safe.”

The recording clicked off. Then I noticed a symbol carved into the gutted record player. It depicted a crossed pair of violins behind the proud head of a mighty elk. The crest of some royal house, I was sure. I glanced over to Dust, who was just staring at me. “Something up?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I... I know that voice.”

“Do tell.”

“That... I heard it a few years back when I was in Songnam; it’s the voice of Duke Elkington, Duke of Marcia. But—” she hesitated “—why would Duke Elkington be involved with this? He’s a good pony, always holding public feasts and parties for everyone. He’s literally the most down-to-earth and nicest of all the nobles.”

“Because he’s an aristocrat; being evil is their only pastime, aside from wenching, fathering bastards, and generally being jerks.” I paused. “And Songnam. What’s that?”

“Er, that’s the famous ‘Song City’, where Duke Elkington rules from.” She ran a hoof through her mane. “It’s known for its public parties, music and dancing, and generally just being a fun place. Heck, the town mayor is actually elected by a musical tournament. The most popular musician is elected mayor.”

That’s a horrible way to elect somebody. I nodded. “And where’s it located?”

“Uh... it’s not too, too far away from here, I guess.” She gestured over a shoulder. “But what about those entropic fields in that swamp? You heard that, right? Dark magic?”

I looked over the nearest desk. Aside from ten scattered Bits, which I pocketed, there was nothing more of interest. I trotted over to the other desk. On it were two photos, a faded black-and-white of a relatively pretty mare, the other of two smiling children. This was Boulder’s desk, I was sure.

Poking through one drawer landed me with a nifty feather pen. That was a keeper. Another drawer held five Bits. Also mine. The last one held a few envelopes, two addressed to Boulder, two to White Tongue, and one addressed to an unknown address. The last one, I noticed, was an unsent letter, the other four were received ones.

As I put the letter onto the desk, I found that they’d been hiding a cookbook with a bookmark. I set the book onto the desk and flipped to the bookmarked page. ‘Marty Stew’ the page’s recipe declared. “Huh,” I mumbled, looking at the organic, all-vegetarian ingredients. “Yuck. No, thanks.” I put the book back. That’s when I saw a wrapped chocolate bar sitting in a dark corner of the drawer. I pulled it out and offered it to Dust. “You like chocolate?”

“Chocolate? What about that dark magic!?”

“So, does that mean you don’t want?”

Dust snatched it out of my hoof and put it in her bag. “Of course I want it, don’t be ridiculous. I freakin’ love chocolate,” she grumbled, and I smirked.

“Figured. Girls love chocolate” I waggled a hoof at her. “And before you accuse me of sexism, I’ll have you know that it is a statistically validated stereotype.” Putting the hoof down, I tossed the five letters into my bag; I could snoop through the mail of dead ponies later.

She took a breath. “And dark magic? Tell me please that there’s no such thing, right?”

I rubbed my chin. “Well, I’ve been around the world, and I’ve seen some things. It’s become pointedly clear to me that this world is really, really big. And in this big, big, really big world of ours, nothing is impossible.” I shrugged. “Though from my point of view, most all magic above simple levitation is ‘dark magic’, at least as you’d probably understand it; that’s just a cultural and religious belief amongst my people. So, you’ve got to understand that your definition of ‘dark magic’ and my definition of ‘dark magic’ are two totally different concepts, I’d wager.”

“Wait. What? That’s crazy. Magic’s just magic; there’s nothing dangerous about it, at least nothing like that.”

“No, it’s logical.” I sighed. “Look, it would be wrong of me to push my morals and beliefs upon you, and not a little bit preachy and annoying, I’d wager. Although I am pretty sure the only reason Equestrians can use magic so freely is because my countrymen are out there, exterminating those forces of darkness with extreme prejudice before they can make their way across the ocean and to Equestria.” I looked at her. “You are aware of the old fairy tale about Nightmare Moon, right?”

She nodded.

“She was corrupted by these nightmarish forces that we fight every day back home in the Reich. Because we fight and exterminate them, Equestrians can rest easy at night, even if you don’t know anything of the blood we shed for people like you.” I paused, then added, “Er, the Reich is just another name for Teutschland.”

Dust didn’t reply.

“So, personal beliefs aside, it’s clear to me what I’ve got to do now: journey to Songnam and speak with Duke Elkington. If there’s dark magic afoot, and if innocents are being harmed, then I’ve got to help out.” I did a quick search of the room, but found nothing else of interest. “So, are you down with coming with me, Miss Lightning Dust, Ace Reporter?”

“I...”

“It’s okay if you say no, ma’am,” I said with a warm smile. “I shouldn’t expect you to want to see what other things are here; we are already so far beyond your comfort zone.”

Dust sighed, lowering her head. “And I get the distinct feeling that I’m in too deep to give up... that if I just walked away now, some seedy government types would come knocking on my front door. And then that’s the last anypony ever sees of Lightning Dust.”

Cards muttered something in her sleep, her horn poking into the back of my neck. I pushed her horn aside. “So, you’ll come with me?”

The pegasus hesitated, and then—

There was a shout from outside. Cards still on my back, I trotted over to the window to see what it was, but the window was too fogged up to see out off. I tried to rub the window, but the fog was on the outside, and so my efforts did me nothing. In a moment of clarity, I grabbed the gutted record player, realizing I could use it as incriminating evidence against Duke Elkington should ever the need arise; it found its way into a bag. I weaved my way out of the room and into an adjacent room, and its window was in the same state.

“The hell...?” I muttered, trotting down the stairs.

“What’s going on?” Dust asked, jogging alongside me.

“I don’t know,” I replied, coming to the front door. I tried the front door and found it wouldn’t budge. It wasn’t locked, just stuck. I tried to push it open and balance Cards at the same time, but found I could only do one or the other.

“Uh, here—I got it,” Dust offered. I stepped back and let her work. She pushed and rammed her shoulder against the door. When that didn’t work, she gritted her teeth, stepped back, and jumped into the air. Of course, this technique worked; she smashed through the door, and went rolling to the ground.

I chased after her. “Miss Dust, are you...” The words died on my lips as I gazed out at the seething mob of ponies before the house. Some were carrying torches, some were dressed like deputies and carried batons, some had rakes, other pitchforks, and one strange mare was carrying a rolling pin. Even with the setting sun above, I could make out a few faces: Chief Blackout, that buck from the bar, Doc Dome and his family, and the pegasus known as Jeepers. Dust was lying at the foot of the porch, rubbing her head and plucking out splinters.

“Um... hello,” I said. “I’m totally the good guy, here, I swear.” Cards moaned and rolled off my back. “Uh, I don’t know what this might look like to you, but it’s probably not it. If we’d just all sit down and have a nice cup of tea—”

“That’s him,” Jeepers said calmly, pointing a hoof at me. “That’s the buck that done locked me up in that house all this time, and was gonna do the same to those two ladies.”

A large stallion took the reins of the mob as he stepped to its head. He was wearing a silver star badge, a stetson, and a set of the local police fatigues. His black mane looked oddly gray in the evening light. “So, you’re that government boy, huh?”

“Yeah, he is, Sheriff,” Doc Dome chimed. Behind him, the crowd murmured murderously.

I sighed, rubbing the bridge of my nose. “Why the hell does nopony ever want to sit down and talk? Do you know just how many wars and deaths could have been avoided if people just talked and worked out their differences and such? Neither do I, but probably at least one.”

“Wait, wha’?” Dust stammered, looking over the mob. “What’s all this?”

“Don’t worry, Ma’am,” Sheriff Strong said, adjusting his hat. “We’ve got this covered; this is justice.”

Cards rolled over again, putting her belly to the sky. I was sort of wishing I’d had the good sense to remove her... my duster from her after she passed out. I had the feeling it’d come in handy soon. “So,” I said as diplomatically as possible when you were probably about to get attacked by an angry mob, “can we please just sit down and work out this misunderstanding? I really, really don’t want to have to hurt you.”

“A pity,” Sheriff Strong sneered, “’cause we want to hurt you.”

“Of course you do,” I sighed as the Chief Blackout pointed her baton at me.

“Get ’im!” the Chief shouted, and the entire mob charged.

“I am so going to die,” I huffed, reaching for my sword.

“Wait. What?” Dust asked, stumbling to her hooves.

I made the fatal mistake of glancing at the bumbling pegasus just as a baton—a metal one, I was sure—smacked me upside the jaw. Maybe I still could’ve grabbed my sword and fought back, but I just stood there as another one hit me just above the eye. Then I saw Chief Blackout grab my face and shove my head into the porch’s wooden floor.

“That’s for earlier,” she hissed, then spat on me.

“Wait, no! What are you—” Dust tried, only to be silenced by a deputy.

“Ma’am, you’re safe now. We got the bastard,” he said, putting a hoof on her shoulder.

“Hey, hey, there ya go,” I heard the Sheriff say in a low, soft voice. Cards moaned, but Sheriff Strong cooed, “Shoosh, shoosh, shoosh—Daddy’s got ya. Daddy’s got ya.”

I glanced up and saw him cradling Cards in his arms. Chief Blackout flashed him a venomous look, and he shot her a harsher one. She held the look as he picked his daughter up and hefted her over his back. That’s about the time I realized that I was being tied up, and about the time that the Chief kicked my head.

“Where are you taking him?! Hey! Hey!” Dust shouted, but nopony listened to her.

I think I would have been in a lot worse pain if I hadn’t been on the morphine. Mmm... morphine. The crowd began to roar with approval as they picked my body up and hefted me with them, their shouts drowning out any and all of Dust’s protests. As if they were a single tidal wave of flesh, fur, and hatred, the mob surged around me, taking turns smashing and hitting me as I was carried through them.

They carried me down hill. They carried me into town. They carried me into the town square. They carried me to the gallows.

Gallows. Fantastic. Those were new, I was sure. Probably hastily constructed, and the wood was still a bit splintery as I was tossed onto its deck. A rather grim rope hung from a large wooden beam over a trapdoor. New or otherwise, its purpose was unmistakable.

The mob stepped back to get a good view of me, the sunset casting an unearthly glow of malice over the crowd. Chief Blackout climbed up and looked down at me. “So, this is what we’ve come to?” she said, shaking her head. Then she smiled. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“I like how you have a moral thing against murder,” I said as if discussing the weather, “yet the ponies here are all but shouting for my blood. Screams a bit of hypocrisy, no?”

She kicked me. “Mind your place, dog!”

“I am. As it happens to be, that place would be by your hooves. Tied up. About to buy the farm,” I said.

“Shut the hell up, or I’ll hang you by more than just your hooves!”

I blinked. “Wait. You weren’t going to do—I’ll be good! I’ll be good!”

A cold, calculating look crossed her face as she looked at me. “Where did you think I was going to hang you by?”

“Oh, I don’t know. The arms. Maybe the legs. Something that’d make me very uncomfortable.”

“Ever see a pony get hanged? That’s how they’re supposed to die: the weight of their own body tears their head from their neck,” I recalled myself saying only minutes ago.

The crowd began to chant. “Hang him! Hang him!”

Her cold look morphed into something wholly unholy. “What about your neck?”

“What good would that do, Ma’am?” I asked, trying to shrug. “I mean, yeah, if you want to be remembered as that one really, really evil mare that was later arrested and tried for murder, by all means.”

She hesitated. Then she grabbed the rope. “I’ll give the rope some slack. You won’t strangle to death, just hang there.”

“That’s taking an artistic license with biology and how the neck works!” I protested, struggling against my bonds. “I get that you probably didn’t care for equine anatomy in biology class, but this isn’t justice! This is m—”

“Shut up,” she snarled, kicking me in the gut. As I gasped for breath, she put the noose around my neck. She grabbed me and forced me to my hooves, only to drag me to the middle of the trapdoor. “This is justice, pain and simple. You hurt us, we’ll hurt you back plenty... and with interest.”

Some unseen pony hoisted the rope up, tightening it so that I had no chance of simply running. I looked out into the crowd and into their dark, hateful expressions. “I’m on your side, people!” I yelled. “The pegasus who turned me in? He was working with them!”

“Shove a sock in it!” a mare yelled, throwing a stick at me. Now that I understood a bit more about the common sock and its strange relation to the Equestrians, I really didn’t want to think about the implications of that stock sock remark.

Then I saw Cards, standing shakily besides her father. In no time at all, I located Lightning Dust standing in the front rows of the mob, her jaw gaping. She looked like she’d just seen a ghost, and that ghost had tried hitting on her, and it had been mildly successful; yet her eyes were as if she were staring straight into a solar eclipse, awed by its beauty, blinded by the light, and paralyzed by its majesty. I suddenly calmed down. Of course they weren’t going to be able to hang me, I knew. At the very last, most dramatic second, Cards or Dust were bound to stand up and scream “No!” and come to my aide. They would certainly explain things, and then engulf this whole town in a wave of awkwardness, whereupon I would be released to go as I pleased.

That was certainly going to happen.

So I smiled warmly, expecting my rescue any second now. They messed with the rope around my neck, and I just stood there, idly smiling. They prepared to release the trapdoor, and I simply smiled. This is going to be so hilariously awesome, I eagerly thought, trying not to laugh as I imagined looks there were going to be on everypony’s faces when it happened.

It was going to be awesome.

I was going to be saved.

To think otherwise was silly.

I wondered if it would be Dust or Cards. I even looked at them, trying to figure out which one would dramatically come to their senses first. One voice in my head had a Bit on Cards, another had three on Dust.

This was going to be good. The only thing missing was a heavy downpour plus the clap of thunder. But at least it was dark enough to still look cool. I looked down at Dust and smiled. She had wings, so maybe she’d fly up here and—

The trapdoor creaked and swung away. The rope tightened as it jerked my neck nearly to the snapping point. Gravity pulled me down, but the noose held me up. I choked for air, swallowing only broken, uneven gulps. I tried to exhale, but all the came out was sick, wet gurgle.

“Holy hell!” I tried to shout, but failed as the words became so much coughing. The rope had been poorly tied; the fall hadn’t internally decapitated me, but I was choking. Hard. I reached my hooves up and clawed at the noose, only to remember that my hooves were still tied and bound.

Reality check. I was being hanged. My neck was unbroken, and the pain I felt on my neck (probably because of morphine) was too terribly unbearable. Cards and Dust were just watching, looking too shocked to act. Four minutes. I had at least four minutes to live. It took anywhere between four to eight minutes to strangle a pony to death, which is why strangulation is the worst, most time-consuming way too kill a pony. So, given elapsed time. I had perhaps three-and-a-half minutes to live. Good to know. It was always so nice when you could count down the seconds till you died.

Think, damn you, think! a voice encouraged.

I willed myself to try stay as calm as possible, even over the approving roar of the crowd. Doc Dome, I saw, was shielding his daughter’s eyes from me. Trying to gulp down air through my tight throat, I tried to think.

“Hey,” Chief Blackout snickered, “how’s it hangin’?”

“Did anyone ever tell you that you were clever?” I choked, not even sure if my words were coming out as words. “Because they were lying! And if you must now, I’m hanging slightly to the left.”

I needed to cut the rope. I needed to it it faster, before they could stop me. I needed something good. I was going to die. Think. Think. Think. I needed to—needed to—needed to—There is one option.

My bags. I still had my bags! The idiots had tied them to me! I had all of my things still. I tried to think. What did I have that could help—You have them, you know. Don’t you think this is one of those times when you have no other choice?

No, no, I could get myself out of here without them. A minute. A minute had passed. Lieb’ Gott im Himmel, I’m going to die. Hard. And like a dog.

Use them. Trust me.

“No,” I gurgled. How could I even reach into my bag? I groped and prodded my body with my telekinesis. An elated burst of hope hit me as I found where they’d bound my body. The rope had been hastily done and wasn’t well made at all. It came off me easily enough, only shaving a minute off my countdown to strangulation. I was starting to see black spots dance across my vision, the corners of my eyes already getting fuzzy.

“Hey, get the ropes back on him!” the Sheriff called out. Immediately, a pair of ponies brought the ropes up from the ground and to the gallows’ deck.

I reached into my bags, trying to grab something—anything—that might help me. I grabbed it. A sizable metal object intricately crafted by the will of an angel and of God Himself. My magic caressed it and its brother. I felt ropes around me.

Now. Or. Never...

I swallowed my paranoia and fear of a more pressing matter tomorrow and pulled it out. Really, the only thing that could have possibly made things any better would’ve been picking up chicks at the abortion clinic. Assuming those were a thing in Equestria. Best not think about that... or think about how that thought guaranteed me a cozy spot in Hell.

“Now!” I howled.

A click, a tap, a squeeze.

Fire. A light that would have disfigured hell. A sound so ferocious and angry it captured the imagination—seduced and destroyed it. It was as if Adonai Himself were bellowing with all His godly rage at the world. The beam holding my rope exploded into wooden shrapnel, and I dropped to the ground, the noose still around my neck. A piece of the gallows hit some poor stallion on the head; he didn’t get back up after that.

And there I was, lying on the cold, hard dirt. I panted for my life; the crowd went silent, just staring at me. Slowly, coughing and choking for air, I rose to my hooves. I cocked back a lever on the device as I read the inscription engraved into the metal and wood on the weapon’s side: “Καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει.” As I flipped it over and put it in my bag, I read the half of the inscription carved into the weapon’s other side: “Καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.” Put together, it meant: “And the light shines in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

Pulling the rope off my neck, I drew out my sword, another tool the idiots had forgotten to take off my body. The closest pony to me was Sheriff Strong. I pointed my sword at him and shouted, “Enough is enough, you blithering idiots!”

The crowd just stared at me. Sheriff Strong attempted to back away, but I stayed almost on top of him. “N-now hold on just a minute,” he tried.

“Yes. Exactly. A minute. Hold onto it. Please do.” I smiled a mirthless, toothy grin at him. “See, if you’d just done this in the first place, there’d be a lot fewer hurt feelings. Instead, you acted out of thoughtless emotion.” I poked his breast with my sword. “These are your people, Sheriff Strong. That psycho mare up there is your wife. I’d like to think you’re the leader here, yes?”

He nodded. “I...”

I spied Jeepers standing to my side, his expression utterly blank. With a swing of my sword to the side, I nicked his neck. It was nowhere near enough to kill him, but it was enough to send him clutching for his throat and terrify the crowd. Predictably, the mob seethed away from the body. “Is there a doctor in the audience?” I laughed, eying Doc Dome. Slowly, the Doc ambled out of the crowd and to Jeepers, trying his best to stop bleeding. He’d be successful, I knew, and Jeepers would live on with only a neat little scar to show for it.

A part of me contemplated disemboweling Jeepers with the sword on the grounds that “it’d be really, really fun—and a great way to get rid of some stress”. Sadly, the better angels of my nature got the best of me, and I turned my psychotic grin back to Sheriff Strong. “So, Sheriff,” I glowered, bringing my sword back towards him, “here’s how—”

“Government boy!” a mare’s voice cried out. I froze as Cards staggered in front of her father, panting hard and looking sick as she put herself between me and the Sheriff.

“Oh, what’s up, Cards? Thought you were passed out,” I said, shrugging as nonchalantly as a recently hung stallion could.

“Please, please,” she begged, “don’t hurt my father. Please!”

“Cards, sweetie, don’t,” Sheriff Strong murmured, putting a hoof on her shoulder.

“No!” she shouted. “I’ve been nothing but a failure all these years! I couldn’t help Glasses, couldn’t help Mom, couldn’t help anypony ever! But today I’m, I’m standing up for something...” She turned her fiery eyes to me. “You are not gonna hurt my dad,” she growled. If it were anypony else, it might have been intimidating. As it was, I just broke out laughing.

“I wasn’t going to hurt him, Cards,” I snickered, trying to get a hold on myself. “I was going to tell him something: I’m the good guy.”

She blinked. “Huh-bu-wha’?”

My smile went down a few notches on the psych-o-meter. I rose my sword up, pointing it at the heavens. I shouted out in the most inspirational way I could manage, “Who I am doesn’t matter! All that matters is that you people and I are on the same side. I came to this town from across the world because a divine being guided me here, and also because I got lost, but never mind that. I am here to end this government conspiracy once and for all. I’ll kill all those who’ve been hurting you.

“For too long have you people been oppressed. For too long have you ponies not stood up for yourselves. You need to organize, because you—yes, you—are the strong ones here. If you refuse to play ball with those who’d bully you, then you’d come to see that you are legion, you are stronger.” I sheathed my sword. “I’m not here to hurt you, no; I’m here to help you. And besides, you couldn’t hurt me even if you really, really tried.” Liar... “Ich bin ein Mann aus Stahl! Ein Teutscher, das bin ich!”

The crowd didn’t reply. Many of them stared at me. Others stared at Cards. A few stared at Doc Dome.

I glanced over at Lightning Dust, still silently standing at the forefront of the crowd. “Oh, and might I be so kind as to thank you for standing up to the misinformed mob and helping me, Miss Dust? You were oh so helpful in pretty much the same way hemorrhoids aren’t.” I affixed Cards with an acid look. “Oh, and I’d like my duster back now. I was fine with lending it to you earlier, but now I feel that it’d do me a world of good again.”

Slowly, Cards undressed. She handed me the duster. I thanked her and took it. A moment later and I was fully equipped again. I walked into the crowd. They split away from me as I sauntered past, their faces expressing most every emotion short of happiness.

“I-I-I,” Dust sputtered, “I didn’t know what they were doing or... and... I didn’t want to believe it, I—”

“You sure do have yourself a way with creative problem solving, don’t you?” I remarked back at her. “Because were that you up there in my stead, I promise you that I’d have cut through every one of these ponies to save your life. You only watched and gaped. I think we both know how this ends.”

Lightning Dust stood frozen and stared at me as I went. I didn’t think about how much my neck throbbed with fresh bruises and skin-layer hemorrhages as I walked alone through the crowd and out of the central plaza. I didn’t think about Cards as I walked down the town’s dirt streets. I didn’t think about Lightning Dust as I reached the town’s border. As I stopped by a large rock to catch my breath, I didn’t think about any of it. The only thing on my mind then was just what I’d ask Duke Elkington when I met him, and just how much force it’d require before he answered those questions. And the answers were “I don’t know” and “as much as I can get away with”, respectively.

I sat down on a large nearby rock, and soon I was lying on my back. Rubbing my bruised neck, I muttered, “In Nomine Patris, et Prophetae, et Spiritus Machinae. Amen.” As much as it physically pained me to acknowledge it, I was at a loss. I was all alone again, and that meant I once again had total freedom of action. And so too was I all alone again, nopony to offer me alternate viewpoints, nopony to help me out when I didn’t know the locale, nopony to talk with but the imaginary voices in my head.

Think... So, I had to get to Songnam? How was I to get there? Think... What did I need right now? A map or a local guide. Think... Where would I find either of those? Think... Oh, can you tell me, can you tell me how to get to Songnam Street? I sighed, rubbing the bridge of my nose. Could just give up. Now, there was a suddenly appealing thought. I could just let these Equestrians tear themselves apart, laughing as Duke Elkington pulled some overly elaborate scheme that ended with him doing something evil. All the while, I’d be in Canterlot, loitering around and pretending to write an ethnography about the people of Equestria. At least that was a plan with an ending I could count on. But this? What in God’s name was I doing out here?

I hoofed at the letter in my pocket, frowning. Of course, if I just left the situation as it was, the bad guys would win. My frown deepened as I pondered just how badly things could spiral if I didn’t offer Equestria the services which it needed. But it wasn’t as if they were Teutsche, wasn’t as if Equestria collapsing would really harm my countrymen. So long as I didn’t actively help Elkington, it wasn’t as if I’d face any punishment.

Besides, there was a metaphorical brick wall in front of me, and I hadn’t had the presence of mind to bring a ladder. Songnam was who-knew how far away, and I was in the middle of nowhere. Maybe I could do a random sidequest while I waited for something interesting to happen, one that was less convoluted than... seriously, what ever was I doing? What was my goal in this endeavor? Expose the conspiracy? Hunt down and execute its members? And why even do it, really, other than because “my guardian angel thought it’d be a good idea”?

Why?

Why?

Why...?

Because it was all I knew how to do anymore. It was all there was, the only option, the only rational decision, the best way to occupy my time. It was because I just had to keep trying to do good while making the world a better place simply out of a reflexive drive to push forward. Because the opposite was to just sit around and be a normal pony, and that idea could go fornicate itself by repeatedly opening and closing a spiky umbrella in the anus—and do so while I inappropriately yodeled off in the background.

And my guardian angel knew well that fact, didn’t he? You had to appreciate that kind of manipulation, and I had to take pointers. All the angel had to do was give me an origami swan pointing me in the right direction; I would see what I wanted and obey his will without ever once doing anything out of the ordinary for me. I got what I wanted, he got whatever he wanted. It was... oddly symbiotic.

I snickered. There, my obligatory internal conflict done and done, just like any proper hero. That was total proof that I was clearly the hero of this quest. Only heroes had mental issues and then got over them. And since heroes never lost, I was sure to win at whatever it was that I was doing. I rolled off the rock. “Now then, to find a way to get to Songam,” I said with a smirk.

My ear twitched as I heard the feminine voice from up the road, from the direction of the town. Swearing under my breath, I dove behind the rock. Peeking through the bushes that bordered the rock, I saw a little mare shambling down the road, two stuffed bags slung over her back. The whites of her eyes were red, a fresh-looking bruise resting on a cheek. Her black-with-red-stripes mane looked just as ruffled as the rest of her body did. Walking alongside the little mare was another mare, an opal-coated pegasus with bright orange eyes. The way the two walked looked as if they were leaning on each other for support.

“Stop,” Cards muttered, looking at the rock. “Stop here. I need to catch my breath.”

Lightning Dust nodded, sitting herself down on the rock. Shifting myself silently, I noted a large cut across Dust’s back that certainly wasn’t there before, as well as the disheveled state of her feathers. “Gotcha,” Dust sighed.

I laid down on my side and pressed myself against the back of the rock as Cards also sighed. The two were silent for what felt like hours. Then, Cards asked, “What do we do now? Because I don’t know, and I don’t want to go back there.”

Dust put a hoof on her ruffled wing. “We should have helped GB,” she said darkly. “It was my fault that happened, my fault he almost died, my fault we’ve got to do this ourselves.”

“That’s not what I asked,” Card replied. “We can do this ourselves, Lightning Dust.” She let out a mirthless chuckle. “All we gotta do is figure out what to do, and we’re set. We don’t need him, and wishin’ for his help won’t help us none.” Cards was silent for a moment. “So, what do we do now?”

The pegasus shifted herself. “Cards, I’m a reporter. It’s my job to investigate and uncover the truth. GB said something about going to Songnam, and I... suppose that’s our best shot as well. Don’t suppose you know a way there, do you?”

“I... yeah, a boat. There’s a place not too far away with one, and maybe we can get a ride from there,” Cards replied, and that piqued my interest. “Wait, why Songnam?”

Lightning Dust explained to her the gist of my plan. Cards didn’t ask any questions. Afterwards, Dust asked, “But what if GB’s in Songnam when we get there?”

“Look, that government boy... we can do without him, Dust, and so what if we found him?” Cards replied. “Dust, if you’re willing to work with me, I’d be willing to work with you. Together, I’m sure we’d be able to save Sleepy Oaks and get you that story.”

The wind picked up, swaying the many trees by the rock. I took the time to slowly, quietly, stand up. Standing behind the girls, they didn’t notice me. Really, I couldn’t think of why I was trying to hide myself other than because it was sort of fun.

“And you’re sure we couldn’t just, say, try to tell Princess Celestia what’s going on here?” Dust probed, and Cards glanced at her.

“Trust me, it wouldn’t work. We’ve tried to do it, but never can,” Cards replied. “There’s a lot to that, but... look, we’ve tried it, and it hasn’t worked.”

“And so we’ve gotta do it ourselves.” Dust sighed long and hard. She looked at her hooves, at Cards, at the sky, at the forest, at Cards again, and then just finally at the ground. “This is my fault,” she said so quietly.

“Stop saying that,” Cards said in a tone bordering weakly on commanding.

“Look, I don’t care what you think, but GB’s words won’t leave my head. He would have helped me, but I didn’t... I was too scared , shocked, and stunned to do anything but stare. Now he’s gone, and like it or not, I’m pretty sure he’d be infinitely helpful to us. He’s the only one of us who knows how to swing a sword, at least, and where we’re going, I’m pretty sure a buck with a blade would be handy.”

Cards looked around—never once checking behind herself—and swallowed. “S-somepony once told me if I ever wanted to deal with my great guilt, I had to fight for something,” she said, and Dust gave her attention to Cards. “He said I’d never be able to get rid of the guilt, but if I could make the world better for other ponies, I’d have some semblance of solace. He told me I could never make it right, but I could at least make it better.”

She licked her lips and sighed. “Dust, until a few hours ago, I really didn’t have anything to live for. I had a job I was no good at, barely any income, was a social outcast, and had only one friend ever in the whole wide world.” The mare rubbed her eyes. “Now... I have something to live for, a small sliver of hope in an otherwise pointless existence.”

“What?” Dust asked, inclining her head.

Cards hesitated. “A drive to give meaning to the death of my best friend. It’s the only thing left in my pathetic, wretched existence. He died because I made a mistake, died because I was an idiot. With him dead, I truly had nothing worthwhile in the world. And I... I can’t live with the idea that he died for nothing.” She shook her head and said, “I cannot.”

Dust was silent, so Cards went on. “But if his death could mean something, could lead me saving Sleepy Oaks and everypony within it, then maybe I could sleep at night.”

“Glasses,” Lightning Dust muttered, and Cards’ eyes widened. “You mentioned him earlier, and said that GB killed him.”

Cards shook. “That government boy swung the sword, but it was my actions that put the sword at Glasses’ neck. If I hadn’t made a dumb choice, a stupid, foalish attempt to make something of my life, he’d still be alive. But he’s not, and it’s my fault. I hate that government boy with every fiber of my being, but I knew that he... he was the only one willing to help me, to allow me to give Glasses’ death meaning.” She gave Dust a dark expression. “And if had to make a deal with the murderous devil himself to do that,” she said, gritting her teeth, “so be it.”

“Murderous devil?” I interjected in a high-pitched tone. The girls shrieked and flailed to the ground. “I beg to differ!”

“You!” they both gasped.

“Yes, I am he and you are they, yet we are us,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “And it’s not murder when a stallion thrice your muscle mass is charging you—his purpose about as far away from ‘hugs and kisses’ as a bottle of scorpions taken anally was from being a good idea.”

“How long have you been standing there?” Dust gasped.

I hopped onto the rock. “Eh, about long enough to hear everything you said. I mean, really, you had to come to this rock?”

“Uh...” Cards droned.

“The universe likes it some coincidences, doesn’t it?” I chuckled.

“What do you want from us?” Dust asked, then gulped.

I hopped down off the rock, and the girls nearly stumbled over themselves as they backed away from me. That got me thinking, and a dark grin spread over my face. So I spoke in a deep voice, punctuating every new syllable by dramatically stepping towards the girls: “Wie gehts euch, Frauen?” I stopped walking. “Mir gehts gut.”

“What are you saying!?” Cards demanded, her eyes wide.

My smile went from demented to openly friendly. It was hard to stay so serious when I wanted to laugh so hard. “Cards,” I said, “I don’t mind you, and you don’t like me—I get that. Really, I do. But that doesn’t mean you get to spread lies about me. Also, when you say ‘devil’, are you referring to a specific being, like to dem Teufel, or just a word?”

Dust inclined her head. “A... a devil is just, like, a mean pony and stuff. I guess there are a few, um, phrases with the word in it.”

“Ah, so to you it’s like Hell: just a word with no actual religious significance,” I said, putting a hoof to my chin. “Your whole theology is screwy to me, but it’s your theology and I won’t question it.”

She took a breath. “What do you want from us, GB?”

I shrugged. “See, I have a problem: I want to get to Songnam, but I don’t have the first clue how to get there. Cards here seems to be the only pony here who knows how to get there. This is most problematic because I don’t quite trust you, but as chance would have it, I find myself in need of assistance.”

Dust hesitated, looking between me and Cards. “You... want us to help you?”

“That’s one way of putting it, yes. We both have the sames goals, if different methods.” I adjusted my collar. “Now, I trust you as far as I can throw you—wait. If I got high enough and threw Lightning Dust, couldn’t she just spread her wings and glide about, which would mean that I could actually throw her very, very far? And if I threw Cards off a high enough place, she’d just tumble down and die a horrible, if hilarious, death. And then Dust could keep flying around and yell, ‘Enjoy gravity, loser!’”

They just stared at me.

“Come to think, this whole scenario could suck the metal off doorknobs. Hmmm.” I shook my head and sighed, “Nihil novi sub sole.”

“Wha...?” they both tried.

“Um, it means ‘nothing new under the sun’. It’s just a phrase we have back in the Reich. Point is, I’d rather not work with ponies who wouldn’t help me if I were being lynched, and yet I appear to need to work with such ponies if I want a chance of getting any farther in my quest.”

“I’m sorry, okay?!” Dust blurted out. “I got scared and froze! What more do you want from me!?”

I nodded. “I know; I heard you two talking,” I replied, and Dust blinked hard. “Still doesn’t change that neither your nor Cards tried to help, although it makes it easier to excuse. Cards was in the same boat, right?” I asked, and said mare weakly nodded. “So, I suppose I’m not so much angry as I am just really disappointed in you two. Still, we have the same goals now, and it is my chagrin to say that I think I need your help.”

Dust swallowed. “An alliance of convenience?”

Again, I nodded. “Cards wants to give Glasses’ death meaning. You want to get the story of a lifetime, one guaranteed to shake this nation to the core and make your entire career. Me? I have this pathological need to keep going, a reflexive instinct to push forwards and fight evil. Each one of us has a different reason, but the same goal. This is merely a means to an end. We would be comrades of necessity.” I licked my lips. “I highly doubt the ponies that reddened themselves with Discord’s blood would have been seen breaking bread together afterwards. In fact, I know they didn’t, but they had the same goal in mind beforehand.”

The girls all exchanged glances.

I looked at Cards and said in the silkiest voice I could muster, “You made a deal with the devil once before, care you to make another one?”

Cards looked at me long and hard. She took a breath. “Do I have the choice?”

“Yes, you do,” I said with a nod. “While I still don’t trust you wholeheartedly, if you would be my confederates, my sisters-in-arms, then I would help you achieve your goals as best as I can. So the choice is: win or lose.”

“Which one are you?” she hesitantly asked.

“That depends on whom you ask. If your name is Duke Elkingon or otherwise you fight for evil, I am you lose. If we were confederates, I am you win.”

Dust swallowed and held her hoof out. “I’ll work with you if it means getting that, uh, story.” We shook on it. “I promise you, GB, I’ll stand by you as you’d stand by me.”

I nodded. “And as shall I be by yours, Miss Lightning Dust.” But if you betray me again...

Cards looked at the ground. “After you left, GB, that pegasus guy riled the crowd up again and...” She bit her lip hard. “He convinced them you were lying, and that by helping you, I had betrayed everyone I loved. Dust and I raced to my house and I grabbed everything of mine I could into these two bags.” Did that include her socks? “But then... then...” Cards teared up. “She helped me get out of there, and now I don’t have anything left in the world.”

“I understand what you mean, probably more than you’d think,” I replied.

She took a breath, sighed, looked at her hooves, and said, “And if I have to make a deal with the devil, let it be with the devil who can get results.” Cards offered me a hoof. “I don’t like you, government boy. In fact, I hate you. But if you can promise me what I want, what choice do I have?” We shook on it, Dust nodded as we did.

“There,” I said. “We’ve all made a pact. Like it or not, we’re all in this together, my confederates.” I took a breath, rubbing my eyes. “And Cards would you know anywhere we could spend the night? Somewhere where they wouldn’t bother us about what happened back in town?”

Cards hesitated, then nodded.

“Good. Because tomorrow, my dear lady, we’re all going to Songnam, and you all look like you need to sleep, or else you’ll all die of exhaustion. We can formalize this plan when you two aren’t about to keel over dead.”

Author's Note:


Footnote:

Well, that was a chapter. I tried to keep this short, but I have this problem with writing too much. And yet we’re still in “Act One” of Jericho, though.
Did you know that while writing the morphine scene, I actually conducted a real interview with a trained nurse to make sure the information about morphine I presented was 100% medically accurate? That interview also helped me to write the scene where White Tongue was stabbed, which was medically accurate. Ditto for the scene where I hanged the narrator. Expect realism, because reality likes to make people suffer!

Your thoughts, opinions, and especially constructive criticisms are beyond welcome!

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