by DannyJ

First published

Comment-driven. A mercenary company is contracted to protect the city of Dragonfall, the murder capital of Equestria. Somehow, it's all downhill from there.

The mercenaries of the Sunheart Company have been contracted to protect the city of Dragonfall, murder capital of Equestria and generally terrible place to live. All agree that they've hit rock bottom, and that things can't possibly get worse than this. But in Dragonfall, it can always get worse.

A comment-driven story with progression decided by popular vote.

Chapter 1: This is Dragonfall

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Princess Celestia once famously said, "Everything in this world, no matter how dark, has a spark of light and goodness in it that makes it worth saving. Except for Dragonfall, which is irredeemable."

She said it in jest (probably), but having now seen the city for myself, I agree completely. This place is a sty. I've woken up in literal gutters cleaner than Dragonfall. Unfortunately, I signed a contract, and the Sunheart Company have been hired to protect the city for at least a year. I'm pretty much stuck here until it comes time to renew my contract in the spring. Even then, if I do decline and manage to get out of here, I'll also be out of a job.

I can't go back to civilian life now. Not after everything I've seen and done. I can imagine their disbelieving stares now, their judgemental gazes. I so totally went to fight in an actual war, and I was a total badass too, but none of them would believe me! I don't have any scars to show for my fighting, because I was too good, and they'll all think I'm either a liar or that I was just involved in some sissy pie-throwing war. I can't face that. My dignity is already at an all-time low from being in Dragonfall, and I cannot sink any further from here.

My name is Lieutenant Agony, and I am a distinguished mercenary veteran who first signed on with the Sunheart Company ten years ago, because a career of war and fighting sounded preferable to spending any more time with my mother. In the intervening time, my brothers and I have won ourselves gold and glory both overseas and within Equestria, but none of it offered any consolation through my endless nightmares. Which, again, are not as bad as spending time with my mother. I get the feeling, however, that Dragonfall will be worse than both.

As I march my platoon through the streets, I contemplate my immediate future with a sense of despair and dread. The very fact that I'm here in the first place is worrying. Most cities in Equestria don't need to hire mercenaries to protect their walls, because they usually have a town guard for that if a regular police department isn't enough. Dragonfall did have a guard, I was told. Then they all died in a monster attack. Apparently this is a pretty regular occurence here. I am not filled with confidence about this job.

And again, the city itself is absolutely disgusting. We've only been marching for fifteen minutes, and I've already seen a dead homeless guy being eaten by rats. And while that obviously tops the list of disturbing sights so far, it's far from the only omen we've run across.

A public masturbator streaked through our ranks at one point, until one of my soldiers punched him and broke his nose. A malnourished orphan colt stole another soldier's wallet mid-march, or tried to at least, because he also got punched and broke his nose. And then the platoon were stopped by City Maintenance, who had closed the street ahead for reasons of giant unexplained craters in the road. But their forepony did eventually let us through after he was punched in the face and broke his nose (Private Punchy has had a lot of fun today).

Of course, in hindsight, I think we probably should've gone around the road like the forepony said. The craters were actually so deep that they exposed the city's sewers, and about half of them had turned into geysers of waste, leaking sewage all over the road. Still, we walked through all of it anyway, because we couldn't very well turn back. That would've been like admitting defeat, and I refused to give those City Maintenance bastards the satisfaction.

Still, not for the first time, I wonder why in the name of sanity I and the rest of the Sunhearts are here. Certainly I didn't consent to this. And I'm a lieutenant, commanding an eighth of the company's strength. My voice is supposed to matter when the captain calls a vote, but madness won by 5-4 and promptly declared no take-backs or do-overs. What's even the point of democracy if my side doesn't win, I ask?

My subordinates and I are currently on our way to our new home for the forseeable future, the northwest barracks in the city's western wall. Dragonfall is built like a fortress, with the entire city surrounded on all sides except the the north by miles of huge, grey stone walls. The northern end of the city, where we are now, has no wall, because it instead creeps right up onto the Crystal Mountains, like a drunken stallion getting too touchy at a party. The mountains contain the mines that are the city's only wealth, and so this cesspool that we're in is called the Mining District.

Given that the Mining District exists to harvest crystals and gemstones, not coal or metal, one would normally expect the city's mining operations to be relatively clean work. But they would be wrong. It's barely any better than the sewer road. The smog in the Mining District is so thick that I could choke on it, and I'm not even sure where it's all coming from. Seriously, I haven't seen any forges or factories around, or any kind of industry that could explain its presence. There's just a massive smoky haze covering the north end of the city for no discernable reason. This fulfills every expectation I had of Dragonfall.

I beckon one of my sergeants with a whistle, a red stallion with a thick black mop of a mane, and he comes over to walk with me. Breakspear, his name is. I've always liked him. He takes himself seriously, never smiles, and has utter disdain for almost everypony else around him, which is a rare and appreciable quality to a cynical, bitter mishippope like myself. Also, he works out, and his body is frankly a work of art. I could stare at his muscles for hours. No homo though.

"What do you make of the city so far?" I ask Breakspear in hushed tones.

"Permission to speak frankly, sir?" he says dryly.


"It looks and smells like a mule's backside. This smog is coming from nowhere, walking through that road was worse than the first time I killed a pony, we've passed two corpses on the way here, and I'm pretty sure I can hear screaming in the distance."

I can too, now that he's mentioned it. Sounds like a dying cat.

"Wait a minute, where was the second corpse?" I ask.

"There was a homeless guy in an alley we passed, being eaten by rats."

"No, I saw that one. What was the other?"

"Some animal on the side of the road. I think it was a fox once, but it was hard to tell."


I lapse into silence, unsure of what to say in response to that. Breakspear and I get along, but our conversations are typically short and to the point. One of these days, I'm going to have to find a topic that we can have an in-depth discussion about, but it's so hard to determine what he likes. Come to that, I'm not really sure what I like either. Maybe the answer is to bond over our hates? In that case, I'm sure Dragonfall will serve my purposes well. Still, to avoid things getting awkward, I clear my throat, thank him, and send him off again to rejoin his squad.

Ahead, the western wall looms ever larger. I relish the thought of finally getting out of the cold and settling in, and I imagine my platoon must feel the same. This far north, the temperature drops quickly in the evenings, and it was already late in the day when we all arrived. Even now, I feel cold enough to shiver. I won't, though; I have an image to maintain.

Soon we all arrive at the small fortress built into the base of the great wall, making our way into the barracks through an archway protected by a guardstation. These are the northwest barracks, and I have no idea what to expect inside, so I enter with baited breath.


Even the new living quarters are disgusting. The beds of the northwest barracks are neither clean nor comfortable, instead being dusty and full of insects. Cobwebs hang from the ceiling, and the whole place has fallen into a general state of decay. It's as if my platoon are the first ponies to have set hoof in here for decades. There are even rats scurrying about. In fact, there are more rats in here than there were in the streets of the Mining District.

My soldiers are already actively complaining about the situation, as I would be if it were me in their place.

"Okay, okay, calm down!" I shout. "I get that this is far from ideal. Believe me, I was expecting our barracks to be in livable conditions as well. We've all been lied to. But there's no use crying about it. Our spaces have already been assigned, and the other barracks are probably just as shit as ours anyway. So we may as well pull together, act like adults, and try to make something of this. Okay?"

I glare at all the ponies around me, looking as many in the eye as possible. They all give me some sullen looks, but they're not about to argue with me. Besides, we've all been through worse than this. A mercenary's life is not always a comfortable one. The only issue here is one of raised expectations. They thought that playing city guard would be less unpleasant than trench warfare. If only they'd known that they were going to Dragonfall.

At that point, one of the mares of Breakspear's squad pops her head into the room.

"Sir? The basement level is flooded."

The news makes my eyes bug out.

"What?" I shout.

Sure enough, she's right. It is flooded. Completely flooded. As in, the entire basement level is totally underwater. From the top of the stairs, I stare down in the murky depths. Several others crowd behind, also gawping at the sight. My eye twitches slightly as I wonder whether I could get away with murdering my captain.

Also, I'm pretty sure I have a mouth ulcer.

1. Just deal with it and try to fix up the northwest barracks.
2. Move the platoon into a hotel instead and make a NEW barracks.
3. Find the captain and have a shouting match.

Chapter 2: The Surplus Population

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>Find the captain and have a shouting match.

Town Hall is down south in the Trade District, so I have a long walk back through the city. It's dark and cold out as I make the trek, but my anger keeps me warm (and my scarf helps a little too, I guess). I've brought along a pair of unicorn guards to protect me out in the city, a crossbowpony called Trigger Happy and a spearpony named Golden (whose full name I refuse to utter, because that would just be encouraging him). Both are experienced veterans, and just as mad as I am about the barracks situations, so they were quick to volunteer for the job. Always like enthusiasm in my soldiers.

This time, my escorts and I take care to avoid the Street of Shit. Instead, we go down Dragonfall's sorry excuse for a high street, a long road lined with grimy restaurants, crummy hotels, and dusty shops. But a ways down it, something odd happens. The road starts bending, and the shops give way to run-down houses, and suddenly we're not on a high street. Now we're... somewhere.


The change is stark, and the transition was sudden, but it was also surprisingly subtle. I didn't even notice it until we were already in this residential district. It's like I looked at the ground for three seconds too long, missed a turning, and suddenly I'm in a completely different geographical location. This must be what teleporting feels like. I have no idea where we are or how we got here. I certainly couldn't begin to describe how to reach Town Hall from here.

"Where are we?" I ask. "Where the hell are we?"

The streets here are a maze. The layouts are unnecessarily complicated, full of dead ends and looping paths. All of the houses look the same, built of crumbling grey bricks with shoddy straw roofs. And none of the streets are signposted. Literally none.

For a while, I wonder about that, as we aimlessly go in circles around the maze of streets. I soon find my answer when we come across several street urchins crowded around a burning barrel. Apparently wooden street signs make for good kindling. The orphans flee before I can order my guards to beat them all to death, so we just take their place by the fire while I grumble.

"I hate children so damn much."

I have wings, so in theory, I could just fly out of here. But that would entail abandoning my two guards, and being alone in Dragonfall at this time of night is basically a death sentence. I don't even trust the open skies to keep me safe, because Dragonfall's skies don't have a history of being murder-free any more than its streets do.

"Sir, why don't we ask for directions?" asks Golden.

"From who? The gutter rats?"

He shrugs.

I sigh, roll my eyes, and walk over to entrance of the nearest narrow alleyway. By this point, it's so dark out that I can't see any significant distance into the alley, but this is Dragonfall, so I give good odds that there's either a homeless pony or a corpse in there. On a whim, I pick up a nearby tin can and throw it. There's a clattering noise, and sure enough, a startled pony cries out in response.

I give up and throw my hooves in the air. I am so done with Dragonfall. Or I wish I was, anyway.

"Wha...? Whatcha want there...?" the pony says in a drunken slur as he crawls out from the darkness. He appears to be a grey-green stallion with a white beard and a beanie hat.

"Hello, local degenerate," I say disinterestedly. "Listen, this might be a huge waste of time on my part, but do you know the way to Town Hall?"

The hobo crawls forward out of the alley, pulling himself along by only his forelegs. His hind ones are bent in unnatural ways. He grins a toothless grin at us.

"Might be I do... Ya got any change?"

I wrinkle my nose in disgust; he smells like dead fish.

"If you help us first, then maybe, yes."

His eyes widen, and his mouth forms into an 'O.' Then he flips up to balance his whole body on his forehooves, leaving his mangled hindlegs dangling in the air, and exposing his cutie mark of a can of baked beans. This close, I can see that his legs are actually rotting and full of maggots. He has actual maggots eating his legs. I resist the urge to retch.

"Thissaway!" says the hobo, plodding off down the street with his back half pointed skywards.

My guards seem just as disturbed as I.

"Sir..." Happy begins.

"I know," I whisper. "This city is full of demons."

"I'm scared," says Golden.

Happy hugs him gently.

"It'll be okay," he whispers, tears in his eyes as he pats Golden's back. "It'll all be okay."

"...That is the gayest shit I've ever seen in my life," I say, bluntly.

The shamefaced guards break apart. After a moment's pause, they take my lead, and the three of us follow after the hobo.

"Nopony ever offers me a hug when I'm scared," I grumble under my breath.

The hobo leads us through several winding streets and back alleys, and eventually, we do escape the maze. However, in following him, we somehow end up on a rooftop, and I'm not entirely sure how that happened either. One minute we're at street level, then we take a turn, and suddenly... rooftops.

"What is with this place?" I shout. "Who builds a city this way? This is anarchy!"

"Not far now!" the two-legged hobo promises. "We're almost there!"

We soon come to a stop on a shingle rooftop with a massive, gaping hole in it. The distance down to the streets below is now truly immense. I could've sworn on the way that we weren't climbing. I didn't even feel the slight incline of a slope. And yet, down below, I can make out Dragonfall Town Square, where we gathered for our swearing-in ceremony before our trip through the Mining District. Which must mean we're now... on top of Town Hall?

I look over to the hobo, who dives down into the hole in the roof as if it were a swimming pool. I step over to the hole and flutter down into it, but my guards take a while to follow. Fortunately, it's only a single floor's drop, so their hesitation is brief.

"What in the Sam Hill?" says Golden.

The floor we've emerged onto appears to be a ruined office. There are desks and lamps and papers strewn over a filthy, rain-soaked carpet. Shattered glass litters the floor over by the broken windows, and the far corner of the office is missing a wall, looking out over Dragonfall. The floor by the corner also sags down dangerously, as if the office is about to sink. I look over to the hobo, who now lies on the carpet beside a small door on the opposite side of the room from the hole.

"Here ya go!" he says, grinning.

I slowly walk up to the door, and give it a tentative knock. To my surprise, a bespectacled pink mare opens it a few seconds later.

"Sorry, but this entrance is for staff only, not for public use."

Fuming, I shove past and into the warmer, dryer offices inside, my guards following suit. The mare protests, but I tell her to shut up. She appears to be the only one present, as the rest of the office is dim and quiet. The hobo also attempts to follow us inside, but I slam the door on him. Then I turn back to the mare.

"Excuse me, but why is this an entrance at all? Is there a reason that ponies commonly enter Town Hall by going through a disused, ruined office that can only be accessed through a hole in your damn roof? Come to that, mind explaining to me why it is that your streets lead onto your rooftops for no damn reason? Or hell, how about just the question of what in Equestria happened to that office, and why is it not being fixed?"

The mare smirks. "New to Dragonfall, huh?"

"Oh, thank you. Snark. That's very helpful."

"Hey, you're also being snar—"

"Happy, slap her in the face."

Ever obedient, Happy removes a hoof-boot and strikes her without hesitation, sending her reeling. The mare looks back and gapes at us, holding her face.

"Y-You...!" she splutters. "You can't just come in here and—!"

"Call the cops," I snap.

A lonely knocking comes from the door.

"Hello?" says a mournful voice. "You promised change."

I groan.

"Golden, go give him whatever you have in your pocket. Happy, stay here while I go to speak with the captain. If she acts up again, kill her."

"What?" the mare shrieks.

"Aye aye, sir," says Happy, saluting.

As I walk on through into the quiet, empty office, I smile slightly to myself. Police brutality is fun. I should do it more often.

Town Hall is incredibly understaffed, but I nonetheless run into several other ponies in my search for the Mayor's office. Most of them look utterly miserable, and can barely summon the energy to even glance in my direction as I pass. Everywhere I go is dimly lit and dusty, and there's a yellow tinge to everything that makes it seem like it's been forever since the place was last renovated.

The decor is also pretty creepy. One long hallway I passed through was filled with framed pictures depicting various states of equine suffering. There were ponies drowning, ponies starving, ponies dying of disease, and one memorable picture had a pony getting eaten alive by some enormous chimeric monstrosity. I hope against hope that it was just the work of a morbid artist, and not a depiction of an actual event; if such a beast ever does show up in Dragonfall, I would be contractually obligated to fight it, and I don't want to do that.

The building is huge, and just as badly signposted as the streets, so it takes me a while to find the Mayor's office. It turns out to be on the third floor, about halfway down the building, not a place I ever would've expected it to be. The hallway outside has no ceiling for some reason, but the carpets are brand new, and the walls look freshly painted. It's the only place in Dragonfall I've seen so far that doesn't look like shit.

When I go up and knock on the door, a gruff voice permits me to enter, presumably belonging to the Mayor.

The office doesn't look much like an office at all when I walk in. It's more like a warehouse. Aside from a few bookshelves, a desk, a coffee table, and a few office chairs, the whole room is bare. The floorboards are exposed, the wallpaper has been stripped off recently, and everywhere I look there are crates of alcohol stacked to the ceiling. Though, at the very least, it's less dusty and yellow than most of the rest of the building.

For a moment, I am bewildered by all the crates, but I quickly lock my gaze onto the two ponies sharing a bottle of wine at the big desk. One is a fat brown earth pony with a rat's nest of a beard, an eyepatch, and a sailor's hat. I don't know why the most esteemed Mayor of Dragonfall chooses to dress like a pirate, but I'm beyond caring by now. The other pony is my boss, the stallion I hate most in this world.

"...Agony? What are you doing here?" he says, frowning at me.

Captain Blackheart is still in his ceremonial armour, minus his helmet, fashioned in the style of Canterlot's Royal Guard. Its golden sheen is marred by a layer of grime, and even his normally vibrant lavender coat and feathers seem greyer than they did yesterday. In fairness, he is getting on in years, but I wouldn't be surprised if stress was a greater contributor. After all, he has been in Dragonfall nearly as long as I have, a whole half a day. That could turn anypony grey.

"Oh, I don't know, captain," I say, glaring at him. "Why do you think I'm here?"

"To complain about something?"

"To complain about something!" I give him a mocking smile. "That's right! Now, take a guess what it might be."

Blackheart takes a drink from his wineglass.

"The fact that we're in Dragonfall, and that you don't want to be here?"

"That too, and believe me, I could spend hours talking your ear off about that particular decision. But no, I'm actually here because the northwest barracks are completely uninhabitable."

That gets him to sit up.

"Why? What's wrong with the northwest barracks?"

"What isn't wrong with the northwest barracks? They're flooded, they're dusty, they're cold, they're infested with vermin, and one of my subordinates found police tape and an outline on the floor in the armory."

From behind his desk, the Mayor snorts derisively.

"Boo hoo," he says, leaning back in his chair and putting his glass down. "That could be describing anywhere in this city. My own secretary lives in a cardboard box because her house was burned down by one of the orphan gangs. You have it easy, you entitled little shit. Wrap yourself in plastic for the bugs, and sleep in a damn hammock to avoid the wet. You know, like the rest of us do."

"Yeah, no. I know the rest of you Dragonfallers are basically just one evolutionary step above the mesohippus, but my soldiers and I have standards."

Blackheart laughs.

"You don't have standards, Agony."

"I so totally do have standards!" I shout, rounding on him.

"No you do not. You are a total slut, so you have no sexual standards. You eat food straight out of the trash, so no hygiene standards either. And as for moral standards, hoo boy, if I had a penny for every atrocity you've ever been responsible for..."

"Okay, that burger? For a bet. As you know well, you lying scumbag. And I was talking specifically about living standards. I refuse to house my soldiers anywhere that would be condemned if it were built in any other city in Equestria.."

"Oh, wah wah waaaaaaaah!" The Mayor mimes rubbing his eyes. "Is the wittle baby scared of a wittle disused barracks? Oh mommy, hold me! Save me from the bad rats, mommy! I'm scared of wiving in a wittle active cwime scene, mommy! Waaaaaaaah!"

I glare at the Mayor.

"I am not accepting this situation!" I yell.

He stands and leans in, our faces pressing up against each other.

"Tough shit! The northwest barracks is what you get, you drama queen! In my day, we lived in our half-demolished ruins and liked it! Now get out of my office, go back to your station, and never bother me again, or I'll put you and yours on sewer patrol!"

"That's not even a real thing!"

"It is in Dragonfall!"

1. Back down, go back to the barracks, and don't make any further trouble.
2. Unleash the hobo on the office and THEN go back to the barracks.
3. Punch the Mayor in the face.

Chapter 3: Unforeseen Consequences

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>Unleash the hobo on the office and THEN go back to the barracks.

I smoulder all the way back up to the top floor.

My guards are waiting for me when I storm into the dingy office. Happy snaps to attention and salutes me, while Golden, having been picking his teeth with his spear, hastily drops his weapon and mimics his partner. I give him a disapproving look.

"Where's the hobo?" I ask.

Happy casually opens the door to the ruined office we entered through. The hobo, slumped against it, falls at my hooves with a yelp. I stand over him as he spits a glob of phlegm onto the carpet, and then looks up at me with another toothless grin.

"Oh, hey again!" he says, cheerfully.

"What's your name?" I ask.

"Fishstink, at your service!"

He flops around on the floor. I think he was trying to stand up and bow.

"...Fishstink," I say slowly. "...Appropriate, I suppose. Listen, Fish, how would you like to make..."

I pull my wallet out of a pouch under my armour, and look around inside.

"...Twelve bits?"

Fishstink stares at me, jaw hanging open. He looks at me like I promised him the moon. With a burst of joyful energy, he leaps up into the air, screaming.


When he comes down again, he's once more standing on his forehooves, pointing the rotten remnants of his hindquarters in the air.

"Whadda I gotta do?"

I turn my wallet upside down, and empty the six bits I was carrying onto the carpet. He gasps and starts collecting them.

"Me and my comrades are going to leave now. You will not. I am giving you free reign of Town Hall. Wreck this place beyond all repair, and don't stop until you are arrested. As long as you don't mention us three, I'll pay you the other half when I let you out of jail."

Assuming he even does end up in jail. Knowing the Sunheart Company as I do, it's just as likely that Mister Fish will be killed horribly, but hell if I care.

"Y'can count on me!" Fishstink says, saluting.

My two guards stare after him as he waddles off into the office, and I turn my contemptuous glare onto the secretary mare behind her desk. She sweats nervously when I trot up and look down my nose at her.

"Now, in the event that you are questioned as to how Fishstink got in, what do you say?"

"Um..." The mare looks at the floor. "Y-You were never here?"

"No, that's stupid. I just came back from talking with the Mayor. I was seen by half of Town Hall. Of course I was here, you dumb bitch."

She blinks. I sigh and point a hoof to her.

"The correct answer is, you let in Mister Fish, because he asked really, really nicely, and you are a stupid pony with poor judgement who eats shit."

The mare trembles slightly.

"Why are you doing this?" she asks with a squeak.

This triggers my PTSD flashbacks so hard, I have a minor episode on the spot.

I made you some cookies, my little Moonglow!


Oh, I'm sorry! I keep forgetting! Well, I'll just leave these on the side for you here.


I just don't understand... What happened, Agony? You were always such a sweet little colt. Why do you have to be like this?


I shake my head to snap myself out of it. I think I've been staring into space for the last minute and a half.

"Um... are you alright, sir?" the mare asks.

I growl and lean over her desk, making her shriek and back up against the wall.

"I reiterate!" I shout, frothing at the mouth. "Everything that happens tonight is your fault, because you are a stupid bitch, and I don't want your damn cookies!"

"Okay, okay!" she cries, tears streaming down her face as she hugs the wall. "It's all my fault! I won't give you any cookies!"

I take a deep breath and drop back onto all-fours, attempting to regain my composure.

"Come on, boys. We're leaving."

It takes us longer than it should to escape Town Hall. The building does have a central stairwell that leads all the way to the bottom, but a floor's worth of stairs are missing. Not a problem for me, because again, wings, but my guards take a while to work up the courage to jump. I end up having to push one and threaten the other.

Eventually, however, we reach the bottom floor, and walk out into Town Square. I look upon it and sigh, taking in the sights of the litter strewn across the grass, the dead trees, and the rusty statue in its middle.

I recall the ceremony that ocurred here earlier today, marking the beginning of our term as Dragonfall's new law enforcement. The Mayor gave a speech to a crowd of confused yokels and disinterested mercenaries. Captain Blackheart accepted an unearned medal and a hoofshake, smiling like the smug bastard he is. And I stood up on a podium to be deputised with the other lieutenants, glowering all the way through and making throat-cutting motions at the ones who voted in favour of this awful contract.

That was only a few hours ago, but already night has fallen. The northern wind cuts through me like an icy dagger, and the Mare in the Moon looks down upon the city, no doubt dreaming of shooting down from space and annihilating us all in one big cosmic disaster. I can empathise.

I stride across the green, followed by my guards, until I reach the rusty statue. I saw it earlier during the ceremony, but I never actually went up to look at it. It's probably the only public work of art in Dragonfall still standing, so I'm curious about it.

Up close, I can see that it depicts a snarling dragonness lying on her back. Her head dangles down, and her wings are flared, but they're also full of holes. I belatedly realise that she's meant to be in freefall, literally a dragon falling. In one claw she grasps what looks to be a crown, while with the other she clutches at her chest. On the statue's plinth, I notice a brass plaque displaying a simple cursive quote beneath an image of a golden apple.

"Everything dies eventually."

The quote makes me blink. I won't deny, it's the most fitting motto I ever could've imagined for a city like Dragonfall, but it leaves me at a loss for words. It's like all the gruesome pictures that were hanging in that corridor in Town Hall. It's just weird. Admittedly, I haven't been in this city for long, but the impression I've gotten so far is that the ponies of Dragonfall are morbidly obsessed with their own doom.

Then again, I suppose I can hardly blame them; I'd probably want to kill myself too if Dragonfall was my only home.

I shake my head and turn away from the statue. "Screw this. Let's get out of here."

We return to the northwest barracks to find it in chaos. There are soldiers posted on the gate outside now, but half of my platoon are also outside for no apparent reason, shivering in the cold and talking amongst themselves. Breakspear is among their number, and I shoot him a questioning look as I approach.

"Sir," he says, walking up and saluting.

There's a look in his eyes. Apprehension. Uncertainty. I have to swallow slightly.

"Breakspear... what are you all doing out here?"

"It's uh... well... You had best come and see for yourself."

I dismiss Happy and Golden, and follow Breakspear into the barracks, where the rest of the soldiers are. Most of them are gathered in the mess hall as we enter, but some are in the barracks themselves, clustering around their beds. They all give me hopeful looks as I pass, unaware that I have utterly failed them today.

Breakspear guides me to the corridor leading to the armoury, and the door to the flooded basement halfway down. My jaw hits the floor. Every surface is coated in a slimy green sheen, and three piles of glistening wet bones lie between the basement door and where I stand.

"Wha... What?"

Breakspear rubs his chin. "Yeah... see... after you left, there was... an incident."

I stared at him incredulously. "What kind of incident?"

"Something came out of the basement... Some sort of slime creature. It ate three soldiers, spat out their bones, projectile vomited over the walls, and then disappeared into the depths again."

I try to say something, but all that comes out is a stream of confused spluttering. Breakspear patiently waits for me to finish my crisis, and then wordlessly offers a mint in his hoof. I take it, and try some more deep breaths.

"Ohhhhhhkay..." I say, staring at the ground. "For now, just... just... I don't know, barricade the basement door or something. Put some sandbags here, and assign some guards to watch this corridor, and we'll move the armoury to the kitchen."

Breakspear raises an eyebrow. "Why the kitchen?"

"Have you seen it, Breakspear? We are never using that place to cook anything. We may as well get some use out of it."

"Well, that's great and all, sir, but then how are we feeding the troops?"

"I don't know. We'll think of something. Maybe we can set up some sort of tithe system, and make the locals of the Mining District pay us in food."

"Like feudal lords?"

"Yes. Exactly."

Breakspear smiles. "I've always wanted to abuse my authority like that."

My heart flutters slightly, and I smile back. It's amazing how alike we are. I really think we're connecting emotionally.

But not in a gay way, though.

I yawn as I wake the next day, my eyes bloodshot and stinging. I got absolutely no sleep the previous night. I never do, because of the nightmares, but they were particularly bad this time. Normally, my nightmares are about my various war crimes, or sometimes about my horrible, horrible mother. This time, I dreamed about being a Dragonfall native, which was way worse.

I climb out of bed, and go over to the wash basin. As the lieutenant in charge of this platoon, I have the honour of my own private room, separate from the main barracks. It's small and cold, and the bed is uncomfortable, but it's less dusty than the other rooms I could've claimed, and it has the bonus of being far, far away from the old armoury.

I look into my mirror above the wash basin, and a tired face stares back at me. Opening my mouth, I run my tongue over my teeth, and test the points of my fangs. I also find the mouth ulcer I felt yesterday, and lament that I have nothing to treat it with. I could go to a doctor, I suppose, but I wouldn't trust any doctor who lives in Dragonfall, and the Sunheart Company's own doctors are... well, their kill-counts eclipse those of every other soldier in the company.

A knocking comes at my door, and I stumble over to answer it. On the other side awaits a silver mare in Sunheart armour, a lock of white mane tumbling down over her face. I vaguely recognise her. I think she's a new recruit. Joined just before we took the Dragonfall job. Talk about bad luck.

"Um, hello, sir," she says, smiling shyly. "Sergeant Breakspear sent me. Your breakfast?"

I look behind her and see a tray balanced on her back, held up by her wings. It's a plate of toast and hay-bacon, a pot of coffee, and a newspaper.

"Huh... where did this come from? I thought we only brought rations with us?"

The mare coughs and looks away.

"He... sent me out to a cafe to get it for you," she mutters.

A slight smile creeps onto my face. "How thoughtful."

I take the tray and put it down on a nearby desk.

"Thank you very much, Private...?"

"Silver, sir," she answers, blushing slightly.

"Thank you, Private Silver. Dismissed."

I close the door and sit down at my desk, grabbing a slice of toast and munching on it as I unfold the newspaper. I stop chewing when I read the headline.


"...Well, shit."

1. Proceed with the day and deny everything.
2. Go to the jail and talk to the suspect.
3. Find and silence the witnesses.

Chapter 4: Mister Fish

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>Go to the jail and talk to the suspect.

The Dragonfall Chronicle, as the newspaper is called, provides scarce few details about Mayor Stonewall's murder, and its journalistic standards are predictably low. I finish the article knowing about as much as I already inferred from the headline, and not knowing how to react.

On the one hoof, Mayor Stonewall was a bastard, and if I can get away with it, I definitely intend to piss on his grave later. But at the same time, I was probably responsible for his death, and by normal social conventions, I suppose that means I should feel bad about it. And then there's the business side to consider. What exactly is the nature of the Sunheart Company's contract with Dragonfall? Does it have to be renegotiated or renewed with the new mayor now? Would the new mayor even want our protection anymore, given how badly we've failed at our jobs already?

I hope not. I pray to Celestia and to any god that can hear me that we're collectively fired for this. Dragonfall makes me pine for my days of ordering firebombings of defenceless villages. During the Sunheart Company's last job, my platoon suffered maybe six casualties in the entire campaign. Here, we lost three soldiers in the course of settling into the barracks. Say what you will about Dragonfall (and I frequently do), it lives up to its reputation in a big way.

However, the political nuances of my employment status will have to wait, because right now, I'm far more concerned about Fishstink. Of all the ponies who know what I did, he's the biggest threat. The secretary mare who saw us does have motive to bring me down, but after how I threatened her, I doubt she would ever cross me. As for Happy and Golden, they're longtime veterans of my platoon, and they've both already overlooked far worse than this. But Fishstink... his silence may be dependent on whether or not I follow through on the deal. I promised him another six bits. If I don't get them to him... he might talk.

After I'm done with breakfast, I go out to find my platoon already up and working (I sleep in later than the rest of my soldiers, since I'm allowed to). Already, a defensive perimeter is being set up near the armoury corridor, and ponies are running weapons from the old armoury to the kitchen. One of my other sergeants, a navy-blue earth pony known as Coldsteel, appears to have taken command of the fortification. I leave him to it, and go to the room that's been designated as my office to put on my armour.

I find Breakspear there, drinking coffee with yet another sergeant. Yellowbelly, he's called, and he is indeed very yellow, as well as old enough to be my grandfather. He wrinkles his nose as I walk in, coffee dripping from his bushy moustache.

"Ah! Sir, you're here!" he says, pompously. "Great fortune! Did you hear? The Mayor of Dragonfall is dead!"

I give him a quizzical look as I take a seat behind my desk and pour my second coffee of the morning. Suiting up can wait.

"How is that great fortune?" I ask.

Breakspear almost smiles at me. "Did you read the newspaper I sent for you, sir?"

"I did. It was garbage. I've never seen a journalist use so many words to convey so little information. Why do you ask?"

"Because it says there's an election to replace him. Dragonfall doesn't have a vice-mayor to take over in situations like this. No contingencies at all."

"Well, that's predictably stupid for this city. But I don't see what you're getting at, Breakspear."

Yellowbelly clears his throat.

"Young Breakspear directed me to an article on page twenty-three... a rundown on Dragonfall's election process, since it'll be relevant soon. There's a one-month period beforehoof for potential candidates to enter, and the paper listed the requirements for being mayor..."

"Of which there are none," Breakspear says bluntly. "None whatsoever. The Mayor of Dragonfall can be anyone or anything, because these ponies literally have no standards. I could be Mayor of Dragonfall. You could. That slime monster in the basement could, if it got enough votes. And in this city, it probably would."

My eyes flick between Breakspear and Yellowbelly.

"...So what you're saying is..."

"We could enter one of our own in the race!" Yellowbelly says enthusiastically. "If we win the bid for mayor, we could terminate the contract ourselves, and we could all go back to the good life!"

Something stiffens down below.

"...I like this idea," I say, a wide grin spreading over my face. "I like it a lot. But listen, give me a little time to think it over. I want to consider how we approach this. And in the meantime, we should continue on as if we're still expecting to die here. It's our first day, isn't it? Have we got the troops out on patrol?"

Breakspear nods. "My squad are covering the inner Mining District. Their reports all complain frequently about the smog. So far, they've made two arrests, and one soldier was stabbed in the face by an orphan colt and hospitalised. He got away."

My smile dies, and I take a long, drawn-out sigh, placing a hoof on my forehead. "...And yours, Yellowbelly?"

"Mine are in the outer Mining District, sir," he says. "Nothing so dramatic so far, for the most part. Though, one pair did report that they were pelted with feces by City Maintenance workers. They claim that the workers laughed at them and called them 'shithooves' while making lewd remarks about their mothers. I don't quite know what to make of that one, sir."

I stare at him.

"...This sounds like something I will have to deal with later." I take a long drink of my coffee. "Tell your ponies that if they're accosted by City Maintenance again, they should actually arrest them next time. I'm not going to have these sub-equine scum mocking us. Not while we're the only ones preventing them from being stabbed to death by roving gangs of orphans. What are the other squads doing?"

"Coldsteel's are holding the fort here," says Breakspear. "He's trying to get the basement situation under control, as per your orders yesterday. Half of his squad are down here, and the other half are up on the wall, patrolling. So far, nothing to report, he says. As for Rictus, he drew the short straw, so his guys are down in the crystal mines for our first day. He sent back a letter."

Breakspear passes me a broken envelope. I feel a deep sense of dread as I take it in my hooves, and squeeze my eyes shut before I pull out the letter and unfold it. When I open them again, it reads about as I expected.


I slowly close the envelope.

"...I am going to leave this situation to you two," I say slowly. "I have things to do today, and I trust your judgement. Just... try to get as many of us out of this alive as you can, yeah?"

Breakspear and Yellowbelly look at each other, then back to me.

"What is it that you need to do, sir?" asks Breakspear.

"I've got to cover my tracks," I mutter. "I'll see you both this afternoon. Or not. If I die, Breakspear is in charge."

Breakspear salutes. "Sir."

I leave the room feeling distinctly awake, and incredibly afraid.

The ever-grimy Industrial District, where the smog is somehow thinner than in Mining District to its north, isn't home to much industry at all. There are still a few active gem refineries, as well as a recycling centre that looks full to bursting as I fly over it, but most of the factories are dilapidated and abandoned, and only a few of the shops and restaurants here are open. The others are all closed down, shuttered, and vandalised. I pass over one street with several half-demolished buildings, except that their contents still remain within, as if they were functional businesses up until the day that they were randomly bombed.

And everywhere I look, the walls of the Industrial District are graffitied with images of ponies dying gruesome deaths, just like the ones hanging in Town Hall. The golden apple I saw on the base of the dragon statue is also a recurring motif here. Once again, I am disturbed by the morbidness of Dragonfall's inhabitants, and I wonder what the hell is going through their minds. The written graffiti is not much better. Typical phrases include such gems as "CELESTIA HAS ABANDONED US," "THERE IS NO HEAVEN," "WE DESERVE THIS," and "EAST SIDE ORPHANAGE 4 LYFE." I die a little inside every second I spend flying over this post-apocalyptic hellscape.

Dragonfall Prison is located roughly in the centre of the Industrial District, and rain is pouring down on it by the time I'm in sight. Grey clouds blot out the sun, and lightning strikes behind the facility as I approach, just to add to its foreboding atmosphere. Since I don't particularly want to be electrocuted, and my armour is too vital to my survival to give up, I have to make a landing and walk the rest of the way there. It isn't far left to go, but I still curse whatever sorry excuse for a weather team Dragonfall has for this completely pointless thunderstorm. I curse the Dragonfall Chronicle too while I'm at it, for failing to print the day's weather schedule anywhere in its pages.

The shadow of the crumbling grey prison darkens my path as I walk up to the front gate, and a chill runs through me. Dragonfall Prison is not an especially big facility, but it just shouldn't exist. A city of this size and population should normally be able to contain all its prisoners within the jails of its police precincts and city guard. That's how Manehattan handles it. And if there are any truly despicable individuals that need long-term high security, there's always Nameless Correctional Facility in San Palomino. The fact that Dragonfall needs a dedicated prison of this size just for its own population is frankly terrifying.

As I enter the prison's reception, I find a single stallion at a front desk, guarded by two Sunheart mercenaries. The breastplates of their golden armour are adorned with a pair of sigils, first the burning heart that is the emblem of the Sunheart Company itself, and second the black tombstone marking them as Lieutenant Peacemaker's platoon. Every platoon uses its lieutenant's cutie mark as a sigil in this way. Even mine all sport my very own bloody teardrop on their armour, which of course represents the darkness in my soul.

"Lieutenant Agony?" asks one of the Peacemaker guards, looking surprised.

"I heard the Mayor was killed. I understand you have his murderer in custody?"

"U-Uh, yes, we do, but—"

"I want to see him."

"Do you have permission for that?" asks the stallion at the desk.

"Shut up, local," I snap. "You live in Dragonfall; your opinion is worthless."

He slumps on his desk without comment. I turn back to the guards. The silent one remains mostly apathetic to my presence, while the one I was speaking to withers under my gaze.

"See, the thing is, Lieutenant Peacemaker and the Captain are handling the interrogating themselves, and the prisoner is in solitary confinement until then, so..."

"So what?" I ask firmly. "I may not be your direct superior, but I'm his equal. I have the authority to walk through here, and you're not going to stop me. Are you?"

The guard gulped. "No sir."

The other shook his head in affirmation.

"Good. Take me to him."

As I guessed, the suspect in custody is indeed Fishstink. I find him in a padded cell in the prison's solitary confinement ward. Somepony evidently tried to bind him in a straitjacket, but somehow he must have torn out of it, because it now lies in pieces on the floor of his cell. Nevertheless, he sits still in the middle of the room, humming happily to himself as I watch through a slit in the door.

The guard who escorted me up here waits patiently by my side, trying to look anywhere but right at me. I briefly wonder how to phrase my various questions so as to not sound suspicious, but we are interrupted by the arrival of two new ponies coming down the corridor, one a lavender pegasus and the other a grey unicorn.

"Agony, what the hell are you doing here?" asks Captain Blackheart, trotting up to me.

The unicorn beside him gives me the same apathetic grimace that he's worn every day of his life since his mother squeezed him out. If I were to pick one word to describe Lieutenant Peacemaker, it would be "boring." He sucks the life out of every room he enters. The one good thing I can say about him is that he voted against coming to Dragonfall, because boring people at least tend not to be insane.

"Oh, look who it is!" I say, turning to face them both. "It's Blackheart, sitting atop his ivory tower like some clueless, drunken jackass!"

"That's Captain Clueless Drunken Jackass, to you," says Blackheart, dismissing my escort with a look and a flick of his head. "You'd best keep that in mind."

I wave him off absently. "Funny, because you seem less and less captain-y to me with every passing day. This debacle with Mayor Stonewall is frankly embarrassing. I feel bad for you. Dragonfall kicked your ass on your first day here. I said coming here was a mistake, didn't I? Peace, back me up on this."

"It's true," says Lieutenant Peacemaker in his dry monotone. "Statistically speaking, a failure like this was inevitable. I do not think we should have accepted this contract."

"By the way," I shout. "Just so you know, a slime creature came out of the flooded basement in the northwest barracks yesterday, and I lost three ponies. So, y'know, there's that. Feel like assigning us some new quarters yet, Captain?"

Captain Blackheart closes his eyes and rubs his temples.

"Agony. I will ask you again. What are you doing here?"

"Mostly? I'm here to rub your face in what a massive failure you are as a commander. But also, I want to know just how you managed to foul up this bad. You were in the office with the Mayor when I last checked, so how in Equestria did this happen?"

Blackheart glares at me for a moment, but eventually turns away.

"We fell asleep drinking. The Mayor was dead when I woke up."

"Oho!" I grin. "So it is all your fault! What about this guy then, hmm? How did you pick him up? Do you even know it was him?"

"Well," says Blackheart, giving a sardonic smile. "It was a little difficult to piece together. You see, I woke up to find the Mayor with his throat slit, and the suspect standing over him, smiling and covered in blood, with a knife in his mouth. After that, I knew that something was amiss. And then when he said, 'I'm glad I killed the bastard,' I thought that was really suspicious."

Celestia damn it, Fish.

This really puts a damper on my original plan to release him immediately after the crime. If he had just done some simple vandalism like I asked, that would be one thing, but even I can't get away with letting out an obvious murderer.

"Okay, fine, so we've got him dead to rights. Do we know why he did it? Or how? What was he doing in Town Hall in the first place?"

"A secretary let him in," Peacemaker interjects. "She said that she's, quote, 'a stupid pony and a poor judge of character, who also eats shit.' She then apologised profusely, cried a lot, and promised to never ever make cookies. I'm not sure what any of that was about, but she sounded very genuine saying it."

"...Hmph... I want to talk to the suspect alone."

"Why?" says Blackheart.

"Because I have questions, you sad excuse for a pony."

"You need to stop," Blackheart growls. "I know you're riding high right now on a wave of 'I told you so,' but I'm about sick to death of your insults. Don't think you're too high-ranking for me to discipline you, because I can and I will."

"Pshhhh. You don't discipline me. You don't discipline anypony. You just nag. That's all you can do – nag me. 'Oh, you can't attack enemies who are trying to surrender, Agony! It's unethical! You can't perform random executions on your prisoners, Agony! It's unethical! You can't order full-scale chemical weapon attacks on civilians because one insulted you, Agony! It's unethical!' By Celestia's sunny teats, won't you ever just shut up?"

Blackheart opens his mouth to respond, but I cut him off again.

"I mean, seriously, what is wrong with you? I know you're only in charge here because daddy was, but how do you work this job for almost half your life and still suck so hard at it? I bet you wouldn't touch me even if I burned your house down."

He splutters. "I-I-I-"

"Hey, Blackheart, remember your last birthday, when somepony sent you an entire photo album of your parents having sex? That was me."

Blackheart stares at me, mouth agape.

"No?" I say. "Still not going to do anything?"

He lets out a long sigh and hangs his head.

"I need a drink," he mumbles, walking off.

Peacemaker and I watch him as he leaves, staying silent until he disappears from sight.

"I don't understand what you gain from antagonising him constantly," says Peacemaker. "He's far too easy of a target, and besides, it would be so much easier to just get on his good side. If he liked you more, he'd also listen to you more, and then you could both be happy."

"Peace, I torment him precisely because I don't want him to be happy," I reply. "Blackheart is like the pony equivalent of a benign tumour. He's not a problem as such, but he serves no useful function, and every second he spends on my ass, I wish more and more that he wasn't there."

Peacemaker raises an eyebrow at me. "...What?"

"Nothing. Go away. I'm going to interrogate the prisoner now."

He does so, and as soon as I'm finally alone outside of Fishstink's cell, I unbolt the door and stride in. He makes no attempt to escape, instead merely giving me that same cheerful smile of his and balancing up on his forehooves again. His legs are all bandaged up, so the smell he gave off last time we met is somewhat muted now.

"Hey there! Howzit goin'?"

"Um, hello again, Fish..." I say. "Listen, uh... I think you went a little overboard with what I asked you to do. See... I wanted you to just do some minor vandalism, not... y'know... kill the mayor."

"What? Naw. Nawwwww. I didn't kill no mayor. I just said I did! Threw 'em for a loop, that one did! Heh."

I blinked. "Seriously?"

"Seriously!" Fishstink beamed with pride. "It took some doing, but now they think I did it, and none of them Sunheart ponies are any the wiser! Pulled the wool over their eyes, I did!"

"...Why?" I ask. "If you didn't do it, I mean."

"Obvious, ain't it?" Fishstink let his hindquarters drop to the floor, and spread his hooves wide. "I got everything I could ever want in here! Food, shelter, and medical care! Look! They even got ridda my maggots!"

"I can... see..."

"Yeah! Great, ain't it? Ya don't even gotta let me out. I'm happy enough right where I am. But of course, those six bits ya promised wouldn't go amiss..."

I rifle through my wallet until I find six bits to drop in front of him, which he greedily gathers up and begins rubbing over his face.

"Thankee kindly, mister!"

"...Riiiight. Anyway, uh... everything else aside... If you didn't kill Mayor Stonewall, who did?"

"Hmm?" Fishstink sits up and blinks. "Oh... the mob, I reckon. They're the ones what killed the last nine mayors, so..."

I do a double take. "Wait, what?"

"Yeah. It's what they do. The mob funds a mayor's campaign and gets ridda his rivals, the mayor gets into office and does favours for the mob, then he gets too big for his britches and tries t'go against 'em, and then they kill him and elect a new mayor! Always been how it is. Everypony in Dragonfall knows it."

"...Um... wow..."

1. Leave immediately and don't get involved in this.
2. Begin discreetly investigating the Dragonfall mob.
3. Tell Blackheart and Peacemaker that Fishstink is innocent.

Chapter 5: Murphy's Law

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>Begin discreetly investigating the Dragonfall mob.

Dragonfall apparently turned into hell while I was in the prison.

I shiver uncontrollably as I move through the streets, constantly being buffeted by winds that would be considered excessive for a hurricane. The torrential downpour doesn't help matters, soaking me all the way through my armour. I want to fly away and get out of this mess, but it's so chaotic right now that I'm afraid to. Everywhere I look, fences are being blown over, small trees are snapping in half like toothpicks, and dumpsters are upturning and spilling their trash. The lightning hasn't gone away either. I'd probably die flying in this, with or without my armour.

Eventually, I find an overhang outside a closed-down bakery. It does very little to protect me from the wind and rain, but it's better than nothing at the moment, so I lean against the wall to rest a while and grumble about the storm. Dragonfall has equine suffering down an artform. There is no justifiable reason for the weather to be this bad.

Some rain would be understandable, since most traders are rightfully terrified of Dragonfall, and the city thus has to farm all its own food. Rainfall is necessary for proper irrigation, and I don't doubt for a second that Dragonfall would starve to death without the farmlands to the south and east. By the same token, the city's only source of lumber is the forest beyond the western wall, so that also needs to be kept alive. And hell, even if Dragonfall didn't depend on the farms and forest for resources, a little rain to clear the air is still normal.

This, however, is beyond a joke. I've never heard wind howl half as loudly as this. It sounds as if Dragonfall is being simultaneously gangbanged by around thirty windigoes. For all I know, that may literally be the case. I don't know if I believe in windigoes or not, but if they are real, this is where they would be; Dragonfall could feed a windigo for a thousand years.

Even if there's no mayor right now, I resolve to visit the Town Hall at soonest opportunity, so that I can lodge a formal complaint about the weather. If storms like this are even close to a regular occurrence around here, then I think I've solved the mystery of why so much of this city is damaged and ruined.

I'm about to start walking again, when I see a thin grey colt emerge from an alley to my right, bandages covering his hindquarters and right foreleg. As soon as he sees me, he limps pitifully closer, while I just stare at him and try to conceal my general disdain for children.

"Hello, mister," he says softly. "...Are you one of them Sunheart guards?"

"I am," I answer curtly.

He glances at the emblems on my armour. "What's that other mark besides the heart?"

"It's a bloody teardrop. It's my cutie mark. It represents my tortured existence, and the pain I live through every day."

"...Are you a vampire?"

I glare at the colt. "What?"

"Well, you have fangs and scary bat wings, and your cutie mark is blood, and your eyes are really angry-looking."

Fuming, I lunge at the colt, grab him by the scruff of the neck, and pull him up to my face.

"Listen here, you racist little shit—!"

I don't get to finish my sentence, because the colt then shoves a piece of broken glass into me just below my breastplate, making me scream and drop him.

"East Side Orphanage for life!" he shouts as he rips the glass out and stabs me again. "Die, pig! Die!"

I'm stabbed a total of four times before I collapse on the sidewalk, wailing. I should be reaching for my own concealed dagger, but instead I clutch my wound and howl in pain. The colt throws down his shiv and spits on me.

"Don't ever mess with us again, motherfucker!" he shouts as he runs away, notably no longer limping.

I seethe, rolling around in a muddy puddle as blood leaks out of me. Fortunately, the glass only went skin-deep, so I'm unlikely to die, but it's still... well, agony.

But more than anything, I'm just annoyed by this. Ten years of mercenary work, and I had barely a scratch on me to show for it. Two days in Dragonfall, and I'm already bleeding in a gutter.

"I hate children!" I shout to the storm. "I hate children so much!"

The storm still continues, but it's beginning to let up as I stagger into the Trade District. The rain has become little more than a light drizzle, and the wind isn't as loud or forceful anymore. Still not ideal conditions to be bleeding in, but I try not to think about that right now. My wound isn't too debilitating for me to reach the bar that Fishstink told me about and look into this mob thing.

I let myself ponder the subject, for the first time since leaving the prison. I was so distracted by the awful weather and being stabbed that I didn't give the implications time to sink in. Fishstink wove quite a tale, about a powerful organised crime family that runs the underground, and how that underground basically encompasses all of Dragonfall, since Dragonfall is so densely packed with shit that the whole city sunk under its weight. To hear him tell of it, the mob are the real government around here, and it's the mayor's office who are the pretenders.

I'm not quite sure how to feel about this. On the one hoof, the mob are criminals, and shouldn't be anywhere near a position of power, and I suppose if the Sunheart Company are the law now, then we should be doing something about them. On the other hoof, I don't care about Dragonfall, and the mob can burn the whole city to the ground for all I care, so long as they let me leave first. They may even be sympathetic to my desire to get the hell out of here, and their own candidate may let us go if I ask nicely. But I'm not sure. I'll need to see them in action myself before I decide how to deal with these ponies.

I stop by an alleyway, and lean against a brick wall to shiver and clutch my wound. Red still runs through my hooves, and the pain is considerable.

"Damn orphans..." I mutter.

I glance down the alleyway, looking for any sign of life. Sure enough, there's another hobo curled up in a sleeping bag a little way in, lying atop a pile of wet cardboard. Although only his head sticks out, I can still see a ratty scarf wrapped around his neck.

An errant thought crosses my mind, and I stumble over to the hobo.

"Hey," I say. "Hey, you!"

The hobo cracks his bloodshot eyes open and sits up, not leaving his sleeping bag. "Wherrr?"

This one doesn't smell as awful as Fishstink did, but he has bugs visibly nesting in his beard, so I still struggle not to recoil in disgust.

"Hey, I want your scarf."

The hobo, wide-eyed, pulls his hooves out of the sleeping bag to hold onto the scarf, shaking his head.

"I can pay for it," I say, exasperated. "Look, just give it to me now. I'm bleeding, and I need a bandage."

I move my hoof away to show him the wound below my breastplate. He stares at it wordlessly, and then looks up to meet my eyes. I reach back and draw my wallet.

"How much?" I ask. "Will fifteen bits do?"

He slowly nods, still giving me a slack-jawed expression. I wonder how many of my words he even understands. Going by the precedent for necrosis set by Fishstink, this one's probably got worms eating his brain.

I step over, opening my wallet as he unwraps his scarf and pulls down the sleeping bag.

"Right, finally, thank you."

Then he pulls a knife out of the scarf, lunges forward, and stabs me just below the neck.

"Aghhhhh!" I scream.

Why do I even bother with armour?!

The hobo leaps up, kicking the sleeping bag behind him, and charges into me. He runs us both across the alley and slams me into a wall, driving the knife deeper, and gives me a maniacal grin. His face presses against mine, and I can feel his infested beard rubbing against my chin.

"Rest in chaos, you poor bastard," he whispers into my ear.

This time I remember my dagger. I pull it from its sheath with the tip of my wing and swing it upwards between our bodies, cutting the hobo's throat in one quick motion. I am showered in blood, and both my attacker and I collapse to the ground, the latter choking as a red river runs from his throat.

"Celestia damn it," I shout, climbing back up and pulling his knife out as gently as I can. "I probably have an infection now! Thanks a lot!"

I stagger over to the fallen hobo and tear his scarf away from him. He gurgles helplessly, and reaches up with a hoof, clutching his throat with the other.

"Is it so much to ask that even one of you locals be worth more than the air you breathe?" I rip his scarf in half and wrap one piece around my newest wound, just below my neck. "You are just the cherry on a shit sundae. I was having one hell of a bad day already, but you somehow managed to make it even worse, you utter waste of skin."

Once finished dressing my new wound, I wrap the other half of the hobo's scarf around my old one. I'm trying to block out the pain with anger, but I need to reach a doctor soon.

"From now on, I'm enforcing vagrancy laws around here! I know it means arresting half the population of this Celestia-forsaken city, but to hell with it! Better a thousand of you languish in prison for your poor life choices than one more degenerate gets a clean shot at me. I am easily worth a million of you."

I pick up the hobo's knife, still red with my own blood, and lean over him. He panics and starts flailing, but I hold him still.

"Do! Not! Stab! Me! Again!" I shout, punctuating each word by stabbing him. "It! Isn't! Nice!"

I'm pretty sure he's dead by the time I'm done, but I don't bother to check. I just throw the knife aside and drag myself back out of the alley, now completely red from head to hooves. At least the rain will wash some of this away.

"Dragonfall," I grumble.

The pain from both my wounds is quite intense, and I have no idea where to go to find medical help. If Dragonfall even has an intact hospital, I don't know where it is, and I'm not sure I'd trust it anyway. And as for the Sunheart Company's own doctors, they're renowned on battlefields all the world over for their body count. I'd probably come away from them in worse shape than when I went in, subjected to their patented double-whammy of sepsis and gangrene, with an amputated hoof for good measure.

That isn't even paranoia on my part; I've suffered at their hooves myself. Once, back when I was first starting out in the company, I went to my squad's medic to get a toothache treated, and he removed one of my testicles. I later chanced to see him and some nurses playing hackey-sack with it. Eventually, after I made lieutenant, I got back at them for it by selling the lot of them into slavery, improving troop morale and cutting my platoon's fatalities in half in a single stroke.

Honestly, though, I think they had the last laugh in the end; they get to spend the rest of their days toiling in the sunshine for a nice Zebrican warlord, while I'm the sucker who's trapped in Dragonfall.

Taking stock of my options, I conclude that I am the best equipped to treat my own injuries. On inspection, neither of the cuts are particularly deep, and I don't think they'd even need stitches. I just need to soak them in some disinfectant, and slap something reasonably clean and resembling bandages over them, and I'll be as good as new. The trick is finding the necessary materials.

Then I recall that I was already heading for a bar.

Out of all the crumbling, dilapidated ruins I've seen in Dragonfall, the mob's bar is easily (and perhaps fittingly) the least shitty. With its thatched roof and red-brick facade, and the fenced-off beer garden outside, it actually looks rather homey – the kind of place I might take Breakspear to for some strictly non-homosexual male bonding.

I pause in front of the heavy oaken door, and give a wary glance at the swinging sign beside it. The Flying Golem, it reads, accompanied by a caricatured engraving of a pegasus clutching a frothing mug, drooling dumbly. It admittedly ruins the atmosphere somewhat, but I shrug it off, taking one last whiff of wet, feculent Dragonfall air before I push my way into the bar.

I sigh and shudder as the warmth washes over me. After everything I've been through, it's sorely welcome.

Inside, the bar is just as cosy as it looked from the exterior. An old red carpet covers the floor, and the walls and support beams are decorated with horseshoes and old, faded photographs. A fire crackles away in a hearth by one wall, and hundreds of different bottles are lined up behind the bar itself. All over the room, ponies are conversing around their tables. Many are just drinking, but some are eating hot meals, and a few even have some card games going.

The warm, charming atmosphere and decor confirm, in my mind, that this is the crime capital of the city. It's far too nice for Dragonfall; there has to something terrible and/or horrific going on here.

Blood trickles past my hooves and pools on the carpet beneath me. I'm almost self-conscious of that fact, but the stain's about the same colour as the fabric, so it can't be worth getting worked up over. It's then that I realise that I'm the disturbing presence this time. I'm already getting a few stares from some of the closer tables, but some brief eye contact soon dissuades them.

Nothing to see here, folks. Just another stabbing victim. You probably see a dozen every week.

A few ponies are ordering at the bar, but the stools are largely unoccupied, save for one or two spots. I go over and take a seat at the closest one, sitting just beside a drunk with his face buried in his hooves.

"Hey," I call to the bartender. "Literally dying over here. Can I get a little service?"

The bartender, just finishing up serving a glass of ale to another customer, trots over and gives me a curious look. I pull back the scarf wrappings to reveal my stab wounds, and give her a flat stare in response.

"Oh my."

"Listen, lady, I need something cheap and strong to rub into these, and some rags to cover them. Can you do that for me? Can you get that?"

She says nothing, instead immediately going to the shelves behind the bar and picking out a bottle of what I'm pretty sure is rubbing alcohol, with "WISKEE" written on a wrinkly strip of masking tape. It's entirely the wrong color to be whiskey, the "S" is backwards, and the bottle is covered in a sticky-looking layer of grime. I think if I even attempted to drink it, it would blind or kill me, or perhaps somehow blind me to death; it's the most Dragonfall thing in the entire bar.

I wince. "That will be adequate."

She tosses it over to me, and I catch it in my hoof and pull the cap off with my teeth, muttering thanks as I begin applying the alcohol. I hiss at the contact, but it hurts less than being stabbed.

As the mare goes to get a cloth, the drunk beside me sits up and looks my way. I notice him too, and curse myself for not recognising Captain Blackheart's lavender coat.

"Agony," he says through clenched teeth, swaying somehow despite not even standing.

"Oh, son of a bitch, you're here?" I slap my forehead and groan as I put my bottle aside. "As if my day couldn't get any worse."

"I... needed to drink," Blackheart slurs. "You drive me to it. You and your... gifts..."

"Blackheart, I seriously do not have time for you and your various emotional issues right now. Please, kindly piss off and leave me to die in peace."

The mare returns promptly with what I think is a dishrag, which she slides across the bar. I take it and begin tearing it into strips, glaring at Blackheart while he gives me a sullen, almost sleepy look.

"Y'know..." He hiccups. "I was thinking..."

"Please don't," I say as I pour more alcohol over my wounds. "You're not very good at it."

"I've always wondered, Agony... How did you compile that photo album of my parents?"

"I didn't, Blackheart!" I shout at him. "They made it! I was banging them, and they sent it to me as a gift!"

Blackheart squints at me, mouth hanging open. "W-What?"

I start wrapping the cloth strips.

"Seriously, Blackheart, did you not once wonder about how I climbed the ranks so quickly? I did sexual favours for your dad, okay? And by the way, he was a terrible lay."

He blinks. I pause to inspect my makeshift bandages, already staining red.

"...I'm not gay, though," I added.

Blackheart tackles at me, sending us both tumbling to the floor. I scream, and try to grip the counter as I fall, but I only succeed in pulling down my bottle of rubbing alcohol, which pours all over both of us.

I grapple with Blackheart, as he flips me onto my back. I'm sure most of the bar patrons are staring at us now.

"You bastard, Agony!" he screams.

His hooves close around my neck, and suddenly my captain is choking me to death. I reach up and shove him back, but he punches me in the face, and we roll across the floor. My bandages come loose in the fight, and I'm bleeding everywhere again. It's every bit as excruciating as I expected it would be.

I rub my face where he punched me. "If it makes you feel any better, your mother wasn't nearly as bad. A solid seven out of ten."

Blackheart grabs me again by the scruff of my neck. "I'm gonna kill you!"

He throws me against the bar, winding me, and I sink to the floor. I squeeze my eyes shut as I try to process the pain, but they shoot open again as I hear the sound of smashing glass. Blackheart comes at me again with the broken remains of the bottle of "WISKEE."

Oh, please no.

For the third time today, somepony stabs me. This time, Blackheart gets me right in the belly. My eyes water, and I try to hold back a scream.

Finally, a pair of stallions in black suits come up behind Blackheart and restrain him. He kicks and screams, yelling drunken insults at the bouncers, but they pay him no regard as they haul him away. On the edge of my thoughts, I note that they aren't taking him to the front door to throw him out, but are instead taking him through a door behind the bar.

...Oh, right. This place is ran by the mob. I was supposed to subtly investigate it.

Well, that plan has certainly gone to hell.

A third stallion in a suit soon appears beside me, holding out a hoof to help me up. I take it gratefully, leaning into him as he hauls me up onto his back. My eyes are already drooping as he carries me away.

"Come on," he says, politely. "Let's get you taken care of."

Yep. I'm gonna die.

I awaken in a warm bed, many times softer than the one in the northwest barracks, a fire burning in a hearth next to me. For a moment, I think this might be Paradise, but then I remember that I don't believe in the afterlife, and that all the various slights I've made against the laws of gods and mortals alike would disqualify me from heaven anyway. I am thus forced to conclude that I am, somehow, still alive.

Where I am, though, remains a mystery; nowhere in Dragonfall should have beds this nice.

"You're up," says a gruff voice at my bedside. "I almost wasn't expecting you to pull through. Nice to be wrong for a change."

I roll my head over, looking to the other side of the bed, and glimpse the greyest, surliest, most badass-looking griffon that my eyes have ever beheld. He's clad in a suit of black leather, with holes cut into the sides for his wings, and he has a bitchin' eyepatch over one eye. He wears a belt around his middle that's lined with a variety of wicked-looking blades, and over his back is a crossbow and a quiver of arrows, as well as a long golden spear tipped with a jagged purple gemstone that just screams "magic".

I feel inadequate just looking at him.

"You're a Sunheart, by the look of you," says the griffon, staring down at me with his one good eye. "And an officer, too, I'm willing to bet. You got a name, son?"

"...Agony," I rasp.

I cough, and he hands me a glass of water from my bedside table. I drink, and cradle the glass on top of my belly between my hooves when I'm done. Pulling back the blankets, I discover that my wounds have all been stitched up properly. It almost looks professionally done.

"Agony," says the griffon, thoughtfully. "Suits you, I suppose."

"Yeah, it's pretty badass, I guess," I sigh.

"That'll be Lieutenant Agony, right?" At my nod, he continues. "You can call me Crackshot, lieutenant. The proprietors of the Golem, the ones who took care of your little problem, employ me as a sort of... specialist, let's say."

"You're a killer for the mob."

"'Specialist' is easier to fit on a business card." He flashes me a predatory grin. "You caused quite a scene downstairs, striding in and bleeding all over the damn place. We normally do our best to keep that kind of stuff outside the bar – to keep it an oasis in the middle of what is, let's be realistic, a reeking, worm-ridden cesspit. You understand?"

"I think I do."

I think wistfully about what a charming place the Flying Golem was, and sigh, realising that I'll likely never be allowed back in. Then I think, with an icy feeling of fear, that this is probably his way of telling me that my head could very well wind up on someone's wall if I choose to make life difficult for the mob. And then I notice the way he's delicately, and somewhat suggestively, fondling the hilt of one of his many, many daggers.

Well, he seems the reasonable sort, at least. Perhaps he and I can meet some sort of compromise.

"Hypothetically," I say, swallowing. "What would it take to make you and your... employers... overlook my little transgression?"

Crackshot's eye narrows, and he scowls at me. "Son, are you implying that you, a duly appointed officer of the law, with a responsibility to uphold the standards of your office and serve and protect the good ponies of Dragonfall, would be willing to offer me, an unapologetic hired killer in the service of a criminal syndicate, some sort of monetary compensation in exchange for me overlooking your grievous lapse in both conduct and judgment?"

"I was just gonna say 'want a bribe?' You know, like a normal person? One who doesn't take six hundred thousand words to express very simple thoughts and concepts? But your way actually sounds a little better."

Crackshot smiles slyly, and his talon leaves the hilt of his blade.

"I've decided that I like you, Lieutenant Agony," he purrs.

I feel my insides go all fluttery.

"More to the point, I think you might be the kind of pony we'd like to see go up in the world. Climb the chain of command, so to speak. The kind of pony who might be willing to scratch our backs if we scratch his. The kind of pony who will look the other way when stallions in black suits carry suspiciously rolled-up rugs and carpets through the streets and deposit them in one of our fine local landfills. And, the kind of pony who will keep a tight enough grip on his subordinates to make sure that they do the same when we need it. In short... the kind of pony that your Captain Blackheart is not."

Crackshot leans closer to me, close enough that I can practically count every last scar and fracture on his face.

"What do you think? If Blackheart were to be suddenly, tragically, and non-incriminatingly removed from command of the Sunhearts... could you be that kind of pony?"

I have never before been so aroused in my life.

1. Let the mob kill Blackheart, and attempt to usurp the Sunheart Company for them.
2. Leave Blackheart to the mob's mercy, and explain intentions to leave Dragonfall.
3. Decline the mob's offer as politely as possible, and bargain for Blackheart's life.

Chapter 6: Acceptable Losses

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>Let the mob kill Blackheart, and attempt to usurp the Sunheart Company for them.

Crackshot takes me to Blackheart himself, leading me down the darkened steps into the dank cellar beneath the Flying Golem. Amidst all the shelves and wine racks, a gagged and blindfolded Captain Blackheart struggles impotently against the straps holding him to a table. In the corner of the room, a stallion in a suit – one of the bouncers that led us away earlier, I think – rolls his eyes at the feeble escape attempt.

I look to Crackshot to confirm his approval, and he simply nods and leans back against the wall. I march over to Blackheart and tear his blindfold off.

"Hey there, captain!" I say, giving him a cheery grin. "So how are you today?"

His eyes widen, and he struggles even more, screaming into his gag.

"Well, that's nice." I'm not even faking my grin; his panic brings me no end of joy. "So, listen, I was just talking with this fine griffon behind me, trying to work out some kind of arrangement with him. Now, he was very fair. We can't be having fights in his establishment, especially since this whole place is ran by a ruthless organised crime ring, and they could quite easily gut us both. And we wouldn't want that to happen."

Blackheart goes still and squeaks.

"So, I promised that neither of us would ever fight in here again, and he, in return, offered to let me decide how we split the consequences." I lean over Blackheart, my grin widening. "Or, in other words, I get to decide if you live or die."

Blackheart silently pleads with me, his eyes sparkling with false hope.

"Now, here's where I have a conundrum," I say. "On the one hoof, I never liked you in the first place, if my years of tormenting you didn't make clear already. You truly, genuinely disgust me, and I was planning to turn your skull into a spooky novelty teacup if you ever died out in the field. On the other hoof, I never hated you enough to murder you, and in all fairness, I am the instigator in pretty much every conflict we have. If anything, you're the one who deserves an apology from me. Not that you'll get one, but, y'know, you should. So, given that, I think that the right thing to do would be to ask the mob nicely if they would let you go."

I stroke my chin. "The question is, should I? Hmmm..."

Blackheart struggles again, nodding his head as violently as possible.


He reaffirms with more nodding, almost smiling despite the gag.

"Hmmm... tempting... I think..."

After almost half a minute of chin-tapping, pacing, hemming and hawing, and generally drawing it out as long as I possibly can, I look back to Blackheart and give a simple shrug.

"...Oh, alright. Guys, please let Blackheart go, and we'll all just forget about— Wait a minute." I gasp and slap my forehead. "I just remembered! You stabbed me, you son of a bitch. Nevermind, guys. Forget what I just said. Open his throat."

Blackheart whimpers.

I don't stay to watch the murder, instead ascending back into the bar with Crackshot. Normally, I would love to stay and see Blackheart die, but being directly involved in his demise stirs some conflicting feelings in me for some reason. It's uncannily similar to how I felt when I read about Mayor Stonewall's death, back when I thought that it was my fault. It's not that I like Blackheart, or will miss him when he's gone. It's more that I can't help but feel there's something wrong about killing another pony in cold blood. Weird.

"So, Agony," says Crackshot as we emerge into the now-empty bar. "How long do you think it will take you to assume command of the Sunheart Company?"

I stop and lean against the bar, not far away from where Blackheart stabbed me. There are still some faint bloodstains on the carpet. Outside the window, the sky is pitch-black, and rain pelts down against the glass. I must have been out for longer than I thought.

"Well... I'm not sure, truth be told," I say, running a hoof over my bandages. "There's not much precedent for this."

Crackshot walks around to the other side of the bar and collects a pair of glasses and a bottle of scotch. With a tilt of his head, he indicates the bottle. I return a nod and sit down on a nearby barstool as he pours drinks for both of us.

"Why not?" he asks, passing me a glass.

I take a sip.

"The Sunheart Company, for all our infamy, is only three generations old. Blackheart's grandfather started it during the Fourth Celestial Era, and the company has stayed in the family since. So we've only ever had three captains, beginning with our founder, Captain Sunheart, and ending with the miserable waste of oxygen currently dying in your basement. It's always been passed from father to son. But, you see, Blackheart was a repulsively pathetic individual that no mare would ever touch, mostly because of all those rumours I spread about him, and he was an only child. So this time, there's no heir."

"Well, isn't that good?" says Crackshot, before slamming back most of his glass. "Chaos is an opportunity. Would you have much trouble taking over the command from here?"

I pause to consider, drinking down some more scotch.

"Hard to say. I imagine as soon as it's clear that Blackheart isn't coming back, the new captain would be chosen by vote. We're supposed to make all major decisions democratically. I could put my hat in the ring, obviously, but I'm not sure if I'd win."

"I see." Crackshot rubs the underside of his beak with a wing. "Would any of your fellow lieutenants need... convincing?"

"Maybe. Maybe not." I finish my glass and slam it down on the bar. "Some of them hate me. Some don't. I'll have to get back to you on that."

"Well... I would consider it a professional courtesy if you could do me the favour of winning. I've already gone through the trouble of murdering one Sunheart captain, and it would be a bother to do it more than once."

"Mmhm." I smile tiredly. "Not that I expect you'd have any moral qualms with such a thing, right?"

Crackshot grins widely. "On the contrary, killing ponies is one of my greatest pleasures in life. I think you can relate."

I'm unsure whether I find the hint of malice in his voice to be terrifying, or arousing.

Maybe a little of both.

I bedded down in the Golem last night, since it was preferable to going outside again to face another stabbing. Crackshot offered to comp me the room I'd woken up in for the night, and I immediately accepted. The accomodations were comfortable, but far from luxurious, hovering somewhere around a well-kept brothel in terms of quality... which still made them better than my scratchy mattress in the barracks.

After a good night's sleep, I scarf down a quick bite of this and that in the bar, specially prepared by the Golem's chefs, and say goodbye to Crackshot before heading out. The morning rain has slowed to a nice, soothing drizzle since last night, plinking rhythmically off my armor on the trek back to my post. Dragonfall has only begun to stir, and the streets are mostly clear of the vagrants, thugs, and enterprising orphans that'd caused me so much trouble the previous night. Which is nice, because I'm in no mood to be stabbed again.

Still, a niggling thought in the back of my mind bothers me as I make the walk. It only now occurs to me that, by offing Blackheart, I may have actually jeopardised my escape attempts.

Until my little talk with Fishstink, the plan had been to turn the upcoming mayoral election into a sham, entering my own candidate who could break the city's contract with the Sunhearts for me. Then after I discovered that the elections were already a sham... you know, I actually don't remember what my intentions were from there. Knowing me, I expect I would've approached the mob and politely asked them to let us leave once they have their new guy in office. I also probably would've offered oral sex to seal the deal, because that's a pretty standard negotiating tactic for me in almost all situations.

But in all the excitement, I seemed to have forgotten about any plans I might've had. Somehow, I left the Flying Golem with far less semen in me than I was expecting, and poised to take over a completely different high office than originally intended.

Don't get me wrong, in any other circumstance, I would love to take over the Sunheart Company. I would have infinite paid sick leave, I could abolish the democratic process at long last, and I could commit all the war crimes I want with no consequences (except for the nightmarish visions of horror that haunt all my dreams). However, this would be nothing like my fantasies. If I became the captain now, I would be indebted to the mob. And far from allowing me to break the contract and get us the hell out, that would only tighten the shackles binding us to this wretched city.

Not an attractive prospect by any means, but I don't know what I can do about it; I'm committed to this now. I suppose I could always betray the mob at first opportunity, but that's a risk that I'm not sure is worth taking. I am not subtle, so I'd probably be discovered very quickly. And should I displease his masters, I'm sure Crackshot would not hesitate to put me in the ground just like he did Blackheart.

At least, I think Crackshot put the corpse in the ground. I have no guarantee that he didn't just eat it. Griffons have been known to do that. Well, griffons in the Sunheart Company have, at any rate. Which reminds me, I really need to ban that if I ever do become captain, because it's super gross.

Speaking of gross, a drunk stumbles out of a nearby alleyway and across my path. My rapidly derailing train of thought is abandoned as he doubles over and empties his stomach contents into the gutter. I just sigh and nonchalantly walk around him as he moans in pain and anguish. It looks like Dragonfall has woken up at last.

"Lieutenant Agony, sir! It's good to see you're alright!"

The mare on watch duty, barely more than a filly, salutes crisply at me. Raindrops still patter on my armour as I shuffle over towards the shitpile that is the northwest barracks.

"Yeah, sure it is," I mumble.

I stop at the entrance and regard her strangely. I don't recognise her, and her demeanour is entirely too pleasant for a Sunheart, especially one in my platoon. Going by her age, I want to say that she's one of Coldsteel's child soldiers who somehow survived that suicide mission. But again, she's too pleased to see me for that to be the case. Plus, she still has all her limbs and no severe burn marks. All signs point to her being a new recruit. But when would we have recruited her?

"Where are Sergeant Breakspear and the others?" I ask.

"In the mess, eating, sir." She pauses, frowning. "Or... so I would assume. I've been out here all morning on watch."

I grunt tiredly. "Who'd you piss off to get stuck out here on a morning like this?"

"Nopony, sir. I volunteered." She smirks mischievously. "Better out in the rain than in there with the slime monster."

Well, I can't say I blame her; she's positively Agony-esque in her deviousness... which might mark her as a potential threat. I mutter a word of thanks, making a mental note to send her on another suicide mission at some point, and wander through the barracks to the mess hall.

The place is quiet as I enter. Breakfast time has already passed, with only a scant few soldiers still at the tables with their vile processed rations. However, the filly turns out to be right about my sergeants, as Breakspear, Yellowbelly, and Coldsteel all sit gathered around the head table. Their breakfasts are much more appetising than those of the troops, freshly cooked and accompanied by steaming coffee. I assume that they had it delivered from a local cafe again.

They snap to as soon once they notice me, but I put them at ease with a dismissive wave of my hoof. They sit down again with me as I pull up a seat at the table and casually steal a slice of toast from Yellowbelly's plate. I'm not hungry, but sometimes, you just gotta pull a power play to remind your subordinates just how lowly they are next to you.

"Anything to report?" I ask, toast crunching in my mouth.

Yellowbelly wrinkles his moustache and gulps slightly before answering.

"We lost Torte and Ballbreaker last night," he says. "They got high off some fungus growing on the roof, and broke the quarantine to try reasoning with the slime monster. We resealed the barricade behind them as soon as we noticed."

"Good. We're better off without them. Anything else?"

Breakspear clears his throat and sits up a little straighter. "The forest beyond the western wall caught fire in the middle of last night's rainstorm. We're not sure how that happened; there's any number of things that could've sparked it off, but the storm should've kept it from spreading. I'm told it was impressive to see, if nothing else."

"That figures," I say, shaking my head disgustedly and taking another bite of toast.

"It's a relief to see you're alright, by the way, sir," Breakspear continues. "We all assumed the worst when you and the Captain both disappeared."

"Yes, I went on a walkabout, and had myself a bit of a misadventure. The kind with knives. Then I got patched up a friendly mobster. Oh, by the way, we work for the mob now."

"...Sir?" says Breakspear.

It occurs to me, then, that I should at least feign surprise at Blackheart's disappearance.

"So what's this about the Captain?" I say, cleverly redirecting the topic.

"Um..." Coldsteel rubs the back of his neck. "He went missing last night, around the same time you did, sir. He's now presumed dead."

I feel a chill.

"And why is that?" I ask.

Coldsteel looks at the floor. "No reason in particular. It's just... Dragonfall."

"Yeah, say no more." I finish my toast, trying not to visibly show my relief. "Might have been orphans. Vicious little bastards, the lot of them. Hey, what about Rictus? I notice he isn't here. Did you guys relieve that situation in the crystal mines yet?"

"We tried," said Yellowbelly. "I sent four ponies to the mines to help dig out the cave-in. There were no survivors."

I pause. "No survivors from his squad, or...?"

"Oh, sorry, sir. None from mine. Some kind of poison gas leaked out and killed them all. Rictus yet lives, however. He sent another message this morning."

He pulls a tiny, rolled scroll from a chink on his armor, and drops it into my hoof. The parchment is still slightly moist from his saliva, and I resist the urge to retch as I unfold it. The message is written in what looks like cheap, faded red ink, until I squint at it and realise that it's actually...

"Blood," I murmur. "This is written in someone's blood."

"Yes, quite the omen, that," says Yellowbelly.

I give the message a read.



"Damn it, Yellowbelly, you had one job," I grumble, wadding up the scroll and tossing it away. "I don't particularly like Rictus, but he's down there with a quarter of my troops. This situation is already untennable as it is, but if there's even going to be a Sunheart Company in a year's time, then we need every warm body we can get!"

My sergeants exchange a look with one another.

"Uh... didn't you just earlier say we were better off without Torte and Ballbreaker, sir?" Coldsteel ventures.

I glare at him. "That's different, because those two have negative value, whereas a quarter of the platoon is a really damn big number!"

Breakspear looks past me, towards the mess hall entrance, his expression shifting to one of nervousness.

"Uh, sir?" he says, dread creeping into his voice. "Perhaps we ought to... put a pin in this, for just a moment..."

At first, I'm ready to shout at him. Even if it is Breakspear, I can't have my subordinates talking over me. But then I hear the other soldiers in the mess hall screaming. Yellowbelly jumps out of his chair and flails backwards, while Coldsteel just whimpers, staring wide-eyed at whatever is behind me. Spine tingling, I slowly turn around to face it as well.

Something green and transluscent is oozing from a crack in the wall above the door. Or, rather, it's oozing from all the cracks in all the walls on that side of the room. It drips out and pools on the floor, and soon the puddle has grown to sufficient size to block off the main exit. The troops nearest to it are caught off-guard and panicking. One of them steps into it, and is dissolved right before my eyes and absorbed into the slime.

"Ah, fantastic!" I shout, throwing a hoof into the air. "Yes! Please! This is exactly what I need right now!"

The walls rumble, and pony-shaped blobs with eyes of glowing yellow start rising out of the goop. At least half a dozen block off the exit, and more start growing out of the cracks where the slime is leaking in. They hang sideways off the walls, piles of vaguely equine-looking green jelly. All of the figures open wide, empty mouths and speak in unison.

"YOU KILLED US, AGONY. WHY DIDN'T YOU SAVE US?" they collectively moan, voices echoing around the mess hall.

I start backing away with my sergeants. I must be dreaming right now, because I have a recurring nightmare that goes almost exactly like this.

"Uh, sir?" Yellowbelly shrieks, like a frightened little colt. "Orders?"

The puddle spreads forward into the mess hall, and the legion of slime monsters advance on us with slow, lumbering steps. I feel a vein pop in my forehead.

Typical Dragonfall.

1. Attempt to escape by flying over the slime, and leave the sergeants to die.
2. Sacrifice lesser troops to the slime monster in hopes of appeasing it.
3. Call a retreat to the kitchen/armoury, and pray for a miracle.

Chapter 7: Nothing Can Stop the Smooze

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>Call a retreat to the kitchen/armoury, and pray for a miracle.

Over the course of my long career as a mercenary, I've been in some shitty situations. There was that time I was shipwrecked on a desert island, and waited three weeks for rescue, only for the island's owner to roll up in his yacht and shoot me for trespassing. There was that mutiny after I first became a sergeant, when my squad stuffed me into a barrel with around thirty cobras, set the barrel on fire, and then pushed me off a cliff in it. And of course, I could never forget the siege of Uzkushu, where an army of six hundred pissed-off jackals were camped outside my shitty fort, and I had to hold it with only twenty soldiers, a dozen scarecrows, and no food besides the plague rats that they kept throwing over our walls.

It's funny, the things you miss.

"WHY, AGONYYYY... WHYYYYYY...." the slime-ponies moan in unison as they lumber towards me.

Green sludge still leaks from the walls, pooling on the floor. The puddle covers half the mess hall, and is only growing larger. I can still fly over it to reach the far door, but there's no guarantee that it won't just reach up and grab me. If the slime can form four-legged constructs that actually walk, then it can probably make a simple tentacle.

"Uhhhh, sir?!" Yellowbelly screams, climbing onto our breakfast table. "What do we do?!"

Breakspear and Coldsteel stand back-to-back, weapons drawn, for all the good that will do. The other troops who were eating in the mess hall are backing up towards us, occasionally looking over their shoulders to shoot me wide-eyed, fearful looks. The slime-ponies nearest to the edge of the spreading puddle reach out their hooves to the soldiers, and let out wet, gurgling noises that sound like they're drowning.

"I seem to have been caught at a tactical disadvantage here," I mumble.

This plays against all my strengths as a commander. Give me an enemy that I can attack first and take by surprise, and I could guarantee victory, no matter who they are or how large their force is. But take me by surprise, and I'll stumble. Especially when the enemy is slime monsters. I cannot emphasise enough how unprepared I am for a situation like this.

While the monsters continue to moan my name, I spin to face the back of the mess hall. There's a tiny door there, and a big open window with a counter top and a sneeze guard where meals would have once been served. Both lead into the old kitchen, the one which I ordered to be converted into an armoury, and they appear to be the only other way out of the room... Only I don't remember if there's actually an exit through there. And if there isn't, then all we'd be doing is boxing ourselves in.

Well, it's not like we have a lot of options...

"...Okay! Everypony fall back! Get the hell away from this thing!"

My sergeants are the closest to the kitchen door, so they fight each other to be the first ones through. I'm right behind them, and shove them all out of the way. The four of us burst through together and fall into the old kitchen in a heap. Our entrance kicks up dust, and we're coughing as we climb to our hooves and step aside for the other soldiers.

The kitchen is a big room, with stoves and cupboards lined up in rows in the centre, as well as along the walls. All the counters have weapons and armour strewn over them haphazardly, everything from polearms, to crossbows, to chain and plate mail. On one rusty oven in the corner of the room, curiously, is a vase of flowers and a scroll, beneath a black and white photograph of me that's pinned on the wall. Despite the situation, I gallop over to look at it closer.

Oh Celestia, it's a memorial.

The scroll has the word "AGONY" written in the middle, surrounded by messages in dozens of different hoof-writing styles. Most of them, I am annoyed to note, are derogatory.

"Rest in piss – You won't be missed."

"He had a nice ass – Shame about his personality!"

"I hope it was painful."

The only remotely positive message is one that says "10/10 - Gave good head." I wish I knew who wrote it, but it could be from anyone.

"What kind of shit memorial is this?" I shout, turning back to my sergeants and the soldiers still pouring through the door.

"Sir, is this really the time?!" Yellowbelly screams, as a slime monster leans across counter and tries to climb over the sneeze-guard.


"It is absolutely the time!"

There's some turny-handle-thingy on the wall next to the counter. I rush over and grab it, forcing it as hard as I can without snapping it off. There's a creak, and a screech of scraping metal, before a shutter crashes down on the counter and decapitates the creature. A bubbling glob of green spills on the floor and sits there. Meanwhile, the final few soldiers make it through the door, and the last one slams it closed behind him and uses his back to brace it against the tide of sludge.

"I demand to know why I was not properly mourned!"

"Because you're a psychopath who worries about his own ego while the rest of us are dying!" says the soldier holding the kitchen door closed.

"Insubordination!" I shout, pointing a hoof at him. "Latrine duty for a year!"

The slime leaks through the cracks in the doorway. The soldier screams as his flesh melts and sloughs off, leaving only a skeleton, which crumples to the floor and is sucked into the mass. More slime creatures immediately begin forming from the puddle.

"...By which I mean you'll be in the latrine, apparently!" I laugh at my own joke. "Ha! They told me to rest in piss, but at least I'm not resting in a slime monster! You dumb idiot!"

"Sir!" another soldier shouts, tears welling in his eyes. "A stallion just died! Show some respect!"


The slime creatures, now fully formed, continue their advance, most of them turning course to move straight towards me.


I don't think they're even calling my name at this point. I'm pretty sure these creatures just exist in a state of constant suffering, and want me to know it.

I fly to the other side of a row of ovens to avoid the ones coming towards me, as the rest of my troops run for the back of the kitchen.

"Damn it!" I yell. "Soldiers, if there's no exit back there, then grab whatever's closest and smash the back wall until you make one!"

I grab a bag of flour off a nearby counter and throw it at the closest slime-pony, hoping that dry things will slow its advance. Not so, it seems. The flour just sinks into it, and it keeps moving. I grab a halberd and toss that at it next, but it just consumes that as well. Giving up, I flee towards the back of the kitchen, where everypony is crowding around one particular corner.

"Did you find something?" I call, flying over the top of the crowd.

"Yeah – a door!" a strained voice replies. "But it won't... open...! Nyerrhhh!"

I shove my way to the front of the crowd, and find a pegasus stallion pulling at a rusted lock. I stare incredulously at him for a moment, before slapping him across the face, and pointing a hoof at the nearest earth pony. The earth stallion gets the idea, and bucks the door down in a single strike.

Releasing thousands upon thousands of rats.


I scream like a little filly. I'm not ashamed to admit it. So does Yellowbelly, and Coldsteel, and Breakspear, and about a dozen other trained, hardened killers. The rats swarm over us in their hundreds, blocking out all light and sound. They crawl over our bodies, scratching our skin and squealing hellishly. As darkness consumes me, I know that the Age of Ponies is over, and that the Time of the Rat has come.

Fortunately, the prophesied Rat-Tide passes as quickly as it came, leaving only a gaggle of scarred, terrified stallions in its wake. I grab the open door with both hooves and haul myself up, a few stray rats still scurrying beneath me, and stumble forward into the darkness. The rest of my soldiers follow me. Behind us, I hear sloshing liquid and panicked, haunting squeaks.

I barely make it more than three steps before I hit a wall. The soldier behind walks into me and stumbles back, and my troops all fall over again, knocked down like dominoes. Being a thestral, my eyes don't take long to adjust to the light, and I stare at the wall in front of me, still swaying in my dazed and disoriented state.

"It's a... It's a ladder, I think..." I slur, before shaking my head and focusing myself. "We got a ladder! Winged ponies first! Fly directly up the.... whatever the hell this is! Non-fliers, line up for the ladder, alternating between unicorns and earth ponies! Unicorns, we need light for the climb! And hurry! The creature will run out of rats to eat sooner or later!"

I don't stop to oversee the organisation. I just fly directly up into the darkness. The slime monster is right behind us, and if I can get away from it alive, then I will. As for everypony else, well... I told them what they need to do to live. Now their survival is on them.

As I rise, I look around. The walls here are pretty tight, forming a narrow shaft with room enough for the ladder and one body. My wings brush the walls with every stroke. I have no idea what the hell this is, or why it's here, but I'm just thankful for small mercies right now.

I hear beating wings beneath me; it seems my platoon aren't completely stupid.

"Keep going!" I yell to them. "Fast as you can! We need to clear room for the climbers!"

I keep ascending until my head bumps into the ceiling, and then fly forward into a narrow tunnel with a wooden door at the end.

"We've reached the top! Watch out for the ceiling!"

The fliers behind me still bump their heads, despite my warning. I ignore them and run forward to open the door, emerging into... some kind of dusty store room.

"...Where the hell are we now?"

There's nothing in here except for a few crates and barrels, and some metal shelves full of shriveled black things. It's pretty small, too. Given no other choice, I go to the only other door in the room and try to force it open, only to find it locked.

"Damn it, no!" I cry, smacking my head against it.

Now I have to wait for the earth ponies to get here. Great.

"Um... sir?" says one of the pegasi behind me.

"What?" I sigh, turning around.

He points a hoof over to a corner of the ceiling. Green slime is leaking through.

"Shit!" I slam against the door with as much force as I can muster, but it doesn't budge. "It can't end like this! I can't die in a storeroom with a bunch of menials! Celestia, save me! Second, save me! I'd take the Nightmare if she's listening, just please somebody help me!"

Just as I'm about to give up hope, an earth pony finally arrives, hauling himself up from the ladder and crawling into the store room. Unfortunately, it's Yellowbelly.

I sink to my knees and cry, head in my hooves.

"I don't deserve this," I sob. "I did literally nothing wrong!"

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAGONYYYYYYY..." the monster cries, its voice reverberating off the walls.

Conveniently, at that exact moment, the walls all around the door crumble to pieces, leaving only piles of dust and bricks. I blink in surprise.

Then my platoon tramples me as they stampede through, each taking the time to step on my head as they go.

"Ow! Argh! Oof! Damn! Shit! You're all on latrine duty! Arghh!"

A hoof grabs me and hauls me up. Breakspear is beside me, and he yanks me through the hole. I limp behind him as we run along a corridor behind the rest of our troops. The wall to our right, the side the store room was on, is bleeding green everywhere.

"We're not gonna make it..." I gasp.

"None of that quitter talk, sir," says Breakspear, giving me a stern look. "We're both gonna—"

Ahead of us, another wall explodes, and a tidal wave of green sludge washes out and drowns all the soldiers who'd tramped me, Yellowbelly included. My pupils shrink to the size of pinpricks, and my mouth hangs open. Then the green crap comes flooding down the corridor.

Breakspear's horn lights, and he shoots a shield spell ahead of us. The slime crashes through it as if it wasn't there. We both turn and run, screaming at the top of our lungs. The soldiers who were behind us are already running in the other direction.

Then, more slime bursts out of the floor and consumes them, too.

"Can't I get even one break?!" I scream.

No, say the gods.

The cracks from where the floor shattered spread rapidly. Breakspear and I run right into them, and our weight collapses the floor. We scream as we tumble down, crashing into some kind of disused armoury. A wooden table shatters underneath us, and slime drips towards the edges of the hole and begins pouring down. Breakspear and I just barely dodge out of the way, barrelling through another door into yet another corridor.

There are Sunhearts in this corridor, weapons in hoof as more slime leaks from the walls. I separate from Breakspear, and we both gallop for the far end as fast as we can.

"This whole barracks situation is bullshit!" I scream. "Damn you, Blackheart! I hope you burn in hell, you motherfucker!"

Another wall comes down ahead, bringing an entire storeroom with it. Only this time, a miracle! Daylight pours through! Not very bright daylight, and it's accompanied by rain, but I feel the open air on my skin, and the feeling is so wonderful I break out into a huge grin.

I lower my head and charge full-tilt towards the oncoming slime.

"Sir!" Breakspear calls, still following me.

When we get close enough, I rear up and twirl around as I skid backwards towards the slime. I grab Breakspear's hoof with my own and toss him straight over my head. He screams, sailing over the slime and out through the hole in the wall. I grin, and take a backwards leap out after him. The slime pours outside as well, trying to follow us, but it's too late now. We're in freefall over the burned forest.

I spread my wings, and swoop down.

Breakspear flails his limbs as he falls, wide-eyed and screaming. He tries to reach for me. No need to. I dive, flying down faster than he can fall, and sweep up underneath to catch him in my forelegs. He grabs ahold of me, tight enough to restrict airflow, and I can feel his heart thumping against my chest.

I try to slow our drop, but by this point we're already pretty close to the ground, so the best I can do is crash us into a big pile of mud.

I stay there in the mud heap for a while, half-submerged and groaning in pain. I probably have several new bruises, and my multiple stab wounds are aching again as well. Breakspear, already out of the mud, lies against a tree and hyperventilates after his near-death experience.

"Well..." I rasp, coughing up earth. "That... could've gone better..."

Breakspear gives me a look, but says nothing, just nodding his head rapidly while still struggling to breathe correctly.

I pull myself out of the mud as well, leaning against another tree, and turn my gaze back to Dragonfall's western wall. Cracks have formed on the exterior, and I can still see the slime leaking through them, as well as various holes like the one we fell through.

"Celestia, just look at it..." I mutter. "What the hell just tried to kill us?"

Breakspear tries to mime something, but quickly gives up, instead stumbling a little way and then emptying his stomach over the forest floor.

"...Yeah, pretty much my feelings right now, too."

I look up at the sky, which rumbles with distant thunder. The rain is still pouring on us. I hadn't even noticed it until now, but it's picking up. On top of being shocked, injured, and filthy, I'm about to be very wet as well.


With the way today's been going, there's a certain set of words I want to say. I wouldn't normally dare, but considering how bad things already are, I'm just curious what will happen.

"...At least it can't get any worse!" I yell to the sky.

There's a monstrously loud crunch. I slowly turn my head back towards the western wall. Where once there were many leaking cracks, now one giant crack has formed. Then there's another crunching noise, and it grows even bigger. And then a huge chunk falls out, as the entire western wall begins collapsing.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry, so I do both.

Dragonfall never disappoints.

1. Search for survivors in the ruins of the northwest barracks.
2. Reunite with the other Sunheart lieutenants.
3. Live in the woods with Breakspear for a while.

Chapter 8: Agony Goes Camping

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>Live in the woods with Breakspear for a while.

It doesn't take much to convince Breakspear to abandon Dragonfall as a lost cause. We were both thinking it. Faced with the imminent possible destruction of the entire city, and a monster that I can see no real way to kill, we opt instead to live in the woods like savages until this whole thing blows over.

We retreat further into the forest to put some distance between ourselves and the remnants of the western wall. All around, the mud is black with ash and charred wood, the trees are missing their leaves, and I notice a lot of dead, burned animals. Not as many dead animals as the city proper, but still a lot.

Breakspear and I spend much of our forest vacation looking for suitable firewood. We come up short, needless to say. Nearly everything appropriately combustible was already combusted by the blaze, and anything left is too damp from the rain to catch fire. It's an impossible dichotomy, given the circumstances; how can something burn so quickly and thoroughly in so intense a rainstorm? More importantly, how could something like this have happened in the first place?

I suppose it doesn't matter all that much, given that Breakspear and I just escaped death by slime. My not-so-subtle groaning and grumbling worsens the longer we walk, and the more we come up short. I simply cannot accept that we traded certain, agonising death for certain, prolonged, possibly more agonising death.

"Sir," Breakspear says, out of the blue. "Permission to speak freely?"

I grunt noncommittally, not really caring about anything at this point.

Breakspear almost doesn't continue – I suppose my response didn't fill him with confidence – but, cautiously, he speaks his mind.

"Do you find it ironic that the two of us escaped one deathtrap, only to land in yet another, different deathtrap, which offers only a slightly more agonising form of death?"

I pull to a stop, my mouth agape as I stare at him. Breakspear realizes I've stopped walking after a little while, and turns to look at me quizzically. "Sir?"

"I was literally just thinking that." I swallow. "We're so in sync, you and I."

Breakspear's lips stretch into a taut line, and he turns to keep walking. I stare at him a while, sighing, and then fall into step again.

"To answer your question, though, I do find that ironic." I shudder, shaking droplets of rainwater from my coat and armor, and flapping my wings in a vain attempt at drying them. "What the hell happened to spring two completely unrelated deathtraps within spitting distance of one another? And why, in Celestia's name, do we find ourselves caught in both of them, one after the other?"

Breakspear pauses to strip a few intact leaves from a low-hanging branch. He chews them thoughtfully, then shrugs. "Dragonfall hates us?"

I snort. "As good an answer as any."

Because that's Dragonfall for you in a nutshell, I suppose. It fucks you bloody from two directions at once, and expects you to thank it for the privilege.

In time, we find a cave – a little dip in the earth, sized well enough for a couple of wet, uncomfortable ponies to slip in and spend the night. Still more luckily, whatever must've called it home lies charred and blackened outside the cave. From the bits of flesh still clinging to its blackened bones, I judge it to be some sort of crocodile-snake-lizard, and guess that it was caught in the fire within sight of whatever safety its burrow offered.

I spit on it as I pass it by, following Breakspear inside its home.

MY home now, bitch.

The lizard-thingy's cave is warm and dry, but offers little in the way of creature comforts. There are feces everywhere, for one, and the spots that aren't carpeted with feces are carpeted with the splintered bones of its prey. I call dibs on the most bone-free spot of land right away, though it's covered in lizard droppings. I may like Breakspear, but I'll be damned if I'm going to sleep with ribs and femurs poking into my skin all over.

Neither of us are what I'd call comfortable in our bedding, though. Breakspear's rolling around, groaning, probably because he's got ribs and femurs poking into his skin all over. As for my bed, well, my bed is made of literal shit, so it's got a whole bunch of additional unpleasantness going for it. Belatedly, I realise that rolling around in lizard dung might cause me to get some sort of infection, especially given how many wounds I've accumulated over the last twenty-four hours. I must needs seek out a better bed, I realise.

I look forlornly at Breakspear, who looks modestly more comfortable on his his feces-free bone-bed – at least, he isn't tossing and turning and wincing as much as I am. Immediately, I hatch a brilliant scheme in my mind, and I set to work implementing it. I will need to employ all my powers of persuasion, my silver officer's tongue, to win him over.

"Wanna have sex?" I blurt.

Breakspear immediately rolls over, wide-eyed. "Excuse me, what?"

"Do you want to have sex?" I repeat, striking a casual pose on my bed of feces. "You know, just to pass the time."

It's the perfect plan. By having sex with Breakspear, I ensure myself a spot on his vastly more appealing bed of bones, for surely he would hold me close and stroke my mane and whisper sensual words of comfort in my ear as we drift off to sleep, not send me away to sleep apart from him. And by having sex with him, Breakspear also gains the comfort of my body heat for the night, the feeling of my expert ministrations, and he no longer has to live with the shame of being part of the 40% minority of Sunhearts that I have not yet slept with. It's the very definition of a win/win scenario.

Breakspear's eyes travel along my taut, thestral form, his lips pressed into that thin line again.

"Sir..." he says cautiously.

Oh, I've heard that tone before. It's the judgmental tone, the tone of misunderstood intentions, and it leads nowhere good.

"What?" I say defensively. "Just to pass the time! Don't mean anything gay about it. Just two guys having sex, that's all."

Breakspear hangs his head and sighs, and shifts his body to sit up, as tall as he can with the low-hanging cave ceiling. "Sir, that's – what you're proposing is incredibly gay. 'Two guys having sex' is the very definition of gay."

"It is not!" I whine, in a seductive and masculine way. "It's just sex! Sex between guys! You know how much I like mares, Breakspear! You see me with them all the time! Could somepony who sleeps with as many mares as I have possibly be gay?"


"The answer is no. The answer is an emphatic no. I am as rigidly straight as an engorged penis. Now." I huff. "Do you want to have sex, or not?"

"Lieutenant Agony," Breakspear says through gritted teeth. "If you like mares, and you like stallions too, then that makes you bisexual. Not straight."

I recoil, blinking. "Bi... sexual? What is—"

"It means you like both," Breakspear says in a strained voice. "Mares and stallions. If you like both, then you're not gay, and you're not straight. You're bisexual."

I sigh. I hang my head. I chuckle condescendingly.

"Breakspear. Sergeant. You can't be attracted to mares and stallions. Everybody knows that."

"Lieutenant, you were just now asking me to have sex with you—"

"And you had to make it into a whole thing!"

"—And in the same breath, you were bragging about liking mares. So, clearly, you—"

"Exactly, see? I like mares, you can't like both, and there's no such thing as being bicameral. QED."

"No, that's not—" Breakspear stops, fumbles, stammers, and finally just groans, defeated by my superior arguing tactics. "Never mind. Just... let's just try and get some sleep, sir."

He throws himself back down on his bone-bed. My ears wilt, and I can't help but feel the sting of his rejection.

"Does... Does this mean you don't want to—"

"No, I don't want to have sex. Sir." Breakspear mumbles incoherently, then adds, "Do we still have that Equine Resources officer in the platoon?"

"Yellowshine?" I have to think about it for a moment, before remembering. "No. She died a little while back."

"...How did she—"

"Suicide mission."

"Of course," Breakspear grumbles. "Damned Sunhearts."

I don't know what he's complaining about. I'm the one who has to sleep in shit.

Breakspear doesn't make eye contact with me the next morning. That's just fine with me, because it's not like I would have wanted to look into his eyes and feel their warmth penetrate deep into my soul or anything. We instead mutter a few terse, perfunctory words about finding food and better shelter in the woods, before heading out of the lizard-cave.

Almost as soon as we emerge, a pack of bandits in rusty armor and threadbare clothing spring out of from both sides of the entrance, and encircle Breakspear and I.

I roar with frustration. Of course there were bandits waiting for us. We may not be inside the city proper, but we're still Dragonfall-adjacent. By that logic, I suppose I should thank fortune that none of them are pint-sized orphans with shivs. There are seven of them in total, five ponies and two griffons; the larger of the griffons steps forward, rearing onto his hind legs and clapping his talons together.

"Sunny ponies," he says, grinning in an almost Crackshot-esque way. "Thank you, thank you, for coming out yourselves instead of making us go in after you."

His words are seasoned with some kind of accent, one that slickly stretches and warps his vowels. I look him over – his armor's more intricate-looking than the other griffons, emblazoned with some kind of old silver emblem of a talon. It looks like good, quality armor, if a little worn in places. I can't help but wonder where a degenerate like this must've gotten his claws on it.

Breakspear glances between each of the bandits, his face tense and wary. "How did you find us? Were you tailing us last—"

"Breakspear," I say. "Be quiet. I'm the commanding officer here, and he's talking to me, not you."

Breakspear's eyes widen. "Agony—"

"That's Lieutenant Agony to you, sergeant! You have no place getting familiar with me!" Certainly not after turning me down last night – first-name basis is reserved for lovers, or for sexy, hired swords who could do me grievous harm if I deny them. "Now, guard your tongue, and let me deal with the nice, reasonable griffon."

There's murmuring and muttering among the ranks of the bandits, and said reasonable griffon looks thoughtful. "Lieutenant. And sergeant. I heard you correctly, non?"

"Yes. You did." I draw myself up and stare at him as imperiously as I can. "Now, the two of us have had a rather trying night, and we don't wish to start the morning on an unpleasant note. I'm sure you don't, either."

"Perish the thought," the griffon said slimily, drawing out his words as if each one offered a mini-climax.

"...Indeed. Then we're in agreement." I clear my throat. "So, then, since we're all on the same page, perhaps you and your little band might step aside, and my associate and I will be on our way."

The griffon nodded sagely. "We could do that. We could. Or, you could turn over your valuables and come quietly."

My ears flatten as the bandits close ranks around us. I back away, my flank bumping into Breakspear's as the two of us are tightly encircled.

I gulp and force myself to grin. "J-Joke's on you! We don't have any valuables!"

The griffon points at us – myself first, then Breakspear. "That armour – is it gold, or just gilded?"

My face drains of blood. "N-Neither! It's brass!"

But the griffon chuckles and shakes his head.

"Honestly, it doesn't matter. We'll take it anyway."

Breakspear and I are taken deeper into the ashen forest. The bandits keep close ranks around us, and watch us carefully the entire time. A lice-ridden earth stallion has already slapped on Breakspear's armour; it's entirely too big for him, and he looks like a foal who stumbled into his father's armoury and decided to play dress-up. He clangs and rattles with every step he takes. On the other hoof, none of the bandits wanted to try on my armour, stained as it is with lizard shit. It's being flown in the talons of one of the griffons, who holds it as far in front of his face as he can, wearing a disgusted grimace.

The trees open up to a clearing where the bandits have made their home. Canvas tents, patched with materials which are definitely not canvas, are scattered among a few wooden huts and bungalows, some still bearing faded signage for some ranger's agency. There are more bandits here, at least a dozen ponies and a single griffon, and they eyeball Breakspear and I greedily as we're moved into the center of the camp.

"Oi! Googlymoo!"

The shout comes from a rather portly unicorn, whose horn bears a long hairline fracture along its length. He approaches my captors, swaggering, with a burlap saddlebag tied upon his flank, and steps right up to the griffon in the fancy armour.

"It's pronounced 'Gugliermo,' Baldric," the griffon, Googlymoo, says pedantically. He eyes the pony's saddlebags. "Good haul this morning?"

Baldric spits from the side of his mouth and shakes his head. "Bloomin'' Soonhearts ran us oof, they did. That barsterd with the moostash again." He unties the bag at his side with his teeth, and out spills a meager haul of tiny turnips, a single ear of corn, and a pig fetus in a jar of formaldehyde.

"Ah, the Sunny Ponies – a pain in the tailfeathers for us all," says Googlymoo, clapping Baldric on the shoulder. "But, if nothing else, we eat well tonight, eh?"

I glance back at Breakspear, making a disgusted face. He makes a face, too. It's one of fear. I snort, and turn away – if he can't see the humor in the situation, then there's not much I can do for him.

"Oi!" Baldric snaps, taking a step forward. "Yew havin' a laugh, eh? 'Ew's this, Googlymoo?"

"Gugliermo. And, ah..." Googlymoo winks at me. "We have not yet been formally introduced. But I gather he's a Lieutenant Agony. Of the Sunheart Company."

"Soonhearts, eh?" Baldric steps up to me, wearing an ugly look, and I tense my muscles just in time for a forehoof to collide with my barrel. The wind goes out of me, and I drop to my knees, choking on my breath. Baldric follows up with a kick to my stomach that makes me tuck and curl my legs against my body.

"That's for the bloody Soonhearts." Baldric spits again. "What'choo bringin' 'im back here for?"

"We sloice and doice?" calls another pony from behind Baldric

The thin, balding, pockmarked earth stallion grins, baring a mouth of rotten brown nubs.

"Sloice and doice and make all noice?" he asks again.

Googlymoo gestures placatingly at him. "We could do that – we certainly could. But did you catch his rank, by chance? Lieutenant Agony, of the Sunhearts. He's an officer. And an officer would fetch a pretty ransom, I don't have to tell you, Baldric."

"Actually, you probably do," I wheeze out. "Baldric looks about as sharp as Sloice-And-Doice's front teeth."

That earns me another kick in my stomach, and I decide to shut up for the nonce.

The bandits, under Googlymoo's direction, tie us to a pair of posts in the center of the camp. Googlymoo assures us that our stay will be brief, one way or the other.

"Take heart, Sunny Ponies! We won't be keeping you long. Once your friends in Dragonfall deliver the ransom, we'll send you on your way!"

"Ransom?" I rasp

My lungs aren't working so well; I'm having trouble catching my breath after Baldric's beating.

"Indeed." Googlymoo's eyes glint. "Surely, a ranking officer in the storied Sunheart Company, and one of his sergeants, would together fetch a goodly ransom from your... ah... Captain Blackheart, I believe?"

He wanders off, ruffling his feathers and laughing smarmily, leaving me to ruminate on this latest twist in fortune. Sloice-and-Doice stands nearby, his ample hindquarters pointed toward us. I pray that we're downwind of him.

Breakspear's leans toward me, straining against the ropes binding him to his post. "That's not so bad, sir, is it? If they're planning to ransom us, then we might get out of this alive."

"Doubtful," I grumble. "Killjoy might try to spring for our release, but the rest of them hate me."

Were Blackheart still alive, I'd have said that we had good odds of getting out, so long as the ransom wasn't too unreasonable; he was shockingly inept as a leader, but never left ponies to die if he could help it. Until he stabbed me, that is. But with him gone, our fates are in the hooves and other appendages of my fellow lieutenants, and most of them have even less love for me than Blackheart did. There's always the possibility that Crackshot will catch wind of my peril and fork over the money, but it's just as likely that they won't see me as worth the expense, and will seek out someone else within the company.

Breakspear's mouth twists. "The other Sunhearts—"

"Are self-serving mercenaries who don't give a shit about us, Breakspear. You know it, and I know it. Pretending otherwise helps nopony." My gaze zeroes in on our watchpony, and I lick my lips nervously. "No, this is situation where we're better served taking matters into our own hooves."

I lift my head, and, fighting back residual stomach pain, call out to my captor. "You there! The scary-looking one keeping watch over us! Might we have a word?"

Sloice-and-Doice turns and regards me with a look that's somewhere between stupefied and dumbfounded. Smiling broadly, I nod, and he toddles over corpulently, jiggling with every step.

Breakspear pales. "Sir, what are you—"

"Celestia helps those who help themselves, sergeant," I hiss through my teeth, just before Sloice-and-Doice stops in front of me.

"Bat Pony make words," he slurs around his rotten teeth-stumps. "Make words at Mort. Make talkings at Mort."

I ignore the pejorative. "Mort, eh? What a lovely name that is. It certainly suits you—"

Mort gives me a stinging cuff behind the ear, reminding me once again why showing any kind of civility – even fake civility – is pointless.

"Why Bat Pony make talkings? Make words at Mort?"

"...Because, Mort," I groan, keeping my grin going and trying to ignore the throbbing in my head, "I need to talk to you about something important. Something very important."


"Yes! Yes, very important!" I lower my voice. "The kind of thing that only important ponies are supposed to hear. You look like an important pony, Mort. Does that mean—"

"Mort impo'tant!" Mort proclaims, nodding his head vigorously. "Mort very impo'tant!"

It takes everything in me not to laugh at the simpleton. "Well, if you're that important, Mort, then I suppose I can clue you in."

Mort leans in closer, introducing me to stenches which defy description. I take a deep breath through my mouth, and whisper.

"I want to join you and your friends. I know you've been having trouble with the Sunhearts – I think I can help you out with them."

Mort's eyes bug out, and he pulls back. "Bat Pony want be.... bad pony? Bad Bat Pony?"

"Yes! Bad batpony!" I nod vigorously. "But like I said, this is a message that only important ponies, like you, are allowed to hear."

"Mort impo'tant!" Mort stomps, once.

"Yes you are, Mort, you're so important. But I need to talk to the most important pony around here – the smartest one, the one who makes all the decisions. Help me out, Mort – isn't there somepony around here who's the most important pony?"

"Smart... pony..." Mort's lips pout and his brow furrows as he tries to fully process my question. "No smart pony. Ponies no smart. All dumb-dumbs – Googylmoo say so."

Well, I certainly can't argue with Googlymoo on that.

"How about Googlymoo, then? He's smart, right? And important, too?"

"Smart an' impo'tant!" Mort confirms, grinning his brown stumps at me.

"Then I think we should bring Googlymoo into our idea, don't you?" I waggle my eyebrows. "What do you say, Mort? Untie these ropes, and take me over to Googlymoo, and I'll bet he'll be very grateful to you."

Mort, convinced by my sage reasoning and expert manipulation, fumbles at my ropes with his stumpy teeth, accomplishing very little in the process. I roll my eyes, and wait, until he's loosened them just enough for me to wiggle my forelegs free. That done, it's a simple matter of snaking my way out from the rest, and leaving the coil of rope behind. I stretch my wings, crack my neck, and smile broadly at Mort.

"Take to Googlymoo now," Mort says, waddling off toward the largest of the encampment's huts. "Googlymoo smart, impo'tant. Talk to Googlymoo 'bout fightin' Sunponies."

"Lead the way, Mort, you smart, important pony, you."

We pass by Breakspear, who gawps at us from his comfortable vantage. "Sir, whatever it is you're up to—"

"Can't talk now, Breakspear – important pony business needs attending to!"

"Look, whatever you're doing, I don't care one way or the other!" Breakspear cries, wriggling and writhing against his restraints. "Just don't leave me here!"

Googlymoo's hut is lavishly decorated in all sorts of plundered finery: throw-rugs and tapestries and velvet curtains, gold and silver goblets, and two intricately carved chairs at a circular table. There's also a bottle of red wine on a nearby table that makes my mouth water, and not a hint of WISKEE in sight.

The griffon himself looks disapprovingly at Mort for just an instant, but just as quickly as it appears, it's replaced by that mask of congeniality that card-carrying villains so love to wear.

"I don't usually mind visitors," he says, "but I do prefer some notice before a 'body drops in on me. Knowing the Sunheart Company's reputation, I'm sure you feel the same, Lieutenant."

His turn of phrase isn't especially clever, but it makes me smile. I have a feeling that Googlymoo and I could have been friends in a different life. He seems like he'd understand me.

"Sorry for that," I say. "But once I explained to Mort why I needed to speak to you, we both agreed that it simply couldn't wait."

Googlymoo quirks an eyebrow. "And why does he need to speak to me, Mort?"

"Impo'tant batpony wan' be impo'tant badpony!" Mort proclaims, bludgeoning me in the withers with a bowling ball-sized hoof. "Wan' be impo'tant fo' Googlymoo!"

Googlymoo grins delightedly as my face burns.

"What he said," I clench out from between my teeth.

Googlymoo strides around to the end of the table closest to me, and pulls out a chair, patting it invitingly. "If I'm interpreting Mort properly, he means to say that you want to join my merry little band of raiders. I'm sure you and I could come to some sort of understanding, provided your offer is on the level."

I nod vigorously.

Googlymoo glances at Mort. "Thank you, my friend. Take your leave, and I'll call if I need you."

"Mort help?"

"Mort helped." Googlymoo looks at me, his eyes narrowing for just an instant. "Mort helped quite a bit."

Mort squeezes out the door, shutting it behind himself, and I begin to sweat.

"Tell me something," I say, taking the seat that Googlymoo offered me. "You kept correcting that other pony when he mispronounced your name, right? Why don't you get annoyed with Mort when he does it?"

"Because Mort has a speech impediment, obviously. Baldric is just a cunt."

I confess, I've never understood the griffon convention of using the names of genitals and sexual acts as swear words; I find genitals to be quite lovely.

Googlymoo circles around the table, to the other side, watching me all the while. "So, I've answered a question of yours. Perhaps you would answer a question of mine: Why would you want to stab your comrades – your fellow Sunny Ponies – in their collective backsides, mm?"

I clear my throat.

"Because they, too, are cunts," I venture.

Googlymoo throws back his head and laughs. He pushes away from the table, standing up and turning his back on me.

"Well, you have the right attitude to join, I'll give you that."

"Does this mean I pass the interview? Can we move on to the test portion?" I examine the wine bottle on the table carefully – the cork's still in, and the bottle is entirely full. "Because I'm good at examinations. Oral exams, especially."

"I can tell."

I frown, wondering what he means by that. But I don't have time to consider whatever implications there might be underneath the surface of the remark. Googlymoo seems to be busy staring at one of his hanging tapestries; he's wide open, and there's a full bottle of wine right in front of me. I lean forward, and take the neck into my mouth, making as little noise as I can. Then I rise, and tip-hoof toward him.

Googlymoo keeps his back to me all the while. "If your offer is legitimate, then I'd be inclined to accept. As I'm sure you gathered from the conversation outside, the Sunhearts have been a nuisance of late. Our hauls have been far lighter than is the norm. We ambush caravans, the Sunhearts show up, and we have to leave most of our booty behind. Worse yet, I'm fairly certain they've been taking what we leave behind, and what kind of self-respecting bandit would I be if I tolerated that?"

The longer he talks, the closer I come to him, until I'm within swinging distance. I draw my neck back, aiming for the back of his head, and I swing.

He spins, and effortlessly catches the bottle in his talon. The look he gives me is flat and unamused.


But he's fallen for my trap, the poor simpleton. Had he only been paying attention to my expertly delivered innuendo, he'd have an inkling of how good I am at blowjobs. How good, one might ask? So good, I can suck the cork from a wine bottle.

And I do just that, pulling it free with all the force of a vacuum. I drop the bottle, and spit the cork directly into Googlymoo's right eye. It strikes him with enough force to emit a bone-splintering crack, and as he's recoiling, I stomp the bottle to shards, and grab a triangular piece of glass between my teeth. I lunge, grabbing him around his neck, and pressing the glass shard point-first against his neck.

"Yeah," I say, my teeth clenched tight against the piece of glass. "Really."

1. Cut Googlymoo's throat and start fighting everyone like a fucking boss.
2. Hold Googlymoo hostage to ensure Breakspear's release, and then run like hell.
3. Assert dominance, and usurp control of the bandit clan from Googlymoo.

Chapter 9: Literally Hoofler

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>Assert dominance, and usurp control of the bandit clan from Googlymoo.

The door slams against the wall as I kick it open and shove my hostage outside. Wet all over and stinking of liquor, Googlymoo trips down the steps and faceplants in the mud with an undignified yelp. I step out after him and place a hoof on his throat, a lit cigar now held in my mouth rather than the glass shard. The rest of the camp, startled by my sudden entrance, scramble to grab their crappy spears and rusty swords, before moving to circle us both. Tied up to the post still, Breakspear gives me a disbelieving stare.

I look at the bandits surrounding me, around twenty in all. They keep their distance, fearing that I'll do something to their leader if they make a wrong move. I meet each of their gazes in turn, lingering longest on Mort, who holds a blank, wide-eyed gaze as he hefts an axe by his teeth. I wonder if he even comprehends that this is all his fault.

"Oi, look at this, lads!" says Baldric, floating one of the few decent swords the gang has. "This bloody Soonheart's 'aving a laugh with us! Yews all find this funny as I do?"

He grins, baring a mouthful of rotten teeth at both me and Googlymoo beneath my hoof.

"None o' us give a nutty shit 'bout Googlymoo," Baldric continues. "Go ahead an' off 'im! Soon as yew do, we'll slit ya up from balls to barrel."

"Sloice an' doice an' make all noice," Mort adds unhelpfully.

I give Baldric a flat look.

"Listen, you don't know who I am, what I can do, or what I've been through in the last few days, so you can't possibly comprehend how unimpressive I find you. Please just take my word for it, you are thoroughly outmatched here, and you'd be stupid to attack me. So let's skip the posturing and get right down to brass tacks."

Once again, I turn around to look at all the individual bandits. Most are ponies, and quite filthy and disheveled ponies at that, but I count a few griffons, diamond dogs, and even a mule among their numbers. Each of them looks just a tad more uneasy than before.

"All of you are wasted here. This whole enterprise you've got going is pathetic. Dragonfall is a city on its last legs, its populace so perpetually depressed that they're basically all just waiting to die. Until four days ago, they didn't even have a city guard. You are a gang of thieves and murderers. This is an environment you should be thriving in, yet you're camped out in the forest like a bunch of losers, subsisting on turnips and pig fetuses. You live in the kingdom with the best social welfare system in the world, bar none, and you still somehow managed to go hungry. That is a level of failure I didn't think was possible until I came to Dragonfall. Your leader just got taken down by your hostage, for Celestia's sake."

Most of the bandits at least have the decency to look ashamed of themselves at that.

"In short," I say, taking a puff of my cigar as I carefully look between each of them, "it might be time to consider a change of career. I have an offer for you all, one I think we'll all benefit from. Dragonfall is a shit place, and it's had a high rate of attrition on my platoon. I need bodies to fill out the ranks, and I don't particularly care where they come from or what they've done. Join up with me, and I'll clear any standing bounties on your heads, hire you on with full pay, and I'll even take you with me whenever we finally leave this shitheap. I won't lie, it's a horrible job, and you'll probably die, but in that regard it's no different than what you're currently doing. Left out here to your own devices with the Sunhearts after you, I give you three days, tops.

"So, that's the deal. You've got one chance, and only one. Anybody who's willing, gather your things and leave with me. Anybody who's not, stay out of our way, or I'll butcher you all."

Stunned silence follows my request, the bandits all looking to each other uncertainly. The first to break it is Baldric, who answers with a derisive laugh.

"Haha, 'ear that, lads? Soonheart wants us to join 'im! How's about we show what we think of his offer!"

Baldric raises his sword.

I step off Googlymoo's throat and glare down at him. With lightning reflexes, the griffon rolls out from under me, gripping his prehensile lion tail around a jar of off-brand "WISKEE" underneath him, and he tosses it at Baldric's face. The jar shatters, and the portly unicorn screams and staggers back, also making the rest of the bandits recoil. I spit my cigar in his direction.

The cigar ignites the alcohol, and Baldric's face bursts into flames. The other bandits jump out of the way as he howls, running around like a headless chicken. Some raise their weapons and point them at me, but none dare make a move. Googlymoo, free from my grip but still covered in alcohol himself, wards them off with a frantic wave of his claws, while also backing up to keep out of Baldric's way. Together, they all stare on in wide-eyed horror, as their comrade rolls over the ground in a futile attempt to douse the flames.

"Does anybody else here want to take a shot at me? I offer that now is the time to do that. It's worked out well for Baldric. Wouldn't you agree, Baldric?"

The bandits say nothing, and do nothing, but watch Baldric scream and flail about on the grass. With another threatening look from me, they all drop their weapons and kneel, except for Mort, who takes a second longer to see what his comrades are doing and copy the behaviour. Even Googlymoo, still shaking slightly from the whole display, sits upright and bows his head, cheap spirits still dripping from his feathers.

"Right..." I say with a smile, ignoring Baldric's shrill screaming in the background. "Good choice, team. Good survival instincts. They'll serve you well on the battlefield. And by 'the battlefield,' I mean Dragonfall. Pack your things; it's time to wade into Hell."

The trek back through the burned forest is no more pleasant than it was the first time. Before, I was a prisoner, and my only friendly company was Breakspear, whose rejection the night before had cast an awkward shadow over the whole affair. This time around, I'm the one leading the group, which one would think would make the experience more tolerable. And yet, the bandits of Googlymoo's thus far nameless band are so staggeringly incompetent at even the most basic coordination that they can drive me into fits of frothing rage without even trying.

"How damn hard is it to just walk in a line?!" I scream at the mule, who stumbles and stammers while sweat pours from his forehead. "One hoof in front of the other! Time it to the pony ahead of you! Like he's doing with the griffon! Keeping in harmony is the number one thing equines are known for, you dumb son of a whore!"

He slips and drops the crate tied to his back, which breaks on the forest floor and spills gold and silver everywhere. I clench my teeth, and bellow an order to halt. The whole group stops in their tracks, while we wait for the mule to pick it all up again. As he scrambles to gather the pieces, I look to the back of the procession and glare at a diamond dog clutching a spear, who shies away from me slightly when I walk up to him.

"What?" I snap.

The dog jumps. "Nothing! I say nothing, Mister Bat Pony—"

"Lieutenant Agony."

"—I say nothing, Mister Lieutenant Agony Bat Pony. Please no..." The dog hugs the spear tightly against his body. "Please no lighting me on fire?"

These are my newest recruits to the Sunheart Company? I'm regretting this decision already.

I grumble disgustedly, and return to the front of the column. The hapless mule's been joined by Breakspear, and together, the pair have loaded most of the fallen treasure back into the chest. Googlymoo stands nearby, a clenched talon held conspicuously close to his chest.

They finish reloading the treasure, and with Breakspear's help, the mule is able to affix the chest on his back more tightly than before. They mutter a few words, and exchange a smile. Their friendliness makes me seeth. Despite his earlier rejection, I'm pretty sure I still have a shot with Breakspear, and the last thing I need is competition for his affections, especially from some flea-bitten mule.

"Are you finally finished?" I growl.

The mule, already sweating again, nods, and I shout to pick things up again. And through the forest we move, in a column so loose and disorganized that it can scarcely be called such. Googlymoo floats up to me at the head of the column, with Breakspear following a few paces behind us. He keeps to the air, talon still closed tightly against his breastplate.

"You've quite a different approach to command than I, mon ami," Googlymoo says. "I'm glad to see my former crew responding to it."

"How kind of you to share your opinion," I drawl, rolling my eyes. "Your completely unsought opinion."

He chuckles, but his eyes glint with predatory shrewdness. "Might I offer a bit of constructive criticism?"

I'm planning to tell him where he can place his criticism, but he continues without waiting for a response.

"You're expecting a bit more from my crew than you should. These are bandits, recall – paupers and peasants gone desperate. You have a few that have seen service in some institution or another – a city guard deserter here, an ex-mercenary there. But this rabble is uncouth and undisciplined by nature. They're not some well-drilled, well-greased machine, like your Sunny Pony Company."

"And if I don't start holding them to some sort of standard, they'll never be anything but paupers and peasants." I straighten, and look down my nose at him. "What favours did your command style do you, anyway? Your entire troop, yourself included, pledged themselves to me the second I immolated Baldric."

Googlymoo's eyes darken. "Well, he was a cunt. Burned down the forest just for the fun of it last night. You probably earned their undying love just for that act alone."

Well, that answers why the forest caught fire... though how it did, in a rainstorm, remains a damned mystery.

I set it aside for now, and thump Googlymoo's breastplate. "That attitude is exactly what's wrong with your lot. There's no unity, no esprit de corps, no reason to care for one another. Give me one week with them, and they'll be the most tightly knit band of brave companions in Equestria."

Behind me, Breakspear snorts disdainfully. I can only assume his disgust with the bandits runs as deep as mine.

Googlymoo's grin is convincingly congenial, normally, but the one he wears now looks unusually strained, and undeniably artificial.

"Well, lieutenant," he says, the word inflected with that weird, oozing accent of his. "I look forward to seeing it, and to being a part of this brave new future you've promised. My gratitude to you for giving me such a place."

"A decision I'm sure you'll never give me any reason to regret." I fix my gaze on his clenched talon. "So, what did you take from the treasure when that mule dropped his load?"

Googlymoo quirks an eyebrow, and makes a decent enough show of looking affronted.

"Moi? Stealing treasure? What do you take me for, lieutenant, some sort of bandit?"

He laughs. He thinks he's being cute. He's mostly just being stabable, but I'd rather not get into a second tussle with him just now. Much as I love shaming Googlymoo, and as fun as killing him would be, he is the bandits' former leader. Having him on staff will probably give me a bit more sway over them, provided I can break him. And I'm pretty sure I can, given a day or two.

I kick off the ground and hover in time with Googlymoo.

"Now now, let's not start our new working relationship on a sour note," I say patiently, holding a forehoof open for him. "Come clean, give it here, and we'll forget the whole thing."

With a reluctant sigh and a shrug, Googlymoo acquiesces – by drawing back his talon and flinging something shiny and metallic at me. It strikes my barrel with a light stinging sensation, and drops into my hooves. It's a silver necklace, the pendant depicting a crucified beast engulfed in flames – the emblem of the old defunct Hunter's Guild.

That bastard.

"Ha ha, very funny." Sarcasm and malice drips from my words. "Because I'm a vampire, right? I've got pointed fangs and bat wings, so I must be! Very original of you."

Googlymoo's eye twitches, but he remains grinning. "I'm not sure I follow, lieutenant."

"Oh, don't be cute. You're not suited for it. You know as well as I what this is. Wrought silver, with a sunlight enchantment – a hunter's tool. You thought this would hurt me, didn't you? Well, I'm sorry you're so slow on the uptake, but thestrals aren't vampires, and blessed silver doesn't work on us. At best, some of us have vampiric ancestry, but actual vampires have been extinct for, oh... about seven hundred years now, give or take? Kind of the reason we don't have hunters anymore, in case you didn't notice."

The disappointment is plain upon his face. I remind myself that Googlymoo might have capitulated, but I've yet to truly break him. Well, time to get a head start on that. I toss the emblem over to Breakspear, who catches it with characteristic panache, and I drop to my hooves again.


"It's Guglier—"

"Googlymoo," I snap, smirking at the indignant look on his face. "Would you care to guess my special talent? Surely you've noticed my cutie mark, the bloody teardrop. What does that mean to you?"

Googlymoo's eyebrows knit together. "Some sort of ocular cancer? Makes you cry blood?"

My smirk immediately disappears. I rub my forehead and sigh.

"Yeah, never heard that one before, either," I grumble. "Try again."

Googlymoo glances at my cutie mark and thoughtfully runs his tongue along his beak. "Don't suppose it be... killing?"

"Closer," I say cheerfully. "Come on, almost there!"

"Um..." Googlymoo dithers.

From behind us, Breakspear sighs loudly and rolls his eyes.

"It's not a teardrop. He just likes to say that it is. Lieutenant Agony's cutie mark is the enemy's blood. It represents first blood. His talent is winning battles by attacking first."

I glare murderously at him, and then turn back to Googlymoo, who now eyes me more warily.

"Hrm... Well, he's not wrong," I grumble. "Traps, ambushes, and surprise attacks are my forté. Given prep time, I can always hit you before you hit me, and when I do, I always go for the kill. For example, within fifteen minutes of being untied, I was able to get the drop on you, capture you, coerce you into giving up your hidden supply of combustible spirits, and put together a plan to burn Baldric alive. If that plus my letting you live after the fact is not enough to dissuade you from this sort of upstart behavior in the future, then frankly, I can't help you. So just keep in mind..."

I sidle close to Googlymoo, and press my face uncomfortably close to his beak.

"...I always win when I draw first blood. And I always draw first blood." I grin. "Do we have an understanding, Googlymoo?"

There's fear in his eyes as he nods, shakily.

"Très bien." I shove the griffon away.

"The emblem," he says cautiously. "I don't suppose I could get it back? It's an old family heirloom."

"Is it? Then that makes taking it from you all the sweeter." I grin wider. "Now, to the back of the column with you – you've lost the privilege of walking with me. Plus, you still stink of alcohol."

He shuffles away, followed by the judging stares of his former subordinates. If he's not broken, he's well on his way there. Breakspear replaces him at my flank, the hunter's emblem hanging around his neck.

"Will you be wanting this back, sir? Or placed back with the rest of the haul?"

I grunt and shake my head.

"Keep it for yourself. We must needs break Googlymoo, Breakspear, and as much as pawning it off would hurt him, seeing you with it would hurt all the more."

"Or it could just make him angrier, sir, and more likely to try something in the future. Perhaps something a little more lethal than throwing silver at you." He glances back at the column, then drops his voice to a whisper. "I really don't know if this is wise, letting yet more criminals into the Sunhearts. I know we need to fill out the ranks, but must they really all be thugs and murderers?"

"Yes, because we haven't the luxury of being choosy," I say. "Besides, if we expelled all the thugs and murderers from the Sunhearts, who would be left? We're all criminals, Breakspear, of one variety or another. Just the two of us alone have committed more war crimes in our careers than some nations have in their whole histories."

Breakspear bites his lip. "Sir..."

I narrow my eyes at him. "What is it?"

"Sir, I..." Breakspear stops and straightens. "I've never committed anything that could be construed as a war crime."

I'm so busy staring at him in disbelief that I smack face-first into a tree. I grumble, and rub my face where the bark bit into me, and go right back to staring when I'm finished. The bandits, apparently thinking that this is routine, draw to a halt and proceed to mill about. Some watch us, nervously. Googlymoo stands apart from the others, still looking abashed. The mule sweats and trembles.

Breakspear explains himself, more firmly. "I'm a professional, sir, not a psychopath. I'll kill an enemy in battle, and I'll take my share of the loot, and sure, I have no problem with exploiting the locals for resources when we need it. But I've never stepped hoof outside of those boundaries. I've never taken part in any of the atrocities this company is known for, and I never intend to if I can help it."

My jaw actually drops at this revelation. A scrupulous pony in the Sunhearts? Breakspear, no less? Why, that's just... incredibly sensical, come to think of it.

I shake my head to clear the cobwebs of disbelief.

"But... I've ordered you to do some pretty horrendous—"

"Yes, you have."

I frown. "So how do you...?"

He shrugs. "You don't need to be wantonly cruel to win a battle, sir. I figured that out pretty quickly."

I can't tell if I'm attracted to him more, or less, after this revelation.

"Wait, but... that one time, during the Minosian border skirmish. When we drove those orphans into the mountain pass, and I ordered you to cut off their retreat... how did you do that without the suicide bombers?"

Breakspear chuckles. "Well, sir, that's a funny—"

Behind him, the mule catches an arrow in the jugular, and keels over, dead. The treasure chest spills its contents a second time, the clatter and noise cutting off Breakspear before he can account for himself.

I stomp my hoof into the dirt. "Dammit, mule! Even in death, you're a pain in the ass!"

A nasal, girlish chuckle answers me. "Oh, but mein freund, your troubles extend far beyond van dead untermensch."

There's a clatter of armour as ponies in gilded plate emerge from the woods, surrounding us on all sides. They brandish swords and spears, bows and crossbows, whose quality put my bandits' meager armaments to shame. They're Sunhearts, obviously, and under normal circumstances, I'd be... well, not quite happy to see them, but my emotional state would at least be positive. But I know who I'm dealing with. The accents give it away, as surely as the emblem on their armor: that stupid-looking windmill with the crooked, bendy arms. It's the sigil of the second or perhaps third worst platoon in the company.

Which, the Sunhearts being the Sunhearts, should say quite a bit about them.

A pony, though not the pony I'm expecting, steps out from behind the tree I'd just collided with, brandishing a black bident at least twice her length. Reddish pigtails, held in place by red barrettes, frame a pale, peach-colored face and icy blue eyes.

"I suggest you lay down your veapons," the pony says, her voice and smile snide in equal measure. "Let ze untermensch serve as example for vat happens if you do not."

Those of the bandits who haven't already disarmed and/or soiled themselves proceed to throw their gear to the ground. I grunt disgustedly, and take a step toward the mare.

"Excuse me, sergeant, is it? There's been a bit of a misunderstanding here. You see—"

She responds by thrusting the bident toward my face, its prongs stopping mere inches from my eyes.

"Filsy batponies are better seen, not heard," she hisses.

That's what I get for trying to be reasonable. I stare down the very pointy tips of those prongs, and level a threatening gaze her way. "This filthy batpony outranks you, sergeant. I am—"

"Vhat? Vhat did you say, filsy batpony? You vant I should be taking you to... ZE CAMPS?"

She thrusts the bident toward me, and I stumble backward to avoid getting my eyes gouged out, falling onto my hindquarters in a most undignified manner.

"I said—"

The sergeant thrusts again, and I scramble backward, until I'm once more standing beside Googlymoo.

"ZE CAMPS!" she cries, loudly, for the benefit of her platoon.

"ZE CAMPS!" the others chorus back. They turn it into a chant, cheering and shouting in unison, all with the same accent, that awful nasal one that sounds like they're gargling all their words.

Googlymoo leans into my ear and chuckles, a bit of his old smarm having returned. "You were saying, lieutenant, about 'always drawing first blood?'"

The chanting suddenly stops, and a deathly quiet settles over the forest. The Sunhearts all stare at Googlymoo with smoldering intensity. I step away from him, cautiously.

"Ein Französischer?" the sergeant whispers in a raggedy voice. She repeats herself, loudly, thrusting the spear in Googlymoo's direction. "Französischer Schweinehund?!"

Googlymoo grins nervously. Then the butt of an axe collides with the back of his head, and he collapses to the ground. Half a dozen ponies are on him immediately, battering him and bludgeoning him with swords hilts, axe shafts, and the butts of crossbows. All while the sergeant shrieks, in increasingly orgasmic-sounding tones.


Something in my chest tears and aches as I watch Googlymoo crumble under their merciless beating. I wanted to be the one to break him...

I don't bother protesting any further after our capture. I merely wait and bide my time. The sergeant leads my entire column out of the forest and towards the camps where the rest of her comrades are based. This particular Sunheart platoon were assigned to protect the outskirts of the city, so she leads us southward, around Dragonfall's towering walls and into the muddy farmlands that Googlymoo's bandits so often raided.

Although the countryside is drowning in rain even now, not much appears to be growing. The soil is full of stones and weeds, and any crops we pass by look sickly and weak. Other fields are completely black, as if the farms were burned recently. I look to the battered and bloody Googlymoo for an explanation. He just shrugs and mouths the words "Baldric" and "cunt" at me, before wincing and placing a claw back over his black eye.

Along the way, we pass by more Sunheart patrols bearing the windmill-thingy sigil, most of them unicorns, and most with white coats and blonde manes. They salute the sergeant and sneer at us as we're led by, and a few of the more daring soldiers even spit in my direction. This is not the first time I've had to deal with these guys, but at least all the other times they knew who I was, and weren't so brazen in their contempt for me.

"Ze camps are not far now," the mare in charge sing-songs, looking back over her shoulder at me with a sinister smile. "You vill be put in your proper place zhere."

An opportunity presents itself, so I cower slightly and feign a gasp of fear.

"No, not the camps!" I whimper. "Please, tell me that the... the führer won't be there!"

Her eyes widen in momentary surprise, and then so does her grin, which grows even more predatory.

"I do not know. Ve vill have to see, von't ve, filsy batpony?"

"No, anything but that!" I cry, holding a forehoof over my face, as much to hide my smirk as to feign fear.

She cackles and hits me on the head with her bident.

"Silence now. Ve approach."

"Ze camps" turns out to be a cluster of buildings at the edge of one of the burned fields, lined with barbed wire fencing. They seem to have been converted from various barns and sheds, although the guard towers and flagpoles look new. More Sunhearts stand in the towers and at the gates, and give me dirty looks as the sergeant leads me inside.

Within the fence, the camp still looks much like a farm. Chickens run around freely, a bucket on a winch sways in the breeze above a well, and on the porch of a nearby farmhouse, a bearded stallion in a straw hat shakes a walking stick at us.

"Git them bandits!" he shouts, inadvertently spitting over his own beard. "Git 'em all!"

The Sunhearts start splitting up our group, herding all of the ponies (including Breakspear) off into the barn, while cramming all of the non-ponies into what may have once been a tool shed. I am the sole exception, as the sergeant instead kicks me to the ground and points her bident at my throat.

"Vilhelm!" she screams.

Another soldier, this one a white pegasus with a blue mane, trots over to us and salutes. "Sergeant Zweiteskind."

"Is der führer still on-site for ze inspection? Zis untermensch vanted to surrender to him personally."

"Ja. He is having blitzkuchen und kaffee vith Frau Artichoke."

The sergeant smiled. "Inform him of ze situation."

"Vilhelm" marches off to the farmhouse, leaving me alone with my captor. I lay on my back in the mud, squirming from the raindrops pattering on my forehead. The mare with the bident grins at me as she holds me in place, and when the farmhouse door opens again, I swear she looks about to have an orgasm.

The lieutenant steps across the muddy ground, approaching us slowly. Despite favouring the look of horns, white coats, and blonde manes, he's a navy-green earth pony himself. His mane is short, black, and carefully combed, and his tiny patch of a moustache looks like the head of a toothbrush. Upon his flank, he bears the same sigil that the rest of his platoon wears. As far as cutie marks go, it's probably one of the most abstract ones I've ever seen. He looks at me as he steps closer, frowning slightly, and tilts his head.

"...Leutnant Agony?" he whispers, eyes swimming with uncertainty. "Mein ballbruder?"

"Hi, Hoofler," I say, waving a forehoof. "Mind helping me out?"

He breaks into a wide grin, grabbing my hoof with his own and pulling me up as the sergeant backs away, looking shocked. He grabs me with both forehooves and embraces me in a bone-crushing hug.

"Agony, mein ball-brother, I thought you vere dead!"

It's hard not to scream from how much this hurts me on both a physical and emotional level.

I've never liked Lieutenant Hoofler, but he likes me. When I first joined the Sunhearts, he treated me just like he treats all non-ponies: with deep, unapologetic disgust. However, that all changed after one particular incident in which Hoofler took an arrow to the testicle, and I was the only other lieutenant who didn't laugh at him for it, because I'd been there myself and understood that pain.

Ever since then, he's taken a liking to me, and whenever he sees me, he calls me his "ball brother," often very loudly and in public. He even commissioned a pair of official ball brother t-shirts for us, and made me wear one to a party once. It was humiliating, but I did it, because it benefits me to keep on his good side. Still, despite his unprecedented approval, I've never been able to return his friendship. Not really. There are some things I can't forgive, and I've never liked his type. Nobody likes his type.

I am of course referring to ponies born outside the Heartland who change their weird-sounding foreign names to put equine words like "hoof" or "mane" in them to compensate. Seriously, they may think it makes them sound more Equestrian, but it's actually just ridiculous. We get it, you're an immigrant. But for Celestia's sake, either choose a proper Equestrian name, or keep your original one. Calling yourself something like Adolf Hoofler just makes you sound like a jackass.

"Hoofler... you're crushing me again..." I wheeze.

He lets me go abruptly, and I drop back into the mud.

"Sorry," he says, giving a sheepish smile before turning to the mare with the bident. "Sergeant Zweiteskind, zis is Leutnant Agony, ze Noble Thestral. He is under mein protection, and is not to be harmed."

The sergeant blinks, but quickly snaps into a salute. "Ja, mein führer!"

"Wunderbar. Now, go attend to ze other prisoners."

She gallops off without another word, while I cough and splutter in the mud. Hoofler gives me a friendly pat on the shoulder.

"I vas so vorried when I heard about the ze situation in ze Mining District. Ve could hear ze vall collapsing all ze way from here. You vere presumed dead."

"I just... went for a spot of camping..." I groan, standing up again. "Sergeant Breakspear also survived. Your subordinate led him off to the barn."

"Ah." Hoofler nods primly. "I shall have him released post-haste."

"The other bandits too, if you don't mind."

Hoofler raises an eyebrow at me.

"I recruited them as replacements for my lost platoon," I explain. "I need them. Especially the griffon with the black eye."

He smacks his lips.

"For you, I shall allow it. But I vould much rather you recruited ponies for ze Sunheart Company, not more filsy untermenschen like griffons und mules und batponies. No offence."

I glare at him.

"...Was?" he says defensively.

Since the rain has washed enough of the mud off me, I trot over to the farmhouse porch to get out of it. The stallion in the straw hat fell asleep sometime in the past few minutes, so I casually kick him off of his chair and claim it for myself. He lands face-down on the floor, hindquarters in the air and snoring loudly. I lay back in my new chair and sigh, while Hoofler trots over to join me.

"So, how have you been adjusting to Dragonfall?" I ask.

"Vell enough," Hoofler says with a shrug. "Mein platoon have been restoring order to ze farms und other outlands. Ze bandits of ze western forests vere a problem, but you seem to have sorted zat out. Ve hope to have more zan einhundert of them in ze camps by ze end of ze week."

"Uh-huh," I say disinterestedly. "And what exactly are you going to do with a hundred captives?"

Hoofler pauses, putting a hoof to his mouth.

"...I don't know. Slave labour? Ve can find some use for zem, surely."

"Do you even have enough to feed all these prisoners?" I continue. "The farms around here look like they barely have enough to supply your soldiers, let alone these prisoners and the city as well."

"Hmm... You make a good point. But vhat alternative do we have?"

"Execute them?" I say, as if talking to a foal. "Duh. Just shove them all into one of these buildings and burn it down. Boom. Problem solved. They'd make good fertiliser for these fields, too."

Hoofler gasps.

"Agony, zat is immoral! Und illegal! Und... Und..." He stops, furrowing his brow. "Hmm... Zhough, now that you mention it..."

I sigh and sit up in my chair.

"Look, you obviously have your own problems out here, and I can only imagine that things in the Mining District are a thousand times worse. A slime monster made of dead ponies ate half my platoon, and I presume it didn't stop there. I need to get back to the city and deal with this situation before everything goes completely to hell."

Hoofler smiles and waves a forehoof. "Oh, ja, of course. Actually, I vas heading to Dragonfall myself next. Captain Blackheart still hasn't returned, and ze other Leutnants are convening to discuss his possible replacement. Ve could go together!"

I feel elation and disappointment all at once. I do not want to spend an extended amount of time around Hoofler, but this vote is exactly what I've been waiting for ever since I killed the captain, and I want to be there for it as soon as possible.

"...Sure," I say, smiling through gritted teeth. "Sounds great."

Approaching Dragonfall in the rain is like wading upstream through a river. At one point in the past, I imagine that the walled city was designed like a castle, with a traditional moat and drawbridge to keep monsters out, and a brick road leading from its massive front gate out to the surrounding lands. However, the land that the city occupies is uphill, and Dragonfall's criminally irresponsible weather team saw fit to let it keep raining forever. Now the moat's banks are broken, just as they were on the day we first arrived in this accursed city, and again my non-winged followers are fighting through a knee-deep current of rainwater up what should be a footpath.

When we reach the city gates, there's no drawbridge there, but instead a stone bridge with high walls on either side of it to prevent the moat from flooding the city. I grumble as I finally land on the ground again, followed soon after by Googlymoo and a few other fliers. Ahead of us, the city gate is maintained by more Sunhearts of another platoon, who watch us carefully while we wait for the rest of the group.

Breakspear is the first non-flier to arrive, followed by Hoofler, who leans on him for support as he wipes his black, rain-soaked mane out of his eyes.

"Vell..." Hoofler gasps, "Zat vas unpleasant. Let's not do zat again, ja?"

"Agreed," I say.

Googlymoo, briefly giving Hoofler a disdainful look, barks an order to the rest of the bandits staggering up the path. They fall back into a loose non-column, just like in the woods, and clump up after him. He looks to me, and gestures with a wing towards the city gates. I give him a simple nod in return, and lead the procession forward. Maybe I can make a decent sergeant out of him after all.

The Sunhearts at the gate turn out to be Lieutenant Dynamite's platoon, bearing his sigil of a cheerfully grinning pony exploding into several pieces. The gate guards point their weapons at us as we approach, rightfully so, since I'm leading a company of several bandits. Fortunately, they recognise Lieutenant Hoofler and myself, unlike the sergeant who captured us in the forest, and yield when I tell them to stand down. We move through unimpeded, marching through a long tunnel leading under the southern wall, and then out into a wide-open marketplace.

Despite the rain, plenty of stalls are still attended by both merchants and shoppers. Dynamite's Sunhearts with their spears and crossbows dutifully patrol between the stalls, and the hobos with their cardboard signs dutifully beg for table scraps outside of every building. The bandits, many of whom I doubt have seen civilization in a long time, stare at the scene with wonder and awe. Myself, I just wonder why Dragonfall has rain on a market day.

"Okay," I sigh, turning to Breakspear. "I guess the best thing for it now is for you to lead this sorry lot back to the Mining District and link up with any other survivors, while I go with Hoofler and meet with the other lieutenants."

Breakspear blinks.

"Sir, are you sure about that? I mean, the platoon must be in chaos right now, and you could probably stabilise them better than I. Especially with..." He briefly looks to Googlymoo, and then leans in closer to me with a conspiratorial whisper. "Especially with our new recruits."

I consider this, and then give a questioning look to Hoofler, who simply shrugs.

"I can probably delay ze vote a little... But ze others vill probably vant to start ze meeting as soon as I arrive. If you vish to take part in discussions, I vould arrive sooner rather zan later."

If the vote for captain is starting that soon, I need to be there. Most of the other lieutenants hate me, and even some of the ones that don't are potential rivals. If I want to be the captain, I need to be there to negotiate and make promises. If I show up to the vote at the last second, I won't stand a chance. And the last thing I need is somepony like Hoofler or Ulysses snatching up the position.

"I... I think..."

"Aaaaaaaagoooooooonyyyyyyyyy!" a shrill voice screams over the din of the marketplace.

My blood freezes in my veins. Even years later, I recognise that voice. I turn around and stare across the marketplace as a crimson mare approaches. I want nothing more than to run away from this, but unfortunately, I seem to be rooted in place by some magical force.

She trots up to me with an ugly sneer plastered across her face, not helped by her botched nose-job and early wrinkles. In my defence, she was much hotter ten years ago.

"Agony," she says again, practically spitting the name.

"Hard Cash," I say, grimacing. "You look like you've seen better days."

That earns me a glare.

"...So what do you want?" I ask.

"I'm here about your daughter, Agony," she says contemptuously.

"...My what?"

A small filly walks out from behind her, her coat much darker than her mother's, almost brownish in colour, and her mane a vibrant red. One of her hind legs is held in a brace, and her yellow eyes stay fixed upon the ground rather than me.

"This is Redwood," says Hard Cash. "Say hi to your daddy, Redwood."

"Hi," the sullen filly mutters.

Of all the things that I do not have time for right now, I do not have time for this the most.

1. Follow Breakspear to reunite the platoon and deal with the slime monster situation.
2. Follow Hoofler to attend the lieutenants meeting and vote for the next captain.
3. Stay and deal with possible paternity issues.

Chapter 10: Papa Agony

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>Stay and deal with possible paternity issues.

I stand frozen in the middle of the marketplace, Breakspear and Googlymoo off to the side watching me with bated breath. Hoofler remains beside me, brow creased into a frown, levelling a furious glare my way. I myself just stare blankly at the brown-red filly in front of me, heedless to the raindrops still pattering off my armour. I take in every detail of her. Her rain-soaked crimson mane. Her bored and slightly contemptuous expression. Her cutie mark of an arrow striking a bullseye target on a tree. The brace on her right hind leg. But most of all, I notice her wings. Her feathered wings.

I snort derisively at the wrinkled old mare beside her.

"Nice try, Cash," I say condescendingly. "But she doesn't look anything like me."

"That may be, but she's definitely yours," Hard Cash replies, still sneering. "Believe me, I wish she wasn't."

I laugh.

"Okay, I see we're in remedial biology here, so let me explain it slowly. I am a thestral. I have bat wings. These are a universally dominant genetic trait. That means any offspring of a thestral and a pegasus will also have bat wings. Your spawn has feathers. Q.E.D, she's not mine, and this little scam of yours won't work."

Cash lets out a long sigh, and digs into her saddlebags. "I expected you'd say something like that. Typical Agony. So here's her baby pictures."

She draws a photo album from her bags, and opens it up to the first page, showing a newborn foal still covered in afterbirth. Her colours match the filly standing before me, but her wings are leathery and bat-like, and her leg looks like a lump of melted chocolate. I recoil in disgust, making Cash roll her eyes and snap the book shut.

"Redwood here was born with some deformities, and needed a corrective bio-magical operation after birth. Since it needed to be done anyway, I took the liberty of paying the doctors to magic away her bat wings and other thestral features while they were at it."

"Wow, how convenient! So she's totally my foal, but just so happens to have had any physical identifiers that would confirm her as such removed! So, entertaining this stupid line of line of thought, why would you have done such a thing?"

"Oh, I don't know, Agony," Cash says with a false smile. "Maybe because I didn't want my husband finding out? Maybe that might have been a reason? Just a small influencing factor?"

"Well, your husband should definitely leave you if he hasn't already, but I'm afraid that a photograph doesn't prove anything. There could be illusion magic involved, the photo itself could be doctored, or that could just be a different foal altogether. This is not admissible evidence in a court of law, and it's not convincing me either."

"Urghhhhhh!" Cash groans, throwing her head back.

In a fit of frustration, she grabs the filly beside her, who lets out a shout of protest. Cash forcibly turns her around and lifts her mane, exposing the back of her neck. Above her right shoulder is a small black spiral shape. Just like the one I have in the same place. My eyes widen.

"Is this or is this not your stupid spiral birthmark thing?" Cash says, glaring at me.

"I-I..." I stammer. "Th-That's... Um... That mark is a tattoo! You tattooed your foal as part of your scheme!"

I look around to my soldiers for support. Breakspear gently shakes his head, while Googlymoo just grins like he's having the time of his life. I look desperately to Hoofler, only to find him red in the face and almost frothing at the mouth. I think he's just barely restraining himself from killing everypony present.

"Redwood, honey, what's your special talent?" Cash asks as the filly turns back around.

Redwood gives a cocky smirk.

"Victory," she says, without a shred of modesty. "I can beat anypony at anything."

I try not to let my uncertainty show on my face.

"...Okay, just because she has a slightly similar talent to me, that still doesn't prove—"

"Redwood, how many coltfriends have you had?" Cash asks suddenly.

The smug filly's grin disappears. She stares at her mother, aghast.


"How many, young lady?"

"...Th-Thirteen," she squeaks, cringing away.

Cash arches an eyebrow. "Are those just the ones you've kissed?"

The filly nods meekly.

"How many total, sweetheart?"

"...Forty," Redwood murmurs, looking at the ground.

I stare at her, incredulous.

"And what about fillies?" Cash continues. "How many of those?"


"Any others?"

With a face now as red as her mane from all her blushing, Redwood looks up to meet her mother's disapproving gaze.

"...Do griffons count?" she mumbles.

I blink disbelievingly, jaw hanging slightly open. Cash doesn't say anything more, merely giving me a flat look.

"...Okay, fine, so she's mine," I grumble. "Whatever! It doesn't matter, because you aren't getting a single bit from me! I don't have to pay you shit unless I want to guarantee visitation rights! Which I don't, because guess what? I don't care!"

I grin, expecting her to just groan again or stomp away. Instead, to my slight worry, she smiles.

"Oh, don't worry. I'm not here for that."

There's a sinking feeling in my stomach as she utters those words.

"...You're not?" I dare to ask.

"No." Cash smiles sweetly at me, making my neck hair stand up. "Actually, I'm here to leave her with you."

"What?!" I shout in unison with Breakspear and a dozen other stallions.

The filly smirks deviously at my obvious distress.

"Yes," Cash says, casually flipping her wet mane back. "See, I'm off to rehab soon, and I need to leave Redwood with somepony. My ex-husband wants nothing to do with her since he found out the truth. I'm not on speaking terms with my parents or my sisters either, and I've alienated just about everypony else I know, so... you're what's left."

Thunder cracks above us, as if to punctuate the ominousness of that statement.

"No," I say firmly, drawing a frown from Redwood herself.

"Agony." A grim look comes over Cash's face. "I mean it, I don't have any other options."

"Yes you do!" I shout. "Reconcile with your parents! Hire a long-term nanny! Give her over to the state! Sell her into slavery!"

"Hey!" the filly protests, only to be ignored.

"But for the love of Celestia and all things holy, don't bring your child to Dragonfall, you monster! What is wrong with you?"

Cash seems quite taken aback by my tirade.

"Wh-What is wrong with me?" she says, summoning back her righteous indignation. "I'm trying to find a suitable temporary home for our child, Agony. You're her father!"

"And you think Dragonfall is a good place for that? I've not even been here a week, and I've been stabbed three times and taken hostage twice! And didn't I already say that I want nothing to do with this?"

Her brow knits into a frown. "Fine. Let me make this easy on you. Take your daughter, Agony, or I'll take you to court for those nine years of child support payments after all."

"Nice try, but I know my child support law," I say, sneering again. "If the sire of a foal is not informed of a pregnancy within four months of its confirmation, and is unable to make a formal decision over his involvement, he is legally considered to not be responsible for the foal, and financial support for the mother becomes the responsibility of the state. You're ten years too late to get anything from me!"

Cash sneers back. "That loophole you're referencing only protects stallions who the mother chooses not to inform in time, not ones who run off without leaving a means of contact like you did. You are very specifically not protected; it's called the Scumbag Clause. Look it up."

I feel the blood draining from my face, and try to think of a response, but I come up with nothing.

"Final chance, Agony. Take your damn daughter."

"One in every eight of my coworkers are registered sex offenders!" I scream at the top of my lungs, a note of pleading desperation creeping into my voice. "The Mayor was murdered in his own office by a crazy hobo just three days ago! There's a pony-eating slime monster rampaging across the northern end of the city right now! Please, please please please, take her somewhere else!"

"Aren't you supposed to be some kind of awesome, badass mercenary captain?" Redwood says sardonically.

"Yes, I thought that as well, sweetie," Cash says with a nod. "You were hired to protect a whole city, Agony. I'm sure you can keep one filly safe for a few months or a year or so."

"A year?!" I shriek, in a frequency probably beyond normal pony hearing.

"And if you can't, then I'll have you for child endangerment as well."

I can articulate no response to this other than a babble of confused spluttering.

"Great! I'll take that as a yes!" Cash grins at me. "She doesn't need much minding. Give her access to a kitchen and she'll cook for herself. Don't worry too much if she wanders off with any strange colts; she does that all the time. Try to have her in bed by twelve if you can, but don't bother arguing with her if she chooses to stay up later, because you won't win. Oh, and I don't know how long I'll be gone, but if I'm not back by August, you'll need to take care of finding a school for her. I'm sure Dragonfall has some good ones. That's all for now. Ciao!"

She quickly leans down and pulls Redwood into a hug.

"Have fun with real daddy. Cya later, sweetie!"

Then she lets go, and practically skips past me, leaving through the long tunnel leading back towards the city gates. I watch her retreating form with equal amounts of shock and dismay.

"...And I thought my mother was bad," I mutter.

Breakspear and my newest recruits, the former bandits, look like they have no idea what to think. The only two showing clear emotion are Googlymoo, barely holding back fits of laughter, and Hoofler, who is trying to kill me with his glare.

"Agony," he says through gritted teeth, edging closer to me. "You are mein ballbruder, and I love you. But you promised me you vould never reproduce vith a pureblooded Equestrian mare!"

I feel my eyelid twitch involuntarily.

"...Okay, firstly, I never promised any such thing," I say, rounding on Hoofler and poking him in the chest. "That's just something you convinced yourself I said. Two, why are you getting mad at me? I never asked for this! I didn't even know about it! If I did, I would've demanded she get an abortion. And D, that bitch had all of the girl's thestral features magically removed, so what does it matter anyway? You advocate for magical eugenics all the time! That's basically what she did!"

Hoofler sighs, closing his eyes and shaking his head.

"I am so disappointed in you, Agony. I vill see you later at ze meeting."

He trots off, head hung low, leaving me in the rain with my soldiers and the kid. I stand there for a minute, staring into space, trying to figure out what in the wide, wide world of Equestria I am supposed to do about this.

I look over to Redwood. She stares up at me with a faintly horrified expression.

"Y-You really would have had me aborted?" she asks, lip trembling slightly.

"...Uh, Yes? Duh. That's what I just said. Weren't you listening?"

She starts crying.

This filly is obviously retarded.

1. Dump Redwood on a subordinate who can find a use for her in the platoon.
2. Send Redwood off to the East Side Orphanage as a peace offering.
3. Just pretend Redwood isn't there, and occasionally use her as a table.

Chapter 11: Democracy Inaction

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>Send Redwood off to the East Side Orphanage as a peace offering.

"You know, I just don't get impregnation fetishists," I say, my hoofsteps echoing off the stone floors of the fortress as we walk to the lieutenants' meeting.

"Um... what?" says a small voice beside me.

"Now, far be it from somepony who gets as much action as me to read porn, but I see these things being sold everywhere, these penny dreadfuls revolving entirely around the act of impregnating a mare. Sometimes it's a stallion doing it. Sometimes a male of another species using conception magic. Sometimes it's another mare with a dick, and that's a whole other topic of discussion. But I've read a few of these now – y'know, out of morbid curiosity – and the whole impregnation thing just weirds me out."

"Uh... Mister?"

"Like, okay, a pregnancy fetish is one thing. That's just attraction to a specific body type. Mostly. And at their core, I suppose these stories are just about fairly vanilla sex with a mare in heat, which is perfectly normal. Hell, I've seen shitloads of weirder stuff. Sometimes literal shitloads. Yet another whole different topic. But I still don't get the obsession with the impregnation part. It mostly just seems to boil down to the mare describing her internal biological processes in unnecessary detail. And not like in a 'fill me with your cum' way, either. Like in a 'I can feel your sperm fertilising my eggs!' way. It's so weirdly stilted and clinical, as if all these stories were written by the same elderly biology professor."


"And don't get me started on all the long-term implications. So many of these books have the couple decide on having a foal as a spur of the moment thing, but it'd never be a spur of the moment thing! That's a huge decision that totally changes your life! No matter how heat-addled her brain is, no mare wants to be a single mother, so there's no way she'd ask some stranger to knock her up. And if the story is about an established couple, then surely this is something they'd want to have a serious discussion about? And none of this is even mentioning the fact that foals are horrible, and mostly just prevent you from having sex. Seriously, I just don't get the appeal."


"Now, autoerotic asphyxiation? There's a quality fetish."


"What, girl?" I snap at my nine-year-old daughter.

"Why are you telling me all of this?"

The two of us come to a stop in the middle of the long, empty stone corridor. I open my mouth to shout at her, and then close it again when I realise I have nothing to say. I furrow my brow, run a hoof along my chin, tap my other hoof on the stone floor, and finally just give up and shrug.

"...I don't know," I admit. "But at least it got you to stop crying."

I resume my brisk trot, Redwood falling into line behind me.

"Um... what was that you said about mares with... colt thingies?" Her face reddens, and I find myself wondering how I could ever have sired a foal who blushes at the mention of genitals. "How does that even work?"

"I think the concept should be pretty self-explanatory. Unicorn magic can do some weird stuff."

She persists, her tone growing obstinate. "Okay, but... why would anypony do that?"

"...For sexual purposes?" I say, annoyed that I have to point out the obvious. "You do know what sex is, right? You've had around seventy partners; your mother or fake father must have given you the talk."

"What talk?" Redwood asks.

"...Evidently not," I grumble, running a hoof down my face. "All this time I've been ranting, and you don't even know what I'm talking about, do you?"

"I know some of it!" Redwood says defensively. "I-I know what... parts are, and I know... uh..."

"What? Go on. Lecture me, child."

Redwood puffs her cheeks up and spreads her wings. "I know enough to know that what you're talking about is weird and gross and... and not the sort of stuff that a good dad tells his kid!"

"You're right! It's not! I'm clearly terrible father material, aren't I? Nice that we're on the same page about that." I stop again and lean down, nose-to-nose with my bastard. "So what's it say about your mother that she left you with me? In Dragonfall? Either she's worse than I am, or she wants to get rid of you, which, frankly, is the most that she and I ever had in common!"

I turn away, satisfied, and take another step down the hall. A sniffle from behind makes me look back over my shoulder at her. She isn't bawling like before, but her eyes are still welling up. Through her tears, she gives me a transparently hateful look. Clearly, she's seconds away from breaking into wet, heaving, foalish sobs once more.

I sigh. "Are you seriously going to start this again?"

She does. Louder than before. In the open, in the city, it wasn't so bad, but in the enclosed stone corridor, it's a thousand times worse. Celestia, that echo...

"Alright, that's... that's enough of that now," I say, fluttering closer while also covering both ears with my hooves. "Come on, this isn't going to get you anywhere. You can cry and cry all you like, but you're still stuck in Dragonfall with me, and there's nothing either of us can do about that."

If anything, her cries grow louder. My teeth start to rattle in my skull.

Since talking hasn't done the trick, I dart forward, and clamp her jaws shut with my hooves. Her cries are muffled, and her body still heaves from the force of her sobbing, but I can at least hear myself speak now.

"Listen to me," I hiss. "I understand that you're going through a lot right now. I know this must be a turbulent time in your life, and you're feeling a lot of conflicting emotions. Your whole world is being turned upside down, and you probably hate your mother because she's an overbearing bitch who won't stop offering to make you cookies, and embarrassing you, and calling you by the wrong name! But... But..."

I close my eyes and take a deep breath to collect myself. When I open them again, Redwood's sobs have slowed somewhat. She now seems more confused than sad.

"But..." I say more calmly, "I have problems of my own. A lot of problems. And right now, I really can't afford to care about any of your issues. You are a complicating factor that I do not need."

Her cries have died down a bit, though her breathing is still sharp and staggered. I release my grip on her jaws; thankfully, she doesn't cry again.

"...You're a terrible dad," she whimpers.

"Yes. We have established that." I roll my eyes. "Look, I get that yours is the short end of the stick here, what with having Cash and I for parents, but it is what it is. I can't put your safety and wellbeing first because I've got bigger problems, and neither can she, because she's a bitch. So, as soon I'm done at this meeting, I'm taking you over to the East Side Orphanage and leaving you there. I can't guarantee that the other orphans won't stab you, but at least there you probably won't be molested."

Redwood's pupils shrink.

"Oh, good. You know what that word means, at least." I back away and let her free. "Now, come on. We're late enough as it is."

"...Hate this place," Redwood mumbles.

"And now we have something in common."

Hard Cash didn't seem to have any awareness about what Dragonfall is like, otherwise I doubt even she would have brought her daughter here. Redwood at least seems to be getting the picture. Still, I doubt she fully realises just how bad her situation really is. She'll learn, though. Oh, will she ever learn...


"Don't start without me, you bastards!"

I push past the Sunheart guards posted outside the meeting room and kick down the door, storming inside. I had expected to find the lieutenants' meeting already underway, but instead I just find them all sitting on plush velvet cushions around a long wooden table, while a young mare serves beer in several mugs which look like pewter, but are more likely zinc given our budget. They all look my way as I enter, except for Free Candy, who instead fixes his eyes on Redwood as she slinks in behind me. None of them seem particularly surprised to see me alive.

There are eight of them around the table – the seven other lieutenants plus one boring pony whose name I don't remember. A teenaged earth pony colt stands behind the boring one, totalling twelve of us in the room including the serving mare.

"Don't worry, Ags, you ain't missed nothing," says Lieutenant Killjoy, giving me a wry smile. "Dude here was just about to say something. Come on, I saved you a seat."

I smile back and take the place beside her, while the serving mare pours me a beer.

Killjoy, despite the name, is the only other lieutenant who's actually fun to be around, and thus the only other lieutenant that I actually like. To this day, she's the only mare I've ever met who could drink me under the table. She's a cool and easygoing conversationalist, and reliable in combat. She doesn't like the responsibility of her position, but she deals with it and takes care of her troops as best she can, which I can respect. And she's easy on the eyes, too, her understated off-white coat drawing attention to her amber eyes and fiery mane, orange with a single streak of yellow. Easily an eight out of ten if she brushed her teeth more often.

"Glad you're not dead, by the way," she says, leaning over to whisper into my ear.

"Thanks. I'm glad you're not dead, too."

"Hey, who's the filly?" Killjoy asks, nodding in Redwood's direction.


I look to the end of the long table, where the boring stallion stands. Not Peacemaker. The other boring stallion. Though, it's easy to confuse the two, since they're both grey unicorns.

"I'll tell you later," I mutter.

"If you're all ready?" says Boring Pony. "I have an announcement to make."

I raise my hoof, making him sigh.

"Yes, Lieutenant Agony?"

"Not to be rude, but who the hell are you?"

Boring Pony slowly blinks, holding a steadfastly neutral expression.

"What a perfect segue into my speech," he says, looking around to the rest of the table. "Hello, everyone. My name's Tax Day. You know me. I'm the financial guy. I've sat in these meeting for thirty Celestia-damned years now, and apparently some of you still don't know my name. But that's okay! It doesn't matter anymore, because I am announcing my retirement."

There's silence at the table.

"...Is that it?" I ask.

"No," Boring Pony says, mouth twisting into a frown as he turns to me. "That is not it, Agony, you enormous tool. I've put up with you people for thirty years, and before I'm out of here, I am going to have my say."

"Seriously, does anyone know who this guy is?" I ask the table.

"I've been maintaining this company's finances since Captain Coldheart's day," he continues, ignoring me. "Since that time, I have watched the steady degradation of the Sunhearts from a band of proud warriors to... well, to what we are today. To the late Captain Blackheart, I want to say, you could've stopped this if only you'd had a spine, but I guess that's expecting too much of someone who's more worm than pony."

Lieutenant Ulysses, a teal-blue earth stallion with a golden mane, stands up and slams his hooves on the table.

"How dare you?!" he demands. "Blackheart was—"

"And speaking of worms, you, Ulysses, are a tapeworm. At least, I assume you must be, from how far you crawled up Captain Blackheart's ass, and how much your obvious toadying seemed to suck the life out of him. Nobody likes you. Do you know that? Nobody. Because nobody likes a teacher's pet. You should have been bullied more in school. And your name is dumb."

A round of snickering passes the table as Lieutenant Ulysses Throatfuck III, heir to the ancient and noble House of Throatfuck, sinks back into his seat with a look of burning shame. I even laugh a little myself, but Boring Pony isn't done.

"Hoofler," he says, turning the spotlight on the navy-green stallion next. "Never in all my years have I met a pony so morally repugnant, and yet so pitiable. Your many stupid and often disturbing ideas about species and race would be dangerous if it weren't for the fact that they will never, ever catch on because of how pathetic you are. You're a whiny little bitch with an emo haircut, who literally wrote a book called My Struggle and stuck a picture of yourself pouting on the cover. You never shut up about being vegan, and you kill people for a living because you couldn't hack it as an artist. For Celestia's sake, you're a pony supremacist who talks in a thick north Griffonian accent, and you seemingly see no irony in this. You're a joke, Hoofler."

Hoofler blinks, stunned into silence by his tirade.

Boring Pony turns to the other side of the table. "Bonepick, Free Candy."

He gestures to the two indicated lieutenants, both sitting side by side. One is a grey and black griffon, more osprey than eagle, and the other is a pink stallion with a poofy, candy cane mane of red and white stripes. The latter snaps his head around suddenly when his name is called. I frown when I realise that he had been staring in Redwood's direction.

"You two are just something else," Boring Pony says. "Whenever I walk into a room, and either of you are there, I feel a coldness in my soul. The fact that Blackheart let either of you, much less both of you rise to the rank of lieutenant in this company is completely baffling to me. You'd think eating people or being a sex offender would be a barrier to career advancement, but not in the Sunhearts, I guess! You two are the primary reason I lost faith in Blackheart's leadership, and I sincerely hope that whoever the next captain is, they have decency and good sense to have you both shot."

"Here, here!" says Peacemaker, raising his beer.

A rousing round of whoops and cheers, mugs clanking, and hooves banging on the table follows.

"Dynamite," says Boring Pony.

Lieutenant Dynamite, a white unicorn with a blond mane just like the many ponies who make up Hoofler's platoon, grins widely and waves his hoof.

"Ooh, yes! Do me! Do me!"

"Dynamite, I've got nothing. I have no opinion on you. You're just a bogstandard hyperactive sugar addict. You're annoying, don't get me wrong, but you're just not interesting enough for anypony to bother expending thought on you. Except maybe Free Candy, because even though you might look like a stallion, most days I could swear to Celestia that you must be a seven-year-old colt."

Myself and the other lieutenants laugh, Dynamite included. Boring Pony doesn't laugh, instead turning towards me and Killjoy next.

"Killjoy, I've been expecting you to hang yourself for years now, and the fact that you still haven't done it yet amazes me, given what an utter basket case you are. You try to hide it, but you're probably one of the most messed up ponies I know, and considering that I know Lieutenant Agony, that's saying something. For your own sake, either see a therapist and fix your shit, or get it over with already, because the anticipation is killing me."

There are no jeers and laughter after that one. Killjoy looks quite taken aback by the stallion's words. Myself, I just glare at him.

"Lieutenant Agony," he finally says, through gritted teeth. "I knew a filly in my youth, who stayed at the local hospital in my hometown for all the time that I lived there. She was a blind-deaf burn victim with fragile bones that constantly broke, and an inability to digest solid foods. Healing magic gave her seizures, and she was somehow allergic to literally all medicine, but painkillers most especially. All she did, all day every day, was repeatedly chant 'please kill me,' and all night every night, she would have the same persistent recurring nightmare about being eaten alive by demons. I don't even know where those came from. I bring her up because I bet she didn't pity herself as much as you do."

The table stomps in applause again while I seethe.

"You are, without a doubt, the most self-centred, callous, egotistical, cruel, hateful, and all-around horrible pony I know. It's a shame that vampires are extinct, because you would have made a fantastic one. You contribute nothing to the world but pain, misery, and probably several hundred bastard children, and the sooner you die of a horrible wasting illness that leaves you shitting blood and coughing up your own lungs, the better. You utterly deserve to be in Dragonfall, you miserable son of a bitch. Also, I have no idea why everyone thinks you're such a good lay; your ass is so loose I could build a railway through it."

I was about to make a snappy comeback after he finished, but that last jab throws me completely off-balance, and leaves me staring dumbly at the grey stallion while the rest of the table minus Killjoy and Hoofler laughs at my expense. He snorts and turns away from me.


Peacemaker sits up and meets the stallion's gaze.

"...You're alright, I guess," Boring Pony says lamely.

Peacemaker only gives a curt nod of acknowledgement. I grumble and down my drink while Boring Pony clears his throat and beckons the colt behind him to come up to the table.

"All that said, I'm done here. I quit. I'm leaving, and I'm never coming back. As a final gesture of spite, I wanted to burn this whole company to the ground and make off with all the cash, but unfortunately, we're in the Equestrian Heartland, and out here they actually enforce their laws. I know, crazy, right? Celestia only knows how you people will survive in such conditions, but I at least can roll with the punches, and I figure that if I have to do things the legal way, I may as well be a professional about it. To that end, I took on an apprentice a few months ago, so my replacement is already trained. This here is Gold Coin. Say hello, Gold Coin."

The colt, a yellow earth pony with a pale white mane who can't be older than sixteen, steps forward.

"Umm... Hello?" he says, waving a hoof uncertainly.

"Hello," Free Candy says in a breathy voice, leaning over the table and leering at him.

Gold Coin takes a careful step backward.

"He's your finance guy from now on," Boring Pony continues, unperturbed. "Let him do his thing and don't abuse him, and maybe this shitty company won't go bankrupt. I hope you all treat him better than you did me, but I know better than to expect decency from you people by this point."

He abruptly turns around, takes a hat off a nearby stand, and places it atop his head.

"Gold Coin, I wish I could say it's been a pleasure, but it hasn't," he says, grasping the yellow colt's hoof and shaking it. "Don't feel too bad about that. It's not your fault; it's theirs. Anyway, good luck, and goodbye."

And with that, he skips out of the meeting room, slamming the door behind him as he goes. The other lieutenants, the new kid, Redwood, the serving mare, and myself all stare at the exit for a while, half of us in disbelief, and the other half just confused.

"...Who was that guy again?" I ask.


It doesn't take long after that strange diversion for the meeting to finally get on track. Once everyone is good and drunk, Peacemaker, as the only sober one, takes a stand and tries to call us to order, slamming his hoof on the table.

"Okay, everybody, we all know why we're here. It's been two days now since our beloved captain disappeared, and given that this is Dragonfall, I think it's safe to assume he's dead. First order of business is selecting a replacement from one of our number. I suggest we put it to a vote. Since there are eight of us, the new captain will need a clear majority in their favour, so we'll keep on voting until we have one. All that said, anypony who wants to run for the captaincy should make their case right now."

He sits back down on his cushion, and before I can speak, Ulysses rises.

"This is ridiculous!" he says. "Captain Blackheart made very clear before his demise that I was his favoured—"

"Boooooo!" I yell over him. "Boo this stallion!"

Killjoy joins me, Hoofler and the rest of the table following. Somepony, I'm not sure who, throws a rotten tomato at him, which splatters over his face and knocks him over. While the table laughs and applauds, I stand up.

"Alright, listen," I say, trying not to sway too much from the alcohol. "Boring Pony was right. None of us here like Ulysses. I don't think any of us here liked Blackheart, either. Or each other, for that matter. But I think it's clear that our options are limited. Bonepick and Free Candy will never be elected for obvious reasons, Ulysses is a loser, and Dynamite, no offense, but you're a little too unstable to be captain."

Dynamite smiles and waves his hoof dismissively. "None taken!"

"With all that in mind, I think it's obvious who the next captain should be."

Hoofler suddenly guffaws, drawing all eyes to him.

"Ach, Agony, mein ballbruder, you flatter me so." He stands up. "I vas not expecting such a ready endorsement before even nominating myself, but ja, I vould be honoured to serve as ze Sunheart Company's fourth captain. As captain, I promise I vill exterminate ze degenerate filth, Free Candy und Bonepick, as vell as all zheir troops who engage in similar practices."

The two named lieutenants squawk in protest, literally in Bonepick's case, but are ignored. I notice Redwood grinning.

"Wha—" I splutter. "No, I meant me! I should be captain!"

Hoofler's eyes widen. He recoils from the sting of my betrayal, before straightening up and clearing his throat.

"...I... see."

I look around to the rest of the table, now watching me.

"Look, I promise I'll also have Bonepick and Free Candy killed," I say, drawing more cries of protest from both of them. "But consider my goals compared to Hoofler's. Last month, all of us met just like this, and voted on whether or not we would come to Dragonfall. The pro-Dragonfall side won by a single vote, and one of them died within a week of coming here. And let's examine just who else voted in favour of Dragonfall, shall we? Lieutenant Throatfuck, out of blind loyalty to our idiot captain. Bonepick, so that he could eat hobos. Free Candy, because he thought Dragonfall would be full of unattended orphans he could molest—"

"Actually, I regret my vote now," Free Candy mutters, hanging his head. "My platoon's casualty rate since our first encounter with the East Side Orphanage has been staggering."

"...And Hoofler, who literally just came here to kill minorities." I let the brief silence hang in the air, while Hoofler gives me a dirty look. "In short, why would you vote for Hoofler when he's partially to blame for all of this, along with Ulysses and the two degenerates? Elect me as your captain, and I will get us out of Dragonfall, one way or another. Elect Hoofler, and the nightmare of our own lives will only continue."

"Huh," says Dynamite, shrugging. "Sounds good to me. I vote Agony."

"Yup," Killjoy says with a grin. "Same here."

"Hmm." Peacemaker nods. "Very well."

"I personally would like to revisit the topic of our execution first," says Free Candy, meekly raising a hoof.

Everypony ignores him.

I smile. Including myself, I have four votes already. I've got this in the bag.

"Now hold the hell up," says Ulysses, finally dragging himself up from beneath the table, tomato still running down his face. "Why in Equestria should we ever vote for Agony? Are you all forgetting who he is? He probably killed Blackheart himself just to take over! He is an outspoken fascist! If we let him be captain, we'll probably never have a meaningful say in things again!

"A... vhat?" says Hoofler, squinting. "Faa... scist? Vhat is a fascist?"

"Fascism is a system of authoritarian nationalistic autocracy," Peacemaker explains. "Instead of having a democracy, the state is ruled by a dictator with total, unchecked power. Like if Princess Celestia didn't have to listen to Congress."

"Oh." Hoofler blinks. "Zat sounds... very efficient... You're full of interesting ideas today, Agony."

"I vote for Hoofler," says Ulysses.

"What! As if Hoofler wouldn't do the exact same thing!" I shout, before noticing some of the others giving me weird looks. "U-Um... I mean, I would never do something like that! And even if I was going to, which I'm not, I should still be the clear choice here."

Hoofler frowns at me. "Warum, Agony?"

"Yeah, why, Agony?" asks Ulysses. "Because comparing the two of you, I think you're far and away the worse choice."

"How? How can you possibly conclude that?"

"Okay, let's review. In the past few days, what have you done? The northwest barracks turn out to be shit. Boo hoo. Instead of settling in and making the best of it, like all the rest of us did, you ran off to berate the captain in the middle of the night and accomplished nothing. Bad decision. When one of your sergeants was trapped in the mines and you had troops being stabbed, did you try to manage the situation and help? No, you ran off to the prison to berate the captain again about the mayor's murder, and probably got him killed too. Bad decision. Then when a monster appeared and brought down the wall, did you rally your troops, try to fight back, try to contact us? No. You went gallivanting off into the woods to have an adventure with bandits, and let us all think you'd died. Bad. Decision.

"Agony, you have been criminally irresponsible since arriving in this city, and I fully believe that most of the reasons why you hate Dragonfall so much are actually your own fault. In contrast, look at what Hoofler has done. He set up camps in the outlands, he captured bandits, and he imprisoned them. There's already been less raids on the local farms. Yeah, he's a horrible racist, but at least Hoofler does his job. At least Hoofler can paint. What can you do? What do you have to offer? Nothing but bitching, as far as I can see."

"Hoofler once sent half his troops all the way to Stalliongrad in the dead of winter, and they all froze to death! He is not a better or more responsible leader than me!"

"I disagree," Ulysses says coolly. "I think the weight of the evidence suggests that you, Agony, are definitely worse than Hoofler. In several respects. Most by a fairly significant margin."

"H-He... He's a racist!" I shout desperately, pointing an accusing hoof at Hoofler. "I'm sorry, Hoofler, but seriously, Ulysses, are you actually going to vote for a guy who believes race-mixing should be illegal?"

Hoofler glares at me. "Vhat, exactly, is wrong vith believing zat, Agony?"

"It just is, Hoofler! It's wrong! It's immoral! Harmony between races and species is one of the founding principles of Equestria! How can you be an Equestrian nationalist and a racist? The two don't go together, Hoofler! They don't make sense!"

"Oh, Agony arguing on moral grounds," says Ulysses, rolling his eyes. "That's rich."

"Maultiere," Hoofler says simply.

I stop, and tilt my head.

"What?" I ask.

"Mules, Agony," Hoofler clarifies. "If a pony und a donkey breed, ze result is a mule. Zat is vhat zat union produces. Vould you ever be okay vith siring a mule?"

I freeze. The rest of the table looks at me. I stand there, carefully considering his words, staring at the floor. The other lieutenants, Redwood, and even the serving mare and the new financial guy, lean closer in anticipation of my answer.

"...He's got me there," I mutter.

A round of groans pass the table.

"What?" cries Dynamite.

"Seriously, Ags?" says Killjoy.

"For Celestia's sake..." Peacemaker mutters, shaking his head.

"What? What?" I protest. "He's right! Mules are disgusting!"

"Would anypony like to retract their vote for Agony now?" Ulysses asks with an insufferably smug grin on his face. "I don't know about you guys, but given a choice between two racists, I'd rather vote for the one who's at least honest about it."

"I am sorely tempted," says Peacemaker, levelling a disapproving look my way. "But as many good points as you make, Ulysses, I still want out of Dragonfall, and a garden variety racist is still better than an outright pony supremacist."

Killjoy and Dynamite murmur their assent, making a vein pop on Ulysses's forehead.

"Fuck it," says Bonepick, clutching his mug in a talon and downing a gulp of beer. "I'm voting for Hoofler. You with me, Candy?"

"Sure," Free Candy says with a shrug, picking up his own mug and taking a drink as well.

Bonepick slams his down again and belches. "Here's the deal. Since both major candidates want us dead, we're forcing a tie. Anypony else changes their votes to break it, we'll change ours to unbreak it. Like it or not, we hold the power here. So whoever caters to us wins the election."

Me and Hoofler look to each other, and we share a smile.

"Go ahead," says Hoofler. "Vhatever you do, everypony else is united against you. Whoever vins vill get rid of you degenerates somehow."

"Okay, I promise you can both live," I say suddenly.

"WHAT?!" the entire room shouts in unison.

"But no more eating people or molesting foals," I say.

"Wait," says Free Candy, holding up a hoof. "Foals. So... griffon hatchlings, let's say? That's still free game?"

Bonepick glares at him. So do I.

"No molesting in general," I say.

Free Candy deflates slightly. "Okay... But so we're clear, we both get to live and stay employed, right?"

"...Yyyyyyyeah, sure."

"Cool," says Bonepick, smiling. "I vote for Agony."

"I also vote for Agony," says Free Candy.

"I don't vote for Agony," Peacemaker snaps. "I find Agony quite deplorable right now, and I'm changing to Hoofler."

"Yeah... same," says Dynamite. "Sorry, Agony, but I'm mostly in this to see those two dead, and you've really disappointed me on that front."

I frantically turn to Killjoy, grabbing her shoulders and staring into her eyes with a silent, pleading desperation. She sighs and rolls her eyes, patting my head.

"You owe me one, Ags."

Okay, we're back to a stalemate. I can work with that. I can still win this.

I turn back to the rest of the table, and take in the looks they're all giving me. Ulysses with his smug grin. Peacemaker with his disdainful sneer. Hoofler and Dynamite, both clearly disappointed in me. The new guy, Gold Coin, staring in open-mouthed shock. Even Redwood is giving me a pleading, worried look. The only ones who actually seem happy with this arrangement are the cannibal and the foal-fiddler.

Maybe there's a reason most ponies don't like me...

"Well," Peacemaker grumbles. "It's down to an even split again. I'm not changing my vote, and I don't think anypony else is either. Unless one of you wants to concede to the other, it looks like we're stuck here."

See, this is why democracy doesn't work.

1. Gracefully concede the captaincy to Hoofler. What could possibly go wrong?
2. Maintain the stalemate for now, and work out a way to win later.
3. A vote for Killjoy is a vote against awful two-party systems.