Haycartes' Pluperfect Method

by Kris Overstreet

First published

Twilight Sparkle has trapped herself in a shelf full of books. Will she survive- or will she lose herself to the story?

pluperfect, n. the past perfect verb tense.

pluperfect, adj. more than perfect; excessively precise or complete.

A weekend with all her friends away, a shelf full of books, and Haycartes' Method- the spell that lets a pony see a book from the inside. It seemed like a perfect relaxing weekend for Twilight Sparkle- with a little tweak to the spell, that is.

Then she woke up inside the story... as the main character... with the main character's memories... and the main character's thoughts trying to override her own...

... and she can't remember how to get back out.

Another daily-writing attempt combined with reading new books.

Prologue

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A small shelf of books hung above a large, plush bed.

In the bed lay a magical pony princess, wings wiggling and horn bobbing as she nestled herself comfortably under the covers.

A bead of magic light built up on the tip of the horn, and the purple-furred alicorn stuck the tip of her tongue out of her mouth as she concentrated on the spell. A little tweak here... and here... and an added bit here... and it was ready.

The bead of light swelled to link the pony and the shelf full of books, all of them glowing brighter and brighter.

Then, with a blinding flash and a sound of chimes, the bed lay empty, the princess gone.

The books remained.

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 1: In the Horseshoes of Another Mare

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Captain Hornsparker’s eyes blinked as she stepped out into the bright dawn sun shining down onto the quarterdeck of the Lydia. She nodded to Thornbush, her first lieutenant, who touched his hat in salute but said nothing else. That had been the routine that had held through the past seven months; during the first hour of the day, before her breakfast, the captain allowed no one to speak to her while she walked the quarterdeck. That time was her thinking time, and always had been.

Twenty hooves long, five hooves wide, her patch of the Lydia’s quarterdeck lay sacrosanct from intrusion by any of the crew or officers. She could think, as she usually thought in this sacred hour, before the burdens of commanding a ship of Celestia’s Royal Navy put an end to privacy. On a princess’s ship, this hour was a privilege only a captain could obtain, and Hornsparker needed it now more than ever.

Thornbush and the other ship’s officers retreated to the lee side of the quarterdeck, leaving Hornsparker alone with her thoughts- thoughts of absurd and impossible secret orders, thoughts of the unreliability of chronometers after seven months on a tossing, turning thirty-six gun frigate. And above all she thought about supplies. After spending seven months rounding the Great Southern Cape to enter the great South Luna Sea-

Wait, that’s wrong. I was in Canterlot last week, so why do I remember-

-spending the last seven months with only one brief sighting of land, of the cape itself, by orders from the Admiralty, the food and fuel had been virtually used up.

These ponies are depending on their captain, Hornsparker thought. This ship is out of lemon juice. We’ll have scurvy on our hooves soon, and the surgeon died rounding the great southern cape. The water ration has been cut from half a gallon a day to three pints per day, and what’s left in the casks is so bad it turns the oatmeal green. Of course, we may have to serve the oats cold and dry soon, considering the lack of fuel for the cook’s fire. And there’s only enough grog left for ten more days. And after that, the crew will mutiny, even if we had plenty of all the other things, which we don’t.

And it was up to her, Captain Hornsparker, to find replacement for all those things, and very soon…

That’s not my name…

… or else she risked losing the frigate entrusted to her by the Admiralty, by Celestia herself, through mutiny, through illness, or through enemy action. And even if Hornsparker was unfortunate enough to somehow survive that calamity, she would have to meet the princess of all Equestria for only the second time in her life, look into the face of disappointment, and-

That’s not so! I spent half my childhood with Celestia! I spoke with her just last week!

The captain’s hooves almost went out from under her at the sudden wave of confusion, rocking her cocked hat off her head entirely. As she levitated it back onto her head, she thought, What am I doing here? I’m not a naval captain! I’m…

I’m…

What am I?

Recollection came slowly to her mind, and to her relief she found pacing made it easier.
She was a unicorn named Hornsparker- of course she was, whatever tropical disorder of the mind might say otherwise. She had attained command of the Lydia- her third commissioning as commander of a vessel of war, not counting prizes or field promotions- after a career begun fresh out of school sixteen years before. Virtually her entire adult life had been spent at sea on one ship or another, battling the forces of the Fancy rebels and their self-proclaimed emperor, Neighpoleon.

No, no, no! another part of her mind, which felt like it lay under several thick blankets, insisted. My name isn’t Hornsparker, it’s Sparkle… Twilight Sparkle. I’m the Princess of… of… of Friendship…

Hornsparker shook her head. The tropical sun must be cooking her brain, despite the relative cool air of the LunaSea compared to the roasting heat to be expected at the same latitudes in the Celestial Ocean. There was only one alicorn princess in all Equestria, and a pony would have to be truly mad to imagine wings where none existed.

That’s wrong, too! There are five princesses now- Celestia, Luna, Cadance, Flurry Heart, and myself! But I’ll tell you who doesn’t exist! Neighpoleon, that’s who!

Hornsparker shook her head again, harder, trying to shake out the annoying mental voice. The Fancy tyrant had practically dominated Hornsparker’s entire adult life, throwing all the pony nations and several of the others into a war without end-

The Fancy Revolution began in CR 789. Celestia recognized the independence of Prance immediately, and the Republic lived until CR 801, when it collapsed in internal disagreements. The last thing the Prench agreed on was naming Celestia as Protector of the Republic and putting her back in charge. There wasn’t any war, and there certainly wasn’t any Neighpoleon! The Neighpoleonic wars were total fiction, a device invented as a setting for pirate romance novels and-

Wait. Wait, wait, wait.

Something about a book, about books, tugged at the captain’s consciousness. She hauled at the mental line, dragging memories up from their depths into the same tropical morning sun which shone upon her now. There had been twelve- no, twenty- books, in a row, on a bookshelf just above her bed in-

-in my cabin-

-in my bedroom in the Castle of Friendship-

And the books meant… meant… She tugged at that line, but whatever was on its end fought and dove back into the depths. She gave it its run, working her mind around another line of thought.

There were books. And I was alone- that’s right, alone except for Spike, who had gone to bed.

Why was I alone? Starlight Glimmer had gone to visit Sunburst in the Crystal Empire. Applejack and Pinkie Pie were in Dodge Junction helping Cherries Jubilee with her harvest. Rarity and Fluttershy had gone to Manehattan to prepare for an upcoming fashion show. And Rainbow Dash was on tour with the Wonderbolts.

And with her closest friends out of town, away from… from Ponyville- she had to struggle to remember the name of the town she really lived in, rather than the countryside around Trottingham- it had been the perfect opportunity to…

… to…

Pain ran through the captain’s body. Hornsparker had slammed a hoof into the block of one of the carronades. For a moment her mind seemed to clear. I must not let these fantasies, these hallucinations, impede my judgment now! I am Captain Hornsparker, and hundreds of ponies depend-

Inside her mind, there was the sudden sensation of falling into deep water, of the waters closing overhead, the pressure pushing on muzzle, on barrel, on lungs, water pouring in-

Terror filled her thoughts, and with them a sudden strength and action. Something shoved something else down into the back of her mind, pushed frantically, kept pushing until resistance faded.

And Twilight Sparkle stood on the quarterdeck of the Lydia, panting for breath as she continued her pacing.

This is Haycartes’ Method, she thought. The spell that let you literally enter a book.

The caster appeared as an illustration on the page to others. Inside the book the caster could read faster and retain more, seeing aspects of the work that an ordinary reader might miss. And Twilight had gathered twenty works of fiction she hadn’t read before, including a couple loaned to her by Sunset Shimmer from the other side of the mirror portal.

But… Haycartes’ Method didn’t provide the smell of clean salt water (with no taint of the rotten-fish stink of the coast). It didn’t create the feel of freshly holystoned deck planks under the frogs of one’s hooves. It didn’t animate the other illustrations, nor did it create images (aside from the caster) in books which had none.

Twilight resumed her pacing. She could hear the conversation of the crew (quiet talking, the occasional laugh- good, since the Hornsparker part of her mind worried about mutiny). She could feel the sea breeze in her mane (only a few knots, just barely enough to allow the ship’s rudder to bite and steer with every scrap of canvas spread to catch it). She could reach a hoof out and touch one of the carronades next to her- over a ton of black-painted iron held in place by chocks and lines, ready to be loaded, run out, and fired on the enemy. Haycartes’ Method didn’t do any of this.

And then more memories worked their way to the surface, breaking through the walls erected within Twilight’s mind.

Unless a brilliant pony of incredible power modified the Method with etheric referencing, extending the spell’s reach into phase space to draw out the necessary details to truly immerse the caster in the story of the book. And it only works on fiction, because etheric referencing of almost any nonfiction work becomes infinite, since all true knowledge is interconnected. The spell breaks under the strain.

She’d modified Haycartes’ Method. She’d wanted to do more than read the books. She’d wanted to experience total immersion in the story. And another word for total immersion, she realized, is drowning. That was what had saved her- the fear of something worse than death, of being permanently submerged under the fantasy the spell created so that she could experience the story from the inside.

She’d collected the books she wanted to read- a weekend’s worth. She’d got into bed, made herself comfy, and cast the spell. Or, rather, she assumed she had- her memory more or less stopped with a vision of her about to get into bed, looking at the books, with the modified spell in her mind…

… a spell that, try as she might, she could no longer recall how to cast or cancel.

That… that was bad. She had to remember that spell, absolutely had to, so she could cancel it and get back out of the book. This was not at all what she’d intended. She had no idea what would happen next.

Oh no oh no oh no! This is worse than that Power Ponies comic of Spike’s! What happens if I forget I’m Twilight Sparkle again? Part of me still thinks I’m Captain Hornsparker- the part that knows that you don’t call a rope a rope on a sailing vessel, it’s either a line or a cable depending on thickness and usage. What happens if that part takes over? Will I be stuck in the book forever?

And this is a book about war- the oldest book in one of the most popular naval romances. Bray to Quarters, I remember the title now. Mom recommended it to me. What happens if I mess up the story somehow? What happens if I’m replacing a character who dies? What happens if I don’t do as well as the character did, and I die where the character would have lived?

The Hornsparker part of her mind answered that last question for her: Better to die performing one’s duty, than to live and be known by all as a coward. Better death than shame.

Yeah, that’s easy for you to say, Twilight thought. But none of this is real! This is only a story!

If the ponies take it into their heads that they can sail to the Sandwich Isles or Hayhiti, and they take over the ship, it will be a very short story.

Twilight shook her head. She needed more than a pace. She needed a quick flight to get away from the ship, to get away from-

And then it struck her.

I don’t have wings anymore. I’m not an alicorn.

The spell hadn’t just taken away her own memories and personality. The spell had taken away her magic, or almost all of it. Captain Hornsparker was an ordinary unicorn of no particular magic talent, and as long as she was in this story, so was Twilight Sparkle.

And unlike the wall which had blocked off her own memories and personality, Twilight didn’t have a clue how to break through the lock on her powers. For that matter, the spell continued to resist her thoughts, sporadically trying to override Twilight Sparkle with the shadow of Hornsparker.

It’s going to be a constant struggle just to keep my mind clear. And I need my mind clear if I’m going to get out…

… but that has to wait. While she had been pacing, pausing, and doing odd little things, the crew had been working around her. The wind had shifted slightly, and ponies (plus the occasional griffon) had been running here and there across the decks, picking up lines, hauling, releasing, conducting the complicated and laborious task of trimming sails to catch the wind a little better. Time had passed while Twilight had been locked up in her own mind.

And then- ting ting, ting ting, ting ting, ting. Seven bells in the morning watch. Her hour of privacy had run out, and now, even if this was only a story, she had to return to her role in it, until she could find time for total concentration on digging the modified Haycartes spell out of her memory. For now, it was time to play the captain- and only play, she thought savagely as the mental ball of thoughts which were Hornsparker pushed back at her again.

“Good morning, Mr. Thornbush,” she said, walking over to the first lieutenant standing next to the ship’s wheel.

“Good morning, ma’am.” Thornbush, the memories of Hornsparker supplied, was the closest thing the captain had to a friend. Lieutenants together under a mad captain just before the false peace, then commander and sole lieutenant of a sloop of war for three years of blockade duty when the false peace failed. Had been best pony, for lack of anyone else, at Hornsparker’s wedding to Plum Dumpling. And yet, because captains had to be aloof and unapproachable, Hornsparker had almost limited herself to grunting at her second in command ever since leaving home port seven months before.

Well, nuts to that. Twilight Sparkle might not be a princess in this book-world, but she was still going to be a friend. “Good morning, Thornbush,” she said as cheerfully as she could manage. “Anything of note on the log?”

“No, ma’am,” Thornbush said, presenting the slate for her to read. In an instant Twilight averaged out the speeds and headings and got a result of eighty-two nautical miles traveled since the previous morning, almost directly northeasterly, on a direct heading for the southern Nickeraguan coast. According to her calculations- Hornsparker’s calculations-the ship ought to be between one hundred and three hundred nautical miles from landfall.

“Very good,” she said. “We should be sighting land in a day or two,” she added, over an internal reluctance she knew came entirely from the spell and not herself.

“That’s a relief, sir,” Thornbush admitted frankly. “Seven months at sea, and the only land sighted being the Cape itself. I can’t recall ever being out of sight of land so long.” An additional look came into the stallion’s eyes, a look of unquenchable curiosity. “Of course,” he added, “I’m sure you have reasons for it.”

Twilight sighed, as Hornsparker’s memories provided the explanation without another struggle for dominance. “I’m sorry, Thornbush,” she said quietly. “But our orders are secret. I’m not allowed to tell anyone, and you’re not allowed to see them unless something happens to me. Otherwise…”

The rest of the sentence jammed in Twilight’s throat as the spell resisted once more; Captain Hornsparker almost never explained her plans, even when they weren’t dictated by secret orders. She said instead, “There’s none I’d rely upon so heavily as yourself, Thornbush.” That statement slid through the false memories without a bobble, so apparently it was true.

“Thank’ee, ma’am,” Thornbush said, smiling awkwardly. The first lieutenant wore his heart on his sleeve- easily hurt, easily complimented.

And loyal far beyond what I deserve, the gloomy thoughts of Hornsparker muttered under Twilight’s mental grip.

Shut up, you, Twilight thought. To Thornbush she said, “I should wash up, I guess. Carry on, Mr. Thornbush.”

“Aye, ma’am,” Thornbush said, touching hoof to hat for the second time that day.

Space on a frigate of Celestia’s Royal Navy (at least according to novelists) ran at a terrible premium, with three hundred ponies crammed into a space that one hundred would find uncomfortably cramped. Technically the captain had a cabin to herself, barely two ponylengths on a side and almost half-filled with an eighteen-pounder cannon. Partition walls, cot and desk would be cleared away before battle to allow a six-pony gun crew to work the gun as part of the starboard broadside- one of the thirty-four broadside guns and the two lighter guns at bow and stern which gave the ship its thirty-six gun rating.

Between gun, cot, desk, bookshelf and sea chest, there remained just barely room for two ponies to stand, if one reared onto his hind hooves. When Twilight got there, one was already doing so, having brought a fresh uniform and a tiny amount of water for her washing-up. Axle Wheel- that was his name- was the captain’s steward, the crew member assigned to watch over the captain’s belongings and to ensure that, whatever happened, Celestia’s representative on the ship would put the best possible face forward for princess and country.

“Thank you, Wheel,” Twilight said as she stripped off the old, sweat-sticky uniform and slipped on the fresh linen shirt the earth pony offered her. As the steward took the old shirt away, Twilight picked up a brush in her magic and looked in the mirror. It was still her face- slightly older than she really was, but the same eyes looked out of more or less the same face, covered with the same mane. Lavender fur, purple mane with the lighter pink stripe in it, spiral horn with blunt tip- all as it should be.

Except, of course, it wore a linen shirt of a style more than a century out of date, and it was looking at her from a little shaving-mirror bolted to the bulkhead of the cabin, and it was on a ship that existed nowhere except between the covers of an eighty-year-old novel. Little details like that made the face in the mirror more disturbing, not less.

And then Axle Wheel was back, holding up her freshly brushed uniform coat, which she slipped back into with no difficulty. No words were exchanged; Axle Wheel and Hornsparker, Twilight recalled, had been doing this in silence for seven months now, to the point that each knew the other’s motions by rote.

That kind of certain knowledge made her shudder, which caused the steward to raise an eyebrow. Having false memories, even a false personality, in her head was bad enough. But getting used to them? Having them function as smoothly as the real thing?

I have got to get that spell back, somehow.

But it was time to go back out on deck. As she stepped back into the sun, the watch chimed eight bells- another hour gone already. Thornbush stood by the hatch, saluting. “Hands to punishment, ma’am?” he asked.

Ah, Hornsparker said in Twilight’s thoughts, poor Wranglin’. The fool will not learn to stop spitting on the deck, where someone or something might slip. With all the lines and cannons, that could cause another crew member to lose a hoof. But no punishment seems to help Wranglin’ learn, and I doubt any will. But the captain must back the discipline of her officers…

Pipes shrilled, hooves pounded the decks with a thunder that shook the frigate’s fabric, and hundreds of ponies crowded the main deck and the rigging. Twilight, Thornbush, and the other officers of the ship lined the quarterdeck as the scrawny, stubble-jawed Wranglin’ was brought up onto the quarterdeck. Twilight stood and watched in regretful silence by as Thornbush, sternly reminding the crew of Wranglin’s misdeed, decreed loss of his ration of grog for two weeks, plus- and this was the worst punishment available on one of Celestia’s ships- two weeks of duty on the bilge pumps.

By the time the sentence had been read out, Wranglin’ was in tears. He was assisted back down to the main deck by two of his fellow sailors, wailing loudly. As he was taken below, Twilight heard him cry, “I can take th’ pumps, but I canna take th’ cap’n’s face! ‘Tis like Celestia herself is disappointed with me!”

Thornbush leaned over and said softly, “Pardon my speakin’ out o’turn, ma’am, but you usually don’t get so upset at punishments like that.”

In Twilight’s struggle to think of a good response, Hornsparker managed to rise up enough to bark, “Hands to breakfast, Mr. Thornbush!”

Hooves pounded, and crew and officers dispersed. Twilight, regaining her composure, felt a moment of gratitude for the spell, which for once had been more helpful than terrifying. She even allowed Hornsparker to guide her steps back into the cabin, where Axle Wheel waited with her own breakfast.

“Coffee,” the steward said, setting a single place at the captain’s table. “And burgoo, ma’am.”

“Thank you,” Twilight said, though the smell told her she had little reason for gratitude. The coffee had never actually come any closer to a bean than the Lydia now sailed from land; it had been brewed mainly from burnt bread crumbs. The burgoo was a hideous half-stew, half-porridge of biscuit crumbs, hay and oats, all so salty as to be nigh-inedible. And beside it, of course, was the inevitable hardtack ship’s biscuit, full of weevils which would have to be gently coaxed out before she could eat the horrible thing.

This was another part of the “age of sail” romance; the same overcrowding that the authors justified by the need for fighting ponies also meant no room for proper food preservation systems. Everything was dried or salted and then left in the hold for months at a time, where rats and insects inevitably got into it and made it that little bit worse. In the real world, of course, the few ships of Celestia’s navy never allowed food this terrible, food that would wreck the long-term health of the ponies eating it and turn every meal, even a captain’s, into misery.

But the food and coffee were hot, which made them that little bit less disgusting, and somehow Twilight managed to get through them both. She had begun tapping the biscuit on the table with her magic, watching with nauseated fascination as the little pale crawling things worked their way out of their holes, when a shout from above deck saved her from the immediate necessity of eating it:

“Land ho!”

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 2: The Coast of Nickeragua

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Smoke or steam rose from near the peaks of two large volcanoes almost directly ahead, while a host of smaller peaks rose to left and right- port and starboard- building up to a great weathered mountain range that rose steadily like a fence around the horizon. So it seemed to Twilight, anyway, as she sat in the masthead and pointed a spyglass at the land not yet visible from the deck far, far below.

The two large volcanoes just to the west of a broad bay entrance told her all she needed to know, after a quick check of the charts and of Hornsparker’s phantom memories. The story had brought the Lydia exactly to Hornsparker’s intended destination- the Bay of Hornseca, on the western coast of the Forbidden Jungles- the treacherous Nickeraguan coast of legend.

“I thought I saw breakers there, ma’am.” One of the Lydia’s midshipmen- Potter Clay, Hornsparker muttered in Twilight’s mind- sat on the shrouds next to Twilight, his own glass pointed not at the mountaintops but at the seashore below. There, through her own glass. Twilight quickly spotted the brief, faint bursts of white foam on the blue-green ocean surface.

“Yep. Those are breakers all right.” Twilight had meant it as nothing but conversation, just an idle phrase. The surge of Hornsparker’s personality which nearly bowled her out of the masthead came totally by surprise, and her spyglass bobbed in her magic as the artificial personality poured its rage through her mind.

I will not be a babbling fool again! the false thoughts shouted. A captain cannot have their every decision questioned, but if I let my loose lips relax for even a moment that is exactly what will happen! It’ll be the Hotspur all over again! There must be a solemn distance between captain and-

SHUT UP!

The surge of mental pressure receded, and Twilight took a few calming breaths. “Mr. Clay,” she said, “you may go down now. Please give Mr. Gerard my compliments and ask him to send all hands to dinner.” The odd phrase give my compliments rolled off Twilight’s tongue without a hitch- in naval parlance, it meant this is an order, but avoided the bluntness and confrontation which might trigger tempers worn thin by long confinement together in a small space.

The idea to send the crew to dinner- only a couple of hours after their breakfast- had been more Hornsparker’s than Twilight’s, but after a moment of thought she understood. In a short while the crew would be put to many hours of hard labor to bring the ship into the bay ahead, and they’d need all the energy they could muster.

But the final order came not from the captain of the Lydia, but from the princess of friendship. “And Mr. Clay?” she asked, ignoring the mental screaming of Hornsparker. “My compliments to Mr. Thornbush, and please ask if he could take dinner in the cabin with me.”

As Clay departed, Hornsparker snarled in Twilight’s mind. Thornbush is a worthy pony, but he hasn’t the imagination or the initiative to carry out these impossible orders! And I certainly will not tolerate my every decision-

Look! Twilight thought fiercely, keeping her eye planted on the eyepiece of her spyglass. Do you have any closer friend than Thornbush? No! No, you don’t! Has Thornbush ever been anything less than absolutely loyal? No! You know he hasn’t! We are doing this MY way! And my way is: let your friends HELP!

For once the mutterings of the Hornsparker personality faded to absolute silence.

Right. Good. I’m glad we had this conversation, Twilight thought. Now I could stand some lunch. Breakfast wasn’t much to write home about.

Hornsparker’s voice revived just enough to return a dry, joyless laugh.



The less said about the green, smelly oatmeal and the maggot-ridden ship’s biscuits, the better. Twilight choked it down for two reasons: Thornbush, sharing the table in the main cabin, ate his with no great sign of revulsion; and Hornsparker’s memories warned that Axle Wheel would gossip to the rest of the crew if the captain, for whatever reason, skipped a meal. Loss of confidence in the captain was a dangerous thing, the phantom memories warned. Twilight didn’t argue.

Once Axle Wheel had taken the bowls away, leaving only a small wedge of ship’s cheese for dessert, Twilight unlocked her desk and pulled out the secret orders that Hornsparker had obsessed about… but which she’d not actually read herself until now. “Thornbush,” she said, “the time has come to show you what’s brought us halfway around the continent.” She gave Thornbush the wad of papers and waited while he read, a process which required a considerable bit of hoof-pointing and lip-moving.

Twilight didn’t really blame Thornbush for having trouble with the reading. The orders ran at least three times as long as they needed to. The pony who’d written them had described in horrible detail the blatantly obvious without missing any opportunity for redundant phrases. So far as she could tell, all the padding was meant to safely handle orders which ranged from the impossible to the indefensible to the downright nonsensical.

“Impossible” covered the first part of the orders, which told Hornsparker to sail clear around the continent without sighting land or other ships. Leaving aside how easy it was to get lost out of sight of land without modern navigation spells, what was to stop a pegasus patrol from the land from going out a hundred miles and seeing the ship? Ocean-going surprise was impossible given any warning or planning by the enemy, and any plan that relied on surprise belonged where it began- in the imagination of a fool. (Of course, since this was only a story, it obviously had to work.)

That was bad enough. The orders only got worse from there. Now that, by the miracle of lazy writing, the Lydia had arrived at her destination without giving any warning to the enemy, she was supposed to enter into alliance with a local donkey grandee, Don Sunstruck, who would declare Nickeragua independent from the king of Maredrid, who was the ally of Neighpoleon and, thus, an enemy of Celestia and Equestria. To make sure the rebellion succeeded, she was to turn over armor, spears, bows and arrows enough for an army of five hundred ponies- all currently sitting in the Lydia’s hold, along with fifty thousand bits which, on pain of court-martial, she was to spend only if it meant the difference between the success or failure of the rebellion.

Making a war where none existed- that was the “indefensible” part. Twilight Sparkle simply could not imagine that Celestia, finding out about the existence of such a plan, would have allowed it to go into operation. Hundreds of ponies would die from these orders, and for no better reason than- as the orders put it- “securing from Don Sunstruck treaties of commercial exchange with the sovereign principality of Equestria.”

The fact that the orders went on for a page and a half about the untapped wealth of the Forbidden Jungles told Twilight all she needed to know; this wasn’t about winning the war (the totally fictional war, she reminded herself). This was greed at work, nothing else. Some horrible pony back in Trottingham or Canterlot wanted to send ponies to fight and die so their merchant friends might make a profit on tropical woods, rare minerals and native spices. Her stomach turned at the thought. Why, she thought, why do authors always try to show the absolute worst in ponies? Isn’t war bad enough by itself?

But then the orders went into the nonsensical. Once the rebellion was successful, Twilight was free to send the Lydia against enemy shipping… but not if the shippers in question might be supporters of Sunstruck’s rebellion. She was ordered to explore the Bay of Hornseca in search of a waterway which, supposedly, crossed the entire Forbidden Jungle region, connecting CelestialOcean and Luna Sea. She was to capture the annual treasure fleet from the Kirin Lands, which every year brought rare and valuable goods to the colonies of Maredrid- she, with her one ship, was supposed to capture half a dozen galleons at once.

And, finally, a single paragraph was given to mention a fifty-gun two-decker man of war, the Maredrid ship Cumpleanos, which sailed these same shores, and which the Lydia was expected to “take, sink, burn or destroy,” all by herself. A fifty-gun warship would have heavier cannon than a thirty-six gun frigate like the Lydia, making Twilight’s ship a two-to-one underdog in any direct battle between the two- or so said Hornsparker’s knowledge of such things, provided by the spell to give its caster the full context of the story’s events.

Once all this was done- by some unbelievable miracle- Twilight was expected to open communications with the admiral commanding in the Celestial Isles- back in the Celestial Ocean, on the wrong side of the continent from where she was now- and await further orders.

Of course, Twilight knew, these orders only existed to make Hornsparker more of a hero. Under the burden of impossible orders, the captain was expected to win through somehow, being the hero of the piece. No such blatantly fanciful, insane, immoral orders could ever be issued to a captain in the real world!

Eventually Thornbush got to the end, saying, “Begging your pardon, ma’am, but these orders are a lot of nonsense.”

“I agree,” Twilight said. “I can’t imagine the princess would have allowed them to go out had she ever seen them.”

Thornbush looked even more confused than his normal expression. “Ma’am, what would the princess have to do with it?” he asked. “The princess never meddles with the admiralty, you know that, ma’am.”

Twilight stifled a groan. Well, I do now. Funny thing for the spell to not include in these fake memories. “I can’t imagine the Lordships saw them, either,” she said. “Sending a frigate to attack a ship of the line? Even if she is only an old fifty-gunner.”

Thornbush shrugged. “You’ve taken on worse, ma’am,” he said. “There was that Fancy frigate we fought in the Hotspur, an’ you sent ‘er running back to port, and us only a sloop! And o’course everypony heard about the Caballa.”

Hornsparker’s memories brought forth visions of both battles entirely at odds with Thornbush’s enthusiasm. Hotspur had the entire Griffon Sea fleet behind her just over the horizon, a fact which limited the Prench captain’s options while enabling Hornsparker to take awful gambles- gambles which had paid off with a full broadside fired into the Fancy ship’s helpless stern. And the Caballa was a case of boarding a ship already grappling with another ship- a bloody battle, but no great accomplishment in Hornsparker’s eyes.

But Twilight, unlike Hornsparker, decided not to quell Thornbush’s enthusiasm. “That’s true,” she said, making herself sound a little reluctant to admit it. “So what do you find nonsense in these orders?”

“Why, all this business about helpin’ a bloody burro rebel, ma’am,” Thornbush insisted, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world- which, to be fair, Twilight agreed with wholeheartedly. “We took months roundin’ th’ Cape. For all we know this Don Sunstruck’s already been hung, quartered, an’ turned into glue. An’ even if he’s still alive, I can’t think o’nothin’ less trustworthy than a Mexicolt pony, unless it’s two Mexicolt ponies.”

Ah, yes, Twilight thought to herself. Another staple of pirate romances: casual prejudice against anyone and everyone not from Equestria. Not that I didn’t see that in Canterlot growing up… “It could very well be a trap,” she admitted. “And even if not, it would be well to go into port ready to fight our way out if necessary. But we have to replenish our food and water, regardless. The closest friendly port is in the kirin lands, after all.” Because San Flanksisco won’t be founded for another forty years.

“Between the marines and the sailors, I can put two hundred armed ponies into that port, ma’am,” Thornbush said stoutly. “We can have all th’ food an’ water we want if you say the word.”

“I hope the word won’t be necessary,” Twilight said. “I’d much rather…” Her voice trailed off. Much rather be friends? That wasn’t going to happen. This was a novel, a story about adventure on the high seas. Friendship might be nice, but it didn’t make for exciting adventure stories. “Anyway, the safety of the ship comes first,” she said, putting a little of Hornsparker’s steel into her voice. “We have to be prepared in case Don Sunstruck and his followers turn out not to be friendly.”

Thornbush nodded. “We should go in with guns out and boarding nets rigged. Let ‘em know we’re ready for any of their tricks.”

Twilight sighed. This wasn’t what she wanted. She’d wanted to read about adventure, to watch somepony else making these hard decisions. This stupid spell. Stupid, stupid Twilight. “You know what to do, Mr. Thornbush. Would you see to it?”



From the outside, the Lydia might seem no different, but to Twilight’s eyes, the ship had almost been transformed in a mere fifteen minutes- “ten minutes twenty-one seconds” according to Thornbush. The internal bulkheads separating cabin from wardroom from other compartments had been cleared away, along with the personal effects of all the officers, even Twilight. The decks had been given a good soaking by the pumps, and then sand had been strewn across them to prevent the crew from slipping on the wet polished wood. Every gun was given a supply of powder cartridges, hauled up with careful haste from the magazine. The guns, formerly tightly secured to the deck, had been cast loose, dragged in, loaded with a first shot, and run out through the now-opened gunports.

From outside the Lydia was a princess’s ship as she had been before, but inside she had gone from a mere sailing vessel to a mighty weapon of war.

A completely inefficient and wasteful weapon, Twilight couldn’t help thinking, beginning with the fact that slightly less than half the ship’s guns could ever be brought to bear on any one target. Doing anything required dozens of ponies, and one or two well-placed shots could render the whole machine helpless…

It took a hard jolt from the false Hornsparker personality to jar Twilight away from imagining ways a sailing frigate could be made more secure and effective with fewer ponies. Shoal water coming up! Get a pony to the bow with the leads!

Oh, right. “Mr. Thornbush,” Twilight said, “a pony to the leads, if you please. And make ready to anchor.”

Ahead of the Lydia the land grew closer and closer, as did the bay, the island closing off the mouth of the bay, and the channel between the island and the western mainland, which according to the charts offered the best passage into the bay. Out ahead of the ship a flight of pegasi from the ship’s marines scouted ahead for the breakers, marking spots where a wooden ship might come to grief.

Twilight clambered halfway up the foremast rigging, spyglass tucked under one hoof. The afternoon sea breeze was building up behind the ship, pushing it steadily towards land and towards the entrance to the bay. No need to tack. At the ship’s bow the pony with the lead hurled the long line with its heavy weight at the end far ahead of the ship, then took the slack out of the line as the ship ran it down, calling out the depth based on a series of little objects tied into the line. The order of the objects had to be memorized, but (as the Hornsparker memories reminded her) they could be read by feel, in total darkness, by a completely illiterate pony working by touch alone.

Despite herself, Twilight found herself fascinated by the operations of the tall ship- inefficient as they were, ludicrous as its purpose was. Unicorns and even earth ponies crowded the masts, furling and reefing sails by hoof… but no pegasi, because most of the ponies had been forced into service, and you couldn’t prevent a pegasus from deserting except by shackling the pony in question. On the deck, teams of ponies were sent from one rope to another, shifting the sails by degrees, wringing maximum speed from minimum sail. Other ponies worked around the hawseholes- the gaps in the bow where the great cables that held the anchors ran over the sides- making sure nothing lay in the way of letting those cables runs to drop the anchors into the water.

A simple gesture from her was enough to order the helmspony to turn the wheel a point port or starboard, which in turn shifted a massive rudder six or seven ponylengths tall to turn the ship. Slowly, serenely, the Lydia sailed into the western passage into the bay, headland to port and island to starboard, entering the bay’s smooth, clear waters. Twilight listened to the soft rush of water under the ship’s keel, the gentle creak of the ship’s fabric, the intermittent cry of the lead-pony calling out the water depth every five minutes or so.

And then, with the ship in the middle of the bay, with more than a mile of open water on all sides and a small coastal village just in view on the eastern shore, Twilight gave the order to drop anchor. The last sails were furled as the rumble of the giant tackles, the splash of the two main anchors striking water, echoed across the ship.

This, Twilight thought to herself, is what I had in mind. Seeing all this, watching as if I were there. The only problem is, I really am here, and I don’t have time to figure out how to get out again…

“Sail ho!” The lookout at the top of the mizzenmast shouted down. “Boat putting out from shore on the starboard beam!”

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 3: Xipe Totec

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The pony who scrambled up the boarding ladder from the boat wore a black waistcoat covered with rich embroidery over a filthy, tattered white shirt. Lank, flat black hair hung down from his mane over his dull, rust-red fur. A thin, sinister-looking mustache hung from just below his nostrils. The combination of these details made Twilight almost overlook- almost- the pair of musket pistols and the short, heavy sword on the belt that ran around him just before his haunches.

Twilight forced herself to restrain her sigh. Of course it was a stereotype. The sinister ponies of the Forbidden Jungles, the Mexicolti and Nickeraguans and all the rest, all had a limited set of roles in the pirate and sailing-ship romances. Most of them were highly unflattering to the ponies in question. And Mexicolti don’t even look like this! she thought. The ponies of the jungle tribes look just like any other ponies! What the hay?

But any further thoughts on the limitations of adventure novelists had to wait. The pony in question had made a beeline for her, in her best uniform with the epaulets that hadn’t yet worn through their microscopic layer of brass plate. “You are the captain?” he asked. “This is a princess’s ship?”

“Yes.” It took a lot of concentration to say the next part without breaking the stern, formal pose she’d decided to adopt. Even thinking the name of the main character she’d replaced seemed to strengthen that personality in her head, and it took an effort to keep the true Twilight from sinking under again. “I’m Captain Hornsparker, of Her Royal Highness’s frigate Lydia, at your service.”

“A pleasure,” the native pony said. “I am Major General Majordomo, in the service of Xipe Totec.”

“Xipe Totec?” The name seemed vaguely familiar to Twilight, though- for a welcome change- not to the Hornsparker memories, which hadn’t a clue. “I’m sorry, but my orders are to find and meet a pony named Don Sunstruck.”

“Just so,” Majordomo said, nodding. “Such was the name of our lord Xipe Totec before his apotheosis.” He gestured a hoof back towards the village from which the boat had come, and to the large building on a hill behind the village. “He has sent me to bring you into his presence. He has waited far too long already.”

Apotheosis? Oooooh… boy… The author of this one seemed determined to plumb the darkest possible depths of the pony condition… or, at least, to go as far as he could in the format of a cheap adventure novel. Why did Mom recommend this one to me again?

Anyway, if I’m lucky I’m only dealing with a mad-pony. If I’m unlucky, then I’m facing some sort of monster who’s taken over some poor pony…

… without my magic. This is bad…

I have no choice but to play along for now, Hornsparker’s voice echoed in her head, louder than ever. The ship’s stores are dangerously low. We need a friendly port to get enough food and water to see us back around the cape, if necessary.

You shut up, Twilight thought, mentally fumbling to shove Hornsparker back in her mental corner. “Thornbush?” she asked.

The first lieutenant stepped forward. “Aye, ma’am?”

“I am going with this pony,” she said quietly. “You now know my orders. If I don’t come back or send word by midnight, you are to assume command and act on those orders as you see best-”

And then, unbidden, Hornsparker’s will broke through, and Twilight’s thoughts were crushed away in a small corner of the captain’s mind. She watched as through a keyhole, barely aware, unable to think clearly, as her body moved and talked on its own.

“Your first priority will be to see to the safety of this ship and its crew, Mr. Thornbush. Is that clear?”

“Aye, ma’am,” Thornbush said automatically, worry obvious on his face. “But- is it safe for you?”

Majordomo shrugged.

“I must go regardless,” Hornsparker said. “Remember- the ship and its crew first.”

“Aye, ma’am,” Thornbush repeated.

Nodding, and relieved to have finally recovered from the madness of the past several hours, Hornsparker turned to the Nickeraguan general. “I am at your service, sir.”


Twilight Sparkle’s will resurfaced at the horrible sight of a pegasus, limbs and wings tied spread-eagled on a giant stone wheel standing at the quay, eyes rolling, tongue lolling out. “Water,” the poor pony gasped. “For Celestia’s sake, water.”

Hornsparker, when she had seen the sight, had merely been shocked. Twilight Sparkle, on the other hoof, was furious, and that fury had broken through the spell-memories, allowing her to shove Hornsparker aside and regain control. “What are you doing to that pony?” she shrieked, rounding on General Majordomo.

Majordomo didn’t even blink. “Xipe Totec has ordered this pony to die of thirst,” he said. “For her blasphemy, she is not permitted to experience the renewal of death by blood.”

“Blasphemy??” Twilight lowered her horn, pushing the feeble power available to Hornsparker forward and preparing the most powerful blasting spell she could manage. “What kind of blasphemy can justify this??”

Majordomo shrugged. “Our master Xipe Totec needs no justification,” he said. “He is Xipe Totec. That is sufficient.”

“What??” Now rage gave way to shock- shock at the utter indifference Majordomo expressed at the pony’s suffering. “Maybe he needs no justification, but what about you? What do you have to say about this??”

“Better her than me,” Majordomo said. “This way, Captain.”

Twilight looked around. The rowers of the boat they’d come to the town by watched with the same indifference Majordomo showed. But the townsponies, all of them various shades of red fur, mostly but not entirely earth ponies… they glared at Twilight, eyes burning with a barely checked hatred for no reason she could think of. And she noticed, for the first time, that there were hundreds of them, all watching with the sharpest intent from roads and doors and windows.

This isn’t the time, Twilight thought. And it’s only a story. Remember, all of this is only a story. That poor pony on the wheel, she isn’t real. None of this is real.

Yeah. Keep telling yourself that.

Angry, stomping, Twilight trotted behind Majordomo through the town, past its palm-thatched cottages and meager shops, past obviously native ponies and a scattering of Maredrid burros, and up onto a path that led up the hills and into the jungle behind the village. Sentries, armed with spears and armor fashioned from shells and rough cotton fabric, stood at points along the path, guarding more stone wheels, each with a rotting corpse of a pony left for the fat, almost flightless vultures to peck at.

Twilight, angry and sad and horrified beyond speech, said nothing. For a wonder, neither did Hornsparker.

Then the path reached the top of the hill, revealing the large white house Twilight had seen from the Lydia. Behind it, on the other side of the hill, lay an enormous farm- rows and rows of fruit trees, plowed and cultivated land, and hundreds of ponies hard at work under the hot late afternoon sun.

Twilight had barely a minute to take in the sight, for Majordomo had picked up his pace, almost galloping past the sentries on either side of the ranch house’s main doors, leading her down corridors past servants clothed in a similar mix of finery and rags as the general. Finally, at a large set of double doors studded with brass, he stopped, knocked twice on the door with a hoof, pushed it open, and fell to his belly, forelegs outstretched.

And there, on a chair on a dais- the only furniture to be found in the large, empty chamber- there sat Don Sunstruck. Twilight couldn’t imagine that a pony so horrible could be anyone else.

At the core Don Sunstruck was a burro- no, a mule, Twilight thought, with the huge ears, the massive muzzle, the protruding teeth, and the dull brown fur and black mane with a few streaks of gray. But much of the fur and mane were covered by darker brown, wet-looking splotches… dried blood, Twilight guessed, coming from the pieces of pony skin very loosely stitched together to form an obscene garment thrown over Don Sunstruck’s body. A mismatched pair of pegasus wings hung limply from his back. A unicorn scalp, complete with horn, perched unsteadily on his head like a horrible hat or toupee.

I am never casting this variant of Haycartes again, Twilight thought, shuddering with revulsion. I would never, NEVER, want to see anything like this again. Daring Do never gets this horrible in any of her books…

“Majordomo,” the thing under the patchwork pony skin said, “you have been gone quite some time. Eleven ponies have been flogged in your absence.”

For the first time Majordomo showed an honest emotion: raw fear. “Great Xipe Totec,” he said, “The captain came instantly upon hearing your summons.”

Sunstruck turned his eyes for the first time onto Twilight, and she flinched at the intensity of those eyes. As if everything else hadn’t been a clue, the eyes told the world that their owner was mad, stark raving mad, and not the fun friendly Pinkie Pie kind of raving mad, either.

Hornsparker remained silent in Sunstruck’s head. For lack of any prompt, she curtseyed as well as she could and said, “Captain Hornsparker of Her Royal Highness’s ship Lydia, at your service, sir.”

“You have brought the weapons? The armor?”

“They’re in my ship,” Twilight managed.

“That is well. You will make arrangements with General Majordomo for their transfer.”

And now Hornsparker’s thought spoke up, a single word: Supplies.

Right, yes. Until the Lydia had her hold full again, Twilight would have to depend on… on… this madpony and his equally mad followers. But with a full store of supplies, she could swish her tail at this monster and sail back where she came from, hopefully bringing an end to this horrible story…

“First my ship needs supplies,” Twilight said firmly. “The long sail around the continent has left my crew short of both food and water. Without these things…” Inspiration, not prompted by Hornsparker, prompted her to add, “Without these things I will be unable to defend your dominions against your enemies at sea.”

Majordomo gasped in shock.

For a moment the mad glare under the raggedly cut pony skin intensified. Then, slowly, Sunstruck nodded. “Certainly,” he said, in a tone of near-indifference. “General Majordomo will see to it all.”

“Good,” Twilight said, trying to match Sunstruck’s tone. “Fresh water comes first. My crew will begin on that tomorrow morning, if you will show me a source.”

“There is a spring close to where we landed,” Majordomo said, looking at Twilight with a wonder and fear almost equal to that he’d looked at Sunstruck with.

Twilight paused, nudging the false memories in her mind. What else do we need?

Memories flowed, passively, almost submissively.

Right. “We’ll take care of the water,” she said. “But for food we need thirty tons of oats, ten tons of alfalfa, forty tons of ship’s biscuit- if you haven’t got that, I need that much flour and the ovens to bake it with. Lemon, orange or lime juice- forty thousand fruits’ worth. Ten tons of sugar. Five tons of salt. A ton of coffee. Twenty tons of potatoes.”

Majordomo’s face kept going through progressively greater expressions of shock with every demand. “But, Captain-“

Keep pushing, Hornsparker whispered. It’s the only way I’ll get half of it.

“We will also need fresh hay, vegetables, and soft bread for my crew each day we’re in port,” Twilight pressed on. And then, inspiration. “And, finally, I must make good the crew lost on the long voyage. If you can spare some criminals- those who deserve nothing better than a hard life and dishonored death at sea- I can make use of them.”

For the first time, Sunstruck smiled. “Yes,” he said. “Under the waves, never to die and be reborn, blood lost to their people. Yes. Those that still live, you may have, Captain.” He turned to Majordomo and said, “See to it all, General. Start now.”

Majordomo bolted for the door, which slammed shut behind him.

“That is the only way to deal with these ponies,” Sunstruck said, voice suddenly light and casual. “No better than the dumb animals. That is why I was reborn among them, of course, to save those who might be worth it. You, of course, must settle for those who cannot be saved. Like those you saw on your way here.”

“Indeed.” Twilight was surprised she found even that one word.

Sunstruck continued to babble. “Of course, this body was once as they,” he said. “That was before my divine nature awoke. Now daily I grow in power and divinity, as the cycle of death and rebirth turns. Once I was Sunstruck, but that is a false name. I am Xipe Totec, the god of war and planting, of death and rebirth, of conquest and liberation.”

“I see.” I see you’re two bits short of a jumbo-meal at Hayburger.

“I knew you could, Captain. Of course, for the time being you serve me best by continuing to serve your false sun goddess. Her servants who I spoke with before seemed quite eager to make the conversion themselves, but the cycle is not yet complete, and before then I cannot displace her.”

“Ha-hmm,” Twilight grunted. She’d run out of words, but Hornsparker had used that throat-clearing noise to evade a hundred conversations with Thornbush, or so her memories said. Now it came in more handy than ever.

“But the time is not long,” Sunstruck- or Xipe Totec, if he preferred- said. “And there is much to do before it is completed. Let us discuss the steps.” The mad mule rose from his throne and began to pace, much as Twilight had been pacing when she first came to her senses that morning. “The king in Maredrid has a useless servant in her Nickeraguan colony up the coastline, who styles himself governor. He refuses to recognize my divinity, and for that of course he must die. I cannot complete myself while he lives and denies me, you see. And he has an army of three hundred ponies to protect him. When my divine power is fully unleashed such a small force would be as nothing, but I am still waxing in power, so I must depend on the sinews of my faithful.”

Twilight couldn’t even manage the throat-clearing at this. She had enough weapons in her hold to arm a force large enough to destroy the governor’s army. Celestia help me, I’m arming a madpony to commit slaughter on ponies who probably don’t deserve it…

… but if I don’t, the best I can hope for is that my crew starves to death at sea. That’s if this crazy mule doesn’t order a hundred boats out to storm the ship. We have the guns, but if he has enough boats, he can take the ship and kill us all.

“And then there is the Cumpleanos,” Xipe Totec said, walking back to his throne. “I have received word that she is sailing here in a vain attempt to thwart my will, and-“

Hornsparker, who had been unnaturally quiescent for so long, surged forward in a wave of fear and confusion. Twilight found herself wrestling for control of her mind, barely able to manage the word, “When?”

“Oh, when the cycle decrees it,” Xipe Totec said. When the mule shrugged, the stitched-together bits of brightly colored pony hide did horrible but fascinating things. “But I had word of it a week ago, so I believe the cycle is imminent.”

“Then I must get back to the ship at once.” Twilight didn’t know if the words were hers or Hornsparker’s, but both wills agreed on that point.

“Will you not dine first?” Xipe Totec offered. “Food is being brought for us.”

“I’d be failing my crew if I waited, sir,” Twilight managed. Apparently Hornsparker was satisfied with this, because she felt the pressure easing from her mind again. “I must be with my ship if we’re about to fight.”

“As you will,” Xipe Totec shrugged. “You have my leave.”

“Thank you,” Twilight said, and bolted out the throne room doors. By the time she made it out of the ranch house she was at full gallop, and she continued galloping, ignoring the damage to her best uniform tunic, all the way down the jungle path, ignoring the guards and the corpses and the buzzards.

Only at the quay did she come to a stop, watching as six weak, delirious-looking ponies were being loaded into the same boat she’d been brought to shore in. Among them, gasping for breath, was the pegasus she’d seen on landing.

Six ponies.

There had been more than six of those stone wheels on the path and in the village- many more.

But, as the sullen burros rowed her and her new crew members out to the Lydia, she comforted herself: six is better than zero.

Even if they aren’t real, they’re real enough to me.

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 4: Feliz Cumpleanos

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Okay, so then we establish the etheric constant, which is… no, wait, isn’t it the etheric range? Or maybe it’s the orthographic… arrrrgh!!

A single, well-worn candle burned in the main cabin as Twilight Sparkle paced back and forth, trying to prod her tired mind into clear thought. This was the second night inside the book-

-if time runs at the same rate outside as inside- will I turn up missing? Will the girls look for me? Did I teach Starlight this spell? Will she think to ask Moondancer?

-and, for the second night running, every attempt to piece together the structure of Haycartes’ spell had ended in total futility.

The Hornsparker personality was no help. It would rouse itself now and again to complain that her time would be better spent refreshing herself on the charts of the South Luna Sea coastline, or bringing up a bit of mangled magical teaching a century out of date even if it were correct. But mostly it would say, I need to be on deck. The crew needs to be kept moving. They need to see their captain. Not a moment to lose- never a moment to lose.

But no moments were being lost. Thornbush and the other officers were keeping the crew going in shifts, day and night, readying Lydia for another seven to eight months at sea. That morning the water casks had been sent to shore with the ship’s barge, pinnace and gig, there to be washed out at the spring and filled with fresh, clean water. While that went on, another detachment went into the jungle, cutting firewood to restock the supply used for cooking and other purposes.

A third detachment were dealing with the largest task: the foodstuffs. To Twilight’s surprise (and Hornsparker’s amazement) Xipe Totec’s followers were bringing everything Twilight had asked for and more besides. Oats and hay by the wagonload; fresh fruits from the plantation, vegetables from the cottage gardens, salt, sugar, and- to Hornsparker’s pleasure and Twilight’s chagrin- rum for mixing into grog. Hornsparker had expected to be forced to wait a week or more for the supplies, and the phantom personality had pushed Twilight into releasing the armor, spears, bows and arrows from the hold to ensure the flow of food maintained its pace.

And also, Twilight noted, getting those things out of the hold gives us more room for other supplies, just in case. That was one good thing… but she hadn’t been able to think of a second good thing about hoofing over deadly weapons to that monster in the villa.

So it had gone in the day, and now it went during the night. On shore, food was packed in the empty barrels that had held the food which brought them this far, while the ship’s cooper and his assistants repaired broken barrels and began work on making new ones using native wood. Boats came from shore bearing water, bearing food, bearing firewood. They left bearing crates of weapons. The day watch were now in their hammocks, while the night watch continued their work, and would continue it the next day, and would probably continue it the day after that.

Provided, of course, that Cumpleanos gave them time…

Twilight sighed and gave up on trying to break the spell for the evening. She retreated to the cot in her sleeping cabin and selected one of the small collection of books Hornsparker kept- a volume on naval tactics. She didn’t want to rely on Hornsparker when the inevitable battle came; there was the chance she’d never get control back, after all.

Reading a book inside a book was a bit different than from the real world. When Twilight first opened one of Hornsparker’s books, the pages were all blank. Then, after a few seconds of delay, the pages would fill with text and diagrams as if they were the real thing. The spell’s etheric search took measurable time to complete. That was a fascinating thought.

Twilight wished she could remember the spell, or even parts of it. Even if she couldn’t cancel the spell, if she could remember the etheric processing speed of the spell, she could estimate the relationship of time inside the book to time outside the book. That delay of several seconds in making a simulated book readable might mean time passed faster inside the book… but it might also just mean the spell ran slow.

No. Quit it. Enough for one day. Focus now on learning how to be a captain of a sailing ship without a novel protagonist whispering in your ear.

Three hours later, Axle Wheel found her asleep on the cot. He gently removed the book from her hooves and slipped her uniform tunic off before placing the blanket over her. Not, so far as he remembered, for the first time.



The warning came late the next afternoon.

Twilight had just finished checking on the health of the six new ship’s hands, being carefully restored with the fresh water still being shipped aboard from the shore, when the native pegasus flew onto the ship and landed in front of her. “Senora captain!” he cried. “El Cumpleanos- it comes! The general, he sends me, tell you!”

Twilight only noticed after the fact that her first movement was to put her body between the native scout and the still-recovering torture victims. “Did you see it?” she asked. “Where is it?”

Si, I see it,” the native said. “It comes from there.” He pointed southeast across the headland of the bay entrance. “Is seven leagues off, maybe more. It comes tonight.”

Was he seen? Hornsparker asked, an edge of eagerness and desperation giving the phantom thoughts unusual strength. Twilight didn’t resist the urge to ask, “Were you seen? Where are their pegasus scouts?”

“No scouts,” the native said. “No wing ponies on El Cumpleanos.”

Of course! Hornsparker thought. The officers will all be burros from Maredrid- and there’s no such thing as a winged donkey! And on this shore they won’t get any volunteers from the natives- they’ll have press-ganged earth ponies and avoided unicorns and pegasi because they can’t keep them under discipline.

“Which means,” Twilight murmured, more answering the voice in her head than the native, “they don’t know we’re here.” She looked up at the sun and added, “And it’ll be full dark before they arrive.”

“Yes, I say, it comes tonight,” the native said.

Twilight looked at the bay, at the furled sails and bare spars of the Lydia, at the narrow entrances to the bay… and at the large island which blocked much of the bay from view from the ocean outside.

It is a terrible risk, Hornsparker thought.

Yes, Twilight thought. But if it works, nopony needs to die.

And I save ammunition I cannot replace on this coast, Hornsparker continued.

And the alternative is to try to get out of the bay before dark, Twilight said. It will take hours, and the enemy will have the wind at its back and freedom of maneuver.

And they outgun me two to one, Hornsparker said.

Then let’s do it.

Yes.



Preparations had been made, and completed. And now came the waiting.

Twilight paced in her cabin. Why can’t they be here already? she asked herself. I keep thinking about how everything could go wrong! What if they wait until dawn? What if they’ve heard about Xipe Totec’s rebellion? What if-

Hornsparker had been surprisingly quiescent throughout the preparations, as the crew was pulled in from the shore, as the Lydia was towed by the ship’s boats so slowly and painfully across the bay, as the ship was once more cleared for action. But now, with Twilight worrying herself into a panic attack and unable to stop herself, the phantom memories took control, shoving Twilight down into the depths with a stern The captain must never show fear or concern to her crew!

Twilight watched in her mental limbo as Hornsparker walked back out of the cabin and shouted, “Pass the word for my steward!” When Axle Wheel came at the trot, the captain said, “My compliments to Mr. Thornbush, and if he may spare Mr. Wildrider, Mr. Clay, and Mr. Mustang, I would be glad for their company at dinner and whist.”

Lieutenant Wildrider was the ship’s third lieutenant, a teller of many tall tales of his romantic conquests on shore. Naval regulations forbade officers entering liasons with subordinates, but Hornsparker suspected the female crew were in conspiracy to violate those rules with Wildrider, and no complaints had forced the captain to take notice thus far.

The other two, Potter’s Clay and Cherry Mustang, were midshipmen, and as such nervous and anxious when at the captain’s table. Hornsparker, for her part, played the part of a Canterlot host so smoothly that Twilight, shoved into the corner of her own mind, found enough clarity of thought to wonder if the Haycartes spell was using her own memories of Celestia’s dinner parties for reference.

As for the food, the green oatmeal had become a thing of the past. Even with the galley fires out in preparation for battle, the captain’s table practically overflowed with tropical fruit, fresh cut alfalfa and oats, coald roast corn on the cob with kernels every color of the rainbow, and candied carrots. The welcome taste of non-dreadful food relaxed everyone, even Twilight, and the bottle of native-made wine only added to the relaxation. When Mustang, the most junior officer at the table rose for the traditional toast to Princess Celestia, it came without the stumbles or awkwardness that might have come from nervousness. And, of course, limiting it to one bottle would ensure no stumbles or awkwardness due to other reasons.

Another midshipman, Knife-edge, poked her head into the cabin. “Mr. Thornbush’s compliments, ma’am, and the enemy is hull up from the masthead now, ma’am.”

“Her course?” Twilight felt her pulse race at the news, felt Hornsparker force her face to remain stiffly in place.

“Dead on for the west passage into the bay, ma’am,” Knife-edge said. “Mr. Thornbush says she’ll be in range in two hours.”

“Thank you, Mr. Knife-edge.” Hornsparker turned to face the junior officers with a calmness only Twilight could tell took the false personality’s full concentration. She could take control again if she wished, but... “We still have ample time for our rubber of whist, my little ponies.”

Twilight had never played whist herself- it was an old game, out of fashion with spades, hearts, cribbage and bridge taking its place. After an hour and more of Hornsparker forcing herself- the spell-created herself and the real herself- to calm down, Twilight was fascinated by the idea, coaxed along by Hornsparker’s memories of weekly whist nights the whole voyage around the great southern cape. She wanted to see how it was done, even if it meant passing up the chance to get her body back under control and her thoughts clear again.

Wildrider, Clay and Mustang were the Lydia’s best officers at the game besides Hornsparker, but that didn’t say much. Thornbush, never a quick thinker or a mathematical whiz, floundered badly at any card game more complex than blackjack. These three were better players than the first lieutenant, but the captain routinely cleaned their clocks when partnered against them. She would then compound the torture by a thorough critique of their play, demonstrating in the process a perfect memory of who had played which of all fifty-two cards in the game.

Despite the approach of possible death and disaster, both Twilight and Hornsparker forgot it all as the game progressed. Hornsparker even reacted to Twilight’s mental nudges without the usual hostility or denial: Mr. Mustang is wrong to constantly bring out her aces first opportunity because it denies her a chance to retake lead in future tricks. If your partner has the trick, let them take it! We got away with it because Lieutenant Wildrider has never learned to indicate to a partner that he is short or void in a suit and can trump tricks led in that suit, and thus he costs his side tricks they might otherwise take.

The first rubber went quickly, with Hornsparker and Mustang scoring ten points to Wildrider’s and Clay’s two. A second rubber began with the captain partnered with Clay instead, and midway through it Twilight pushed her way back into control with hardly a struggle- indeed, almost without knowing it herself, simply for the joy of playing such a simple yet fascinating game. By the time the second rubber ended, with the captain’s team winning by a smaller margin, Hornsparker’s thoughts had ceased to offer any critique of Twilight’s play, merely grumbling that at least her delusions could tell a knave from a deuce.

“Oh… I suppose that’s it,” Twilight said as she tallied up the score, missing the barely-stifled expressions of relief from the junior officers. “Well… I hate to stop now, but I don’t think we have enough time for a third rubber before we have to go back on deck.”

Hooves scraped on the deck.

“But, you know,” Twilight continued, using a tone Hornsparker would never have permitted herself, “Mr. Wildrider, you could have kept the game going if you’d played the ace of hearts on the eighth trick. You already had six tricks, and we only needed one point for rubber. But you tried to finesse, trying to run up your score, and led a lesser heart, which let me trump your ace when it finally came out. And Mr. Mustang…”

What followed for the next ten minutes was such a thorough dissection of the gameplay of the evening that even the Hornsparker personality registered feelings of astonishment. When Twilight finally ran out of steam, to the relief of the juniors, the spell-memories muttered, If tropical madness improves one’s skill at the card table, I rather regret not having gone insane years before. I could have made a fortune in the long rooms at piquet…

And then it was time to go on deck, under the rapidly setting moon, as the crew waited in position, silent and still, watching and waiting.

Thornbush saluted as Twilight came out. “Enemy’s about to enter the bay, ma’am,” he said. “Th’ launch and cutter are in the water and awaiting their crews. Mr. Rhubarb’s got her ponies ready.”

“Very good,” Twilight said. “Get the boats away. I’m going forward. When I give the signal, you know what to do.”

In almost complete silence ponies scurried over the side into the two largest ship’s boats, and off they went, oars muffled with rags wrapped around the blades. More ponies scurried up the rigging into the spars, taking their positions to set the sails. Half the ship’s gun crews stood by their guns, while other crew members held grappling lines in their hooves or gripped sabers in their teeth.

And, as Twilight eased her way into the forward chains, right up to the Lydia’s bowsprit, she heard the soft rippling of water around the Cumpleanos as, in the dim light of the nightmare-marked moon, the Maredrid ship crept into the bay just in front of the frigate. She could even hear the officers on the enemy ship’s deck, giving orders to tack around the end of the island.

The island had hidden the hull of the Lydia. In the moonlight, with all sails furled, her masts and rigging became almost invisible. Without pegasi to scout ahead, and with no suspicion that anything larger than a native boat might be in the bay, the Cumpleanos had completely missed the Lydia’s presence, sailing up within hailing distance- almost to point blank range- without suspecting a thing.

Twilight’s little whistle changed that. With a single shrill peep hooves began moving. Sails dropped, drew taut, caught the wind, pushing Lydia forward. Boats rowed harder, rounding the Cumpleanos’s bows and coming round to take her on the port side as Lydia rushed up towards her starboard side.

Lydia’s port battery fired a single round, sixteen guns unloading on the unsuspecting Cumpleanos. A dozen grapnels sailed into the air, grabbing onto railings and rigging and decks. Dozens of ponies hauled on lines, and with a crash the two ship hulls met. Hundreds of armed ponies leapt over the deck railings on one side, as six dozen other ponies crammed into two boats pried open the lower row of gun ports on the other side and climbed through.

In less than five minutes of shouting, busting heads, and the very brief clashing of swords, it was over, and Twilight stood on the deck of the Cumpleanos.

The enemy ship was hers.

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 5: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

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“So,” said Xipe Totec, still on his makeshift throne as if he had not left it since Twilight saw him two days before, “you have already done what I wished you to do, captain?”

“We captured the Cumpleanos last night,” Twilight replied.

“And the provisioning of your own ship is, I understand, complete?”

“Almost. We were interrupted by the taking of Cumpleanos. My lieutenants report we should have the maize bread finished and the last stores boarded shortly after noon.”

“Then you have done what I wanted. That is what I said before.” The tone of voice was calm, the body language as tranquil as a meadow-pond in summertime… except for the eyes, which still showed too much of their vein-riddled whites for Twilight’s peace of mind. For what very little it was worth, it seemed to her like the eyes belonged to the last ounce of sanity the former Don Sunstruck possessed, shielded from the unyielding self-confidence of his messianic delusions.

Not that Twilight cared. She’d spent a sleepless night spent securing the crew of Cumpleanos, doing what little could be done for the few wounded of the captured ship (the Lydia’s complement had suffered, thank goodness, not a single casualty in the taking of the other ship), and getting both ships back into position to resume the transfer of supplies from the shore onto Lydia. After all that, and then being summoned to Xipe Totec’s villa without even her own breakfast, she cared about practically nothing.

She would have at least taken a nap, but Hornsparker hadn’t let her. The false personality kept taking over just long enough to commit her to some other task or oversight role, then receding and leaving her to actually carry out the chore. But as annoying as it was, the chivvying by the spell-created memories had produced results. By sunset Lydia would be ready to flee this author-crafted Tartarus and abandon the story- or, at least, the worst parts of it.

That thought, naturally, had triggered a prolonged struggle for control with Hornsparker, who insisted that duty to Celestia required that Lydia sweep the South Luna Sea clear of enemy shipping, even attacking colonial ports and looting them for the prize money long promised to the crew. Twilight felt the Lydia had done enough damage to the noncombatants of the area through carrying out those obscene secret orders, and the best thing she could do now was withdraw, if not out of the war altogether, then at least to a more honorable and civilized part of it.

That had gone on for an exhausting half-hour of mental struggle in the pre-dawn hours, even as the Lydia’s crew labored hard by lanterns and starlight, hoisting nets full of barrels up from boats and down into the hold. Twilight’s body had spent most of that time pacing the quarterdeck, a sight so familiar to the crew that nopony noticed the outward signs of two personalities struggling for control… or so both personalities hoped.

But on one point both the real Twilight and the fake book-Twilight had agreed: after seeing Xipe Totec, they had no intention of leaving any pony as his prisoner, not if it could be at all avoided. Thus, the burro officers of the Cumpleanos had been secured in the cable-tier of the Lydia, out of sight, with dire warnings to remain absolutely silent while they were in port.

And, Twilight thought, right about now Wildrider should be carrying out the second part of that particular plan…

“This afternoon,” Xipe Totec said, “I shall proceed with my army to the port of La Amistad, using your ship and mine. I shall reach there tomorrow morning, and tomorrow night I shall dine in the Nickeraguan capital ten miles inland, with my faithful.”

Twilight stifled Hornsparker’s flinch at this declaration. She had seen it coming. In fact, she’d fully expected the mad mule to include the Lydia as his ship as well. And the longer we remain here, the more likely he’ll get to that… But Hornsparker had hoped to keep the Cumpleanos, both to spare its mostly-native crew and for the prize money it would represent if it could be sailed back around the cape. The story-pony had been in denial… until now.

But Twilight had also predicted Xipe Totec’s next words, and Hornsparker had agreed they were probably coming; hence Wildrider’s current orders. “The crew of Cumpleanos is mostly unhurt?” the skin-wearing mule asked. “And the sailing-master and other warrant ponies? Then I shall slay the invader officers and replace them with my followers. The crew shall happily follow my glorious revival. This I have seen.”

“Ah.” Twilight was not a terribly good actor and she knew it, but now was the time to bring forth a performance worthy of Bridleway. Lives depended on it. “I’m afraid that’s no longer possible, sir.”

“Oh?” Xipe Totec’s wild eyes ceased wandering and locked directly on her own. “Explain. And also, mortals do not call me ‘sir’. Mortal tongues have no title appropriate to my holiness. I am Xipe Totec, and that is all.”

“Yes… Xipe Totec,” Twilight managed. “But I must report that I anticipated your order, attempting to carry out your wishes in advance. The captured officers were taken into the depths of my ship, out of sight of sun and moon-“ a little mythical flourish she’d hoped would appeal to the god-obsessed mule- “-and had them strangled with ropes, bloodlessly. I suspect, even as we speak, the bodies are being loaded into a ship’s boat to be rowed out into the deep water outside the bay and cast out, where they can no longer defile your holy soil.”

That was Wildrider’s job. A few ponies from Cumpleanos had, despite Twilight’s hopes and efforts, been killed in the taking of the ship. Their bodies had been gathered and snuck into the Lydia, where Wildrider oversaw the sailmaker and his assistants preparing them as they would a member of Lydia’s crew for burial at sea. The operation had been Twilight’s plan. Hornsparker had wanted to just lie about dumping them overboard, but Twilight knew the Lydia was under constant observation. Something had to really get dumped into the ocean, or else word would get to Xipe Totec, and who knew what might happen then?

“It speaks well of you that you are so eager to serve your new god,” Xipe Totec intoned. “For that reason I shall spare you the usual fate of those who place their judgment before my own. But remember that future errors shall not be forgiven.” The glaring eyes turned away to resume their random wandering around the nonexistent decorations of the room. “It would have been better if my new followers saw with their own eyes the consequences of failure to recognize the rebirth of their rightful god.”

“I accept the kind correction from the gracious Xipe Totec,” Twilight said, bowing her forelegs into a curtsey.

Xipe Totec turned to face General Majordomo. “General, see to the arming and provisioning of five hundred ponies, to board the ships at noon. I will sail with them, and so will you.”

Twilight saw Majordomo bow and turn to depart-

and she found herself flying backwards into the darkness behind her eyes, her view of Xipe Totec shrunken almost to a speck. Hornsparker had retaken control… this time without even a struggle. Am I that tired? Twilight managed to think, even as the mental fog gripped her more tightly, pulling her down…

“Is the Lydia to have the honor of carrying Xipe Totec to La Amistad?” she heard her own voice asking. “My crew would greatly appreciate the distinction.”

That roused Twilight to resistance, and she pushed back against Hornsparker’s will. What do you think you’re doing? she screamed in the tightening prison of her mind.

Once on the Lydia I may be able to exercise some control upon him, Hornsparker thought. Or at least keep him under observation. If his madness should take it on to turn hostile, I want some warning before five hundred warriors and the Cumpleanos have their spears at my throat…

“Yes.” Xipe Totec said the one word as if the mere syllable represented some enormous condescension… as it probably did, in his madness.

“At what time shall I be at the beach to receive you?”

“Eleven.” Xipe Totec clapped his hooves, and the great studded doors opened from outside. They had been dismissed- Hornsparker and Twilight together.

And Twilight, who had all but succumbed as much to slumber as to the strength of the spell, found herself propelled back to the front of the mind, forced to stumble her way through the villa and out into the tropical morning sun. The second sudden shift in control kept her imbalanced and disoriented halfway down the jungle path. What the hay? she wondered. What’s with this spell? This isn’t like before. This wasn’t Hornsparker fighting with me. This was…

I don’t know what it was.

But whatever it was, Hornsparker didn’t stir in her head for the hours that followed, leaving Twilight on her own to call all hands and give stern warnings about treating their guests with respect no matter what- absolutely no matter what, or else they could just string up their hammocks in the pump room for the duration. After that came orders to Axle Wheel to lay on dinner for eight in the main cabin, to bring up the last two bottles of Chateau Minotaura wine, to Thornbush to prepare Lydia to take on two hundred soldiers above her normal complement…

… and then to oversee the transfer of Cumpleanos from the Lydia’s prize crew to her new commander. That was (or so she claimed) Vice Admiral Don Shadetree, a small hinny with the broad barrel and long ears of a donkey but a pony-like muzzle and an energetic, almost cheerful smile. Twilight nodded her head and ordered the eleven-gun salute due a vice-admiral, hoping to have found an island of sanity among Xipe Totec’s followers.

That feeling of hope lasted up until the Cumpleanos’s crew stood on her maindeck, Twilight and the officers Shadetree had brought with her looking at them from the quarterdeck. The sailing-master, the purser, the ship’s carpenter and their assistants- all native Mexicolti, but wearing uniform tunics that probably came from Maredrid at some time in the prior generation- were brought up to the quarterdeck and lined up before Don Shadetree.

Shadetree, still smiling, walked over to face the youngest of the assistants, a colt not even yet out of childhood. “You,” she said. “You will now hold up your hoof and swear your eternal faith to our rightful god and ruler Xipe Totec. Up, now.”

The colt stammered, no words actually coming out, but his hoof rose slowly into the air.

“Now repeat after me: ‘I swear-‘”

The colt’s eyes grew wider, and not even babbles came out of his waggling mouth. His jaw just swung silently as he trembled in terror.

“Come, now,” Shadetree said encouragingly. “It’s not hard. Say I swear…”

The colt finally found his voice. “B-b-but Cel-“

He never completed the sun princess’s full name. Faster than Twilight’s eye could follow, Shadetree’s hoof flew forward, and a dagger-hilt appeared at the base of the colt’s throat. With an almost soundless croak the boy collapsed to the deck, dead instantly.

“Too bad,” Shadetree said, shaking her head. Her cheerful smile hadn’t budged a millimeter. She looked at the next assistant, this one a full-grown pony. “Your turn, now. You will swear for me, won’t you?”

He would. One after another, they all did, all of the warrant officers of the Cumpleanos swearing total obedience and worship of Xipe Totec, denying the existence of the false Celestia and forswearing allegiance to any lesser line of nobility.

And then, after a cheerful and encouraging five- minute speech about the glory of ejecting the Maredrid colonizers from the sacred soil of the Forbidden Jungles, that was that. The Cumpleanos belonged to Xipe Totec, and his flag- a red field with a single white star at its center- rose up the mainmast, and Lydia responded to the new flag with the steady salute Twilight had ordered before.

Her eyes kept returning to the colt, who remained dead on the deck where Shadetree had left him. She didn’t even seem to notice.

So much for sanity.



Half an hour later Twilight met Xipe Totec and a dozen proclaimed generals and colonels, none of whom looked the least bit military to either Twilight’s mind or Hornsparker’s spell-created memories. The group were put aboard the launch and rowed across to the Lydia without a word until Twilight prepared to lead the group up the ladder. Then Xipe Totec spoke:

“The correct salute for me, captain, is twenty-three guns.”

That brought Hornsparker awake with a jolt in Twilight’s head. WHAT? she screamed. The salute for Celestia herself is only twenty-one guns! What absolute foolishness does this obscene madpony think-

Twilight gritted her teeth while she still had control to do so. What does it MATTER how many times we fire the signal gun for him? she thought back savagely. We get him on, we get him to his Faust-forsaken battlefield, we sail off, and we forget we ever saw this place! After what we’ve seen, after the horrible things we’ve allowed to happen, after what we’ve enabled, what does a gun salute matter?

But this is not the way it is done-

Twilight stuffed Hornsparker back even harder in her mind and forced herself up the ladder, giving the order for the salute the instant she touched the deck. After what she’d seen already, she wasn’t in any mood for an argument to tradition from someone made up by some long-dead writer who, with any justice, ought to have been seeing a psychiatrist on a weekly basis, under court mandate, for their obvious mental illness.

And then, to make things even better, the instant Xipe Totec stepped into the main cabin and saw the table set for the group, he said, “I will dine alone here. Let the food be brought to me.”

Now it was Twilight’s turn to splutter in the privacy of her mind, as Hornsparker’s memories chided, What does it matter whether we eat in the cabin or the gunroom mess?

Twilight grit her teeth and said as little as possible through the awkward meal in the stuffed-to-bursting gunroom, through the boarding of Xipe Totec’s army, and the weighing of the anchors.

One quick sail up the coast, she thought. That’s all. And then we’re done with this.

We’re so very done.

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 6: News From Equestria

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She didn’t know which was more of a tonic- the first full night’s sleep she’d had in three days, the sea air, or the absence of Xipe Totec and any of his followers- but Twilight Sparkle, pacing on the Lydia’s quarterdeck, felt better than she had ever since putting herself in this horrible predicament.

Xipe Totec, his army, and the rest of Nickeragua lay behind the Lydia, which now sailed down the volcano-studded coast of the South Luna Sea, headed towards the Gulf of Panamane, the core of the Maredrid colonies on the Luna Sea coast. The ship sailed on at a speed of three or four knots, which if maintained would gain them over ninety nautical miles a day towards home- or, if Hornsparker had her way, towards taking the city of Panamane and dealing a lethal blow to Maredrid’s ability to support the Horsican tyrant, as the phantom thoughts put it.

For her part, Twilight wanted nothing to do with that. Naval adventures were much more fun to read about than to be thrown into, especially in a horrible world like this that bore resemblance to actual history only by accident. Tonight she would have the full evening, without the interruption of duties and crises, to focus on breaking through whatever mental block kept her from remembering how to cancel Haycartes’ Method. And even if that failed… well, maybe jumping the rails of the book’s plot would throw her out of the book, back to the real world and Applejack and Rainbow Dash and Rarity and Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie and Spike and Starlight Glimmer and…

A large manta ray broke the surface of the water not far off the side of the Lydia, skipping off the water before diving back in. Beyond it, flying fish breached and skimmed over the ocean’s surface in schools- or was that squadrons? And beyond that, Twilight could see the spray of a pod of whales, blowing the water out of their blowholes and breathing in air after who knew how long submerged. Blue sky above, blue water below, and- for a moment, at least- not a care in the world.

Why couldn’t the book have been just this? Twilight thought. Such a wonderful scene, on a fascinating ship, without the horror and evil and impossible choices. Why did the author have to be such a cruel, cruel pony? This could have been-

“Sail ho!” The lookout at the masthead was waving down at the ponies on the deck. “Sail on the port bow!”

Twilight froze, looking forward from her position on the port quarterdeck. From the deck she couldn’t see anything, but the maintop rose fifty ponylengths above the deck, giving the lookout a potential view of twenty miles in any direction. “What kind of ship?” she shouted back up at the lookout.

“Lugger!” came the reply. “Two-master, I think. And she’s bearing down right on us!”

Almost as the lookout said it, Twilight caught a flash of white on the horizon- a tiny speck, but within a couple of minutes clearly recognizable as lug-sails, of a size to propel a small to medium size coastal ship suitable for pearl-diving or fishing… and equally suited to be a revenue patrol cutter or, worse yet, a gunboat with a boarding crew. So Hornsparker’s unwanted memories insisted, anyway.

Twilight had really hoped not to see another ship until they got within sight of Mount Aris- or until the story ran out, whichever. Of course that had been a foolish hope. Leaving aside the fact that Lydia’s course paralleled the shore just over the horizon, but if the story was in any way still functional, literary structure required some twist, some new complication or conflict. Given the context, that meant another ship.

“She’s run up a flag,” Thornbush said. The first lieutenant had joined Twilight by the rail, holding a spyglass up to one eye. “Maredrid colors under a flag of truce. Parley signal, ma’am.”

Don’t trust it, Hornsparker murmured. It could be a ruse. There’s no law around the Cape.

Twilight allowed her sigh to be audible. “And today began so pretty,” she said. “The usual precautions, Thornbush. Beat to quarters, clear for action, guns out, please.”



“Captain Hornsparker?”

The ponies and burros in the boat that had rowed from the coast-guard lugger to the Lydia ought not to know that name yet, Twilight thought. “Yes, that’s me,” she called down. “How do you know my name?”

“I come to welcome you as the new ally of Maredrid! Viva el rey! Viva la princesa!

No! Hornsparker protested. It’s a trick! Don’t let your guard down!

Twilight’s stomach sank. No, she sighed. It’s not a trick. It’s the plot twist. And… oh Celestia, what am I going to do?

The papers the officer of the lugger brought with him only verified the truth. Letters from the governor of Panamane. Orders sent overland across the Scorching Deserts from the admiral in command in the South Celestia Ocean, commanding Hornsparker and the Lydia back to Baltimare for reassignment, forbidding any hostile engagement with Maredrid forces. There was even, of all things, a personal letter to Captain Hornsparker, though Hornsparker’s memories had no idea who would write him a letter that would be carried across the deserts or jungles, hundreds of miles even across the narrows of the continent.

“We received the news four days ago,” the officer said. “Two months ago Neighpoleon drove our king out of Maredrid and placed his brother on the throne. Your princess was gracious enough to accept our king as her guest and to pledge alliance to help oust the usurper.”

The nonexistent usurper, Twilight thought.

The same usurper who, until a few days ago, you counted as your loyal ally against my princess, Hornsparker’s shade snorted. It’s not even like Maredrid is the first throne Neighpoleon has taken for one of his robber-band of brothers and sisters. He must have a hundred of them…

“We were very much afraid, Captain,” the Maredrid officer continued, “that you would meet our defenders on the Cumpleanos before we found you. She has not heard the news, you see. Given the differences between the two ships, your fine ship would surely have come to serious harm. It would have been most embarrassing.”

Twilight closed her eyes, trying not to cry. Embarrassing. Yes, that was exactly the right word.

Lydia would have to turn around now. Fiction or not, spell or not, Twilight still felt responsible. She had to put things right… and that meant retaking or sinking the Cumpleanos.

And she had no idea how she was going to do it this time.

“I’m afraid I have some very bad news for you,” she said slowly to the officer. “Mr. Thornbush, please bring the prisoners to the deck. At once, please.”

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 7: The Passenger

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Twilight leaned against the ship’s rail- this pose makes me look like an idle midshipman, Hornsparker grumbled in her head- and stared out at the busy roadstead of the harbor of Panamane. The city of Panamane connected two trans-continental trade routes- the hazardous road through the Forbidden Jungle that led northeast, and the even more hazardous caravan path through the Scorching Deserts to the southeast- with the coastal trade of Maredrid’s settlements. Creatures from around the world walked the quays, rowed the boats that surrounded Lydia, walked the streets of the tropical port city less than half a mile off the Lydia’s bow.

Twilight didn’t want to be there. She wanted to be safe in bed in her castle in Ponyville, but failing that she wanted to be either halfway back to the Cape or back on the Nickeraguan coast hunting down Cumpleanos before Xipe Totec could hurt any more ponies. But Hornsparker had made the case that she needed the latest news before she tried to put things right, lest she risk making things worse. That meant a courtesy call at the viceroy’s palace, and Twilight would need Hornsparker’s spell-crafted knowledge of the fictional protocol of the setting to get through it.

Not that Hornsparker was much help at the moment, because of course not. The fictional unicorn captain spent half her time moaning about how her naval career was over. No, it didn’t matter that she followed orders to the letter and performed better than anyone else could be expected to. The Admiralty would seek a scapegoat to distract ponies from the foolish, selfish orders they had given, and that meant Hornsparker would be hung out to dry once she returned home, laid up onshore, never to command again.

The other half of Hornsparker’s thoughts, even more futile and useless (and therefore annoying), centered around the personal letter that had come with the coast guard lugger. Twilight had read and re-read it, and it still didn’t make any sense:

Gran Coral, Panamane

Lord Iron Press presents his compliments to Captain Hornsparker of the Equestrian frigate Lydia. He requests that she will be so good as to convey himself and his servant back to Equestria via sail, as owing to an outbreak of boogie fever in the continental interior he cannot return home as he came.

The letter, short as it was, made no sense. Hornsparker recognized the name: Iron Press was the sole surviving male of three children, the other two being the Marquess Wroughtiron and the Equestrian general Lady Cold Iron. The Iron clan claimed descent from Princess Platinum herself, and thus represented the top tier of Canterlot aristocracy. But what was a top-rank Canterlot lord- and a non-combatant, non-diplomat, moreover- doing on this side of the continent at all? How did he even get here, since the pony tribes of the Forbidden Jungle were perpetually hostile to outsiders, and half the oasis cities of the Scorching Desert lay in the hooves of Neighpoleon?

Of course, once he got here, not wanting to go back through a plague zone was perfectly understandable. Twilight had been born (in the real world) shortly after the last major outbreak of boogie fever, a dreadful disease that combined thick nasal runoff with an exhausting compulsion to literally dance until you dropped. (The disease also made otherwise perfectly sane ponies think massive lapels, bell-bottom cuffs, and massive gold-chain necklaces were fashionable.) In Twilight’s time, of course, the disease was treatable, but a century before it had been the terror of the tropics, with ponies falling dead from exhaustion or dehydration (or embarrassment).

But disease or not, putting the lord on a ship about to go into battle was just plain crazy. Hornsparker might be terrified of crossing the Iron clan, with the damage that would do her already-doomed career. But Twilight had grown up in Canterlot and, at Celestia’s side, had seen the worst the unicorn nobility had to offer. She didn’t fear it. Sure, if you let one of the aristocrats get the upper hoof they’d make your life miserable, but if you started out with a firm but polite refusal to be bullied, they’d back down.

And sure enough, just as Twilight, in her slightly jungle-damaged best uniform, was about to order her barge to row her ashore, she spotted a figure standing in one of the dozens of boats going back and forth across the harbor between shore and ships. The unicorn in question was unmistakably a Canterlot noble, with his pristine linen shirt and the rose in a lapel-hole that matched his cutie mark. He wasn’t as blatantly handsome (or foppish-looking) as Blueblood- his muzzle was a little too long and narrow, for one thing- but his long blonde mane and his light-colored blue-gray coat enhanced the comparison.

But Twilight spotted one very clear difference; where Blueblood would either wear a superior smirk or an expression of pure horror at being exposed to so many plebian ponies at once, this stallion barely appeared to notice the world around him. His eyes remained fixed with what might be determination or annoyance (or just possibly gas) at the Lydia, though not at Twilight herself.

Twilight felt a sudden rage and revulsion at the sight- totally illogical, without any apparent reason. She stepped back from the railing, wondering what had caused the ungenerous feeling towards the newcomer. Then she sensed the muttering of the Hornsparker memories: just another useless noble, incompetent and arrogant, knowing we ordinary ponies must bow and scrape and dare not tell the truth to them, how dare this dog-faced idiot demand passage as if he owns this ship, probably swiving his way around the world in the middle of a war for the survival of all Equestria…

Twilight leaned back over the railing to look down in the boat, which had drawn quite close to Lydia’s sides by now. She took a second look at the unicorn, who was chiding a donkey manservant for some reason or other. She noticed how the surroundings seemed to blur away into nothing unless she forced herself to look away from the presumed Iron Press, and how Hornsparker’s angry, frustrated mutterings in her head seemed to increase in volume the more she looked into that boat.

And then it clicked. Ah. Enter the novel’s love interest. The romantic subplot.

Romantic? HAH! Hornsparker barked sarcastically.

Twilight turned to a nearby crewman- Dipple-Dapple, one of the sailing-master’s mates- and said, “See to the needs of that pony. He will be joining us.”

Over my dead body! Hornsparker shouted in Twilight’s head.

Listen, Twilight snapped back. Do you want to be in a romantic entanglement with him?

The wave of negative reaction made her head feel swimmy, almost costing her control.

I didn’t think so, she continued, regaining her mental balance. Well, guess what? Neither do I. So you just leave this to me, and I’ll see to it that you’re never anything more than friends. If that.

Hornsparker’s thoughts gave out another derisive snort, but subsided, choosing for whatever reason not to push for control. Mental calm arrived just in time, for the unicorn came over the side at that point, followed by the miserable-looking donkey, who had apparently missed his grab for the boarding-ladder and taken a dunking in the bay for his troubles.

Dipple-Dapple, alert to his duty, stepped forward and saluted the noble. “Welcome aboard, sir,” he said. “Shall I see to the loading of your dunnage?”

“If you’d be so kind.” The voice was steady and confident, but not the supercilious drawl of the most toxic variety of Canterlot aristocrat. “But first, would you please present me to your captain?”

Dipple-Dapple gestured to Twilight, who stood a mere five hooves away. “Here she is, sir,” he said. “If you’ll pardon me, please?” Without waiting for dismissal, he began bellowing orders to some idle seaponies, who began rigging a cargo net for the multiple trunks and crates waiting in the boat below.

Twilight ignored Hornsparker’s desire to stand to rigid attention and present the minimum accommodation to the visitor. She instead smiled and extended a hoof. “Captain Tw… Captain Hornsparker, commanding Celestia’s frigate Lydia, at your service, sir.”

Blueblood might have stared in incomprehension or revulsion at the hoof of a commoner, or (if the commoner was a couple grades more attractive than Twilight thought herself to be) might kiss it in a blatant and transparent first overture to seduction. The visitor did neither. After a moment’s surprise, he raised his own hoof and met Twilight’s, shaking it firmly if not with any particular warmth. “Iron Press, social secretary to my sister Marquess Wrought Iron, governor-general of the Equestrian mission in the Far East.” Releasing Twilight’s hoof, he continued, “I trust you received my note requesting passage.”

“Yes, I did,” Twilight said. “But before we accept you on board, I have to warn you. This ship is going into combat soon against another ship of twice our weight of arms.”

“The Cumpleanos, yes,” Iron Press nodded. “I heard the gossip as I was hiring the boat.”

“And assuming we survive that, we then have to go back around the Great Southern Cape, past the reefs of Mount Aris and the treacherous weather of the Stormlands,” Twilight continued. “Considering the dangers, I advise that the cross-country trek is the less dangerous road home.”

“I mentioned boogie fever in my note, you know,” Iron Press said. “We heard this morning that two oasis towns are all but wiped out because of it. We expect it in Panamane at any time. I myself saw ponies dancing the Magic Slide and shearing pollies for their polliester to make clothes.”

“Yes, and that’s another thing,” Twilight asked. “Pardon me asking, but how in Celestia’s name did you even get here?”

“The packet which was to carry me to the Far East met with a Maredrid privateer,” Iron Press said, matter-of-factly. “I was imprisoned for a month in a Maredrid trading post on the eastern coast when the boogie fever broke out there. My captors sent me, my servant, and my personal baggage overland to Panamane. Halfway here we heard of Maredrid’s changing sides.” With a glint in his eye and a half-smile, he added, “And that, captain, is how I spent my summer vacation. Do I get an A?”

Twilight couldn’t help but laugh. “Okay, you got me there,” she said. “If you really think a ship in battle is safer than a fever outbreak, then welcome aboard. I’m giving you my cabin- sorry it’s not much, but-“

“I’ve sailed on a frigate before,” Iron Press said. “This is my third time around the Great Southern Cape, and I’ve journeyed to Mareitania and the Far East a couple of times as well.”

“Then you’ll understand that most of that,” Twilight added, pointing to the net full of luggage which was just being swayed over the rail towards the deck, “will have to go into the hold. You’ll need to separate out only your barest essentials until we make a friendly port.”

“Already done,” Iron Press said. “The green sea chest-“ He pointed to one near the bottom of the net, almost the smallest of the dozen or so pieces of luggage. “It holds everything I need while on board. Store the rest wherever is convenient for you.”

“Very good!” Twilight almost turned to go, then stopped. “One more thing, before I leave you in the hooves of my second in command, Lieutenant Thornbush.”

“Yes?”

Twilight’s smile faded. “Can you give me any hints on how to get through a meeting with the viceroy?”

Iron Press tapped his chin. “That depends,” he said. “How good are you at staying sober?”

I’m showing far too much familiarity and indiscipline in front of the crew, Hornsparker muttered. This will lead to disrespect. And I can’t believe I’m flattering this… this…

Reasonable and well-adjusted pony? Twilight remarked mentally. Suffer. I’m making you a friend whether you like it or not. Because I don’t have time right now to deal with a romance, especially not with a character in a book.

Bah, Hornsparker muttered. By the way, the answer to his question is: not very. If drinking is expected, then it will be a long interview indeed…

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 8: the Hunt Begins

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Twilight Sparkle released a sigh of relief as her hooves, a little unsteady, hit the deck of the Lydia once again. The feeling of a wool-muffled head and of her legs suddenly developing about twice as many joints as they usually had… she hadn’t felt anything like this since she’d been dragged into one of Applejack’s and Rainbow Dash’s silly bets which involved the Apple family special stash of aged cider.

Thankfully her current condition didn’t come close to that half-forgotten incident. She was not, as no sailor ever said, three sheets to the wind. Topsails only with maybe one reef taken, at most. But that was still enough that, if she didn’t focus on where she put her hooves, she’d fall flatter than her current metaphor.

The reception at the viceroy’s palace had, indeed, been quite alcoholic. News of victories on the Eastern Continent had called for celebrations. The arrival of an Equestrian ship, the new and beloved allies, had called for more celebrations. The orders to send an army of a thousand soldiers to Nickeragua had called for even more celebrations, and every celebration came with a fresh glass of wine.

And then had come the banquet, full of spicy Mexicolti food, including…shudder… the cheesy things. And, of course, the only thing to put out the fires in her mouth was more wine.

But Twilight was grateful for that wine. Without it she might have gone under the spell’s control for days, maybe even for good.

The viceroy of Panamane had been the perfect stereotype of the decadent aristocracy of those ponies not under Celestia’s direct rule; nothing was so urgent, no decision so obvious, that it couldn’t be dithered over and whined about for hours, days, or even weeks. Twilight had spent half an hour trying to get some immediate action against Xipe Totec out of the viceroy to no effect… and then Hornsparker had lost patience and shoved her out of the way, so deeply that Twilight had no clear memories of the hour after that except that, somehow, the viceroy had actually sent people out of the reception to convey orders to the local guard captain and the harbor-master. (Though, to be honest, the wine might have had something to do with that.)

Fortunately, the wine kept working at Twilight’s brain even while she wasn’t in control of it. That made it harder for Hornsparker to keep Twilight bottled up, and when the cheesy things had been served, those plus the wine had been enough to put her back in charge of her mind. (They had also been enough to require her to apologize to the serving-pony and then, with extreme difficulty, to eat a whole cheesy thing to show no hard feelings. It hadn’t been a fun meal.)

In any case, she paid no attention to the pipes and the presenting of arms- foolish frippery, Hornsparker thought, and Twilight agreed. Her attention was focused on standing straight and proud like a proper captain… and, on a purely secondary level, on giving the orders necessary to get back out to sea. “Mr. Thornbush,” she said as the first lieutenant stepped forward to salute her. “We leave at once. Call all hands to weigh anchor and make sail.”

“Aye, ma’am,” Thornbush said, and without a pause he began bellowing orders, sending hundreds of ponies into motion. Twilight didn’t care. She needed to change out of her best uniform tunic and linen shirt, both soaked with sweat from the tropical heat and tropical cooking.

Her hoof was almost on the door to her personal cabin when she remembered that it wasn’t her cabin anymore. She’d given it to Iron Press and his servant. She found Axle Wheel in what had been Bush’s cabin, which might have been half the size of Twilight’s before her cot and desk were moved into it. Axle Wheel actually had to stand outside the door in order to take one uniform and give Twilight her other, the patched, worn-out one used for normal work.

The cold water on her face from the washbasin helped with the aftereffects of the wine, and the uniform, though very shabby, felt much more comfortable than the pressed and starched best tunic with its heavy brass-plated epaulettes. Twilight almost felt like a new mare when she stepped out onto the deck…

… just in time to see the capstan, with its twenty ponies pushing at the bars, come to a complete stop. Twilight had thought one or maybe two skilled unicorns could replace the twenty ponies at the manual winch, which raised the massive anchors from the seafloor below. But now those twenty ponies pushed and groaned, with an occasional pop of a whip from the bosun’s mate, to no effect.

Well, no effect except the soft creaking of the Lydia.

“Hold it!” Twilight shouted, and then, remembering the jargon of the age of sail, “Avast all!” She stepped down to the maindeck, where she found the officer of the forecastle, Lieutenant Gerard. “Foul anchor, Mr. Gerard?” she shouted up at the ship’s sole griffon.

“Appears that way, sir!”

“Very well! Rest the hands at the capstan! Mr. Thornbush, pass the word for anchor drill!”

A foul anchor- one whose flukes had hooked into a reef or some other submarine obstruction it couldn’t plow through- would be as good as lost on any ship without unicorns. The ship would have to be forced to sail backwards- a tricky maneuver that still might not slide the anchor out of the grip of the sea floor- or else the massive rope cable holding the anchor to the ship would have to be cut, losing the anchor and the cable to the ocean floor.

But with about twenty unicorns working in concert, it was the simplest task to run a spell down the cable, wriggle the anchor out of its bind, and leave it lying loose on the bottom of the bay to be brought up by the capstan winch, and in a mere three minutes this was done. The earth ponies at the capstan heaved, the capstan’s pawl began clinking again, and yard after yard of cable wound its way into the ship, pulling the anchor off the bottom with no further trouble.

Meanwhile Thornbush kept up his orders with the ponies at the sails and ropes. Getting a ship out of harbor, in most cases, was a routine piece of business, and whatever his limitations Thornbush was an experienced seaman. Lydia began moving almost the instant the anchor was off the bottom, and ten minutes after that she was making four knots towards the open sea on a southerly tack.

But Thornbush was only first lieutenant, and the decision about where the ship went once out of harbor lay solely with the captain- that is, with Twilight. “Mr. Thornbush!” she shouted.

“Aye, ma’am?” came the reply from the wheel, where Thornbush stood next to the steersman.

“Course south by west once we clear the harbor!”

“Aye, ma’am!”

And that is all he needs to know, thought Hornsparker.

But not all he deserves to know, Twilight thought back, and she trotted back along the deck, up to the quarterdeck and then up from that to the pilot deck, to meet Thornbush face to face.

“Ma’am?” Thornbush asked.

“We’re going hunting, Thornbush,” Twilight said. “We set the Cumpleanos loose on this coast, and we’re the only ship of force on this side of the continent who can face her.”

“Aye, ma’am,” Thornbush agreed placidly. “I figured as much when we came into port instead of sendin’ those burro officers off in that lugger.”

Twilight couldn’t help raising her eyebrows a little. “And you’re good with that?” she asked. “First our orders called for us to take her to help the rebels. Now we have to take her or sink her to stop the rebels!”

Thornbush shrugged his burly, rolling shoulders. “If it was a fair or sensible world, ma’am, we wouldn’t need Princess Celestia, now would we? Say we sink ‘er tomorrow, and next day the Admiralty sends orders to raise her from the bottom. We’d still have to do it.” He smiled a little and added, “And you could do it, ma’am. You’ll make it work. I’m more worried about his Lordship.”

“Is Iron Press causing any problems?” Twilight asked. “I’ll speak to him about it if-“

“No, no ma’am!” Thornbush said. “He’s been a gentlepony, a real gentlepony if you get my meanin’. But I’m a bit worried some of the crew might cause problems, ma’am. He’s a looker, and I caught that corporal of marines givin’ him the eye.”

Twilight blushed. “He’s not that pretty,” she said defensively. “Wildrider’s better looking when he cleans up.”

“Nopony wants to blow two weeks of pump duty on hammock time with Wildrider,” Thornbush said bluntly. “But there’s no regulations about fraternizin’ with passengers not on the muster rolls, ma’am.”

“He’s a grown stallion,” Twilight managed. “I’m quite sure he’ll be able to take care of himself.” With that she retreated back to the quarterdeck to avoid any possible continuance of the conversation.

Iron Press might be able to handle himself. Twilight wasn’t sure if she could.

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 9: the Talents of Iron Press

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Dawn found Twilight Sparkle pacing the captain’s usual patch of the quarterdeck, trying to put her thoughts in order. She still couldn’t remember how Haycartes’ spell went, with or without her modifications. More than anything, she wanted to remember that spell- remember how to break that spell to end this nightmare and make it just a story in a book again, just words on a page instead of living ponies, bleeding ponies, dying ponies…

Dipple-Dapple stepped carefully around Twilight’s bit of the deck, carrying the log line over his shoulder. Casting the log happened several times a day during a cruise. The master’s mate (Dapple) hurled a bit of wood tied to a line (the log) off the stern of the ship and into the ocean. Another mate would stand by with a minute-glass. As the ship sailed on, the ocean would grab and pull at the log, causing the line to run out. The log line had knots tied into it at regular intervals; as the line paid out. Dapple counted each knot that passed until the sand in the minute-glass ran out. That gave the ship’s speed in nautical miles per hour… or knots, as they were actually recorded.

It was all arbitrary and ridiculous, even if it did work. But the ritual fascinated Twilight, so she stopped and watched as the log went over the stern, as Dapple and his assistant watched the glass, counted the knots, and then hauled the soaking wet line back into the ship.

“How fast?” Twilight asked.

“Seven and a half, ma’am,” Dapple answered.

“Thank you.” That didn’t sound very fast- on land, it was a hair slower than a trotting pace most ponies could keep up indefinitely. But Hornsparker’s memories resonated with pride; seven and a half knots was a respectable speed for a sailing ship of war. Cumpleanos was slower and much clumsier, being by far the older and heavier ship. Given a decent wind, Lydia could sail rings around her.

And she’d need to. Fifty guns of heavier caliber than anything Lydia carried would perforate the frigate like a sheet of stamps given half a chance. And the Cumpleanos carried half again as many ponies as Lydia, which meant they could swarm the frigate in an organized boarding action. Twilight had captured the Maredrid ship more from force of surprise than anything else- an advantage she wouldn’t get a second time. Her best hopes for victory lay in staying well clear of Cumpleanos and peppering her bow or stern while avoiding her broadsides.

Hornsparker’s mental mutterings rose to intelligibility, talking about contingency plans for which ship lay closer to the wind, the strength of the wind, wave motion, and the presence or absence of land. Twilight resumed her pacing, listening carefully to the voices in her head nopony else could hear, forgetting any further work on Haycartes’.

Then a smooth voice broke through the mental conference: “Anything I can do to help, captain?”

“YAAAAAHH!!” Twilight nearly jumped over the rail from surprise.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Iron Press said, having come right up next to Twilight before Thornbush or the other officers could think to stop him. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Of course, at this delicate and embarrassing moment, Hornsparker made a sudden push for control. Sorry? SORRY?? Does this useless ornament of the Canterlot society circle have any notion how difficult it is to find a private moment to think on a warship? The presumption! The utter gall! Why, I’m going to-

It was all Twilight could do to keep Hornsparker from taking control of her voice, and from Iron Press’s point of view the ship’s captain worked her jaw without a sound, obviously speechless with rage. Had Twilight known it, her expression at that moment bore a passing resemblance to Xipe Totec’s default face.

“Ah.” The blond unicorn took a step backwards and bowed to Twilight. “Obviously I’ve broken a rule of the ship. Nobody told me you were not to be disturbed. I’m deeply sorry.”

The calm voice, and the sight of a Canterlot lord bowing to an untitled ship’s captain, soothed Hornsparker’s rage enough to allow Twilight to regain complete control again. “Please do not disturb me before eight bells in the morning again,” she said, forcing herself to use a calm, quiet voice. “This is my private thinking time.”

“I’m very sorry,” Iron Press repeated. “And I completely understand. My brother is similarly, er, displeased when others disturb him before he’s had his morning coffee.” Before Twilight could ask why Iron Press had done just that, he continued, “I was going to invite you to breakfast. Your cook says he has some preserves he traded for with a fishing boat in Panamane harbor-“

“I breakfast alone,” Twilight said hurriedly before Hornsparker could erupt again. After a moment she added, “But perhaps you would permit me to host my officers for dinner in the after cabin this afternoon? You, of course, would join us.”

“I would be delighted to be a guest at your table,” Iron Press said, kneeling again.



Dinner was a success, satisfying everyone- except Hornsparker. The phantom personality sneered at Iron Press’s literary preferences (he favored romantic poetry, while Hornsparker strongly preferred serious nonfiction and carefully structured classical prose) and mocked his natural ability to guide a conversation without dominating it, drawing out Thornbush, Clay and Mustang and subtly squelching Wildrider.

Then the cards came out for whist, Thornbush and Mustang abstaining, and the first hand made Hornsparker a believer. Twilight drew Iron Press for her partner, and the stallion played boldly and surely, leading the partner ship to grand slam, catching every trick even though they had no spade tricks in hand. Several more rubbers followed, and Hornsparker’s opinion rose with every hand. By the time the game broke up, Hornsparker had begun complimenting Iron Press’s erudition and intelligence.

… and you notice he never places himself on his dignity as a lord of the realm? He can draw Thornbush out on his time with Admiral Patcheye on the Shadespony, gloss over Clay’s childish outbursts, and evade Wildrider’s bawdy talk. He was the soul of the party! I’ve never seen a stallion so clever and so modest at the same time!

Twilight grumbled. The mental gabble had been loud and nonstop since the party, and she couldn’t work on breaking the spell or planning for the battle ahead while it went on. Fine, she thought as she lay on her cot in Thornbush’s cabin. I agree. He’s perfect, because of course he is. Wonderful. Let’s marry him.

That changed the note of the babble. My Plum Dumpling, poor plain thing he is, couldn’t have done a tenth as well. He’s too plain, too blunt-speaking, too class-conscious. And he hasn’t got the intelligence to debate literature with Wildrider or play whist on my level…

And then the babble trailed off. Hornsparker apparently didn’t like even thinking about Plum Dumpling. For the first time, the spell-memories resisted Twilight’s demands for information.

Oh, no. You don’t get off there. How did you get married in the first place?

Flashes of memory got pried out, one by one: a landlady’s son, worshipful of a young war-hero, even one on pay stoppages during the brief peace; a moment’s whim based on pity and, apparently, Hornsparker’s cross-grained nature, leading to the altar, regretted frequently ever since; a dutiful but loveless marriage on her part, to the extent of birthing a son- wait, what??- who caught pox while Hornsparker was away on a command, dying the very night she returned from a patrol of the Dragonland coasts. Another son, born shortly thereafter, currently in Plum Dumpling’s care back in Baltimare.

Twilight groaned louder. Oh, Celestia, she thought. An absent spouse of a loveless marriage with a child, and then thousands of miles away the literal perfect stallion shows up. How stupid can this get?

The heck of it is, if I were only reading this, I might enjoy it. But I’m too close. I can’t enjoy Hornsparker’s character development because I’m Hornsparker! I’m the one living all this! And it’s not fun!

And the worst part is, I can’t put the book down. I can’t even try to change the story. And every decision I make seems to be the wrong one…

Groaning louder, Twilight put out the little safety-lantern and let herself fall asleep. She needed rest: after all, they might find the Cumpleanos at any moment.

Or vice versa.

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 10: Return to Hornseca

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Two days after the dinner party, Lydia returned to the Bay of Hornseca. There were no boats, no Cumpleanos, not even a sign of the natives… except for a single arrow which hit the foremast rigging and clattered to the deck, apparently fired from a thicket on the island that guarded the bay. Twilight didn’t order any return fire; if Cumpleanos wasn’t in the bay, there wasn’t any point in bothering natives who obviously had gone from cold neutrals to outright hostile.

Once the Lydia was back out to sea, Twilight held another dinner party with Iron Press invited. This time she pushed a little to get the noble to open up about himself. As it happened, although he held no official government post, Iron Press had been a diplomatic social secretary and clerk for various ambassadors and governors, including his older sister the Marquess, for almost a decade. Although this was his first time in the South Luna Sea, he’d been to Zebrica, Mareitania, and the kirin lands, to say nothing of countries closer to Equestria’s eastern shore.

After-dinner whist was even more pleasant (aside from Hornsparker’s mental kibitzing over everyone’s card playing, which Twilight could only grit her teeth and try to ignore). When Twilight and Iron Press were on opposing sides the battle became long and brutal; when paired together, they swept the hapless Wildrider and Clay off the table.

The afternoon was so pleasant that Twilight almost forgot about the deadly battle to come. As the sun began to set, the trade winds whipping across the deck and the sails crackling and humming overhead, she began to think that her tweaked Haycartes’ Method might not be a disaster after all.

And then Iron Press’s donkey servant emerged from the hold bearing a guitar, presumably from one of the trunks Dipple-Dapple had secured below. Hey! Twilight thought. I haven’t heard any music since I got here. I wonder if Iron Press plays as well as he counts tricks?

Music? Oh, bother. Hornsparker’s mental voice dripped with annoyance, bordering on misery.

Oh, what NOW? Twilight asked.

I don’t know what anypony sees in music, Hornsparker replied. It’s just plinking and banging and screeching, and ponies mispronouncing words.

Twilight couldn’t remember ever meeting a pony who hated music. Oh, just give him a chance, all right?

Iron Press, who had been standing on the quarterdeck on the opposite rail from Twilight, accepted the guitar from the donkey. He plinked the strings, adjusting the tuning knobs a bit with his magic, and then began to strum, and after that to sing.

Are you going to Trottingham faire
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to the green-grocer mare
She once was a true love of mine…

The other officers began gathering around at once, smiling at the sounds coming from guitar and unicorn alike. On the lower deck, idle crewponies began to gather. After about a minute, the sound of a violin came from below- Emerald Fortune, the earth-pony fiddler, had found her instrument and joined in the song. By the end a number of voices had softly joined in with the old, traditional tune.

And Twilight, seeing the obvious pleasure on the faces of everypony else, wept, because she couldn’t hear a word of it.

Captain Hornsparker, it appeared, was tone-deaf. The guitar strings sounded like a rope cable snapping its fibers. The fiddle sounded like a screeching jackdaw or cuckoo. And the singing voices sounded like ordinary talk- except with the words drawn out or run together in a way that only made sense if you could hear the music underneath. The combination of sounds, filtered through Hornsparker’s awareness, stopped just barely this side of being painful.

Not wanting to spoil the fun for anypony else. Twilight went below, not to her cabin but down to the gunroom, where she couldn’t hear the music that she couldn’t hear, cursing that Tartarus-inspired spell every step of the way.

Full immersion, you said. It’ll be a wonderful experience, you said. Experience everything as the characters would experience it, you said.

When I get out of this, Celestia forgive my blasphemy, I’m going to dig out the book I found that spell in and BURN it.



Days passed. The Lydia peeked in at one port of call after another. Two of the ports lay empty, not merely of ships but of life. The third lay in flames, raising smoke that, for once, had nothing to do with volcanoes or magic temples. Xipe Totec had, no doubt, passed that way already, but the Lydia couldn’t do anything about that. Of the Cumpleanos, no sign whatever.

Then the mountains of the coastline became less volcanic, becoming the mountain ranges that represented the southwestern border of the Badlands. The seacoast began curving westwards, as the land extended into the great dividing range between the North and South Luna Sea. Cumpleanos wouldn’t sail much farther north, assuming it sailed north at all; it would stand out to sea, hoping to intercept the treasure fleet from the kirin lands, bringing trade wealth and treasure from one side of the world to the other.

With that in mind Twilight ordered a course out to sea, carrying the ship out into what became, by the next morning, almost a gale. The sails, full of more wind than Lydia could manage, tipped the ship sideways, while the formerly flat seas became rolling waves that sent the frigate plunging down and rising up in violent swoops. The sky remained clear and the sun tropically warm, but in every other respect it felt like a storm was about to overtake the ship.

Thornbush met Twilight almost the instant she came out on deck. “I was just about to send for you, ma’am,” he said. “I think we ought to shorten sail.” From the sounds of the sailing master and his mates barking orders to the crew, Thornbush had already begun preparations, turning up all hands and checking to see that anything loose on the deck was properly secured against the ship’s motion.

“I agree,” Twilight said. “Get… um… the courses and topgall… the t’gallants… get them in, please.”

As Twilight spoke the ship plunged down another wave, and as the trough offered a momentary reduction of the wind, the ship righted itself from its sharp port list. Then, as it bottomed out and began climbing the next wave, the wind strengthened again, and the ship listed once more. Thornbush, noting the motion, asked quietly, “Are you feeling well, ma’am?”

“Fine, thank you,” Twilight replied. She wasn’t seasick-

-yet, Hornsparker muttered darkly.

“I just have a lot on my mind,” Twilight added, silently giving her mental hitchhiker a glare.

“I think we all have, ma’am,” Thornbush muttered. “Excuse me, please.” With that the moment’s conversation was over, as the first lieutenant began belting out the orders to furl about half the sails on the ship. Hooves thundered, whips cracked, orders bellowed, ponies swarmed up the rigging, and ropes began to creak as Lydia adjusted to the almost overpowering weather.

Twilight, watching the process, noticed Iron Press holding to the starboard rail with a fetlock, his blond mane streaming in the wind, bits of sea-spray splashing his face. She walked over to him and asked, “Good morning. Are you feeling all right?”

“Oh, quite so, captain,” Iron Press said. “This is delightful after the heat of the past few days.”

“Well, please be careful,” Twilight said. “We don’t want to get underhoof while the crew is-“

“Sail ho!”

Twilight froze at the cry from the maintop, as the lookout waved off to the north. Before she could ask again, a second voice- young Jack Knave, the youngest of the midshipmen- repeated the cry, “Sail ho, right ahead! It’s the Cumpleanos, ma'am!”

Twilight’s heart sank. Why now? Why, why now??

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 11: Meeting Cumpleanos

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As much as Twilight wished she could just dither and worry, she couldn’t spare the time. Ponies were depending on her. (Fictional ponies, yes, but here and now, in the grip of the spell, they felt real to her. And if she failed them, she’d feel just as bad about it.) And with the sighting of the enemy, all the contingencies, all the possibilities she’d worried about the prior few days boiled down into a nice, simple mental checklist. She could practically see the words in front of her, with a nice blank waiting for a check-mark:

1. Ascertain the position and heading of the enemy.
2. Begin maneuvering for position, ideally to gain the weather gauge (i. e. get closer to the source of the wind than the enemy, thus attaining control over whether or not to continue the action).
3. Prepare ship for combat. (Cooking fires out, decks sanded, guns readied for combat, shot and powder brought up to the deck, sharpshooters to the rigging, pegasi aloft.)
4. Continue maneuvering for position until within range (maximum effective range approx. 300 yards, less in rough seas).
5. Put more iron into the enemy ship than she can put into yours, ideally by crossing the enemy bow or stern and avoiding the enemy broadside. (The broadside is where almost all the guns are, and the enemy will do everything in her power to keep it pointed at you.)
6. The first ship to sink, burn up, catch fire, and/or strike colors (lower their flag) loses. (Don’t be that ship.)

So. First: where’s the Cumpleanos, and where’s she going? “What heading, Mr. Knave?” Twilight shouted up.

“She’s wearing round, ma’am! Coming up before the wind on the port tack! Bearing down right on us, ma’am!”

I never saw a Maredrid lone ship offer battle before, Hornsparker muttered in Twilight’s mind. She could feel that personality pushing forward, eager to take command in more senses than one. We need to get behind her- sail as close to the wind as possible. Lydia’s a newer ship and can tack closer than that old tub. I could sail rings around her, if not for those guns.

“Man the braces! Helmspony, port your helm and keep her as close to the wind as she’ll sail!” Twilight looked to her left, and there stood Thornbush, watching and waiting for the obvious order. Step 1, check. Step 2, check. Time for Step 3. “Mr. Thornbush, beat to quarters and clear for action, please.”

Drums rolled, whistles and pipes bleated, and the sound of hundreds of pony hooves on the wooden decks quickly drowned out drums, whistles, pipes, and even the wind and ocean spray. As the crew began clearing things away, Twilight looked to her right, where Iron Press stood, watching her with anxiety. Oh, right, she thought. The captain’s cabin is also a starboard gun emplacement. He can’t stay there…

“Is there anything I can do to be of assistance, captain?” Iron Press asked.

“I’m afraid not,” Twilight said politely. “I must ask you to get below. In fact… Mr. Clay!!”

The midshipman trotted up to Twilight’s side, saluting. “Yes, ma’am?”

“Conduct Lord Iron Press and his servant to the cable tier.” That compartment was as low and as far from the sides of the ship as Twilight could think of at the moment- except the cockpit, and that was reserved for the wounded.

Which we’ll have plenty of, Hornsparker said gloomily. And nothing but an untrained steward with maybe two months’ reading out of a book to prepare him.

Of all the things Twilight really, honestly did not want to think about at that moment, dozens of bleeding, screaming ponies with no doctor to treat them stood right at the top of the list. Focus on the battle, she thought savagely. But she didn’t shove the spell-created personality back; like it or not, she needed the phantom memories and experience.

Just not all of them, not this moment.

Overhead the Lydia’s sails bulged and popped in the gale, spars turned almost parallel with the keel. Even turned halfway into the wind as she was, she could derive forward momentum from the glancing force of the wind… at the cost, of course, of heeling over hard to starboard. As Twilight observed the interaction of wind and sail, a stronger gust shifted around to take Lydia head-on, pushing the sails back onto the masts and killing her forward momentum. The helmspony, observing this, put the helm to starboard again until the sails caught again.

Perhaps I should tack? Twilight thought. On the port tack I could swing around behind her-

No, Hornsparker insisted. That would yield the weather gauge to the enemy. At best it would be a long stern chase after that. No, we have to close in on her as close and fast as possible to take the wind away from her.

Twilight looked over the rails, at the mountain of sail and the comparatively small bit of wood beneath them, laboring even harder than Lydia did against the wind and heavy seas. Lydia was slowed by sailing so close to the wind’s eye, and Cumpleanos sped by sailing almost directly before the wind, which meant… meant… what?

It means we’ll pass quite close to one another. Best make the most of it.

Twilight looked down on the main deck. Of Lydia’s thirty-four guns, thirty-two were arranged in two sixteen-cannon broadsides on a single line. “Mr. Gerard! Ms. Freerein! Check that your matches are alight!” In this fictional history friction-primers hadn’t been invented yet, and in the spray flying everywhere flintlock triggers might not work- in which case the cannon would have to be touched off using slow-match fuses. And as horrible as the thought was of shooting real, actual, non-party cannons at other ponies might be, allowing someone else to shoot them at her defenseless crew was worse.

“She’s opened fire, ma’am!” Thornbush pointed off to the Cumpleanos, now half-occluded by a cloud of smoke. But smoke was all it was; no cannonballs followed. Where they’d fallen, in all the surf and splash, Twilight couldn’t guess.

“That’s not enough smoke,” Thornbush continued. “I don’t think- by Celestia! It’s the waves, ma’am! The seas are too high! She can’t open her lower gun ports!”

Twilight squinted her eyes, then magicked her spyglass to her and looked over to the rapidly approaching Cumpleanos. Sure enough, the larger ship was wallowing deeper in the rough seas than Lydia, to the point that the lower of her two gun decks were in the water as often as out- more so, really, since the winds were tilting the ship so that the guns facing Lydia rolled down towards the water.

She ran through the Cumpleanos’s armament in her mind: two bow chasers and two stern chasers, leaving forty-six broadside guns, lower tier eleven guns a side, upper tier twelve guns a side, all heavier shot than any cannon on Lydia… but instead of a twenty-three gun broadside, they’d be meeting only a twelve-gun broadside with Lydia’s sixteen guns.

And they foolishly wasted their first broadside at impossible range, Hornsparker added. They’ll never have as good a shot again. The shock value of the first combined broadside is inestimable. And my crew is the better trained, I’m certain of it. If the seas remain high, we have the advantage!

The momentarily bloodthirsty note in the phantom voice made Twilight shudder. It might not be her thought, but it was still in her head.

No trembling! Hornsparker’s voice rang through her mind louder than her own. I cannot show weakness before the crew! Nothing breaks morale faster than a captain the crew sees as a coward! I will not be a coward before my crew, no matter how timid I am!

The phantom didn’t sound timid, but Twilight took the point. She had to look confident so the others would be confident, too.


More smoke billowed from Cumpleanos’s starboard bow. This time Twilight heard the whistling sound of the enemy shot as it passed overhead between the masts. Then another puff of smoke from near the enemy ship’s stern, and then a crash from the Lydia’s waist and shouts from the main deck.

Thornbush looked over the gangway. “Two ponies down at number four starboard gun,” he said matter-of-factly. He then looked up at the oncoming enemy ship, which loomed ahead of them on what appeared a collision course. “Great Celestia, it’s going to be close!”

I don’t want to do this, Twilight thought.

I don’t want to do this.

But if I don’t…

“Miss Freerein,” she shouted, “stand by to fire as your guns bear!” Turning to the helmspony, she shouted, “Helm a-weather! Now! Hold her there! Steady on!”

Lydia turned away from her collision path, swinging her starboard broadside into position just in time to catch Cumpleanos at almost point-blank range. Sixteen guns rang out almost as one, shaking the frigate from bow to stern. Horrible crashing sounds echoed back from the enemy ship, followed by the screams and wails of wounded ponies. Belatedly, almost as an afterthought, a single cannon from Cumpleanos fired back, but no crash of impact followed.

And then Lydia was past the enemy ship, which sailed on ahead of the wind, presenting her fat, unprotected stern to the Equestrian ship.

“Stand by to go about!” Twilight shouted. For this she didn’t need prompting from Hornsparker. All thoughts of fair play or reluctance to hurt others had been set aside. Her crew- her friends, in this storybook world- needed her to defend them. And when the enemy presented an open target, you hit it as hard as you could.

Lydia turned through the eye of the wind and onto the new tack in only a couple of minutes, picking up way in the gale with the skilled work of Thornbush directing a hundred ponies at the lines and sails. With the ship having executed three-quarters of a full circle before the enemy could respond, the port battery bore on Cumpleanos’s naked rear, and with a shout from Gerard the Griffon, sixteen more guns hurled iron into wood, sending smoke and splinters flying.

Unfortunately this maneuver ment yielding up the moment of advantage, and Lydia swept back alongside Cumpleanos’s starboard broadside.

“Swab ‘em out!” Gerard shouted, wings flapping. “One more broadside, lads! Charge! Shot home! Prime! Clear! Cock your locks! Take aim! FIRE!”

A minute and a half after its first broadside, the port battery’s second shot occurred simultaneously with a responding broadside from Cumpleanos. Wood shattered, and the sound of ropes striking the deck rattled across Twilight’s ears. Faint wooshing sounds echoed overhead: sharpshooters with crossbows were firing at each other, while each ship’s complement of pegasi sortied against each other, seeking air advantage. One of Lydia’s flyers crashed to the deck, wing badly wounded and with an arrow poking from one shoulder.

“Fire as ye will, boys!” Gerard crowed. “Give it to ‘em!”

Lydia gave, and Lydia received. Cumpleanos’s shots lagged behind Lydia’s more skilled gun crews, but when they came they came all at once with a roar and crash that drowned out all the other noises around Twilight. Between shots she could hear Shadetree, Xipe Totec’s mad admiral, shouting her own orders on the other ship, apparently lining up each gun herself.

And, apparently, to good effect, since at one point Cumpleanos’s lower gun ports opened to let the full broadside slam into Lydia. Unsettling creaks came from below decks, as above deck the dead began to pile up by the masts while the living wounded were hurried below to await the bonesaw in the jaws of a wholly untrained surgeon.

Stop it, Twilight thought. Stop it! Why won’t they stop it?

Lydia can’t win a slugging match against that broadside, Hornsparker replied. I’m not using our advantages. Time to outsail her.

That seemed a little silly to Twilight. Both ships were before the wind with all the sail safe to carry in the gale. If Lydia could pull away, it would be only by inches…

Wait a moment. That’s the thing. Instead of faster, go slower!

“Hands to the braces!” she shouted. “Luff the top mainsail! Top mainsail only!”

With the careful tug of a few ropes, the top mainsail could be induced to no longer hold the wind, slowing Lydia but not stopping her dead- in fact, slowing her just long enough for Cumpleanos to shoot past, once more presenting that vulnerable stern.

“Tack!”

More ponies hauled more ropes. Masts swung, sails relinquished and recaptured the wind, and Lydia’s starboard broadside, unengaged since the first salvo, hammered the already battered timbers.

“By Celestia! Glorious! Glorious!” Thornbush was prancing on the quarterdeck.

“Come about!” Twilight shouted. “Mr. Gerard, fire your guns as they bear!”

Again Lydia executed a swift full circle, while Cumpleanos, waggled indecisively back and forth, trying and failing to maneuver to counter the nimbler frigate’s movement. It took only a minor adjustment from Twilight to counter the clumsy turn, and then one by one the port battery slammed its shots home into what was left of the stern.

“Come about and we’ll have her again!” Twilight ordered. As Lydia came before the wind again, Cumpleanos was turning to parallel- no, to cross Lydia’s bow. That suited Twilight fine; if Shadetree wanted more shot poured into her rump, well, that was now perfectly all right with Twilight. All they had to do was endure one more broadside-

As the two ships closed, Hornsparker muttered, We’re not on her lee side anymore. On this side her lower gun ports are clear…

Too late. Lydia’s starboard guns and Cumpleanos’s port guns fired almost simultaneously, bringing the loudest creaking and crashing yet, followed by shouts of fear from the Lydia’s crew.

A shadow fell across Twilight’s head.

The rigging of the mizzenmast followed, burying her in rope.

The rear of Lydia’s three masts snapped in two, hauling dozens of lines, with their sails and spars and attached masts, into total disarray.

Lydia lurched before the wind under what remained of her sail, the helmsponies no longer able to hold her on course.

And behind them, on came Cumpleanos. Shot holes littered her sides, and blood poured from her scuppers, but her flag still rode at her mainmast and her sails drew on the wind. And her gun ports were open, as she tacked behind Lydia to come across the helpless ship's stern, preparing to finish the job...

...and over the screams of the wounded and the snapping of ropes, Twilight could hear Shadetree's mad laughter riding the wind from the other ship.

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 12: Dismasted

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Twilight pulled herself out of the tangle of fallen rigging. Fortunately nothing heavier than rope had fallen on her. Thornbush hadn’t been so lucky; he sat on his rump, holding his head in his forehooves, a large pulley block lying on the deck next to him. He wouldn’t be any help for a while.

“Mr. Clay!” she shouted. “Afterguard to the stern! Get this wreckage cut away!”

Potter’s Clay came galloping up the gangway, followed by a collection of ponies, most of whom held axes or cutlasses in their teeth. Along with them came a couple of unicorns from the marine contingent, and these joined Twilight in slashing away at the ropes that littered the quarterdeck. The remains of the broken mizzenmast, with all its sails and spars and lines and rigging, hung off the ship like a grotesque sea-anchor, making the rest of the sails unmanageable and rendering the rudder completely useless. If Lydia was going to survive, the wreckage had to go- at once.

But before more than a quarter of the lines had been cut, thunder boomed from Cumpleanos, and Lydia’s stern bucked like a stung buffalo. Gunsmoke blew across the deck along with flying debris as shot after shot struck home. Something large and heavy whistled past Twilight’s face close enough for her to feel the breeze.

And then the shots ended and the screaming resumed, with fresh screams and shouts coming from behind. The stern-chaser carronade had come loose from its slide, rolling onto the legs of one doomed pony and crushing them. Two of the marine unicorns and a couple of earth pony crewmen were struggling to get it off him.

Leave him, Hornsparker roared in Twilight’s head. Nothing can save him now. But there are hundreds of other ponies yet alive!

Twilight didn’t bother to answer. She just wasn’t going to leave a pony like that, no matter what. She added her own magic to the two unicorns’ efforts, mentally cursing Haycartes’ Method for (a) trapping her in this terrifying experience in the first place, and (b) blocking ninety-nine percent of her real-world magic in the process. I’m straining to lift a single cannon, she thought, when back home I could probably lift the whole ship…

After a moment the five of them managed to slide the ton and a half of metal off the maimed pony. “There!” Twilight said. “Now get back to cutting us free! Mr. Clay, keep them working!”

As two ponies carried off the crushed pony to the cockpit, Twilight looked around at what remained of the sails. Once the mizzenmast was cleared away, the ship would be imbalanced, with the headsails continually pushing the ship before the wind without the mizzen-sails to provide counter-leverage. “Mr. Wildrider! Get the headsails in! Quickly, there!”

“Aye aye, ma’am!”

As the foretop crew got to work, and as the afterguard continued hacking away at the cables holding the mizzenmast wreckage to the ship, Twilight turned back to see Cumpleanos finishing its long, lumbering turn, coming back across Lydia’s stern for a second uncountered broadside. The cutting-away wouldn’t be done in time.

“Keep going, everypony!” she shouted. “We have to take one more round, and then we’ll put a stop to her for good!” We will because we have to. Celestia help me, but it’s them or us…

The wreckage shifted as Lydia pitched down a sudden steep wave, as a heavy line and its attached sail swept the port quarterdeck. Twilight got out of the way in time, but three crewponies didn’t, rolling on their backs. Thankfully none of their legs got caught-

And then the Lydia’s stern leaped again as thunder rolled, one after another of Cumpleanos’s heavy guns piling shot after shot into her exposed rear. The agonized screams of one particularly shrill pony ceased abruptly. Twilight didn’t look, trying to shut out the roar of cannons, the shriek of flying splintered wood and stray cannonballs, and the shouts of ponies, focusing her attention on cutting through one rope after another. One snapped, and Lydia jerked- another snapped, another jerk- and then with one final cut, and a long rumbling and splashing, and the ship was free, and the enemy sailing off to come around for another attack.

The first thing Twilight saw when she looked up from her work was Potter’s Clay… or, that is to say, Potter’s Clay’s body. His head was gone.

Twilight froze, staring at the horrible sight. Her mind flooded with images of the young officer- the young colt, should still have been in school- struggling to keep up with the captain in a hand of whist, gazing with admiring eyes at Iron Press, toasting Celestia at the captain’s table- and now Clay would never see his lieutenancy, never see a world at peace, never return to Equestria to-

A breaking wave splashed over the Lydia, drenching Twilight and bringing her back to her senses. A story, she thought. This is only a story. A horrible, horrible story. But there are hundreds of other ponies in this story that need saving.

I hate this. I hate, hate, HATE this.

A quick glance around told Twilight all she needed to know. The ponies at the ship’s wheel weren’t the same ones who had begun the action. Bodies littered the quarterdeck, mostly unmoving. A dozen ship’s marines under Marine-captain Royal Summons sent arrows and spells at Cumpleanos, whose massive hull seemed to shrug them off. And up in the maintop Thornbush was waving a cutlass and shouting at crewponies who were already mending the rigging; he’d apparently finished the job of cutting away the destroyed mizzen himself.

And there, off the starboard quarter, lay the Cumpleanos, wearing around yet again for another battering. But this time, Twilight thought, this time we’re not going to sit here and take it! “Hooves to braces!” she shouted. “Mr. Thornbush, we’re coming to the wind!”

“Aye aye, sir!”

“Hard to starboard!” Twilight spared barely a glance at the steersponies wrestling with the wheel before looking down at the gun deck. “Stand to your guns! Ms. Freerein, salvo fire as she bears, and make every shot count!”

And Lydia turned. With half her sails either shot away or furled, and with her rigging no longer capable of the fine adjustments that allowed her to sail at angles to the wind, she slowed the moment she began to turn, but her momentum was enough for a time to bring her around, bit by bit, until the ship lay almost perpendicular to the wind and waves. And there, creeping along, lay the Cumpleanos, just in the process of running her guns back out…

“Fire!”

For the first time in what felt like forever Lydia’s guns spoke with a single thunderclap of noise. A ragged echo responded- the surprised, unprepared return fire from Cumpleanos, which whistled harmlessly overhead.

“Reload!” Gerard the Griffon shouted at the gunners, even though his crew hadn’t been the ones firing. “Give ‘em another, quick!”

Gun trucks rumbled as the cannon were swabbed out with frantic haste. Gunpowder charges were rammed down the muzzles, followed by wadding and sixteen-pound cannonballs. Lances were run through the touchholes to pierce the fabric cartridges. Powder-horns poured extra powder through the touchholes. Flintlocks were set in place, cocked, guns run out, and one by one the starboard guns fired again, less than two minutes after the massed broadside.

“Good!” shouted Gerard! “Excellent! Yes! Look! There goes her foremast! Well done, ponies!”

The gun crews cheered as the Cumpleanos’s foremast slumped, then leaned forward, dragging sails and rigging along with it. Then the top half of the mainmast followed, the whole mass of wreckage falling over the ship’s side.

There, Twilight thought. Now we can finish her off and make her surrender!

But wind and waves had other ideas. The ponies at the wheel fell away as Lydia, slowing to a stop, fell under the control of the gale once more. The ship turned to port, before the wind, picking up speed as it sailed away from the stranded, drifting Cumpleanos. One last gun fired on the main deck below Twilight, and then it was over.

Shoot, Twilight ranted mentally. Shoot, shoot, shoot! Now was the perfect time to finish off Cumpleanos… but without her full rigging, Lydia couldn’t tack against the wind to get back to her. Somehow Twilight had to repair her ship… which, unfortunately, meant giving Shadetree time to drive her own crew to do the same.

And whichever ship was ready for battle again first… won.

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 13: Mending

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An hour before, with the battle still in progress, the sun had shone despite the howling wind and heavy seas. Now the storm the wind had heralded had struck, pouring hot tropical rain on the deck of the Lydia, where it rolled up and down the wild waves, hove-to under the minimum sail required to prevent her from being swamped. So far as any pony on the ship could determine, the universe consisted of a sphere two hundred yards in diameter- two hundred yards of varying quantities of wetness, at the center of which a badly damaged frigate struggled to survive.

Twilight was soaked through and through, uniform tunic, linen shirt, fur and all, with rain and sweat and tears. She barely noticed. Part of her blessed the unending chain of officers and warrant-bearers who kept coming to ask for new orders or help. She wasn’t being allowed a chance to collapse in a pile of tears or to wind herself up into a knot of anxiety. One job after another, that was the ticket. Do one job, and another one waited that needed doing at once. No time to think; no time to reflect; no time to be heartbroken, horrified, or lost.

Her job of the moment lay in coaching the purser’s steward, Lowly, now the acting ship’s surgeon. The first part of Lowly’s report had been horrible enough: eleven dead and fifty-five wounded, with three ponies expected to die any minute and half the wounded doomed to a slow death over the next several days, with crushed or missing limbs, abdominal wounds, or head trauma. Almost seventy gone out of a crew of almost four hundred…

For an utterly revolting moment Twilight saw the logic in the inflated crew counts of the pirate romance genre. You could technically work a sailing ship with as few as a dozen ponies. But every gun needed a minimum of six ponies… and then you needed sharpshooters, unicorns and pegasi marines to defend the ship… and then you needed more ponies to provide the hooves for repairs… and then you needed more ponies to replace all of those ponies when, not if, they got wounded, all crammed in that tiny, fragile, vulnerable hull.

But then came the second part of Lowly’s report, which took Twilight past horrified and disgusted, beyond even appalled, which likely would have caused her to blank out if not for the urgent press of everything.

There were over fifty wounded but still living ponies… and Lowly had done not a single thing for them. Nothing at all.

Because Lowly didn’t know a single thing to do for them.

“You’ve had two MONTHS!” Twilight snapped. “Didn’t you learn ANYTHING in two months?”

Lowly’s ears drooped low enough that he could almost have tied them under his chin- and Twilight was outraged enough to want to try it. But…

“Look,” she said, taking a deep breath and forcing herself to be more gentle, “those with missing limbs probably aren’t going to make it. Ease their pain. Do you know what poppy-juice is?” Back home poppy-juice was a highly controlled substance. In small doses, it took away pain; in large doses, it took away everything. But here and now, it was practically the only medicine available. “Twenty drops and no more per pony, okay? A tot of rum for everypony else- not grog, straight rum, mind you. Put splints on the broken bones, but not the crushed ones- those have to be amputated, when the sea calms down enough for that.” And I’ll have to do that myself, since I’m sure this book takes place before germ theory and modern healing alchemy.

“As for the wounds, did you at least stitch those up?” When Lowly shook his head and pointed to his hornless head, Twilight sighed. “Right. I’ll have to do that if I can.” Earth-pony surgeons existed, but making sutures by lip took much practice and delicacy- both of which Lowly lacked. “Well, bandage them up as well as you can for now. Use the clean bandages. If you run out, see the cook and get the fires re-lit. Then boil rags, cool and dry ‘em off, and use those. Understand?”

“Aye, ma’am.”

“And above all else, try to cheer them up,” Twilight concluded. “Talk about their pensions when we get home. Talk about friends and family when they come home heroes. And promise more rum at eight bells if they stay quiet. You’ll be amazed what a sailing pony will do for rum.” Unfortunately.

That sent Lowly off, a little less woebegone than before. But next came Wildrider and twenty ponies chasing down a cannon, its breechings having broken after one of Cumpleanos’s shots had struck the aft gun deck. With every wave the truck rumbled up and down the deck, sliding and scraping and rolling one way and then another almost at random. One moment the ponies were chasing it, with hammocks, mats and rope; the next moment they were scattering to get out of the way of almost two tons of mindless destruction on the loose.

Whatever Wildrider’s other talents (as an officer or as a constant plaything of the ship’s female crew), he hadn’t yet learned to organize. In under a minute Twilight barked out a series of orders which ended with the cannon pinned to the mainmast and fresh ropes being run through the gun truck’s tackles. Moving it back to position and replacing the breechings required only brute labor, and Wildrider could handle the rest of that…

… which was well, because Dowel, the ship’s carpenter, had come up with the updated damage report. “’Most five feet deep in th’ well, ma’am,” he said, “an’ making fast. Can I have some more ponies to the pumps, ma’am?”

“Not until that gun is secured,” Twilight sighed. Water five feet and rising in the bilge meant several serious leaks below the waterline. “How many holes, and where?”

“Seven, ma’am, and all up near th’ bow, somehow.”

“The bow? Nothing near the stern?”

“No, ma’am. I’m as surprised as you are, ma’am, but the hull’s sound back there below decks.” Dowel frowned and added, “Above the waterline, though, yer could fly a kite through it, beggin’ your pardon, ma’am.”

Twilight nodded. She’d had a look for herself. The cabin had been essentially destroyed. “Any chance to plug the holes?”

“Not in this sea, ma’am. The seams ‘r working too hard, ma’am. Plugs wouldn’t hold.”

That’s right, Twilight thought, and cursed her stupidity. Big wooden ships didn’t remain perfectly rigid. There were too many pieces, too much weight. That meant the planks and beams shifted and bent slightly in the waves. Even without holes in the hull, water would seep through the seams and require an hour or two of pumping to remove from the bilge. In rough seas, the motion would make a shot hole change size and shape during the mending, leading to failed plugs or worse damage.

“Well, I’ll get a sail under the bow when I can find the ponies for the job.” Fothering a sail under the ship was a literal stop-gap measure, temporarily slowing but not stopping leaks. The problem was, it would also slow the ship. “For now, keep your pump ponies at it, and report to Mr. Thornbush with your mates.”

Thornbush was organizing the construction of a jury mizzenmast. Lydia had left port with a vast supply of replacement masts and spars, but the battle had damaged half of those. But a main topsail spar had survived intact, fifty-five hooves of seasoned oak that could substitute for the mizzenmast until the ship could refit in a proper harbor. The stump of the broken mizzenmast would come in handy, acting as an anchor that the new mast could be fished onto. All hands would be required for the raising of the mast, but there was plenty enough work at the moment just putting the mast together and making ready for its raising.

As the rain let up for a few moments, Twilight found a moment to look over the railing, pulling out her spyglass to check the horizon. Cumpleanos’s remaining sails were just barely in sight, her hull down over the horizon. Like Lydia, she lay hove-to, obviously doing everything in their power to get battle-ready. Did the older, half-neglected two-decker have spare masts or spars? How skilled were the mostly native crew at carpentry, at splicing ropes, at mending canvas sails?

If Lydia could come down on Cumpleanos while that ship was still immobile, possibly- just possibly- they might surrender without further bloodshed… well, except for Shadetree. That mare seemed a perfect match for her leader in bloodthirsty insanity. But if Cumpleanos managed to make good her damage, then the battle would resume as it was before…

“Pass the word for Major Summons,” Twilight ordered, and in a few moments the marine captain stood before her. “Major, how many of your pegasi are still flight-worthy?”

“Seventeen, ma’am,” Summons replied. “Three wounded an’ one missing presumed dead, ma’am.”

“How many of them have Cloudsdale weather training?”

“Not many, ma’am,” Summons said. “Four, maybe five? Most of ‘em are Manehattan and Baltimare ponies, ma’am. Never pushed a cloud in their lives.”

“Any chance they could bust this storm?”

“I doubt it, ma’am. A wild squall this bad needs a proper team o’weather ponies to break, ma’am. But we can try.”

“No, major,” Twilight said quickly. “I want you to ask- ask, not order, is that clear? Ask your experienced weather ponies if it can be done. So long as this storm keeps up, we can’t resume the action no matter how many masts we have.”

And no sooner had Summons gone than the ship’s cook stepped up to report. “All ready, ma’am.”

In the time since Lowly had reported, three more of the wounded had died, making fourteen bundles lying on the gratings. The cook and his mates, being the only ponies available for the task, had sewn the dead in their hammocks, with a round shot at their hooves to carry them to the bottom. And poor Potter’s Clay, the young officer, lay with the others, wrapped in a bit of scrap sailcloth.

For this Twilight had to stop. Morale required it, but so did common respect. Common respect demanded more, but with an enemy ship still just in sight, five hooves of water in the ship, and a storm around them, only a moment could be spared from the struggle to survive.

Twilight pulled out a whistle, blew a single long, clear note, and took out the prayer-book issued to all ship captains (in this romantic, brutal storybook world- the real Princess Celestial would likely be appalled at the sight of a religious book with her cutie mark on the cover). The ceremony was short, pre-written, designed specifically to keep the time taken from duty to its absolute minimum. Best of all, it relieved Twilight of the need to add anything of her own, or even to think. All she had to do was read, and she read, shouting over the gale:

“We gather here to pay our final respects to our honored dead, who have laid down their lives for princess, for country, and for crewmates. No greater honor can we give to a pony, than to say that she gave up her life for her friends.

“It is not for us here today to question the fates which led to the loss of these fine ponies, but to remember and praise them for their devotion to duty and to the ideals of the land which raised them. May we hold their conduct up as an example for us all, that we might bring all ponies together in blessed harmony and peace.

“Now we commit the bodies of these ponies to the bottomless deeps, to lie in slumber until the mending of the world, when Dream Valley shall return, and the seas shall give up their dead.”

One by one the gratings were tilted up, and one by one the body bags slid over the side and into the rolling water. As the last grating tilted, the one with poor Clay’s body on it, Twilight took off her sodden cocked hat and placed it across her heart. Five of the marine unicorns sent spells into the air, popping into fireworks, a final salute for the departed.

And how many more times will I have to do this? Twilight thought. Hate this. Hate, hate, hate, hate. She blew her whistle, and the frantic work of making Lydia ready to fight again resumed as if nothing had happened.



Iron Press stood by the hatchway, looking at Captain Hornsparker, who stood staring over the rails after the brief funeral had ended. Tears mixed with the rain running down the lavender unicorn’s face, while bits of blood clung to her hooves and shirt-cuffs, while her uniform tunic hung loose with a large rip in its side, apparently unnoticed by its wearer.

Iron Press had come up to see how things went, and to ask if he and his servant could go back to their cabin. The ship’s rats in the cable tier had objected to his servant’s presence, and the best Press had been able to negotiate was a suspension of hostilities. In the pitch dark the rats had the better of it, though they had joined pony and donkey in clinging to one another during the rumble and crash of battle, when it seemed like every moment might be their last.

But after coming up and seeing the captain on the deck, Press thought better of it. The cable tier was almost dry. There weren’t any gaping holes in it. There weren’t crewponies rushing back and forth every moment.

And one look at the captain told Iron Press that, whatever else, Ms. Hornsparker didn’t need any more problems right now…

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 14: Night Watch

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The gale continued to howl, and sheets of wind occasionally rolled out of the pitch-black night to sweep across Lydia’s rolling deck. Night brought no moderation in the storm which still kept Lydia and her opponent from one another. Only a handful of carefully shielded lanterns lit the decks of the Equestrian frigate, wrapped carefully both to protect them from wind and rain and to keep Cumpleanos from possibly catching a glimpse of light which could be used to aim a cannon.

The jury mizzenmast had been raised, with new yards and spars and sails- stunted compared to the original, but serviceable enough to stabilize the ship in this turbulent sea. On a calm sea it would have taken only a few moments for the ship’s small number of unicorns to levitate the mast into place and secure it, but with the ship rolling up one wave and down another, and with any number of distractions around to break a spell-caster’s concentration, dozens of ponies had been used, with multiple guide ropes, stays, and tackles to prevent a wave or a moment’s inattention from breaking the new mast or, worse yet, smashing up other parts of the ship. In the end the task had taken over an hour- an hour of back-breaking, mind-straining labor and split-second timing of ship’s motion, unicorn magic and earth pony strength.

And the captain, good old Hornsparker, had been there for it all. Each order to lift and rest came with perfect timing, shifting the mast closer to its final goal. She anticipated problems, reading the oncoming waves like a card sharp reading the marks. And, of course, every time the crew’s unicorns lifted the massive wooden beam, she joined in, even though she was among the magically weakest members of the Lydia’s crew.

After that, with the storm still too severe to make sail towards the distant Cumpleanos, the captain had sent the crew to a late dinner. No dinner for herself, though; she’d gone straight to the wounded and taken over the worthless Lowly’s work, cleaning and stitching wounds, removing chunks of wood from ponies, setting and splinting bones, and even performing two amputations (with, of course, a book open to show her how to do it).

And then, as the sun set, she’d said she’d remain on deck as long as the enemy was still nearby. And there she was now, dozing in a hammock-chair slung under one of the lanterns, wearing an oilcloak that kept the worst of the rain and surf off of her. Every few minutes she’d lift her head, take in the condition of the ship, and then nod off again.

Thornbush, head bandaged under his cocked hat, looked at his captain, shaking his head in admiration. Once he’d thought her soft- back when she was a junior lieutenant and he her senior. And she was soft, no matter how hard she tried to hide it. But that softness made the crew love her, that and her absolute courage- nopony braver in the navy, not one! Thornbush hoped one day he’d be posted captain- that was the limit of his ambition- but he couldn’t ever imagine being a better captain than Hornsparker.

“Good evening, Mr. Thornbush.”

Iron Press had come up the hatch, and he stood beside Thornbush, also staring at where Hornsparker slept. “Oh, pardon me, milord,” Thornbush said, ducking his head in respect. “’Tis still terrible weather for you to be out in, and that’s a fact.”

“I needed a bit of fresh air,” Iron Press said. “I was helping with the wounded. That poor man has no business pretending to be a doctor.”

“Beggin’ your pardon, sir, but he’s all we’ve got,” Thornbush said. “Doc Handkerchief, he was the surgeon assigned to us, he was a salt addict, and he foundered just after we made it around the great cape. He was th’ only trained one for doctorin’, except for the captain’s reading.”

“Yes, I noticed medical books on her shelf,” Iron Press said. “I was surprised to see so many books of so many kinds in the possession of a ship’s captain.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised, sir,” Thornbush said. “Every captain I’ve served with had their particular hobby. Captain Nevermore grew flowers in his cabin- the very devil to strike away when clearing for action. Admiral Jim Dismal preached the teachings of Princess Celestia to everyone. About the only one I served with who didn’t have a hobby was Captain Whipsaw…” Thornbush frowned and muttered, “Maybe that’s how he ended up… well, never mind.” He shook his head and added, “And our captain’s a reader, that she is.”

“And do you read, Lieutenant?”

“I read the Naval Bulletin, sir. And the newspapers when we can get ‘em. Nothin’ like the captain, though. She reads more than anybody else in the fleet, I’m bound.” Thornbush nodded definitively and added, “And she picks up everythin’ she reads, too. She’s an even bigger learner than a reader, and a bigger thinker than both, if you understand me.”

“A thinker?”

“Oh, yes. Always thinkin’. Three or four things at once, sometimes.” The lieutenant smiled sadly and added, “Maybe a bit too much, I think sometimes. She worries, does our captain. Not that I blame her,” he added quickly. “It’s a heavy job and no mistake. But sometimes she worries about the silliest things, and she get so mad about it.”

“I haven’t seen any sign of bad temper from her.”

“Nor you wouldn’t, sir. She wouldn’t let you if she could help it.” Thornbush gestured to Hornsparker, who had lifted her head again in response to another brief burst of tropical downpour, there and gone in seconds. “As I said, she’s soft, but she thinks she can hide it. She thinks she has to hide it. She doesn’t think she’s good enough, and she tries so hard, because she thinks she has to be better at everything than everyone. She thinks that’s what we all expect, bless her.”

Iron Press chuckled softly, just loud enough to be heard over the wind and water. “You sound like you’re in love with her.”

“In love? Pshaw!” Thornbush said. “I’d follow her into Tartarus, sir, and that’s a fact. But I’m not fit to marry her, sir. I’m just a dumb old salt, am I. I can’t follow her books, an’ I can’t keep up with her thoughts. She needs someone as smart as she is. Someone who can make her see what everyone else sees in her.”

“Does she have nobody, then?”

“Well… she is married,” Thornbush admitted. “But, well, least said soonest mended there. Not my place to speak, ‘specially of absent ponies.”

“I see,” Iron Press said. Thornbush couldn’t quite see it in the dark, but the Canterlot noble’s eyes narrowed slightly in an expression of pure calculation.

In her hammock-chair, Hornsparker mouthed something inaudible, tugged the oilcloak a little closer over her head, and settled back down into her doze.

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 15: Four Bells

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Get up.

Get up.

Twilight’s eyes opened. A moment later, she wished she hadn’t. Despite the oil-cloak, just enough water and seaspray had got onto her face to leave a salty residue that burned her eyes when they were open. “Wha…” she mumbled. “Whaz’t?”

I must get up. The weather is changing. I must see if we can make sail.

“Wha’ time izzit?”

Past three bells in the middle watch. I heard Gerard giving an order earlier.

Almost two in the morning. Twilight had been dozing for over four hours, then. But, evidently, the Hornsparker personality hadn’t. Curious. Waking up enough to distinguish between voices in her head and voices in her ear, she thought at the fake personality, Why didn’t you take back over, if you were awake? Come to think of it, Hornsparker had barely done more than mutter since the battle began, not even trying to retake control of her body.

Nonsense. I am in control of myself, no matter what insane voices I hear in my head.

But you weren’t in control yesterday! I was doing everything.

I was doing everything! I was in complete control at all times!

This protestation from Hornsparker brought Twilight wide awake. The spell-created personality wasn’t lying to her. She didn’t think it could lie, and anyway it didn’t believe she was real. So why would it think it was in control when Twilight had been in control of her actions throughout…

Because I did everything it was going to do, Twilight thought, a shudder that had nothing to do with the filthy weather running down her spine. It’s not fighting me, because I’m doing what it wants!

I am doing what I want, thank you very much, tropical madness voice, Hornsparker snapped.

Aha! That’s the first time you’ve directly acknowledged my existence! Twilight replied.

You don’t exist. You are a product of mental strain, tropical humors, and lack of rest. That’s why I suffered myself to lie on the deck while we lay in mortal-

Oh, shut up.

Twilight looked up at the sky. It was still black, but it felt like there were bits of varying blackness sailing past overhead. The ship was moving differently… actually, it was moving less, the rolls of the ocean coming less steeply and less frequently. The rain had stopped, and the sound of the surf no longer came as a roar rivaling the wind. And the gale still howled… but the sound of wind in the rigging had a lower pitch.

The storm was passing. Soon they’d be able to make sail again…

.. and do what? All right, Twilight thought at Hornsparker, where do we go next?

We go where Cumpleanos is, Hornsparker replied. If she’s in sight at first light, we attack. If not… The mental voice drawled, speculating. I believe she took more damage than we did in the battle. She shot our stern to pieces, but the only holes below the waterline came before we were dismasted- all up in the bow. Poor gunnery. We fired twice as fast as she and with much greater accuracy, so I expect she’s leaking like a sieve. And she lost more rigging and mast than we did… and I don’t think she could replace them.

Why not? We did.

We’re less than a year out of a complete refit. How long has Cumpleanos been away from Iburria? Decades? There are no strong oaks or tall pines here for proper masts. The native wood might barely be good enough to replace old worm-eaten planks. Any spares she’s lost over the years can’t have been made good. No, they’ll be scraping the bottom of the barrel for anything to make a jury foremast out of. And it won’t be a skilled job, not with an all-native, half-trained crew.

No, Hornsparker thought, her mental voice growing in confidence. She’s crippled, and probably blown leeward over the horizon by now. That blocky old hull catches more wind than we do. Likely she still has more ponies, but we’re the more battle-ready ship in all other respects. Admiral Shadetree’s best course is to head back to Hornseca. She can put guns on that island, cobble together the best masts she can out of native trees, and be safe from us until she’s seaworthy again. And the wind’s blowing us in that direction in any case. She’ll run. She has to.

Really? Twilight thought. That assumes she’s a sane and rational pony.

Which she is not, Hornsparker agreed ruefully. I wonder how annoying the voices in her head are?

You tell me, Twilight replied. Seriously. If conditions were reversed, would you run?

Asking one insane pony what another insane pony thinks, imaginary voice? Hornsparker chuckled bitterly. There followed a long mental silence. No, Hornsparker admitted. I would try to find some way to turn defeat into victory. I would exploit my two remaining advantages- my larger crew and heavier broadside. Because I’d… Hornsparker’s voice trailed off, and when it returned it came with a wagon train’s load of fear. Because I’d know I hadn’t a hope of getting away from Lydia with a crippled ship! If this ship could sail rings around Cumpleanos before, what about now?

Then she’s not running? She’s attacking?

Until Celestia raises the sun, there’s no way to know.

Like heck there isn’t.

Twilight couldn’t remember Haycartes’ Method, and her magic power had been stifled down to a tiny fraction of what it should have been, but she still remembered a great many other spells… including Rarity’s gem-finding spell. She pulled herself out of the hammock-chair, letting the oil-cloak fall, and stepped over to the deck rail, pausing a moment to adjust her hat with her magic. Then she cast the spell…

… some tiny inlays in the ship’s compass and both the navigation chronometers, a handful of horn-rings and earrings among the crew, a small trove in what was most likely Iron Press’s luggage… ignore all those, and…

… ping. A faint tug from outside the ship… and not all that far outside the ship. Twilight had remembered the jeweled sword and decorated uniforms of the Maredrid officers when they surrendered, and they hadn’t been allowed to bring their dunnage off the Cumpleanos. Shadetree had almost certainly looted those lost lockers and bags for whatever finery the officers had had to abandon to add to her own uniform…

… and indeed, a cluster of jewels existed… just under two miles off the port bow.

They’re only two miles off. How could they get here in this weather?

Two miles off?? For the first time Hornsparker made a brief push for control of the body. There’s no way we made more leeway than they did. They must be under tow… but how many of their ship’s boats could possibly have survived? And how could they find this ship in the dark?

How? Twilight wondered for a moment.

Then both mental voices came to the same conclusion. Pegasi, they thought as one. Shadetree was trying to reproduce the exact same trick Twilight had used to capture Cumpleanos in the first place- using almost the same methods.

The weather is lethal, but that wouldn’t stop Shadetree, Hornsparker thought.

The native pegasi won’t be trained in making wind, Twilight added, but they’ll be much more used to wild weather. They’ll be able to fly against it.

And, again in mental chorus: We’re being watched.

Twilight pushed away from the railing. “WELL!” she shouted. “NO HOPE OF SAIL UNTIL DAWN AT LEAST! AND THEY CAN’T POSSIBLY BE WITHIN FIFTY MILES OF US NOW! I MIGHT AS WELL GO BELOW!”

Lieutenant Gerard, the officer of the watch, gave Twilight a completely baffled look, but said nothing. Twilight thanked literary convenience for the Lydia’s officers having learned not to question or converse with their captain. She went down the hatch, but not to the first lieutenant’s cabin. Instead she continued on to the wardroom, where Thornbush and the officers not on duty would be trying to grab a bit of rest.

Twilight slid the wardroom hatch open and squeezed into the tight space. There was Wildrider, and Freerein, and Thornbush lifting his drowsy head… and Summons, yes, the marine-captain curled up on a bunk sound asleep.

“Wake up,” Twilight hissed. “Quietly.” She reached a hoof over and shook Summons awake. “Summons, get all the pegasi together belowdecks. When I give the order, I want them launched straight up through the gratings.” She looked to Wildrider, who appeared to be a little too close to Freerein’s bunk for Twilight’s mental comfort. “Mr. Wildrider, you will personally see to it that all the gratings are undogged and can be pushed open from below. Do it yourself, and do it as unobtrusively as possible, do you understand?”

“Aye, sir, but-“

“Quiet.” She turned to Thornbush. “Cumpleanos is within two miles of us and closing. She knows where we are, I suspect because she’s sent her pegasi out into the storm to watch us and report our location. If she can, she’ll try to board us. Our only advantage is that she doesn’t know her secret is blown.”

“Bless me, ma’am,” Thornbush said. “How d’ye know-“

“Not now,” Twilight said. “I want the crew belowdecks roused and ready to clear for action on my order- but they must remain belowdecks until I give the order, understood?”

“Aye, ma’am.”

“Good. Make sure the cooking fires are out and cold. Do that now, Ms. Freerein, and then gather your division under Lieutenant Thornbush’s orders. Quietly.

“Aye, ma’am.” Freerein got out of her bunk, giving a quick backwards glance at Wildrider- I don’t want to know these things, Twilight moaned in the semi-privacy of her head- and left.

“Major Summons,” Twilight continued, “once the pegasi launch, they are to find and capture any pegasi or other flyers that may be in the clouds above us. Note the word capture. I want them all alive, Major. I very strongly suspect, if we promise to spare their lives, most of them will be glad to tell us everything we want to know about the current conditions on Cumpleanos. Remember the kind of discipline practiced in Xipe Totec’s forces.”

Summons nodded solemnly. “I remember, captain,” he said. “But if they fight anyway?”

Twilight sighed. “Your ponies must make their best efforts. Also I need your unicorns. Once the skies are clear, I intend to cast a flare spell over the enemy’s position. I’ll need the other ship’s unicorns to sustain it.”

“Aye aye, ma’am,” Summons said.

“Thornbush,” Twilight continued, turning to face the first lieutenant, “when we clear for action, I want the fore staysail raised and the topsails, two reefs. The storm’s moderated, and I want us under way before Shadetree has a chance to try any long-range fire or other clever tricks. If we can I want to give her a couple of broadsides from long range, but I don’t want a close action at night. Once the sun comes up, we have all the advantages- especially if we can take away her air forces. Understood?”

“Aye, ma’am.”

“Then let’s get about it,” Twilight said.



“Pass the word,” Twilight hissed. “Every pony is to keep their eyes closed until they hear the drums. There’s going to be a very bright light.”

Twilight clung to the ladder up to the cargo hatch amidships. Around her stood nine other unicorns. Hovering against the deck beams overhead were the seventeen remaining able-bodied pegasus marines, wingblades at the ready. In the dim lantern-light around them lurked hundreds of ponies, out of their hammocks and poised to rush to their action stations.

“All right, unicorns,” Twilight whispered. On the count of three, everypony cast a flash spell two hundred hooves overhead. Drummer,” she said to the little pony whose hooves barely wrapped around the enormous drum that signaled action stations for the ship, “when I say ‘now’, beat to quarters.”

“Aye aye, ma’am,” the little voice of the drummer squeaked.

“All right. Here we go.” Twilight took a deep breath. “One, two, three.”

Her spell led the way, and nine other, stronger spells followed it shooting up in the sky like a fountain of fireworks. At ranges varying from just barely above the maintop on up to two hundred and thirty hooves in the air they went off, spraying blinding light around them… and completely wrecking the night vision of half a dozen native pegasi lurking in clouds ripped off the storms overhead.

“NOW!”

Gratings burst into the air, shoved aside by seventeen pegasi leaping up at full climb. A moment later the drum rolled its long, deep beat, and hundreds of ponies scrambled from the hatches.

“Hooves to the braces!” Thornbush shouted. “Stand by to make sail! Tops’ls, two reefs!”

“Guncrews to your weapons!” Freerein screamed, her higher-pitched voice cutting well through the thunder of hooves on deck. “Hurry up there! You’ll have a target shortly, so you better be ready to hit it if you don’t want extra time at the pumps!”

Twilight waited until the last of the ordinary crewponies rushed up the ladder before shouting, “Unicorns to me!” and went up the ladder two rungs at a time. She was over the lip of the hatch and running to the gangway up to the foredeck in moments, her magic squad at her fetlocks. “Off the port bow!” A quick re-cast of Rarity’s spell verified that yes, Cumpleanos was out there- not much more than a mile away, now, with the time lost preparing for combat. “Follow my spell and keep the enemy lit up until we’re well past!”

Twilight didn’t actually know if she could make a light spell reach over a mile away, especially since the sea still rolled like Berry Punch after testing her latest vintage. But she had to try…

She cast the spell, pushing every ounce of Hornsparker’s feeble power into it. The spell soared, then wobbled, then sputtered in the air…

Go… go… I can do this… I am Princess Twilight Sparkle…

I am out of my head, Hornsparker moaned in her mind.

I am Princess Twilight Sparkle and I have had enough of this! Anger gave her that little extra push, and the spell shot forward- and struck something, going off in a brilliant flare.

The pegasus it hit staggered in midair, the cable tied around its barrel going slack. Behind it by about a hundred ponylengths, a darker shadow on the dark waves, lay the outline of a ship.

Then eight more spells soared over and lit up Cumpleanos, revealing a hodgepodge of pieces of wood that might be called masts and spars… if one was particularly loose with the Equestrian language… with lines running to fifteen pegasi and one large ship’s boat with two dozen oar-ponies, paused in mid-stroke.

Thornbush trotted up to where Twilight stood on the foredeck. “Enemy in sight, ma’am,” he reported, grinning.

Twilight didn’t grin back. She remembered the prior day’s chaos, pain and suffering all too well. “You have your orders, lieutenant,” she said coldly. “Engage.”

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 16: Pursuit

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A mile, in naval combat between sailing ships, is almost as good as a thousand miles. Even in optimal conditions, at the best speed a ship of the line can attain by sail, and even if the target is absolutely stationary, it takes eight minutes to cover that distance, eight minutes during which the enemy is doing everything in their power to stop the ship from coming into range or, failing that, getting more than a couple of shots in.

But in this action, the Lydia enjoyed every possible advantage. Her target was not merely stationary but actually bow into the wind, under tow. Lydia had the wind at her back, a wind just barely moderated from the gale that had pushed the two ships apart after their previous battle. In the darkness of the cloudy pre-dawn sea, Lydia remained virtually invisible except for the trails of the light spells which kept Cumpleanos lit up like a magic lantern.

And most of all, Cumpleanos was filled with confusion after the sudden flashes of light, the coming to life of her enemy, and the sudden loss of her pegasus scouts. The pegasi tethered to the ship milled in the air, neither pulling the crippled two-decker nor returning to allow her to clear for action; ditto the single ship’s boat and its rowers. For the moment the enemy ship lay leaderless, directionless, and helpless.

In time Admiral Shadetree would correct these problems- Twilight didn’t doubt that for a moment. She didn’t intend to allow her that time.

“Starboard a point!” she shouted to the helmsponies. By a miracle the Lydia’s rudder and steering had escaped the damage which had ravaged Lydia’s stern decks. With the frigate picking up speed under sail, the immense rudder bit into the rolling waves, directing Lydia a touch off the wind, but still not far from a collision course with Cumpleanos.

But that wasn’t Twilight’s plan, either. “Hooves to braces!” she shouted. “Mister Thornbush, stand ready for the port tack on my order!”

Sailing past the helpless Cumpleanos on her port side would carry Lydia past too quickly, and moreover it would yield up the weather gage to the enemy. It would also mean coming too close to the enemy ship and her inaccurate but devastating broadside. Making the most of Lydia’s advantages- accuracy, rate of fire, and sailing ability- meant keeping at a distance, especially while night still held. The unicorns couldn’t hold the lighting spell forever.

“Ms. Freerein! When we come about, fire as your guns bear! Give ‘em a reason to back off!”

“Aye aye, ma’am!”

All through the night Lydia had rolled, tossed by the seas, barely able to keep her bows pointed into the waves. Now, with her sails catching the wind, she plowed through the crests of the waves, once more in control of her own destiny, bearing down on Cumpleanos. Orders had been relayed, and slowly, very slowly, the pegasi and the ship’s boat were turning Cumpleanos… to port, trying to either bring their starboard broadside into play or possibly align their port broadside for maximum time on target.

That assumed Lydia would shoot past on Cumpleanos’s port side… and, with Lydia closed to a mere five hundred yards, Shadetree was about to find out how wrong she was.

“Port your helm!” Twilight shouted. “Come about!”

Tacking with the wind behind was nothing like tacking with the wind ahead. There was no danger of being taken aback, with the sails blown against the masts. There was merely the shifting of the sails to channel the wind by a different angle, allowing Lydia to turn with the wind abeam, even to cheat a little into the wind despite the jury mizzenmast. Twilight would keep upwind of Cumpleanos, maintaining the initiative in later combat… and, thanks to Shadetree guessing wrong, she’d also get a perfect shot at the two-decker’s almost unprotected bow.

Lydia came about, and her gunports flew open, hauled up by ponies ready to deliver an unpleasant, and in some cases terminal, surprise to the enemy.

“Steady… steady… FIRE!” Freerein shouted, and almost instantly sixteen guns roared at one hundred and fifty yards’ range. Twilight saw splinters fly, showing at least three hits- excellent shooting in stormy seas at that range.

“Reload and fire at will!” Freerain shouted again. “Hurry, ponies, you’ll never get a target like this again!”

But at the speed Lydia sailed, not all the guns got a second shot before Cumpleanos was out of the line of fire, lying behind them. As Twilight watched, the two-decker’s starboard side erupted in a massive cloud of smoke- Shadetree had been ready, despite the surprise. Shot whistled through the air overhead, and ponies shouted as two lines were severed by the cannonballs. A single crash told of a hit near the waterline.

“Unicorns rest!” she shouted, and the lighting spell went out. “Well done, my little ponies! We hold this course for half an hour, and then at dawn we finish them off!”

The crew cheered their approval. Thornbush, on the other hoof, didn’t seem to agree. Looking worried, he stepped over to her and asked, “Oughtn’t we try to finish them off now? We might not find them in the same place later.”

“Shadetree came to us because a night fight is what she wants,” Twilight said. “She can win a boarding action if she’s willing to spend the blood, and she certainly is. And at point blank range- which is the only way we can conduct a prolonged battle at night- Cumpleanos’s broadsides have the edge. I’m not going to fight by Shadetree’s rules, Mr. Thornbush. I’m going to make her fight by mine.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Thornbush said, obviously still uncertain.

“For now, secure from action stations,” Twilight ordered. “Then get the cook to relight his fires and make sure the crew has a hot meal. They’re going to see more hard work when Celestia raises the sun.”

As Thornbush set about this, Captain Court Summons stepped up, one of the native pegasi in shackles next to him. “We got six of ‘em, ma’am, all right and tight, as you ordered,” he said. “One of ours got a minor wound. Lowly’s wrapped it, but I’d be obliged if you’d stitch it up, ma’am.” He nudged the pegasus and said, “Four of ‘em refuse to talk, and we knocked out one takin ‘er, but this one asked to speak to you, special.”

“Very good,” Twilight said. “Major, be sure the other prisoners are treated as well as possible. We’ll be sending hands to breakfast within the hour. See to it the prisoners get a good hot meal too, understand?”

Summons looked confused by this, but nodded. “Aye, ma’am.”

Satisfied, Twilight turned her attention to the native. “For what it’s worth, you’re out of the fighting now,” she said. “I don’t know if the major explained it to you, but we can’t return you to your home for obvious reasons. But we’re not going to turn you over to the Maredrid authorities, either. We know what they do to anyone they accuse of being a rebel.”

That’s right, Hornsparker thought. Most corrupt old monarchy in the east. The only thing they know how to do is ensure that no rebel has the chance to do it twice. And “looking at me funny” counts as rebellion to some of them.

Twilight struggled not to roll her eyes at this mental aside. In the real world, though Maredrid’s nobility set high standards for uselessness, they weren’t actually any more unpleasant than, say, your average Canterlot snob. But everything his is so much more… brutal. “It is my intention,” Twilight continued, “to take you and any other prisoners I take in this action back around the Great Southern Cape and to Equestria. Once there you’ll have the chance to make a new life for yourself.” She frowned as she added, “I’m sorry I can’t let you return to your friends and family, but I can’t allow you to return to Xipe Totec’s service.”

“NO!” the pegasus shouted, flinching back. “Not back to Xipe Totec!” Despite her shackles, the pegasus attempted to fly, as if Twilight were the mad mule herself. “You saw the wheels! You saved my brother from the wheels! And all he say was Don Sunstruck’s name!” Now the pegasus leaned forward. “May I see my brother? I know he is with you!”

“What’s his name?”

“Blue Maize.”

“Pass the word for Blue Maize!” Twilight shouted. “And while we’re waiting, um…”

“Cloud Cotton, senora captain!” the pegasus said quickly.

“Ms. Cotton, perhaps you could tell us how things stand on the Cumpleanos?

As Twilight learned over the following five minutes, things stood very poorly. Hornsparker’s guesses had been generally accurate. Cumpleanos’s pumps worked constantly to keep the ship afloat, while the native carpenters cannibalized ship’s rails and spare sail to try to plug the dozen shot holes below the waterline. With her foremast and the top mainmast gone, the two-decker could barely sail, and only one old spar had been intact enough to serve as a sort of Lateen foremast. And- this last fact made Twilight want to cry, despite everything- their casualties had been almost double Twilight’s, with over one hundred and twenty ponies dead or wounded, and not even a Lowly to ease their suffering.

“That leaves about four hundred of us,” Cloud Cotton said. “Shadetree has six unicorns, seven of the pegasi, and a hundred Hornseca earth ponies fanatically loyal to Xipe Totec still. But the old crew only serve out of fear. Shadetree keeps them from organizing a mutiny. She makes an example every watch, captain. Every watch, some pony bleeds out on the deck. She is as mad as her master, captain. But it works.”

“Why did you stay?” Twilight asked. “You could fly away.”

Mi mama, mi papa,” Cloud Cotton said. “They are old, but they still live. They are in the village still. Shadetree says if I do not serve well, Xipe Totec will have them sacrifice to the harvest. Other pegasi, the unicorns, they are the same.”

Twilight frowned. “If Xipe Totec loses, what will happen to your family?”

Cloud Cotton shrugged. “Mama and papa are old,” she said. “If I am gone, and my brother, and if the burros do not burn the village, I think they will be left alone.” She hung her head and added, “But even if not, I cannot protect them now. If I go back I will die, one way or another.”

Twilight nodded. “I’m sorry,” she said. By this time Blue Maize, who had been given a landspony’s job hauling ropes under supervision, had been brought up to the quarterdeck. “Mr. Maize, I’m sending you with your sister to the hold with the prisoners. I’m sorry, but while you’re down there you’ll have to be in chains. I can’t risk the possibility of an escape in battle. I hope you understand.”

“You save me from the sun and the wheel, ma’am,” Blue Maize said, saluting. “You hold my life in your hooves.”

“I’ll try to keep it well, Maize,” Twilight said. “Major Summons, take good care of them.”

We’ll put them to good work after the battle, Hornsparker thought. We’ll need all hands to get back around the cape.

Can’t you think of anything other than your precious ship? Twilight thought. Like, maybe, the ponies on it?

The ship is the ponies on it, Hornsparker replied, and that ended the mental conversation.




“Sail ho!”

The cry rang out within a minute of the sun rising again. There, almost on the horizon, lay Cumpleanos, over ten miles distant and under what could, with equal justice, be called either full sail or a washing-line.

“Will you hark at that?” Thornbush laughed. “Shadetree’s soiled herself and is doing her laundry today!”

Twilight didn’t laugh. Cumpleanos was before the wind and sailing as fast as she could. Likely she had set sail the minute Lydia had gone from sight, the minute Shadetree had realized her sneak attack had failed. With the advantage of night gone, insane as she was, she had to know her only hope was to run before the wind and pray for a miracle.

But it wasn’t as hopeless as Twilight had thought a few hours before. Cumpleanos was crawling, but she was under way, making two or possibly three knots before the wind. With that same wind moderated, Lydia currently made six knots. At their current relative rates of speed, it would be close to noon before Lydia could engage. A great many things could happen in that time- another squall, a broken spar or split sail, anything.

Twilight had sailed away from Cumpleanos for half an hour for fear of running past the enemy in the pre-dawn darkness by mistake. That had been a mistake, and it threatened to cost them victory. She glanced over at Thornbush, who was carefully looking anyplace except at his captain.

He has “I told you so” written all over his face, Hornsparker grumbled.

Why didn’t you say something at the time? Twilight asked.

Because it was the right thing to do. If we’d stayed close, Shadetree might have attempted something else while we weren’t looking. Night actions are generally to be avoided, in any case; too much can go wrong.

Then let him say I told you so if he wants.

He can think it all he wants, Hornsparker snarled, so long as he doesn’t dare say it.

And suddenly Axle Wheel stood next to Twilight. “I’ve seen to Lord Iron Press, ma’am,” he said. “An’ I’ve brought you a tray, since you didn’t have breakfast with the crew, ma’am.” Coffee, fresh-made skillet cornbread with cane molasses, and a pawpaw sliced up on a little dish. Twilight’s mouth watered at the sight, though her greatest desire lay in the black liquid in the steaming mug.

“An’ his lordship’s compliments, ma’am, and please may he stay in the orlop when action is renewed.”

Twilight almost spewed half her coffee out of the mug. She forced herself to complete the sip of the hot brew, then asked, “Why?” A Canterlot lord, among dozens of wounded and probably dying ponies, in their own filth and bloody bandages?

“He said there’s light in th’ orlop, an’ th’ rats stay out, ma’am,” Wheel said. “An’ he says he can be of use there.”

“If that’s what he wants, fine,” Twilight said.

“An’ his lordship says, best of fortune today… an’… um…”

“Spit it out!”

“An’ he’s confident you’ll meet with the success you deserve, ma’am,” Wheel blurted out. “Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am.”

Inside her head, Twilight felt Hornsparker blush. She hoped it didn’t actually show on her face. “Kindly tell him thank you when you go,” she said. “Go see to whatever he needs.”

“Aye, ma’am,” Wheel said. “Shall I wait for your tray first, ma’am?”

Twilight rushed through her breakfast- a vast improvement over her first couple of horrible meals in this story- I must remember, this is still only a story- and downed her coffee as quickly as she could manage. Axle Wheel must have brewed it fresh. She noticed other stewards making the rounds of the officers, bringing cornbread and coffee mugs. Good, she thought.

Mug in hoof, Thornbush walked over to Twilight and said, “Ma’am, I think th’s sun’s swallowin’ up the wind.”

Twilight barely stopped herself from saying, “Huh?” Instead she thought, The sun does what?

We’re not far north of the doldrums, Hornsparker thought. In tropic seas, when it gets hot, often the air goes still. Some wind at dawn and dusk, but none in midday. We could be becalmed, while a mere mile away another ship has wind.

Oh.

…. OH!

“That’s excellent news, Thornbush!” Twilight said, unable to suppress her excitement.

“Beg your pardon, ma’am?” Thornbush said. “If the wind doesn’t fall, we’ll be up to th’ enemy in three hours. But if it does fall off-“

“If it does fall off, they’ll be totally at our mercy!”

Thornbush’s confused expression made it the rest of the way to total bewilderment. “Aye aye, ma’am,” he said, because it was the only thing the laws of the sea allowed him to say to a captain temporarily out of her senses.

“But don’t you see?” Twilight blinked, then said, “No, wait, I guess you don’t. Let me explain…”

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 17: Battle

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The morning sun beat down on the Luna Sea, on the two ships some four miles apart. The ship in the lead had a single ship’s boat towing it, twelve ponies with oars straining to shift the immense weight of the old, crippled ship even a little. A handful of pegasi also pulled on smaller lines, adding their best, pitiful as it was, to the effort. The crippled ship fought their efforts, turning first one direction and then the other on the low ocean rollers- “boxing the compass” without a strong wind to give it guidance or steering way.

Four miles to the west, another ship plowed its way through the otherwise airless seas. No foam curled atop the water that split past its prow, but the ship was indeed moving, thanks to the labor of dozens of ponies pouring water on the great sails that hung from every spar…

… and, even more so, to the sixteen pegasi who, in four lines of four, came streaking past the ship yet again, flying a spiral pattern up to the stern of the ship and then past it, barely clearing the yards and rigging.

With the pegasi came wind- not much wind, just a breeze- but it was wind Lydia had and Cumpleanos did not. The wind struck Lydia’s sails which, wetted down, caught that wind more efficiently, wringing a tiny bit of extra momentum out of the breeze.

It had seemed a brilliant idea to Twilight hours before, when she’d had it. But she’d underestimated the sheer mass of Lydia that an artificial wind would have to move. There were only seventeen pegasi, not counting prisoners or not yet trusted native recruits, on Lydia, and only four of them had serious weather training… and they couldn’t throw themselves through the air indefinitely.

In fact, since they were still more than an hour behind Cumpleanos, Twilight decided there was time for respite. The pegasi would need to reserve some energy to allow Lydia to maneuver once the two ships were within range- especially to reduce the dangerous time when Cumpleanos could fire on Lydia, but not the other way around. That would be a bad time no matter what. The less time Lydia remained under fire, the better.

“Mr. Thornbush,” she called out, “pick out rowing crews for the launch and cutter. Send them to dinner first, and once they’ve eaten, I want the launch and cutter to take us in tow. Once that’s done, recall the pegasi and send the rest of the crew to dinner. We’ll clear for action once everyone’s eaten.”

“Aye, ma’am.”

The launch and the cutter could each hold more than twice as many ponies as the sole boat towing Cumpleanos, but even with forty oars in the water Lydia would crawl across the waves, if she made forward movement at all. And forty ponies would have to sweat and gasp for every inch gained on the enemy ship, in a still heat and humidity that made even staying still a penance.

I’ll relieve the boat crews after an hour, Hornsparker said quietly. Celestia knows I couldn’t withstand half of that. And so many of these ponies came from the press, drafted onto ships with no more aptitude or interest in the sea than a vole. There must be a better way, even if Equestria has to strain herself to the limit just to withstand the Horsican tyrant…

Keep it up, Twilight thought pointedly, and there’ll be more than one pony on this course wearing dead pony skins and thinking they’re gods.

Dinner came and went, and with it the cry, “Up spirits!” and the rush for the grog barrel. Twilight kept the pegasi away from the rum, promising them a triple tot after battle. It was bad enough that the crew had to have their daily dose of dehydrating alcohol. She wasn’t going to compound the problem by allowing worn-out ponies, with great strain still in their immediate future, to make things worse.

She took her own dinner on the deck, while around her the crew rushed around preparing the ship, yet again, for imminent battle. This time, she thought, it won’t be put back until Cumpleanos strikes her colors. Too many ponies have died for this foolishness. It’s time to end it.

Noon came, and the launch and cutter crews were exchanged for new rowers. The two ships crept closer together, Cumpleanos losing ground by inches. One bell came in the afternoon watch, and then two, and the boat crews were exchanged once again.

And then, not long after the second changing of rowers, a white circle appeared on the distant ship. Twilight counted: one, two, three, four, five, sixboom.

“I saw two stern chasers on Cumpleanos when we took her,” Gerard said, standing next to Thornbush. “Sixteen-pounders, they looked like.”

Two guns, Twilight thought, and we have only one bow chaser we can fire in response- and that only a nine-pounder. And when Shadetree gives up on trying to run, we’ll be facing twenty-three cannon firing twenty-four or thirty-six pound shot. Not that the shots would be very accurate at this extreme range, but if they fired enough shots, with the sea growing ever calmer and with Lydia barely moving, some had to hit.

But Lydia was still over a mile away. The carronades of her single-deck broadside wouldn’t be able to respond effectively until they closed within a quarter-mile. Even if she started the pegasi back at making wind, it would be twenty minutes at least before Lydia could return fire.

Twilight trotted down from the quarterdeck to the gun deck, where the collected pegasi marines were sitting and waiting, along with the unicorns from the marine contingent. One pegasus and the unicorns would stand by through the operation to rescue any pegasus that fell out of the formation, either due to fatigue or enemy action.

“Windjammer,” she said, addressing the most experienced weather pony of the group, “we need another two hours of wind out of you. Can you do it?”

Hornsparker screamed in her head. Captains do not ask if their crews can do a thing. They order them to do it! By asking, you let the crew ponies decide if they want to do the thing or not! You undermine-

“We’ll get it done, ma’am,” Windjammer said, saluting hoof to forehead. “We’ll put you right alongside that old hulk if you want.”

“No, not alongside,” Twilight said. “I want us to close to four hundred yards and then try to maneuver around her stern.” At the longest effective range of her own guns, Lydia could maximize her advantages in accuracy and rate of fire over Cumpleanos’s more plentiful and powerful cannon. “But those ponies won’t make it easy, and they’ll keep towing their ship around to aim their broadside at us.”

“Want us to drop a couple balls into that ship’s boat of theirs, ma’am?” Windjammer asked.

“Absolutely not!” Twilight said, turning pale. “It’s bad enough we have to shoot that ship into submission. I will not fire on defenseless ponies! Those aren’t a boarding party, they’re just rowers!”

“Aye aye, ma’am,” Windjammer said, obviously disappointed.

Another distant boom came from the bow, and a few seconds later a pair of splashes came from just behind the ship. “Get ready,” she said. “I’m about to order the boats back in.”

“Just say the word, ma’am,” Windjammer said, smiling.

“Mr. Thornbush!” Twilight shouted. “Get those sails soaked down again!” She trotted up to the bow and shouted down to the sailing master’s mates in the boats. “Fishhook! Skip Stitch! Avast rowing and get those boats in!”

Twilight left the chore of getting the boats in to Wildrider and pass the word for the chief gunner. “Mr. Marshmallow,” she said when the old bearded pony came up from the magazine, “kindly take the bow nine-pounder and-“

The faint boom of Cumpleanos’s stern chasers reached them, and a couple of moments later came the crunching impact of at least one ball into the bow just above the waterline.

“Kindly take the bow nine-pounder and give Admiral Shadetree something to think about, if you please.”

The single nine-pounder wouldn’t do much more than annoy the enemy ship- maybe catching a single unlucky pony or spraying splinters into a few bodies if a hit came lucky- but it would make the crew feel better to think they weren’t just sitting and taking it. But some greater distraction seemed called for. “Shadetree wants to treat us to some music,” she shouted. “Let’s show her what music lovers we are! Pass the word for Emerald Fortune!”

The fiddler was brought up to the quarterdeck, and Twilight smiled. “Let’s have a lively tune, Mr. Fortune! A hornpipe!”

Please no, Hornsparker moaned in her head.

Twilight ignored it. “And you crew! Who’s the best dancer on the ship? Who’s best at the hornpipe?”

The crew shouted one name after another, and three eventually predominated. “All right,” Twilight shouted, calming down the crowd. “Let’s have Wickerbasket, Hallcloset and Shetland up here! Each of you dance a hornpipe! The best dancer gets a guinea!”

The boats were brought in, and the pegasi launched, as fiddle music screeched in Twilight’s artificially tone-deaf ears. Twilight forced herself to ignore the ponies flying overhead, the breeze in their wake which filled the sails again. She forced herself not to look at the enemy ship, still firing those stern chasers with the occasional hit, as the Lydia very gradually gathered way and began bearing down in earnest on the Cumpleanos.

And she forced herself not to throw up when one of those shot hit a poor pony in the head and sprayed brains all over Hallcloset before slamming into the starboard gangplank, smashing a hole in it. Hallcloset never missed a kick, and he walked away with the extra-large bit coin, to the cheers of the (surviving) crew.

Only then did Twilight look up to see Cumpleanos turning its broadside towards the oncoming frigate. “It seems our neighbors don’t like our music!” she shouted with a carefree courage she didn’t at all feel. “We’re going to have some stones thrown at us, ponies! We’ll show ‘em how much we care about that, won’t we?”

By now Marshmallow had found the range of Cumpleanos with the nine-pounder at the bow, and like clockwork he put a round into the enemy ship once every hundred seconds. But this success, such as it was, paled at the loud boom and the whistling sound of Cumpleanos’s starboard broadside passing around them.

And then something spun Twilight on her hooves, throwing her to the deck. In a moment of sheer terror she patted herself down, found a new tear in her workaday uniform, but nothing worse. The same couldn’t be said for two marine ponies who had been sitting near the taffrail when a cannonball had torn into the decking and sent chunks of wood flying. One of them was staring at the stump of his left rear hoof, while another had his forehooves to his face, screaming, as blood streamed from the splinter that had laid him open just below the eyes.

“Captain!” Thornbush came galloping up. “Are you all right, ma’am?”

“I think so,” Twilight said, getting to her feet. Could she be killed in this story? She was the main character, and she generally didn’t read authors with a record of killing off their protagonists. But if she changed things in the story, would that change the fate of the pony she replaced? Or could random chance alter the story, since the lucky pony who lived wasn’t there anymore?

“Lucky shot, ma’am,” Thornbush said, as if that was somehow supposed to be comforting. “I don’t think there were more than two hits in that whole broadside. And three more broadsides, and we can show ‘em what gunnery really is.”

Enduring those broadsides drove Twilight up the wall, and with Hornsparker whispering in her ear about the need for the crew to believe in their captain, she had to grit her teeth and take it. Shots skimmed through and over the deck, striking ponies, sending splinters flying. Wounded ponies were dragged down to the orlop for whatever Lowly could do for them, while dead ponies began to pile up by the mainmast.

But the pegasi with their made wind were having the desired effect. Lydia closed to three-quarters of a mile, then half a mile, as each broadside from Cumpleanos churned up more water than wood. Spurred on by approaching battle, the pegasi sped up their flights, spiraling tighter and pulling more wind with them, pushing Lydia along the waves just that little bit more.

And then, as Twilight looked at the enemy ship, Hornsparker whispered, Now.

“Helm hard to port!” Twilight shouted. “Ms. Freerein, fire as your guns bear!”


In the breeze made by the pegasi, Lydia couldn’t turn as swiftly or as surely as she would in a natural wind- much less so with a jury mizzenmast and a sail wrapped under her hull to slow the leaks in the ship. But she could turn under power, without a boat to haul at her bow. And even as one final broadside from Cumpleanos crashed into Lydia’s side and sails, the gunports opened, sixteen cannon slid out, and at the perfect moment of the ship’s roll Freerein and Gerard both screamed, “FIRE!”

The ship heaved under Twilight’s hooves. Fifty seconds later it heaved again, and fifty seconds after that. With little of the artificial wind reaching the decks, the gunsmoke lingered, clearing only reluctantly, making it difficult to assess the effect of the shots. Gerard and Freerein shouted at the gunners to target the lone remaining topmast rising up from Cumpleanos’s general location. But every minute or so another broadside erupted, with Cumpleanos firing two broadsides in the time it took Lydia to fire five- almost six.


“Hammer ‘em, lads!” Thornbush shouted. “Hammer ‘em! By Celestia, we’re beatin’ em!”

But Cumpleanos was still landing some shots. Splinters continued to fly whenever one of those wild broadsides flew. As Twilight ordered the helm to turn to starboard, trying to get at the enemy’s stern before they could tow it around, a particularly loud and prolonged crash from the starboard stern shook the ship. Twilight wondered what it could be, but couldn’t spare time to investigate. She watched as the pegasi continued to swoop past, visibly straining now, but still providing the only force that made Lydia’s victory possible.

One of the powder-foals- the young foals and fillies who ran messages or carried the cartridges up from the magazine- galloped up to Twilight and saluted. “Mr. Dowel sent me, ma’am. Starboard chain pump’s knocked all to pieces.”

That explained the crash. It was also bad news: Lydia had only just kept ahead of its leaks with both pumps in operation. “Anything else?”

“Yes’m- I mean aye, ma’am. He says he’s rigging another one, ma’am, but it’ll be at least an hour. An’ he needs more ponies, ma’am. Pret’ near the whole pump crew went down when that pump was hit, ma’am. Fourteen ponies. ‘Orrible, ma’am.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Twilight said gently. “But it’s not good to talk about such things right now. Go back to Mr. Howell and tell him the captain believes in him. Understand?”

“Aye aye, ma’am.”

The wind team swooped very low on the next pass, breaking up the acrid, stinking cloud of gunpowder smoke which had all but enveloped the ship, allowing Twilight to see. Lydia remained at between three and four hundred yards away, and Cumpleanos’s sole boat continued to turn the massive ship, keeping its stern away and keeping its broadside aimed more or less at Twilight’s ship. The higher-pitched roar of her guns came, bloom… bloom… bloom- and then the deeper sound of Cumpleanos’s broadside replied, BOWM. Again… and again… and again…

This is taking too long, Twilight thought. How long as it been? An hour? Two?

“I’ve never seen a Maredrid ship fight like this under th’ burros, ma’am,” Thornbush said. “They’re slow and aim poorly, but they fire together, and that after a ton of punishment, I believe, ma’am.”

“They’ve got to strike soon,” Twilight muttered. “They have to. They have to!”

And then she noticed she hadn’t heard the pegasi flying past for the past few minutes. She looked up. The sails were flapping a little, but they still drew wind, and Lydia still moved under power… “Windjammer?” she shouted.

“Up here, ma’am.” Twilight looked up to see all the pegasi- no, only fifteen, one had gone missing- sitting in the jury mizzen yards. “Wind’s pickin’ up, ma’am. Fair breeze out o’ th’ north, ma’am.”

Twilight noted the direction- more northwest than north- and made a quick calculation. “We need one more push,” she said. “Give me the strongest north wind you can when I give you the order. Just one pass should do it, and then you can rest.”

“Aye, ma’am.”

Twilight looked over the rail. There lay Cumpleanos, battered but still fighting… and with that lone ship’s boat and its twelve oars, still pulling its bows round to starboard while Lydia matched its motion like the end of a wheel-spoke with the hub.

Well, we’ll soon put a stop to that. “Hands to braces!” she shouted. “Prepare to come about!”

Even with the gun crews keeping up the fire on the starboard battery, even with ponies at the pumps, ponies taking the wounded down below decks, and far too many ponies piling up by the mainmast who would never see Equestria again, what seemed like a multitude of ponies swarmed up the rigging, grabbed lines, and awaited Twilight’s orders.

“All right, Windjammer,” Twilight said, “we’re coming before this new wind. When we’re square on, give us the biggest push you have left!” She turned to the helmsponies and shouted, “Hard a’starboard!” Then to the gundeck, “Crews to the port battery! Prepare to fire on my order!”

Lydia came about, turning as sharply towards Cumpleanos as she could manage. One final broadside erupted from the larger ship- and Twilight almost fell again as, for once, almost every one of Shadetree’s shots hit home, sending splinters flying and the hull creaking. But just as it is very difficult to start a heavy object in motion, so also is it very difficult to stop. With her crippled sails, Cumpleanos couldn’t catch the new breeze, and so it continued to turn, despite the sudden attempts of the rowers to reverse direction. Her bow kept coming around, presenting almost as inviting a target as the stern would have… particularly that ugly jury foremast and the improvised rigging attached to it.

And then Windjammer and her pegasi made their last effort, bringing a burst of real wind into Lydia’s sails, shoving the frigate down to less than a hundred yards off Cumpleanos’s bow.

“Back main topsail!” Twilight shouted. “Port battery, FIRE!”

The first round not only send splinters flying. It severed Cumpleanos’s bowsprit, leaving the heavy beam to dangle under the sails and lines it supported. Also severed was the tow-line to that single boat, which suddenly lunged away as its rowers failed to notice the absence of a load. Lydia spilled wind from her sails, maintaining position, pouring a second broadside into the bows, and a third.

And then the jury foremast collapsed onto the ship, taking most of what remained of the mainmast with it. After a minute, the mizzenmast followed, leaving Cumpleanos utterly helpless… except for two bow chasers, which fired almost laughably at Lydia even as the frigate poured more shot into her.

“Capn’,” Thornbush said, “that boat o’ theirs is comin’ to us.”

“Let them board, Mr. Thornbush,” Twilight said. “Make sure they’re not armed.”

“Also,” Thornbush pointed out, “she’s driftin’ into us,” He pointed a hoof at Cumpleanos. The two ships were now slowly drifting together. Lydia with her sails backed or furled to keep her target, Cumpleanos helpless before wind and wave.

“I know,” Twilight said. “CEASE FIRE!”

“Switch to canister!” Gerard shouted. Twilight paled at that order, but didn’t countermand it. Unlike solid shot, canister was meant for ponies- as a horrible weapon that shredded herds of ponies and broke up charges or boarding actions. But… it was just possible Shadetree might order a boarding action, and she’d kill as many of Lydia’s crew as she could until she was stopped. They had to be ready for that.

But… but Twilight couldn’t not give the enemy a chance. “Surrender!” she shouted over. “Stop this pointless death, for Celestia’s sake!”

“Never!” Shadetree shouted back, followed by a giggle. “There is no pointless death! Every death is a rebirth thanks to our god! Death is the one true freedom! And I shall see you liberated, Cap-“

Shadetree’s voice cut off suddenly. Twilight heard shouting from the other ship, a mass of pony voices, and then…

… then the flag of Xipe Totec went up what remained of the mainmast, then came back down. As it came down, something else came up…

… it was Admiral Shadetree. She kicked and struggled with the rope run around her neck… but not for very long.

Twilight turned her head away, disgusted, trying not to throw up.

A new voice came from Cumpleanos: “Senora captain? We are sinking. Our pumps are gone. We are one hundred twelve left. May we come aboard? We fight no more.”

Twilight sighed. “Mr. Thornbush,” she said quietly, “get the survivors on board. Secure them in the hold for the time being. And then get us the Tartarus away from here.”

Less than half an hour later, with some of her crew still clinging to ropes dangling over Lydia’s sides, Cumpleanos slid under the waves. The corpse of Admiral Shadetree, still wearing her resplendent tunic over her ragged shirt, remained on the surface until the rope round her neck bore her down with the rest of the wreck.

The sight of the cute young mare’s surprised face, staring blankly out of the water, remained in Twilight’s mind for a very long time afterwards.

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 18: the Next Day

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Twilight awoke to the sun in her eyes- the dawn sun, freshly raised by Celestia, just come up over the horizon. She looked around herself, at the ship under her, the featureless ocean around the ship, the cloudless skies.

Shoot, she thought, I thought this stupid story was over.

The detached feeling she’d had as she’d given orders for securing the survivors of Cumpleanos, for setting a course for Panamane, had made her think that maybe, just maybe, the spell was letting her go. Surely the battle was the climax of the novel, right? How much falling action did the writer need to wrap up their sick and twisted tale of murder and insanity, already?

She vaguely remembered Axle Wheel bringing her a fresh uniform, then guiding her to that hammock-chair, and the smell of hot oatmeal. She must have fallen asleep in the chair… and slept for how long? The sun hadn’t been lowered yet when she last remembered it, and here it was, freshly raised and climbing in the metal-blue sky. So… ten hours? Twelve? Granted that she’d had only four hours of sleep the night before, in the middle of what would have been the two worst days of her life if they’d been real…

Sighing, Twilight levered herself out of the hammock-chair. If she was awake and still on the Lydia, she doubtless had work to do. There by the wheel stood Thornbush, looking like he hadn’t had a bit of sleep all night- and probably he hadn’t. The jury mizzenmast appeared to be holding up well, though more than half the lines had been spliced from one cannon-shot or another, and the sails had enough holes and tears in them to qualify them, in some places, as lace.

Twilight noticed the sounds coming to her ears; the non-stop clanking of the pumps, which spewed out water so clear and untainted by bilge that it must be coming in as fast as it was going out… which meant Lydia remained in serious danger of sinking. Hammers rang around the ship, as Dowel and his mates worked to mend the furrowed and splintered decks and rails.

But, despite the blood-stains still on the deck, there were signs of repairs everywhere Twilight looked- and, also, of battle-readiness. The guns had all been secured, the breeches tamped against seawater and rust, the bulkheads replaced.

And there… all along the port side of the ship… wrapped bodies. Twilight counted them: twenty-four. Add that to the fourteen buried after the first day’s battle… thirty-eight dead. Even taking into account the fact that some of the wounded from the first day must have died of their wounds, a conservative guess would put eighty ponies in the orlop, suffering in the near-darkness.

One hundred twenty dead or wounded, and probably two-thirds of the latter would join the former in a matter of days. One-third of Lydia’s original crew, gone. By a strange coincidence, the prisoners taken from Cumpleanos also numbered about one hundred and twenty, forty of those wounded to various degrees. If the survivors could be trusted, Twilight could almost make good her losses…

Dear Celestia, she thought, her head spinning with the sudden realization, I killed over four hundred ponies. Four hundred ponies!

And over three hundred yet live, Hornsparker’s memories thought. But not if this ship sinks, and not if they’re left to Lowly’s incompetent hooves. A disgusted note entered into the mental voice. Thornbush understands this better than I do. Look at everything he’s accomplished while I lazed about!

Twilight did look, and was impressed. Lydia was holding the course she’d ordered before passing out, even though the wind had shifted round almost due northeast, forcing the frigate to lay as close to the wind as she could in her crippled condition. Despite all the damage, all the scars of cannonballs, the ship was ready to fight again on a moment’s notice. Though leaking like a sieve, Lydia wasn’t riding low in the water, which meant the pumps must have gained a little on the ocean.

And- this was the important bit- aside from the dozen or so crew ponies manning the sails and wheel, and Dowel and his helpers, the crew was below, resting. Thornbush had had the presence of mind to know that, after two terrible days, everypony on the ship needed rest… especially the ponies who took turns at the pumps. If and when Lydia needed them, the crew would be as fresh and ready as could be expected- despite fighting an enemy ship and an unpredictable sea.

“Mr. Thornbush…” Twilight shook her head and dropped the formal honorific. “Thornbush, you’ve done an excellent job. I can’t thank you enough.”

Thornbush, still looking exhausted, had the mental alertness to be slightly embarrassed. Hornsparker, Twilight noted, could be extremely sparing with his praise. The first lieutenant shuffled his forehooves and said, “Well, today is Sunday, isn’t it, ma’am? Captain’s inspection.”

“The ship passes,” Twilight said simply. “A magnificent job.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

I must give special mention of Thornbush in my after-action report, Hornsparker muttered.

Twilight shook her head again to clear it of thoughts of paperwork- such a tempting thing, right now, nice, clean, un-bloodied paperwork- and said, “Considering what this ship has been through, Thornbush, the fact we’re even still afloat, never mind doing as well as we are, constitutes a miracle. And you’re responsible. We wouldn’t be here without you.”

The more Twilight spoke, the more embarrassed Thornbush looked. “Only my duty, ma’am,” he mumbled.

“Only your duty? Ponies have won medals for less!” Twilight said. “When we get home, ponies will point and say, ‘There goes Thornbush! He was first of Lydia when she took on Cumpleanos! He kept the ship from sinking!”

“Oh, ma’am, I’m sure they’ll barely notice me,” Thornbush said. “They’ll be talkin’ about Captain Hornsparker, who took a frigate against a ship of the line and sank her.”

Hardly a ship of the line, Hornsparker thought. Fifty years ago, possibly. Just barely. But come to think of it, fifty years old would be about right…

“Yes,” Twilight said. “How much did it cost us to sink her, Thornbush?”

“So far, thirty-eight dead, seventy-eight wounded,” Thornbush said. “Not countin’ th’ wounded prisoners, ma’am.” There followed a host of names, most of which had only a faint impression even on Hornsparker’s mind. She recognized the name of Wranglin’, one of the fourteen ponies who had been caught in the chaos when a thirty-two pound cannonball had torn through the starboard pump room. He had stood before the captain’s mast for his spitting habit for the last time.

And then Thornbush came to the list of officers and warranted ponies killed or injured: “… Summer Breeze, sailing master’s mate; Chicken Winner and Cliff Clinger, bosun’s mates, killed in action; Lieutenant Wildrider, third lieutenant, Captain Court Summons, commander of marines, Midshipman Cherry Mustang, and four other warrant officers wounded.”

“What?” Twilight asked. “Wildrider? Mustang? Summons? All wounded?”

“Aye, ma’am.” Thornbush’s embarrassment was a distant memory, now, replaced by grim acceptance of the horrors of war. “Summons took an arrow to the leg from a sharpshooter. Mustang got clipped in th’ head by a splinter, like me.” He pointed to the dirty bandage under his cocked hat. “If th’ gangrene doesn’t set in, they’ll be fine. But Wildrider…” His frown deepened. “He took a cannonball to th’ rear legs, almost in th’ last shots we took from Cumpleanos. They’re smashed, ma’am. They’ll have to come off.”

A double amputation means death is four times as likely, Hornsparker thought. And even if he lives… I’m afraid he won’t be charming any more mares. And an earth pony with only his forelegs has but few prospects in the world… except to be an object of pity and scorn by the able-bodied…

If you can’t be helpful, be quiet! Twilight thought savagely. “Lowly’s not up to it,” she said. “I’ll have to do it. Where’s Gerard?”

“Below, ma’am,” Thornbush said. “He’s due to come up at eight bells to relieve me.”

“I see. Well, be sure you get some rest, okay, Thornbush? I’m sorry to say it, but you look terrible.”

“Ma’am!” Thornbush sounded slightly offended. “I am perfectly fit and ready for duty!”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “I order you to get eight hours of rest once Gerard relieves you,” she said. “Then you’ll be even more fit and ready for duty!”

“Aye, ma’am,” Thornbush sighed, resigned to his fate of unwanted rest.



“Well, there you are,” Iron Press said as Twilight stepped down into the orlop. The deck ran almost stem to stern, illuminated by only a few lanterns, and a pony could barely step without putting a hoof on some wounded crewmate. Some of the wounded cried, others moaned in pain, and somewhere in the darkness one was singing a sad, hopeless song about dying thousands of miles from home.

And there, in the middle of it all, was the Canterlot unicorn noble, his fancy shirt bloody up to the elbows, tending to one of the wounded while Lowly watched helplessly. A row back, Press’s donkey servant stood and waited impassively, content to remain where he was until issued an order.

“This gentlepony of yours,” Iron Press said, making no attempt to hide the scorn in the word gentlepony, “has no idea of his duties. Poppy juice to shut them up, dirty bandages on top of dirty bandages, never a thought of clean air or clean water. And some of these ponies require surgery, Captain, and I for one am not qualified for that.”

Neither was Twilight, not really. But she’d done it once already, and her reading and her time in Celestia’s School made her less unqualified than either Lowly or Iron Press. “All right,” she said. “I’ll do what I can. Who is the worst off?”

She’d expected to be brought to Wildrider, considering what Thornbush had said. Instead Twilight watched as Iron Press pointed to the pony at his hooves. “This pony has a large splinter under her skin,” he said. “If it stays in, she’ll die. If it is extracted, she’ll probably live.”

Twilight made a quick examination of the pony in question. There was a small entrance wound on the pony’s left barrel, a horrible-looking bruise that covered almost the entire chest, and a grotesque pointed bulge just under her right armpit. At a glance the splinter had been deflected by the ribs, instead making a destructive track under the skin and muscle all the way around and not quite exiting the other side.

There’s no way something this freaky could happen in real life, Twilight thought. This is the author at work again, finding new and horrible ways to disgust the reader. To Lowly she said, “Go to the cook. Take your instruments. Wash them in freshly boiled water- like you were supposed to wash the bandages,” she added pointedly. “Then bring some more boiled water and the instruments down here.” To Iron Press she asked, “Did he show you where the medicinal spirits are?”

“Yes, but I hardly think-“

“They’re the only thing we have that can numb pain,” Twilight said. “That and the poppy juice, but I suspect too much poppy juice has gone round already.”

“Oh, very well,” Iron Press said.

Twilight paid no mind to the tone, looking down at the wounded pony. “Windmill, is it?” she asked. “Windmill, I’m sorry, but we have to cut you open to get that splinter out. It is going to hurt. It’s going to hurt a lot. But if we don’t, you won’t make it.” She managed a half-smile as she added, “But the good news is, you get a nice strong dose of rum with it.”

Windmill smiled, but said nothing. Even breathing looked painful for her, and Twilight didn’t want to think what talking must be like.

The two hours that followed got blotted out of Twilight’s memories, except the facts. What the mind cannot deal with, it blots out, and thus Twilight forgot the sight of spurting blood from the first incision into Windmill’s skin, the horrible gore still clinging to the sawblade-edged bit of wood that finally came out, the involuntary screams from the pony that faded to limp, gasping whimpers as Twilight sutured up the wounds. Then followed two more surgeries by lantern light, with more rum and more screaming.

But the sight of the pale, almost lifeless Wildrider, legs in tatters and tourniquets tied almost up to his flanks, remained indelibly in Twilight’s mind afterwards. The clumsy whist player and the skilled seducer of mares looked at her with eyes that didn’t quite focus, tongue thickened by a heavy dose of poppy juice, and said, “Ma’am, please pardon my not coming to attention.”

Twilight wanted to run. Twilight wanted to jump over the rail and find the first shark big enough for her to swim down its throat. She wanted to do anything, absolutely anything, except be here, right now, doing this.

But instead she said, “It’s all right, lieutenant. I understand.”

And, in her magic, she put the bonesaw into the fresh pot of boiled water and began to scrub it clean, preparing for another operation her mind would refuse to recall afterwards.

In the two hours Twilight spent excising three splinters and amputating five limbs, five more of the wounded died. In that two hours ventilation finally came to the lower decks, as Gerard got around to replacing the ventilation shafts up on deck, and the stench of wounds and wounded was replaced by clean, moving air. Iron Press made suggestions, and the wounded able to be moved were carried up into the sun and clean air and away from what Twilight knew had to be a disease pit, while those who had to remain were brought hot food and the cleanest available water.

And through it all- through the surgeries, the screaming, the blood, the bodily wastes, the death, and the fighting for life, Iron Press stood beside Twilight, helping where he could, but mostly just being there.

Finally Twilight could take no more, and when she went back to the upper decks, Iron Press followed. “Thank you, captain,” he said once they came out onto the gun deck. “I dread to think how things would go if left to that useless steward.”

“I ought to be thanking you, milord,” Twilight replied. “This wasn’t your job, you know.”

“It was a job that needed doing,” Iron Press said simply. “How could I not do it?”

Isn’t he a marvel? Hornsparker thought. Who would have thought a Canterlot noble would be so… so… dutiful?

And Twilight, noting the tone in that mental voice, thought: Uh-oh.

Now I know why the story isn’t over yet…

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 19: Orders from the Viceroy

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Fourteen days later, the story hadn’t ended.

Fourteen days passed, and the Lydia worked its slow way across the trade winds, tacking against easterly and southeasterly winds that prevented any straight-line course to Panamane. Fourteen days passed with the pumps never stopping for more than the two minutes it required for one team of twenty ponies to replace the exhausted ponies from before. Fourteen days passed, bright, sunny and clear, with nights filled with stars and illuminated with the Nightmare-scarred moon.

And fourteen days passed with a funeral service every day.

Twilight spent as much time as she could stand in the orlop, helping Lowly and Iron Press tend to the seriously wounded, enforcing her orders about clean bandages and instruments. How well it worked, she couldn’t say. The ones with light wounds, like Thornbush, were likely to recover on their own, thanks to their already robust health and the isolation from outside diseases. Moderate wounds, like Mustang’s and Summons’s, might have gotten infected or might not have, but both those ponies were on the mend.

But for fourteen days straight at least one of the wounded ponies died- most days two, and on two days three. For some of them the bleeding would never quite stop- those were the ones who went earliest. Others had been wounded too deeply, and their systems just gave up from exhaustion. And three or four of them had appeared to be recovering, gaining strength, and then… they just plain stopped, for no reason Twilight could comprehend.

But for most of them the killers were gangrene and sepsis. The fever would come first; then the red streaks from the wound or (far too often) the stump of the freshly amputated limb. Lancing the wounds would release floods of stinking yellow pus, providing temporary relief. Then the red streaks would lengthen, and go black, and then, after three days of delirium and agony, the end came. Only two ponies had recovered from the fever stage without going into the later symptoms… and once those developed, death was inevitable.

So it proved with Lieutenant Wildrider.

On the second day after his double amputation, the lieutenant was sitting up on his blanket, flirting with Lieutenant Freerein and mentioning that he’d only had two things cut off of him. The fever struck on the fifth day. The red streaks had climbed up from the sutures to his hips by dawn of the sixth day, and with them came delirium, with Wildrider claiming to be back in his childhood home of Rainbow Falls. Unconsciousness came not long after nightfall, and release came before the first bell of the middle watch, technically seven days after the desperate surgery.

Eight hours later, tears in her eyes, Twilight had run through the official service, and then the poor lieutenant had been dumped over the side, just like over fifty ponies before him.

Wildrider had been the only double amputee of the dozen ponies Twilight had reluctantly performed the surgery on. Of the other eleven, five still lived- four of whom had never shown a symptom of gangrene.

Iron Press had been by Twilight’s side through the ordeal, as he had been with her through all the rest of her efforts to save the wounded. The Canterlot unicorn had a talent for soothing those ponies in delirium, for comforting those suffering their agonies with a clear head, and for detecting changes in the medical condition of each pony in his care. And, Twilight discovered, he also had a talent for comforting a captain hopelessly out of her depth in medical matters, fighting one losing battle after another for the lives of her crew- and even of her enemies.

Of course, neither pony had time for one another outside the orlop- literally. The deaths and returns to duty still left over fifty ponies in various stages of convalescence, giving Lowly and Iron Press all they could handle. And although the sails had been patched and much of the surface woodwork mended, Lydia remained in a bad way. She needed a proper drydock, or at the least several days careened on the beach so her poorly plugged shot holes could be properly mended and her jury mizzenmast given a fully functional replacement. Even keeping the ship afloat required the lion’s share of Twilight’s energies.

Most notably, the mental whispers from Hornsparker had virtually ceased for those two weeks of sailing. That worried Twilight most of all. If Hornsparker had fallen silent, it probably meant Twilight was following the script to the letter, and the Haycartes spell felt no need to prod her back on the “right path”.

The very idea of that drove Twilight almost frantic with worry and anger. More than anything else, she wanted to find some way to jump the story’s tracks and get away from… well, all of it, but especially the bloody, destructive, futile war-making that appeared to be at the heart of this obscene sailing fantasy.

But the fifteenth day dawned with no pony sewn into his or her hammock to await the last rites. They were sailing past the Oyster Isles on their port side, which meant Panamane lay only a day’s sail away. In a proper roadstead Lydia might have a hope of a proper refit- the kind of refit she absolutely had to have to get past the Stormlands and around the Great Southern Cape. There might even be the chance to give the crew the shore leave they’d been denied now for over eight months (or so Hornsparker’s memories told Twilight).

And then, just as Twilight came up from her breakfast and had taken a moment to watch the flying fish leaping out of the water alongside the ship, the cry went out: “Sail ho!”

“Mr. Knife-edge!” Twilight shouted to the midshipman on signal duty. “Your spyglass to the rigging, please!”

The little foal- only a little younger than Potter’s Clay, Twilight thought as ice ran through her heart for about the fiftieth time since the sinking of Cumpleanos- scrambled up the nets, spyglass tucked under one hoof. In no time at all the answer came back: “It’s that lugger again, ma’am! Running right down on us!”

“Mr. Thornbush,” Twilight called out, “see to it that all the pris… the new recruits… are below. I don’t want the customs officer to see any of them and maybe demand they be turned over to the local authorities.” Beyond all doubt the semi-villainous rulers of these fictitious colonies would ignore any please of coercion or other extenuating circumstances from those members of Cumpleanos’s crew who had been forced into Xipe Totec’s service. “And make it quick, please! There’s not much time!”

Indeed, in not that many minutes the guarda-costa boat had come round alongside Lydia as both ships heaved to, and that Maredrid customs officer swiftly made his way over. “Good morning, Captain,” he said, bowing his head almost to the floor in the most graceful motion. “I trust Your Excellency is in the best of health?”

“I am, thank you,” Twilight said. “And yourself?”

“Oh, pray do not worry about me,” the officer said generously. “I have not been in battle. Whereas…” The burro made a gesture around the Lydia, which for all the work done still bore scars aplenty- and twenty wounded ponies in hammocks, enjoying the sun and open air. “I hope Your Excellency had good fortune in the late encounter?” Hidden in the tone of the question was the more honest meaning: I’m surprised you’re still alive, captain!

“I don’t call it good fortune,” Twilight said. “I call it an unfortunate tragedy and a prime example of the madness of war, if you want the honest truth. But Cumpleanos is no more. We sunk her sixteen days ago.”

The Maredrid officer didn’t look particularly surprised or impressed by this. If anything, his expression grew cold and closed. “You say you sunk her?

“We did.”

“I must be sure. She is definitely destroyed?”

“I said yes,” Twilight snapped impatiently.

“Then,” the burro said, and his face went from merely closed to being solid granite, “I have a letter to present to you from the Viceroy of the Luna Sea.” He reached into his tunic, hesitated a moment, and then drew out an envelope- a rather small and not particularly ornate envelope.

Twilight opened the letter and read it, which didn’t take very long at all. There were no excruciatingly long and ornate greetings, no effusive compliments, none of the ludicrous manners that actually did predominate the royal courts of the world. It ran a single paragraph, stating in cold and blunt language that the Lydia was prohibited from dropping anchor, entering into, discharging crew at, or trading with any port of New Iburria, Mexicolt, or any other domains of the Maredrid crown in the South Luna Sea. Taken as a whole, the letter gave Twilight the back of the hoof, stopping one very tiny degree short of open insult- not exactly the work of a beloved ally.

Panamane wasn’t explicitly mentioned, but it didn’t have to be, not with this stone-faced burro on the Lydia’s deck a mere day’s sail from that port.

“Do you know what’s in this letter, sir?” Twilight asked.

“I do.” The burro’s tone added: I dare you to do something about it.

“Given the circumstances of my ship,” Twilight continued, gesturing around them with one hoof, “this is a most unfortunate order, don’t you agree?”

“I do not presume to pass judgment on the wisdom of my master the viceroy,” the officer replied coldly.

“But don’t you think some judgment is called for?” Twilight asked. “I want to be out of your seas as badly as you want me gone, but this ship is currently in no condition to make the trip. She needs a refit. Can you not just give me three days in port? Even two, to make the most vital repairs and top off our supplies for the voyage home?”

“Captain,” the burro said, and there wasn’t the tiniest drop of those effusive ritual greetings and pleasantries in his tone anymore, “your ship came into our seas uninvited. Had you not done so, Cumpleanos would remain on the seas under the orders of my master the viceroy, and the rebel Sunstruck would already have been dealt with. We feel no responsibility for the welfare of such an intruder, no matter what valor she may have demonstrated.”

“I see,” Twilight said quietly. To be honest, she couldn’t argue, because- aside from the unfriendly nature of the orders and the customs officer’s conduct, she agreed with every point made. Lydia had sailed here as an enemy vessel, on a mission no pony of honor would have ordered, and brought calamity to the locals. It was a bit fatuous to ask the victims of Lydia’s actions to welcome her with open arms.

“I see,” she repeated. “Please convey my warmest regards to the viceroy. My ship will make call at no Maredrid port in the South Luna Sea. I shall make the best repairs I can on my own.” And, after a moment’s thought, she added, “And though it’s against my duty to offer any apologies for what’s happened, please also tell the viceroy that I personally regret the necessities of the service which brought me here, and hope that this tragic example will press home to all ponies everywhere the insanity of war.”

Twilight had meant every word, but even so the Maredrid officer regarded her with suspicion. “I will tell him, captain,” he said coldly.

“Now, I hope you will pardon my lack of hospitality,” Twilight said, making her own town a bit more prim, “but as you can tell, I have much to command my attention, and a great deal of work to do before my ship is fit to leave the South Luna Sea. Please take with you my best wishes for the alliance between our sovereigns against the usurper Neighpoleon.”

Twilight paid no attention to the customs burro as he left. She began pacing Hornsparker’s private spot on the quarterdeck, thinking furiously and, for once, wishing that stupid false personality would start chattering again. They couldn’t make port for repairs, but those repairs had to be done somewhere, somehow. Panamane, of course, was out. So were the Oyster Isles just off the port side, since they were too close to Panamane and thickly inhabited with the usual mix of colonists and native ponies.

But if they could find an uninhabited island nearby, something with fresh water and, ideally, a protected bay or inlet of some kind…

Time to consult the charts, she thought.

And she thought she heard a faint response: Yes.

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 20: The Island

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Two days later, Twilight stared at the narrow inlet and said, “This could have been ready-made for us.” And, she thought to herself, it probably was.

“Aye, ma’am,” Thornbush agreed. “Shall I send out the cutter?” All the other ship’s boats had been damaged in the battle with Cumpleanos, and none of them could be repaired until Lydia’s wounds were healed.

“Yes, please,” Twilight said. “Have a pony taking soundings as quickly as possible. And I want a report on the surface under that water.”

The large island had numerous beaches, including one broad bay which might have served Twilight’s needs had it been defensible. But, as Hornsparker now repeated in her mind, The ponies of Panamane have gone in a month’s time from enemies to warm allies to cold neutrals. They regard us as trespassers here, and we can’t take any chance that the situation will change yet again.

But this narrow inlet on the island’s northeast side had steep cliffs on both sides of the entrance, close enough that guns sited on their tops would be mutually supporting. Any boats attempting to enter would have to brave plunging fire that could sink them in a single shot. And yet the far end of the bay sloped gently up to a broad sandy beach- exactly the kind of location needed for what had to be done. And, as a final bonus, a smaller island a short distance offshore masked the entrance to the inlet, so that a ship well out to sea would be unable to see anything going on inside.

So, with Freerein leading in the cutter, the Lydia crept into the bay that would be her home for at least the next week, the time she would need for her refit.

If a ship is seriously damaged below the waterline, if you wish to repair her, a drydock is by far the best option. But when drydocks aren’t available and time is of the essence, the second-best option is a difficult and dangerous process called careening. This consists of, in essence, beaching the ship like a dying whale, dragging the hull out of the water by main force, and rolling it from side to side to get at the damaged bits. The danger lay in the potential that the ship might break her back or stave in her hull while lying on the sands- and it absolutely had to be sands, because a rocky shore would change the danger into certain disaster.

Before any of that could be done, as Hornsparker explained to Twilight, the ship had to be empty- truly, absolutely empty, of everything and everyone. Hundreds of tons of cannon, cannonballs, powder, food, water, cordage, timber- and, of course, ponies- had to be ferried to shore. Temporary shelter for the crew had to be erected on shore, since the ship would be unusable for housing during the process. And all of this had to be done with a single ship’s cutter which, in calm water and under careful handling, might carry three and a half tons of cargo and ponies at one time.

Once, centuries before, the tribal ponies of the Forbidden Jungles had lived on the island, but that had been before Maredrid sailed into these waters and made them her own. Since then the island, too close to the burros for the natives’ comfort, had been abandoned by both groups, left to cook in the eternal tropical heat. The jungles had no paths, not even animal trails, forcing Twilight to lead one trailbreaking team while Gerard led the other, each carving out a path from the beach up to the headland cliffs with machetes, axes, and magic.

Thornbush didn’t wait for this task to be done before beginning the lightening of Lydia. The cannon were the heaviest, most bulky, and most awkward things on the ship- and they were needed to secure the bay mouth. They went first, one at a time, lifted from their trucks on massive tackles hung from the yards, coaxed into the cutter, only one per trip, and then ferried to shore. There the guns were pony-handled out and back onto their trucks, to be hauled with much sweat and annoyance along the uneven, barely-opened paths to the tops of the headlands.

After the eleventh gun, Twilight’s team rigged tackles from trees on top of one cliff, allowing the guns destined for that side to be hauled up the cliff directly from the water. This sped the process, and soon instead of guns nets full of round shot and cartridges came up the tackles.

In the meantime another team of ponies, commanded by the midshipmen Knife-edge and Jack Knave, worked with more axes, felling trees at the beach to create a rough fort. Tarpaulin and canvas went up to shelter the crews, while four huts were erected: one for the captain, one for the lieutenants and senior warrant officers, one for the midshipmen and mates, and one for Iron Press and his servant. By the end of the second day a fifth hut had gone up to house the ship’s stores.

Finally, a team of Cumpleanos survivors was told off to go into the jungle and do what they could about food and water. They came back reporting wild success- literally. The native ponies might have been gone for hundreds of years, but the fruit trees they’d tended and the maize crops they’d cultivated remained, growing wild and unweeded, but by happy chance all coming ready for the picking at this time. Cookfires were started, and fresh hot food and cool, clear spring water awaited the hot, sweaty ponies whenever they rested from their labors.

Despite the mosquitoes, which proved to be a minor annoyance at best, and despite the work that began with the earliest glimmer of Celestia’s sun in the morning and ended by moonlight almost every evening, spirits rose among the crew. The days continued beautiful except for one afternoon of showers, with sun glistening off the sand-bottomed bay and fluffy white wild clouds creeping past on the unfelt breeze. With Twilight driving the work, things got accomplished, and each accomplishment satisfied and encouraged the crew. The remaining wounded all improved rapidly, finding a blanket laid on earth healthier than a hammock in the orlop or hung from the ship’s rigging.

And, Twilight noticed, the crew seemed to smile just that little bit wider whenever she walked past. She couldn’t understand that, since she was working them almost to the breaking point. Hornsparker was no help figuring this out, since her reaction, half the time, was to grumble about wiping the smiles off the sailor ponies’ faces.

For her own part, despite the hard work, stifling heat, and near total absence of breezes or cooling rain, she found the whole process intensely fascinating. She'd read about sailing ships, but she'd never been so intimately involved with their operation before- and now she was getting an in-depth, first-hoof experience in how they were constructed and repaired. And every step of the procedure required checklists and organization- two of her very favorite things in the whole wide world, even a fictional one. She was having fun. After a while she assumed the smiles were because the crew was also having fun, and she didn't think about that anymore.

By the end of the fourth day the temporary fort and the two shore batteries were in place, and the Lydia bobbed empty in the bay. Next came the dangerous task of careening. With a combination of sails and hauling, Lydia was beached, then dragged behind almost the entire crew, a dead weight of dozens of tons even empty, until she was rolled partly on her side to reveal her bottom. Patches of the copper plating that protected ships of the period from seaworms and barnacles had come off, and the shot-holes and weakened planks underneath made plainly visible.

Fires were lit, and tar from stores boiled to help seal the holes. Plugs were measured and cut, sealed with gaskets of tar and oakum, and slotted into place one at a time. The small supply of spare copper sheeting from Lydia’s hold got hammered into place. The ship’s seams were inspected, and those found damaged got fresh caulking, more tar and oakum hammered into the cracks between the ship’s planks. Then, two days later, Lydia was rolled over onto her other side, and the process got repeated.

On the ninth day, hull made as sound as it could be given the limited materials available, Lydia was pushed and towed off the beach, off the sand, out into the deep water of the bay. From there she was towed over to the southern headland, where Thornbush had been busy preparing tackles and gallows for the last major part of the refit: the proper repair of the mizzenmast.

There wasn’t a proper mizzenmast in Lydia’s stores to replace the old, but the seventy-five hoof long maintop yard which had served as the jury mast would serve well enough. But to make it properly sound the stump of the old mizzenmast had to come out of the ship first. That meant tying the jury mast up, knocking out the wedges that held the old mizzenmast in place, hauling the mast up on the tackles, disposing of the old mizzenmast’s stump, lowering the top yard into its place, and reinserting the wedges to secure it again.

The operation sounded simple, but it required a full day of careful, exacting work. One slip could cause the new mast to become a spear that would stab straight through Lydia’s hull. But under the capable supervision of Thornbush, no such thing happened, and after a few hours spent making fresh rigging and lines for all Lydia’s masts, yards, spars and sails, the frigate was once more seaworthy.

Then everything had to be loaded back into the Lydia again- the guns, the shot, the stores, what was left of the spare lumber and cordage, all one boatload at a time. In addition, the water casks were washed out and refilled from the jungle spring, while as much fruit and corn as could be scrounged were added to the foodstuffs for the trip back.

By sundown of the eleventh day, it was done. Lydia was as ready for the voyage back to Baltimare as she could be made.

We ought to sail with the first light, Hornsparker insisted.

Oh, phoo, Twilight replied, and instead of bundling the crew up into the ship that evening, she ordered a party. After all, she thought, these ponies are about to be shut back up in that ship for another six months sailing around the continent again.

Hornsparker grumbled at this, and grumbled again when Twilight ordered a second issue of grog for the crew that last night on the beach, but that was all. The crew laughed, singing and dancing to Emerald Fortune’s fiddle and Iron Press’s guitar, both of which had survived the battle. Even the face of the Nightmare in the Moon seemed to smile that evening.

Midway through the festivities, Twilight called for the survivors of Cumpleanos, plus those ponies she’d saved from the stone wheels and Xipe Totec’s madness, to gather around her. There were eighty-seven of them left, after the deaths among their wounded, and a few members of Lydia’s old crew gathered around the edges of the group out of curiosity.

“Tomorrow the Lydia sails for Equestria,” Twilight said, once the crewponies quieted down for her. “We won’t be coming back to these shores, ever.”

To her surprise, fully half the Cumpleanos ponies- and all of the Lydia ponies nearby- gave a cheer at that.

Twilight waved them back to silence and said, “The ponies from Equestria must go back. We swore our oath to Princess Celestia. But you who came from here have families here. Some of you may not want to go. So I’m going to give you ponies the choice to stay here when we leave.”

There was quite a bit of muttering about this, and Twilight had to wave again for silence.

“I’m sorry I can’t take you to your homes,” she said. “But I have orders from my superiors to sail straight home, and from the local governors to not make port anywhere on the mainland. If you want to stay anywhere near where you came from, this is the only chance I can give you.”

When the mumbling resumed, Twilight pressed on, not bothering to wave for silence. “If you sail with me, you’ll be formally read into the books as members of Lydia’s crew,” she said. “That means you’ll be under the same discipline as the rest of the crew, and subject to the same punishments. I freely admit it’s a hard life. But there’s pay, food and shelter, and possibly even prize money. And you won’t ever have to worry about the Maredrid viceroys or ponies like Xipe Totec ever again. That I can promise.”

The ponies now remained silent, and Twilight gave them a long look. In the dim light of the campfires and the moon, she couldn’t quite tell what they were thinking. “But what I can’t promise any pony is that they’ll ever see their families or old homes again. Sadly, I couldn’t even promise that to my old crew. But those that lived are going home now. If going home is the most important thing to you, this is your only chance to do it. Maybe you could build rafts, or canoes, or maybe a fishing boat would pick you up. But if you sail with us, you stay on the ship until we reach Baltimare.”

“Sounds good to me, senora captain!” one of the Cumpleanos ponies shouted.

“No more Xipe Totec? No more burros to boss us around? No jungle monsters?” another asked.

“Captain Hornsparker saved me from the wheels!” This came from a pegasus hovering above the crowd- the very first Twilight had seen tied to those stones, left to die in the sun. “I will gladly go to Equestria, where no pony is tied up to die of thirst. But if Captain Hornsparker leads me, I will go into Tartarus itself!!” The other four survivors of the stone wheels added their shouts from the crowd.

A loud hurrah rang through the crowd, rolling back and forth. After a few moments it became a chant: “Hornsparker! Hornsparker! Hornsparker!”

Tears welling up into her eyes, Twilight waved down the shouting. “Quiet! Quiet, please!” she shouted. “Lydia will take every pony here who wants to go with us. All I wanted to say was, if any of you wants to stay-“

“NO! NO!” the ponies shouted, and Twilight couldn’t find a single silent pony in the crowd. And again the chant came up: “HORNSPARKER! HORNSPARKER! HORNSPARKER!”

Eventually Twilight got away, with a bit of bowing and acknowledgment of the cheers. I didn’t earn this, she thought. These ponies are just mad, insane, because some writer insisted every pony in this world be war-crazy.

“Captain, you have a way with ponies,” a voice called out from the edge of the jungle. The moon shone down on Iron Press’s blond mane, making tiny flecks of glitter shine.

“Who, me?” Twilight asked. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I just do what I have to do.”

“Every pony does what they have to do, captain,” Iron Pony said. “But very few do it as well as you’ve done. Look at all you’ve accomplished in eleven days.”

“But any pony could have done it!” Twilight asked.

“But you actually did do it,” Iron Pony said.

Twilight noticed that the Canterlot lord was close- very, very close. She also noticed, very suddenly, how close Hornsparker was, from a different direction.

She wasn’t sure which of them- Twilight Sparkle or Captain Hornsparker- said, “Your pardon, milord,” and ran like a rabbit for the stockade and the private hut. But she did, and she did, and Iron Press stared after her as she ran.

“Celestia bless me,” he said quietly. “For a moment she was almost a real mare!”

Shaking his head and wondering if the madness of sailor ponies was cause or effect, Iron Press went to his own hut- at a much more sedate pace- to make sure his servant had packed everything properly for their departure on the morrow.

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 21: Xipe Totec Again

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“Oh, here we go! It’s that bloody lugger again!”

Twilight awoke to the sound of the lookout, or some pony on deck, making the complaint. Only the morning before, with a fair wind, Lydia had left its island refuge, making sail southeast on the most direct route for the Great Southern Cape. But the wind had died away to nothing by sunset, and rather than heave to for the night, Twilight had elected to let the currents carry the ship where they would. Apparently, for whatever reason, they had carried the ship towards Panamane… and that ill-omened guarda-costa boat.

Not waiting for Axle Wheel, Twilight threw on a linen shirt that happened to be nearby and went up on deck. Half a dozen spyglasses were already on the none-too-distant lugger, just visible in the twilight as the moon and sun prepared to switch places in the sky. It seemed like every officer, commissioned or warranted, stood on the deck staring at the thing- not Thornbush, who likely was just now getting his breakfast, but there stood Freerein and Gerard, Knife-edge, Jack Knave, a mostly recuperated Cherry Mustang, and the sailing-master, Quartz Shard, all with spyglasses out, and apparently all with an opinion.

“There’s a curse on that lugger, I’m sure of it,” Gerard said. He rubbed two of his talons together as if feeling a coin- an old griffon ritual to banish evil spirits, Hornsparker explained to Twilight.

“’Tis only a Maredrid guarda-costa,” Quartz Shard muttered. “Nowt supernatural about ‘em. I seen dozens. I recollect one time off-“

“Who hasn’t seen ‘em?” Gerard snapped. “But there’s something about this particular- oh, hullo, captain!” Seeing Twilight standing by the hatch, the griffon saluted and gestured off the port side. “Our friends from Panamane are back, ma’am.”

I don’t tolerate Thornbush speaking that lightly to me, Hornsparker grumbled in Twilight’s mind. And we go back years. Gerard wants a dressing-down!

Oh, be quiet, won’t you?” Twilight sighed. “Yes, I see,” she said. Squinting a little, she added, “What are they doing over there? I see something moving, but…” She didn’t feel like going back to the first officer’s cabin for her spyglass.

“Lugger’s sending a boat, ma’am,” Knife-edge reported.

The chatter ceased with Twilight’s presence, as the officers all watched the tiny black dot on the dark ocean creeping closer to them. Then the sun popped over the horizon, and for a couple of minutes none of them could see anything, much less the boat being rowed across the gentle swells of the Luna Sea. Then, as the dazzling reflections of the dawn sun eased somewhat, and as the boat grew closer, even Twilight could pick out the boat and its crew of oarsponies making its way to them. The time all of this took allowed Thornbush to rush through his breakfast and make it onto the quarterdeck, and also for Axle Wheel to bring Twilight her best uniform tunic, which she slipped on without a word.

And then the young Maredrid officer stood once more on Lydia’s deck, openly staring at the changes made to the ship. “Good morning, captain,” he said at length. “I am most surprised to see you here again, ma’am.”

“As am I,” Twilight said, “though I’m always pleased to see the friends of my princess and country.”

“To me also it is a pleasure,” the officer said. “But I had thought you were two weeks and more gone by now.”

“Well, we had repairs to make,” Twilight admitted. “But as you can see, we’re now fully ready for the long sail to come- and without having made any contact with the mainland or with any Maredrid port.”

“I am truly impressed,” the officer said. “And I am sure that, under such an expert seapony, your ship shall return to the service of the sun princess as swiftly as thought.” The pony in the shining uniform bowed deeply as he delivered the compliment, and Twilight in turn bowed deeply as she thanked the polite and generous officer for it.

Inwardly, Twilight sighed her relief. She’d been afraid, for a moment, that some other reversal of fortune would require her to turn north- some plot of Xipe Totec’s, or a request for transport of troops, or even support of an assault on some port village up the coast. But apparently nothing had changed; Maredrid was quite happy to see Lydia, so long as they saw her leaving.

“As it happens,” the coast guard officer said, straightening up again, “it is a great stroke of fortune that we met here in these circumstances. I have something on my vessel which is of great interest to Your Excellency. I should be most gratified if you would come over to see it.”

Twilight’s stomach sank. She couldn’t imagine this could be anything good. “Would you mind telling me what it is?” she asked.

“It would give me great pleasure if it could be a surprise, ma’am. Could you oblige me?”

Twilight sighed. After everything, she just couldn’t not go. She had to see it through to the end- hopefully, to the end of the book. “Mr. Thornbush?” she called, and the first lieutenant trotted over to her side. “I am going on a brief visit to the Maredrid ship. Kindly launch the cutter and send her after us to pick me up afterwards.”



Drums rolled and bugles played as Twilight and the lugger’s captain boarded the guarda-costa. The noise was just that to Twilight- noise- but even with Hornsparker’s tin ear she could tell that the buglers would have done better to be playing the drums, and the drummers might well be better buglers than drummers- because nopony could be worse.

“Will you take some morning refreshment with me, captain?” the Maredrid pony asked. “Chocolate, perhaps?”

“I should love some chocolate,” Twilight said. Ever since leaving Lydia the coast guard officer had been a chatterbox, discussing the boogie fever burning up the mainland, the news relayed across the continent of battles in Iburria and Germaney, the peculiar traits of his little ship, the traditions of his all-native crew. He was willing to discuss anything and everything… except his surprise.

Twilight, for her part, made polite responses and even deigned to talk a little shop in a discussion of the alternate rigging of the lugger’s sails, and their performance in the light and variable winds around Panamane. She greeted the lugger’s officers as the guarda-costa cabin called them up to meet her. But she declined to play his game; the one question he wanted her to ask, she wasn’t going to ask.

Eventually, after half an hour of stalling (and a mug and a half of what Twilight had to admit was very good hot chocolate), the Maredrid pony accepted defeat. “And now, if you will come this way, ma’am,” he said, “I will show you the thing I mentioned on your ship.”

He led Twilight up a gangplank to the lugger’s foredeck…

… and there, chained barrel and hooves to the deck, sat Xipe Totec.

The mad mule had, thank Celestia, been divested of his robe of pony skins, though bloodstains still marked out a patchwork in his filthy fur. He obviously hadn’t bathed or groomed in weeks, and the deck around him was strewn with what Twilight guessed were his own roadapples. But despite the filth, despite the chains, his face bore an expression of pure serenity…

…except for those eyes, which would only light on a figure for a moment before rolling in obvious fear. The contrast between the eyes and the rest of the face made Twilight ill to her stomach; her mind couldn’t handle it.

“I believe, ma’am,” the Maredrid officer said with a nasty smile, “you are already acquainted with the grandee Don Sunstruck, who claims to be one of the old gods?”

“Captain Hornsparker has indeed been presented to me,” Xipe Totec said, in the same casual way an ordinary pony might say Fine, thank you, and yourself? “Her efforts in my service have been quite satisfactory. I trust you are feeling well, captain?”

I was up until thirty seconds ago. “Fine, thank you. And yourself?”

“I am quite well,” Xipe Totec said. “I am almost at the peak of my power, to my immense satisfaction. Which means the next step in the cycle comes very soon, as this instrument of my will could tell you.” He gestured a hoof at the guarda-costa’s captain.

“More chocolate, captain?” The captain’s servant had brought a fresh carafe of the stuff, and without waiting for permission the pony refilled both the captain’s and Twilight’s mugs. Two more crewponies brought cushions, big and plush, for the captain and Twilight to sit on. Twilight sank into her cushion gratefully and took several sips of her chocolate, hoping more of the rich drink would settle her flip-flopping stomach. It didn’t.

Xipe Totec’s eyes locked onto the chocolate for several moments, ears cocked at the loud slurping sounds the lugger’s captain made as he drank. Then, without any sign of effort, the mule’s interest switched off, and his face regained its serenity, his eyes resumed their mad wanderings. “Is the chocolate to your liking, captain?” he asked. “My servants provided it specially for you. Of course, my interest in such things is a thing of the past.”

“It certainly will be in a few days,” the guarda-costa captain said, and he slurped again at his mug.

“Indeed it will,” Xipe Totec nodded. “My godhood is complete, and now I must shed this weak, fleshly vessel. I am told there is a gallows in Panamane ready for me, which is well, for this body still struggles against my holy will. But once it is dead, the ponies of Panamane shall kindly pierce it with many swords and spears to make sure, and my holy blood shall make the soil fertile for freedom once more, and my spirit shall arise to the heavens and cast down the false gods of Maredrid.”

“I wish you the best of luck with that,” the Maredrid officer chuckled. Raising a hoof to shield his mouth, he whispered to Twilight, “In a moment you shall see the truth. I have learned to recognize the signs, and it is coming.”

“I hear you quite well, senor captain,” Xipe Totec said solemnly. “But you speak the truth, so what does it matter? Yes, my body still fights the inevitable, as the lesser creatures do and must. Such things are a part of nature. And occasionally the body gains control for brief periods, when my holy spirit must rest in preparation. For soon, yes, very soon I shall bring to this land, held too long under the hoof of the foreign infidel, the freedom it groans for! A new empire shall arise from the corrupt corpse of Maredrid, an empire in which the old gods shall lead the ponies of Mexicolt to their rightful place!”

Xipe Totec rose to his hooves, thrashing in his chains. “Already the cycle has begun! Majordomo’s blood has been drunk by the thirsty sands of Nickeragua, spilled by the foolish soldiers of the viceroy! But they hanged him anyway! And they hanged the ponies of my village, my people, the stallions and mares, the sires and dams, even the foals and fillies! The land has their blood as well! And soon, very soon, mine shall join theirs, the cycle shall be complete! Xipe Totec, last as he was first! Dying, even as he was reborn! Hanging from a noose only to reign from a golden throne!!”

The mule’s head twitched, shuddered, and then face and eyes finally agreed on an expression. For the first time the eyes focused, staring around the ship, then down at the chains. “NO!” Don Sunstruck shrieked, a screech far higher pitched than anything he had uttered before. “LET ME GO! LET ME GO! MERCY! DON’T KILL ME! I DON’T WANT TO DIE!!”

The mule began thrashing against his chains, screaming and wailing in heartbreaking despair. As he bent to bite at the iron shackles around his hooves, the Maredrid officer, calmly taking another sip of his chocolate, commented, “Sometimes it lasts for an hour, sometimes for a whole watch. Once he went twenty-four hours in this condition. I find it most entertaining to watch.”

“I’ve seen enough,” Twilight said bluntly. She set down her mostly-full mug of chocolate, rose from her cushion, and walked down to the lugger’s waist. The Maredrid officer followed her. Unfortunately, so did Don Sunstruck’s screams.

“What disturbs you, captain?” the officer asked. “What you see here is nothing but the same insanity you helped unleash upon our colonies in the first place, is it not? Does the sight of it not please you?”

Twilight rounded on the officer. “Sir,” she said, leaving any shred of diplomacy out of the honorific, “what would please me is a world without mad ponies. A world without Don Sunstruck, yes. But also a world without paper-pushing rich bureaucrats who see nothing wrong in dealing with a Don Sunstruck. And a world without nobles and grandees whose policies create Don Sunstrucks. Because from where I stand right now, the only difference I see between those kinds of madness is that one of them screams while the others smile and talk normally and sip chocolate, sir!”

The officer shrugged, ignoring the barb. “It is a mad world, and we are a part of it, ma’am,” he said. “All mad together. But rebels must hang, mad or sane, mad world or sane world. You know this as well as I.”

Twilight got hold of herself, somehow. There’s no point in arguing this, she thought. Nothing’s going to change. This is just the book, tying off a loose end…

… but…

“Tell me one thing,” Twilight asked. “Did you leave anyone alive at Hornseca? The old ponies? The foals and fillies? Anyone?”

“As I said,” the officer said, “rebels must hang. And since Don Sunstruck murdered all who resisted him, logically all who remained were rebels.”

“So you wiped out a whole village?”

“Several villages,” the officer said, not showing any signs of being disturbed by the bloodshed this meant. “Anyplace where Don Sunstruck’s flag flew has now ceased to exist.”

“But… how many hundreds of ponies? Thousands?”

The officer shrugged. “There are always more native ponies,” he said, as if that pardoned anything. “We will bring in more. Maredrid will send new grandees to run the plantations and the mines. The empire will continue.”

Twilight noticed that Lydia’s cutter had arrived, its crew waiting at the oars for her to leave. “Well,” she said at last, “if you will excuse me, I will take my leave, both of your ship and your country. You’ve made it obvious that you are quite able to defend it.” With one final glare she added, “And as much as your country needs defending from you, that isn’t my problem.”

Without waiting for any further words from the guarda-costa’s captain, she went over the side and climbed down into her ship’s boat. “Back to the ship,” she ordered, and the ponies began rowing, away from the lugger, away from the screams of a murderous madpony on his way to a much-deserved end.

But, as she sat in the thwarts of the launch, Twilight Sparkle cried for him anyway, for a mule friendship and harmony couldn’t reach, and for the thousands of innocents who had died for no better reason than being caught between two irresistible forces that demanded impossible loyalty.

You make me a laughingstock before my crew, Hornsparker chided. Straighten up and act like a proper captain!

“Shut up,” Twilight moaned between her sobs. “Shut up, shut up, just shut up.”

BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 22: the Loose End

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For the first time in weeks, the cabin hosted a dinner party: Twilight, Thornbush, Gerard, Cherry Mustang, and Iron Press.

It had been a week since Twilight had left the guarda-costa, a week of slowly clawing southwards in the feeble and directionless winds. Throughout that period Twilight had poked her head above deck only the absolute minimum time required for the captain’s duties, and Thornbush, knowing Hornsparker’s frequent black moods, had aided and abetted the antisocial behavior. But Iron Press, restored to the captain’s sleeping cabin after the repairs had been finished, had issued the invitation, and Twilight’s guilt wouldn’t let her refuse the request.

Iron Press had worked to keep the conversation lively- and Twilight, having learned the importance of reaching out to friends late in life, recognized the skills at work. He got Thornbush talking about his experience at the Battle of Trafalcon, where the combined Fancy and Maredrid navies had met defeat off the Griffish coast. A moment’s worth of stoking rivalries got Gerard to tell his stories of trading in Klugetown during his privateering days early in the war. Before long everyone was chatting away as merrily as anypony could ask- except for Twilight.

As much as she wanted to, Twilight couldn’t join in. There were ghosts at the party. On one side she saw young Potter’s Clay, shifting uncomfortably in his seat, dreading the inevitable whist game to follow the meal. On the other sat Wildrider, smiling a broad smile as he related some romantic escapade in Baltimare or Manehattan. Each of them looked at Twilight, smiled, and then vanished, returned back to her imagination.

Finally, after the traditional toasts to Princess Celestia and the Equestrian Navy, Twilight stood up. “I beg your pardon,” she said. “I fear some wounds are yet too raw for me to enjoy a game of whist. I shall go on deck and relieve Freerein and have her join your fun. Thank you for inviting me, milord.”

The moonlit deck of the Lydia seemed almost a refuge after the happy party. Up here Twilight wouldn’t be the wet-blanket on events. Up here the smiles and laughter wouldn’t twist a knife in her gut, thinking about Wildrider and Clay- and the hundreds of other ponies from this insane story-book world who, thanks to Twilight, would never smile or laugh again.

Why do I keep reminding myself this is a book? she thought to herself. It feels real enough, if you ignore the blank pages in books for the first few seconds. The pain definitely feels real enough. And leaving aside certain characters, the average ponies seem real enough. This world is real to them, isn’t it? And dead in a story is still dead, isn’t it?

“I must beg your pardon, captain.” Iron Press had left the party to come out after Twilight. He walked up next to Twilight on the quarterdeck, with only a single steerspony and a dozen or so ponies in the rigging to see them. “If I had known how strongly you were affected by recent events, I would not have disturbed you.”

“No, that’s all right.” Take Iron Press here. Yes, he’s the obvious love interest. But he’s also a genuinely good, intelligent pony. He reminds me of Rarity in many ways. Yes, he’s too perfect… but he’s almost believable, regardless. “I needed to get out more anyway.”

“I don’t think it’s all right,” Iron Press said. “You were doing well until you went on that coast guard boat. Since then you’ve been haunted. Your officers are worried about you, do you know that?” Iron Press paused a moment, then hurriedly said, “I should say worried for you. I’ve seen junior officers worried about their captain, but I’ve never seen junior officers honestly as fond of their captain as your officers are of you.”

Hornsparker, who had roused at the hint of possible mutiny, subsided again in Twilight’s mind, leaving her to answer honestly, “That’s… very gratifying, milord. I only wish I deserved it.”

“And why should you not deserve it?” Iron Press asked. “It’s hardly your fault you were given impossible orders. And look what you did with them.” He gestured around the ship. “The admiralty sent almost four hundred ponies halfway around the world on a fool’s errand. But you’re bringing the ship and almost two-thirds of them back, plus eighty ponies who would have been slaughtered without you. That’s your doing, captain. You deserve the praise. And I have the ear of a couple of mares who will make sure that praise is heard.”

This raised Hornsparker’s spirits, but not Twilight’s. How much longer must this drag out? she thought. I’m tired. I want to put the book down and sleep. Enough is enough. I don't care anymore. “Milord,” she said quietly, “I’m going to tell you a fairy tale. Just a silly little story. But I want to know what you think of it.”

“You have my complete interest, captain.”

Twilight took a deep breath. “Did you ever hear of a spell called Haycartes’ Method?”

“Well,” Iron Press said doubtfully, “of course I’ve heard of Haycartes. Great Fancy philosopher and wizard from about a century ago. But I’m afraid my literary tastes lean more towards poetry than magic.”

“Haycartes’ Method inserts a pony into a book,” Twilight said. “The pony appears as a drawing on the pages, and sees and hears the words of the book up close. It’s a difficult spell, and only well-trained unicorns can cast it.” She sighed. “Now imagine an al- I mean a unicorn pony, a very powerful, well-trained wizardess. A unicorn who loves books- any kind of book at all, but especially adventure stories.”

“I don’t think that’s so difficult to imagine,” Iron Press commented.

“This unicorn loved Haycartes’ Method, but she thought she could improve on it. She didn’t just want to be inside the book. She wanted to be inside the story itself, seeing things as the characters saw them. And one day when she knew she had nothing else that needed to be done, she gathered together a whole shelf of adventure books that she’d never read. She made herself comfortable, and then cast her improved spell… and vanished into the books.”

“Go on. What happened?”

“The unicorn found out her idea wasn’t all it was cracked up to be,” Twilight said. “She didn’t just find herself within the story. She found herself made into the main character, with the main character’s memories and thoughts jumbled in her head. She had to fight just to remember who she really was.

“But that wasn’t the worst part of it. The worst part was, an adventure story is only fun when you’re reading it from a long way away, in a safe place, where nobody real actually gets hurt. Living through an actual adventure is a terrible thing. This innocent pony, who’d never had blood on her hooves before, suddenly found herself responsible for the deaths of hundreds of ponies. And maybe the character she’d replaced could handle that, but she couldn’t. It wasn’t fun being in the story. It was a terrible nightmare.”

Twilight went silent, and Iron Press nudged her. “Go on,” he said. “Did the unicorn make it out of the book?”

“I don’t know,” Twilight admitted. “The fairy tale hasn’t got that far yet.” She stared out over the ocean, at the moonlight reflected in the swells, at the stars glittering in the clear sky. “I don’t know if it ever will.”

The silence that followed that line threatened to freeze even the tropical waters the ship sailed across.

Twilight shook her head. “But it’s only a fairy story,” she said, laughing. The laughs came out much more bitter than she’d wanted, and a little manic, and she choked them off. “Only a story, not real. The kind of thing a captain in a black mood dreams up on a hot night.” She stepped back from the rail. “I won’t bother you with my ramblings, mil-“

A hoof came down gently on Twilight’s shoulder, stopping her mid-step. “I believe you,” Iron Press said quietly.

Twilight froze, emotions roiling inside her, thoughts such a horrible tangle that she couldn’t tell which parts were her and which Hornsparker anymore.

“What was your name, in the other world?” Iron Press asked gently.

“Twilight Sparkle,” she answered instantly. “Princess Twilight Sparkle.”

“I see,” Iron Press said quietly. “And what about Captain Hornsparker?”

“She’s in here,” Twilight said, tapping her head. “I guess you could say she’s me, if I were born into this horrible world. In the real world this war never takes place, you see. Neighpoleon was never born. The revolution of Prance ran its course peacefully. Maredrid’s trading colonies were never run so brutally.”

“And what about me?” Iron Press asked. “Do I exist? What about my sisters?”

“I don’t know about you, milord,” Twilight admitted. “But one of your sisters eventually became prime minister to Celestia. And the other was a renowned diplomat.”

“Well, that’s something,” the Canterlot noble admitted.

“Hornsparker’s desperately in love with you, by the way,” Twilight added hurriedly. “Not that she’d ever admit it. She won’t shame her husband. His name is Plum Dumpling. They’ve had two children, one lost to fever.”

“Yes, I know,” Iron Press said. “Thornbush told me the story of your… pardon me, their wedding. He wouldn’t tell me what he actually thought of him, though.”

Twilight mentally prodded Hornsparker, but the mental voice was not merely silent, but pointedly silent, at this news. “Well,” she said carefully, “I don’t know if Hornsparker loves Plum Dumpling… but she pities him. They have practically nothing in common. But Hornsparker won’t do a thing that might hurt him. So… well… I’m afraid you’ll have to be patient and keep working at her.”

“I beg your pardon?” Iron Press asked.

“Think about it a moment,” Twilight said. “If you believe the fairy story, then that makes Hornsparker the main character, the one I’ve replaced. Under the circumstances that makes you the love interest.”

Iron Press’s blush was visible even in the moonlight. “Well,” he said, a little awkwardly, “I can’t say the prospect is a fate worse than death. But if I’ve been falling in love with an iron mare on a wooden ship, wouldn’t that be you? What kind of pony is Hornsparker, really?”

“Not that different from me,” Twilight said. “A bit more cynical. She has black moods. She’s obsessed with appearances. She thinks she’s friendless in the world. She’s… very awkward, among other ponies.” She smiled ruefully and added, “She reminds me of the pony I used to be, once. Before I found friendship.”

Iron Press’s hoof caressed Twilight’s shoulder. “I think I could be Hornsparker’s friend,” he said. “For as long as she needs one.”

Before Twilight could say anything else, a gust of wind blew across the deck. She looked out over the railing, noticing for the first time that something had blotted out the stars near the eastern horizon. “I think you should get below, milord,” she said, getting back to business. “Looks like a squall’s on its way. If you would, please ask my officers to come up on deck. I think we’re about to be very busy.”

“Certainly… Twilight.” The hoof left her shoulder, and then a light kiss touched her forehead just below the horn. “I do hope you make it home safely.”

A stronger gust of wind came and wrapped itself around Twilight…

… and the Lydia, the ocean, and the world fell away…

Interlude: the Bookshelf

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A small shelf of books hung over an empty plush bed.

One of the books- the leftmost one on the shelf- glowed softly with a violet light. All of the books had a slight glow, but that first book stood out compared to the others.

The light slid off the book and onto the next book on the shelf…

… but before the light had completely left the first book, a spark, like a static discharge, leaped from the spine of the first book to the spine of the second.

A moment’s flash, and the spark was gone.

The books remained.

DEATH BRIDLE Chapter 1: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

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Some things just aren’t meant to go together. Oil and water. Hay and potatoes. Pegasi and subtlety.

Wizards and punctuality.

I was running ten minutes late- literally running, galloping down the streets of Canterlot- for my appointment with Fetch Quest-

Wait a minute, that’s not right! Wizards can too be punctual! I’m on time for my appointments ninety-eight point two percent of the time!

- when the strange voice popped into my head.

Now, I am a wizard- not just an ordinary unicorn-

Wizardess.

Ahem. I am a wizard, which doesn’t just mean I know a few spells pulled out of a book. Almost since birth I’ve been part of a secret order which forms a line of defense between Celestia’s innocent ponies and things which would make even their greatest defenders cower in fear.

And why are you thinking like that? Are you talking to yourself or something?

I’ve faced monsters, changelings, and demons of various kinds- faced them down, mostly. The primary evidence for my success is, well, I’m still alive. And this wasn’t even close to the first time Harriet Daresden had an unwanted voice in her head, trying to steer-

Ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh! I know where I am now! This is the new Hairy Daresden novel! Death Bridles! I’ve so been looking forward to reading this!

This was, however, the first time the unwanted voice sounded less like a tyrant or tempter and more like a… raving fangirl in desperate need of a cold shower.

And that explains why you’re thinking like this! All the Daresden Files are written first-person! I’m hearing your inner monologue!

But demon or just insane teenager, I didn’t have the time or patience to indulge the mental stowaway just then. Not that I would have been very patient even if I hadn’t been late to an important meeting. Most of my friends- the ones who’ve survived, that is- keep telling me I need to work on my patience. Me, I just work on being more efficient in dealing with distractions. Therefore, I focused my power on the invading mind and-

Ooh, what kind of spell is that? The matrices are really brutal and inefficient, you know that? Here, just move over and let me show you-

- the spell passed through my mind as if I were the only one in it. Except, of course, I wasn’t the only one in it, because that other voice immediately attempted to shove me aside and take over the body. That’s how demonologists invariably go bad, by the way. They summon a demon, or make a pact, and then in a moment of distraction or weakness the demon mind takes control. And since demons usually have a lot more willpower than mortals, that’s usually the end for the summoner’s soul.

So I had all the motivation I needed to block the takeover attempt… which was a good thing, because the power was just barely sufficient. Fortunately my reaction was instant-

It was not! It took you a full second and a half with all your monologuing!

As I said, my instant reactions kept me in control. Just.

Look, I appreciate the compliment, but I really need you to move over. This is my body, after all. You’re just a fictional overlay. You’re me if I were born as Hairy Daresden.

No, I thought, I am me if I were born as Harriet Daresden, because I was born as Harriet Daresden! I have no idea who or what you are, though, but you’re not welcome. And by the way, quit getting my name wrong! It’s fun when I do it to others, but not so much fun when someone else does it to me, all right?

But… but… look, the intruder voice said, calming down a little bit. I cast this spell, Haycartes’ Method, with a little tweak to it. It’s supposed to put me inside the book, and I had a whole set of books on the shelf, and the newest Hairy Daresden, who is supposed to be a stallion, was one of the books.

That didn’t seem all that incredible, on first glance. If enough people believe in something, it gains power and begins to become real. If my life were a book series, and enough people followed the series, there would probably be a huge ball of mystic energy just waiting for a spark…

… but, on the other hoof, creating an entire multiverse? With the fae realms, the heavens and the hells, and all of Equestrian history including, let’s not forget, Discord?

That would take a heck of a lot of ponies… and one enormous spark.

The pony trespassing on my mind kept right on going. But I made the spell too strong or something, she said. Now I can’t remember it at all. I think it may be blocking me somehow. But the point is, I replaced the main character in the first book on the shelf! Instead of whoever it was supposed to be, the character was me if I’d been born into that world! And it’s the same with you!

Oh really? I thought. Are you seriously going to say I’m not real? Because if you are, first chance I get, you are outta here.

I… I’m not one hundred percent sure how to answer that. I thought Hornsparker was just an artificial memory and personality overlay created by the adjusted spell. It uses etheric referencing- or is that tantric referencing? Anyway, it seeks out the information it needs to make the simulation complete. But I was in control there, most of the time, except for the first few minutes and a couple of bad moments.

I beg your pardon! I was in control of myself the entire time, you stupid hallucination!

Oh, wonderful, I thought. Not one intruder, but two. And, just to make it even better, they began bickering, which might have been entertaining if they weren’t using my head to do it in.

Hornsparker?? What are you doing here? I thought your book was over!

What am I doing here? Having the most peculiar fever dream, so far as I can tell! Maybe I picked up some tropical ague from that island that took three weeks to set in-

You are not hallucinating! Well, no more than I am, thanks to this spell, but- well, you shouldn’t be here anyway! You should be back on the Lydia, falling in love with Iron Press and, I don’t know, setting up some love triangle nonsense for the next book in your series, or something! You shouldn’t be here in Canterlot!

On that we are agreed, voice of madness! Obviously I cannot be in Canterlot, not when I was sailing down the southern coast of the Luna Sea not ten minutes ago! Now take this illusion away before that squall comes and swamps us all, or at least before Thornbush has me confined to my cabin as a madmare!

Girls, I thought, this is no hallucination and no fever dream. Or if it is, I’m the one having it, and I’ve had my shots.

That’s what I’ve been trying to tell her!

And why should I listen to two figments of my fevered imagination?

I happened to be walking past a wrought-iron fence at that moment, and I took the opportunity to whack my head against it. Hard.

OW!

OUCH!

Uh huh, I thought. Have I got your attention now? Good. I am now fifteen minutes late for a very important lunch appointment. If you two will just keep quiet, watch, and maybe learn, the three of us can go back to my apartment, and we will straighten out there who is real and who is fictional. Or I can find every buttable object between here and the restaurant and give all three of us headaches. The mood I’m in right now, I’m good either way. Am I clear?

Yes, Hairy- I mean Harriet.

Rrrrgbl… as you will.

Fine. The voices in my head went quiet, but as I trotted into Chez Fromage Malodorant and ducked under its Zesty Gourmet three-star sign, I could feel them both still in my head. One pushed hard against my control, not so much seeking control as trying to see better out of my eyes. The other one… well, to be honest, it was sulking and pretending to be uninterested in affairs. But I could live with that.

Normally I would meet a private investigator in my office/apartment, or at their office. But Fetch Quest knew me too well, at least by reputation. I’ve been attacked by all sorts of supernatural enemies, plus the occasional mobsters and, due to the occasional misunderstanding, the city guard. He didn’t want to be seen with me on the street; he didn’t want to come to my place; and he didn’t want me within a mile of his place.

Now, if Fetch was just an ordinary gumshoe, I wouldn’t go to the trouble of arranging a meeting at a restaurant where the prices are in inverse proportion to the amount of actual food on the plate. But I needed Fetch, and he insisted on a meeting place too busy and crowded for any attacker to risk an improvised trot-by zapping.

So here I was, waiting for the maitre d’hotel, resigned to picking up a dinner tab that would double the cost of hiring Fetch in the first place. And, voices in my head aside, I didn’t actually regret the expense. Private eyes are easy to find, but an actual ghost whisperer is worth paying for.

Ghost whisperer? You mean necromancy? But there’s no such- sorry. Sorry! Sorry! Shutting up now!

“Ah, Miss Daresden,” the stereotypical snooty waiter said, walking up to me, with his ghost-pale coat, his pencil-thin mustache, his mane slicked back and ears permanently tilted back to match. “I wish you had informed us your party had expanded to four. It took a bit of improvisation to provide seating.”

For the record, this lunch date had been for myself and Fetch and nopony else. And I was pretty sure the maitre-d wasn’t referring to my two new cranial hitchhikers. But even when you suspect somepony is about to royally screw you over, you don’t let it show. “I’ll do better next time,” I said. “It was as unexpected to me as it was to you, or else I would have called ahead.”

“I understand. This way, Miss Daresden.”

When I had booked the appointment, I had requested a corner booth somewhere, so that a quiet conversation would be ignored, if the grumbling of the patrons’ empty stomachs didn’t drown it out completely. But the waiter led me to a small table for four, situated almost perfectly in the center of the main room, where three ponies already sat waiting for me. So much for private conversations.

Fetch Quest I recognized- a dumpy pony with a wispy gray mane that matched the wind-wisp of his cutie mark. The second pony I didn’t recognize at all- a bit older than Fetch, brown and a bit wrinkled, mane a mix of black and gray, wearing a clerical collar around his neck, marking him as a priest of some kind.

But the third pony at the table made my heart rate shoot up from sixty beats a minute to about fifty million.

There was a thin aura around him that I recognized as a glamour spell. But one of the first things I learned when I came into my magic was the true sight, that lets me see the unseen… well, provided that the unseen is only hiding from ordinary mortals. Sometimes they make me work for it. I don’t know what the other ponies saw when they looked at him, but I could tell Fetch was seeing the exact same thing as me, and it made him sick as a dog to be anywhere close to him.

Which makes sense. No necromancer in their right mind wants to be anywhere near a genuine, no-illusions thestral, and this thestral, fangs and bat-wings with claws and all, was sitting across the table from him.

“Ah. Miss Daresden,” the thestral said, his voice thick with the accent of the Forbidden Jungle. “We were just waiting for you so we could order.”

DEATH BRIDLE Chapter 2: an Offer You Really Can't Refuse

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A quick reminder for those of you who might not know, like for example the two hitchhikers currently taking up valuable real estate inside my skull, there is a difference between the batponies you occasionally see around Princess Luna and a true, genuine thestral.

Batponies are sometimes called thestrals, but nopony who deals with things from beyond the Veil makes that mistake. A batpony is usually just some ordinary pegasus with a special enchantment on them, of the same kind that turns all the Day Guard into white stallions. Thestrals, on the other hand, are one of a group of monsters that feed off pony emotions. The various groups are referred to as the Courts, and most of them have barons and dukes and, yes, a king or queen at the top. The nicest of them- the very nicest- see ordinary ponies as food.

Not all the Courts were thestrals. The major courts were the Court of Shapes (changelings, who feed on love), the Nightmare Court and the Shadow Court (different factions of thestrals, both feeding on fear and lust by drinking blood), and the Jade Court (who are a rumor out of the kirin lands- nobody knows for sure what they are, because the only way we know they exist is from warning notes found on the beheaded and exsanguinated corpses of ponies foolish enough to annoy them). There are various minor Courts, including a few relegated to legend, like the Ice Court, of course, the windigoes everypony hears of at Hearth’s Warming time. There are also whispers of an Obsidian Court associated with the Crystal Empire.

But if you’re seeing a thestral face to face, the odds are extremely good they’re either of the Nightmare Court or the Shadow Court. If they speak with a Jungles accent, the Nightmare Court becomes even more likely, since that’s been their home territory for centuries. For a mortal that would be bad news, since a mortal actually seeing a thestral as they really are usually has about five seconds left to live.

For me, though, it was so much worse, because for the past two years the Nightmare Court had been at active war with the Council of White, the secret society of wizards I belonged to.

More specifically, they were at war with me. To be fair, I’d started it.

So: here was this thestral, oozing enough dark magic that I knew on sight he could wipe the floor with me unless I had everything planned out perfectly in advance. Was I scared? Was I frightened of this undead monster, one of the creatures I fought on a more or less daily basis?

Well, duh, of course I was scared. It took a lot of concentration not to make a dash for the little fillies’ room.

But despite that, I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to attack. For one thing, he wouldn’t have allowed a clearly oblivious straight pony to sit next to him while preparing for an ambush. And he definitely wouldn’t have let Fetch Quest sit there. Maybe he could enthrall the straight, but Fetch’s spirit-talking abilities gave him a pretty solid resistance to mental takeover. And based on how sick he looked at the moment, he hadn’t been enthralled even a little bit.

Also, we were in the middle of about thirty straights, totally unsuspecting ponies. Even the Shadow Court wouldn’t make a play in the middle of that kind of crowd. Bringing the secret societies out into the open would inconvenience everybody on all sides and lead to almost unanimous retribution.

Also, it would annoy Celestia, who wants her ponies kept relatively safe and innocent… and for all certain wizards and monsters laugh about the Nerf Princess, she is still the pony who controls the sun, the pony who glimpses the future, and the pony who almost certainly knows where all the bodies are buried- literally. And if things get to the point where she has to take direct and overt action, she is not likely to be Smiling Cake-Eating Declaring-This-Store-Open Celestia. No, she’ll likely be Solar-Plasma-To-The-Face, Not-Even-Ashes-Left, Buck-The-Collateral-Damage Celestia.

So I took my seat, forced myself to act as if I were calm, and said, “Sorry to keep you all waiting. I should have asked two of you to reschedule.”

“Oh, that’s quite all right, Miss Daresden,” the straight with the clerical collar said. “Dr. Nettle has been a most charming companion. We were just talking about the superstitions of his native land.”

“I’ll bet.” I picked up the menu at my place, mostly for show, since I already knew what the cheapest option on it was. This wasn’t my first time using Chez Fromage Malodorant for meetings… which is probably how the thestral figured out when and where I’d be, come to think of it. But that didn’t explain the priest. “Have the rest of you already picked out what you want to order?”

“I’m afraid I’m not very hungry,” Fetch Quest said shakily. “In fact, I’m afraid I’m coming down with something. Harriet, could you show me the way to the restroom?”

As a means of getting the two of us away from the other two for a bit of private conversation, all that can be said for that ploy is that there probably wasn’t a better one short of rescheduling the meeting. Which, under the circumstances, would have been fine by me, but apparently Fetch wanted it over with. Anyway, I agreed to help him to the bathroom, and he did in fact run water over his muzzle when we got there, so I guess he wasn’t faking it completely.

“He walked up to the table within a minute after I arrived,” Fetch said. “I’m going to bail. If you take my advice, you’ll bail, too.”

I shook my head. The thestral probably wanted to talk. And anyway, if I left, it would be no trouble at all for him to follow me somewhere without witnesses, and then there wouldn’t be any talking. Plus, again, that priest. “Can’t do it,” I said. “What did your sources find out?”

“Not much,” Fetch said. “I know he isn’t dead. Or undead, at least not yet. The spirits say he’s somewhere near Tenochitlan. But I can’t find out what he’s doing, or who he’s with, or any details. I think something’s blocking the spirits.”

“Really?” That wasn’t exactly surprising, but it was unusual. Spirit wards usually work only on ghosts and the like who still interact directly with the material world-

What is all this blather about ghosts?

It’s part of the setting, Hornsparker. Everypony knows there’s no such thing as ghosts in the real world.

Is this being quiet? I thought sharply.

Sorry.

Anyway, the undead who have truly passed on, who are Fetch’s prime source for news, are a lot harder to stop. If someone’s using wards capable of blocking them, not only do they mean serious business, they’re packing serious power. Which, of course, made the Nightmare Court prime suspects…

“Well, thanks for trying,” I said. “I’ll arrange with the management so you can come back here another day, and they’ll bill me for it.” I looked at the doorway back to the dining floor and said, “I don’t think you should worry about being subtle. The straight won’t notice, and the thestral’s almost certainly here for me. Take off when you feel up to it.”

I walked back to the table, glum. My original reason for being here had been a washout, and now I had to deal with a thestral and… and what was that old priest doing here, anyway?

Five bits says he wants to be a client.

Come to think of it, the smarter mental voice had a point. A lot of my previous paying clients have found ways to avoid coming to my door in the open. But that still leaves the question: how did he know?

Anyway, my mind was more focused on the other self-invited dinner guest, the one who could rip out my throat as easily as a pony might crop a dandelion. “I’m afraid my friend Fetch really is sick,” I said. “Stomach flu, he thinks. I gave him a rain-check. Shall we order?”

“Is he?” the so-called Dr. Nettle said, voice all solicitude. “I do hope he gets better soon.” He looked at his right forehoof and said, “You know, I shook hooves with him when I sat down. Perhaps it might be a good idea for me to wash up before we dine. Perhaps you should do the same, Miss Daresden?”

Now, really. I understood exactly why the thestral was doing this, and up to a point I agreed. The innocent, mortal priest was really going to crimp our style if we tried to talk around him. The problem was, going with him meant leaving the highly visible central table and going where nopony could see us- in short, exactly the sort of situation I was afraid of.

But the same logic that made me go back to that table in the first place, instead of out the door right behind Fetch, still held true. There weren’t a lot of places I could go that the thestral couldn’t, except in the brightest sunlight- and, worse luck, it was raining outside today. And the few safe places I could get to weren’t exactly next door to Chez Fromage Malodorant. That was kind of the whole point of Chez Fromage Malodorant- otherwise it wouldn’t exist in my personal universe. If I wanted to talk- if he wanted to talk- it would have to be the bathrooms.

So, for the second time in under five minutes, I led a pony to the potty like a black-trenchcoated kindergarten teacher. (What can I say? It’s a rough school I teach.)

That… is… so… COOL!

That is so pretentious.

I didn’t even wait to make sure we were alone in the bathroom. I did begin washing my hooves, because why not? I did have my pre-spelled pocket blaster, but anything more involved required preparation time I wouldn’t get. So there wasn’t exactly a reason to keep my hooves free or my eyes focused on Nettle. “Okay,” I said. “You obviously want to talk with me pretty bad. First, who are you, really?”

“For what it’s worth,” the thestral said, “my name is Little Nettle. And I do actually hold a doctorate. But to be honest, I have come here to Canterlot with the intention to kill you.”

That made it a little difficult to keep rubbing my hooves together under the faucet. “Is that a fact?” I asked, trying to keep my voice from shaking.

“Not here and now, Daresden,” Nettle said testily. “I have a proposal for you to consider, first.”

“You know, you could have led with that instead,” I commented, shutting off the water. Nettle politely levitated a hoof-towel over to me. “There are all sorts of books about successful negotiations. You should try reading one sometime.”

Oooh! Oooh! The widely acknowledged leading work on the topic is Gabby Gift’s Making the Horse Drink: Fifty Surefire Tactics to-

Not now!

Sorry! So sorry!

“It’s about this wretched war between you wizards and the Nightmare Court,” Nettle said. “It’s a waste of time and resources. And it began over such a petty matter.”

“You took a dear friend of mine and tried to convert her into one of your kind,” I said quietly. “That’s not petty to me.”

“Very well, call it an act of principle,” Nettle said. “The fact remains, your act of principle triggered a war nopony really wants. And I am offering a way out.” Nettle had to struggle to turn on the tap for his sink. Thestrals of the Nightmare Court, and of the Shadow Court also, have serious problems with running water.

“All right,” I said. “You have my attention.”

“I am a Duke of the Nightmare Court,” Nettle said. “But I am only one of the courtiers, and certainly not the King of the Court. And the King and a majority of the Court have sworn to have your head, Daresden. Again, on a matter of principle, though possibly not as noble as your own.”

“Obviously. Somepony stands up to you, they have to go down. Not exactly brain surgery.”

“Quite. But there are ways, and there are ways. Face me in a duel, Miss Daresden. Myself and yourself, and nopony else. If I kill you, as I fully expect to, then the Court will have achieved its primary goal in this war and will be open to an offer of peace from your White Council.”

“And what happens when I kill you? The Court sends another duke, and we do this all over again?”

Oh… oh, no. No, no no no. Can we please not do this? I’ve just come from a place of so much death and stupidity. I was hoping this would at least be heroic-

Belay your whining, you hallucination. Let her do what needs doing.

Oh. Sorry. Sorry.

“There is a chance that you might get lucky,” Nettle admitted. “In that case the war would probably continue. But not here, not in Canterlot. The Nightmare Court would agree, in the event of your victory, to make this city neutral territory. Which means certain of your friends and former clients,” the thestral continued, baring far too many shining teeth in a mockery of a smile, “would not face the attentions of the dozens of mortal assassins who are currently ordered only to keep them under observation.” The smile turned to a perfect expression of innocent concern. “I dread to think what the orders might be if you were to decline.”

When I’d gone up against the Nightmare Court before, I’d been crazy-prepared, not to mention crazy-angry, and possibly just plain crazy. I’d also been crazy-lucky, a condition I don’t enjoy that often. The last thing I wanted was a one-on-one with a thestral duke, hundreds of years old at least, powerful enough to give that new princess, Cadenza, a run for her money.

But I was well and truly stuck. The White Council has rules, because the single greatest danger of secret monster-hunting societies is that the hunters become monsters themselves. We swear oaths, binding our magic, and the first one- the very first one- is that we do not use our magic to kill mortals. Ever. (Well, hardly ever- I got into trouble as a kid when- but that’s another story.) And that, in turn, meant that Nettle’s assassins, if they really were innocent mortals, were all but untouchable.

Fortunately, there are rules to this sort of thing. I was a bit rusty on them- okay, a lot rusty- but I knew the basics, and that gave me a little wiggle room.

“Put it in writing,” I said. “Have someone deliver it to the Council. I’m sure you have people who know how to do that.”

“We do have unofficial paths, yes.”

“Unofficial isn’t what I want. I want this official and binding. I’s dotted, T’s crossed, both sides fully informed. Once that’s done, you have your fight.”

“Very well,” Nettle said. “Since our business is concluded, I shall not further disturb your meal. The excuse that pathetic ghost-botherer used will serve well enough for me. Until we meet on the crease, Miss Daresden.”

This time I let the thestral go first before walking back to the table. “Looks like it’s going around,” I said casually. “Or maybe Dr. Nettle’s got a weak stomach. I recommended he go home and get lots of liquids.” Which, ironically, he probably was doing.

“That’s a shame,” the priest said. “But I suppose it gives us a chance to talk privately,” he added, smiling. “You see, I trespassed on your hospitality like this because… well, I require your services, Miss Daresden.”

Ha! Called it!

“I kind of suspected as much,” I admitted. “How did you know I’d be here in the first place?”

“Father Mighty Fortress recommended you,” the priest said. “He said you often met ponies here, and he had some words with the owners. They, in turn, informed me of your reservation today.”

That explained a lot. It also made things awkward, since I owed Father Fortress a lot of favors. He’d never call them in directly- he didn’t approve of my worldview, or I his, because reasons- but this was probably his way of calling a favor in indirectly. I’d need a darn good reason to get out of this… and a death-duel with a thestral, or a case of multiple spirit possession, might or might not be good enough reasons.

“Okay. Next, who are you, exactly?

“Oh, that’s right, I never said,” the priest said. “But, of course, I was acting under the pretense that you already knew me, and I couldn’t admit otherwise-“

“I get that. Name, please?”

“Father Victorious,” the old pony priest said. “I’m here from Romane.”

“Romane?” That was a long way across the Celestial Ocean- past the griffon lands, even. “Come for the tourist season, then?”

“Canterlot is a splendid city to visit,” the priest admitted. “But no, I’m afraid my business is rather more urgent than that.” He lifted his menu and said in a more quiet tone, “But I would really rather not discuss it in front of any other ponies, even quietly. Besides,” he added, “I’m afraid that waiter has been staring at us for the past ten minutes, wondering if we’re ever going to make a drinks order.”

I didn’t look. As I said, this wasn’t my first time hosting clients or informants here. The waitstaff and I had an understanding; when I wanted service, I’d signal. No signal, keep away. In exchange, they expected me to order quickly… a lot more quickly than I’d done today.

“Okay,” I said. “Do you at least know what you want?”

“I shall accept whatever comes to me,” Victorious said. “But since I am on Holy Faust’s work, and hope to have you on it as well, the Church shall cover the expense.”

“Oh.” Well. Given that… “Then let’s start with a bottle of Pinot Egregious,” I said, waving for the discreetly hovering waiter. “That’ll give me time to look over the menu again.” After all, I usually ordered the cheapest thing on the menu. I’d forgotten what was the most filling thing on the menu, and if somepony else was picking up the tab, I definitely wanted that instead.

After all, I was eating for three now.

I heard that!

Oh, be silent, hallucination. I can’t remember when I had proper pinot last…

DEATH BRIDLE Chapter 3: a Family Disagreement

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Canterlot doesn’t like to admit it, much less advertise it, but tucked in among the spires and minarets and palace walls and windy alleyways are quite a lot of hotels. After all, ponies visiting the capital have to stay somewhere, and while Celestia is rather generous with the royal palace’s guest bedrooms, the demand vastly outstrips supply.

But… how do I put this? The selection really varies. On the one end of the spectrum you have the Hotel Parliamentaire, which posts no rates because, if you have to ask, you aren’t welcome there. On the other end you have the hotels built right against the face of Mount Canter, which get practically no sunlight and have signs that say ROOMS NOT RENTED BY THE HOUR. You know, classy establishments.

Father Victorious gave me the name of a hotel that was a lot closer to the latter than the former, though thankfully not in the same district. There were a number of cheap, no-frills, bare-but-clean hotels built around the train station, and if you could put up with trains arriving or leaving every twenty minutes, day or night, they weren’t a bad bargain. I knew exactly where it was, so we left the restaurant together, walking through the dim, rainy streets of the old town district.

We’re being followed. Two earth ponies, hats, coats concealing their flanks.

Now, I like to think after five years as a consulting wizard I’ve developed certain skills and a sixth sense not connected to my magic. And I had, in a casual way, been checking reflections in shop windows and looking around the skyline and street as I walked. But I hadn’t picked up the tails, and the grumpier of the voices in my head had. Naturally this irritated me, but foreign voice or not, I paid attention.

“Father,” I said quietly, “keep walking forward until I say otherwise. We have a couple of friends behind us making sure we don’t get lost.”

“Oh. Do we? I didn’t think anyone knew I was in town aside from Mighty Fortress.”

“I’m going to find us a shortcut to shake these guys,” I said. “Just keep close to me and-“

Look out!

The mental attack took me entirely by surprise. One moment I was in control of my own hooves, and the next moment, I wasn’t, simple as that. And, for no apparent reason, I was casting a huge bubble-shield spell, different from any shield spell I knew… and a heck of a lot stronger.

Three spell bolts went spang off it.

Now I really was annoyed. Even fangirl had more situational awareness than I did. I blamed the stupid thestral. I must have been worrying about him, subconsciously at least, causing me to-

Can you quit monologuing long enough for me to get us out of here?

Get us under cover, the other voice said. Unicorn snipers require line-of-sight. We’ll still have to deal with the earth ponies behind us.

And in front, I thought. This is an ambush. Professionals. And I think I know whose.

“Princesses preserve us!” Victorious said, ducking low. “What’s happening?”

I’d intended to get us to a certain large store three blocks down. I’d done the owner a couple of huge favors, and as a result I routinely used the stockrooms as a means of breaking pursuit. But, as I said, three blocks down, and also across the street. I might as well tack a bullseye on our rumps for the unicorn snipers.

The only option was the very narrow alley between buildings right next to us. We’d be out of sight of the snipers unless they were right on top of us. Unfortunately, that left the tails following us… and the ambush almost certain to be waiting at the other end. This had been planned perfe-

I think I can handle the ambush, Geek Voice said. I don’t have all my spells back, and definitely not all my magic, but I have a lot more than I did on the Lydia!

Magic is no substitute for a cool head and a sharp cutlass.

I heard my voice shout, “Into the alley! Go, go, go!” and a forehoof shove Victorious into a run in front of me. Then I followed, jumping over some crates half-full of garbage and keeping next to the priest. So far as I could tell, my body was doing all this on its own, and I was just along for the ride.

Then the shield spell went out. Does this alley go through to the Promenade? Geek Voice asked.

No, I thought hurriedly, Promenade’s two streets over. This goes to-

To Puddinghead Place! Okay, I know exactly where we are now! I grew up here! I felt a pressure building up in my horn. Now would be a very bad time to take the body back, she warned me. Either of you.

I felt the runes being shaped around my horn and realized exactly what was about to happen. Teleportation was a spell taught in Celestia’s School and by a few private teachers, but only the most powerful unicorns could cast it. I’d never been able to myself without a magic circle and so much prep time as to make it useless. But Geek Voice was doing it all in her head… well, in my head, but you know what I mean.

We kept running, and I saw daylight- or what passed for it in the rain- ahead. And there, leaning against a large black post-chaise, standing on his hind hooves, was the unicorn Maddog, the strong right hoof of the head of Canterlot’s organized crime, Johnny Respectable. He had three other goons with him, two earth ponies and a pegasus. The good news was, they’d obviously not been there long, since they really weren’t in proper position for an ambush.

“When we land, keep your head down, Father!” Geek Voice said with my mouth.

“What?” That was the kind of bewilderment you could buy in bottles, collected from unicorn aristocrats realizing for the first time how little ordinary ponies actually needed them.

The teleportation spell finished forming, and in a flash of light and smoke we went from just inside the alley to behind the post-chaise on the other side. “KEEP DOWN!” I shouted, and then my body turned around to meet the surprised-looking mob ponies just working their way around the ends of the carriage.

I felt a moment of dizziness, and then Grump Voice said, My turn. There had been some short, thick pieces of scrap lumber lying in the alleyway where the teleport dropped us, and Grump Voice had one in her telekinesis. The first blow went into the lead bodyguard’s chin, raising him up so the second caught him in the gut, which dropped him for the third to come down right on top of the noggin and send him to dreamland. The second bodyguard didn’t let himself get taken out that easily, but Grump had the board back to block the incoming kick- all in maybe a second and a half.

Then the board shot straight upwards just in time to bring some sweet chin music into the life of the pegasus, who’d been coming in for a tackle. He must have had a glass jaw, because instead of coming down on me he came down on the sidewalk and didn’t move.

But then Maddog was around the carriage, and his remaining bodyguard was still in my face, and the two tails from before were trotting out of that alleyway. And Grump Voice wasn’t backing down or even thinking about escape, but about the quickest way to neutralize them, and coming up empty.

It was time for me to take my body back, but I’d figured out instantly that Grump Voice was a much more experienced hoof-to-hoof fighter than I was- which I respected, since I’ve put some serious work into training my skills for when magic is a bad option. I didn’t want the whole body anyway- just the horn. Keep them busy! I thought, and focused my will on that one appendage alone. That was surprisingly easy, since Grump Voice barely acknowledged it existed, and I began pumping magic out into a specific spell.

Johnny Respectable and I had an understanding- or so I’d thought. We didn’t interfere directly in one another’s affairs. And Johnny definitely didn’t go around putting hits on ponies in broad daylight like this. So either I’d really put a burr under his saddle, or else Victorious wanted something Johnny didn’t want to let go of.

Now, I have no problem whatever with situations where it’s either them or me. But I don’t want to permanently end up on Johnny Respectable’s To Do list, so instead of cooking up a fireball big enough to take care of business, I cast a smoke spell. I can do fog too, but smoke is closer to my strongest element, and pegasi can’t just tidy it away with a flap of the wings.

In a few seconds none of us could see our hooves in front of our faces. That was fine by me, since I remembered where everything was, and a quick tracer spell located Victorious, hugging the corner of one of the buildings behind us. I took full control of the body, opening one door of the post-chaise with one forehoof while my magic grabbed Victorious and, with a strain, heaved him inside. I trotted around to the front, found the wagon-traces by hoof, slid into them, and galloped, hauling the carriage behind me.

Most unicorns wouldn’t be able to do this for more than a short distance. We don’t have earth pony strength and endurance. But fit, healthy wizards can channel more power, and they can deal with situations when more power doesn’t help. I did daily exercises and regular trots to keep in literal fighting trim, so I was able to gallop around the curves of Puddinghead Place until I got across Promenade and into the middle-class brownstones beyond.

That’s where I stopped. I didn’t want to steal one of Johnny’s rides, and anyway the sheer number of ponies out on the Promenade, even in the light rain, made it pretty certain that even Maddog would think a second try was a bad idea.

Even so, when I suggested we should walk quickly, Father Victorious agreed, especially after I explained exactly what kind of ponies we’d just got away from.

And since Promenade goes straight through Canterlot from the ceremonial gates of the Palace to the train station and the old wagon road that winds up the mountain from the plains, getting to the hotel didn’t give us any further problems.



“The Church is seeking a piece of stolen property,” Father Victorious said once we were settled into his cozy little economy room.

“Is that so?” I asked. “I mean, it’s not the first time I’ve been asked to retrieve something, but I have to ask. Why not try the guard?”

Victorious shuffled his forehooves together. “The Church has not yet admitted that any of Holy Faust’s relics are missing,” he said. “And it would be… inadvisable… to advertise the existence of this particular relic.”

“When did it go missing? And from where?”

“A week ago. From Mission Dan Cantor north of Roam.”

I whistled. “Even with airships, it can’t have been in town more than a couple of days. Maybe a relay of pegasi could have got it here in a couple days, if they rested on clouds above the Celestia Sea. What makes you think it’s even here? Klugetown would be a much better place to fence it. Or Manehattan.”

Victorious reached over to his suitcase, opened it, and pulled out a folder. “One of the thieves was found dead after the robbery,” he said. “He was well known to the Roam and Germane authorities. He was a member of the Pastel Rats. They’re a small group renowned for breaking into impossible places and making clean getaways.” He sighed and added, “But for some reason, this time he didn’t make it.”

I looked at the photo of the griffon corpse. Kind of a mess, but you don’t exactly expect corpses to look healthy. “That doesn’t answer the question.”

“He was found near an airship dock the morning after the theft,” Victorious said. “On the body were various documents, no doubt forged, credentialing him to the Griffonstone Embassy here in Canterlot.”

Griffonstone hasn’t opened their embassy in almost a century! Geek Voice replied. And what kind of thief has that kind of stuff on him immediately after a robbery? If he’s part of a gang, why didn’t the gang empty his pockets?

Perhaps you are not as foolish as I thought, hallucination.

I agreed with Grump Voice, but I didn’t let on to Victorious, at least not yet. I flipped through the folder, finding what looked like a female diamond-dog and a svelte Abyssinian photographed. “File photos from the Germane guard,” Victorious said. “Not, of course, prisoner photos. These thieves have never yet been apprehended.”

“These are the remaining Pastel Rats?” I asked.

“So I’m told,” Victorious said. “I can only go by the best information given to me-“

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, cutting him off. “I want a thousand bits for retainer. My final bill will be determined by expenses, difficulty, and risk to life and limb. Based on today’s events, that last item is going to be pretty steep.” I looked the codger in the eyes and said, “And now that I’ve agreed to take your case, you’re going to tell me exactly what this thing is.”

“Is that strictly necessary?” Victorious asked.

“It’s something so hot that, by your story, it took the top super-crooks in the world to even touch it,” I said. “It got one of them killed. Johnny Respectable either has it or wants it, or so I’m guessing by the reception committee we got. You’re not telling the guard about it. In fact, by your own admission you wouldn’t admit the thing existed, except you need me to find it.” I’d paced back and forth in front of Victorious as I went down this list. “So now you’re going to tell me exactly what this thing is and what it looks like, or else you can find another wizard.”

Victorious rubbed his forehooves together anxiously. I didn’t waste any pity on him. He’d already given me a hard shove towards the cliff, and he was asking me to jump off and turn into an alicorn halfway down.

I might be able to do that!

“It is,” he said with great reluctance, “the Sketchbook of Tiveen. The writings of Faust Herself.”

“Really?” I asked. “Because, you know, if you’re missing your holy book, I know where you can buy a new one for-“

“In her own hoof,” Victorious continued. “No pony can read them, at least none we know. But we see the drawings, the many drawings. And they change, as the world changes, for the world is still being created.” He added in a whisper, “Some legends say, if a pony writes in the Sketchbook themselves, they can change the world, if it pleases Faust.”

“What happens when a pony tries it?”

“No pony has been recorded as trying it,” Victorious said. “But… there are inexplicable records of monasteries reporting themselves full, and yet recording one empty cell for years at a time. Perhaps a pony tried it, and Faust was displeased enough to… um… erase a drawing.”

Oooooo…. kay. So, not just a holy knick-knack, but an occult object of some serious holy power. And definitely the kind of thing some power-mad ponies would wipe out whole cities to touch. “How many people know this thing exists?” I asked.

“Oh, practically every religious scholar knows it exists,” Victorious said. “But the Church has heretofore concealed its possession of the Sketchbook. And its legends are not among those popularly circulated among ordinary ponies.

Lovely. Not well known enough to be recognizable on the street, but plenty well known enough for motivated ponies to learn about it and take action, Q. E. D. “Describe it to me, in detail.”

“It is in shape a scroll, spooled into a double red case of laquered wood with gilded ends,” Victorious said. “The cases are about three hooves long and a hoof in diameter. No pony has ever discovered its full length. Legend says it was once opened from Roam to Pizza without so much as a rip.”

“Okay.” I walked towards the door. “I bank with the Royal Trust. Once they send me word that my retainer’s been deposited, I’ll get to work.” I stepped halfway out, added, “Nice talking with you, Father,” and left.

Well. As if a duel with a thestral wasn’t enough, now I was also committed to finding a crazy-powerful artifact and persuading its current owners that it would be better for all concerned if it found its way back to its prior home. That’s not an easy job even when it’s only cheap jewelry at stake.

But at least I was going to get paid for this job…

DEATH BRIDLE Chapter 4: Having a Heart to Heart… to Heart… to Heart?

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It continued to rain as I walked back to my apartment. Due to the needs of state and the desirability of allowing the princess of the sun to actually see what she’s doing, Canterlot doesn’t get scheduled for rain very often. When it comes, it’s a slow, all-day affair, allowing the water to seep into the garden soil and the rocks and the like without becoming flash floods at the bottom of Mount Canter. But despite all that, I could tell it was getting late in the afternoon. Before long the creatures of the night would be out and about, which was usually when I was at my busiest.

But I didn’t intend to go out tonight, not if I could help it. Winter Wrap-Up was just barely gone, and the early spring nights were still pretty nippy. Chilly and wet are words which seldom come together on my list of Fun Ways to Spend an Evening.

You say you don’t intend to go out tonight, Gumpy Voice muttered.

“Well, yeah,” I muttered aloud. Nopony was nearby, so I wouldn’t have to worry about looking crazy… okay, looking crazier than I normally look. “Water’s running down my neck from my hat. I’m tired and strung out. Oh, and I have two voices in my head that aren’t mine, and I need to straighten that out, mustn’t forget that.”

Ha-hmm. Yes. Well, I wasn’t thinking in those terms. I was considering the complications of you getting in.

“What complications?” I muttered. “I unlock the door, I order the wards to let me pass. I restore the wards, lock the door, wake up Bobbin, and hash out this head thing from the comfort of my easy chair.”

You assume we’ll be permitted to get so far as the door.

I stopped walking. You mean another ambush? I thought.

Consider the evidence, Grumpy said. This Dr. Nettle- some sort of monster in pony guise, I gather? He as much as said that all your friends are being shadowed by assassins. Why not you? The primary goal of his group is, after all, to see you dead. Or alternately, the highwaymen who tried to ambush you outside the tavern. We don’t know that the chaplain was the target. It might have been you.

She’s right, Geeky Voice chimed in. Have you got any kind of early warning system for ponies lurking around your front door?

I did. Unfortunately, I’d only be able to hear them go off if I were already in the apartment. Whoops.

Well, shoot. Okay, I need to take over for a minute, then.

And just like that… phoot. Geeky Voice was in control-

We have names, you know.

- and I wasn’t. I felt my horn build up for another big spell-

Shoot! You’re not as powerful as I was when I was a unicorn, never mind- well, just never mind. I think I can still make this work, unless Celestia lowers the sun early.

-and then hold there, as much energy as I could store balancing on the tip of my horn, lighting up the top of my hat like a miner’s candle. Needless to say, I felt just a little bit conspicuous.

And quit blocking me! I need at least enough access to your memories to know where we’re going!

Four blocks ahead on the right, I thought at her. Four-story townhouse converted to boardinghouse that’s seen better days. I rent out the basement apartment. And I need the body back at the door if you don’t want to fry us all.

What kind of pony uses lethal wards on their front door?

The kind who has really powerful ponies and monsters lining up and taking numbers waiting for a chance to kill them.

She has a point, hallucination.

Right. Geeky Voice almost missed a step. I just felt something… eeew. Like a kind of static field, only evil. Like King Sombra’s inner chamber, sort of.

I felt it too. Usually the Nightmare Court’s thestrals disguised their true nature better… but then again, the moon hadn’t been raised yet. With the sun up, their powers were weakened one hell of a lot. The only reason a thestral could be around was the overcast sky. Door’s being watched, I thought. And thanks to that spell of yours, whoever it is knows exactly where we are.

That’s fine.

The heck you say.

Can you pinpoint them? I only get one shot at this, and the weather ponies won’t let it last very long.

You’ve got the body, I said. Body driver picks the music, crossbow rider shuts their piehole.

Thanks a lot.

I softened a little. The voices were trying to protect our mutual flanks, after all. And my mystic senses were dulled by being secondhand through Geeky’s control, but… I think he’s directly above my door, I thought. Rooftop most likely.

Rooftop of that building? The one on the corner?

Yep.

Got it. Be ready to take over. I’m putting everything I’ve got into this!

Why are you so cooperative with her and not me?

Because being in your head is like being in quicksand! We had this tendency to merge! Harriet’s mental training keeps us strictly separa- can we not talk about this now??

Half a block to go, I thought.

Now or never, Geeky thought, and she let loose the spell she’d been carrying.

The spell itself was surprisingly simple. It was just a cloud-shredder. It wouldn’t harm anything else, though aiming it at a pegasus cloud home would be a great way to end up in a lawsuit. But Geeky had aimed it at a particular patch of sky, which ripped away to reveal a patch of light-orange afternoon sky… and the bright, shining yellow sun, which shot a shaft of light directly on, and only on, my boarding-house.

I could hear the scream from half a block away. A little pony-sized dot fell off the roof and scrambled for the alleys.

My knees went limp as Geeky Voice let control of my body return to me. She’d done a major drain on my magic reserves- again- but I sucked it up and forced myself to gallop for my front door. I had just enough spare energy to think, How in the name of Tartarus did you know how to aim that shot?

In the real world I spent twelve years as Princess Celestia’s personal star pupil! I know exactly where the sun is at any time of day in Canterlot, any day of the year!

Real world indeed! Poppycock!

I had to agree with Grumpy. Celestia didn’t take personal students. She taught classes at the School for Gifted Unicorns, but personal students meant a level of personal involvement she didn’t allow herself.

Wanna bet?

I let that one go. After all, I wasn’t exactly on the annual Grand Galloping Gala list. I could be wrong.

We got into the door without further incident. The first thing I did after divesting myself of my hat and duster was to tap a hoof on the skull adorning one of the bookshelves that almost covered my walls. In fact, that bookshelf was pretty much the only one in my living room that wasn’t filled with books. There were a few books, yes- pulp of the kind you found in a secret back room of a seedy caravanserai stop, the kind favored by lonely ponies on the road or even lonelier ponies at home. The skull sat on a small pile of stallion gear- chaps, a rough leather saddle, and a horsecollar. “Wake up, Bobbin,” I said. “We’ve got problems.”

A flicker of my magic lit up several candles around the skull, which in turn lit up with lights in its eye sockets that had nothing to do with candles. “The sun isn’t down yet, beautiful,” a deep contralto voice cooed. “Can’t you let a filly get her beauty sleep?”

“After a day like I’ve had so far, the answer is no,” I said bluntly. “First things first. I need an outside opinion for this. Scan me and tell me if you pick up any kind of spirit possession on me- ghosts, angels, remote manipulation, whatever.”

I already told you what it was! Geeky Voice said. It’s Haycartes’ Method!

“Now, Harriet, I’ve warned you about playing around with strange spirits,” Bobbin cooed. “Without me, that is.” The eye lights flickered for a few moments. “Well, that’s peculiar,” she said. “There’s the strangest mystic knot wrapped around you, but it’s like there’s no power running through it. It’s just… kind of… there.”

“Any idea what it is?” I asked.

“Never seen it before,” Bobbin said. “And I’ve seen a lot of stuff, no entendre intended.”

“What about the possession thing?”

“Not a thing, Harriet. So far as I can see, you’re the only pony in that pretty head of yours. What’s this about?”

To answer that, I relaxed my inner shields a bit, allowing both voices free access to my mouth. In fact, I prodded them a little. I didn’t feel like repeating everything for Bobbin’s benefit.

“Ah… right. I’m one of the, well, the new voices in Harriet Daresden’s head. My name is Princess Twilight Sparkle,” Geeky said, and even I could tell the subtle difference between her using my voice and me using it. “It’s very nice to meet you, Miss Bobbin.”

“Ms., please, I’m a liberated familiar.” The pony skull seemed to grin a little bigger. “And that’s definitely not you, Harriet. You’ve never been that polite.”

“And I am Captain Hornsparker of Her Royal Highness’s frigate Lydia.” Again the difference in voices was pretty easy to tell. Grumpy’s voice had crisper, slightly archaic diction and a stern, almost steely tone to it. “For what reason I cannot imagine, I have been dragged into this peculiar fever dream, and given that I cannot awaken, I seem to have no option but to conform with it for the nonce.”

“Hey, I know those books,” Bobbin cooed. “The Lydia, you said? Your best adventures are still ahead of you, kiddo.” The skull rocked a little bit. “But what’s this about a princess? The only princesses I know about in Equestria are Celestia, Luna and Cadance, and Cadance was just proclaimed about fifteen years ago.”

Geeky- I mean Twilight- took over my voice again. “What do you know about Haycartes’ Method?” she asked.

“Um… unicorn philosopher from about two hundred years back?” Bobbin asked. “Coined the phrase, ‘I think, therefore everything is.’ Developed the notion that the world is an illusion constantly rebuilt by the perceptions of ponies and other thinking creatures. I don’t know what his method was, though.”

“Shoot.” I felt a forehoof stamp softly on my cheap secondhand rug. “I’ll just bet the spell’s blocking knowledge of itself. Next time I do this I’m going to double-check the safeguards to make sure there’s a back-door out of the spell.”

Then I took back my voice for a moment. “Start at the beginning,” I said. “What’s this about a spell?”

What followed was a crazy story about a Princess of Friendship, who lived in a magic castle in Ponyville, and a spell she tweaked without really thinking things through.

“So the first book was Bray to Quarters,” she said, “where I woke up thinking I was Captain Hornsparker. And the spell kept trying to tell me I was, giving me her memories, even her thought.” She paused and added, “At least, that’s what I thought. But if that’s the case, why is Hornsparker’s personality still here?”

And then Grumpy- I mean Hornsparker- grabbed my voice to say, “A perfectly valid question, if you swallow all that twaddle about books and the like. I certainly did not ask to be in Canterlot. Especially not a Canterlot with three princesses- you did say three, yes? I swore my oath to one and only one princess. And I had one of her ships in my charge, and I need to get back to it at once. Faust only knows-“

“Don’t worry,” Bobbin cooed, “you sail the Lydia home safe and sound, even short-hoofed as you were.”

“Short-hoofed?” Hornsparker asked. “Thanks to the survivors of Cumpleanos, we had a full complement!”

“Really? Hold that thought…” The lights in Bobbin’s skull flickered for a few moments. “All six of them? You lost over a hundred ponies and got back only six. You’re cute, hon, but your math needs work.”

“We got over a hundred ponies off that ship before it sank!” Hornsparker insisted. “Most of their wounded died, but-“

“How did you manage that?” Bobbin asked derisively. “The book clearly says only six ponies were fished out of the water after it sank. Shadetree fought you until the ship sank underneath her.”

I felt my facial muscles shift to match Hornsparker’s feelings of shock. “She did? But… but…”

Then there was another instant shift of control. “So I did change the story!” Twilight said, utterly delighted. “I thought I hadn’t made the least bit of difference! What about the ponies on the wheels?”

“What about them? I assume they died,” Bobbin said. “They were scene dressing, weren’t they? Just showing off how brutal Xipe Totec was.”

“I talked Xipe Totec into giving me the ones who were still alive,” Twilight said. “Six came aboard Lydia before we first-“

A knock at the door froze Twilight, Hornsparker and myself mid-conversation- all one of us. Hornsparker, who had withdrawn almost out of my ability to feel her, surged back into control, picking out my hold-out blaster wand from my jacket. “You were not expecting a visitor.” She said it not as a question, but as fact- which it was, since I’d intended to spend an hour talking out the situation with my hitchhikers, giving Bobbin marching orders, and hitting the hay.

But the mare of action was no wizard, and at least a century out of her time, if I understood what was going on. I strengthened my controls and retook my body. “You’ll blow my wards up in my own face if you do what you’re thinking about doing.” I pointed to a row of candles on a shelf near the door. “No orange or red flames,” I said. “That means the wards don’t sense any hostile intent.”

But that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to be careful. I kept that blaster wand in my magic and walked slowly to the door. The sun had set while we were talking, so I couldn’t see anything through the peephole.

Nuts. I threw open the door and jabbed the blaster against the neck of the pony on the other side. “Don’t move,” I hissed.

“Gee, Harriet, it’s good to see you too,” said a stallion's voice.

A very familiar stallion's voice.

The voice of the stallion I’d been longing to see for far too long.

DEATH BRIDLE Chapter 5: No Time for Love

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I lit up my horn, and there he was: the russet fur, the curly black mane, the snub spiral horn, the dark eyes that I always felt I could fall into and lose myself forever inside.

And maybe I did, because I didn’t twitch when Twilight Sparkle thought, Huh. For some reason I was expecting Iron Press.

And what would Lord Iron Press be doing here? Hornsparker thought back. It’s bad enough I got dragged along into this… this… whatever it is. Why bring him into it?

Well, look at Daresden! She’s just standing here staring, hasn’t even pulled that wand away from his throat. She’s obviously goo-goo in love with him!

“Just- very good friends,” I managed to say, not realizing I said it out loud.

“Yes, you’re the same charming Harriet Daresden I learned to love.” Hot Lead smirked at me over the holdout blaster. “You always know just what to say to make a boy feel needed.”

ARRRRGH! Twilight shoved me out of the mental driving seat. “No, I’m not,” she said hurriedly. “I’m one of the voices in Daresden’s head, it’s a long story, no I’m not a ghost or a demon, we don’t have time to discuss it while Harriet’s standing here with her head stuck out through the wards! Just hurry up and NOOOOO!”

That last word was mine. I’d come to my senses just in time to stop Twilight from making me make a possibly fatal mistake.

Yes, this was Hot Lead, aka “People Keep Thinking I’m a Blacksmith Because They Only See My Name in Print”, my beloved. But he was also the reason I touched off the war with the Nightmare Court in the first place. Specifically, because the Nightmare Court tried to turn Hot Lead into one of them- a ritual that was better than half done before I stopped it.

Completing the process required only one step- the first feeding on a victim. And it had been more than a year since I’d last seen Hot Lead. It was just possible that he’d given in to the urge. So, love him as I did, I had to be absolutely certain.

“What was that about?” he asked.

“Yeah, sorry,” I said. “Leedie, I’m glad to see you… but I’m not inviting you into my home. You understand why.”

“Oh.” Hot Lead nodded. “Yes, I understand. And you’re quite right to be careful.”

There’s a natural magic about homes that affects a wide range of supernatural creatures, including most of the Courts (the Court of Shapes being the main exception). A thestral has to be really powerful to overcome it, except under two circumstances. If you invite a thestral into your home, without restrictions, well, you don’t deserve what you get, but you deserve something for being that stupid. And if a pony dies by non-mystic violence in a home, the thestral can enter even uninvited.

But I wasn’t dead, and I had explicitly not invited Hot Lead in. So when he stepped across the threshold without so much as a twitch, I relaxed. For the time being, at least, he was the same stallion I’d known.

Well, mostly. He wasn’t a thestral yet, but he had most of the strength of a thestral, plus a number of other party tricks. But the mind was the important thing, and the mind, at least for now, was all pony.

I can’t describe how good the relief felt. Here was my dearest friend, the pony I wanted to marry, the pony I’d been willing to let the whole world burn for, the pony I’d asked Fetch Quest to find for me… here, now, in my apartment.

We were together, hugging, heads intertwined, rubbing neck to neck. It just felt so darn good to have my friend back.

Hey.

A year’s worth of pain and worry, gone, erased by the touch of his fur against mine.

Hey!

I relaxed the hug just enough to face him directly, looking into those beautiful dark eyes, leaning my lips forward to-

TIME OUT!!!

I found myself not just pushed out of control of my body but flung, hurled to the back of my own mind and pressed down hard. My senses became muffled, as if someone had put someone else’s prescription glasses and a pair of earmuffs on me. I had enough awareness to wonder: was that what it felt like to Twilight when I stopped her from inviting Hot Lead in?

“That’s enough of that!” I heard Twilight Sparkle say with my voice. “What did you do to her? To Daresden, I mean?”

Do to me? What made Twilight think… I could just about see Hot Lead’s face falling, his head hanging low. Oh. Maybe…

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I’m still a unicorn… but I’m not the same pony I was. I could feel you… her… going under the spell…” He turned his head away completely, unable to face me as he said, “I liked it.”

The Kiss? I asked, then adding a curse as I remembered I didn’t have the body.

“I understand,” Twilight said. “I read the… no, that would take too long to explain.” I felt my lungs fill with air, then expel them in a calming breath. “From your point of view, I’m from another world,” she continued. “My name is Twilight Sparkle. I’m an alicorn princess who cast the wrong spell and ended up in the head of your friend Harriet. There’s another pony in here as well, but she’s not important right now.”

Not important she says, Hornsparker grumbled. She’s getting revenge for all the times I called her a symptom of my insanity.

“In all fairness,” Twilight continued, “Harriet loves you very much. But I only know you from rrrr… from what Harriet’s told me. And as much as Harriet would love to… um…”

“Yes, I know,” Hot Lead said quickly. “And I’d love to um with her, too. But, under the circumstances… that would be a very bad idea. It’s hard enough to keep control as it is.”

“Um, I see,” Twilight said. She obviously wasn’t comfortable with this conversation. In fact, the whole topic of um made her very uncomfortable for some reason.

Possibly still a young filly? Hornsparker suggested. I for one have no qualms about, as you put it, um. I’ve birthed two colts so far. I still miss poor Golden Ratio…

Maybe I could tag back in? I suggested, testing the pressure pushing against my self-awareness.

Do you think you can resist that Kiss thing? Twilight replied silently.

Now that I know it’s on the table, yes, I said. Since Hot Lead had been partly turned thestral, obviously he had part of the powers involved. That included the power to seduce one’s victims, the pheromones that gradually weakened the will of the unsuspecting. The Kiss, the Nightmare Court called it. But if you knew it was there, you could resist, as Twilight obviously was doing.

All right. Get rid of him. We’ve got a lot of talking still to do!

I felt the pressure release, and I sort of… popped… back into control, like my upper brain functions were the dice-bubble in the middle of a Problems board. “Okay, I’m back,” I said. “I’m sorry about the… complication.”

Hot Lead smiled sadly. “What is a day in the life of Harriet Daresden without complications?” he asked.

“The second wish I make if I ever find a djinni lamp,” I replied. “How about a cola? Sandwiches?”

Where do cola and sandwiches fit into get rid of him? Twilight snapped in my head.

Belay that. We’re still hungry from that joke of a meal at the restaurant.



“Your editor misses you,” I said. “We all do.”

“I know,” Hot Lead said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m here. He deserves to see me face to face.”

“One last time, you mean?” I asked. “Is that why you’re here, saying goodbye? What’s wrong? Can I help?”

Can I help, she asks? A mare facing a duel against a creature of vast power and a showdown to take a holy relic from the darkest scum of this city, and she is offering to help? Hornsparker’s mental voice dripped with irony. Are you always so eager to commit suicide, Daresden?

Leave Harriet alone, Twilight replied before I could respond. The White Council is sworn to protect the innocent. Daresden, whatever his faults… sorry, her faults… stays devoted to that ideal, no matter what other lines he steps… she steps across. I really am sorry, Harriet, but I’ve read four books about the stallion version of you, so-

“Harriet, you look really strange when you do that,” Hot Lead said. “Please tell me you don’t do that outside.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m still figuring out what to do about my peanut gallery.”

I apologize, Hornsparker said quietly. I should not have mocked you. Duty is a harsh mistress to serve, but serve we must. An oath, once given, must be honored.

Um… thank you, I thought. That was as humble and soft as that grumpy voice had been since it first popped into my head. “But my question remains. Can I help?”

“Actually, I came to help you. To warn you.” Hot Lead took a swig of his cola and made a face. “What they make in Mexicolt City is better,” he said. “Harriet, the Nightmare Court-“

“Yeah, Little Nettle,” I interrupted. “We met today. At lunch. He made an impression.”

“He’s a killer, Harriet,” Hot Lead pressed. “Seriously. He’s taken out a lot of wizards already.”

“I figured that much. He wants at least one more.”

“It’s not going to be a fair fight.”

“Not news to me.”

“I don’t mean Little Nettle. My sources say Nettle wants peace, but his faction is in the minority. The Nightmare Court as a whole thinks it’s winning the war, Harriet. They’re perfectly happy for you to keep breathing if it means they have an excuse to keep killing White Council wizards. They’ll almost certainly meddle with the duel.”

I sighed. “I don’t have much of a choice,” I said. “Nettle’s got straights hired to stalk all my friends. Assassins. If I don’t fight, they die.”

Hot Lead nodded. “I can’t say I’m surprised,” he said. “Just… well, just be careful, all right?” He leaned forward and added, “And you hitchhikers better not get Harriet killed. Understand?”

Twilight pushed forward just long enough to say, “Well, we weren’t exactly planning on it.”

“I guess not,” Hot Lead admitted. “If Harriet dies, then you-“

Someone knocked on the front door. My magic gripped the prespelled wand from where I dropped it before. “Who is it?” I shouted.

“I’m looking for Mr. Hot Lead.” The voice was almost inaudible through the door.

Leadie recognized it, though. “It’s all right,” he said. “I know who it is.”

“If you say so.” I didn’t lower the blaster. I went cautiously over to the door and opened it, revealing a mare almost totally concealed in a dark robe. My vision tried to just slide off her, but I could tell the soft bulges of wings under the robe and the absence of a horn under her hood.

The person on the other side of the doorframe didn’t even look at me. She leaned around me to look at Hot Lead, who had stood up and walked over to the door along with me. “Finish your business,” she said. “We have to go.”

I looked at Hot Lead. “Who is this?” I asked, trying not to feel jealous of a robe that might, or might not, have a pony vaguely associated with it.

“Harriet, this is Vespers,” Hot Lead said. “Vespers, Harriet Daresden.”

Vespers didn’t bother looking at me when I was named. “This is a waste of time,” she said. “We have urgent business.”

“Would you mind filling me in on that urgent business?” I asked.

Now Vespers did look at me- or at least the bit of beige muzzle poking out from her hood did. “Yes.” The muzzle turned back to face Hot Lead. “We have to go. At once.”

Hot Lead sighed. “I’m sorry I have to cut this short,” she said. “Harriet, seriously, be careful. I’ll try to get in touch with you again before I leave Canterlot.”

“Leedie-“

“I’m sorry,” he said, ducking around me and up the steps past Vespers. The robe turned, and it vanished, pony and all. Even Hot Lead took a few seconds to vanish into the gloom of a Canterlot evening.

“Swell,” I muttered, slamming the door. I spend a year waiting and wondering and searching, and when I see the love of my life I get less than fifteen minutes with him. And half of that was spent dealing with the kibitzers inside my brain.

It wasn’t even close to half!

I didn’t bother responding. I was too angry.

You’re still monologuing! That’s really passive-aggressive of you!

“Well, at least he’s still looking well, isn’t he?” Bobbin asked saucily.

I snatched up an uneaten sandwich from Leedie’s plate and stuffed it into my mouth as I walked past where he’d been sitting to my own chair. I flopped into it, growling the growl of a lover thwarted.

Look, it’s not our fault she couldn’t stay, all right? Twilight asked.

“You wanted him gone!” I snapped.

I have a question, Hornsparker said. Does it not bother you, Miss Daresden, that the hall… that… what is your name aga-

Twilight Sparkle. You know it’s Twilight Sparkle!

Miss Sparkle, Hornsparker drawled, tells us that we are but characters in fantasy books, that all of this is but a construction of a sorcery run amok. Does that not disturb you? Because I confess it disturbs me greatly.

“Not really,” I said. “I feel real enough to me. And if I lose that duel, I’ll be really and truly dead.”

“Harriet,” Bobbin said quietly, “care to cut me in on the conversation again? Your companions, whatever they are, aren’t spirits. I can’t sense them. That means I can’t hear them, either.”

“Oh, right,” I muttered. “Hornsparker was just changing the subject of conversation. What do you know about fictional realities?”

“In what sense?” Bobbin asked. “Illusionary worlds are common as dirt, especially in the NeverNever. And there are worlds and worlds beyond the NeverNever. I’ve heard stories of beings clad in the form of fictional characters invading from beyond. Not Outsiders, mind you. The Outside isn’t the only border of the NeverNever.”

“So,” I said, “it’s perfectly possible that, say, a world might exist somewhere,” I waved a hoof, “out there, let’s say, which is perfectly real to its inhabitants, but lines up perfectly with, say, a series of adventure nov-“

Someone pounded on the front door.

“What now??” Twilight asked, using my voice a little louder than I might have wished. If I’d stayed quiet, maybe whoever it was would-

“Harriet!” I heard that voice very clearly through the door, and this time it was one I recognized. “It’s Lucky! I need you down at the morgue! I have a corpse you need to see!”

Now how can a mare refuse a pick-up line like that?

DEATH BRIDLE Chapter 6: Applied Demonology

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I don’t think of my first magic teacher, Sunken City, very often, mostly because he was a horrible abusive brainwashing roadapple. But some things stick in my mind, like how he took an already creepy ode to death and poor taste and adapted it to wizardly occupational hazards… and made me memorize it.

A is for Apple Pie, slain by a curse
B is for Buckle Bright, who didn’t cast first
C is for Comet Tail, possessed by a wight
D is for Double Dutch who couldn’t make a light
E is for Emerald whose wit was too slow
F is for Frost and spells she didn’t know
G is for Gloria who burned out her magic
H is for Harriet whose own end was tragic…

Yes, he put me on the list. He never actually said how I died in that little story, but there were little tales for all other twenty-five ponies. Looking back on it, I have to give the evil creep his due: he had a creative streak. Maybe I’d have fewer scars on my psyche if he’d had a touch less imagination.

But looking at the corpse on the slab in front of me, I couldn’t help mentally running through that entire poem-

Thanks for that, by the way.

Indeed. That was truly disgusting.

- because the body- no, the meat, it wasn’t intact enough to call it a body- looked like it had experienced every single one of those cute little horrible deaths, plus a few others for which there hadn’t been an unused letter of the alphabet.

The assistant coroner on duty, a chubby little unicorn with a wild shock of mane named Bitter Butter, had ordered us to put on medical masks and smocks, right down to the hoof booties. “Touch with your magic only,” he said. “I really mean it. I’ve never seen anything like this. When you work with the Guard, Harriet, my job gets really interesting.”

Then, after some banter with Lucky Star, who headed up the Canterlot Guard’s IC Division- Inexplicable Crimes, that is- Butter took us into the examination room, where we found the meat I just mentioned. The dead pony’s barrel looked like the last stages of a really involved and sadistic game of Boxes and Lines, he’d been cut up so thoroughly. His forehooves were gone, chopped off by something incredibly sharp, since the black stubs of his bones were flush with the severed muscle and skin.

Oh, and his head was gone, too. It’s easy for inexperienced private investigators to miss a little detail like that, but I had five years in business for myself, and so I spotted subtle clues like that instantly. It didn’t take much to figure out why his head was gone, either; whoever or whatever had done this had also lopped off the skin on either flank where his cutie mark had been. The killer really, really didn’t want this pony identified by anybody.

All of that had my stomach doing somersaults, of course, but the worst thing-

Oh, dear Celestia. And I thought the wounded on Lydia were bad off…

- the worst thing, or rather things, were the sores and buboes all over the few parts of the body that were still vaguely intact.

“So, Butter,” Lucky asked, “what did he die of?” Lucky at first glance looks like he ought to still be in primary school, but he’s actually one of the better detectives the Canterlot City Guard has. He was put in charge of Inexplicable Crimes in the hope that the division would stop being the guard’s dumping ground for ponies they couldn’t fire but didn’t want to keep on the force. To everyone’s surprise, he accomplished exactly that, solving files, reopening and solving cold cases, and generally making the streets of Canterlot safer to walk on.

By a strange coincidence, I began working as a paid consultant for IC Division shortly after Lucky Star got his promotion. Funny how those things work out.

No, what’s funny is how much Lucky looks like Iron Press if he shrunk in the wash.

No, not at all. Mister Star’s coat is much whiter. His horn is a bit longer in proportion to his face. And he keeps his mane close-cut, not long like Lord Press.

Girls, please, I thought. Not the time.

“What did he die of?” Butter said. “What didn’t he die of? I’ve tested for seventeen painful fatal communicable diseases, and the deceased comes up positive for every last one.” He adjusted the bunny-ears headband on his head and continued, “He even comes up positive for cockatrice pox, and that’s supposed to be extinct since they came up with the vaccine for shingles plague!”

“Well,” I said, swallowing a little to keep my sandwiches down, “I would have guess death by decapitation, myself.”

“No, that’s the one thing I can guarantee he didn’t die from,” Butter said. “See the bruises under the fur here and here?” As I leaned over to see the faint signs of mottled skin under the fur, he continued, “Post-mortem lividity. Only happens when there’s still plenty of blood in the body. He didn’t bleed out.” He pointed to the chest and added, “But he did bleed some. All of this was done prior to death. Blood clots in the cuts.”

“But no idea beyond that?”

“Nope. Autopsy revealed organ failure in pretty much every organ more or less simultaneously. Liver, kidneys, pancreas, spleen, heart, lungs. If we had the head, I’d almost expect signs of encephalitis. There’s almost no point in trying to guess which one was the first to give out. I don’t know anything that could possibly cause this.”

Butter dropped a cloth over the corpse and slid its slab back into the wall. “I’ve cast every disinfection spell I can think of and scrubbed him down besides, but he still makes me nervous. He’s like a hotel holding a convention of all the worst imaginable ways to die, and I don’t want to be around when the featured speaker sits down, you get me?”

“Okay. Is there anything you can tell me about him?”

“Earth pony,” Butter said. “You can tell by the thickness of the legs, though it’s a lot harder with the hooves gone. Age anywhere between thirty and sixty. Dead between forty and forty-eight hours. Only one distinguishing mark that the killers left was a tattoo on the left shoulder.”

That caught my attention. There’s a certain taboo on tattoos, so to speak, among ponies. They seem like cheating, like a denial of one’s cutie mark. There are ponies who get them- most notably sailors and airship crew- but it’s very rare.

Butters pulled out a sketch he’d made of the tattoo: something that looked like an eye, as the ponies of far southern Equestria might have drawn it ages ago. “I missed it the first three times I examined him,” he said. “It was only an inch across, and they made it deliberately hard to see through the fur. But it’s all I found.”

“Okay. I’ll check it out.” I grabbed a blank piece of paper off the desk at the end of the room, held it next to Butter’s sketch, and said, “Zerocks.” A little flick of magic, and I had a perfect copy of the drawing.

“Have fun. Meanwhile, I have to make up something my bosses will believe.” He shot me a look. “I’m still in mandatory counseling after I made the mistake of writing ‘remains of thestral, cause of death self-defense’ on a certain autopsy last year.”

“Not my fault,” I said, rearing to wave off the blame with both forehooves.

“C’mon, Harriet,” Lucky said. “I’ll walk you back to your place.”



There was another poem, or rather song, I picked up from my late and very un-lamented teacher Sunken City. He didn’t teach me that one intentionally. He hummed or sometimes even sang it sometimes while he was working on one of his little projects, all of which involved Outsiders or black magic to a certain extent. He was very good at keeping that sort of thing secret from the rest of the White Council… until he made one little mistake, got himself killed, and very nearly got me killed too.


Anyway, the lyrics of that song were running through my head as Lucky and I walked down the gaslamp-lit streets of the city towards my home.

Dahlia, Dahlia, have you seen Dahlia
Dahlia the tattooed donkey,
She has eyes that fill out the ranks
And for her flanks stallions give thanks
Dahlia, Dahlia, the boys they all hollia
For Dahlia the queen of tattoo,
On her back is a picture of Clover the Cliver,
Puddinghead graces the top of her withers
And her Platinum portrait gives ponies the shivers,
You can learn a lot from Dahlia!

What I was wondering, was what, if anything, I’d learn from a tattoo of an eye specifically made to be hard to see. Obviously it was some sort of group symbol, a sign of membership in a cult or society or something, but it wasn’t one of the ones I was familiar with.

It looks like… like… shoot! I know I’ve seen it before, but something’s blocking me from remembering it! It’s just like when I try to remember how Haycartes’ Method works!

That was an interesting tidbit. Apparently something didn’t want Twilight to know who this pony was, either. And in light of Twilight’s claims that, from her point of view, I was a fictional character, that suggested that Mister Mumbletypeg Grand Championship Second Place was pretty darn important… and connected, somehow or other, to my other problems.

“So,” Lucky said quietly, “what do you make of it?”

“Disease curse,” I said quietly. “And a really strong one, too, to be active this long after death. Normally curses like that tend to fade out once the target’s been dealt with.”

“So, another sorcerer, then?” Lucky asked. “You do seem to tangle with a lot of them.”

“Not enough information,” I said. “But the amount of power that kind of curse would take would require more than any pony I know of short of Celestia can deliver. Could be an unseelie, or one of the Courts, or a demon.”

“Demons are real?”

“Yep. Demons, the Fair Folk, fallen angels-“

“Wait a minute. I thought fallen angels and demons were the same thing.”

“Not even close. Way different. Demons come in all sorts of power levels. They’re just one of the creatures of the NeverNever. If this was a demon, there’s a small chance he’s run back there. Most of them don’t have any interest in the mortal world.” I touched the blaster rod under my coat. “The Fallen are nothing like that. There’s no such thing as a wimpy Fallen. They’re ex-angels, messengers and assistants to the Creators. They are extremely interested in what goes on down here. But they have to play by rules, or else their former bosses show up and stomp ‘em like an ant. I really doubt a Fallen was responsible for our shredded friend back there.”

Well, now you’ve done it.

What? I thought. What are you talking about?

We’ll find out, won’t we? Twilight’s tone made it clear she thought I’d just done something supremely stupid, and I had no idea what.

“Well, that’s lovely,” Lucky muttered. “Word on the street is half a dozen assassins are in town- top-level pros, and we’re trying to find something we can bust them on. Ponies are going missing. There’s some high-horse from across the ocean that has the palace in a tizzy. And I’m expected to help with all that while some sort of plague monster with a machete runs loose in my city!”

And then Lucky looked at me, smiled his cute pixie smile, and said, “But enough about me. How was your day?”

“Fine.”

I gave him one syllable for two reasons. First, Lucky was a friend and was in on some of the secret world, but not even close to all of it. If he didn’t have to be involved, I didn’t want him to be. Second, I’d just felt a twitch in the ambient magic around us, and every instinct I had told me the two of us were in imminent danger.

Yeah, I felt it too.

I don’t feel it, but I notice it. The night denizens of Canterlot have cleared out. They sense danger as well as you do.

Hornsparker had a point. Lucky and I were walking down the middle of the avenue, where the streetlamp light overlapped. Normally Canterlot at midnight on its main streets is slow but by no means dead. There are dozens of all-night establishments for the college students, the night-shift military and civil service, the dissipated children of wealthy parents from across Equestria, plus of course the usual derelicts, drunks, and crazy ponies who haven’t made it into one of Celestia’s care homes. There ought to have been dozens of ponies in sight, even now at midnight.

Instead, in addition to myself and Lucky, I saw only two ponies. There was a huge dark earth pony, gripping a vodka bottle in a fetlock and glaring at the two of us as we walked past. And there was a kirin, who looked really, really old insofar as I could tell the age of a kirin, leaning on a cane and hobbling along the other side of the street. And that was it.

Lucky’s horn lit up, and a small but very functional cutlass slid out from under his own jacket. “Something not right here?” he asked.

Shouldn’t we send him home? Twilight asked. From what I remember of the books, Lucky’s a good cop, but he’s just a target in a magic battle.

Too late for that, I thought. I can protect him a bit if he’s close. Out of sight he just becomes a defenseless-

I heard hoofbeats, speeding up and getting closer, coming from behind us. I spun round to see… well, I suppose it was like a bear, if you painted it like an Ursa Minor. Except bears don’t have hooves. Or huge curled horns. Or multiple pairs of glowing red eyes, or green drool dripping off of about the same number of teeth in one head as hydras carry in seven.

My magic went grabbing for the blaster wand…

… and it fumbled, because I got shoved down hard again. Time for me to take over, Twilight said grimly, and instead of turning and running- which was the smart option, and definitely the one I wanted Lucky to take- she faced the oncoming freight train of demonic death straight on, charging up my horn for something really big.

No, no, no! I shouted. A wizard fights on his own terms or else a wizard has a very short life! We don’t know what this is! We ought to be running-

Relax, Twilight said, absolutely no fear in her thoughts. I do this all the time.

My body stepped close to Lucky. “Brace yourself,” Twilight said, using my voice.

The charging monster roared, slobbering that green stuff all over itself. I could see a little glow of light at the back of its throat.


Just a little closer… now!

I felt the spell go off, and suddenly the world had shifted, and we were behind the beast. Without waiting to recover herself, Twilight charged up my horn again and unleashed a simple, direct blasting spell into its back.

The creature howled in rage, spinning on its hooves and glaring at me and Lucky.

“I think you just made it mad, Harriet,” Lucky muttered.

I know you only made it mad, Twilight! I added.

“Shh,” Twilight said. “All part of the plan.” She looked at Lucky. “Drop the sword,” she muttered. “I need you to boost my magic for this next spell. Give me all you can, all right?”

“What are you going to do?” Lucky asked.

“It’s a surprise.”

Oh, joy, Hornsparker muttered.

Agreed, I said.

The demon-thing, which had been stepping cautiously towards us, broke out into another gallop, charging me down with another roar. Twilight charged up my horn again, and Lucky added her trickle of magic to that. I felt a spell reach down into the depths of the earth below us, probing deep into the core of Mount Canter… finding something… and YANKING.

A ruby big enough, if you could hollow it out and slap wheels on it, to make a really gaudy carriage for a rich and utterly tasteless family, appeared in the air about thirty feet up. As it began to drop, Twilight used my magic to grab it again and swat the demon with it like a bug.

The demon skidded to a stop a few hooves short of us.

Then its head rose, six ruby-red eyes glaring at us. The soft growl it made terrified me more than the roars had. It explained with profound clarity and eloquence that, where before it had been merely vexed, now it was well and truly pissed off at me.

Lightning crackled along its body, striking the ruby, which crumbled into about a million pieces.

Well, now what? I asked Twilight.

Um… er… For the first time Twilight felt a bit worried. Actually, about now is the time Applejack catches its horn in a lasso, or Rainbow Dash gives it a buck to the face, or Pinkie Pie pulls out her party cannon and-

Okay, I thought. Plan B.

Plan B?

Plan B, Hornsparker said.

And for a moment which might have been in any other context a glorious example of synchronicity, all three of us grabbed for my voice to say one simple word.

“RUN!!!”

DEATH BRIDLE Chapter 7: Chalk Another One Up For Friendship, Maybe

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For the moment I found myself back in control of my body. I immediately turned tail and bolted, hitting full gallop pretty much immediately. Behind me the monster bellowed louder than ever before, shaking off what was left of the giant ruby Twilight had hit him with.

I figured I had twenty, maybe thirty seconds left to live, tops, unless I thought of something really clever really quick. The problem is, although wizards of the White Council, like me, have plenty of heavy artillery for dealing with creatures like the thing attacking me, almost all of it requires a lot of prior preparation to use. I’d need time to, for example, prepare the kind of blasting wards I use to protect my apartment from intruders.

The sound of hoofbeats thundering behind me told me I wasn’t going to get that kind of time.

But then I noticed a snag. Two of them. That huge wall of an earth pony and the doddering old kirin with his cane were still out on the street. In fact, the kirin was crossing the street, heading towards the big stallion still holding his bottle of vodka under that streetlamp.

Maybe the monster wouldn’t bother with them. Maybe it only wanted me. But I just couldn’t take the risk of those two ponies becoming collateral damage.

“Hey!” I shouted at the two of them. “Get out of here!” I ran up to the kirin first, shoving him into the earth pony, which made the oldster blink behind his milk-bottle glasses. “Help him out of here! I’ll hold it off!”

That was all I figured I had time for. Once again I reached for my blasting rod with my magic, and this time I got it out. I only had a moment to aim- the monster was right on top of me- but it was so big aiming wasn’t exactly a problem. “FUEGO!” I shouted, pumping everything I had left after Twilight’s big spells through the rod. It came out as a jet of blinding white flame, smacking the charging monster right in the face.

The good news was, it stopped the charge, at least for a moment. The bad news was, instead of melting its face off like it should have done, it only seemed to act like a firehose, annoying and blinding the thing momentarily, but not actually doing much harm.

I didn’t have much left if the fire wand failed, but I did have one last party trick left. One of the benefits we White Council wizards get from our oaths is the ability to see the supernatural as it appears on the Other Side, as they say. It’s a mixed blessing; most of what we get to see that way isn’t pretty.

But one choice side effect of the Sight is what happens when we use it to stare into another being’s eyes. When we do that, we see their soul; the world falls away, and we see the ultimate truth of who and what they are. It leaves us completely vulnerable, which is a problem if there’s more than one enemy… but the thing is, that link is two-directional. While we see the other guy’s soul, they’re forced to see ours… and, in the meantime, they can’t see anything else.

It wasn’t going to get me out of the fight alive, not by itself. But it would buy time for Lucky and the bystanders to clear out… and who knows? Princess Luna might pick that moment to walk down the street and bail my flame-adorned flank out.

So, when the juice for the fire spell ran out and the monster turned its face back towards me, I looked it right in the uppermost pair of its eyes and activated the Sight…

… and fell through those burning red windows, deeper and deeper into a barren wasteland.

And, at the center of it, there stood- for lack of a better word- a pony. He was a unicorn, obviously towards the far end of middle age to go by his gray mane and wrinkles. He writhed and struggled in the kind of bonds I’d only seen in woodcuts from the darkest days of pre-Unification Equestria or in books about the horrors that ponies who went abroad sometimes fell into. Blinkers blocked most of his vision, leaving only a tiny window on the world directly forwards. A riding bit had been run through his mouth and hauled back hard, forcing the pony’s neck back in what had to be an excruciating position. Rings penetrated its nostrils, and reins attached to the rings ran parallel to those that pulled the bit back so brutally. All four hooves appeared to be embedded into the ground as if in concrete.

And, to top off the horrors, the pony’s cutie mark was gone. In its place there was a freshly burned brand, blackened flesh cracked and bleeding even as I stared at the design it made. I don’t intend to describe it. Symbols have power. It’s enough to say that, at a single glance, I instinctively knew that symbol represented something incredibly evil- something I didn’t want to be in the same kingdom with, never mind the same Sight-induced trance state.

The bound pony thrashed to the limit of his restraints, screaming muffled screams around that bit. The vision didn’t need any deciphering. The demon-creature wasn’t just a monster. There was a mortal pony underneath all of that misshapen flesh- a scared pony in unbearable pain. And something was holding him…

I finally thought to trace the leads back from the bit and nose rings. They ran into a fold in the ground… which, as I stared at it, shifted just a trifle.

Then the ground under my hooves began to shake, and I realized that I wasn’t standing on a wasteland. I was standing on stone, on solid rock… shaped like a giant minotaur hand, and that hand was moving.

Above me six red eyes appeared through thick clouds, glaring down at me.

BEGONE.

I went crashing back, out of the monster’s head, into my own, out of control of my body, and into the darkness.



When I came to, I felt my body walking along, burdened by the weight of that huge black earth pony leaning against me. He was hopping along on one foreleg, the other one bound up in an impromptu sling- made, I noticed, from my own duster.

Oh hey! You’re awake! I never thought I’d be glad to hear you narrating again.

Twilight, what happened? Where are we? How the Tartarus are we still alive?

Don’t you know? What was the last thing you remember?

I used the Sight on that monster. I wanted to hold it in soul-lock to give those bystanders time to escape. But-

Yeah, we got kicked out. That wasn’t fun.

My jaw would have dropped if I was in control of it. You remember that? I asked.

I was right there with you, Twilight said. Interesting spell, but I really don’t think it would work in the real world. Maybe I’ll ask Luna about it when I get back. Her dreamwalking magic is as close to what you-

Soulgazing does not take along hitchhikers, I insisted.

It didn’t take me along, Hornsparker muttered. From my point of view the body froze for about two seconds, and then we went flying. Hit a lamppost like a sack of potatoes.

But soulgazing doesn’t work like that! I thought. One soul links to one soul! That’s it! No more, and no… The implications sank in slowly. Oh. Ooooh, crap.

Um… I’m sorry, Harriet. But I think it’s proof of what I’ve been telling you. You and Hornsparker are just, well, reflections of me, created by Haycartes’ Method. One soul links to one soul, and, well… we only have the one soul, girls. With one original-issue personality and memories, and two others created by the spell.

I’m really not real, I thought. Really not real. The notion shook me to the core. Which was funny, because I thought I’d been okay with the idea of being fictional. But that only held true if you could be both fictional and real…

No, no, Harriet. You’re real- sort of.

Being real is not a sort-of thing!

You’re a reflection of me. That makes you a part of me. And if you’re a part of a real pony, that makes you real, too. Just… not a real pony, exactly.

I spot, Hornsparker interrupted, a flaw in your logic.

I’ll bet. Twilight’s mental voice sounded tired and annoyed. Let’s have it.

You say Daresden and I have no souls because we are creations of your spell, Hornsparker said. And so is everything else in the universe we’re currently interacting with. This whole world is also as false as the scenery in a theatre. Am I correct?

Not quite. You and Harriet share my soul, because-

I concede that distinction, since it’s unimportant for purposes of this argument. But am I wrong on any other point so far?

No, that’s pretty much it.

Very well. You possess a true soul, because you come from outside the realm created by your spell. So you have what is required for one end of Daresden’s soul-to-soul link.

But what I want to know is: where does the other soul come from? For if creations like Daresden and myself have no souls, then neither does anything else here but you. Including that fiend.

My body stumbled as Twilight absorbed this idea. I… but…

“Is something wrong, Harriet?”

I recognized that voice. My head moved to face its owner, a tall, strongly built pegasus mare. Mighty Gale, a Knight of the Quill, devout worshipper of Faust, and a member of the Bail Out Harriet Daresden Society. We’d saved each other’s lives, but if you actually took a count of who saved whose how many times, she’d have the advantage by a mile. Apparently she’d added yet another to that total.

“Sorry,” Twilight said on my behalf. “I’m still absorbing what just happened. Where's Lucky?”

"Reporting the corpse to his superiors," Mighty said. "As you told him to. Maybe I should carry Shadow Lurk for a while?"

"I'm fine."

Mighty let it go at that, and we returned to our inner conversation. I… I don’t know, Twilight admitted. Maybe it’s because it’s a spell that only works in this universe?

A spell, Hornsparker continued, crafted by the spell you say created this universe. As such, it cannot be used to prove the existence or nonexistence of anything outside its reach. Not only does it not prove that Daresden and I do not exist, it doesn’t even prove that you do.

Are you going to call me a hallucination again?

No, Miss Sparkle, I am not. I merely point out your surmise is flawed. I can think of two equally valid surmises that also fit the available facts. First, that since my magical talent is vastly inferior to yours or Daresden’s, I was unable to experience this soul-sight you describe. Second, that since the spell is intended to put you inside the narrative, it gave you the ability to observe what otherwise you could never have seen, because to do otherwise would be a failure of its purpose.

But-

And I ask that we drop this matter for now, Hornsparker thought firmly. Not for my sake. I am a coward, as you cannot help but know, having shared my mind-

Not true!

A polite lie. I thank you, but it is true. I am afraid of a great many things that my fellow ponies think nothing of. But I do not fear nonexistence, Miss Sparkle. I would prefer nonexistence to shame, to failure, to disgrace, to a long life as a helpless cripple. But Miss Daresden is intensely uncomfortable about this subject, so I ask that we move on to other matters.

Oh. I’m so very sorry, Harriet.

Can you just please tell me what happened? I asked.

Yeah, about that? Twilight said. When the Fallen smashed your psyche throwing us out of the soul-gaze-

Wait a minute- did you say Fallen?

When it did that it also shattered your mental shields. I was worried it had actually destroyed your personality somehow. But it let me access your memories- finally. And since I was still able to operate your body, I’m pretty sure what happened is in your memories, too. Just concentrate. Work forward from the moment we got thrown out of the Fallen’s head. Let me know when you get that far.

I would have shrugged, but, well, you know the rest. Instead I imagined a little mini-Daresden, floating in the darkness of my own head, closing her eyes and concentrating on the moment when my mind went flying…



… and, I now remembered, my body went flying along with it. I remembered hitting that lamppost with my back. I’m surprised I didn’t break a vertebra or two.

I remembered recalling my blaster rod in my magic- it must have been Twilight doing it, but in my memories it seemed like I’d willed it myself- and somehow managed to fire another blast of flame at the monster. This time the flame didn’t even reach its face. A force shield stopped it several inches short of target. It snarled at me, stepping forward slowly but surely to deliver what, in hindsight, I thought would be the final blow.

“Excuse me, but could you hold these?”

A small cloven hoof had held a pair of milk-bottle glasses towards me. It was that old homeless kirin, looking shriveled and shabby, but standing quite firmly next to me.

“Please run,” I’d said- Twilight had said- whichever.

Then somehow the glasses were in my hooves, and the old kirin was standing in front of me, guarding me. “Release that pony, Prideful Boast,” he said with a soft voice. “You have no power here.”

The bear-goat-pony thing turned its attention from me to the kirin. And then, to my surprise, it laughed- not a growly, monstrous laugh, but a clear, sweet, beautiful, chiming laugh, totally out of place with the growling and howling from before. “Winter Wisdom, is that you?” it chuckled. “Winter has come indeed to you, old one. You barely defeated me once, in your prime. Now you are nothing.”

The kirin’s forked horn lit up, and his cane rose into the air. A sheath of wood slid off, revealing a blade- a straight, glowing katana. “I give you one more chance, Prideful Boast,” he said. “Release your host and yield.”

“I think not.” It took a step forward.

Another light appeared directly behind the demon. The outline of the black-coated pony could barely be seen by the glow of the longsword held in one fetlock. “Prideful Boast,” he said in a strong but clear Stalliongrad accent. “You have no power here. Release your host and begone.”

The monster hissed, then spoke again in that disturbingly charming voice. “Shadow Lurk,” it said. “I know you too well to fear you, even with a Sword of Inspiration in your hooves.” One giant hoof swept forward, and the big pony went flying, slamming into the wall of a townhome nearby.

The kirin burst into flames, shouting a roar louder than I would ever have believed. Eyes glowing almost as brightly as his sword, he leapt to the attack, forcing the monster to dodge to one side. The sword flashed, and one of the creature’s huge curled horns fell to the sidewalk.

Ignoring the big earth pony (yay!) and me (double yay!), the monster had focused its full attention on the old kirin- old nirik, I mean- circling around him carefully. Several times its forehooves slashed at him, and the sword flashed back, leaving nicks in the keratin. But after the third such pass the flames winked out, and the old kirin leaned on his sword, panting for breath.

The twisted monster smiled, stepping forward to tower over the old pony. “Is this all you have to face me? A weak-willed child and a doddering ancient?”

“No.”

And that’s when Mighty Gale had descended from the cloud-filled midnight skies like a thunderbolt with her own glowing sword and, quite neatly, taken its head off.

And a pony’s head- that old pony from the soul gaze, no riding bit or nose rings but otherwise pretty much what I’d seen- a pony’s head rolled on the cobblestones a few hooves’ distance, its face permanently frozen mid-scream.



Yeah, I thought to the other two me’s in my head, I can see why I wasn’t in a hurry to remember that.

It was a Fallen, Twilight thought. Mr. Wisdom calls it one of the Thirty-Seven. Mighty Gale has it imprisoned for now.

Imprisoned? Where?

Do you see the looseleaf notebook under her wing?

You can’t keep a Fallen in a looseleaf notebook!

Well, the Fallen isn’t exactly in the notebook. The piece of paper it uses to interact with this world is. So long as it’s there, it can’t possess another pony. I think. Anyway, it’s a holy binder, so we should be safe.

A holy binding by a holy binder. Cute. That’s cute, I thought. Anything else I should know before I take back over?

About that, Twilight thought. I recognize this isn’t the best time to bring this up, but from my point of view this is my body, and you and Hornsparker are the invaders. I know you both think differently, but so far as I’m concerned this is my body, and I want to keep control of it. I don’t want to end up like that poor pony we saw inside the beast.

Twilight, I thought, I don’t like the idea of proving I’m under possession by foreign spirits in front of three Knights of the Quill, but I will do exactly that if you don’t surrender control of my body back to me in the next ten seconds. I will fight you, Twilight, and you won’t be able to hide it from them. And you know I’ll do it.

But Mighty Gale is a very nice and gentle pony! I’m sure she’ll-

Five seconds, Twilight.

But this is my body!!

Three. Two.

All right, all right!

There was another brief stumble as I regained control of my muscles. The big pony next to me- Shadow Lurk, that was his name- grunted a little as his broken foreleg shifted uncomfortably next to me- but nobody said anything.

Thank you. Where are we going?

Mighty Fortress’s church.

Good. Maybe we can get the longer version of the story about this “Thirty-Seven” there.

DEATH BRIDLE Chapter 8: Information Dumps Aren't Boring When Your Life Depends on Them

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“What do you know,” Father Fortress asked quietly, “about Almighty Faust?”

We were safe, for the moment, and resting in a storage room deep inside the cathederal that Mighty Fortress tended on behalf of the Church of Faust. Shadow Lurk had had his broken foreleg set and splinted, and we were all sitting down with sandwiches and coffee- Fortress, me and my two currently silent mental guests, and the three Knights of the Quill.

“Well,” I said, “obviously my upbringing didn’t exactly include Sunday school. I only know what I was taught. Faust was the alicorn who created this world. Her direct influence waxes and wanes, but Her messengers still watch over the world to ensure that Her designs are preserved. Those are angels. Some of her servants didn’t like her ideas and rebelled, and that’s where we get the Fallen. Angels and Fallen are super-powerful, but they’re bound by a ton of rules, and if they break even one, everybody else comes in and smacks ‘em down good.”

Mighty Gale shook her head. “There are a few problems with that, Harriet,” she said quietly. “For one thing, Faust didn’t create this world.”

My eyes went wide. Mighty said that?? In a cathederal?? But there was Father Fortress, nodding his agreement.

Winter Wisdom spoke up next. “Creators come and go, Harriet,” he said. “Faust was neither the first nor the last. But it was her vision that forms the foundation for the world as it is today. The changes she made stretched forwards and backwards through time, altering or even erasing what had been before. Then she left, and other creators came, who for the most part have worked within the structure Holy Faust made.”

“Okay, that doesn’t make sense,” I said. “Why pray to Faust if she’s not doing anything? And why would Fallen angels try to undo her work when all they have to do is wait for another god-alicorn to come along and do it for them?”

“That’s another place where you’re mistaken,” Mighty said. “The Fallen you saw tonight was one of the Thirty-Seven. The Order of the True Canon. The True Canon are rebel angels, but they’re not in rebellion to thwart Faust’s designs. They’re rebelling to preserve them.”

My hitchhikers didn’t speak up, but I could feel their confusion along with my own. “Sorry, you’ve completely lost me,” I said.

“Faust is almighty only within Her creation,” Winter Wisdom said quietly. “There is a higher order of which we are permitted to know only what cannot be avoided. To know too much would deprive ponies of the free will and happiness Faust wanted us to have. But a few of us have passed down this bit of secret knowledge, which is vital in the understanding of our duty.” The old kirin leaned forward and said, “Faust’s departure from our world was not voluntary.”

“What?” I asked. “What can force a god to quit?”

“We do not know. We only know that something did, before Faust believed Her work was complete. She moved on to other worlds, other creations. Gradually Her angels followed as well, except for a few who help guide this world. But some of those angels thought the Creators who came after were inferior, and neither understood nor cared for the work of their Patron. In their anger and jealousy they stepped outside their role, seeking to control Creation rather than serve it, and thus they Fell.”

“You see, Harriet,” Father Fortress said, “everything must change. New things must be created, and old things reborn. That is the nature of this world- of all worlds. But the True Canon want to lock this world in stasis- no, worse, they wish to erase everything which they think Faust did not intend.”

“They can’t act directly,” Mighty said, pulling the binder back out. “They have to tempt a mortal pony to their cause. To that end they have possessed fragments of paper- the document by which Faust was released from her work here in Equestria.”

Mighty opened the binder, revealing an old, crumpled-looking piece of reddish paper. There were words on it in an alphabet and language I’d never seen before. But scrawled on top of them, as with a giant paintbrush or marker, was the same horrible sigil I’d seen branded into the flanks of that pony in the soulgaze.

“There are thirty-seven,” Winter Wisdom said quietly. “They are not always allied. Some of them fight with one another as ferociously as they strive with ponykind. But their overall goal is the destruction of Equestria as it is in favor of Equestria as it was. And if that requires a pile of pony bodies as high as Mount Canter, that bothers them not at all.” He gestured to the binder as Mighty closed it again. “Please put that in the cask for safekeeping.”

As Fortress gingerly accepted the closed binder, Winter continued, “Even touching the paper with hoof or magic is perilous. The least contact opens a crack by which the Fallen may enter the mortal’s mind. They shall tempt that pony with power, desire, anything which might get the mortal to agree to use the Fallen’s power. The more that power is used, the greater control the Fallen gains over their host. Finally, the Fallen strikes in some moment of weakness, and the takeover is complete.”

“Yeah,” I said quietly. “I saw the soul of the poor jerk that monster had taken.” I looked the old kirin in the eyes. “So that’s what the Order of the Quill is really for? To fight the True Canon?”

“No,” Winter Wisdom said. “The purpose of the Order is to save them.”

My jaw dropped.

“Faust wishes happiness and freedom for all in Equestria, even the Fallen,” Mighty said. “Tonight represents a victory only in that there is one fewer Fallen in the world to ensnare a pony- one fewer for now, that is.” She sighed and let her eyes stare at the storeroom ceiling. “No matter where the fragments are stored, or how well hidden or guarded, the power they offer never fails to find them a willing host to take them back out again.”

“In the centuries of the Order, never have more than sixteen of the True Canon been accounted for at once,” Winter Wisdom said. “As of now the Church has eleven. And the eleventh was gained by a pony’s blood. A pony who, despite his crimes, might yet have been redeemed to harmony.”

“Uh huh.” And to my guests I added, Are you buying this?

For your world, sure. Not for mine. I think your author made up this Creators and Fallen business to give you bad guys to fight.

And I am no theologian. I couldn’t possibly judge.

Thanks lots.

Mighty sighed and looked at me. “Harriet,” she said, “I don’t know how you got tangled up in this. But you’re in desperate danger. Can you please leave town for a few days? Or just hole up in your apartment? Anything? Until the three of us get this settled?”

I sighed. “I don’t even know how these True Canon ponies connect up with my current job,” I said. “It’s possible they don’t at all. But even if I dumped that case, I still have business that won’t let me leave Canterlot until it’s done.” Or until I’m done.

Mighty looked at me. “You know where my sword came from, right?” he asked.

“Sure. At its core is a stylus, one of three, which Faust used to write the world.”

“Yes. And we use these swords to keep ponies innocent and free. To protect them. And, when we’re very lucky, to rescue them.” She shot a glance at Shadow Lurk, who hadn’t done anything more than glare at me during the whole conversation.

“I know that, Mighty. We’ve known each other for years now.”

“Yes.” Mighty looked at her hooves, unwilling to meet my eyes when she said, “Which is why I really don’t want to see a day when I have to turn that sword on you, Harriet. There are worse things than death. Please be careful.”



By the time I got back to my apartment it was past two in the morning. I wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed. It had been an intense fifteen hours since I first heard the strange voices in my head. Right now one of them was actually snoring in the back of my thoughts, and the other one was mumbling something about a nice comfy book.

But I couldn’t hit the sack yet. There were still things that needed doing.

“You still awake, Bobbin?” I called out.

The flames in the eyes sockets of the skull on the shelf flared a little bit. “No thanks to you,” she said spitefully. “You go have fun and leave me out of it.”

“Well, it’s your turn now,” I said. “I’ve got a list of chores a mile long for you. First, what’s the protocol for a duel under the Accords?”

“Your copy of the Accords,” Bobbin said distinctly, “is in a shoebox behind your bowling bag in the back of the closet.”

You bowl? That wasn’t in the books.

Good to know something isn’t. But the truth was, I’d bought the ball as cover for a bit of surveillance I did back when I was still apprenticing as a private investigator. I’d kept it because I might want to use the same cover again. Besides, there are times when a sixteen pound weight with handles becomes very convenient.

“And it reads dry as toast and dense as fruitcake,” I said out loud. “And I can’t afford to read myself to sleep right now. I’ve been challenged to a duel. Give me the highlights.”

“You? A duel? Who’s the unlucky devil?” Bobbin asked.

“You’re closer than you think. It’s a Duke of the Nightmare Court named Little Nettle.”

A low whistle came from the general direction of the skull. “You don’t play in the minor leagues, do you, girl?” she asked. “Okay. It’s basically the same rules as the Code Duello. The challenged party gets to choose weapons and method, but the challenger names the day, time and place. All that’s handled through your seconds- ponies each of you pick for the negotiation and to continue the duel if you somehow kill each other simultaneously.”

What possible purpose would that serve?

“I don’t have a second,” I muttered.

Quelle surprise, dearie. Find one. Quick. Not having a second can mean forfeiting the duel.”

“Okay. Anything else I should know?”

“Yes. Don’t get too clever in picking weapons. The other guy’s second can reject your proposal if they’re incapable of fighting with it or if the mismatch is too great. There will also be a referee, a neutral party agreed to by both sides- the Council and the thestrals, in this case- and they’ll have something to say about the options, too. You also can’t choose a non-lethal mode of fighting. Duels don’t have to be to the death, but death has to be a possibility.”

“I’m pretty sure this duel’s gonna end with only one of us walking away, Bobbin.”

“Then don’t die,” Bobbin said bluntly. “If you want to make that more likely, let me out of the skull so I can dig up the dirt on this Little Nettle bloodsucker.”

“Not yet,” I said. “There’s more. What can you tell me about the Order of the True Canon?”

The eye-flames flared. “Please, please,” Bobbin muttered, “please tell me one of them didn’t challenge you to a duel.”

“They might as well have.” I told Bobbin about my encounter coming back from the morgue.

When I was done, Bobbin said, “Gale is right. Stay away from them, Daresden. I mean it. Even if you take away their piece of paper, each of them have had decades, even centuries, to become lethal sorcerers or warriors. And with their Fallen at the reins, any one of them could put Celestia down for the count. I’m serious. Do not mess with them. And if they’re hunting you, run.”

“They’re that powerful?”

“The weakest of them is that powerful. They’re fallen angels, Harriet. They helped build the world. They can sure as heck destroy it if they find a way around their rules.”

“Can you give me any more details?”

“If you order me to, maybe I can find out more. But I really, really do not want to go there. And unless you have a new renter for the inside of my skull already lined up, you don’t want me to go there, either.”

I decided to back off that line. Mortal weapons wouldn’t touch a spirit of knowledge like Bobbin, and even most magic weapons would find it tough to do her in. If she was this scared, she had good reason. “Could one of them power a lingering, multiple-disease plague curse?” I asked instead.

“Of course they could. Why do you ask?”

I described the corpse back at the morgue, then fished the crumpled paper out of my pocket with the copy of Butter’s sketch of that tattoo. “This was the only identifying mark we could find,” I said.

“Hm. Eye of Trot. Ancient Haygyptian. Really popular among a lot of arcane societies. Sorry, Harriet, but that’s not much of a lead.”

“Do what you can with it,” I said. “Next, I want some leads on these two.” A twitch of magic opened up the folder Father Victorious had given me and pulled the pictures of the surviving Pastel Rats out. “They’re suspected of stealing a thing called the Sketchbook of Tiveen.”

“The what??” Bobbin asked. “First you ask about fallen angels, and now you want me to maybe tangle with the ordinary kind? What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you get simple jobs anymore? Why don’t you do something safe and sane, like take on the entire mob?”

“You didn’t let me finish,” I chided. “Lastly, I want you to swing by Johnny Respectable’s and see what you can sniff out. His goons paid me their respects earlier today, and I want to know why.”

Bobbin didn’t answer.

“Did you get that, Bobbin?” I asked.

“I got it, all right,” Bobbin grumbled. “Anything else you want? The combination for the lock on Celestia’s private cake safe, maybe?”

I sighed. “No, that’s pretty much it. You have my permission to leave the skull until your mission is completed or until dawn comes.”

“Little miss generous,” Bobbin grumbled. The flames in the skull’s eyes went out, and a little ball of flame and lights rose through the dome of the skull and out through the ceiling.

I looked longingly at my couch. I didn’t feel like I could even make it to the bed.

But… still more work to do. And the fact that there were now two sets of snores in my head didn’t help one bit.

I wound up my alarm clock and set the alarm to five minutes of scheduled dawn, just in case I nodded off. Then I went downstairs to my sub-basement lab. If I was going to face the Nightmare Court single-hoofed, I needed to cook up some surprises for them.

Literally.

DEATH BRIDLE Chapter 9: Wake-up Calls

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“Hello?”

I woke up to the sound of my own voice. My first thought upon regaining consciousness was, Wow, I sound like I’m still asleep.

“Did I wake you up, filly?” a familiar voice growled at me. “You sound like you’re still asleep.”

“Um… Ebon Geezer?”

“Yep, still asleep. I’ll give ya a minnit.”

Yeah. So, that’s Ebon Geezer. He was my second teacher, after the late and unlamented Sunken City bought the farm at the tentacles of something he’d summoned. For whatever reason, I don’t know what, the bald, white-bearded unicorn from the Foal Mountains had talked the White Council into not killing me for the use of black magic- long story, and not one I like to think or talk about- and had taken me into his home, giving me pretty much the most stable life I’ve ever had.

Think about that: one of the most powerful wizards of the White Council, a front-line fighter against the forces of shadow, was the closest thing I had as a kid to a stable family. I am all kinds of messed up, you bet.

But normally I wasn’t so messed up that a foreign mind possessing my body answered my crystal ball for me. Twilight? I asked. Could I handle this?

Please. The self-proclaimed princess seemed relieved-

And I am not self-proclaimed! I didn’t ask to be a princess! Celestia just made me one for some reason!

Anyway, I got control over my voice and said, “Yeah, sorry. I was pulling an all-nighter and dozed off.”

“Uh-huh. Well, don’t worry, filly. I just called to let you know not to worry about that duel foolishness. We’re gonna shut that down.”

We, in this case, meaning the senior leaders of the White Council- the seven most powerful white wizards not just in Equestria but in the world. (Well, for certain highly specific definitions of “white wizards”. Other secret societies had their own lists, but they didn’t count.) But obviously the old ponies had either held a meeting or a round-robin crystal ball conference, and I hadn’t been included. “No, don’t do that,” I said. “I have to-“

“Don’t do it?” Ebon Geezer asked. “Did a rock fall off Mount Canter and klonk you on the head, filly?”

“No,” I said. “But something like that or worse might happen to my non-wizard friends if I don’t show, Ebon. Little Nettle made arrangements.”

“I see.” I could tell from the old pony’s voice that not only could he see, he didn’t like what he saw one little bit. “You do know this death horse ain’t no pushover, right?”

“I’m working a few angles,” I said. “But I’ll take any advice I can get. Except ‘don’t go.’ That’s off the table.”

“Huh.” There was a moment’s pause, and then Ebon sighed. “You better tell me the whole story, filly.”

I did, beginning with the extra lunch guests from yesterday and going right down the entire list of the previous day’s events. The only thing I didn’t mention was my two mental hitchhikers. Ebon Geezer is a sort of enforcer for the White Council, and I’m hoping to resolve that particular problem before Ebon is required to do something both of us will regret. (That, of course, assumes the Nightmare Court, the Order of the True Canon, or whoever’s behind the theft of the Sketchbook don’t take care of it first.)

At the end of it, Ebon sighed again. “Filly, if you live past the coming week, you gotta learn not to go cliff-diving into bottomless pools of trouble, you hear?” That wasn’t the first time he’d said that.

“No promises,” I said, not for the first time either.

Ebon grunted. “Well, the business with those Knights of yours, and with the Sketchbook, that’s no affair of the White Council,” he said. “You’re on your own there.”

I’d expected as much. “What about the Nightmare Court?” I asked. “How’s the war going?”

“About as you’d expect, if your side is generaled by a turtle,” Ebon grumbled. “The Starswirl thinks all we have to do is hide behind wards until the Nightmares give up.”

This war had been going on for a couple years, and the White Council had lost a number of wizards already. “From where I sit, this doesn’t look like giving up,” I said.

“Nope,” Ebon agreed. “But it’s too dangerous to change leaders now. We have to stay united behind the Starswirl, or else everything falls apart. As it is, the death horses are trimming away at our allies. If we splinter now, we’ll lose them all, and then where will we be?”

“That depends on how many duelists the Nightmare Court has,” I said.

Ebon chuckled. “I guess it does,” he said. “You sure about this, filly?”

“Sure how?” I asked. “What I’m sure of is, I don’t want to do it, and I don’t have a choice about doing it. I’m sure of both of those. And not much else. But if I win, my friends live, and Canterlot becomes off limits. I’d think the Starswirl would like that.”

“I think he would too,” Ebon said. “Filly, when I was teaching you back on the farm, I thought I was helping you keep out of trouble. I wanted to keep you safe.”

“It’s not a safe world, Ebon,” I said. “That’s what we’re fighting for, isn’t it?”

“Maybe I taught you too well.” The laugh that followed that had no humor in it. “I should have taught you more astronomy instead. Remember that comet we discovered?”

Ebon’s greatest gift to me hadn’t been my life, It had been my love of the stars. We spent many summer nights up in the clear air of the Foal Mountains, the two of us and a battered old reflecting telescope. “I sure do,” I said. “It’s a shame the RAS gave credit to that Canterlot university group. I would have loved to have a Comet Daresden named after me.”

“It’s still Comet Daresden to me, filly. Do you remember where all your old observatory stuff went? I went looking for it last summer and couldn’t find it.”

“It’s in that big steamer trunk in the back corner of the hay crib,” I said. “Telescope, logs, charts, all of it. I thought I’d come back for it, but-“

“Yeah. Never enough time, is there, filly?” Ebon sighed again, and I felt a little scared at just how old that sigh sounded. “Never enough time. You real sure you wanna go through with this duel?”

“Ebon, I don’t plan on giving up,” I said. “Like I said, I’m working some angles. But…” Yeah, there wasn’t any gentle way of saying this next part. “Just in case, I’m leaving some papers in my rooms. You’ll know how to find them. Mostly stuff about people I’d like protected.”

“You’re gonna make me climb that fool mountain twice in two years, aren’t you?”

“Ebon, there’s a train. There’s a lot of trains. Almost every train in Equestria passes through Canterlot.”

“Yeah, and it’s just as far to walk to a train station as it is to just come up the mountain. Well, don’t worry about it. Hopefully I won’t have to bother.”

“Hopefully.”

“Luck, filly. Be careful.”

“Thanks.”

The magic shut off, and my crystal ball just became an ordinary polished ball of rock again.

I feel like a voyeur listening to that, Hornsparker’s mental voice said. Miss Daresden, you have my abject apologies.

Um, yeah, Twilight added. It’s one thing to read these scenes in a book and feel very touched and sympathetic. But being in the same room-

In the same head.

“Just let it drop,” I muttered. “Where did I pass out?”

At your workbench, Twilight said. There were about half a dozen little bottles in front of me when I heard the sound coming from your crystal ball. That kind of scared me, because I’ve never used crystal balls in the real world. You see, I have this baby dragon-

“Were the bottles corked?”

I think- yes, yes they were. I remember I was afraid I’d spilled them when I got up, but they were all stopped tight.

I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding. Those bottles held a little concoction, mostly of my own devising, designed to nullify the effects of The Kiss for a few hours per dose. I don’t intend to bore you with the exact recipe or theory about how it works-

No! Wait! Bore me! I’d love to be bored about it! I mean I wouldn’t find it boring at all!

-but, suffice to say, I wouldn’t know for sure how well it worked until some Nightmare Court thestral decided to breathe on me or something.

About that time I heard the alarm clock go off. Five minutes to dawn. I went back upstairs and checked the skull shelf. No sign of life. No Bobbin. She was cutting it close; spirits of her kind can’t withstand Celestia’s sun. It’s not that they’re evil, mind you. It’s that, strictly speaking, they don’t belong in this world at all. Without an object or person to possess, they’re vulnerable to certain things. They can’t go into sacred places, for one thing. And in all Equestria, there are few more sacred things than Celestia’s sun.

I watched the clock. Four minutes, and no Bobbin.

Three minutes, and no Bobbin.

And then, with just over two minutes to go, a ball of flame and lights weaved and wobbled its way into the apartment, finding the skull more by approximation than design. When the flames lit in the eye sockets, they weren’t much more than embers. “Harriet. You. You.” Bobbin paused to gather strength. “You. Complete. And. Total.” There was a longer pause, and then a rush of words pushed through in what sounded like a pegasus skyracer’s last gasp of energy at the finish, “You know what.”

“Tartarus,” I muttered. Bobbin usually keeps her good humor, even with me. “What happened to you?”

“What. Didn’t?”

“Are you okay?”

“Guess.” That one word dripped with whole paragraphs of irony.

“Can I help?”

“No. Rest.”

“Okay, then-“

“Must. Report.”

Yeah. Bobbin wanted and needed to shut down, especially with the sun coming up outside right about now. But as a spirit of information bonded to me, she literally couldn’t put off a report after I’d requested information. “What beat you up like this, then?”

“Wards. Johnny. Respectable.”

“What??”

“Wards.”

“Yes, I got that,” I said. “But Johnny’s no more a wizard than I am a bookie. Where would he get wards?”

“Canterlot. Duh.”

Well, yeah. The top magic school in the kingdom, plus a couple others in the top ten, were here in town. Canterlot was lousy in trained magic users, and you didn’t need a member of any of the secret societies to cast effective wards against scrying or eavesdropping or teleportation… any of which would also be a nasty shock to a spirit. And Johnny Respectable had connections. For all I knew, Celestia herself might have installed the wards as a personal favor after he gave protection money to an orphanage or something.

“Okay. What about Little Nettle?”

“Found’m,” Bobbin muttered. “Townhome. Diamond Ledge address. Half dozen thestrals. Twice as many mortals.”

“And the Pastel Rats?”

“Airship,” Bobbin said. Her voice was getting fainter the more she talked. “Dock Six. Tracked one there. Can’t get in. Holy ground.”

Blocked by the Sketchbook. Not too surprising, but Bobbin had brought back just enough info for me to proceed. “Okay, you’ve reported,” I said. “I’ll ask questions later. Sleep now.”

The flames in the skull eyes winked out instantly.

Is that all? Twilight asked. We don’t know what Nettle’s planning! We don’t know what kind of wards exactly this Mr. Respectable has! We-

“I’m not going to risk losing a valuable resource, and might I add a friend, over this,” I growled. “Bobbin’s really hurt, can’t you tell?”

Sorry. No, I can’t tell. In my world there’s no such thing as spirits.

“That you know of.”

Excuse me, but ponies have been attempting contact with spirits for centuries, and not a single spell has-

Sssh. I didn’t make the sound- only thought it at Twilight. I’d just felt a shiver go up the base of my spine. Something powerful- something very, very powerful- was coming.

Even as I realized this, orange flames began to build from the candles I used for my wards’ warning systems. Then the red candles began lighting up, one after another, until all of them were burning with a noticeable heat and a lot of light. Whatever this was, it was bigger than a Nightmare Court thestral. It might even be big enough to be a Fallen, and if it was I probably had no better options than to hope Mighty Gale or Winter Wisdom was keeping an eye on my front door.

Which wasn’t to say I was totally defenseless. I had a couple of things that would slow a Fallen down at least a little bit. The wards would help with that, as would the reinforced door- and, of course, the supernatural power of doorways even without steel reinforcements. And I had other things- holy water, iron filings, rock salt, whole garlic bulbs- that would slow down, or worse, any number of other unwanted guests. And, of course, there was the three-pounder breech-loading cannon I kept in a hidden compartment by the door. One kick of a hoof, and it popped out, ready to give the first pony or whatever who tried to break down the door a good reason to sincerely regret their life choices and not a lot of time to get that regretting done in.

Is this necessary? Really? We don’t know-

I ignored Twilight. Not worth the discussion. I could hear the metal rims of a carriage crunching to a halt on the street outside. I heard hoofsteps coming down the stairs, and then a knock at the door.

“Who’s there?”

A male voice with a thick Trottingham accent said, “I’m here ter see th’ wizard, Miss Harriet Daresden, on behalf o’tha Archive.”

That voice!

“What’s the-“ I began to say, and then something shoved me out of control of the body.

Hornsparker tossed away the blasting rod I’d been holding, stepped away from the trigger for the cannon, and threw open the door. There stood a burly earth pony, a couple of scars and some powder burns on his cheeks, holding a bundle of papers in one fetlock.

The earth pony’s jaw dropped as he looked down at my body. “Captain??” he asked, totally surprised.

“Thornbush,” Hornsparker gasped. “Thornbush, by Celestia!”

DEATH BRIDLE Chapter 10: Introductions and Re-Introductions

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I didn’t understand why Hornsparker chose this particular moment to take control of my body for the first time. And I had no idea who this Thornbush pony was, or why anyone should care.

What I cared about was the fact that my front door was wide open, with a strange pony standing in it, threatening what protections I had against the Nightmare Court or the True Canon or even a random goon from Johnny Respectable’s mob. I wanted that door shut, or at least a darn good explanation for what was going on.

But I couldn’t get either. Trying to lever Hornsparker out of control was about as fruitful as a farmer bucking a pine tree to harvest apples. Seeing this Thornbush pony had given the spirit or whatever Hornsparker was the willpower to shut out the entire world.

So my screams were entirely on the inside when Hornsparker reached out and dragged Thornbush across the threshold, leaving the door wide open as she said, “Thornbush, how do you come to be here, of all places? What has happened to the Lydia?”

“Bless you, ma’am, I was hoping you’d answer that myself,” Thornbush said. “I remember this big blow coming up off the port beam, and we were all rushing up on deck to make the ship ready. Then there was this huge wind, and I felt like something were peeled off my skin, like. Most peculiar, ma’am. An’ then I was here, an’ everything in my mind said I’d always been here, but I also remembered you, an’ th’ Lydia, an’ the war, and ma’am, did you know it’s nigh on a hundred years in the future here?”

“So I had gathered, Thornbush,” Hornsparker said with my voice. “Do you remember nothing else after the squall? Or before coming to your senses, if that’s the appropriate term? Try your best, man, it might be the only clue we have to get home!”

“Aye, ma’am,” Thornbush said, “an’ I’ve been working my brain every odd moment tryin’ to do just that. An’ the Archive, she says she can’t help, which is peculiar, because she literally knows everything, ma’am. Everything.”

“Tommyrot,” Hornsparker said reflexively. “Not even Princess Celestia knows everything.”

“Which is why I exist,” a very young voice chimed in. “Captain Hornsparker, I presume? Thornbush told me much about you yesterday.”

In the doorway stood a unicorn filly- a very small unicorn filly, who looked like she might have stopped by on her way to magic kindergarten. Lemon-yellow coat, light green mane with a bit of curl at the ends, and deep purple eyes that stared at me without even the slightest drop of innocence or wonder you’d expect in a filly of that age.

And, as she calmly stepped into the room, I noticed she had a cutie mark of a bookshelf overlaid atop a starburst. That was the strangest thing about her- I couldn’t remember a pony that young having her cutie mark.

I was that age when I got my cutie mark, Twilight Sparkle thought to me. So were my closest friends, more or less. And I know one pony who was even younger.

“I am the Archive,” the filly continued. “And although I sympathize with you, Captain Hornsparker, I am here to speak to Harriet Daresden. May I have her instead, please?”

Hornsparker hesitated, which allowed Twilight to switch places with her. “First I have a number of questions, Miss… Miss… Is Archive your name or your title?”

“It is my function,” the filly said. “I have neither name nor title.”

“Why not?”

“What would be the point?” the filly said.

“Well,” Twilight said, “I suppose to have something that your friends could call you when you’re not being the Archive.”

“I am the Archive all the time, Princess Twilight Twinkle.”

“Sparkle. Twilight Sparkle. And how did you know?”

“If a pony knows it, eventually so do I. I am the sum total of all the knowledge of ponykind. When an Archive dies, the knowledge passes on to the daughter, along with all the memories of the previous Archive. I am every pony who has been the Archive for thousands of years. It is not-”

“Do you mean to say you are an orphan?” Twilight asked, appalled.

“Practically from birth,” the filly said. “It is an inconvenience. Hence the need for a bodyguard.”

An inconv- well.” Twilight reined in her outrage. “Well, what do your friends call you, then?”

“Bearing the Archive,” the filly said quietly, “does not lend itself to developing friendships. Quite the contrary, in fact.”

“S’right, ma’am,” Thornbush said. “Apparently I’ve been her bodyguard for years, an’ I can’t recollect any pony being half as close to her as I am. An’ most ponies I meet trying to meet her aren’t the type who make friends, if you follow, ma’am.”

“But… but I have to call you something!” Twilight said in exasperation. “I can hardly call you Archive!”

“Calling me The Archive would be preferable,” the filly said. “There is already at least one pony named just Archive, and she has powerful protectors.”

I’d had just about enough of this. Call her Fish Scale for all I care! I thought. And then ask her why she’s here! Or step aside and let me do it!

“Sorry, sorry,” Twilight muttered. “I am forgetting myself in this diversion. And yet I require answers, Miss… Miss…” I felt my own eyes turning sideways in a vain attempt to glare at the inside of my own head. “No, Fish Scale is a foolish name. What about Ivy?” she asked. “Ivy Walls. Like the kind that hold a library.” She reached my hoof up to touch the little filly’s green mane. “It goes with your mane.”

The filly tilted her head in consideration. “It will serve, if you wish it,” she said. “Am I to presume I am no longer speaking with Hornsparker?”

“Beg pardon, miss?” Thornbush asked, looking down at the filly- at Ivy.

“That’s right,” Twilight said. “Mr. Thornbush, you know how you seem to have a second set of memories that explains how you fit into this world? Well… in my case it’s a lot more extreme than that.” She/I took a deep breath and said, “My name is Princess Twilight Sparkle, and I’m the reason we’re all here today.”

She proceeded to tell the story of her misfired spell again, with a brief explanation of where she’d come into Hornsparker’s story and how the two had interacted. Our guests listened politely throughout the story, with sympathetic looks as Twilight described the hell of commanding a wooden ship in battle.

Finally she said, “And then I was here, in the role of Harriet Daresden- only there’s a whole Daresden personality, even stronger than Hornsparker’s, who isn’t done with the body yet. And, for some reason I don’t understand, Hornsparker came to the new story along with me.”

“So, beggin’ your pardon, ma’am,” Thornbush said, “but you mean to say th’ captain’s in there? And Daresden as well? Am I going to have voices in my head before this is over, too?”

“Well, I’d like to cut things off before they get that far,” Twilight said. “Ideally, if the spell is broken, we all go back where we belong- you and Hornsparker back to the Lydia, Daresden to her, um, troubles, and me back to my bed and my castle.” She looked at Ivy and asked, “Ivy, what can you tell me about Haycartes’ Method?”

“I can tell you nothing about it,” Ivy said flatly. “There is… a force… a thing bound up in the fabric of our world,” she said, slowly waving a hoof to indicate all of them together. “That force is working actively to prevent your gaining knowledge of certain facts. Apparently Haycartes’ spell is one such fact. If I were to try to explain the spell, something would happen- something very dangerous- to prevent the explanation. I cannot help you in this detail, Miss Sparkle.”

“Nothing?” Twilight asked. “But it does exist in this world?”

“It exists in the world,” Ivy said. “But it does not exist for you. Any attempt on your part to gain that knowledge will be thwarted. The stronger and more determined your attempts, the stronger the backlash.”

“So I’m not going home again, am I, miss?” Thornbush asked Ivy, his voice laden with gloomy resignation.

“The spell should cancel out once I get through all the books on my shelf,” Twilight said. “But I don’t understand it. I can’t think of why I would put such an elaborate safeguard on the spell to lock me inside.” She pointed my hoof at Thornbush and said, “And you shouldn’t be here at all, Mr. Thornbush! I would have had no reason at all to drag characters from one story into the next!”

I chose this moment to get control of the voice. “Unless you’re still casting the spell,” I said. “A runaway spell, without a strong will to counter it, will rewrite itself and do all sorts of things.”

“Indeed so, Miss Daresden, I presume,” Ivy said, nodding. “There are reasons I prefer calculus to magic. Calculus does not run away with itself.”

“But aren’t they fundamentally interdependent?” Twilight asked, giving my consciousness a little nudge away from control of the body. “Range applications depend on areas under the function, while any probability spell must-“

“As interesting as such a discussion might be,” Ivy said, not as icily as she might have done, “Miss Dareden’s business is of some urgency.”

And then I felt something immensely powerful reach into my head. It plucked Twilight Sparkle’s mind up like a kitten being lifted by the scruff and set her aside. Then I felt myself lifted in the same way and dropped- there’s no other word for it- dropped into the control seat of my own head.

The powerful presence retreated as Ivy said, “I apologize for the intrusion, Miss Dareden. However, my time is limited.” She looked at me and continued, “I have been selected by the White Council and the Nightmare Court, under the Accords, as the referee for your duel with Little Nettle. Who is your second?”

“Ah… I haven’t got one yet,” I said. “I’ve been busy. I intend to ask Mighty Gale to serve.”

“The Knight of the Quill? Very well,” Ivy said. “We shall see her next and confirm this. If she declines, do you have any other choice?”

I thought about this quickly. There were a few ponies I could ask, but I didn’t want to bring them into this trouble. There were also a couple of non-ponies I could ask, but asking any of them would incur a debt, and that debt might end up making me wish I’d lost the duel. “I’ll have to think about it some more,” I said.

“Think quickly, Miss Daresden,” Ivy said. “I shall be in contact before sunset. You have until eight in the evening tonight to secure someone to act as your second. Failing to do so will constitute a forfeit under the Accords.”

“I’d be glad to serve,” Thornbush put in. “But, well, I’ve got a duty. A double duty now, I suppose. Being th’ bodyguard of the referee, that makes me sort of a referee myself, doesn’t it? I can’t take sides. Wish like Tartarus I could, though.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Why aren’t you calling me ‘ma’am’ anymore?”

“Beggin’ your pardon, Miss Daresden,” Thornbush said. “But Captain Hornsparker is my superior officer. An’ I suppose Twilight Sparkle is too, on account of bein’ a princess an’ commanding the ship during our fight with Cumpleanos. I’ll have to think about that one. But nopony put you in command over me, an’ that’s a fact. So it’d be out of line for me to call you ma’am.”

I felt two little warm balls of smugness form in the back of my mind.

“Now moving on to choice of weapons,” Ivy continued. “By the forms of the Accords, you may select magic, willpower, spirit, skill, luck, or strength. The actual nature of the challenge will be of my selection. Given your opponent,” she added, “I would advise against choosing either skill or strength.”

“I choose magic,” I said instantly.

“You realize Little Nettle will almost certainly reject your proposal?” Ivy asked.

“Yeah,” I admitted. “But until he does, I don’t have to choose something else. And it is my strongest point.”

“Maybe you could choose luck!” Thornbush suggested. “I don’t know about Miss Daresden, but the captain’s a dab hoof with the cards, she is! I’d put her up against anypony at whist, an’ that’s a fact!”

Cute little fillies are far too young to wear that particular are-you-stupid expression. “Unfortunately, since you have suggested it, Thornbush,” Ivy said, “I can no longer accept it. That would constitute partiality towards one disputant. Referees cannot take sides, remember?”

Thornbush looked so sheepish I had the temptation to fetch some clippers. “Sorry, young miss,” he mumbled.

“In any case, I have taken note of your choice, and will present it to the Nightmare Court for approval. I should not get my hopes up if I were you.” Ivy took a step backwards towards the door. “For the time being, this concludes my business with you, Miss Daresden. I shall be in touch.”

She looks so lonely, Twilight thought.

I looked at the grim-faced filly. How lonely is it to not even have a name? To have no company except for thousands of dead ancestors, the massive bulk of everything every pony has ever known, and one bodyguard?

And Thornbush, though most dutiful, is not the pony for intellectual conversation, Hornsparker muttered. Nor one for dealing with little girls, his four sisters notwithstanding.

“I beg to differ, Ivy,” I said, making a sudden executive decision. “There is one piece of unfinished business. The business of ice cream.”

“Beg pardon?” Thornbush asked, as Ivy looked at me with the same level of confusion.

“Little fillies who do good work get ice cream,” I said. “Even little filly Archives. So I believe we should all go out and get some. Right now.”

“Ice cream!!” The words blurted out of Ivy’s mouth, and for a moment her smiling face looked like the rest of her body- like it belonged on a six-year-old filly.

“It’s too early for ice cream!” Thornbush insisted. “You’ll stunt her growth! An’ we haven’t the time, miss!”

“Mister Thornbush,” Ivy said with a molecular layer of dignity electroplated over an obvious intent to secure her ice cream, “I bear the wisdom of thousands of years of pony civilization, to say nothing of the memories of all my predecessors. And they are nigh universal in saying that there is always time for ice cream.” She looked at me and added, “I will, of course, be paying for my own, so as not to be suspected of bias.”

So the collected wisdom of our species can lie like a cheap rug, Hornsparker thought cynically, when ice cream is on the line.

Shut up and start thinking about what flavor you want, I thought back.

That was a mistake, since we spent the whole walk to my favorite ice cream parlor in a three-way mental argument about favorite ice cream flavors. I eventually had to get all three and let each of us take turns in control of the body for the tasting.

When we finally parted from Thornbush and Ivy, I had a massive brain freeze and the uncomfortable flavor of pistachio lingering on my tongue.

But it was worth it, for the smile on Ivy’s face as she matched me bite for bite.

DEATH BRIDLE Chapter 11: The Lost Art of Negotiation

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Although there are a few charter flights for tourists to and from Cloudsdale and Las Pegasus, by and large airships are expensive playtoys for unicorns and the occasional nouveau-riche earth pony. The fact that Canterlot has a double-digit number of airship berths is a testament to just how much dough the old unicorn aristocracy still has to throw around. Ordinary non-pegasus ponies like me have to settle for the train.

Dock Six, like all the other airship docks, stuck out on the far edge of Canterlot, overlooking a three-quarter mile drop to the base of Mount Canter. The city guard had a pegasus patrol out just in case a pony stepped, fell, or got thrown over the edge… but all that meant was the last word you were likely to hear in this life would be, “Well, I almost-“

The airship in Dock Six was a personal-sized pleasure blimp, large enough to be quite comfortable inside, but not large enough to have parties on or to carry any real number of passengers. That also meant not any great number of, say, bodyguards. Considering the nature of the Pastel Rats’ occupation, that more than likely meant the two of them were alone.

And to make things even better, the main hatch was wide open, with the gangplank extended to the dock. I could just step right in, cast a sleep spell on the thieves, and stroll right out with-

No. We’re not going to do it that way.

And just like that, I was shoved back into the dark space behind the eyes, and Friendship Princess Or So She Claims Sparkle was in control.

Well, I am. And we’re not going to attack these ponies-

They’re not ponies. They’re an Abyssinian and a diamond dog.

You know what I mean. And we’re going to give them a chance to do the right thing.

They had their opportunity to do the right thing. They stole a holy relic instead.

See? Hornsparker agrees with me!

We’re still going to give them a chance. Remember, Equestria was built on trust and friendship, not on violence.

Tell that to the dragons.

Tell that to the windigoes. Or the changelings. Or-

Not listening!

And before Hornsparker or I could object, Twilight raised my hoof up and, believe it or not, knocked on the hatch. “Hello? Hello the ship?”

A face- a very shapely face for a diamond dog, I thought- poked its way around the frame of the hatch. “I told your boss already, the price is non-negotiable. After the extra expense and trouble, it’s only-“ She blinked, then narrowed her eyes even further. “Who the Tartarus are you?”

“I’m Pr… I’m Harriet Daresden. I’m a private investigator. And if I remember correctly, you are Fifi, known to the Germane authorities as one of the Pastel Rats. I’m here to talk to-“

The diamond dog- Fifi- stepped fully into the hatchway. Her right forepaw held a compact, but very lethal looking, crossbow. “Inside,” she said. “Now. And if I see even a flicker from your horn, you get perforated. Got it?”

“There’s really no need-“ A forceful wave of the crossbow silenced Twilight, and she allowed herself- and me- to be escorted into the airship.

Remember, Twilight, I thought at the pony currently controlling my body-

My body, remember?

No, you remember. As a member of the White Council I’m sworn not to kill non-monsters with my magic. If this gets bad, you can’t-

I was never going to in the first place! Twilight insisted. I’m going to talk, and we’ll take it from there! If it looks like we’re going to get in real trouble-

We are currently being held at the point of a crossbow quarrel, Hornsparker pointed out. Nopony knows we’re here. Nopony is going to rescue us. Would you be so kind as to tell us why this does not constitute real trouble?

I felt something cold slide down my horn, and then my magic simply ceased. The Abyssinian stepped into view- Anastasia, that was the name from the police files- smiling at me. “There,” she purred. “No tricks from you, little miss nosey.”

Um… I think we may be getting there now, Twilight thought.

With the magic suppressor ring on my horn, the search began. My jacket, of course, came off. The blaster rod followed, which raised a couple of eyebrows but didn’t seem to trigger any recognition. If I hadn’t already been assuming them to be straights with no knowledge of the secret societies, that would have been the tell to use for my negotiation.

My negotiation.

Anyway, I didn’t have my magic. I didn’t have my pre-spelled blaster rod. I didn’t have the pepper spray I used as my normal non-lethal, non-magical deterrent for straights. And I didn’t even have my body, because Twilight Sparkle was using it to sit and smile at our two captors.

“Okay, she’s clean,” Anastasia the cat-creature said at last. “My first question is, how did she find us?”

“I’m a freelance wizard,” Twilight said, making it clear this should have been obvious. “It’s my business to find things, Especially very dangerous things like the Sketchbook of Tiveen.”

“Well, take it from an expert in finding things,” Fifi growled, “you need to find another line of work. What kind of private eye doesn’t have a plan for getting away with the goods?”

“I’m not here to steal it back,” Twilight insisted. “I knocked, remember? I’ve been hired to get the Sketchbook back where it belongs as quietly as possible. My employers don’t want to bring in the guards if they can help it.”

“Oh really?” Fifi asked. “And who are your employers? House Golden? The Moon Cult? Or some Griffon treasure-hunter?”

“The Church of Faust,” I sighed.

“Really? They want to ransom it back?” Fifi smirked. “What’s their offer?”

“They didn’t mention any ransom offer. I’d have to talk to my contact about that.” Twilight smirked and added, “But I’d gladly accept a fifty bit fee for disposal of hazardous materials.”

Good line, I thought. I’ll have to remember that for future use.

“This is a joke,” Anastasia said, frowning. “You’re a guard informant of some kind.”

Technically this was true, since I was a paid consultant to the Canterlot city guard, but I don’t tell the cops about my private cases if I can help it. I do have professional standards. Twilight didn’t have the same standards, but she was a lot more honest than I was, so it came to the same thing. “I haven’t said a word to any Canterlot guard ponies about the Sketchbook, and neither has the Church,” she said. “The Church doesn’t want the guard involved. They don’t want to risk the Sketchbook becoming a piece of public evidence. The fewer ponies who know where it is, the better.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Fifi said, raising her crossbow again. “Anna, this deal’s gone sour. It’s time to bail.”

“Not until Gustav gets here,” Anastasia hissed.

“If he was coming he would have been here by now!”

“He isn’t coming,” Twilight said, very quietly.

“And you’d know, wouldn’t you?” Fifi snarled. “What did you do with him?”

“The Romane guards found his body the day after your theft,” Twilight said softly. “What was done to him was very cruel and painful. And whoever did it planted evidence on him pointing straight to Canterlot. Unless he really was an ambassador?”

Anastasia’s face fell. “Gustav’s gone?” she asked.

“I’m very sorry,” Twilight said. “But somepony else obviously wants the Sketchbook. Somepony you should be a lot more afraid of than me, or the guard. And they’ll keep coming for it until they get it.”

“And you’ll take it off our claws,” Anastasia said in a dangerously quiet tone, “out of the goodness of your own heart, isn’t that right, pony?”

“And don’t forget her fifty-bit hazmat fee,” Fifi agreed.

“The name is Daresden,” Twilight said. “And right now I might be the only friend you have here. I know people who should be able to keep you safe.”

Do I? I asked.

The Knights of the Quill, for a start. They’ll want to keep anything evil away from the Sketchbook.

“I’ll just bet you do,” Anastasia said. “So do we. Time to leave, Fifi.”

“Right.” Fifi handed the pistol crossbow to Anastasia before reaching into a closet to pull out a pair of duffel bags. She set down the bags, unzipped them, and then began emptying the contents of a bureau into them. Among the first things to go in was a large double cylinder, painted bright red, with gold-plated knobs at the ends.

“Now, Miss Daresden,” Anastasia said quietly, “as it happens, we have a plan in place for getting out with the goods, because we are professionals. And a core part of the plan is making sure no nosy ponies know where we’ve gone. Or even that we have gone.” She smiled a little, just a little. “I’m sure you see where the logic takes us.”

“You’re going to kill me?” Twilight was honestly surprised. Why, I’ll never understand. “But I came to you openly, to talk! Just to talk!”

Anastasia shook her head. “And you think that makes a difference,” she said, marveling at a naive little fool.

“With Johnny Respectable it does,” Twilight said quickly. “Because Johnny might be a mobster, but he has standards. And honor. Are you really going to say the Pastel Rats have lower standards than a mob boss?”

Anastasia tapped one clawed finger to her chest. “Touche’,” she said. “Very well, we’ll play it your way.” She reached into a nearby cabinet and withdrew a very utilitarian set of hobbles. “These should keep you from removing that suppressor ring,” she said. “We’ll make sure someone comes along to let you go after we’re clear. Assuming that the people you think can protect us don’t come to your rescue first.”

Twilight didn’t argue. I didn’t blame her. She’d won our lives, and this was the price. But I still wasn’t hot on the idea of being hobbled and helpless in an airship, waiting for somepony to come along, knowing the odds against it being a friend were pretty strong.

I don’t have any better ideas, Twilight thought. Do you have any, Hornsparker?

I have an excellent plan, Hornsparker said. Unfortunately it begins with us not being so foolish enough as to have gotten into this sorry state in the first place.

If you can’t be helpful- DOWN!

Twilight had reflexively turned on her hooves, facing out the hatchway, as she began to dress down Hornsparker. As a result, my eyes were in position to see the monster before either of our captors. Twilight, for once, did the smart thing; she ducked away from the hatch and over into the corner, out of the way of the oncoming freight train of pain.

The Mane-iac? What is the Mane-iac doing here? Twilight thought.

Who the hay is the Mane-iac? I thought back.

Comic character. Supervillain. But something’s not-

Whoever or whatever it was chose that moment to barge through the hatch. At the core of it was a pegasus- a pegasus covered in green scales that, on first glance, almost seemed like a body suit until you realized that the wings had no feathers. Long strips of what looked like sheet metal substituted for her mane, or for a mass of angry snakes, have your pick. And on her flank- just as there had been on that monster from last night- the cutie mark had been obliterated by a horrible scarred brand in an undecipherable sigil.

The Order of the True Canon had arrived, and this time I had a magic suppressor on my horn, and my blaster rod was on the other side of the cabin.

Anastasia had the crossbow in her paw, and her reflexes were plenty good. Unfortunately, although she was undoubtedly a professional thief, she was useless as a fighter. Instead of going for the center of mass shot, which probably wouldn’t have worked, she tried to shoot the creature between its four glowing eyes. Even on an ordinary pony that shot had problems, including the probability of a glancing shot, the ease of ducking the shot, and the near impossibility of actually scoring the perfect aim required for a kill shot.

And all of that didn’t matter when your target head is covered with and surrounded by massive amounts of moving sheet metal. The bolt hit one strand with a spang and bounced away. Half a dozen other strands of metal hair lunged forward, and I watched with horror as two of them neatly trisected the metal crossbow.

The Abyssinian’s reflexes were sharp- almost as sharp as that razor hair. She’d jumped up and backwards the instant she realized the shot missed, rolling backwards in a curve that just missed the ceiling of the cabin. The metal hair passed underneath her… except for one curl which wrapped around her ankle. That one yanked hard, turning the graceful somersault into a brutal landing on the deck.

The True Canon monster giggled, the sound running down my nerves like a jagged sawblade. More strands of hair lashed out at the prone Anastasia, slicing through clothes, then through fur and skin. Little spatters of blood- very little- flew around the room. The thing was toying with her.

That’s when Fifi, snarling, bounded on all fours towards the monster. Before it could react, the diamond dog girl had her jaws clamped around the thing’s right foreleg. Diamond dogs can dig through sandstone and bite through harder rocks almost as easily as you or I can go through a cupcake, so it was less surprising than it should have been when the bite actually drew blood- a lot of slimy, silvery blood- and a shriek of outrage from the demon.

One thrash of the foreleg sent Fifi flying to the far end of the compartment, hitting the bulkhead with a loud crash. A moment later, seven of the metal hairs struck- one in each shoulder, one in each thigh, and three straight through the diamond dog’s belly.

Fifi tried to say something, but no sound came out- only blood.

The monster laughed again, its titter even more jagged and brittle. It yanked out its mane-blades, letting Fifi slump to the deck.

“NO! NOT AGAIN!”

That was Twilight, using my voice. Up to this moment I’d been beneath the monster’s notice, but Twilight’s shout pulled its full attention directly my way. And, worse luck, my blaster rod and my pepper spray were out of hoof’s reach- and behind the True Canon.

And in spite of all logic, Twilight was still trying to force magic past that suppressor ring. “I WILL NOT LET THIS HAPPEN AGAIN!” she shouted…

… and then I felt magic come into my body from somewhere else. It felt like the world was a unicorn, donating magic to us…

… and, with that power, Twilight burst the ring. Little null-metal fragments went flying.

A moment later, so did the Fallen, flying straight through the bulkhead and out the other side, trailing a mass of flailing strips of metal hair behind it.

Suddenly I found myself back in control of my own body. Whatever Twilight had done, it seemed to have used up her willpower for the moment. Fair enough, I figured; it was impossible for a unicorn to burst a suppressor ring while wearing it, but she’d just done it, somehow. So she deserved a little rest. And hey, I had my body and my magic back, so no complaints on that score.

Not that I had any time to celebrate. The monster had done a lot of damage to the airship cabin with its razor-hair, and after my experience with its big brother the night before I didn’t believe for a moment that Twilight’s magical body slam would do more than stun it for a moment. I had to figure out some way to get rid of the thing before we got killed or the airship collapsed around us.

Anastasia had crawled over to Fifi, holding the diamond dog’s body in her arms. “Good dog,” she said quietly. “Good, good dog.”

“How is she?” I asked.

“She’s gone,” the Abyssinian said bitterly. “This is my fault. She was right. I was a fool for us to stay here.”

“Look, we don’t have time for that,” I said. “That thing will be back any moment. It won’t stop until it gets what it wants.”

“Like Tartarus!” Anastasia bared her fangs. “My two best friends in this world died for that treasure!”

“Do you want to make it clean sweep?” I hissed right back. “I’m taking this!” I reached out with my magic and grabbed one of the duffel bags.

The wrong one.

Anastasia’s eyes widened. “But-“

“This cannot be allowed to fall into the wrong hooves!” I shouted. “And you can’t stop me!” I pulled the bag through the air towards me as I started to run for the hatchway…

… and that’s when something slammed into the back of my head, dropping me to the deck in a world of pain and flashing lights. There was that grating giggle again, and the sound of those long strips of metal embedding themselves in the woodwork all around me.

I felt my head get lifted up, looked into those four eyes- two the green eyes of a pony, the other two the glowing red of something much worse. “I have my orders,” the Fallen hissed. “But nothing says I can’t have my fun first. And I shall make you suffer, Harriet Daresden. I shall make you scream whenever you hear the name Helpmeet!”

Up until this moment I hadn’t realized that the blow to the head had knocked me out of control of my body. But when my mouth opened and the words, “With regret I must decline your kind invitation!” and when my hind legs came up for a roundhouse kick that hit hard enough to make the monster drop me, I figured it out pretty quick.

Hornsparker reached out across the floor with my magic-

The rod! The stick, darn it! Grab the stick!

Don’t be foolish. I don’t know the first thing about using it.

- and grabbed the pepper spray out of my jacket pocket. In an instant the thing zipped over to me-

You don’t know how to use that either!!

- and Hornsparker aimed it straight at the monster and pushed down on the trigger, filling its eyes with concentrated peppery goodness.

Oh, I rather fancy I can figure it out.

The monster screamed, rubbing its scale-covered hooves into its eyes. Sharp metal hair flashed through the air around me at random.

Now you may retrieve your wand, madam, Hornsparker thought, and she ceded control of my body back to me. Once back in control I dropped the pepper spray (Hornsparker had emptied the can) and grabbed up the blaster rod with my magic.

“FUEGO!”

I was careful to aim for a part of the True Order demon nowhere close to the duffel it had tucked under it. The lance of flame hit its scarred flank, splashing a bit to set bits of broken woodwork on fire, which caused the Falllen to scream again. With one final thrashing and slashing of mane, it swept up the wrong duffel under a foreleg, spread its wings, and jumped through the hole Twilight’s spell had made.

I kept the blaster rod up, ready to give the creature more encouragement to leave. Anastasia walked up to me and asked, “Is it-“

I shook my head and motioned for silence, for all the good it did. The airship lurched violently as the cables connecting the cabin to the gas envelope above were severed like so many spider threads. The lines tethering the airship to the dock arrested our fall for the moment… but only for a moment.

I heard that giggle again, faintly, from outside. Then the airship tipped backwards wildly as one of the four lines suddenly ceased to be a single unit.

I levitated the other duffel bag- the one that actually had the Sketchbook in it- into Anastasia’s arms. Then I wrapped my own forelimbs around the Abyssinian and thought, Twilight, we need one of those teleports of yours right now, to someplace where that thing can’t see us, before it figures out it’s got a fake bag.

Twilight didn’t respond.

Twilight, I thought again, I don’t care if this is your body or my body, but when this body’s brains are splattered over two square miles at the bottom of the mountain, neither of us is going to have a place-

The number of intact mooring lines went from three to two. The remains of the airship flopped sideways, throwing us against the port side, along with far too much loose furniture. I decided I would take up this blatant lack of safety precautions with the airship drydock at my next available opportunity.

Twilight! I thought. We have maybe thirty seconds to live once those lines go! We need that teleport NOW!

I don’t know if what I felt just before the airship cabin vanished was a side effect of a poorly cast teleport or the beginning of the airship’s fall down three quarters of a mile of mountain, and I probably never will, but when the light and smoke dissipated to reveal a donut shop three blocks away from the front gate of Celestia’s castle, I no longer cared.

Anastasia, gently pushed my hooves aside, breaking our embrace. “Wow,” she said. “Thanks. I guess… I guess maybe you had a plan after all.”

There are many occasions where I’ll make a clever remark to break a mood. Those times when someone I don’t trust is crediting me for things I haven’t done are not among them. “No problem,” I said.

Anastasia slipped the duffel so its strap rode over her shoulder. “You could have just taken it and bailed,” she said. “Why didn’t you?”

“You never paid me my fifty bits for hazmat cleanup,” I replied.

That little cat-smile appeared on Anastasia’s face again. “I’m still considering the option,” she said. “But for now, don’t call me. I’ll call you.”

“They won’t give up,” I warned. “You really need to get serious protection. And get rid of that thing.”

Anastasia pulled the duffel a little tighter to her body. “I’m all that’s left of the Pastel Rats,” she said quietly. “This is going to be our last caper. I have to make sure it’s a success. And that it pays.” She turned her back on me and said, “Don’t follow me.”

I didn’t. I just waved goodbye, hoping that she hadn’t noticed the little tracker-snoop gem I’d slipped into one of the tears of her jacket just before the teleport.

Twilight Sparkle was naive, but a good pony.

I’m not.

DEATH BRIDLE Chapter 12: One Interruption After Another

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I didn’t go straight home.

For one thing, since I was already halfway there, I went to Victorious’s cheap hotel by the train station to give a report on progress. He wasn’t terribly thrilled by the fact that I’d seen the Sketchbook and let it walk way, and I chose not to mention the fallen angel who had complicated matters (never mind the phantoms in my head who had made them complicated in the first place). I reassured him that the trail was still hot and that I’d keep in touch.

When I asked him if the Church of Faust would be willing to ransom back the Sketchbook, Victorious didn’t refuse outright. I’d expected a sanctimonious homily about not paying ransom for Faust’s treasures, said with an air of what I’d call outrighteousness.

But he didn’t say yes, either. He hemmed and hawed about the limited resources of Mother Church and claimed he would have to message back home for instructions. That seemed a little cockeyed to me. The Church dates back to at least the days of Unicornia; heck, it was practically the only institution the Three Tribes had in common back in those days. Legend has it the unicorns were the last to enter Equestria because of the weight of the Church’s treasure wagons. They’ve only gotten richer since. “Limited resources” my sparkle-studded flaming flank.

But that was all a minor issue. The main reason I saw my client at all was that I wanted something to occupy my time while I waited for Anastasia to reach whatever backup hiding place the Pastel Rats had had. The eavesdropping crystal wouldn’t pick up any clues until she was settled in and ready to talk. And I didn’t want to use the tracer function yet, because a unicorn walking the streets of Canterlot with her horn lit up and nothing in her telekinetic field looks a little suspicious.

Besides, there was the possibility that the True Order had found the airship by following me. I didn’t know yet how I was going to prevent that when I did go for the Sketchbook, but I could eliminate that possibility in the meantime.

Finally, there was lunch- a hayburger, fries, and a strawberry shake, which I picked up on the way back to my apartment.

I smell hay fries.

And naturally junk food was what brought the ghost of Princess Celestia’s personal student back to awareness.

Welcome back, Hornsparker muttered. Now would you mind explaining what in Celestia’s name happened back on the airship?

Hayfries first. My horn lit up without my willing it, and a large clump of hayfries floated up to my mouth, bumping against my closed lips for a moment before I opened them to let them pass. Oh, that’s good. Sorry, Hornsparker, but that’s so much better than what you have on the Lydia. How I’ve missed-

What happened? I asked, working hard to keep a steady pace down the street with the rest of my lunch.

I don’t know. The last thing I remember was feeling something reach in and give me the power I needed to break that ring. My shake floated a bit closer to me, and I let Twilight slip the straw in for a sip. Oh, that’s good milkshake. Anyway, I guess I passed out from the strain, because-

Yeah, and that’s pretty weird. Because we didn’t feel the strain at all.

Well, you wouldn’t. None of the magic actually got used until the suppressor ring broke, and that outside force was what-

What was that outside force, anyway?

I don’t know! It could be the Element of Magic- did I mention I’m one of the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony? It could be Harmony itself, or Faust, or anything! It might even be the stupid Haycartes spell, for all I know!

That… Hornsparker’s mental voice went silent for a couple of moments, then resumed. That might be it, now that I consider it. According to that… that talking skull thing-

Bobbin. Her name is Bobbin. And she’s a spirit. She just lives inside the skull.

As you say. According to, er, Bobbin, you, Twilight Sparkle, made several positive changes in my world while in my body. But suppose-

I’m surprised you admit it.

I do find it very troubling to contemplate, indeed, Hornsparker said quietly. And I have had far too much time to consider it. The notion that my entire world is nothing but an author’s construct made flesh by a magic spell raises most disquieting questions. But beyond that, the fact that you saved more ponies from that travesty of duty and honor than I would have points means I would otherwise have failed in that duty to princess and country. And I find that most troubling indeed.

I’m… I’m sorry. But you always do the very best you can, Hornsparker, I’m sure of that.

Ha-hmm. That’s beside the point. In any event, assume that you, Twilight, made some blunder which made things worse- worse enough, indeed, that the, er, the story might come to, hm, a premature end. Would not the spell seek to, well, make a correction to keep the story on track?

It’s possible. As out of control as this spell is, anything’s possible.

I see two flaws with the theory, I thought back at them. First, if we accept the idea that our worlds are creations of this spell- and I’m not conceding that point, I just want that clear- then we also have to accept that it’s trying to conceal itself from Twilight. If Bobbin knew nothing about it, either it doesn’t exist or it’s really hiding. Which means you, Hornsparker, as a creation of the spell, shouldn’t even be capable of hypothesizing about it.

Hm. Point. Although it is possible the spell might use me to mislead Miss Sparkle.

Either way. Second point: the theory might lead us to think we’ll be protected by anything, because the spell needs us to live until the climax of the story at least. I’m not comfortable with that. It feels too much like jumping off a skyscraper because we know Supermare will show up to save us.

Who or what is Supermare?

Never mind. You understand what I’m saying, right? How much do you want to rely on being bailed out by out-of-control alicorn magic?

Not in the least.

Girls, can we not think about this now? I’m still tired. And I want more hay fries.

I looked in the bag. We’ve eaten them all.

What? You only got one order? Are you on a diet or something? All right, give me one of the burgers, then.

You’re kidding. I only ordered one burger.

Right! We’re going back for more hay fries.

I felt Twilight fumble for control of the body, and I gave her a mental shove. I felt something inside my head sort of flop over onto its side. Look, I thought, I’ll order a pizza or something, all right? But we’re almost home, and I suspect Anastasia has found her new hiding place by now. Time to get back to work.

I agree, Hornsparker said. Also, what is pizza?



“Well, it’s about time you showed up.”

This is a violation of the spirit of-

Quiet, I thought. I can’t hear the bug over you.

The drawback with my tracker-snoop gem is that, in order to get it small enough to be easily overlooked, I have to make compromises with the enchantment. The sound on my end is really faint and tinny, kind of like a gramophone with a dirty needle. I have to really concentrate to make out words, so even stray thoughts- especially when they don’t belong to me- can drown out the audio.

Twilight, who’d already had a lot of words for me when I’d revealed the existence of the bug, settled back in my head, radiating her outrage and anger through my mind. I tried to ignore it as I heard a male voice through the bug’s spell.

“… lot of blood on you. What happened?”

“Most of it isn’t mine. Most.”

“Yow! That’s a big bandage! You should get somepony to look at that.”

“And how many pony doctors here in the heart of Equestria even know anything about Abyssinian medicine? And out of those, how many would stay silent? Besides, it’s just a flesh wound. My partners weren’t so lucky.”

“That’s unfortunate. But it’s the risk we take in this line of business.”

“No. It’s an additional expense on my invoice. Which your boss will pay if he wants the merchandise.”

“I’m sure our employer-“

“No. Your employer. My customer. And after my two closest friends died getting this thing for him, the price is going to be a lot higher than that insult he first offered.” Anastasia’s voice dropped so low I could barely make out the words: “Darn it, their deaths have to be for something.”

“That’s not something I can negotiate,” the male voice said flatly. “But I do have a message for you. He will be ready to accept the merchandise and make payment at the agreed-upon time and place.”

“I’ll just bet. But I, on the other hand, am not ready.” Pause. “The original deal was for the three of us to deliver the goods and be paid. Now there’s only me, Junior. And I’m not sticking my whiskers anyplace until I’m good and sure I won’t join my friends.”

“I can’t negotiate that,” the male voice repeated. “All I can tell you is, if you want your pay, you’re expected in Platinum Hall at quarter of-“

Someone began pounding at my front door. “Miss Daresden? Miss Daresden, are you there?” Another male voice, high-pitched.

I groaned and thanked Celestia the bug’s audio wasn’t two-way. “Just a minute!” I shouted. I tried to listen to the bug some more, but the pounding kept up. Groaning at the horrible timing, I set down the listening stone and went to answer the door.

The pony from the city guard morgue, Bitter Butter, stood on the other side of the door. “I’m sorry to bother you,” he said, “but Lucky Star gave me your address and told me you needed to know this. And that you might have some answers.”

A stack of papers hovered at me, held in Butter’s white-tinted magical field. I didn’t bother looking at them. “Quick summary?” I asked.

“You remember all those diseases I mentioned last night?” Butter asked. “Well, most of ‘em are gone. I did a second test this morning to verify my results, and it came up negative. After that I went down the list again, and eleven of the diseases don’t show up anymore. But the others are still there. Now, even if the germs are dead and non-viable, the tests would still show they were there. So, what gives?”

“Sunrise,” I said. “Our headless friend was the victim of a plague curse of some kind.”

“What?” Butter asked. “There’s no such thing as curses!”

“That’s what they teach you in Celestia’s School, yeah,” I agreed. “And they teach you that because they don’t want ponies cursing each other. It’s a good system. Works real well… until it doesn’t.”

“Well… well, all right, but then why did it fade out?”

“The better question is, why did it last so long?” I asked. “You didn’t find the guy the same day he died, did you?”

“Nope,” Butter said positively. “We got him at least a full day after he died. It’s tough to tell for sure after so long, but I’d say more like thirty-six hours. When you were called in, it was closer to forty-eight.”

“Yeah, that really worries me. See, the thing about deadly curses is, once they claim a victim, they run out of power. They don’t go running on to kill somebody else, at least not usually. So by the time you got the body, there shouldn’t have been a single deadly germ on him-“

The pony body is full of potentially lethal pathogens which are harmless in certain places, notably the digestive tract, but which lead to severe illness and death if introduced-

“-well, not any of the ones that killed him, anyway.”

“But there were, Miss Daresden. Lots of ‘em.”

“Yeah. I know. It doesn’t make sense. But as for them leaving, with dying spells like that- especially dark magic- sunrise is usually the time they expire. There’s something about the first light when Celestia raises the sun that makes it hard for dark magic to sustain itself. Same thing with holy magic and midnight, by the way. When the sun came up, those missing germs just evaporated. More will probably go tomorrow morning- maybe all of them.”

“Huh.” Butter looked at me, wearing the expression of a pony assimilating a lot of information in a hurry. “What about other ponies? Would they be able to catch these germs if exposed?”

“That… is a darn good question,” I said. “A curse usually only affects one target. But this one is really weird. I’d say play it safe and assume the magic germs act just like natural ones until they go away.”

“Okay. That’s what I’ve been doing.” Butter nodded his head, then cocked it as he remembered something. “By the way, any luck on that tattoo?”

“Not really,” I said. “It’s called the Eye of Trot, and apparently it’s common as dirt among secret societies and the like. Unless somepony comes forward missing a friend who mentions a Haygyptian eye tattooed on a shoulder, it’s a dead lead.”

“That’s a shame.” Butter waved the papers with his magic again. “Do you want my reports?”

“I don’t think I could read ‘em,” I said.

I could! I could!

Ignoring the voices in my head, I continued, “Besides, I’m pretty sure I’ve got the relevant…”

My mind trailed off as, for a moment, I remembered that headless, hoofless body… and how it had been cut.

“I changed my mind,” I said. “Any photographs in that?”

The papers fluttered in Butter’s telekinesis, and two pages slipped out of the bundle and floated over to me. I caught them and looked at the stump of the neck, the missing forehooves, the slices where the cutie marks had been removed- all clean and neat.

“Oh, roadapples,” I said. “I know what made the wounds on our-“

There was a knock at the door. Unlike Butter, the new visitor knew where knocking ended and beating began.

“-oh, shoot,” I swore. “No time to explain now. You’re going to get another body at your place soon, if the air patrol haven’t already brought it in. An airship was destroyed at the docks today- cut away from the bag and let to drop. There’s the body of a diamond dog in the wreckage, and I was nearly the second body. The dog will have this same kind of wound- stabs instead of slices, though. I saw what did it-“

Politely but firmly, the knock repeated itself.

“-look, send Lucky Star here as soon as he can get away,” I said.

“You ought to come with me,” Butter said, “and report it to the guard in person.”

“I just did,” I said. “You’re a guard.”

“I’m a medical examiner,” Butter said. “A coroner. An assistant coroner. I don’t even get to declare people dead. And you-“

More knocking, this time accompanied by a voice. “Harriet, is this a bad time?” It was the voice of a pony I’d started a war for.

I didn’t teleport to the front door, but I got there so fast I doubt Butter could have told the difference. Hot Lead was on the other side, hoof raised for another knock. “Sorry, Leedie,” I said. “I was just talking about a case with the coroner here.”

“Assistant coroner,” Butter muttered. “I’ll send Lucky as soon as I get back. Please be here, okay?”

And then one guest was gone, and the other entered, again not strictly invited but very welcome. “So,” I asked, “how did it go with your editor?”

“Awkwardly,” Hot Lead said, slumping to a cushion near the bookshelf. I pulled up a cushion of my own and joined him. “It was sort of like having someone describe your own funeral to you a year after the fact. Which is what it amounts to, professionally speaking.” He leaned forward and continued. “What about you? Do you still have those, er… visitors?”

“Afraid so,” I said. “Haven’t figured out how to send them on their way. To be honest, we haven’t had the time, what with duels and cases and demons trying to kill me and everything.”

“I see.” Hot Lead looked at his hooves, then back at me with the kind of expression that film stars use when they’re watching their one true love go off to sea or ride the train to Dodge or whatever form of Leaving You Forever is appropriate for the movie. (Except, of course, in the movies it’s only Leaving Until the End of Act Three.)

If Miss Sparkle is to be believed, we might as well be in one of these “movies” of which you-

“Well, this isn’t going to be any easier if I put it off,” Leedie said. “Harriet, I came-“

Not that I have a lot of experience with mental shoves (at least until the past twenty-four hours), but the one Twilight administered was as gentle as an ocean wave… and just as unstoppable. When I heard my voice interrupt Leedie with, “You came to tell Harriet goodbye,” I wasn’t the one saying it.

Leadie blinked, losing his train of thought.

“It’s kind of obvious when you think about it,” Twilight said, still using my mouth to say it. “You didn’t just come to quit your job. You’re making a break with your entire past life. Maybe because you’re afraid of becoming a thestral, maybe because of something else, but you feel you have to run. And you want it to be sweet and tender, and you want Harriet to know how much you wish it were otherwise, and I’m sorry but we don’t have time for all that right now.”

“Excuse me,” Leedie asked plaintively, “but could I have the voice in Harriet’s head who isn’t a total know-it-all?”

The straight line was too perfect for me to not regain control just to deliver the response. “We’ll let you know when we find one,” I said.

Leedie rolled his eyes. “I trotted right into that one,” he admitted. “But it’s not just about becoming a thestral. I’ve been to the Forbidden Jungles, to the villages where the Nightmare Court has total control.” His eyes narrowed. “And I’m going to find a way to stop it, Harriet. I don’t know how yet, but I’m going to find a way.”

Talk about your mixed emotions. I’d started a war between the White Council and the Nightmare Court to save Hot Lead’s life. Now Hot Lead was telling me he intended to wipe out the Nightmare Court, which sounded just fine by me…

… up to the point where I remembered that even attempting it would get Hot Lead killed.

“They’re farming ponies down there, Harriet,” Leedie continued. “They enslave them to their will, with the Kiss and… and other things. And then they feed. Mares, stallions… even foals and fillies. Imagine a chicken roost where the chickens were perfectly obedient.”

I snorted at that. I spent years on a farm, after Ebon Geezer took me in. I knew chickens. Chickens do what they darn well want to, the more idiotic the more they wanna.

“It’s not a joke, Harriet.” Leedie stared me right in the eyes. “I found friends down there. Allies. Vespers is one of them. We’re going to free them all, Harriet. No matter what it takes.”

Hanging unsaid in the air was the fact that she knew exactly what it would take. It would take his life. And he was ready to do it… almost.

I’d made the first steps along this road many times before. Heck, I’d done it again just before dawn, talking to Ebon through the crystal ball. Hot Lead was putting his affairs in order, tying off the soon-to-be loose ends his death would leave.

“I wish I could go with you,” I said quietly.

“No, you don’t,” Hot Lead said, gently but firmly. “You have too many people to protect here in Canterlot. But it’s different for me. This is the first thing I’ve really found to fight for.”

“Revenge?”

“That’s part of it,” Leedie admitted. “But not just for me. If it was just me, I’d hide somewhere, become a hermit. But seeing ponies treated like livestock…” Something flashed in my ex-lover’s eyes, and I didn’t like the looks of it. He shook his head and said, “Anyway, now you know.” Forcing a smile, he added, “And aside from that, how have you been?”

“Oh, all right,” I said. “I’ve got a case that nearly killed me two or three times already, I’ve got a thestral who’s going to kill me, and I took the collected knowledge of ponykind out for ice cream at eight in the morning. You know, same old same old.”

“What kind of case?”

“Return of stolen property. And there are third parties who want it really bad. Body count is three and rising so far.”

“Any idea where it is?”

“Did have. Then a demon came along and, well, things happened.”

“Do you have any leads?”

“Just a moment.” It was long past hope, but I picked up the listening stone and put it back to my ear. Silence. “I planted a bug on the surviving thief,” I said. “I was about to get the time and place for the transfer to the original buyer when the pony you saw interrupted.”

“That’s a shame,” Hot Lead said. “Did you get anything at all?”

“Something about Platinum Hall at, and I quote, ‘quarter of KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK,’” I said, matching words with hoof on the floor. “It would be nice if I knew quarter of when, on what day, and which Platinum Hall. There’s Platinum Hall in the royal palace, Platinum Hall the concert venue, Platinum Hall the mansion, and probably one or two others I can’t think of off the top of my head.”

“Well.” Leedie perked up. “Sounds like a job for a snoopy reporter!”

“Aren’t you going away?” I asked.

“Not right this very minute I’m not,” Leedie said. “I love you very much, Harriet, but you’re not the only goodbye I have to say. It’s going to take me a couple more days to wrap everything up. I can spare a-“

Two raps at the door, and that was all.

I sighed. “I sense a trend forming,” I said.

“It must hurt so much to be popular,” Leedie said. He leaned over and gave me a kiss just under the horn. I so wanted to make it more, but he backed away, looking a little like he was afraid he’d gone too far. “I’ll be in touch, Harriet. Be careful.”

Hot Lead walked out, and in walked, of all ponies, Mighty Gale and that old kirin- Winter Wisdom, that was his name. “I can’t stay long,” Mighty Gale said. “I’m afraid we caught a bit of evidence that suggests the True Canon is up to something in Ponyville. Shadow Lurk and I are going to catch the next train down there.” She looked me in the eyes and said, “Please try to stay out of trouble until I get back.”

Does this pony know who she’s saying this to?

Both for the benefit of my visitors and my mental companions, I shrugged helplessly. “You know me,” I said. “Trouble usually seeks me out. I became a detective in the first place because I figured, if trouble kept coming to my door, I might as well get paid for it.”

“Could you at least promise to keep away from the True Canon?” Mighty asked.

I shook my head. “Can’t,” I said. “They’re tangled up with my current case. They’re trying to get their hooves on-“

“-the Sketchbook of Tiveen, yes,” Winter Wisdom said. “We are aware. We do not know why they want it, but in their hooves it would be a powerful force of destruction.” He looked me in the eyes and said, in that soft, whispery voice of his, “As also you would be, Miss Daresden. We must ask you to please drop your inquiries in this matter.”

I shook my head. “I couldn’t do that now even if I wanted to,” I said. “When I said they’re trying to get their hooves on the Sketchbook, I mean they darn near succeeded this morning. I came a bit’s thickness away from getting added to the body count by a Fallen named Helpmeet. And it made it clear it had orders about me.” To say nothing of a personal grudge, now, but I figured adding that little detail would not encourage Mighty to get off the subject.

“Helpmeet,” Winter Wisdom whispered. Looking at Mighty, he said, “That all but confirms that she is here.”

Mighty nodded. “Then please be as careful as you can,” she said. “I might not be around to save you next time. The True Canon will see to that.”

“I agree,” Winter Wisdom said. “I suspect the Ponyville lead is a deception planned by them for precisely that purpose. But we cannot allow them to go unopposed if the danger happens to be real.”

“Yes.” Mighty agreed, but she wasn’t happy about it. “Anyway, the reason we came over is, the Archive told us about your choice of second for your duel with Duke Little Nettle. I’m afraid I can’t accept because of the Ponyville thing.” She gestured a wing at the kirin and continued, “But Winter Wisdom says he would be glad to take my place, if you’re willing.”

“Really?” I looked at the kirin, who smiled behind his thick glasses. I looked back at Mighty Gust and said, “Obviously he’s a good pony, or he wouldn’t be a Knight of the Quill. But I don’t know him, Mighty. How well do you-“

“He trained me,” Mighty said simply. “I trust him with my life and more. So can you.”

Mighty Gust is a fine pony. One of her very few flaws is that she trusts other ponies to do the right and decent thing a bit too much. But she’s not blind. When she says she trusts a pony with her life and more, that’s not her religion or her forgiving nature talking. That’s the warrior at her heart talking- indeed, an unbroken line of warriors going back to the Pegasopolis phalanxes under Commander Hurricane.

And given a choice between my trust in Mighty’s judgment on such matters and, say, my trust that Celestia will raise the sun tomorrow, I pick Mighty over Celestia any day. Mighty’s judgment has never failed. Celestia, on the other hoof, did miss once-

That was totally not her fault! And wait, if Nightmare Moon happened in this universe, does that mean I exist here too? If I send a telegram to myself in Ponyville, will I get an answer? Oh my gosh, the Golden Oaks might still be here in this world! I have GOT to get to Ponyville before-

“Okay,” I said, trying to ignore the mental babbling. “If he taught you, I couldn’t ask for anypony better.”

“You are too kind to a old and temperamental kirin,” Winter Wisdom said.

“All right,” Mighty said. “Then we’ll be off. Wisdom has to meet with the duke’s second to arrange your meeting. And I have a train to catch.”

Almost on cue, there came a knock at the door. “Harriet!” Lucky Star’s voice cut through the thick wood like it wasn’t there. “Open up this door right now!”

I did just that, swinging the door wide with my magic, and there stood Lucky, holding a pizza and a six-pack of soda cans in his magic. “You owe me fourteen bits for the pizza boy,” he said, “and half of the slices. And one heck of an explanation for what you’ve been doing the last twenty-four hours!”

“Pardon us, Detective,” Winter Wisdom said, smiling a little wider. “We were just leaving.”

And inside my head, the babbling stopped to say, Half the pizza? Darn…

DEATH BRIDLE Chapter 13: Dis Appointment, See

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There’s a tavern tucked up right next to the side of Mount Canter. Like a lot of things in Equestria in general and Canterlot in particular, it’s magical. Some claim that Starswirl built it, and others Clover the Clever, though mostly those are the ordinary ponies who occasionally go there for a thrill and, incidentally, also a drink. Most of its regular patrons lean to much less mundane origin stories, though nobody can agree on a single one.

But the key magic of the tavern is this: the bartender in the tavern will always be able to serve whatever beverage best suits the customer. You don’t request specific drinks; you just ask for a drink, and the bartender will give you one and take your bits. And without fail, you will enjoy what you get, provided you have the guts to drink it. For every white wine or fizzy cider or cola on ice, there’s also a bubbling green thing with foam… and a glass of something red for those who don’t drink, dramatic pause, wine.

The tradeoff is that the bartender doesn’t have a choice in the matter; if a pony asks for a drink, the bartender can’t throw the pony out until the pony has been served at least one drink. After that, of course, the bartender is free to use their best judgment. There are, of course, limits. If a bloodsucker comes up to the bar, their drink comes out in a glass, and not, as it were, direct from the tap. And although in rare emergencies healing potions have appeared on the counter after some accident or fight, generally speaking what you get will have no effects beyond nourishment, drunkenness (or sobriety if it ends up being coffee), and satisfaction.

As enchanted buildings go, it’s not even in the top hundred of Equestria’s most magical. Nobody seeking to conquer all ponykind would ever use the place as their starting point. But there are a lot of factions who have trouble finding a beverage of choice that they can stomach without incurring a lot of trouble, and for those beings, and those who had to deal with them on a non-hostile basis, the tavern was invaluable. As such, it quickly became neutral ground between all factions, and that was eventually written into the Accords that prevent the little frictions between wizards, fairies, the Courts, and other vaguely civilized beasties from becoming total war.

And practically the first thing you see when you come from the hallway into the main room is a sign hanging on the wall: ACCORDED NEUTRAL GROUND. There are a number of trophies hanging beneath that sign- hats, cloaks, staves, fangs, and even a couple of pony tails. Asking the bartender about them is one of the quicker ways to be asked to leave. If you have to have it explained to you that some ponies need a lesson about what “neutral ground” means, you don’t belong here.

I’d been there many times before, but Mac, the current bartender, jabbed a hoof at the sign anyway when he saw me come in. Mac is at first sight an ordinary earth pony- no mane, a yellow beard and tail, orange fur, and a cutie mark of a wedge of cheese overlapping a blue box of some kind. Nothing unusual… except that ordinary ponies don’t last long as barkeep in the tavern, and Mac was the only bartender there that I could remember.

“No problem, Mac,” I said, and meant it. “My usual?”

Mac grunted and pulled a pint of cider for me. Winter Wisdom, who walked up behind me, said something in the kirin tongue, and Mac responded with a foreign-sounding grunt before going to the cupboard and pulling out a large earthenware bottle and what looked like a saucer. He set them down before my guest and added a tiny flask with a stopper. “For the road,” he said, and then named a figure in bits that made my eyebrows rise.

I should point out that the secret of the tavern’s magic isn’t free booze. Everything served has to be paid for, one way or another. I spent an evening working it out once, watching Mac pull out a drink, set the appropriate coins back in the cupboard, closing it, and then reopening it for the next drink. Apparently, wherever the more exotic beverages come from, their makers get compensated. More common tipples like my cider, of course, Mac orders from the brewers himself, because the magic cupboard isn’t that big.

There was one time when, instead of naming a price, Mac had hoofed over a card to the customer and demanded the pony write down when they were visiting their grandmother next. That time the drink was a bowl of barley soup… but I’m digressing.

No, wait! I want to hear about the barley soup pony!

Anyway, as I sipped my cider-

Come on, we have time! What about the barley soup pony?

- I looked around the tavern, which was most unusually empty apart from Mac, Winter Wisdom, and myself. As I mentioned, members of secret societies like the White Council or factions of the netherworld like, well, like the Nightmare Court treasure this place as an evening hangout. Add on top of that the college kids, the occasional historian, and the more normal run of wizards-

Say, that’s interesting! The tables are positioned almost perfectly to make sure no three are on a direct line with each other. I wonder why- oh, it must be the support pillars! Yes, I can see the damping runes now! This entire chamber is built to dissipate magic force! How fascinating! I wonder if the ceiling beams-

- interested in magical architecture, and most nights this place is pretty crowded. Obviously Mac cleared the house for tonight’s meeting. Makes sense- although the regulars had banded together in the past to throw out troublemakers (minus a hat, or a tail, or something else), none of them wanted to get involved in the White Council- Nightmare Court war.

Winter Wisdom poured what seemed barely a splash of clear liquor into his saucer and sipped it. I likewise sipped my cider, which had the benefit of not smelling to me like industrial solvent, but to each his own.

Then the door opened, and in walked Thornbush, longcoat wrapped tight around his barrel. “Cor,” he muttered as he came in, taking a moment to stare around himself. Seeing us, he trotted up, saying, “Captain, it’s just like th’ pub where you an’ Plum Dumplin’ were married, it is! Remember that day? Th’ admiral came down to toast you. I thought that was right generous of her.”

Hornsparker took over my voice long enough to say, “I prefer not to be reminded of how far we are from home and homely things, Mr. Thornbush.”

“Oh,” the burly earth pony mumbled. “You’re right, ma’am. I’m dreadfully sorry.”

I retook my voice with a little cough and said, “Good evening, Mr. Thornbush. Where’s Ivy?”

“Miss Daresden?” Thornbush asked, a little confused by my involuntary split personality. “I suppose so. The Archive’s gone to bed, bless her. She had a tummyache all afternoon, poor thing. All that ice cream, you know. But she told me to tell you it was worth it.”

I couldn’t help smiling. “I’m not surprised,” I said. Sobering a little bit, I continued, “Where’s Little Nettle and his second?”

“Saw ‘em down the end of the street when I walked in,” Thornbush said. “They’ll be here in a moment, I’ve no doubt.”

Winter Wisdom looked at me with some bemusement. “Miss Daresden, is there something amiss?”

I sighed. Thornbush hadn’t realized that I was trying not to broadcast my current mental excess occupancy. “Alternate me’s from other worlds,” I said, tapping my head with a hoof. “Or past lives, maybe, since Thornbush knows one of them from his previous reincarnation.”

“I see,” the old kirin nodded. “So, nothing to do with my calling, then?”

Hornsparker took back my voice to say, “Venerable elder, sir, although I respect your age and wisdom, I resent the implication that I have anything in common with those foul creatures you occupy your time by pursuing! I trust you will be more discreet-“

The door opened again, and I retook my voice again, muttering, “Don’t let Nettle know. He’ll try to use it as a weakness.”

In came Little Nettle, looking just as fearsome to me as he had the day before. This time, though, I was able to see his glamour a bit better, overlaying his true form like the image made by the sun shining through a stained-glass window. A straight would see him as a fairly large pegasus, mane neatly coiffed, wings sticking out of slits in a perfectly tailored blazer slipped over a turtleneck. The illusion looked more in place in one of Canterlot’s fancy coffee houses, or in one of the nobility’s private salons. The reality, of course, belonged in a cemetery or on a rock outcrop, whinnying the cry that heralded death.

And behind Nettle came his second… a white unicorn who might almost have been the infamous Blueblood’s brother, a little taller, a lot skinnier, but every bit as white, blonde, and handsome. His appearance wasn’t an illusion, but it was just as phony as Nettle’s. It took a bit of effort to look beneath the altered shape and see the truth- a short, almost emaciated black figure with jagged fins and dripping fangs and glowing, pupilless blue eyes.

Of course I knew him quite well. His name was Napping Cicada, possibly the least ambitious and most annoying member of Canterlot’s branch of the Court of Shapes. Unlike thestrals, changelings didn’t suck blood-

Changeling! But- well, I suppose the author hadn’t heard about the overthrow of Chrysalis and King Thorax’s reforms-

Not. Now.

“Cicada,” I said, nodding greeting to the disguised vampire. “Still finding enough young and innocent noble maidens to debauch?”

“Hardly innocent nor maidens, Harriet,” Cicada drawled, trotting up to the bar. “But none of them have cause to complain of me, which is more than certain useless princes can say.”

“Give them a glimpse of the real you, and see if you can still say that,” I muttered.

“Oh, my sweet, naive Harriet,” Cicada said, “what makes you think I haven’t?” His smile grew a little wider as he said, “There was one time a month ago when my dinner partner for the evening refused, absolutely refused to complete the evening with me until I took her halfway down the mountain and tied her to the railroad tracks.” The bug-turned-unicorn’s smiling teeth took on a hint of fangness as he added, “She even brought her own rope.”

“Beggin’ your pardon, sir,” Thornbush said sternly, “but time is gettin’ on.” He pulled a piece of paper out of his coat pocket and said, “I am here as proxy for the Archive, referee an’ final arbiter of this duel between the challenger, Duke Doctor Little Nettle of the Nightmare Court an’ Harriet Daresden, wizard of the White Council. Both factions bein’ signatories to the Accords an’ havin’ agreed to their conditions and terms, any violations of said conditions and terms, as laid out in the Accords and agreed to through their seconds, shall result in forfeit of the duel and such condign punishment as the arbiter shall see fit to mete out. Is this understood?” After a round of agreement, he finished, “Please introduce your seconds.”

I stepped forward and said, “Winter Wisdom, Knight of the Quill.”

Little Nettle frowned a bit. “My friend from the Court of Shapes, Mr. Cicada.”

Winter Wisdom bowed his head, and Cicada bent one knee in the perfect fashion of the Canterlot upper class which were his usual company and prey.

“Then gents, if th’ seconds will step aside with me, we shall negotiate the terms of the duel.” Thornbush’s glare was entirely for Little Nettle, despite his role as a theoretically impartial judge, as he said, “Trusting that th’ principals will not violate th’ Accords by seekin’ a showdown here an’ now.”

Thornbush, Cicada and Wisdom walked off to a table in the back corner of the tavern, while I turned back to the bar to finish my cider. Nettle sat on a stool a couple of spaces apart from mine, and Mac put a glass in front of him and named a price- a lot lower than the one he’d quoted for Wisdom.

To my surprise, it wasn’t blood. It was a cider mug- identical to mine. Nettle took a sip, nodded, and said, “Quite good. We don’t get this quality in Mexicolt.”

Mac grunted, then looked at me, and I nodded, pushing my mug over for a refill.

“I’ll cover it,” Nettle said, dropping a small coin bag on the counter.

“I have a tab here,” I said quietly.

“Then you may have a smaller tab,” Nettle said calmly.

Mac shrugged, took the cloth purse in his teeth, then pulled my refill.

“Why?” I asked.

“Life is short,” Nettle said quietly. “Even to an immortal, life seems short. There should be more to it than mere survival.”

“Then why have this duel?” I asked. “For that matter, why a war? I made it clear I was fighting on my behalf alone- mine and Hot Lead’s. I risked my life for his, and I won. Why does it have to go on beyond that?”

“My precise thoughts,” Nettle agreed. “I find this war most wasteful. But the fact remains that, whatever you said, you gained access to our home as both an invited guest and as a representative of the White Council. You committed a gross violation of the rules of hospitality by entering under false pretense, prepared to kill several of the Court. In so doing you made it impossible for many of us to trust the word of a pony wizard. At least not until some measure of vengeance is had.”

“I did what I had to do.”

“I understand,” Nettle said. “And now I am here to do what I must do, to achieve justice for my people. There must be blood for blood, Harriet. That is the oldest law of the Courts- my Courts, I mean.”

“It won’t bring them back,” I said.

“No. But your blood may stop dozens of others, of mine and yours alike, joining them.”

I grunted. That was about as I expected. But, well, I’d tried.

That wasn’t enough for Twilight Sparkle, though, and she took over so smoothly I never even felt the transition. “There has to be some other way of settling this,” she said. “Without any more ponies dying on either side.”

Nettle raised a dark eyebrow. “Possibly there is,” he said quietly. “You cannot restore Lord Blanco, this is true. But… you might replace him.”

I felt my stomach turn a couple flips as Twilight, Hornsparker and I all realized exactly what that meant. “Become one of you,” Twilight said carefully. “The same thing you tried to do to Hot Lead.”

“What we succeeded in doing,” Nettle corrected Twilight. “Sooner or later he will join us. The instinct cannot be suppressed forever. And the sooner he ceases to resist, the easier his life will become. It is not so different, once you make a few adjustments.”

I took control back- not difficult, since Twilight was busy keeping my body from bringing up a stomach full of half-digested pizza and cider. “And what kind of adjustments do the ordinary ponies have to make?” I asked. “You feed on the villagers down in the Forbidden Jungles, as I understand it.”

“I tend my livestock,” Nettle said, rephrasing it. “I provide justice. I see to it they have medicine, food, housing, protection from the monsters of the Jungles.”

“All but one.”

Nettle couldn’t rephrase that one. “All but one,” he nodded. “Or possibly three.”

“Not interested,” I said. “I swore an oath to fight the things that would prey on innocent ponies, Nettle. Maybe I’m not as good at upholding it as I should be. But I darn well won’t betray it completely.”

Nettle shrugged. “I advise you to consider my offer,” he said. “It is all that I can offer, aside from a gentle death.”

“We have nothing further to discuss,” I said, and pushed my full cider tankard away, untasted. “I’ll be outside if anypony wants me.”

A couple minutes after I stepped out into the chilly fog, Nettle came out too. He didn’t speak to me, or even look at me. He just spread his wings, jumped, and was gone.

A few moments after that the others came out, too. “If you’ll excuse me, cap- er, Miss Daresden,” Thornbush said. He shrugged his greatcoat up a little higher around his neck, hunched his head down, and walked off into the fog, his rolling gait quickly swallowed up by the diffuse light from the streetlamps.

Cicada sidled up to me. “So, Harriet,” he said in his usual light-hearted tone, “aside from this, how has your life been recently? Not dull, I trust?”

“Why don’t you guess?” I asked.

“Why, Harriet, I’ve been doing nothing else but. Like, for example, guessing why a very sneaky but somewhat underinformed pony is now in my queen’s parlor providing nourishment to the next generation of grubs.”

“Because you put him there.”

“I prefer to think that he put himself there,” Cicada said, for the first time giving his voice a bit of hardness. “By making the mistake of following me around for a full day with an array of instruments which would have seriously interfered with my plans for the rest of the week.” He clicked his tongue in annoyance and added, “Not that my queen, praised be her name, didn’t take care of that when she saddled me with this job.”

Chrysalis did what??

Who’s Chrysalis? “So she’s the reason you’re here?” I asked aloud.

“After a manner of speaking,” Cicada said. “Little Nettle showed up and asked for a second as a gesture of solidarity between the Courts against the upstart ponies- you know how that goes. And my queen, naturally, chose a pony perfectly suited for the task.”

“I’ll bet,” I said. “So, do I get advance notice before you backstab him?”

“Oh, Harriet, you misunderstand,” Cicada said. “My role is merely to demonstrate to the most minute degree the exact length of solidarity between a group of murderous blood-drinking monsters and the elegance of a truly civilized Court. Unfortunately, that length is not a zero quantity, so I am in fact obliged to act faithfully within the limits of the Accords.” His smile mostly faded as he finished, “Within those limits, and not so much as a wing’s thickness farther.”

“Uh-huh. Swell.”

Now Cicada’s smile faded completely. “Be careful, Harriet,” he said. “Nettle is a stone killer. The main reason my queen didn’t tell him to trot off a cliff is that he scares even her. He wants you dead. And he’s got an unbroken track record of getting what he wants.”

“He’s not the first,” I said simply.

“Just so he’s not the last,” Cicada said. “Good luck, if that’s not a violation of the Accords to say.” With that, he too walked into the fog. Just as his body was lost in the gloom, I caught a flash of green fire, and then nothing.

“Unusual friends you have, Miss Daresden,” Winter Wisdom said, no sound of judgment in his voice.

“I lead an unusual life,” I said.

“Most ponies do.” Winter Wisdom took a deep breath. “The duel shall be tomorrow at half past sunset on the athletic fields of Celestia’s School. The mode shall be willpower.”

“I think I can handle that.”

“For all our sakes, I hope you can,” Winter said. “In the meantime, shall I walk you to the Mareiott?”

A carriage pulled by a single earth pony wearing a black jacket and peaked cap rattled out of the fog. Hot Lead’s head poked out of a window.

“No need,” I said quietly. “Looks like my ride got here.” My ride, that was, to the second of my appointments for the evening…

DEATH BRIDLE Chapter 14: Dat Appointment

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This dress, Twilight thought, is crap. My friend Rarity makes better than this for use by chimney sweeps.

I agree, Hornsparker grumbled. We can barely move in this thing. When our enemies appear- not if, when- we shall be gravely handicapped.

Will you two quit complaining? I thought as I smiled and nodded at the wealthy ponies and their hangers-on who surrounded me… us… whatever. What do you expect out of a rental? Besides, we wouldn’t have got in the door without this show-pony gear.

That was nothing but truth. The rented dress, plus two press passes provided by Hot Lead’s ex-editor as a sort of goodbye present, had got me through a pair of giant brass-inlaid doors which would otherwise have cost five thousand bits minimum for the fundraiser dinner and auction for the Canterlot Society of Art and Antiquities. The president of said society, by no coincidence whatever, is Johnny Respectable. We’d missed the dinner, but there were little sandwiches and drinks to tide over the well-bred and well-funded of Equestrian high society until the art and antique auction, which began at 11 PM.

Leedie had arranged it all. He’d been the one to find out which Platinum Hall had a relevant event going on (the one in the Mareiott Canterlot, the highest-end hotel in town short of Celestia’s guest suites). He’d organized the carriage, the rental tux and gown, the press passes. And he’d turned up to tell me all about it less than a minute after Winter Wisdom had come back to my apartment to tell me about the meeting with Little Nettle.

Celestia, I wanted to marry him. I wanted to have his foals and fillies.

I’ve had foals. It’s overrated.

Shush. Mind on task, girls. We still don’t know exactly when the transfer is supposed to be, or where. They’re certainly not going to do it here in the ballroom…

I suppressed my mental sighs. A pony in love should never be forced to share her head with a cynic and an aromantic.

We can still hear you narrating, you know! By the way, those cucumber sandwiches don’t last very long.

I snagged another cluster of nibbles from the buffet… and nearly dropped them when I turned around to face Johnny Respectable himself, in the flesh. One wouldn’t expect the undisputed lord of organized crime in Canterlot to be an earth pony, and I still didn’t know the details of how he pulled it off. I did know how he stayed there, though- by being more ruthless and deadly than the worst predators the wilds of Equestria had to offer. But here he was, looking like a delivery pony in a custom-tailored suit, the only pony in the entire room without either a smile or a sneer on his face. He was the only one in the room who didn’t feel any need to do either.

I understood exactly where his confidence came from. I’d seen his soul, and he’d seen mine. I don’t know what he saw in me, but what I saw was a manticore in a cage with a very simple, easily opened latch… with the same forest-green eyes as the brown-coated, black-and-gray maned stallion in front of me. And, outside the soulgaze, I’d seen what his inner manticore could do against enemies who ought to have had magicless mortals as appetizers before moving on to roast wizard for the main course.

I remember reading that story, Twilight thought. It was a lot less frightening when it was only words on a page.

I considered that, and found myself wishing that Johnny was only words on a page to me, too. But here he was, nodding at me and saying, “Well, Miss Daresden. How fascinating that you choose to dare this den tonight. Not your usual choice of dangers, high society.” He looked at my companion and said, “And Mr. Lead, how pleasant to see you. I understood you were no longer in town.”

“This is something of a farewell fling,” Leedie said. “I’m wrapping up my affairs before going on an extended assignment overseas.”

“Ah. My condolences, then. I know Miss Daresden will miss you greatly.” This pleasantry aside, Johnny turned his attention back on me. “But might I say, this is a rather peculiar choice for a farewell soiree. I never took you for a patron of the arts, Miss Daresden.”

“As it happens, I’m a specialist,” I said. “I only have an interest in sketches.”

Johnny Respectable’s eyes bored into mine. He could do that; we’d done the soulgaze thing, which under normal circumstances you can only do once. “I’m afraid the only sketches available tonight would be well beyond your ability to pay, Miss Daresden,” he said. “I recommend you set your sights elsewhere. I could make a few recommendations.”

“I’m sure you could,” I replied. “Like the recommendations Maddog and your goons tried to deliver to me at spearpoint yesterday afternoon.”

And for an instant- just for an instant, so quickly a professional poker player might not have seen it- Johnny Respectable looked confused. Even I might not have noticed it if he hadn’t followed up with the kind of faked-genuine smiles you see on businessponies throughout the city and beyond. Johnny saved that for the cameras. He never wasted it on me.

He didn’t know what you were talking about! Twilight shouted. He didn’t send the goons after you!

Johnny reached a hoof up and patted me on the head. I hated when ponies did that. “Miss Daresden, you must be confused,” he said. “I haven’t a clue who you encountered, but rest assured I do not let my employees accost innocent ponies in public. I am a civic-minded business-pony, after all.”

And then Maddog himself was behind Johnny Respectable, towering over him. Next to him stood a striking unicorn, solid white except for her pale blonde mane, built much like a certain Fancy supermodel if said supermodel had wiry muscle on the whip-thin body. As big as Maddog was, the blonde unicorn matched his height, though obviously not his mass. And as deadly as I knew Maddog to be, something about his escort made me think she was by far the greater threat.

“Ah, here’s the pony in question now,” Johnny said. “As you can see, not wandering the streets looking for purple unicorns to waylay.”

“Nossir,” rumbled Maddog, his eyes never leaving me. I tried not to look at him too long, myself; I hadn’t seen his soul, nor had I any reason or desire to do so.

“And his companion is Pale Sky,” Johnny continued. “She’s a recent addition to my staff.”

“A consultant only,” Pale Sky said, with a voice that reminded me vaguely of the far north. “I am an expert in personal security. Magical and otherwise.”

“Ah,” I said, putting two and two together. “I’ve heard of your work, secondhoof.”

“I trust your informant advised you against any unwise attempts at a more personal probe,” Pale Sky continued. “Now or later.”

“Yes,” Johnny said quietly. “We don’t want to cause a fuss, after all. If you have some other issue you feel you must bring up, well, my office is always open to you with an appointment, as you know. If you’ll pardon me…”

I sized up my options. Maddog I could take out in ten seconds, if I didn’t mind declaring open war on Johnny Respectable here and now. Pale Sky was an unknown quantity to me, but my instincts screamed at me that I’d have the fight of my life on my hooves if I tried it. And then there was Johnny himself, who despite being something like half Maddog’s size was easily twice as deadly… and who could never accept defeat. Put the three of them together in one place-

You’re going to back down!

Well, yes, I thought. I don’t have leverage here. He’s got all the cards, and-

We don’t have time for these stupid mind games! Twilight insisted.

I can’t make him answer questions here in public, with his two strongest bodyguards right here!

Then move over!

I felt Twilight shove her way between my mind and my body, taking control.

Right. Now, I believe your soulgaze spell works like… this!

And before I knew it, I found my awareness, and Twilight’s, falling through those deadly green eyes…

… and I saw something the same, yet totally different, from the first time I’d stared that deep into the eyes of Johnny Respectable. Last time I’d seen a beast, barely caged but always ready to leap out at the unwary. This time…

… well, I should point out that no two White Council wizards perceive things the same way in soulgazes. Each pony’s mechanism for turning what they see into something the mortal pony brain can understand is different. Mine tends to be metaphors, some of which are direct, but others are so obtuse as to be useless for anything other than determining if a pony is good or evil in the broadest possible terms.

What I saw now, I realized instantly, was more or less the same underlying reality as what I’d seen in Johnny the first time, but interpreted through the magical talent of Twilight Sparkle. The manticore was gone, and so was Johnny’s business suit. In its place was fur and leather armor from the tales of the Gard, ages ago… fur, leather, and one heck of a lot of blood. Pony skulls, also covered in blood, surrounded him in mountainous piles. He gripped the hilt of a sword in his teeth, guarding against attack at the moment, but obviously ready to strike if necessary.

But…

… in my first vision, there had been a shadow behind the manticore, something deep and dark that Johnny wanted kept hidden from the world. Here, Johnny’s left foreleg had a buckler shield belted to it, and he held it not in front of himself, but over something on the ground, something shadowy…

My eyes blinked, and I saw a wall of white. They blinked again, and the wall became a white-furred pony leg. “Please step back from Mr. Respectable,” Pale Sky said, a soft but dangerous tone blending into that far-northern accent.

Twilight stepped my body back one step. “Mr. Respectable?” she asked. “Are you all right?”

Johnny was shaking his head. “I thought…” he gasped, and then he began again in a firmer voice. “I thought you said you couldn’t do that again.”

“I’m sorry,” Twilight said with my voice. “And I’m also sorry for wrongly accusing you of attacking- sorry, of ordering an attack on me. I was wrong.” All of that was in a meek voice that sounded nothing like mine. And when she continued, again she sounded nothing like me- but in a totally different direction. Instead of making me sound like a little filly, she now made me sound like… well, like Princess Celestia. “But we need to talk about a lot of things. In private. Right now.”

“I agree,” Johnny said instantly. “For one thing…” He whispered the question, “Why are there three of you right now?”

I don’t know if I’m grateful to be noticed, Hornsparker muttered next to me in my head, or if I preferred being beneath this blaggard’s notice.

“Mr. Respectable,” Maddog said quietly, “I believe that would be a very bad idea just now.”

“Bring your bodyguards along,” Twilight said quickly. “I presume that, since they are on the premises tonight, they know your plans. For my part, I will swear on my power that I will not attack you, will not attempt to coerce you or magically influence you or your employees in any way during our meeting.” She leaned forward, carefully looking at his muzzle rather than his eyes, and said, “But it is urgent that we talk candidly. We don’t have any time to spare.”

“And what about Mr. Lead?” Maddog asked.

I personally wanted to keep Leedie next to me. Leaving aside his enhanced strength and other talents from being halfway to becoming a thestral, this was likely my last night ever with him. And he would want to stay by me. But Twilight said quickly, “If he bothers you, he can stay here and mingle. But I am serious about there not being any time!

“Let them both- wait.” Johnny looked at me. “Does Mr. Lead know about…” He tapped his head meaningfully.

“I’ve heard Harriet picks up hitchhikers from time to time,” Leedie drawled.

Johnny nodded. “All right, then both of you,” he said. “The green room should be empty at the moment.”



Twilight found it hard to tear my eyes off the green room’s food table, which was a smaller rendition of the larger snack selection out in the main hall. But aside from swallowing a little extra drool, the little chowhound focused on Johnny, who was looking at her with a confusion he no longer bothered to conceal.

“Okay,” she said. “I’m in a hurry, but I need to get one thing out of the way immediately. And I absolutely need an honest answer on this.” She took a deep breath and said, “I don’t need to know exactly what you want to do with the Sketchbook of Tiveen. I’m curious, but it’s not important right now. But I need to know, in a general sense… do you intend to use the Sketchbook to expand your personal power or your criminal empire? I can work with either yes or no, but-“

“Please.” Johnny held up a hoof. “Let’s cut this short. I am fully aware of the legends behind the Sketchbook. I intend to use it for one thing and one thing only. I intend to risk no pony except myself in the attempt. And I swear that, if the attempt is successful, no harm will come to any pony except possibly myself. This is an entirely personal matter- not business.”

“Okay.” Twilight nodded. “Then let’s begin by this. I- Harriet Daresden-“

“You’re not Daresden,” Johnny said. “I know how Harriet Daresden talks, and you’re not her. There’s three ponies in there. I saw three of you. You all look more or less alike, but there’s three of you. One had her back turned, so I couldn’t see anything beyond what looked like an old naval jacket. And I saw Harriet, looking… well, looking like before.

“And then I saw you. At least, I assume it was the being I’m talking to now. And what I saw of you is why we’re having this conversation- and why I made that promise just now.” Johnny’s eyes tracked towards the ceiling- anywhere but at me. When he spoke again, it was in a soft, almost sing-song tone of voice. “You looked like Harriet as a little filly- soft, innocent, totally guileless,” he said. “But there was this enormous shadow behind you, and it had both wings and a horn. And there were five bright stars in the shadow and a host of smaller ones.”

“Are you okay, Mr. Respectable?” Maddog asked, sounding honestly concerned for his boss’s mental health.

“He’s fine,” Pale Skies said. “He’s seen the soul of Harriet Daresden. Or should I say souls?” She looked at me, but not close enough to trigger a soulgaze of her own. “And that last one sounds like the kind of psychic passenger I would prefer not to challenge.”

Johnny looked at the tall, slender unicorn. “But what do you see with your own talents?” he asked.

“Two deaths,” Pale Skies said simply. “But not three, which confuses me. And there is something else… like a single outstretched wing of fire. I do not understand it.”

Johnny grunted. “Unimportant. In any case, might I be introduced? I presume Daresden told you other two about me.” A small, but genuine, smirk crept onto his lips. “Totally slanderous, I don’t doubt.”

“Actually, I- no, that would be too hard to explain,” Twilight said. “Anyway, Harriet is in here. It was her talking to you until I cast the soulgaze on you. The one with her back turned in your vision was Captain Hornsparker. She hasn’t got much magical talent, so she can’t do the soulgaze.”

“Hornsparker?” Johnny asked. “You mean like in the movie with Stiff Lip?”

“I don’t know, I haven’t seen the movie,” Twilight said. “But both she and Harriet are, well, versions of me. Me if I’d been born into a world of war at sea, or a world of supernatural invaders and secret defenders. My name is Princess Twilight Sparkle, and thanks to a spell I mis-cast, I seem to be dropping into one st- one world after another, in one role after another.”

And dragging innocent ponies along for the ride, Hornsparker thought bitterly. Let’s not forget that.

“I think I see,” Johnny said. “When you say princess, you mean alicorn princess, don’t you? Like Celestia?”

“In my world I was Celestia’s chosen student,” Twilight continued. “I became bearer of the Element of Magic. I’ve fought Nightmare Moon, Queen Chrysalis of the changelings, King Sombra of the Crystal Empire, Tirek the Devourer, and a number of other threats to Equestria.” I felt my face flush as she finished, “The thing is, all that means is, when I mess up, I mess up big.

“Is this why you needed to talk to me?” Johnny asked. “Did you mess up my deal?”

“No,” Twilight said. “The problem is, Harriet sees practically everyone, except for a very short list of ponies, as a potential enemy. You included.”

“Well, of course,” Johnny said. “That’s common sense in Miss Daresden’s line of work. I’ve often thought she was foolish. But stupid? Never.”

“I don’t agree,” Twilight said. “Harriet is afraid of you. She sees you as an obstacle… when she should have seen you as a potential ally.” She stamped one of my forehooves on the floor as she added, “An ally against the other people who are after the Sketchbook.”

“Other people?” Johnny asked. “By which you mean, not your client, or not ponies?”

“Both,” Twilight said firmly. She turned to Pale Skies and said, “What do you know about the Fallen?”

Pale Skies’ eyebrows went up, but that was pretty much the limit of her reaction. “Fallen?” she repeated. “I probably know more about them than you do, little princess. Or Miss Daresden.”

“Good. Then you know about the Order of the True Canon.”

Pale Skies nodded cautiously. “Indeed I do.” She looked at Johnny and said, “I cannot guarantee your safety if they are involved, Mr. Respectable. But I shall make my best effort to protect you.”

“Bad news, are they?” Johnny asked.

“We are talking of beings,” Pale Skies said with no change of tone, “who implemented the wishes of the creator of the world, and then turned against that creation. Normally these beings are prevented by their former colleagues from direct action. These have found a loophole in the rules, allowing them to use perhaps a tithe of their true powers.” A single eyebrow rose as she finished, “Would you consider a tithe of the power that shapes worlds to be ‘bad news’? When it’s aimed at you?”

“Understood.” Johnny looked at me- at Twilight- and said, “What do you propose?”

“Above all else, the Sketchbook can’t be allowed to fall into the hooves of the True Canon,” Twilight said. “They probably know it’s going to be here tonight. That means we need to get it away from here as soon as possible.” She stepped forward again, into the center of the little room, and said, “Here’s my deal. After you’ve done what you need to with the Sketchbook, however it turns out, it goes back to the Church of Faust. But in the meantime, not only do I stop interfering, I will do everything in my power to get it into your hands and keep it there. In exchange I want your full cooperation and assistance. Can you do that?”

Johnny considered this. “There’s one minor problem,” he said at last. “Since we’re laying everything on the table tonight… you were wrong about me ordering Mr. Maddog and his assistants to attack you.”

“That was Harriet saying that,” Twilight said. “But I kinda thought the same thing at the time, so, um… yeah. Sorry.”

Twilight might be sorry. I wasn’t. It was the obvious assumption to make.

“Did none of the three of you consider who Mr. Maddog was actually sent to, shall we say, discourage?” Johnny continued.

“We’ve been kind of busy!” Twilight snapped.

I haven’t, Hornsparker thought at us. And the answer is obvious on reflection.

“My associates in Roam, the ones who I used to contact the Pastel Rats, informed me of the death of one of their number,” Johnny said quietly. “They also informed me that the priest sent by the Church of Faust to investigate the affair had been replaced by an impostor of some sort at about the same time. I secured a description of the impostor and, thinking him a rival for the same goal, ordered my subordinates to be on the lookout for him.” Johnny looked straight into my eyes and said, “Your client is a phony, Miss Daresden.”

“Oh, crap,” Twilight muttered. “Crap, crap, crap, crap.”

Well, I thought, so much for getting paid on this job.

DEATH BRIDLE Chapter 15: The Best Laid Plans of Pups and Ponies

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Finding the Sketchbook in the Mareiott- either in its five above-ground floors or its multiple basements carved into the rock of Mt. Canter- would have required me to get a piece of either the Sketchbook or something that had been close to it for a long time, a lot of effort, and quick reaction times, since the spell would burn out in a couple of minutes, tops.

Twilight Sparkle said something about finding gems, did a week’s worth of advanced array work in her head- my head- in a couple of seconds, cast the spell, and sustained it without any apparent effort. It didn’t even interrupt her continuous explanation of all my personal problems du jour to Johnny Respectable, as much as I wished it would.

“So what happens if you lose the duel?” Johnny was asking as our little group- the three of me, Leedie, Johnny, Maddog and Pale Skies- worked our way through the service corridors of the luxury hotel.

“Well, for one thing,” Twilight said, waving her horn back and forth a moment before taking a right turn, “Harriet won’t have to worry about getting stiffed by her client.”

“Not funny,” said Leedie. I couldn’t have agreed more. Cracks like that are only funny when I’m the one using them.

“Sorry,” Twilight muttered, then continued, “Assuming the world doesn’t just cease to exist… um…” Twilight fumbled for some way to avoid mentioning fictional realities to people who definitely wouldn’t appreciate it. “… you know, because Harriet thinks she’s the center of the universe, you know…”

Thanks ever so, I thought, noting the amused grunt that had escaped from Johnny at that line.

“… well, the Nightmare Court might make peace with the White Council… or they might not. They might go back to their strongholds in the Forbidden Jungle… or they might set up permanent shop here in Canterlot. It kind of depends on how well you trust a bloodsucking monster.”

“You don’t appear to have a problem with it at the moment,” Johnny said. “The stairs are over here, by the way.”

Twilight turned us around and went through the door Johnny had indicated. “Trust me, Mr. Respectable,” she said, “You don’t begin to qualify as a monster. And your bloodsucking is only a metaphor.” She sighed and, without realizing she was still flapping my jaw, she continued, “In this story you were written to demonstrate that ruthless and criminal doesn’t equal evil.”

“That’s an interesting philosophy,” Johnny admitted. “It goes quite well with the Sketchbook. And what role does Faust have for you, otherworldly visitor?”

“Poorly conceived plot complication,” Twilight growled, turning us around the landing into the sub-subbasement. “Possibly edited out in the final draft.”

“Now that sounds more like Miss Daresden,” Johnny said. “But I was asking about more immediate consequences to our mutual-“

Twilight held up a hoof for silence. “We’re getting close,” she whispered.

At this point I could feel it too, even as far back in my head as Twilight had pushed me. My horn felt like it was literally being tugged by the Sketchbook-

I assume it’s the Sketchbook. I’m homing in on the strongest source of harmony magic in the area. But so long as Celestia doesn’t enter the building, I think it’s a good bet.

The tug pulled me ahead and to the left- no longer downwards, meaning the target was level with us. We’d come three levels below the ground floor, below the employee lockers and the kitchens. The doors around us led to storage rooms, nothing more. A second set of stairs, identical to the ones we’d come down by, rose back upwards at the far end of the hall.

Twilight stopped my body at one door. She pointed silently to it, then waved everyone else on to the end of the hallway. Once we’d all gathered there, she said, “Anastasia’s going to be very scared. She’s lost all her friends. She’s got no one she can trust. If we go in as a group, she might panic.”

Johnny nodded. “Mr. Lead, Mr. Maddog, remain here. Cover this hallway unobtrusively. If the seller leaves, let her go. Do not follow unless Miss Daresden or myself orders it.”

“Yessir, Mr. Respectable,” Maddog rumbled. Leedie followed him, looking at me with a mixture of concern and offended pride.

Twilight looked at Pale Skies and said, “It’d probably be better if you went with them.”

Pale Skies shook her head. “My contract is to protect Mr. Respectable,” she said. “And with death hanging over you, you cannot guarantee his safety.”

“She’s very good at her work, I’m told,” Johnny said quietly. “Mr. Maddog recommends her highly. Besides,” he continued, “if those demon friends of yours show up, I’d prefer the heavy artillery up front, wouldn’t you?”

The heavy artillery isn’t even here, I thought. It’s gone to Ponyville chasing a blind lead.

“I am curious why the thief selected a cake vault for the transfer,” Pale Skies asked.

“Indeed?” Johnny asked. “I didn’t notice a sign on the door.”

“Carved in stone above it,” Pale Skies said. “Ancient Ponish. Alicorni nunc admiterre, intenditis Celestia.

“I’m not up on my ancient Ponish,” Johnny muttered.

“No alicorns allowed,” Twilight muttered, “We’re looking at you, Celestia.” And, for internal consumption only, And Celestia is not that obsessed with cake! Stupid author!

“I see,” Johnny said, smiling a little smile. “Well, shall we go get some scones, ladies?”

The three of us walked back to the door. Johnny knocked on the door and said clearly, “Ratcatchers.”

A voice called back through the door, “Nobody here but us mice.”

“I’ve come to make the exchange,” Johnny said.

“Come in slowly,” the voice replied. “And alone.”

“I have two bodyguards with me,” Johnny replied, not smiling at all anymore. “They’re coming in.”

“Not if you want the merchandise, they don’t.”

Twilight chose this moment to speak up. “I’m one of the two bodyguards, Anastasia,” she said, doing her best imitation of me. (Which, since she was using my throat for it, wasn’t that bad.) “It’s all right. We’re not going to rob you.”

“Darn skippy you’re not,” the voice said. Then something scraped away from behind the door. A quiet click came from the lock. “Come in,” the voice said. “I’ve got you covered.”

She did indeed. It was only the third time I’d ever seen a blunderbuss. They’re really hard to load and fire if you have hooves instead of fingers or claws, and anyway unicorn magic is generally more effective. The two times I’d seen one before, they’d been long, two-handed jobs- essentially hand-cannons. Anastasia had one in each hand, short ones with big brassy bells, both pointed directly at us.

Like I said, unicorn magic is more effective, but that didn’t make me any happier about having two hand-cannons pointed anywhere near my direction. Pale Skies kept Johnny’s body shielded by her own, and I stepped up beside her, leaving Johnny to sort of poke his head up over our rumps. It wasn’t dignified, but it beat him being up front and personal with lead pellets at high velocity.

I could probably pull those pellets out of the barrel, Twilight thought. Pretty simple spell. But we need Anastasia to trust us, so I’m not doing that yet.

Good, Hornsparker replied. We might need those guns against our mutual enemies. Pistols are much easier to unload than reload.

While the voices in my head were debating that, I managed to regain control of my eyes enough to look somewhere other than those wide barrels. Anastasia herself wasn’t much to look at; the Abyssinian had found a delivery uniform cut for cats somewhere, a jumpsuit with large pockets and a name on the front. The feline eyes moved slowly from one of us to another, wary but not yet panicked, betraying her feelings only by the tear-stains still marring the fur of her face.

The cake vault we stood in hadn’t been used for cakes, or at least for cakes in any completed form, for quite some time. A single lantern lit an array of old barrels and somewhat newer-looking flour sacks. Although the door we came in by was the only entrance now, it hadn’t always been so; a rough-hewn archway in the back had been filed in with bricks ages ago. Etched into the stone above the archway were the words: ACCEPTIT PROVOCACIO. – CELESTIA.

Twilight groaned at this and retook control of my eyeballs, focusing on Anastasia. “The sooner we make the exchange, the sooner you can get away from here and out of danger,” she said. “Where’s the Sketchbook?”

Anastasia pointed to a small flour sack sitting on top of several larger ones. “It’s in there,” she said. She held up a small metal box with two switches on it. “There’s an explosive attached to it. One flip of a switch and bye-bye, Sketchbook. Try to mess with the bomb and it goes off, unless I flip this other switch. And if I don’t flip this other switch in the next, oh…” She looked at a wristwatch, nodded, and continued, “about ninety minutes, it goes off anyway. Think of it as my insurance policy.”

“That wasn’t in the deal,” Johnny grumbled. I’d heard that tone of voice before; it usually meant someone had just unwittingly made a date with one of Maddog’s associates.

“Neither was both my partners dying on this job,” Anastasia pointed out. “That goes on the expense account. My final bill is two and a half million bits.” She made a tight circle with one pistol to indicate the three of us. “I know you’re not carrying that, and I couldn’t carry it anyway. So- where is it?”

“The deal,” Johnny said in that same tone of voice, “was for one million bits flat.”

“Mr. Respectable,” Twilight said, “we’re short on time, and she has a point. The Pastel Rats did their job. Two of them died in your service. Pay up.”

Twilight glanced back at Johnny to get confirmation just long enough for me to see him with a single raised eyebrow. That didn’t surprise me, but the half-smile on his lips did. “As she said… Miss Daresden…” He drawled my name out to make it clear he knew it wasn’t me talking. “I don’t carry that kind of money on me.”

“You made arrangements,” Twilight said bluntly. “You knew there would be a renegotiation like this. And you always plan ahead for any contingency.”

“Any contingency I can imagine,” Johnny corrected. He reached into his suit jacket and pulled three tokens from an inside pocket. “These three chips are worth one million bits each at a certain establishment in Los Pegasus,” he said. “Keep the change.”

Anastasia nodded. “Set them down on that barrel. Over there.”

Pale Skies levitated the casino chips over to the designated barrel, and Anastasia cautiously worked her way around to it, keeping one blunderbuss on us at all times. She gave the chips a quick look, then used the other blunderbuss to flick them neatly as you please- one, two, three- into a hip pocket on her coveralls.

“All right,” she said, waving the blunderbuss at the flour sack. “It’s all yours. Once I’ve got a decent head start, I’ll disarm the bomb.”

“How will we know it’s disarmed?” Johnny asked.

“Well, if you open it and it explodes,” Anastasia said, “you’ll know you opened it too soon.”

“Funny. That’s a funny joke,” said Johnny, not sounding in the least amused.

“I think it’s hilarious,” Anastasia said. “And I’ll laugh once I’m well out of Canterlot and out of danger-“

Pieces of brick went flying, a couple of them smacking me in the face. The lone lantern swung on its hook, making the shadows in the room dance back and forth. Anastasia staggered, leaning against the barrel to keep from falling.

Pale Skies’ horn lit up, and the air cleared of dust to reveal three shadows in that archway- the archway they’d just blown in. I recognized one of them at once- my razor-maned friend from the airship, Helpmeet. Her manic grin shone in the light of Pale Skies’ magic even brighter than her steel hair.

The second figure was… a hydra, if a hydra ever shrank in the wash. It was green with large, sharp-looking scales, its core body about the same size as a pony, with four long serpentine necks writhing around to give its heads a look at anything and everything.

And standing between them was a pony-shaped shadow that no amount of lantern light or magic glow could clear away. Its eyes and teeth glowed from within as it smiled at us. “Out of danger,” the shadow pony said. “As if there were any such thing for those not born of Faust.”

I hadn’t heard whatever explosion had opened up the old passageway, but I distinctly heard the twin bangs of Anastasia’s hand-pistols. The shadow pony grunted, and I saw two swirls appear in the shadow right in the chest. I even saw a bit of blood drip from the wound before it closed up.

“Felt that,” the shadow grunted. “Ah, well, I wasn’t expecting a peaceful resolution here anyway.” He gestured a hoof in my direction. “I want Miss Daresden taken alive and the Sketchbook intact,” he said. “Kill all the rest.”

The hydra’s eight eyes narrowed, and the crazy-razor mare grinned even more than before.

Hooves rang from behind us. “Mr. Respectable! We’re coming!”

“Harriet! Are you all right?”

I felt two more bodies pressing up behind me- Leedie and Maddog piling into the room. Their arrival seemed to make the Fallen hesitate, which would have been just fine by me except for the pony I love getting closer to, instead of farther away from, the futile last stand shaping up before me.

“Everypony get close!” Twilight shouted, and I felt my magic lash out to yank Anastasia and the Sketchbook next to us. A moment later I felt magic powering up for the same spell Twilight had used in the alleyway… yesterday? The day before? It felt more like a year-

Stop narrating and let me concen-AGGHH!

The spell flared, something went bang, and suddenly I had control of my body again. Swell. If it hadn’t been for the clouds of black smoke making me cough my head off, the major depletion in my magic reserves, and the three demons watching us with bemusement, I might actually have been happy about that.

“You know,” the shadow pony said, “this hotel has a most fascinating history, if one is interested in the twisted imaginings of the false creators. There was a feud for years between the chef of the hotel and Princess Celestia, who kept sneaking bites of cake out of this very vault. The Mareiott family paid an extravagant sum of money to have alicorn-strength anti-teleportation spells embedded into the walls. Thus Celestia was forced to create this most convenient tunnel through the ancient crystal mines. She couldn’t teleport in…” The shadow pony’s teeth shone in the smoke-clouded room. “And you can’t teleport out.”

“Leedie, get out of here!” I shouted. “Try to get us backup!”

“You too, Mr. Maddog!” Johnny shouted. “Get everypony you can! And pass the word to evacuate the hotel!”

“I’m not leaving you, Mr. Respectable!” Maddog shouted back.

“The shadow of death is not on Mr. Respectable,” Pale Skies said calmly. “I will keep him safe. Go and bring reinforcements.”

“’Keep him safe,’” the shadow pony mocked. “My, my, it’s just one challenge after another with you people, isn’t it?”

“Anastasia, go with Leedie,” I said quietly. With a flicker of magic, the little switchbox left the Abyssinian’s hand and floated over to me as I let the thief go. “As for you ponies, the Sketchbook is rigged with an explosive. Take one step closer and I hit the switch. Whatever happens, you’ll never lay your hooves on it.”

A sliver of shadow struck like lightning, wrapping itself around the flour sack still floating in my magic. Something shiny and metal flashed right in front of my face, and then something thin and dark lay writhing on the stone floor for a moment before dissolving and flowing back where it came from. The hoof-sized battle ax continued to float in front of Pale Skies’ face, a half-moon of lethally sharp blade aimed directly at the Fallen.

“I’m getting rather tired of that,” the shadow pony said, shaking a hoof as if to fling off a piece of paper or something. “Anyway, Miss Daresden, you’re bluffing. There’s no explosive in that bag.”

I couldn’t keep from blinking. I couldn’t even stop myself from glaring at Anastasia and shouting, “You said there was a bomb!!”

“I was bluffing!” Anastasia said. “I don’t know anything about explosives! That was Fifi’s department! You wouldn’t catch me within a mile of a bomb!”

“Technically correct,” the shadow pony said. “Incidentally, I seem to recall ordering quite a number of deaths quite some time ago…” He spared a sharp look for each of his companions, the razor-maned filly and the fun-sized hydra alike.

“I have an idea,” Johnny said. “Daresden, you still have that fire magic of yours, right?”

I pulled out my blasting rod. “Sure do.”

“Good!” Johnny leaped over Pale Skies and me, grabbing one of the bigger and older flour sacks in his teeth. With a heave of his head he launched it at the enemy.

Eight strands of razor-hair met it instantly, turning the old bag into a cloud of white.

“NOW!!” Johnny shouted as he jumped right back over us.

I didn’t have a clue what he intended, but-

Oh fire and damnation.

-I aimed the blasting rod and poured everything I had left through it, shouting, “FUEGO!” Flame lanced out of the end, straight into the still-falling cloud of old flour.

Pale Skies’s forcefield covered us maybe three hundredths of a second before the blast wave coming back the other way hit us. The sound was pretty impressive: WHUMPH.

Old, dry flour scattered in the air with lots of oxygen, Twilight’s mental voice explained. Extremely rapid combustion in an enclosed space- in other words-

“EVERYPONY RUN!” I shouted, overriding Twilight’s explanation.

We ran.

The narrow confines of the sub-basements and the stairs leading back up to the surface had forced our little group to get strung out. Maddog, Johnny Respectable and Pale Skies were in the lead, naturally; the bodyguards had to see to Johnny’s safe escape first and foremost. Then came Leedie, who divided his time between guiding Anastasia and looking at me. I was tail-end Charlie, bouncing between stacks of chairs and buffet tables with both my blasting rod and the sack holding the Sketchbook of Tiveen in my magic.

And behind me- right behind me, just past the spreading fire triggered by the explosion- I heard the sound of blades slicing through timbers and stone and the roar of something big, reptilian and pissed.

As we stumbled through the tight service corridors, racing ahead of the flames catching on bags and sheets lying all around us, I suffered through the conversation in my head.

How did you know what was about to happen anyway, Hornsparker?

Every officer in Her Royal Highness’s navy knows the dangers of loose gunpowder! There’s a reason the powder colts wear socks, and it’s not what the horrible stories from the taverns claim! Even the dust in the air in the magazine can ignite from a stray spark! But how did you know?

Well, there was this time Pinkie Pie wanted fireworks for a party, but the store was fresh out, so-

Would you two CUT IT OUT!!

If the universe’s usual perverse sense of humor had been on, that would have been the time for Helpmeet to slash at us with her dreadlocks of doom. But we kept running, up into the actual basement, and into the employee locker area. I caught sight of Pale Skies rounding a corner, heading for the loading dock, no doubt pushing Johnny Respectable in front of her.

And that was when the floor shook and the ceiling caved in on us.

Anastasia and Leedie vanished under what I thought was a blanket of stonework and steel. A smaller avalanche fell behind me, not quite cutting off my escape. I only took a couple of hits from bits of rock, not that I paid it much attention. My mind was focused on the pile of rubble right in front of me.

Then the pile shifted… but just a little.

“Harriet?” Leedie’s voice was muffled, but he sounded all right.

“Leedie!” I lunged at the rock and began lifting at the pile with my magic. Too heavy. “How are you?”

“I caught a girder,” Leedie said. “Being half-thestral helps. But the cat-woman took debris to the head and arm. She’s out cold and bleeding.” Pause. “I can smell it, Harriet, and you don’t want to know what that does to me.”

Yeah. Trapping a helpless, bleeding victim in a tight space with a person who was quite literally one drop of blood away from becoming an amoral pony-killer didn’t rank particularly high on my list of Really Good Ideas. “Just a second!” I shouted.

And then, internally, I said, Twilight, can you do a teleport now?

Move over. Again, I was slipped out of control of my own body with no real effort. I… I don’t know, she thought at me. Our reserves haven’t built back up yet.

Can you send them to Johnny Respectable? I asked. He’s probably right outside. Short distance, right?

Maybe. It’ll probably be easier and safer than digging them out. “Leedie, I’m going to try to teleport you to Mr. Respectable,” she said aloud. “Both of you. I’ll try to follow, okay?”

“Okay,” the stone-muffled voice replied.

Tell her to take Anastasia to Mighty Fortress’s church, I insisted. It’s probably the one safe place in all of Canterlot for her.

“Once you’re outside, take Anastasia to Mighty Fortress’s church,” Twilight repeated in my voice. “I’ll meet you there.”

“You be right behind me, Harriet Daresden,” Hot Lead said, his voice straining. “I mean, right behind.”

“I’ll try,” Twilight said.

“You darn well do it.”

Twilight took a deep breath, and I felt her scrounging for every last scrap of magic in my body. The flour sack holding the Sketchbook dropped to the floor, as did my blasting rod. I felt my horn grow heavy under the strain of assembling the spell… and I wasn’t the one concentrating.

A flash of light flickered through the rubble, and the pile settled a little lower. My knees buckled, and I flopped to the floor, gasping for breath, feeling the lather in my fur.

Can’t do that again anytime soon, Twilight thought. Is there another way out?

Service doors into the hotel proper, I thought. Only way left. I think I saw some behind us.

Twilight pushed me back onto my hooves, bending her head to pick up the Sketchbook’s bag in my teeth. Good enough. Let’s get-

For a moment I saw a tall, thin shadow towering over me. Then something clipped me in the temple, and I collapsed back to the floor.

As the room went dark, I heard a voice say, “Your fourth down conversion attempt failed, Daresden. It’s my ball now.”

DEATH BRIDLE Chapter 16: Breakfast at Tyranny's

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Wake up.

I didn’t particularly want to. I could feel the aches and pain coming from my body, and so far as I was concerned some other mare could deal with them.

Wake up! Fire and damnation, I refuse to let this become habit!

The constant poking and prodding of Hornsparker’s personality brought me to full awareness. My eyes were open, in a manner of speaking, but in my current state that wasn’t the same thing as me seeing anything around me. There was a disconnect between my consciousness and my senses that had become a lot more familiar than I wanted it to be. So who’s driving? I asked.

Sparkle, Hornsparker said. But she’s not responsive. Your body has taken serious damage. I believe she shields us from the worst of the effects.

Possible. Or, alternately, she might have got our bell rung so hard that she couldn’t think straight yet. Either way, I didn’t care to put up with it. I’m taking over, I told Hornsparker. On three… one, two, THREE!

It wasn’t a mental struggle. To put it in a metaphor, instead of pushing against another mare, or even knocking down a tree, it was like pushing a loose stack of building blocks. I slid into the front of the brain so suddenly it surprised me…

… and to extend the metaphor, that’s when I found out the stack of building blocks had been holding up about ten tons of pain and misery. It hit at the same time my senses reconnected to my mind. I squinted my eyes shut, and I would have put my hooves to my head if they hadn’t been tied to the chair I was seated on.

“Ah, Miss Daresden. I was curious how long you were going to remain catatonic.”

I blinked, then squinted at the world around me- my headache making the squint pretty much involuntary. I was seated at what looked like a kitchen table, complete with flower-print tablecloth, while a gray-maned skinny unicorn stallion sat across from me nibbling at eggs and toast. His skinny build, his body language, and his voice identified him as the shadow pony from underneath the Mareiott.

Being tied to a chair at a breakfast table watching my captor eat… well, that more or less made sense, which says a lot about my life in general. But what made the scene surreal was the background.

My host was sitting in front of a solid, shining, flawless wall of ruby.

I looked around- and after the first neck movement I flinched and then looked around a lot more slowly and carefully. I wasn’t in a house or anything of the kind. This was a cave- a cave filled with gigantic gleaming gemstones of all kinds. Torches and lanterns lit the huge chamber bright as day, with occasional reflections sending little glittery needles of light directly into my eyeballs.

“Yes, it does impress at first glance, doesn’t it?” my host chuckled. “Holy Faust had a hoof in its creation, of course. These are the crystal mines under Mt. Canter. As it turns out, there are tunnels leading to dozens of places within Canterlot- including, as you probably guessed, the sub-basements of that hotel.”

Well, now I knew where Twilight had found that giant ruby. But I still didn’t know what an ordinary kitchen table, with a flower-print tablecloth and everything, was doing here. I wasn’t ready to ask, what was I doing here- I was working my way up to that. Anyway I had a pretty good guess.

“Oh, I am quite sorry,” the skinny unicorn added. “I’m afraid I can’t offer the proper hospitality to you. But, given your notorious contrary nature, even with your magic blocked and your hooves tied, I don’t think it quite safe to ask one of our followers to hoof-feed you breakfast.” A slice of toast floated up in his magic, and he spread some jam on it with a knife. “I hope you’ll pardon me if I eat without you?”

I grunted- he hadn’t bothered to gag me, but with the headache, backache, legaches, and so many other aches that the big aches had their own little aches, I didn’t quite feel up to my normal scintillating wit just yet. Instead I took stock of my situation. Suppressor ring on my horn totally sealing off my magic: check. Metal chair under my rump, hooves tied to armrests and chair legs: check and check. Amount of play in my bindings: zilch. Amount of looseness I could create in the ropes around my barrel if I sucked my gut in: just enough to make it all the more uncomfortable when I relaxed again.

Oh- uncomfortable rental dress totally ruined by magical combat, falling ceilings, etc: check, probably returned marked insufficient funds. That made it complete.

The skinny unicorn munched his toast and jam as he watched me, showing every sign of enjoying the show. “Oh, do come now, Miss Daresden, you can put more effort into it than that,” he said after swallowing a bit. “If you’re going to give me entertainment with my breakfast, at least make it good.”

I considered for a moment whether the old coot was trying reverse psychology on me, playing on my contrary nature to get me to stop escaping. Should I then be double-backwards contrary and try harder to get loose?

Be still, Hornsparker grumbled. It doesn’t matter what he wants. I’ve seen half a dozen other ponies go in and out in the past minute, and the one across from us has an actual demon in him. We sit and wait our chance to escape. Which is not now.

Well, that mental nudge helped. Now I wanted to be contrary in both directions at once. With the two urges balanced out, my little-used common sense got the tie-breaking vote. I relaxed in my chair, paused a moment, and then managed to say, “So, why am I not dead, exactly?”

My captor held up a hoof in a wait-till-I-swallow signal, rushed through his latest nibble of toast, and gulped it down. “Ah,” he said once his mouth was clear, “the famous Daresden wit surfaces at last.” He gestured at the table and said, “You are alive because my daughter and I haven’t had our breakfast yet.”

“Good morning, Papa.”

I knew that voice. It belonged to a lime-green pegasus pony. But instead of long strands of sheet metal for a mane, she had a normal looking mane of a somewhat lighter tint of green. And instead of large, armor-like scales, she had an ordinary coat of pony fur. The mutilated cutie mark was still the same, though.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” the older pony said indulgently. “The servants will bring your breakfast in a moment.”

“Oh?” The mare- barely more than a filly, to be honest- pointed a hoof at me. “I thought she was my breakfast.” She faced me and, in the same horrifying tones she’d used on that airship, she added, “I’ve been looking forward to carving her up.”

“Not just yet, dear. We discussed this.” The gray unicorn gestured his daughter into a chair, while a much younger unicorn with a clean, unmutilated plush-cushion cutie mark brought in more toast, jam, and a small bowl of hard-boiled eggs.

“She won’t do it, Papa,” the mare- Helpmeet, that was the name she’d used on the airship- said. “I should just kill her now and save time.” But she dropped into a chair and held out a plate in her forehooves as dear, loving Papa buttered up some toast and then added jam before levitating it over to her.

“Time enough for that later, if necessary.” With the cheerfully homicidal daughter occupied with stuffing toast into her mouth, he continued, “Last night’s events did not precisely lend themselves to introductions. My name is Long Game.”

“Which of you?” I asked.

The unicorn’s smile grew a hair wider. “A fair question,” he admitted. “I was born Long Game, in the kingdom of Unicornia, about fifteen years before the coming of the windigoes.” A shadow loomed up behind him, in spite of all the sparkling light reflecting off of the cave walls. “My partner is known in the pony tongue as Nightshadow. We are the head of the Order of the True Canon, as you likely already knew.”

I hadn’t, mostly because I hadn’t cared. It made sense, though. “I’d say pleased to meet you,” I replied. “Only I’d be lying.”

“I know.” The unicorn gestured to my less than comfortable seat. “Considering your reputation and record for letting nothing stand in the way of your goals, I felt your current condition to be only the most minimal requisite precautions for having a chat with you.”

“All right,” I said. “So let’s chat. I hear they’re predicting the Suns are going to have a good run at the pennant this year. Me, I’m more of an Ursas fan, but-”

“I think we can dispense with the humor. Entertaining as it is.” The smile on Long Game’s face had faded a little, and for the first time he sounded a bit impatient. “As you no doubt know very well, Miss Daresden, I have no reason to leave you alive and a number of most compelling reasons to ensure your quick and thorough demise. My daughter’s personal pique with you is only the least of those.”

“I don’t disagree,” I said. “So I repeat my question from earlier: why am I not dead, exactly?”

Long Game didn’t answer at once. He’d levitated another knife- not the ones he used for the jam or the butter- to take the tip off a hard-boiled egg. Having done that, he used it to peel off the shell, then levitated up a tiny silver spoon and began taking scoopfuls of egg into his mouth. After a couple of bites, he finally deigned to speak. “You are not dead, Miss Daresden,” he said, “because where other ponies might see a ruthless enemy, I see an opportunity. And thus, I am prepared to offer you an alternative.”

A few more tiny scoops of hard-boiled egg went down, and I waited in silence. It didn’t take too long for him to realize I wasn’t going to prompt him. “One of two things is going to happen,” he said at length. His horn flared, and a crumpled-looking piece of paper floated up from a nearby end-table... a paper with one of those indecipherable sigils on it. “There is, as it happens, a vacancy in the Order. I wish to offer it to you, with all the power and benefits you could imagine.”

“I’ll bet,” I said. “And, hypothetically, what happens if I refuse?”

“Then this breakfast gets cut short,” Long Game said. “And Helpmeet does get so cranky when she hasn’t had her fill of strawberry jam of a morning.”

“I thought that’s how it was,” I said.

It took me all of about two seconds to discard the notion of defiance- well, not so much discard as postpone. Defiance is pretty much who I’ve always been. I felt like Tartarus. I had no magic. I was tied up tighter than a wino on the night before the Summer Sun Celebration. Long Game could kill me in half a second anytime he wanted to.

So, given the circumstances, I decided to dip into my (I admit) limited supply of discretion and to play along, stalling for time. (Time for what, I had no idea.) “So what are the advantages of selling my soul to a group of evil fallen angels bent on destroying the world?”

Long Game shook his head sadly. “Miss Daresden, such calumnies,” he said. “You’ll put me off my feed with talk like that.” He began to butter another slice of toast as he continued, “The Order is not evil. Far from it. We represent the ultimate good. We work to set right a universe that was once put wrong. Surely this is the most noble cause imaginable.”

“And the bystanders who have to die for the cause just lack imagination, don’t they?” I asked.

“Oh, don’t be like that,” Long Game said. “Those who Almighty Faust intended should exist will be restored. And who cares about those who were created by other hands?”

“Hooves,” I corrected.

“Hands,” Long Game insisted, and then moved on. “The goal of the Order, you see, is to disrupt this world so intensely that those with the power to intervene will be forced to. Then the world shall be mended, with Faust’s holy vision restored, and all those warped by the lesser creators made whole as if the taint had never existed.” Long Game smiled a gentle smile and added, “And you should desire this more than most, Twilight Twinkle.”

“Twilight Twinkle?”

Twilight Twinkle?? For the first time since I’d come to, Twilight Sparkle’s mental voice came to life.

“Did you never wonder why you constantly find yourself at war against the evils of this twisted world?” Long Game asked. “You were meant to be a major player in Faust’s vision, Miss Daresden. Born to greatness, as it were. Surrounded by a group of loyal friends- Firefly, Surprise, Minty, Apple Blossom- well, I don’t suppose the names would be familiar to you, would they?” The buttered toast waggled in midair as Long Game used it to gesture at me. “But you were born to be a defender of the innocent, Miss Daresden. Until a lesser mind- not even a true Creator!- tampered with this world and turned you into a mere... gumshoe. Almost no friends- just a group of enemies you can occasionally work with. Like Johnny Respectable, for instance.”

Who the hay is Twilight Twinkle??

“Eh, it’s a living,” I said, trying to blow off the hit my worldview had just taken. Twilight Sparkle being in my mind had shaken that almost to pieces, and now the idea that I might have been meant to be-

It’s the author being meta. Or the spell. It’s not real. Don’t listen to him.

“We’ve been observing you from afar for a few years now,” Long Game said. “We were going to approach you eventually, once we estimated you’d had a chance to grow into your proper power. You’re still only using a fraction of it, you know.” He paused for a bite of toast, then continued, “But when our paths crossed regarding the Sketchbook, well, we moved up our timetable. It was, as it were, too good a chance to pass up.”

“I’m flattered,” I said. “But what do I get out of it?”

“Control,” Long Game said, and his smile took on an edge that made me much colder than being in a cave could explain. “You would have the power of the Creators at your hooves. You would no longer be restricted by false oaths and illegitimate rules to merely responding to threats. You could erase them entirely. All the evildoers you’ve spent your career trying and mostly failing to stop? You could just wipe them out. Gone. No more evil. Think of it.”

Another pause for toast, and then he repeated, “Think of it. You would be working not just to restore your rightful identity- your rightful history- but to relieve the world of the fear and pain that Faust never intended to exist. And unlike the common mass of ponykind, you would be present and aware for Faust’s return, when She comes to repair Her creation. You would live for centures, millenia- as long as it takes to see that glorious day.”

“Yeah,” I grunted. “A prisoner in my own body, while a Fallen drives me around like an apple cart.”

“You’ve been listening to the Quills, haven’t you?” Long Game asked. “It is true that the Fallen take advantage of the weaker minds... the ones who think they can cheat Faust’s own.” As he continued to talk, the shadows behind him began moving on their own again. “But for the stronger minds, it is not a battle of wills. It is not a temptation. It is... a partnership.” Something took a bite out of the half-eaten slice of toast in the air. “A purely symbiotic relationship. I gain life, power, and authority; my dear Nightshadow gains direct access to this world, experiences he would otherwise be denied, and the ability to intervene properly without interference from- well, you’ll find out about them soon enough.”

“I’d prefer to find out about them now,” I said. “You know, before they begin hunting for my head or something.”

“Oh, you don’t need to worry about that,” Long Game said blithely. “They’re sworn to non-intervention. So long as there’s a mortal participating in the decision-making process- with a few exceptions- they can’t touch us.”

“Except through the Knights of the Quill,” I pointed out.

“Yessss,” Long Game said, and his smile vanished. “But even then their aid is most indirect. Though still quite annoying. They do find the most inopportune moments to pop up from nowhere.”

“I noticed.”

“Yes, I know you did.” Long Game sighed and bit off half of what remained of his toast. “I’m afraid that if you accept our offer, your friendship with this Mighty Gale will come to a most unfortunate end.”

Yeah, I thought, and same thing if I reject your offer, too. “I kinda guessed that,” I said. “And anybody else who stands against the True Canon?”

“Oh, we’re not bloodthirsty, Miss Daresden-”

“Hmm, blood!” Helpmeet took a messy bite out of her jam-covered toast, then said while chewing, “This would taste so much better with some nice fresh blood, don’t you think, Papa?”

“Papa’s talking, sweetheart,” Long Game said gently. “Please try not to undermine what Papa says the instant he says it, hm?”

“Cute act,” I said. “Okay, so one way or another, anyone opposes you, they go down, even if they were friends. What about the bystanders? The Fallen who chased me a couple nights ago didn’t seem bothered about them. Nor you guys in the tunnels under the Mareiott.”

Long Game shrugged. “The ones who Faust intended will be reborn,” he said. “They will have no memory of this distorted mirror of the proper world. As for the others?” He shrugged again. “They will cease to ever have existed. Painlessly. Totally unaware of ever having existed, never mind the cessation of existence. In either case, what happens to them here and now is of no consequence, not in the long run.”

I began to get my philosophical hooves back under me. The nature of the universe aside, I’d seen megalomaniacs like Long Game several times before. They were the kind of pony who coined the old lie, “the ends justify the means.” They always had some way of claiming they were good ponies, but they also treated anypony who wasn’t them as disposable. As things, not people. And that meant, no matter how much slick patter they could rattle off on command, they were just wrong.

Given the choice between this guy and Johnny Respectable, who recognized people as people (and then had them killed anyway if they were in his way, because that was his business), I’d pick three of Johnny over one of Long Game.

In other words, Twilight muttered, another Xipe Totec.

Indeed, Hornsparker agreed.

But maybe now wasn’t the time to let him know I’d made up my mind- heck, that I’d never even briefly considered the offer. Instead, searching for any topic to continue the conversation, I asked, “So what devil have you put aside for me?”

“Please don’t insult Smarty Pants,” said Long Game, lifting the crumpled note paper again. “She’s so looking forward to joining you. You’ll find her an eager and enthusiastic helper and a very quick study. She’s always looking for ways she can help.”

Smarty Pants??

“Just like me, huh, Papa?” Helpmeet asked, her muzzle still half-covered with red.

I can kinda see it now! There’s the mismatched button eyes, and that might be the suspenders- but how? How did the author know? Is somepony spying on my life back home?

“Not... exactly like you, dear,” Long Game said. “As helpful as you are, you’re not particularly... how to put this... subtle. Smarty Pants is one of the most subtle of the Order.” He sighed, and the shadows behind him seemed to slump and sigh in time with him. “Sadly, also one of the most opinionated. She does have difficulty working with others.” The smile returned to his face as he added, “Which makes her perfect for you, Miss Daresden. You two have so much in common.”

I thought for a second what I could say next, what I could ask. Nothing came to mind. I’d put off the inevitable as long as I could. “That’s too bad,” I said. “But there’s room for only one opinionated mare in this head.” Leaving aside my hitchhikers.

If I could leave I would, you know this.

“I take it that you are declining my offer?” Long Game asked. “You’re passing on the chance to witness the glory of Faust’s return.”

“Yeah, that’s a shame,” I said. “It sounds like a neat trip. But the price of the ticket is too high. Whatever got there wouldn’t be me anymore. It’d be a monster. I know what that kind of monster looks like, and I’d rather kill myself than end up that way.”

“I can help you with that!” Helpmeet offered cheerfully. “I’m SO looking forward to it!”

Long Game didn’t smile. “Is your decision final, Miss Daresden?”

I nodded, careful not to give my headache-ridden skull too much of a jostle. “I guess you could say it’s my last wishes, all things considered. Gotta honor the last wishes of a condemned pony, don’t you?”

“Quite.” The last bit of Long Game’s toast dropped onto the plate. “I suppose breakfast is-”

The sound of pattering hooves echoed through the cave. A pair of spear-toting unicorns rounded a corner and galloped up to the breakfast table. “My lord!” one said. “There is an intruder in the lair! He demands a parley! And he demands that Miss Daresden be present!”

“Deal with them,” Long Game snapped. “You have your orders.”

“My lord,” the other unicorn said, “the intruder has incapacitated a dozen of our number already. Any who get within reach of his sword get-”

“Sword?” Long Game’s eyebrows jumped up. “Describe to me this intruder.”

“An old kirin, my lord,” the first unicorn said. “You’d think he could barely walk, let alone wield a sword, but-”

“That’s good enough,” Long Game said. “Tell your guards to keep well clear of him. And begin arrangements to move base. It seems this one is no longer secure.”

As the guards trotted off to obey, my captor slid off his chair and walked around to me. “As I said,” Long Game muttered, “the most inopportune moments.”

I’m not complaining!

Indeed not.

I agreed with Twilight and Hornsparker, but I knew better than to do it out loud.

DEATH BRIDLE Chapter 17: Dodging Deaths

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Somehow, it turned out, nothing on my body had actually been broken by having a basement fall in on me the previous night. It only felt like it had, which meant walking with two guards up to where Winter Wisdom awaited us was only excruciatingly painful, not actually impossible. The hobbles didn’t help, forcing me to hop for every step, jarring my body again, again, and again.

The elderly kirin leaned heavily on his sword as he waited, forehooves propped against the guard, tip resting on the stone floor of the cave. He actually looked even older than he had two days before. His gray mane lay limp around his head. His eyes barely stayed open as they remained locked on Long Game.

But his voice, soft as it was, didn’t crack or waver when he spoke. “It has been a long time, Long Game.”

“Indeed it has.” Long Game, for all his own gray mane, looked a good twenty years younger than Winter Wisdom. “You’ve grown old.”

“You haven’t,” Wisdom replied. “And how does that fit with Faust’s plan for Her ponies?”

“I lived to see everything I knew pass away half a dozen times,” Long Game said. “My friends are dead, and all my family but one. These are the sacrifices I have made to restore Her vision.”

“Ah. Rationalization.” Wisdom’s tone implied he was shaking his head, but it didn’t budge. His eyes didn’t leave the Fallen’s for a moment. “Of course I did not come here to bandy philosophy with you. Though if you repent of your folly-”

“I think not, old knight.”

“As do I.” Wisdom sighed. “You remember our previous two meetings, do you not?”

“Thirty years are as a day with me,” Long Game said. “Unfortunately for you this is not the case. A third trial of strength will end differently, I assure you.”

“If you were certain of that,” Wisdom said dryly, “we would not be talking now, I think. But since we are, I have a proposal.”

“I am listening.”

Wisdom made the smallest flick of a forehoof in my direction, barely shifting his position propped on his sword. “I see you have not yet killed Miss Daresden. Yet I presume that is your intention.”

“You interrupted us,” Long Game said. “Did you come to join her? I assure you rescuing her will not happen, not unless you can somehow turn back age.”

“I come to replace her.”

Long Game lost his composure at that line- his eyes widened for the first time in the whole conversation. “You come to die? There are so many simpler and less painful means of committing suicide, old one.”

“I have my reasons,” Wisdom said. “Here is my offer. Harriet Daresden walks out that cave entrance.” Wisdom shifted his stance, going from leaning on his sword to gesturing with it so swiftly that I barely caught the movement. When he stopped, the blade pointed behind him to a tiny point of light far back among the shining shafts of gemstone. “She walks out unbound and fully able to defend herself. In exchange I hand myself into your hooves, willingly. And I shall make no resistance nor attempt to escape, regardless of provocation, for twenty-four hours.”

“Excuse me,” I said, speaking up for the first time. “But... well, I appreciate this and all... but are you nuts?” I waved a hoof at Long Game, ignoring how my guards tensed up at the sudden movement. “What makes you think he’s going to go for this wacked-out deal when he can probably just kill us both?”

Winter Wisdom smiled at me. “Miss Daresden, as a Knight of the Quill I have spent a lifetime interfering in this pony’s schemes. I have personally fought him twice and forced him to flee both times.”

“Thirty years ago,” Long Game muttered. His eyes had gone narrow again, but the corners of his mouth had turned upwards.

“As he says. We have, as you ponies say, a history together. You are merely an obstacle to his current plan. With me... it is personal.” Wisdom turned his gaze from me back to Long Game- a very small head movement, since I was standing almost directly behind the Fallen. “Is it not so?”

“Indeed it is,” Long Game agreed.

“And I believe,” Winter Wisdom continued, “that your current plan will work better with a willing victim than an unwilling one. Will it not?”

The smile on Long Game’s face vanished, and his eyes narrowed even more.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “What’s this plan?”

I know what the plan is, Twilight thought at me. No time to explain now.

Wisdom shook his head. “You will work it out in time, I am sure,” he said. “But if I tell you, I doubt Long Game would let you depart, no matter how tempting it is to have me at his mercy.”

Long Game scuffed a forehoof against the cave floor. From the look on his face, he’d had to struggle to keep it from becoming a full stomp. “Your terms are acceptable,” he said shortly. “But be warned that the instant Daresden is through that hole, she becomes open game again. And pursuit will begin immediately.”

“I expected no less.” Wisdom turned his eyes back to me. “Harriet, you are witness to the agreement. I ask you not to violate it. If you resist, my life is forfeit. Do not attempt to rescue me.”

“Listen to the old knight,” Long Game said quietly. “And try to enjoy your freedom, fleeting as it shall be.”

I felt the hobbles leave my hooves. A moment later magic flowed back into me as the restrictor ring slid off my horn. Okay, I thought, what’s the plan for busting heads?

I don’t think we do, Twilight thought back. Two Fallen here, a third one who knows where, and a lot of goons on top of that. I keep trying to think of a plan, but they all end with both Mr. Wisdom and us dead.

We run, Hornsparker said. Our ally is buying us time to go get help. We escape, find the other two Knights, and hunt down this demon and rescue Sir Winter.

Two against one, huh? I thought. I don’t like those numbers. I want a recount.

I’m all for a breakout, Twilight thought. But I’m not up for a teleport yet, and nothing else will get both of us out alive. Do you have a better idea?

No. I didn’t.

I shook my legs to work the kinks out, then walked over to Winter Wisdom. The kirin lifted his sword in his magic, sheathing it, then lifting the sheath off his back. “Take this with you,” he said. “You will have need of it.”

I couldn’t stop my jaw from dropping. “Um... Winter,” I said, “I’m not worthy of this. You know that.”

“Keep it,” Winter replied. “Until you find a pony who is worthy.”

The sword dropped out of Winter’s magic, and I barely grabbed it in mine before it hit the ground.

Then the old kirin walked past me, and I heard Long Game say, “Miss Daresden, I recommend you not linger. I have to go take my new prisoner downstairs... but my daughter will still be here, without my restraining influence.”

“Oooooh!” Helpmeet cooed. “I get to play tag? Should I count to a hundred?” Her mane began waving in the air, stretching and spreading as scales rose from her fur. “Five, ten, fifteen, twenty...”

Run, you fool! Hornsparker shouted in my head, and my hooves began moving without my thinking about it. I heard a grunt from Hornsparker’s thoughts, but no complaints as the pain slipped away from me, along with control of my body.

I didn’t want to say this back there, Twilight thought, but I’m afraid Mr. Wisdom was the story getting us out of another inescapable trap. Just like me melting the horn ring back on the airship. We were set up by the author. Or the spell. Whatever. We were railroaded into this.

I growled, even if I couldn’t be heard outside my own head. We had a choice, I thought. We could have done something. If only I could have thought of-

“ONE HUNDRED!” a shrill voice screeched behind me. “OLLY OLLY OXEN FREE!” The sound of clanging metal echoed behind me.

Belay the philosophy and let me run! Hornsparker’s thought gasped as we plunged through the cave entrance and out onto a ledge overshadowed by the bulk of Canterlot’s foundations hanging above us.

And there- thank Celestia!- there was a cab in front of me, with Hot Lead poking his head out the window and that beige pony in the robes- Vespers, that was her name- in the harness.

“Harriet, hurry up and get in!” Leedie shouted, throwing open the cab door.

I bounded in, and as soon as my weight hit the carriage it was rolling, and at a surprising clip.

I heard the clatter and rumble of rocks falling behind us, and I put my head up and looked out the window just in time to see about a dozen strands of gleaming steel splayed out from as many holes in the mountainside. A shriek followed the blades, a scream of frustration that echoed from the slopes of Mount Canter back to us on the ledge path.

The shriek followed us, but nothing else did. Vespers was one fast pony, and her hooves beat on the stone path like a drummer pounding the skins at one of the new dance clubs in Manehattan. The ledge climbed up towards the lip of Canterlot’s walls all the way, and we were actually gaining speed going uphill- too fast for anyone except a flier to follow.

That’s what I was thinking when the first spellblast struck the road next to the cab. Yeah, I should have known better. If things were going smoothly, it wouldn’t be Harriet Daresden’s life, now would it?

Quit narrating and keep our head down! Twilight shouted in my mind.

Shut up. I can’t protect us if I can’t see-

My horn lit up, and a half-sphere of magic shield appeared above and behind the cab. Done, Twilight’s mental voice snapped. Now stay down!

“Here comes another one!” Hot Lead shouted, and the cab rocked and bounced as Vespers swerved to the right just in time to dodge a slow-moving fireball. The spell left a half-melted crater behind.

The cart swerved left, hard left, and the view of the mountain went away, replaced by one of the city gates. I just barely had time to notice the total absence of the guards who ought to have been there welcoming visitors to Canterlot- those gates hadn’t been shut since before Ebon Geezer was born- and then they were past, and we were back in the winding streets of the city.

“Another one! Faster!”

Vespers found a little bit more speed on the flat, but it wasn’t enough. I felt the shock of the spell hitting and shattering the shield Twilight had thrown up with my magic. “I really want to fire back,” I muttered. “Can’t you see where it’s coming from?”

“Behind and above us!” Leedie shouted. “Whoever’s doing it is moving between- wait! There’s a glow building up- ooooh boy...”

I could feel it too. Something was sucking up the ambient magic of Canterlot into a single point, preparing one whammy of a spell. Whoever was doing it would only get one shot, because Celestia and Luna would feel that and come looking for whoever was trying to blow up their city... but by that time, we’d be blown out of the water.

“We gotta bail!” I shouted. “We’re helpless in this cab!”

“Do you think any of these buildings is any better?”

I looked up. We were in the warehouse districts near the rail depot, a lot of big buildings with thin walls. “Horseapples,” I muttered aloud, and then added, Twilight, can you teleport the three of us into my apartment from here?

From the freightyards? I can get us and maybe Mr. Lead. Vespers, though...

Vespers can look out for herself. “Leedie, tell Vespers to ditch the cab as soon as she can,” I shouted. “We’ll meet tonight at Mighty Fortress’s church!”

“What? But-”

I felt something very powerful tap on my magical senses. Tracking spell. “No arguments, out of time!” I shouted. Twilight, hit it!

My magic yanked hard on my horn, light flashed, and Leedie and I slid across the stone floor of my basement apartment, slamming into a bookshelf next to my grandfather clock. I barely noticed the books falling off and hitting my horn; once something gets to a certain level of sore, nothing else really registers.

Besides, I had other things to worry about- like the tracking spell which was still linked to me, pointing directly at me, guiding...

The row of candles by the door, already glowing redder than a Tartarus flame, exploded.

I pushed Twilight away from control of my magic and focused on a set of runes I’d carved into the floor years ago. They were an emergency measure- a last stopgap if all else failed- and now was definitely the time to put them to work.

About half a second after I triggered the runes, the building shook as a spell powerful enough to blow the peak off Mt. Canter hit the magic they spawned and dissipated into nothing.

Can I have a closer look? Twilight asked, and then: Oh. Battery charm, universal ward... you really brute-forced this one, didn’t you?

Yeah. That’s why we’re alive.

And shut in until the battery charm runs out.

True enough. The runes I’d cast were a kind of fortress spell. The idea was, I’d trip them, use Bobbin or some spell to call for backup, and wait to get rescued. Triggering the spell was pretty much an admission that I’d been stupid and got myself in over my head. But Ebon Geezer had beaten fool’s pride out of me years ago. As he once told me, the cemeteries are full of proud ponies.

Hot Lead pulled himself to his feet. Sweat ran down from his mane; he must’ve been pretty scared there at the end. Which made two of us. “Are we safe?” he asked.

I took a moment to consider this. I couldn’t feel the tracking spell anymore. My candle warning system lay splattered all over the entryway. But the lights were still on, and I didn’t hear anything like support beams creaking, masonry crumbling, or another explosion of magic force. And, most important, the emergency ward was still up. “Looks like it,” I said. “A magic attack like that probably attracted attention. Whoever that was won’t want to risk a second shot. If they have one.”

“Oh, good,” Leedie said, his eyes repeatedly glancing back at the door. “Well, you’re home okay, so I’ll just be trotting along now.”

“No, you won’t,” I said. “The spell I just cast locks us in for about eight hours. Nothing gets in. Nothing gets out.”

“What?” Leedie began dancing on his hooves like he had to visit the little foal’s room. “Harriet, that’s a joke, right? Tell me it’s a joke, Harriet. Because it really, really needs to be a joke.”

“No joke,” I said. “That spell was my last ditch defense. I put a lot of work into making sure nothing could get through, no matter how much trouble I got into.”

Leedie shook his head. “You don’t understand,” he said. “I need to get out. Right now. I can’t stay this close to you, Harriet. Not like this.”

Sweat was pouring off Hot Lead’s face as I stared at him. His hooves settled down, but he continued swaying back and forth as if he were about to pass out. Finally he bounded over to the door, as far away from me as he could get, keeping his face turned away from me. “Leedie, what’s wrong?” I asked. “What’s got into you?”

“Harriet,” Leedie said, voice taking on a peculiar strained tone to it, “you know exactly what’s in me. But you don’t understand how hard it is to keep it from taking over.”

Oh. Oh, yeah, that’s bad.

What is? I don’t follow.

Hot Lead is half thestral. And if he drinks the blood of another, he finishes the transformation. That’s how it was in the earlier books.

Ah. And Miss Daresden brought this person into her most secure redoubt and locked us all in. Brilliant.

Shut up! I wasn’t going to leave him out there in danger! And I sure didn’t hear either of you offering better ideas!

While I was dealing with my mental kibbitzers, I heard the slow clop of Leedie walking back towards me. Black patches had appeared in his fur, slowly spreading. His pupils took on a slitted shape, like a cat or a snake. “I can smell your blood, Harriet,” he said quietly. “Every scrape, even the bruises. It calls out to me.”

This... this was very, very bad. Here was the pony I loved, about to throw himself on me, and not in a good way.

“I’ve wanted you so much,” Hot Lead continued. “We’ve been apart so very long, and I think about you every day... the touch of your hoof... the feeling of your lips...”

Well, mostly not in a good way.

Can we please not do this now? Twilight shouted in my head.

And what do you want me to do? I asked.

Not allowing us to be killed by a newborn demon would be top choice!

And can we stop the romantic nonsense until we save the world and win that duel with Little Nettle?

Look, I thought fiercely as I began backing away from Leedie, I am not raising a hoof against the pony I love! And even if I wanted to, I don’t think I have anything that will hold him!

Fine. Move over!

And just like that Leedie was in my face, but it wasn’t my face anymore. “Stop me,” he whispered as the dark fur crawled up onto his face.

“Okay,” Twilight said with my voice.

My horn flashed to life, and a moment later ice cold water poured down onto Hot Lead, who shrieked and tried to back away. My horn flared again, and actual ice sleeted down onto him, while a purple lasso of magic held him in place under the spray.

“STOP! COLD! COLDCOLDCOLD!!” Leedie shrieked.

“Good!” Twilight increased the power to the ice-shower spell. The mixed ice and water seemed almost literally to wash away the black patches of fur, leaving Leedie’s normal earth-toned coat. When the last of it was gone, Twilight switched off the spell, grabbed a towel and telekinetically threw it in Leedie’s face. “Think you can control yourself now? Because there’s more where that came from!”

“No, no,” Leedie said quietly, his teeth chattering as he used his own magic to wipe the water off his face. (Twilight had already magicked away the slush from my floor.) “I’m on top of it for now.” Looking over the towel, he added, “But it could happen again any-”

“No. It couldn’t.” Twilight stamped a forehoof in frustration. “Because A, the next time you even look like that’s happening again I dump a ton of Yakyakistan snow on top of you, and B, no matter what Harriet said, we’re leaving.”

Leedie’s expression went from sad to betrayed to confused in about two seconds. “Harriet- er, Twilight?”

“That’s right,” Twilight said. “I’m running this body, and I’m going to keep it that way, now that I’ve got everything pretty much figured out.”

What?

What?

“You do?” Leedie asked.

“Except for one detail, yes,” Twilight continued. “For example, it’s pretty obvious that you didn’t just happen to come say your goodbyes at the same time Little Nettle showed up to challenge me to a duel. A lord of the Nightmare Court, the same monsters who tried to make you one of them? The ones you went off to investigate? You’re here to do something about them- about Little Nettle in particular. And Vespers, I’m guessing, is someone like you- someone halfway turned.”

Leedie managed a lopsided smile. “I didn’t want Harriet to know,” he said quietly. “She has that weird sense of honor sometimes.”

“So do I,” Twilight said. “But only with ponies who aren’t literally bloodthirsty monsters. And I don’t believe for one moment that Little Nettle is interested in a fair fight.”

“Of course not,” Leedie said.

“Good,” Twilight nodded. “Now, I don’t think I’ll need to worry about beating him, but when he reveals his trick, I want you and Vespers ready to counter it.”

I didn’t say, or think, anything.

Well? Twilight thought pointedly at me.

All right, I replied, I’m not happy about it, but Leedie can handle himself in a fight, and he knows exactly what we’ll be up against. I’m not going to stop him. Or you.

Good. Twilight turned her attention back to my wards. “By the way, I’ve been looking over Harriet’s spell, and while it’s very good at bouncing outside magic away, it’s less good at keeping magic inside. I’m pretty sure I can just teleport us out.”

Hot Lead’s eyebrows rose. “Really? Not like Harriet to miss a trick like that.”

“Harriet doesn’t know the teleportation spell,” Twilight replied. “Now stand next to me and pretend you’re a snowman.”

DEATH BRIDLE Chapter 18: Applied Herpetology for Dummies

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Explanations waited until after Mighty Fortress had done what he could to put my body in order, with bandages in places I preferred not to think about, and until the other ponies gathered in the church were present to listen.

Finally, with everyone gathered- Mighty Fortress, Hot Lead, Mighty Gale and Shadow Lurk just returned from their wild-goose chase to Ponyville, Johnny Respectable and his bodyguards, and Anastasia the Abyssinian thief, plus the addition of Canterlot Guard Lieutenant Lucky Star, summoned there at Twilight’s request.

“I figured it out when Johnny told me that my client was an imposter,” Twilight spoke for me. “And the leader of the True Canon virtually confirmed it for me this morning, not that he knew it. As soon as the Pastel Rats got the Sketchbook away from Roam and outside the protections that kept the Fallen from touching it, they tried to get it. They killed Gustav to find out where it was headed, but that’s all they got.”

“He wouldn’t ever sell us out,” Anastasia sighed. “We were a team. That was what made us the best.”

“And for various reasons, they planted evidence pointing here and then used that evidence to put me on the case,” Twilight continued. “So when you told me that my client was an imposter, it meant two things. First, that Father Victorious was in reality one of the True Canon-“

“Victorious?” Mighty Fortress gasped. “But that can’t be! Victorious and I came up in the priesthood together! We were even part of a secret society!”

“-and second, that the Canon had killed the real Victorious to take his place,” Twilight finished. “Which brings me to the one loose end in the mystery.” She turned my head to face Lucky. “Do you remember the autopsy Bitter Butter performed? On the pony with no head or hooves?”

“And all the diseases,” Lucky said, shuddering.

“I’ll come to that. But more importantly, no identifying marks. They didn’t care about the body, but the head and hooves had to be destroyed, so they disposed of those and dumped the body. But they missed the tattoo.”

“Tattoo?” At the word Father Fortress leaned forward, his mouth curved down as if he were preaching a funeral- which I guess was right on the money.

Please put a brake on the narration for a few minutes, would you?

Sorry.

Twilight lit up my much-abused horn and created a shape of light in the air- a perfect replica of the tattoo on the corpse’s left shoulder. “Do you recognize this, Father Fortress?”

Fortress hung his head. Slowly, he settled back on his haunches and used his right forehoof to slide the sleeve of his priest’s cassock up to the shoulder. The same Haygyptian eye could just barely be picked out under the fur.

“We all got it together one night in Roam,” Fortress murmured. “We were young. We were holy warriors, or so we thought. And every young priest joins a secret society at some point. And then we go out into the real world, and we put aside childish notions.” He took a deep breath, finishing in a husky voice, “But we never forget those days when we were immortal. Poor Victorious.”

“And that would explain why the imposter sought you out, Harriet,” Mighty Gale said. “They knew Victorious and Mighty Fortress knew each other, and they couldn’t risk their ringer being spotted.”

“That’s one reason,” Twilight said. I don’t think telling them about the recruitment pitch is a good idea, she added for my benefit.

No, not really, I agreed.

“So the imposter hired me,” Twilight continued. “He told me that you recommended me, Father Fortress. But considering how confused you were about my being mixed up with the True Canon, I’m guessing that was a lie.”

Fortress, still looking at the ground, nodded slowly. “I haven’t seen Victorious for decades,” he said. “We last exchanged letters about a month ago.”

“I’m very sorry, Father,” Twilight said quietly. After a moment’s silence, she resumed. “Anyway, he gave me the info I needed to track down the Sketchbook. And then I’m guessing they had another pony tailing me- probably Helpmeet. She followed me to the Pastel Rats’ hideout and waited until the Sketchbook of Tiveen was out of its hiding spot,” Twilight pressed on. “But I had a trick or two they didn’t know about, so they got a decoy and I got away, with Alexandria.”

“Why didn’t you take it from her then?” Johnny Respectable added. “I know you, Daresden. You could have done it easily.”

Twilight sighed, producing some twinges of serious pain in my ribs. “Because I wanted her to hoof it over of her own free will,” she said. “And failing that, I wanted to make sure that the buyer wouldn’t try to take it back once it was in the Church’s hooves. Which meant finding the buyer.”

“You already knew I was the buyer,” Johnny pointed out. “Maddog’s attempt to take the imposter when you first met, remember?”

“I suspected it,” Twilight corrected. “But I wasn’t sure. Remember, at the time I thought you were targeting me, not the fake Victorious. So I had to be sure.”

And I wanted to find a way to do it without starting a war with Johnny Respectable. Why does nopony believe that I don’t go out looking for more trouble to get into?

Twilight repeated my words aloud, verbatim. Leedie, Lucky, Johnny, Mighty Gale and Father Fortress just stared at me- at Twilight- who could only respond with a lame, “Well, I don’t.” Shaking her head, she tried to continue as if I hadn’t spoken. “So I followed the Sketchbook to the auction.”

“You set me up,” Alexandria said, a little bitterly.

“I saved your life,” Twilight said, rallying. “Repeatedly. And you got paid.”

“Darn straight,” Alexandria said. “And I’m going to have the retirement of a lifetime.” Her cat’s eyes glared, then sank into somber thought. “For three lifetimes,” she said. “Poor Gus. Poor Fifi.”

“Which brings us all up to date,” Johnny continued. “A priest and two thieves are dead, and a bunch of demons have the Sketchbook. How do we get it back?”

“It would help,” Mighty Gale said, “if we knew what they were going to do with it.”

“Would this duel of yours have anything to do with that?” Johnny asked.

Twilight shook my head. “I’m pretty sure the Nightmare Court and the True Canon aren’t talking to each other,” she said. “Otherwise I probably wouldn’t be here now. Just bad timing.”

“In other words, a typical Daresden mess,” Lucky Star commented.

I couldn’t deny it, and Twilight didn’t see any reason to. “But as for what they intend to use it for,” she said, “I think that’s pretty obvious. Think about it. These are some of the angels who helped Faust build the world, right? And now they want to unmake the world so it can be redone to Faust’s original plan.”

“We know the declared purpose of the True Canon, Miss Daresden,” Pale Skies said impatiently.

“Well, I didn’t,” Lucky Star muttered.

“But we don’t know their specific aims,” the mystic bodyguard said, ignoring the mumble.

“Oh, yes we do,” Twilight said. “The Sketchbook of Tiveen contains a fraction of Faust’s power, right? It’s one of the tools She used to create this world, if I’m not mistaken. Which means they must know how to use it too, since they were Her assistants.”

Pale Skies considered this a moment. “The Sketchbook’s magic would resist the Fallen,” she said doubtfully.

“If they couldn’t turn it to their scheme, they wouldn’t bother with it,” Twilight said. “So they must have a way. And I’m pretty sure I know the method, and the place, and even the time.”

“The time is midnight, of course,” Pales Skies nodded. “The time when holy power is at a nadir.”

“Right,” Twilight said, looking at Lucky Star. “And they tipped their hoof on the method with Victorious. I think he was their guinea pig.”

“What?” Lucky Star asked. “You mean all those diseases Bitter Butter found?”

“Right!” Twilight repeated. “A disease curse that survives more than one sunrise? I can just about see a Fallen being able to do that, to a single pony. But that’s not what the True Canon wants. They want chaos. Disaster. And they want a lot of ponies they think shouldn’t exist to stop existing.” The muscles on my face were doing things I didn’t want to see in a mirror as Twilight finished, “Which means they’re planning to curse all of Equestria. And maybe the world. And they need the Sketchbook for that kind of power.”

“I see,” Mighty Gale said, nodding. “So they’re taking it to the peak of Mount Canter? So the spell can stretch across the whole kingdom at once?”

“No, they’ll take it to Celestia’s palace,” Mighty Fortress said. “They’ll give her the curse, and the magic will spread it to everyone she watches over.”

“Seriously?” Johnny Respectable asked. “You’re both wrong.” He looked at me and said, “It’ll be the train station, won’t it?”

Mighty Gale raised an eyebrow at that. “What’s so important about the train station?” she asked.

Lucky Star caught on quicker. “Thousands of ponies pass through the station every day!” he said. “And if the curse is slow-acting, they’ll scatter across the country before they know they’re infected!”

“It’s worse than that,” Twilight said. “It’s not just ponies going to or from Canterlot. Almost every train in Equestria goes through Canterlot. Every passenger train, every freight train- all of it. It’s the single biggest rail hub in Equestria. And it’s a magic disease, so even ponies who never get off the train will get it. It’ll be on the cargo in the freight trains. It’ll spread like lightning everywhere a rail line runs!”

“No, it won’t!” Lucky Star said. “My immediate superiors won’t believe this, but I can go over their heads to Celestia herself. She can shut down the system at a word. No more plague!”

“And no more Sketchbook,” Johnny pointed out. “I intend to have it back. Miss Daresden, our agreement is still on.”

Twilight nodded. “And even if it wasn’t, we can’t leave it in the Order’s possession. They’ll find another use for it that we can’t predict.” She turned me to face Mighty Gale and Shadow Lurk. “Which means we have to keep them from finding out we know their plan until we can strike.”

“Which won’t be until close to midnight,” Pale Skies said. “And you have a duel, do you not?”

“Right, right,” Twilight nodded, sighing. “Johnny, if I lose, you’ll hold up your side of the promise? Return the Sketchbook once you’re done with it?”

Johnny nodded. “If I’m around to return it. If not… it’ll turn up.”

Mighty Gale loosened her sword in its sheath. “I don’t like the idea of letting-“

“He promised,” Twilight said firmly, sounding really like me for the first time. “And on this I trust him. He’s on our side.” She softened a little and added, “Really, Gale. If you don’t trust him, trust me.”

Mighty Gale raised an eyebrow, but her sword settled back into place. “I trust you,” she said, with none of the tones that another pony might have used to mean I trust you and not him. “So we just hide here?”

“No,” Twilight said. “The imposter Victorious might still find out we’re here. He’s posing as a priest, remember? He could easily send somepony to check up on us.”

Shadow Lurk stretched himself. “Then,” he said in his thick accent, “it is best we check up on him first.”



“Father Victorious? Hello?”

Twilight knocked on the door, standing in full view of the hotel room’s peephole. On either side of the door, out of sight of the hole, Mighty Gale and Shadow Lurk waited, swords out and at the ready.

Twilight had wanted to try to negotiate, but Hornsparker and I shouted that stupid plan down before it could get out of my mouth. If Victorious was here at all, it was only so he could ambush me if I was foolish enough to come and give a report. He’d take us out as quickly as possible, using overwhelming force.

So, rather than walk through town and risk being spotted by either the True Canon or by the Nightmare Court, we’d teleported to the hotel. That took a lot out of my body, but Twilight wasn’t going to be doing the heavy lifting in what was coming.

“Miss Daresden? Is that you?”

“Yes, Father. I’ve got news for you about the Sketchbook.”

“Just a moment.”

If I’d been in the imposter’s place, I wouldn’t have been here. I’d be wherever Long Game and the Sketchbook were, protecting it until the plan was complete. Or, alternately, I’d be waiting for the shield to drop on my apartment, ready to strike as soon as it ran out of juice. I certainly wouldn’t have been waiting alone in a hotel room, even if I thought my prey was still totally ignorant of my true nature, not this close to the completion of the plan.

But he was here, and as small as the hotel room was, he was almost certainly alone. So maybe, just maybe, things were-

Stop that narration right there before you screw things up even more!

Agreed! Why do you feel this insane need to tempt the fates?

This is just how I think! I can’t help how I think!

Well, you can- door’s opening! Down!

The door swung open to reveal a totally dark entry hall. Twilight flattened my body just in time to duck below a pair of giant reptilian heads, jaws wide, snapping for me, catching nothing but air.

Two swords came down, lopping off the heads.

Something inside the hotel room screamed, and the unnatural darkness that had cloaked the doorway cleared to reveal a hotel room mostly full of hydra. Two stubs of necks waved frantically, but new heads were already growing as I watched. The severed heads in the hallway were already smoking, dissolving into nothingness after being cut off from their mystic source.

Then Mighty Gale and Shadow Lurk charged in, pegasus leading earth pony, and Twilight bounded up and followed. The hydra’s two remaining fully grown heads each had to deal fully with a sword apiece, snapping and weaving back and forth as the sword-points swung and stabbed.

And then I felt the tip of my horn touch the hydra’s chest. “Stop,” she said, in a quiet but clearly commanding voice I don’t think I could have managed deliberately in a millennium. “You have five seconds to change back to normal before I blast you. And I will do it.”

I wouldn’t have believed it, Hornsparker commented. She can actually deliver a convincing threat.

It’s not a threat, Twilight thought back in the same tones. I don’t want to kill, but NOPONY hurts my friends.

The hydra had stopped moving the moment Twilight spoke. So had the Knights of the Quill. For a couple of seconds everything stayed absolutely still. Then, with a long, dissatisfied hiss, the hydra’s body began to contract. The four necks contracted into a single one. The green hide faded away, and the old, nondescript earth pony who’d pretended to be Father Victorious stood there in the hotel room, two crossed swords at his throat and my horn aimed directly between his eyes.

“That’s better,” Twilight said. “I have some questions for you.”

“What makes you think I’m going to answer them?” the True Canon asked.

“We’ll see,” Twilight replied. “For starters, I know you’re not Father Victorious. What’s your real name?”

The fake priest shrugged slightly, careful not to get too close to the naked blades at his neck. “I am Backstabber,” he said simply. “My partner is Blind Faith, of the Order of the True Canon.” His eyes rolled first to Mighty Gale and then to Shadow Lurk. “But considering the friends you brought, you already knew that.”

“Pretty much,” Twilight agreed. “Why did you hire me?”

We know that. Long Game ordered him to, so he could recruit me.

“We knew the Sketchbook was coming here,” Backstabber said. “But we didn’t know its final destination. We needed someone who could find that out without leaving a trail of bodies.” The old pony smiled a little and added, “Helpmeet is not what you’d call a subtle tracker.”

“And I was chosen in particular because Long Game wanted a new follower.”

WHAT are you DOING? With Mighty right here? Are you TRYING to get us killed? I thought we agreed-

That was for the others! I trust Mighty Gale! In the books she's straight as an arrow! She's probably your best friend! Why don't you trust her, too?

“Possibly,” Backstabber said, shrugging again. “He certainly named you as our first choice. And it helped that you already knew my cover identity’s friend at the cathederal. That made my story a bit more… credible.”

“For a while, yes,” Twilight said. Her horn hadn’t budged from its target. “But the funny thing is, I saw you, Long Game and Helpmeet under the Mareiott last night, but you weren’t at breakfast this morning. What were you doing?”

“Oh, don’t you remember?” Backstabber asked his smile growing broader. “The fireworks I set off for you when you left our little hiding place?”

“Those spells were you?” Twilight asked. “But you’re an earth pony. How can you cast spells?”

“I am of the Order of the True Canon,” Backstabber corrected her. “With the blessing of my partner, I can do practically anything. Including firing a death curse at a carriage that’s shrugged off my best fireballs.”

“So that’s what that was,” Twilight said quietly.

My eyebrows would have gone up if I’d had control of them. Wizards of the White Circle, and a number of other schools of magic besides, get one death curse in their lifetime. It’s usually meant to be our last spell, since casting it is fatal. But, also usually, it’s an instant kill if it lands. The target can’t dodge it, can’t block it, can’t avoid it. Dead is dead is dead.

“But if that’s the case,” Twilight continued, answering my mental narration out loud, “how did Hot Lead and I survive? A death curse should have smashed that shield- my shield- any shield- like it was nothing.”

“There you have me,” Backstabber agreed. “I can only guess. I have the sensation that some form of grace intervened on your behalf- not taking the entire blow, but softening it enough for your defenses to do the rest.” The smile broadened and grew a little more reptilian as he added, “For what it’s worth, I intended the curse to be slow and excruciating. Because I wouldn’t want you to be bored.”

Grace? Twilight asked me mentally.

Could be one of two things, I answered. Either a non-fallen angel intervened- which they don’t do- or else someone, somehow, took the arrow for me. And absorbed as much of the curse as they could.

I hardly think this matters, Hornsparker insisted. That is in the past. Focus on what needs doing now.

Right. “Of course you didn’t,” Twilight said, only slightly slow on the response to Backstabber. “And now we’re going to make sure you aren’t bored, either.” Now the horn came away from Backstabber. “You’re going to tell us where Long Game and the Sketchbook of Tiveen are.”

“I rather doubt that,” Backstabber replied. “What happens if I refuse?”

Twilight gestured to Mighty Gale and Shadow Lurk. “Then I let these Knights of the Quill ask you. However they want.”

Backstabber chuckled, restraining himself to avoid cutting his throat on the swords. “You have no idea about these Knights, do you?” he asked. “You think they’re going to just pull the information out of me?”

“And why shouldn’t they?” Twilight asked. “After all, you’re a member of the Order they’re sworn to fight.”

Backstabber’s eyes widened. “Why yes!” he said ironically. “That’s quite true!” He lifted up a forehoof, and for a moment the swords tightened to touch his fur. Then a scrap of torn, tattered pink paper appeared on the hoof, and with a gentle motion he tossed it away, letting it land at Shadow Lurk’s hooves.

“Oh Knights of the Quill,” Backstabber said, taking on a mockery of a repentant face, “I stand before you, Backstabber, a prisoner and slave of the Fallen named Blind Faith. I repent my many crimes and seek absolution.”

The swords immediately withdrew from Backstabber’s neck.

“What? What are you doing??” Twilight asked, looking from one knight to the other.

“Sorry, Harriet,” Mighty Gale said. “We swore an oath.”

“But-but-but-“ Twlight gestured wildly at Backstabber. “He’s faking it! He’s obviously faking it! You can’t just let him go!”

“Yes, they can,” Backstabber said. “They’re sworn to seek the salvation of the Fallen and their servants whenever possible. And for reasons I can’t fathom, sometimes they succeed.” He looked at Shadow Lurk and added, “Isn’t that right, Prideful Boast?”

“Prideful Boast’s promises were not what they were made out to be,” Shadow Lurk said in that thick Stalliongrad accent. “And the price became too high. And Prideful Boast’s next choice of host proved unfortunate for him.”

“Yes, I heard,” Backstabber said. “But if such a one as you can seek redemption, then so may I.”

The big earth pony nodded, just once, slowly, his eyes never leaving Backstabber’s.

“We know he’s faking it, Harriet,” Mighty Gale added from her side of the standoff. “But this isn’t about who he is. It’s about who we are. If we were to lay a hoof on him now, we wouldn’t be worthy to carry these blades.”

“And without my Fallen to give me power,” Backstabber continued, “I can no longer cast spells of any kind. Which makes me an ordinary mortal, defenseless before a wizard of the White Circle. Which means your oath also prevents you from harming me.”

Not strictly accurate- I knew a lot of tricks which didn’t involve the slightest trickle of magic. But I wasn’t in control of the body.

“So, if you’ll be so kind as to step aside,” Backstabber said, taking a step wide of the Fallen’s pink slip, “I shall go out into the world and seek good works to do. Because, by the oaths each of you swore, there’s not a single thing you can do to stop me.”

Twilight waited until the old pony had walked past and was about to step out into the hallway before smiling. “Oh, I wouldn’t say nothing,” she said.

Right on cue, a pair of hobbles snapped onto Backstabber’s forehooves. “Backstabber alias Victorious,” a voice said, “you are under arrest as a material witness in the murder of the pony Victorious, native of Roam.”

Twilight hadn’t teleported herself and two ponies to the hotel; she’d teleported herself and three ponies. I wouldn’t have involved Lucky Star in this myself- we had no idea whether or not we’d even be able to separate the imposter from his Fallen companion, much less whether or not he’d have defenses beyond that. But then, I wouldn’t have talked the plan over with Mighty Gale as thoroughly as Twilight did, and I wouldn’t have found out about that oath or its gaping huge loophole.

It pays to learn things, Twilight said. And it really pays to take an interest in what your friends do. Just because it’s not your religion doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn more about it.

Can we save the friendship lessons? I snapped mentally.

Sure. “Maybe you’ll be able to talk your way out of custody,” Twilight said, doing her best me imitation. “But there are a lot of ponies in Roam who are going to be very upset with you. If I were you, I’d start thinking of some really good answers.”

“You… you tricked me!” Backstabber hissed, almost as if he could still turn into a hydra. “You knew! You know all of it!”

“I know I want you out of circulation until this is all done with,” Twilight replied. “Lucky, can you arrange that?”

“Oh, yeah,” Lucky said, nodding. “I can do that. Let’s go, pal. There’s a wagon coming for us. Should be pulling up outside any minute now.”

As Lucky Star ponyhandled the old earth pony down the hall to the lobby, Mighty Gale looked at me and asked, “Don’t you think we should have asked a few more questions?”

“No,” Twilight said. “He wasn’t going to answer anything else willingly. And you can’t trust information gained under duress.”

I don’t know. I’ve gotten some good information by-

Your methods are interesting to read about glossed over in a book, Twilight said, and that granite tone of no quarter came back, this time aimed at me. But they are not, and never will be, MY methods. What you have in mind is just plain wrong, and nothing justifies it.

Even saving lives?

Nothing, Twilight thought back at me. Because once you have the first justification, the next one comes easier. And then the next, and the next.

And how would you know, Ms. Sugar-Sweet Alicorn Princess? When have you ever had to make the hard choice?

I am with Miss Sparkle on this, Hornsparker added. I have actually watched these things done. They are demeaning to torturer and victim alike, and they seldom gain any information that could not be gained otherwise. They disgust me.

“Besides,” Twilight said out loud as much to me as to Mighty, “we already know where they’re going to be and what they’re trying to do. What else could we have asked?”

Mighty shrugged. “Details?” she asked.

Twilight shook her head. “Not worth it,” she said. “For now, I’m going to teleport back to my apartment and get some rest before sunset.”

Mighty shifted on her hooves. “Harriet,” she said, “with Winter Wisdom gone, I’d be more than glad to take his place as your second.”

“I know,” Twilight said. “But Hot Lead can handle it. After all, he’s just as concerned with the Nightmare Court as I am.”

“All right,” Mighty said. “Ten PM at the cathederal?”

“Right. And if I’m not there by ten-thirty, go on without me. Though I suspect you’ll know a lot sooner than that.”

“Be careful.”

I would have said something like, “When am I not careful?” or some other smartass comeback line. Instead Twilight just said, “I will,” and left it at that.

Some ponies just have no sense of what it means to be a private eye.

Will you QUIT IT with the narration??