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~Princess Luna


Even trying to make it last, even with hardly any tools, the clock didn’t take long to fine-tune. Perfect Measure was still busy with Mister Longtail. Perth handed the clock back to the quite nice Mrs. Tape Measure. Then she flew up to hover while she returned the miniature grandfather clock to its shelf. Perth stared. The he realized he might appear to be gazing up at her rear end and hastily averted his eyes. It would all start to seem normal for a second, or at least a merely sane kind of odd. Then something would slap him across the nose with the truth.

Perth sat on the couch beside Madame Fleur, idly swinging his restless legs and troubled in his heart. All these ponies had wings, or almost all of them. They lived in a huge city in the clouds. Made of clouds, and thinking too hard about that made his head hurt. Only a magic spell, refreshed before they went shopping, kept him from falling right through the floor. It was like he was in a Dustan nursery story. Early on in one, before it all goes wrong for the koala among the Outsiders with their horrid unnatural powers and disregard for the Laws of Nature.

Perth knew the stories had been constructed to put young koalas off the notion of magic and the world Outside of Dust. His head knew that there was little truth in it. All those shipments of food that everyone knew came from Outside though it was the height of bad form to mention it. There had to be crops, and farmers to grow the crops, which meant predictable seasons. If a wintry day could sweep in without warning, no crops could survive to harvest. The crops existed, arriving in reliable amounts and condition and predictable times. Therefore the stories must not be factual. Inside, the part of him that had never stopped believing in those stories was curled up in a corner and whimpering.

He hadn’t seen any signs of chaos in Aura. He had seen a thousand-and-one patently impossible things, and how these pegasi could fly with such undersized wings was a contender for Number One. Impossible or not, defying natural law or not, he had yet to see anything that made no sense. Maybe they could bend the laws of nature to their whim, but their whim seemed not to be very…well, whimsical. They could walk on clouds and shape it how they liked, so they made cities of it to live in. They could control the weather, so they made sure the land got the perfect amount of sun and rain for bountiful crops. They could turn rainbows into liquid, which was so impossible he didn’t know where to start, and use it to power engines. So they put the engines in their airships and used them to haul people and materials around. The means were magical, the ends were mundane.

Nodding to himself, Perth stood and moved to look out the shop’s display window. Ponies trotted and flew past. They looked happy. Contented. He adjusted his spectacles, spotting a unicorn family. Stallion, mare, half-grown colt, foal too young to be sure of gender. Colorful as a bowl of candy, of course. Even in Dust, earth ponies were a multicolored lot. They came out a shop holding bags in glowing auras of sparkly…stuff. Using their incredible, unnatural powers…to carry their shopping. Perth nodded again. That was the key to the riddle: the world Outside was in thrall to magic and the creatures that used it. But those creatures wanted the world to make sense. They craved peace and predictability: days long enough to get tired in, nights long enough to sleep through, weather on a schedule, and seasons reliable enough to set your calendar by. Ground you could count on to stay solid and underneath you. They liked it that way so they could take it all for granted and get on with more important things. Like shopping.

Perfect Measure’s voice jolted the koala from his quiet epiphany. “There we are, sir.” Perth turned to see Mister Longtail stepping off the brilliantly lit platform as Perfect Measure folded away the burgundy-brown suit. All held with pins, needing to be sewn. “We’ll have it ready in a few hours.”

The sugar glider smiled. “Hm, you work fast.”

The pegasus beamed. “We’re good at what we do, sir.” He turned the smile on Perth, who had to fight a sudden urge to dive behind a rack of dresses and hide. “What will ze natty koala have today?”

“Everything.” Perth said. “Um, I need an entire wardrobe.” He could almost hear a cash-register cha-ching noise when Tape Measure joined her husband in smiling. He didn’t know what possessed him to say what he did next. “I didn’t have a chance to bring much with me when I left Dust.”

The smiles faded and even the beam of sunlight falling through the hole in the ceiling seemed to tarnish. He hadn’t been fishing for sympathy. At least he didn’t think so. Then Perfect was in front of him and placing a fore-hoof on his shoulder. “You are one of ze lucky ones, oui? You are healthy and here with a job lined up. Important to remember that. Get your feet under you first. Then use your prosperity to help ze others who escaped with even less.”

Perth barely managed to keep his mind from plunging into thoughts about what was happening in Dust. It was like living in a room with a pit in the middle of the floor. He could walk around it and go about his business but he always needed to be a little careful. Mindful not to send his mind too close to the edge. He didn’t try to force a smile but he hoped his gratitude showed. It baffled him why these strangers cared, but it was obvious they did. “Yes, I will do that, Mist-Monseur Measure.” It was even the truth. Half of the money his patented inventions made would go to charity, including helping Dustan refugees.

“Good.” Perfect stepped back, leaving Perth startled to discover he was up on the platform under the beam of light. The pegasus had steered him with skill. He stripped down to his boxers with barely enough mortification to make him blush. Tape Measure wore not a stitch and no one seemed to think anything of it. He half-ignored the pony measuring him, trying to squint up past the light to the source. Sungold, maybe? But he gathered it was very rare.

After being measured, that was it. He wasn’t being fitted for a suit but ordering a wardrobe. Then Perfect asked a question that Perth hadn’t even considered. “What kind of wardrobe does Monsieur Perth require?”

His mind raced as it rarely had. “Um…uh, a few outfits suitable for formal occasions, and more clothing fine for going out in public or puttering around at home. A light summer wardrobe and a heavier winter one. A few bathrobes. Pajamas. Foul-weather gear? Beyond that…I don’t know. Are wide lapels in fashion, or narrow? Necktie, bowtie?” He spread his paws in a helpless shrug. “On my honor, I will be satisfied with what you choose.”

“Do you have a favorite color, at least?”

Perth imagined himself in a bright yellow suit, complete with yellow hat and walking stick. Much as he loved that sunny color, the notion failed to appeal. “Make them black.”

The pegasus turned uncertain. “All of it?”

“Well, not the dress shirts and unmentionables, those would be white.”

“Sir said he trusted my judgment.” Perfect said. He gave the impression of being cornered. “Black would not be…it would not send ze right message. Black is for funerals. And for, how do you say…ne’er-do-wells. Not that I think you are one.”

“Oh. Grey, perhaps? I don’t want to look like a scoundrel, I just want something that…” At a loss, Perth resorted to unvarnished honesty. “I don’t want to even pretend I care if I’m fashionable, so long as I am presentable. Boring, drab, plain. Those are virtues in clothing to me, not flaws. I have no issue with wearing the same outfit every day, merely the same clothing. What to wear in the morning isn’t something I like to waste time thinking about.”

Perfect looked relieved by the end of it. “Ah, but of course. I understand. Drab, I can do. I have your measurements. Shall we discuss payment?”

“On my account.” Fleur said. “He can pay me back.”

“It shall be so, Mademoiselle Blanc.” Perfect said.

Perth felt relieved and rather daring. He brought up an old secret yearning, a hunger that he didn’t really understand but couldn’t deny. “And…can you make…labcoats? Long white coat, pockets here and like so. Do you have those out here?”

Oui. Like ze pharmacist wears.”

“Yes. Seven of them, please.”

Tape Measure had been scribbling on a paper, holding the pencil in her mouth. She added another note. Perth climbed back into his suit, feeling rather more ambivalent about its blackness than he had before. Though he did work for a ne’er-do-well, whose scales were black as a chimneysweep’s hanky. Perfect went to confer with his wife.

Mister Longtail didn’t so much materialize beside Perth as insinuate himself, the difference being Perth didn’t leap away in fright. The sugar glider was smiling and Perth had no idea why it made the fur stand up under his clothing. “A word of advice, mate. You need to work on keeping your mask in place.”


The smile grew, both in size and inexplicable menace. “The anxious, humble, harmless bumbler act. You do it well, but it badly slipped for a while there. You gave me a look like I was some bug you were thinking about squashing. Go around looking down your nose at creatures and someone is going to punch you in it.”

“I-I-I…” Perth closed his mouth with a click of teeth. “This isn’t a mask, sir. This is who I am.”

“And that arrogant bugger who gave me the cold eye?”

Perth could feel his loathing crease his features. “Aberration. Are you aware of the term?” The sugar glider nodded, no longer smiling. “Well, I am one. I have magic. I can make mechanisms and devices that should not be able to work. However, with using the magic comes…a kind of madness. When in that state…everything falls away. Nothing is left but the focus, the cold clarity. No emotion and no concern for things like conscience. I could be evil, sir. I could create…dreadful things. A part of me wishes to, for no reason but because I can. The rest of me refuses, and will continue refusing.”

After a long, tense silence, Mister Longtail gave a measured nod. “Then let me wish you the best of luck in that.” He smiled again, and this time it reached his eyes. “Good on you, making the pink lizard agree not to use you for criminal stuff. I bet it put a knot in his tail.”

“I…couldn’t tell. Sir, everything I know about dragons I learned from my nursemaid, and I can’t say I’d cite her as a reliable source. Perhaps you could tell me a few things? Is it true dragons keep vast piles of treasure? Mister Smog certainly admitted to being wealthy. I thought they’d be bigger, as well.” Smog was perfectly terrifying, at least.

“Smog’s a weird one. Persona non grata with other dragons. Never joins in when they have their Great Migration. One reason is because he’s a bloody runt. Dragons grow slow but live halfway to forever and never stop growing. They can grow really bloody fast if they can gather enough loot but they shrink if they lose it again. Greed puffs them up. Smog hasn’t grown an inch in centuries. If greed could make him big he’d be big, and since he’s not, he can’t. If he had a proper hoard, another dragon could just swipe it.”

“I see. He’s a king of mice?” The sugar glider raised an expressive eyebrow. “A story about a small, weak cat who created a kingdom of mice to rule. Better a king among mice than a beggar among cats.”

“Maybe. I can see him thinking of non-dragons as inferior. Humble dragons are rarer than honest politicians.”

Perth chuckled. It felt good to laugh. “I heard that dragons can sleep forever, but I also heard that they never sleep.”

Mister Longtail rocked a fore-paw back and forth. “The young ones wake and sleep like most creatures. The older they get, the longer they stay awake and the longer they sleep. The biggest think nothing of napping for a hundred years. With one eye open, though. Trying to steal from their hoard is a reliable way of making one wake up, but remember to wear fireproof undies, yeah?”

Perth chuckled again. It seemed natural enough for Mister Longtail to accompany them when they left the shop. The sugar glider claimed to be at loose ends and with nothing better to do. On the way back to the hotel, Perth spotted a charmingly tacky and extremely yellow duck in a toy shop window. It was a wind-up toy that waddled around, pausing to change direction and quack. Perth looked forward to dismantling it in private and seeing how he could improve it.

The yellow-bodied, green-haired pegasi twins flanked the door of the Dragon’s Den when they came along the corridor. Each one wore half a broken pair of goggles for a necklace pendant. Shards of mirror glass on one, red-tinted glass on the other. Their heads turned in rather creepy unison. Right down to how their grim expressions turned relieved. At least only one of them spoke. “Mister Smog would like to speak with you, Mister Perth. He has drafted the contract.”

“Oh? Oh, yes. Of course.”

“I’ll come with him.” Mister Longtail said. His tone suggested there was no possible way they could object to that. The twins exchanged a glance. “If your boss wants me to go, he can tell me so himself, yes? I just have a question for him. Nothing important, just something that made me curious.”

The pegasi nodded in unison, a silent duet of grudging acceptance. Fleur ruffled Perth’s head-fur before vanishing through the door under the sputtering pink-glowing sign. Perth wished he knew how to fix the flicker. The sign had no gears or anything. Not so much as a mystic rune. It just…glowed.

Entering the bar, Perth found his new employer behind the bar polishing something small in a fluffy white cloth. He was no longer a dull sooty black, with pink spines down his back and white talons. He had claimed to usually be pink of scale, and pink he was. A glorious pinkness, glistening like a half-sucked candy: the distilled essence of all that was pink. He almost seemed to glow even in the dim-lit bar. It rather clashed with the ugly raised scars clawed down the side of his face, though they were faintly pink. He wore the white eye-patch, and his good eye was the same icy green. A clipboard lay on the bar with a respectable sheaf of paper lodged under the clip. A quill pen poked up from an inkwell. Impossibly quaint, but Perth knew how to use them. Those cursed calligraphy lessons might turn out to be useful, against all prediction.

Mister Longtail gave a short laugh. “Looks like you finally took a much-needed bath.”

Smog looked up from his polishing, cold eye narrowing to a slit and going even colder. Perth edged away from the sugar glider, half-expecting Smog to vomit fire at Mister Longtail. The dragon looked away again, suddenly indifferent. “I shed my skin.” His talons delicately lifted something from the cloth. A perfect sphere of transparent…not glass, the refraction index was all wrong. Swirls of color flowed over the surface, as if they reflected things invisible to Perth. Smog turned his back, flipping his eye-patch up. A rather squelchy pop and he turned back. Perth glimpsed the sphere in his eye socket, backed by darkness and turned into a pool of darkness. Then, to his relief, the patch flipped down to hide it.

“You’re pinker than ever.” Mister Longtail said. “Young fillies would take one look and make noises shrill enough to knock bats from the sky. More fool them, of course.”

“Jindalee.” Smog said. Not a word of welcome, by the tone. Perhaps a name. “Interesting news. I was checking on the flow of refugees from Dust, so I could get an idea of the magnitude of the problem facing me. Something else was revealed instead. The civil war in Dust might well end with a fizzle rather than a bang. It seems one of the six Lords managed to dispose of his five rivals within the space of a day, by rather dishonorable means. But quite precise. No collateral damage worth mentioning.”

“I suppose he had help.” Mister Longtail said.

“I wish I could claim credit, but no. My only order to any employees in Dust is to keep their heads down and get out as soon as they can. I’m quite astonished by this turn of events. It’s possible it hasn’t happened quite yet, but if so it’s all but certain to happen. Lord Sidney is the one I pegged as the least likely to be so…practical. Someone that ruthless yet so adept at concealing it…his reign should be interesting to watch, if not to experience. Perhaps not, of course. It may be that somepony else did him, or perhaps Dust in general, an unsolicited favor.”

“Hasn’t happened yet?” Perth said.

Jindalee sighed. “Draggo there has a crystal ball in his head.”

It took a second, and then Perth’s jaw dropped. “A magic crystal ball? Fortune-telling?”

“Yes, that kind.” Jindalee’s tone changed, seeming to carry some second layer of meaning. “Most fortunetellers are fakes, and only a fool trusts what they learn even from a real one.”

“Only a fool entirely disregards it.” Smog said. “Now, what has caused you to once more inflict your presence upon me?”

“Just a question.”

“I may not answer it.” Smog said.

“Oh, of course.” Jindalee paused to adjust his lapels and then his cuffs, seeming to do it just to annoy Smog. Perth edged a little further away. Just in case.

The knock on the door behind them caught Perth mid-sidle. Next thing he knew, his nose hit the floor. The black floor felt quite solid, not like cloud at all. It hurt. He scrambled back to his feet with more than one reason to rub his nose. The floor smelled like the vile stuff born when sooty smoke mingled with fog, plus a hint of sulfur. Something clicked in his mind as he looked around the room with its bright white furniture but black floor, walls, and ceiling. Most of Aura was made of cloud. This room was made of…smog.

First sign he’d seen that the dragon had a sense of humor.

It was dusk, the height of the sunset past but true night not quite there yet. The city wasn’t dark. It shone and sparkled like all the hoards of all the dragons in the world gathered in one place. Blue Streak watched Canterlot grow nearer with mixed feelings. A pegasus, like most airship sailors, he was blue of eye, body, and hair. Pretty much all the same shade as the summer sky. His special talent, to the delight of his fellow sailors and the shame of his family, was for swearing. He raised it to an art, a vulgar poetry. Though rarely with any malice behind it. They must have hoped their little all-blue foal would grow up to be a fast flier. Fate had played a prank and given them a colt who could, as the saying went, ‘curse a blue streak.’ His cutie mark was a string of black symbols from the top row of a typewriter. Nice symbolism there, as those were used to represent words not fit to print. Blue Streak didn’t need to resort to actual naughty words to turn the air blue. In fact, he couldn’t say them without stammering and blushing. He could thank his mother and her ever-ready bar of soap for that. Though she had sort-of apologized once he got his cutie mark. Embarrassing or not, it was his special talent, and she had tried to discourage it. He had learned to work around the weakness. Blue Streak had once made a room full of mares blush to the roots of their manes without saying a single word a kindergarten teacher would find inappropriate.

Once he’d got it, there had really been only one career he could honorably pursue. Swearing was a time-honored naval tradition. Blue Streak had been fast-tracked to sergeant and even grew out a proper sergeanty moustache. He had the perfect voice and talent for a drill sergeant. Boredom had driven him to apply for an active post. Boredom and a nagging feeling he wasn’t a proper soldier unless he had done a tour of duty. He’d felt a little hypocritical training cadets for something he had never done. And a little envious, sure.

Now his tour of duty had ended and it was back to boot camp.

Hence the mixed feelings. He would get to leave this cramped interceptor. They hadn’t stopped or even slowed since leaving the western coast of Camelu. No pause for the pegasi to get out and stretch their wings. It was even more cramped thanks to there being four ponies in a ship barely designed to fit three. Then there was Tradewind’s bellyache, about which he had done some bellyaching, just to put the brown rose on the top of this manure pile. Seeing the end of that was all great. He would get away from whatever was in that black bag. It quietly terrified him, and scared Coffee Bean and Hawkeye just as bad. They had been chosen because it did, but that made him no sadder to see the last of it. With his arrival, he would get a pay bonus and a week’s extra leave.

Best of all, he would get to see his sweetie Sugarplum again, the most wonderful mare in the world. His talent made her laugh, and she had a pretty sharp tongue herself for a pony whose talent was making Hearth’s-Warming candies. He let himself daydream about her body, the exact color of fresh gingerbread. Her mane, striped red and ivory-white like a candy cane. Her deep purple eyes were as sparkly as sugar-coated plums and her kisses twice as sweet as any candy. He had tried to write her a love letter once, but his passion and his talent had resulted in the actual paper catching on actual fire. So he’d recited it for her in person, in private of course, and with…interesting results. He’d had to wear turtleneck sweaters and long pants for a week after that, and thank goodness it had been winter. Totally worth it.

His family didn’t like her being an earth pony. They could all take a flying leap at a rolling doughnut. He was going to propose to her as soon as he could afford a decent wedding, and this pay bonus put him that much closer.

But after the vacation it was back to boot camp. Back to shouting at fillies and colts, sometimes driving them to the point of tears. The only fly in the soup of his life was that he didn’t like being hard on them. Even if he had to be, to make proper soldiers out of them.

Blue Streak shook his head hard. He wasn’t exactly sleep deprived but stir-craziness had begun to set in. His mind kept trying to wander, to escape this cramped cabin that way. He focused on the city drawing close now. The original city, way back during the time of Luna’s Return, had perched high up on a mountain slope so steep it was a cliff. It was still there, called Old Canterlot, but the whole of it had been swallowed by government functions and staff. Most ponies just called it the Palace. The city itself covered the whole mountain. Top to bottom, all the way around. The mountain had been hollowed out about as much as was safe, with huge caverns lit by sungold lamps where crops and gardens and parks thrived under blue-painted ceilings.

The very peak of the transformed mountain bore the Tower of Light, like Celestia’s horn exactly reproduced but a hundred yards tall. The living heart of the Equestrian Empire, the place holding all the blinker-gem switchboards. Blue Streak hoped to take Sugarplum on a tour of the inside someday. It was supposed to be beautiful, all soft shifting rainbow light. He wished he was headed there with his sweetie. Instead he joined the cloud of airships and pegasi swirling around the greatest city in the world. Pegasi with glowing torches in their fore-hooves signaled like the traffic cops they were, only they worked in three dimensions. Puffs of clouds marked with colored flags lined the approved lanes for travel.

They were expected. A pair of Royal Guard in golden armor swooped in to flank them, motioning for him to steer the interceptor after them. Behind him, he heard the pegasus Tradewind sigh. Not a loud, obnoxious sigh. More like relief. Even so, Blue Streak had to bite his tongue to keep from saying something he’d regret. He piloted on automatic, composing a truly epic insult he knew he wasn’t going to say. The escort led them to a small private docking berth in a balcony garden on the edge of the Palace. It was full dark now and the garden only had small low moonsilver lamps hung among the trees. Evergreen trees, and the ground had a dusting of snow.

As ranking officer, Blue Streak got to leave first. He took a deep breath of cold, evergreen-scented air. The two Guards had scampered and nopony else was in sight. Then the other three joined him. Tradewind gave a little sigh again. A second later, he gasped. It was a good thing Blue Streak had been biting his tongue again, because he almost swallowed it when Princess Luna seemed to materialize in front of him. She hadn’t been invisible or teleported, just…blended into the night. Like a face hidden in a picture, before it leapt out at you.

Blue Streak bowed low, only a beat behind the others. Two of the others. Blue Streak opened an eye and swiveled it upwards. Tradewind stood there with his jaw hanging like a concussed mule. Then his jaw snapped shut with a click and he dropped down to give the Princess the respect she deserved.

“Arise, please.” Luna said. They did, three of them with military precision. Tradewind took a little longer. He looked tongue-tied, gobsmacked, and that rosy glow to his cheeks couldn’t all be from the cold. Blue Streak fought an urge to edge away. There were rumors Luna sometimes wasn’t all that polite when it came to stallions with a crush on her.

Luna gave him a look, calm as anything. It stopped Tradewind, even made him stop breathing. Then her magic lifted the horrible black bag from his saddlebags. She opened the top and peered inside. Her expression didn’t really change but her eyes went hard. She yanked the drawstring shut and dropped it into a wooden chest beside her. Blue Streak hadn’t noticed it before. The matte black material might have been stygian ebony. It was inlaid with silver in the shape of timberwolves and manticores and cockatrices, with gemstone eyes and horrible snarling glares directed out at the viewer. A ruby-eyed hydra on the lid had no less than thirteen heads. Luna used a fore-hoof to close that lid. It banged down with a deep hollow boom all out of proportion with its size. Veils of snow sighed down from the nearest pines. Then it locked with a sound like the bolts snapping home on the Gates of Tartarus.

The chest…sank. As if the ground was quicksand. Within moments it was gone and not even a rectangular dent in the snow remained to prove it had ever existed. Luna planted a fore-hoof in that spot and gave a quiet sigh of relief. Then her green eyes went to Tradewind again. He turned bright red but didn’t drop his eyes. He stared back like a moth might stare at a flame.

Blue Streak really did sidle away this time.

Tradewind stared at the snow at his hooves, desperately trying to get his face back under the control of the bit of brain that did the thinking for him. He was keenly aware of the three pegasi with him and Princess Luna. Blue Streak, Hawkeye, and Coffee Bean weren’t friends but they weren’t strangers. Not after days trapped in a tiny airship with them. He mumbled something and scuffed a rear hoof in the snow.

Something pulled him, halfway between a strong wind and a downward slope. He stumbled forward a half-step. His hooves slid over snow that suddenly felt more like polished marble. Luna turned and walked away. An aura of blue magic half-dragged him after her. Her hooves left no prints and made no sound. Neither did his. He squeaked, a pathetic little sound far back in his throat. Maybe the stories were true, about the Princess of the Night’s tendency to look with anger on those who would dare to look at her with…more than proper admiration. He managed to get his hooves moving so he walked rather than slid behind the alicorn. Tradewind was bigger than most pegasi, but even he was a good head shorter than her Majesty. He kept his eyes resolutely downcast, not about to risk her looking back to see her ogling her…assets.

The grove of evergreen trees swallowed them. The only light was the faint glow of snow itself, here and there on the ground. He blinked, and had a little trouble forcing his eyes open again. Fatigue suddenly crashed down on him. Then his dread fought it back. The moment of dizziness passed. They went deep enough into the trees for him to get nervous. The balcony hadn’t looked that big as the airship approached. Luna finally stopped in a clearing big enough to have a gap in the canopy above it. He could see some stars. Tradewind swallowed with a dry throat. A black haze began to creep back into his vision, and his stomachache started to grow acute.

The princess let him go and made a gesture with her horn. A soft sizzle made him twitch and look back. Behind him sat a comfortable-looking cushion in a patch of snow-less ground. Had she transformed the snow into it? He sat. It was easy. His knees wanted to give out anyway. With a toss of her mane, the clearing lit with a strange silvery light, like moonlight but…softer. Warmer. There were no shadows, but a waver to the light almost like candles. It was…intimate. Tradewind swallowed again as she sat on a much large cushion opposite his own. She stared at him. For what felt like a very long time. With no expression. Only her mane and tail moved, rippling. Tradewind stared back, his blush glowing even in the moonlight. The blackness slowly ate at the edges of his vision. He had thought he was done with that.

At last, the princess seemed to realize Tradewind was only being driven into deeper silence. “You will tell me exactly how you came to be in possession of such a dangerous and powerful artifact. I wish to hear no lies.”

Tradewind swallowed one last time, and the words came out in a rush. “I just went to Aura for a delivery, that stupid pink dragon wrapped me up in it! I just wanted to come home and that was the quickest and easiest way! I-” He stopped as Luna half-lifted a wing in a gesture that somehow perfectly demanded silence.

“Pegasus, I asked to hear no lies, not even the smallest of them. Speak you in your true voice.”

Tradewind panted through his nose, his jaws locked tight. His mind clouded over in confusion. Something felt wrong, almost as if the ground were slowly tipping over but never quite enough to slide. True voice? His panic grew. Then it hit him, and he breathed out long and hard, a huge sigh of relief. When he spoke again, it wasn’t in the faux-Manehatten accent he had adopted as one of his more pathetic strategies for blending in there. He dredged up his thick Dustan drawl. “I was hired, to deliver a package to Aura. I arrived about a month and a half ago. Sungold, not that I knew it at the time. It was for a dragon who calls himself Smog. A nasty piece of work…”

The floodgates had opened. Tradewind found it impossible to stop talking. Everything he’d walled up inside came pouring out. Tradewind’s story dragged on, rambling and backtracking, but never once did the princess show anything but polite and intense concentration. Occasionally she would ask a question, usually when he skipped something. Tradewind found himself not just telling the story of the urn, or as much as he remembered after having some of his memories snipped away. The so-called adventures of him and his new friends, the curse, what had happened between him and a certain unicorn mare. Jindalee. Kirra. Berta. His life in Freeport, in Manehatten…it turned into a tale of his life story.

It felt like hours or even days, but the stars overhead hadn’t wheeled enough for more than three hours at most. Tradewind knew how to tell time by them, of course. Eventually he fell silent, emotionally exhausted, utterly drained. Sitting on the cushion, he panted as though he’d just run a marathon, and hung his head. “That’s…that’s about it. If there’s more, I can’t bring it to mind, your Majesty.” His improper feelings for the princess had waned. The idea of her, his idle daydreams, didn’t capture the reality of her presence. Not even a unicorn, he felt her power. The way everything behind her became mere background to her. There was no sense of evil in her, but there was a…sternness. She was good, but he felt in his bones that she wasn’t always nice or even kind. If she was angered she would be harsh and dangerous as a winter storm. Prepared to do what was necessary, with regret but without hesitation.

Only…she hadn’t done it.

Tradewind had imagined asking this in a towering fury. Instead he felt tears welling up in his eyes. “Please, Princess Luna. Why haven’t you and your sister done something about Smog?”

He heard a sigh from the pony opposite him. Tears made her a blur. “Before now, the risk of harm in facing him outweighed the harm caused by him. Not harm to my sister and I, but to the ponies of Aura and Umbra. He is very…cunning. He used our own goodness against us and never provoked us too far. He was a spider tolerated because he kept away lesser vermin. No longer.” Her voice was soft but not weak. Her whisper was the whisper of water retreating from the beach, gathering itself into a tidal wave. The world shivered. Tradewind felt goosebumps break out all over as he joined it. Smog wished he was a tenth as scary. “The time has come at last. What he caused to happen in Dust cannot be ignored. We must move with care, pegasus, but it has already begun.”

A soft wingtip brushed a tear from his cheek. He looked up to see a smiling Luna looking at him not with contempt, or anger, or pity, but kindness and concern. It made her seem even stronger, not weaker. She nodded and sat back, watching him with care as he used his own wings to wipe his eyes and take a shuddering breath. He’d opened his heart. Let it all out. Now something better left chained took its chance to pounce. He felt the horrible darkness close over his vision. He felt his mind slipping away, slipping out of reach of himself again. He tried thinking of Fantasy, of pawing at the scarf still wrapped around his neck. He treasured it too much to use as a handkerchief, but suddenly it felt like a noose.

That horrible voice, the one that was him and him alone, cackled in his mind. “So, you’ve finally realized it, huh? That everything you just went through is going to be written out of your life. You’ll go back to being a courier and you’re going to like it, aren’t you. Coward.” The voice spat out the last word with such venom Tradewind physically flinched. “The reason you didn’t tell Fantasy why you left is because you knew from the beginning you were too scared to fight for her. Let Lute have her, you’re better off being alone, where you can’t hurt anypony.” The darkness suddenly manifested into a grey shape, one Tradewind recognized all too well. He saw it in mirrors. His other side lashed out at him, smashing a wing across Tradewind’s face. “Coward. You could’ve at least pretended to care about her long enough to get your jollies! But no, all you got was a purple scarf and some stupid curses, not to mention an achy wing!” The reflection lashed out again, knocking Tradewind off his hooves and into a heap on the ground. “You are truly pathetic. This darkness? This isn’t some curse; it just let me out of the dark hole where you stuck me. You thought you were rid of me when Fantasy filled you with light but you just locked me away again. Face the light if you want, Tradie-poo, you’ll never outrun your shadow. Wrap yourself in light and the darkness will hide inside you. This is you. This is the truth: you are nopony. Nopony to anypony. The only reason Jindalee came to save your sorry hide is because you’re technically his property. The only reason that Fleur knitted you that scarf is because you pathetically offered to carry a thousand-bit job for free! Kirra? You’re just a warm blanket. Fantasy? You’re just a way of rebelling against her parents, her way of getting out of Shadowville and up with the pegasi.” The shadows grinned, mocking. “Tartarus, even your special talent is tailored to keeping you away from every other living creature in existence. You out-fly eagles.”

Tradewind couldn’t even bring himself to fight the shadow’s words. Because deep down, he knew that it was him, and that these words were what he believed. The darkness was just telling him everything he was too scared to admit to himself. The darkness oozed away. The derisive laughter still ringing in his mind, he looked straight into the eyes of the suddenly worried-looking princess. The compassion in his eyes made him flinch and look away. He stood, and bowed deeply, then turned it into a crouch and that into a leap. He flapped up through the hole in the treetops and kept flapping, pushing himself high above the city. Luna didn’t stop him or call after him. Closing his eyes and beginning a slow, steady breathing rhythm, he began to soar. His internal compass told him how to find south-east. Three days of flying would put him out over the ocean, another two days far from any land. After that, he didn’t have a plan. Maybe just fly in circles until he couldn’t fly anymore. Too far to reach land, so even if he turned coward at the last moment…it would be too late. Maybe he’d land somewhere, some desert island where he’d never see another pony again. He wasn’t sure.

Just that he needed to go where he could do no harm.

The sound of his voice cut through his thoughts, and he realized he was singing without thinking. A song entirely inappropriate for his situation. An old sailor’s shanty to the moon and the stars, which no longer looked down with age-old wisdom and kindness, but harsh and judging pinpricks of light. The moon seemed to watch him, but he couldn’t read its face.

So I may return to my love, some day…

The princess didn’t do any spooky appearing trick, but Blue Streak still jumped when she stepped out from under the shadows of the trees. She didn’t make a mother-loving sound. Her horn shimmered with magic. Behind her, floating and all curled up inside his oversized wings, was Tradewind. He looked asleep but tears fell from his eyes to drip little holes in the snow. Luna looked sad, if not about to start bawling.

The thought of Princess Luna sobbing was a hard thing to picture and he found it oddly terrifying to try. Blue Streak shuffled his hooves, barely even daring to ask what happened even in his head. Coffee Bean and Hawkeye had retreated into the cabin of the interceptor. Cramped or not, it felt safer in there. Blue Streak was as close to a captain as the little airship got. He felt it was his duty to wait out here.

“He sleeps, sergeant.” Princess Luna said. “He was very tired.”

“Uh, he had nightmares all the way here.” Blue Streak said. “Your Majesty. I don’t think he remembered them.”

“No. He would not.” She answered the question he hadn’t asked. “I eased him into sleep and made him dream he was yet awake. There I could ask the questions that must be asked without keeping him from the sleep he needs. Time in the dream stretched, so we could speak at length yet only minutes pass in the waking world.”

“Not my place, and you can tell me to can it if you want, but I have to ask. Why is he crying?”

“A curse was on him. Gone now, but it opened a door in his heart that few ponies ever open. Such a door is difficult to close once more.” She turned to study Tradewind. “The voice of his darkness speaks to him. He knows it is part of him…but he fails to understand. That voice holds no truth, only fear. It has no power except to convince you that you are weak.”

Something in her tone made Blue Streak’s military-short mane stand on end. Something that said she spoke from bitterly personal experience. “Can you help him?”

Luna looked at Blue Streak and he saw the shine of unshed tears. “I shall try, but I cannot drive this darkness from him, any more than I could tear away his shadow. I can only keep him in a dream, where he can come to no bodily harm while he fights his own self-hatred.” Her mouth twisted in something like shame. “Nor can I devote all my energies to this. Others suffer and they are no less worthy of aid. Refugees pour from Dust. Many gather in Umbra, and more are on the way. Preparations have begun for me to visit there. I shall speak with them and the peoples of the city. The Empire should welcome them with compassion, not resentment.”

Smoothing his moustache, Blue Streak felt his respect for Luna grow even more. “Do you want us to take Tradewind anywhere?”

“I shall keep him with me.” Tradewind shimmered, then seemed to slip away in a direction Blue Streak had never imagined existed. “I shall do what I can, as I can. It is never good to forget that the greatest crowd is made of individuals, and that the suffering of one is no less real or terrible than the suffering of many. The ends, sergeant, do not justify the means. Never confuse necessity with rightness.”

She wasn’t speaking to him, it seemed, but to herself. He felt compelled to answer anyway. “I-I’ll try not to, your Majesty. What can I do to help you?”

Luna smiled at him. “That you asked that question with sincerity helps me more than you know. The world needs more ponies like you, sergeant. Ponies who say not ‘somepony should do something,’ but ‘I should do something.’ Go. Give your report. Receive your rewards. Cherish the time you have with your beloved. Perhaps when I return to the capital, you might send me some gingerbread? For a fair price, of course.”

Princess Luna knew his sweetheart was Sugarplum and that she made good gingerbread. It hit him then, in a way it never really had. Luna and Celestia didn’t just care about the Empire, but about every pony in it. Her knowledge could have been worrying, proof that the eyes of the Princesses saw all. Instead it just proved they cared enough to pay attention to the little things like that. Like him. He might think he wasn’t worthy of being remembered by them. Luna disagreed.

Blue Streak bowed low, and it didn’t just feel like giving her the traditional courtesy. He bowed from genuine respect. Luna returned it with a deep nod, face solemn but with just a hint of a sparkle in her eyes. She turned away, humming an old sailor’s chantey about the stars and moon. Which…well. Made sense, he guessed. He retreated into the warm, somewhat smelly cabin of the interceptor. He took them up on automatic, while his brain sat in a daze.

“We heard what was said.” Coffee Bean said. For once, he actually managed to sit without fidgeting. “Do we really just go enjoy our leave and forget this never happened?”

“Our orders were not to talk about it.” Hawkeye said. His usual air of lazy unconcern looked troubled. “I don’t think I could forget it if I wanted to. Did me all kinds of good to see that bagged whatever-it-was banished…wherever it went.”

“One less evil thing in the world.” Blue Streak said. “I don’t know about you two pansies, but I plan to get debriefed, take my pay, and turn up on my sweetie’s doorstep with a big bouquet of her favorite flowers. I’ll look you up in a week, we’ll all go out for a night, drink a toast to the princesses.”

“Why a week?” Coffee Bean said.

Blue Streak gave a snort of disbelief. “It’s been months since Sugarplum saw me, you daft duck-faced flitter-bug. I know you both have sweetie pies pining for you too. What do you think we’ll all be doing for the next week or so? Sitting around in rocking chairs knitting sweaters for poodles? We’re going to horizontal-mambo, do the old bedspring bop, trip the light fantastic, and maybe make the neighbors call the cops. I bet when we meet up for that drink we’re all walking funny.”

Coffee Bean blushed to the roots of his mane. Next thing he knew, all three of them were laughing. He piloted the interceptor toward the navy’s part of the docks.

Tradewind awoke with a yawn, his wings stretching out to either side of the bed. They had been dangling limp down off the sides like a pair of old rugs. It wasn’t a big room. His wings pressed against opposite walls but it felt good to have something to push against. He worked the knots out of his legs. Fleur had long since grown used to the strange way he slept, particularly in cloud beds; on his back with all his legs curled up against his body. Tradewind shook his head to get the fluff out of his brain and furled his wings. Not an easy task sometimes. Folding them carefully as he stretched like a cat, he finished his waking routine with a huge yawn. Crossing his wings over his hindquarters protected the tips and supported the weight, sticking out as they did behind him. He perked up his ears, feeling awake and alert.

For a second everything seemed to shimmer like water. Or a reflection on water. Suddenly he felt like the past year hadn’t happened, or had rushed by in a blur. All his memories were there but felt vague until he focused on one, as if it only existed while he watched it. The same felt true for the world. A nagging sensation told him that if he whirled fast enough, he’d find…nothing…behind him. He almost felt like he was dreaming, but he hadn’t dreamed for over a year. Not once, not since the night he flew away from Princess Luna. Sleep was just lost time, not even gaps. He went to sleep, and then he was waking up. If it was her doing he was grateful. It meant no nightmares.

A knock on the door caused him to jump, and everything snapped back to feeling as real as he knew they were. He turned the knob only for the door to burst open and a beaming Fleur Blanc trotted inside, holding up a bag. Setting it down, she turned and pulled out the most terrifying bag that Tradewind had ever seen. Forcing him into a sitting position, she pulled out several instruments. Tradewind stared at them as he would at a pair of pilliwinks. He gave a worried squeak as Fleur started clipping his mane, all the while chatting as if nothing was wrong. “You’ve got to look your best, darling. It’s a big day! My goodness, I can’t believe it’s already come!”

“Yeah…me neither.” Tradewind said. He must have sounded a little dejected, since Fleur bopped him on the head with the brush she was currently wielding. “Come now, you made exactly the right choice! She will be incredibly happy!”

Tradewind nodded and forced a smile that felt like a grimace. It must have looked fine because Fleur chuckled. His eyes met hers in the mirror he sat before. She eventually finished styling his mane and tail, though it only felt like forever. Curlers were involved. She worked as quickly and efficiently as a professional hairstylist. Sometimes her job involved helping ponies on the run change their looks. A new mane-style and maybe some dye could do wonders. Magic couldn’t hide a cutie mark well, but cosmetics could. Trotting over to the larger bag, she opened it again, pulling out a garment bag. It revealed the best-looking suit that Tradewind had ever seen. He did a double take. Charcoal grey, pinstriped, of soberly rich cloth that whispered of money rather than shouted it. The cut was the height of fashion. “F-for me?”

A giggle bubbled though her reply. “But of course. We have to have you looking your best, don’t we?”

Tradewind nodded, swallowing, as Fleur helped him dress into the perfectly-fitting suit. She added several comments that made him blush from his nose to his tail. A day, a year, or a thousand years; he doubted he would ever get used to Fleur’s innuendos. He laughed, a little sadly, and shook his head.

Another head poked through his half-open door, dark red, with a blue-shining black mane slicked back and gathered in a ponytail. Flambé barked at the both of them. “Hurry up, ze ceremony will start soon. It will hardly do to keep her waiting!” He fully entered, revealing his own well-cut suit, which combined with his irritable expression to make him look like some lawyer just asked to work pro bono. Tradewind chuckled, joining Fleur in laughing, as they all trotted out of the Avec Noir. Heading up out of the cloud-tunnels, they took wing and flew up to the top of one of Aura’s broader, stubbier towers. The top was a bowl, like an amphitheater, open to the sky but shielded from the wind. It was something like a park. Foal pegasi could fly in safety here. Cloud-sculptures usually stood there but they’d been moved aside for today.

A large cloud canopy had been set up dead center, and already plenty of ponies milled around it. As they approached, Tradewind could make out at least a dozen ponies with expensive cameras. He sighed, silently mirroring Flambé’s earthier curse. “Merde. Paparazzi, they shall never leave it alone.”

Fleur shrugged, one fore-hoof adjusting the frothy mound of midnight-blue curls piled up on her head. “It is a busy day, ponies all over the world will want to see how today went, how beautiful she was…” Tradewind nodded, biting the inside of his cheek. Fleur sighed. “It is big news. Happy news; they are not coming like ze vultures to profit from tragedy.”

Flambé snorted. “I’ll bet you’ll read those trashy rags too, the both of you. Looking for your pictures.”

Tradewind laughed as they stopped at the gate of the velvet-rope fence erected around the gazebo, showing a burly pegasus their proof of identity before being let inside. Tradewind suddenly felt clammy, the soft parts of his hooves prickling, as Fleur led all three of them towards their seats. Already ponies had gathered at the front, looking on in anticipation as the three walked up the beautiful flower-strewn carpet running down the center of the seats. As he walked, Tradewind looked from side to side, nodding to ponies and others he knew. There was Jindalee and Kirra, tails twined around each other. The other two crewmembers of the Just In Time sat nearby. Kirra gave him a happy little wave, and Jindalee a smiling nod. Baz was busy chatting up the mare sitting in front of him. The Captain looked bored, but smiled briefly as Tradewind passed. Tradewind returned the smile and craned his neck to see if any other ponies were here yet.

He saw Bruce lurking in a corner, looking like he wished he had a shadow to do it in. The morning sun caught on the mirrors around the edge of the huge bowl and angled down into it. The canopy glowed like only sun-backed cloud could glow. Colors were soft and rich, like right before a storm, and there were no shadows. Bruce managed to look scruffy even in this flattering light. No amount of tailoring could make a suit hang well on him. Chuckling some more, Tradewind turned his eyes back to the seating.

And there was Smog. Front row, but far left. That made sense, as his good eye was on the right. Pried out of his black den by the demands of maintaining appearances. Word had gotten out about his sponsorship of a certain now world-famous author. He wore a white collar and a black bow tie. That was all. Well, besides the black eye-patch. The dragon looked at Tradewind with a pleasant-neutral mask that revealed nothing. Tradewind inwardly sighed. A lot had changed in a year. He doubted he would ever consider Smog a friend…but at least they weren’t actively trying to kill each other anymore. The safest place in a hurricane was in its eye. The safest place around Smog was under his.

A memory struggled to surface. Hadn’t Luna made a…promise…?

He gave his head a shake and it was gone. As he reached the front he nodded to Lute, standing looking stiff in a similar suit to his own. Perhaps a little different cut, but similar enough not to make a huge difference. Lute nodded back, smiling, and they exchanged polite nothings. Tradewind turned to scan the crowd again. There was Berry Jam, bawling her eyes out as she tried to stem the flow with a handkerchief. Punctuality sat by her, attempting to make it look as though the unicorn mare sitting next to him was a complete stranger whom he had never met before, honest. Tradewind snorted in the back of his throat and pointed this out to Lute, who laughed, shaking his head. There was a distinct lack of Tankard Longhorn, to Tradewind’s complete lack of surprise.

Tradewind yawned again, shaking the fuzz out. He hadn’t had any breakfast for fear of bringing it up, or coffee for fear of it making him too jumpy for self-control. The sound of snapping cameras and shouting from beyond the gazebo made his ears prick up. He looked to Lute one last time, who nodded and held up a hoof. Shaking it, Tradewind nodded back as the band in the front corner struck up an ancient, familiar tune. All heads turned to the rear of the gazebo, where gauzy curtains draped the start of the carpet. He took up his position, waiting for the ceremony to begin.

As he watched a certain purple unicorn slow-trot into view, walking next to her proud-looking father and resplendent in a white gown, he felt a lump rise in his throat. This was it.

A wingtip alighted on his shoulder, and he shook his head. “I’m fine…I’m fine.” He muttered it a third time he watched the mare draw near. She kissed her father’s cheek and took her place next to her betrothed. Tradewind smiled, and even chuckled inwardly at the final ‘if you ever hurt her’ look that Tankard gave to the lucky stallion. It was a mock warning, a threat without teeth because no threat was needed.

Finally, a mare dressed in elegant purple-and-white robes depicting Celestia’s Sun and Luna’s Moon stepped forward. She began speaking, looking from mare to stallion with solemn joy in her eyes as she spoke those ancient but never-clichéd words. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate the joining of Fantasy Longhorn and Wandering Lute…”

Tradewind sniffed, and Fleur gently hugged him with a wing. The crowd faded, the magistrate’s words fading into a musical buzz as he watched the two ponies. They stared into each other’s eyes and he knew that everything else had vanished for them, too. The emptiness in his chest began to burn. A voice leaned down to whisper in his ear. “See, you made the right choice. Why should you be happy? After all, there’s nothing for you but more problems. Which reminds me, don’t you have an extralegal delivery due in just a few hours? You should get on that. Not linger for the reception, where you’d just be a fly in the soup. Funny, I was born out of a hatred of that pink wyvern, but you ended up working for him.

Tradewind chuckled, having long ago learned that despair could birth a kind of dark humor. Pain could provoke laughter. He stood through the ceremony in a daze, joining the crowd as they stomped thundering applause at the kiss. Then Fantasy and Lute trotted away down the carpet looking overjoyed. The voice continued to whisper horrible things in his ear, but he had soon learned that it could be drowned by sufficient alcohol. Speaking of which, there was an open bar…


Staggering out of the Dragon’s Den, his breath tasting of rotten apples, Tradewind did a slow dancing sidestep as the floor tilted. He slumped against the wall of the corridor on the side with the door to the Avec Noir. Part of him was disgusted with where he was and what he was. But it was drowned out by the voice telling him this is what he deserved. This was exactly what he deserved. Alone, with only the pity of his former friends to keep him company and only an aching hole where his heart used to be.

Tradewind threw the empty bottle he held against the wall opposite, where it half-sank before sliding slowly down to the floor and out of sight. He figured it would tumble to the ground below. Tradewind briefly felt guilty, and then shrugged. Nothing right below the docking spire but a great big cesspit. His thoughts formed with care, like building block towers with numb hooves. He should never have come back. He should have run back to Manehatten that night, forgotten everything. But instead he had been stupid enough to fly express back to Aura, expecting a wonderful reception, despite his conscience telling him it was pointless.

A mad cackle burst from Tradewind. That horrible shadow-him hadn’t turned out to be his inner darkness, simply the voice of reason. Telling the ugly truth he wished he could deny. Once he realized this, the pony had become clear as day, a beautiful shining golden color. Like a pony made of sunlight. He had named it Reason, because it had stood to…well. The pony spoke to him now: “Beautiful ceremony, eh? I’ll bet you’re glad you got all gussied up for it. Did you see that look Fantasy gave you as she passed? I’ll bet if she ever gets the urge to fool around, you’ll be the first pony she’d call. Too bad that’ll never happen. What would she want with a washed-up old drunk like you?” Tradewind nodded, slumping in misery, sliding down the wall until his rump hit floor. His suit picked up a few more stains from the grimy old clouds. From pristine to putrid in…what, eight hours? A new personal worst. Reason continued: “I still say you should’ve stayed in Manehatten; at least there you could pretend that ponies actually liked you. Heh, oh well, spilled milk and all that.” Tradewind laughed again and slumped, everything going mercifully black.


Tradewind wasn’t sure how he had managed to get back into bed, but it seemed like one day ran into another anyway. Pickled brains made poor baskets for memories. He always woke up from one of his benders in his own bed. Even if he passed out in some weird place. Even the time some fun-loving unicorns in Shadowville had stuffed him in a barrel and rolled it down a cellar’s steps. He assumed that it was one of the two pegasi that ran the Noir. It was usually Fleur that woke him up. As if on cue, a knock came at the door, and Reason cackled. “Better answer that, Tradie.

Tradewind finished stretching and opened the door, only to fall backwards in shock, much to the amusement of Reason. There, looking slightly worse-for-wear, was Fantasy. She looked down at him with concern. “Concern? Get over yourself, that’s pure, unadulterated pity.” Reason poked at Tradewind’s mind as he stared at the purple unicorn.

It was Fantasy who broke the spell, when her pitying expression changed to contempt, and then into rage. As Tradewind staggered to his hooves, she floored him again with a vicious slap to the cheek. “Tradewind, you pathetic, you useless…! You…!” Tradewind lay on the floor, looking up as Reason tutted and Fantasy looked down at him, seething. “Why did you spend the whole reception telling everypony that you were my ‘first?!’ You know we never did anything, you…you FLYING DONKEY!”

Reason cackled harder. “Because it’s true. You didn’t say what first you meant, and you got her first kiss.

Tradewind giggled out loud at that, which made Fantasy even angrier. Storming out, she paused to slam the door shut so hard something in the frame cracked. Tradewind heard her stomp all the way out of the hotel, before everything went sideways and his vision went black once again.


Tradewind rolled his eyes, Reason whispering in his ear as usual, as the charges were read out in the echoing courtroom. “Tradewind Windchaser, you are charged with sixty-four counts of smuggling Class-A contraband across international borders, tax evasion, flying while intoxicated, bribery, extortion, blackmail, evading arrest, resisting arrest, and aggravated assault on an officer of the law. How do you plead?”

Ignoring the urgent whispers from the well-dressed pony hired to represent him, Tradewind closed his eyes and relaxed. There was a freedom in despair. Losing his hope had killed his fear. He couldn’t fear things getting worse when he was sure they would. The golden pony sat watching the proceedings, happy as a pig in a corn-bin. “Make a rude gesture.” Tradewind laughed and put a fore-hoof under his chin, bringing it sharply forward in the direction of the sour-faced old mare in the black robe. Outrage from all the ponies in the room. Amusement from Reason. Tradewind leaned back, eyes closing again, and hummed to himself. It was easy to fall. All he had to do was…nothing. Reason sat in front of him, humming along. “This is it, Tradie. This is the end. And you can drag that pink bugger down with you. Him and every pony in Aura.” A low, rich chuckle. “Misery loves company.

The air had a definite nip, now that the sun was down, but the fish were still biting. Sitting on a small boulder, Moon Pie leaned back against a bigger one. A hoof-wide stripe of bony hedgehog-like spines ran down her back from her head to the tip of her dragonish tail. It meant that sitting back against things wasn’t something she made a habit of doing. Now she slouched and loved it. Her spines fitted into a trench she’d dug from the stone with her talons. One hind leg crossed the other, the hoof in the air idly bobbing like the cork she used for a bobber.

Not eating meat wasn’t an option for her. She’d tried it before and almost gone nutty, looking at ponies and seeing nothing but food on the hoof. The Heartwood family had accepted her but her need for meat made them uncomfortable. Turpentine Heartwood had a heart big enough even to love something as hideous-looking as her, but it bothered even him. The compromise was fish. Fish were…okay. Better than chowing down on bunny sandwiches.

She even cooked them and everything. Staying awake in the day and sleeping at night was still hard, but she was working on it. She got up earlier than even these early risers and went to bed later, and napped around noon, but she was pretty much diurnal now. Compromises all around. She had spent the morning helping deal with a huge storm-felled cedar. Her talons still smelled nice from that. A few hours of sleep and then on to this new fishing spot. The basket beside her already had some thick lake trout in it wrapped in wet grass. She had seen a couple of phoenixes in the distance earlier. A cloud shaped so much like a teddy bear that she suspected a pegasus prank had drifted past only ten minutes or so before dusk. In all, today had been a good day.

The cork didn’t so much as twitch in warning. It vanished with a downward yank so violent it sucked air down after it, which came up as a small fountain of spray. Moon Pie tightened her grip on the rod mostly from surprise. Then she was yanked up from her comfy slouch. Hissing a Draconic swearword she’d once heard, she braced her hind-hooves on the rocky beach and started pulling back. The line was spun from spider silk. Turpentine hadn’t gone cheap when he bought her this fishing gear. Anything lesser probably would have snapped.

Moon Pie might be skinny to the point of looking starved or possibly half-mummified, but she was stronger than she had any business being. What she wasn’t…was particularly heavy. Good at bracing her mismatched feet and hard to knock over, but she had the bones of a creature built to fly. Her hooves scrabbled as she slid further, the rod bent through one hundred and forty-nine degrees of arc. They braced and the rod curved a few degrees closer to an actual half-circle. Her tail curved around the boulder under her rump, seeking extra bracing. There had been no time to think, but now she wondered what the bloody hay had grabbed her hook. It was a big and deep lake, but this was ridiculous.

The humming-taut line zigged left, then zagged right. The quivers she felt from the hooked thing didn’t feel…fishy. No sense of a swimming body pulling hard. The hooked thing had leverage. But it wasn’t the hooked-a-stump feel. The only image that came to mind was a huge rubber band stretched between the hook and the bottom.

Then the line went slack. Not so fast the pole snapped straight, but almost. She reeled on instinct. Water humped up and then exploded into spray as a…thing…surfaced. After a belching, gurgling growl, it sank again. The line lay slack on the water. It was hard to make sense of what she’d seen. Nasty dead-white skin and a head that wasn’t a head, just an inverted-cone maw lined with nested rings of fangs. Kind of like a hagfish or lamprey, only they had eyes. This hadn’t. Nor did lampreys get better than a foot in diameter or have rows of jointed black legs down its underside like a millipede.

Moon Pie reeled the line in on automatic. Then she fitted her monocle to an eye so she could focus on something so close to her far-sighted eyes. The steel hook was stripped of bait and covered in tiny shiny nicks. Looking from it to the still-rippling water, she planned to do whatever it took to make sure nopony among the Heartwoods ever went swimming in this lake again. Not that they often came so far. It was quite a trot for anypony without wings.

Dismantling the rod, packing her gear and catch in her saddlebags, Moon Pie kept an eye on the lake. The sun was down. She no longer cared to be near the shore after dark, no matter how good her night-vision might be. Anything that could nick steel might not be stopped by her scales, and she was keenly aware they didn’t cover her hindquarters. She muttered aloud. “I have a ‘one that got away’ story now. Nopony is going to believe it. I better make them, or they might go swimming.”

A feminine voice spoke from behind her. Up atop the big boulder she had used for a backrest. It was melodious and lovely. Not like Moon Pie’s own, wavering between squeaky high and hooting low pitches like an instrument with a broken reed. “They are cowardly scavengers, harmless to the living. That one must have been hungry indeed to bite a hook.”

Moon Pie didn’t turn. She froze. A pony a little taller than even herself strode down into sight off to the left. Horn and wings, deep purple-blue body, green eyes, a mane and tail of rippling, sparkly, translucent…stuff. Moon Pie’s body unfroze but her mind locked up. She dropped onto her rump and reached up to pull off her straw hat. Her bat-like ears slid out of the holes made for them to pass through. Fumbling out the monocle, she confirmed what she thought she had seen. “Princess Luna?”


Heart revving to a near-purr, Moon Pie’s conscience gleefully began to list every illegal and immoral act she had ever done. After a century of serving as spy, thief, and kidnapper for her evil brother…it was a very long list. She forced herself to stand so she could bow. “I will submit to justice without resisting.” Her voice warbled and cracked like it always did, but it didn’t shake. Much.

“Please, rise. I didn’t come here to punish you.”

Moon Pie had to fight the trembling weakness of relief as well as dread now. She stopped bowing but sat rather than stood. The Princess of the Night looked at her with an expression that seemed to be…compassion. No hint of revulsion, but no pity. She looked away, magic flaring off her long horn. Rocks floated up from the shore. Dead branches floated down from under the trees. They joined into a stone-ringed campfire which burst alight. Moon Pie sidled over to sit by it. Luna hung a little further back on the far side, where light met dark.

“Um.” Moon Pie said. “Why are you here?”

“Multiple reasons. First was to take your measure for myself. There is love in your heart and Harmony in your spirit.” It wasn’t a question. Moon Pie nodded anyway. Luna watched the flames dance. “I have a request to make of you. Know that no harm will come to you for a refusal.”

Moon Pie wanted to promise she would honor any request, but Smog’s lessons had sunk deep roots. Never commit to something when you didn’t know what it was. “I’m listening.”

“You have the left eye of Smog preserved in a small enchanted jar. Will you give it to me?”

“No.” she said. It was more of a blurt. “Um, let me explain. We have a deal. He leaves me alone, I keep his eye safe. I won’t use it unless he moves against me.”

“If you give his eye to me, Smog will not be able to harm you ever again. You have my word.”

Moon Pie believed it. Part of her kicked up nine kinds of fuss, but not all of Smog’s lessons had been evil in themselves. It was important to keep a promise. She would rather have eaten soap than say what she did, but it was the only thing she could say. “I made a promise.”

Luna never looked up from the fire. Her voice was calm, giving nothing away. “You would honor it? Even one to such as him?”

Feeling disgusted, Moon Pie stared out over the lake, which reflected the stars. “It’s not about him. I keep my promises. That includes when I’d rather not keep them. Otherwise they don’t mean anything.”

Luna inclined her head in a deep nod. “You are correct. It is your honor, not his worthiness, which decides whether or not you should hold to your word. I am pleased to learn you understand.”

“How did you even know about the eye?”

“Your nightmares are often…very strong.”

Moon Pie flinched. “Yes. Yes, they are.”

“Your honor is intact, Moon Pie. You did not break your word. It pains me that I cannot also honor it.” Magic flickered along her horn. Something appeared in a purple flash, teleported from elsewhere. The little jar with Smog’s eye. She had hidden it with all her cunning, and now there it was.

“Hey!” She was on her hooves and claws in an instant, reaching out to grab it in a blur. Luna was even faster. The jar vanished with another flash and muffled bang. Moon Pie seethed but sat back down. The thing might be in Canterlot now for all she knew, or on the bloody moon. She gave the alicorn a smoldering glare. When she blinked, she saw a flicker of bright orange instead of darkness. Her irises glowed as bright as they ever had while her temper struggled to escape its cage. “Empty Night, you’re going to steal it?”

Luna went from chagrined to grim in a heart-stopping instant. She stood and Moon Pie felt no bigger than a pigeon as the shadows gathered and the fire died to coals. Luna’s eyes glowed too, icy green. Her whisper hummed in Moon Pie’s bones and seemed to make the very air shiver. “WHAT KNOWS THEE OF THE EMPTY NIGHT? SPEAK!”

Moon Pie stuttered, stopped, and forced her voice to work right. It trembled. “Huh? That? I don’t know. It’s just something I heard somepony say once and liked the sound.”

Luna’s eyes now stared from the heart of a darkness so profound her silhouette was barely visible. Then the shadows melted away and the fire perked up, though seeming a little tentative as its flames waxed. Luna sat and gave a tired sigh. “My apologies to you, Moon Pie. Ignorant you are of the true evil behind that oath, and ignorant you shall remain.”

The snark sprang up as her fright turned back to anger. “Oh, I suppose this is one of those things I’m happier not knowing.”

Luna didn’t look annoyed, just worried. “Indeed, and safer as well, if a habit you make of saying it. Pray your ignorance is never ended, Moon Pie. Yes, I stole the jar.” Luna’s tone made it clear the subject had changed and there would be no changing it back. “The eye of your brother, and for no good will toward him did I seek it.”

“If he dies, things will happen. Bad things.”

“I shall deal with them.”

Another subject closed. Moon Pie grabbed the end of a stick poking from the fire and used the burning end to poke around in the coals. “Now what?”

Her mutter had been to herself but Luna answered. “My final reason for coming to you. I bring with me a pegasus with a deeply troubled mind. One of the things troubling him, if not the greatest, was a lack of closure with you. He never had an opportunity to bid you farewell.”

Moon Pie raised her head on her neck, too long for a pony’s, almost long as a dragon’s. She looked around and up but saw no pegasus anywhere. Her heart didn’t beat faster, but oddly harder. “Where is he, hiding?”

“Hidden.” Her tone carried agreement.

The air by Luna seemed to shimmer and then draw back like a curtain of water. Tradewind, all curled up in his wings. A welter of emotions and memories flooded Moon Pie. Luna lowered the pegasus to the ground, where he stirred. Snored. Moon Pie stared, surprised to the point of stupidity. “Wha…?”

Rising to her hooves, Luna teleported in a picnic-looking basket from somewhere. “He has slept, and dreamed he was awake. His dreams took him down a dark path. He now dreams of a prison cell. Perhaps now that he has seen where he is headed, he will understand the need to fight his darkness and change his fate. He needs to wake in any event. He must eat.”

Moon Pie spoke without thought. “Be ready to grab him if he runs.”

Luna actually laughed as she sat back down. Her magic opened the basket and began unloading it. “Indeed, tis a bad habit of his. Asleep his wings shall remain until I will otherwise. Obedient to every command save the one to fly.”

“Nice trick.” An emotion had finally gained dominance over the rest. Sheer guilt. Part of her had regretted never being able to give Tradewind a formal apology for what she had done. A much bigger part had been relieved she would never have to look him in the eye again. Now…here he was.

“No. A clever trick, but far from nice.” Luna floated a plate loaded with actual bacon sandwiches to Moon Pie, whose mind had no part of what happened next. Her carnivore stomach, fed up with fish, took direct control of her claws and jaws. Tasted like the pig had died of old age. That made her feel a little less horrible. Luna stared up at the stars as Moon Pie stuffed her face. “In altered form, that spell lies within the binding and tracking rings sometimes used by the enforcers of law.”

Moon Pie swallowed hard and started to speak.

Tradewind came awake with a snort.

Vorpal heard the rumble in the distance and felt his body begin to tug him toward the sound. Without having to look, he knew something bad had happened. He squeezed the cup of tea in his magic as his eyes squinted almost shut, ears slowly pinning back as ponies and zebras began to move around him in haste. His head moved to the window, which gave him a view out across the street to that vacant lot. He could see east, but the sound had come from the south. Toward the middle of the city. He checked the skyline he could see anyway. Normally, he’d be the first one out the door on the way to see what he could do to help.

Today…it might as well have been an eviction notice.

That rumble begged for his attention. His instincts cried out that something had gone wrong. They wanted him to follow the sound to its origin, but he didn’t have the luxury of investigating such things. In fact, his schedule was now very tight. He looked around. Nopony in the kitchen. It was like they had forgotten he sat there. Well, he had been very quiet and they had been obeying their own instincts to run toward the commotion. Good instincts. Admirable ones.

“Thank you for the tea.” he said. Nopony heard him but it was something he felt should be said, if only so he knew he’d said it. He quietly set down the cup, pushed the chair back into place, and left out the nearest door. Turned out to be a back door on the second floor, opening onto a small balcony overlooking the vegetable and herb garden. A ramp angled along the back of building for access to it.

“Just like that?” Ducky said. “You’ll leave?”

Vorpal made sure the yellow rubber toy was secure in the nest of his mane. “Push a steam engine to the limit and it must be given time to cool before it can be used again. To do otherwise is to risk destroying it, and it will never be useful again.”

“A hero wouldn’t run away.”

“I’m no hero, I’m an ambassador. And I am unfit to perform my duties until I bleed off some of the mental pressures threatening to make me blow my top. I’m no hero. A hero couldn’t walk away knowing ponies might be in trouble. I can. Curse me for a selfish coward, but I can.”

Ducky said nothing.

He had to hurry. In the grand old tradition of locking the door after the house had been burgled, the police were about to become extra-vigilant in case anypony saw them slacking and wondered if maybe they’d been the ones to drop this ball. The airship docks would be closing, or as good as. The city would soon have it locked up tighter than a beetle’s bunghole if something had just exploded. Nopony would get through without being identified. Vorpal had no passport for his new identity. That hadn’t been a huge problem, as he wasn’t headed to anywhere in the Empire.

In fact, the embassy would certainly expect Vorpal to join the bureaucratic wagon-circling and political butt-covering. Ponies would be looking for him to file reports and more paperwork, and that was exactly what he didn’t want. Being forced to go back to work, sucked back in. He could feel it inside. Maybe he wasn’t at the end of his rope yet but he was close enough to see its frayed end. He needed time off. Not wanted, needed. Or he’d snap and be no good to anypony. He’d already packed his bags and made his farewells. Or at least letting these fine ponies and zebras know that he vanished of his own free will. They might go chasing after him if they suspected otherwise…and Vorpal wouldn’t bet against them finding him.

As he ventured down the streets away from the garage, trying not to look furtive and cursing his luck that he had the entire breadth of the city to cross to reach the airship docks in the south, he noticed a lack of traffic. Oh, there were zebras out and looking worried, but none seemed about to go closer to that distant tower of greasy black smoke. They didn’t look like bad zebras, or even callous. They looked like zebras who had learned that the best way to get through life was to keep their heads down and not get involved. He couldn’t respect that, but he could understand. He had power. He could get involved with a decent chance of success. If these zebras took a risk, it might cost them everything.

He slipped his hood forward a bit more, going as fast as he dared. The streets grew more crowded the further he went. He started angling east to avoid coming too close. It made him physically sick to his stomach to ignore the voice in his head yelling for him to run, get involved, help. He bit his lip, and kept his head down, and didn’t get involved. It would almost certainly cost him everything if he did.

The final zebra curled up in a very small private universe of pain. Giving a swift glance up the alley, Master Chief grabbed the first of the trio and hauled him up into the sky. His wing muscles felt the strain but he ignored it. He soon had all three semi-conscious stallions on a roof. In the shadow of a shed-like structure, of course. The thought of leaving them in the sun tempted, but he wasn’t sure they were working for the Capra. Or for Agent Green, who might have sprung Sir Vorpal from captivity but had been the one to abandon him in the sun.

The three might have merely been good upstanding citizens taking it upon themselves to shadow a suspicious character. Outside chance, that. Too good at sneaking. Not good enough. Too good at fighting when ambushed without warning. Not good enough. Taking wing, Chief glided from rooftop to rooftop, following the resonance compass on his wrist. He rejoined Blue Jay in shadowing the ambassador. Blue Jay flew on ahead. Chief slowed enough to let Vorpal pull a little ahead. They braced the unicorn, looking for trouble waiting up ahead or coming along behind.

The pegasus didn’t look back toward the column of smoke rising into the air. He was still aware of it. Dwindling, the fire making it brought under control. He’d find out what the hay all that was about soon enough. For now their priority was making sure the ambassador made a clean getaway. Somepony had firebombed a building. Maybe it was totally unrelated to the Capra and that whole ball of trouble. Chief wouldn’t have bet so much as a stale pretzel on that, and he hated pretzels. Vorpal’s insistence that he needed to go on a vacation didn’t seem so crazy anymore. Somepony in Zevera was resorting to bombs. Time for a prudent pony to check out the climate somewhere a long way from here.

No more trouble to deal with until they reached the docks themselves. The airships floated above their anchors in tidy rows, slim towers beside them reaching out with bridges to nowhere whose far ends nuzzled up against a hatch in their side. The posher docking berths had an elevator running up the middle, powered by a pony on a treadmill. So did the ones for freight, though bigger and far less posh. Massive things that didn’t go bad, like pig iron, were more economical to haul by sea and land. Most of the smaller towers just had a spiral staircase.

Chief watched Vorpal by himself as Jay flew ahead. Time to flash some credentials and tell some not-quite-lies. They’d imply Vorpal was an embassy courier, carrying sensitive dispatches that couldn’t be sent through the blinker-gem network. Not even in code. So, sensitive but not time-critical. Coded things were for sensitive and urgent messages. You could only use a code so many times before somepony studying the messages using it gathered enough of a base to start cracking it. One of the things a special courier might carry was new one-time pads for the secure relaying of ciphered messages.

Vorpal snuck as much as he could. He was smart enough not to act sneaky but casual instead, as if he had every right to be going where he was going. He was smart enough for his manner to become a little suspicious as holes in the security cordon seemed to magically appear just when he needed them to. They were a little too polished at that dance. Chief wondered how often smugglers bribed security or customs for a similar level of sudden blindness and deafness. A detail to salt away for later.

Finding a rather large but not-quite-shabby airship, Vorpal located somepony with authority aboard it and negotiated for passage. It looked like a passenger hauler, mostly geared toward taking aboard ponies wanting to get elsewhere in relative comfort and swiftness. But it had cargo capacity beyond the needs of the passengers and crew. They bought whatever low-weight, low-volume, high-value cargo was available to make up for any hauling tonnage that wasn’t used by the passengers. It was a very common kind of airship and practice.

Negotiations successful, Vorpal went aboard at once. Chief picked a spot that would make it very difficult for anypony to get aboard without him seeing them. Or spot him watching. The crew was all deer, chattering in Cervidian. They worked to haul aboard small sturdy crates that didn’t look heavy but had FRAGILE warnings all over them. Chief couldn’t really speak the language, beyond things like ordering a beer or asking where to find the little colt’s room. The latter usually followed the former, in fact. He was better at understanding it. The parts he heard over the mariachi music and understood were innocent, in word and tone. He learned they were headed home to Estagna, with brief stops at an oasis in Camelu and in Himallama for resupply. The less food and water they had to carry, the more cargo. Pretty much a straight line northeast.

Chief made a mental note to have ponies in place at the oasis, Himallama, and Estagna to pick up the disguised ambassador’s trail when he left the airship. Then he shook his head. Jay and he had already decided not to do that. Vorpal had a point. If anypony could find him, they could be made to tell or tempted to come get him in an emergency. It grated but Chief had to accept the ambassador’s point: if anypony could reach out and drag him back to work…it wouldn’t be a vacation. Nor was he as good at hiding the strain as he thought. Not from his bodyguards. If Vorpal didn’t get some downtime, he’d crack. The risks of leaving him on his own had to be…well, risked.

The airship, named Quinela Exacta, seemed eager to leave. Probably ahead of schedule. The deer could smell trouble too. They were ready by sunset. Chief saw it airborne and circling westward around the city until it could angle north. Then he heaved a sigh and headed back to the embassy. Jay joined him but they didn’t speak. The embassy did a pretty good imitation of a kicked anthill for a building with so many columns. It wasn’t as difficult as it should have been to sneak in. Chief was going to talk to the head of embassy security about that.

Amp and Al waited in the spartan room the pegasi bodyguards shared. Chief gave the door a look, then transferred it to the earth ponies. Al blushed. Amp might have, but the Z.Z. Clop beard and dark round goggles made it hard to tell. He certainly sounded abashed. “Sorry we let ourselves in. It didn’t seem, uh…wise to wait in the hallway. The ambassador made a request of us, you see…”

Jay and Chief spoke as one. “We know.” After swapping a glance, Chief continued alone. “We saw him safely to an airship and gone. Without being seen. Including by him.”

Ampersand and Alembic exchanged a look too, though with their goggles down they probably couldn’t see each other’s eyes. Amp seemed to lose the silent argument. He coughed into a hoof and smoothed his beard. “Do you know where he’s headed?”

“Yes.” Chief said.

“Have you told anypony?” Amp said. Al looked…edgy.

“No.” Jay said. Chief nodded.

“Will you share it?” Amp said.

“No.” Chief said. Jay shook his head.

“So if you could forget you knew it…that would be okay?”

Chief sighed. “I plan to ‘forget’ I know anything about where Sir Vorpal has gone, yes.” Jay nodded assent.

Al gave a guilty twitch and rummaged in a labcoat pocket. He brought out a stubby silver cylinder with a ruby on top. It suddenly doubled in length, opening like a cheap telescope. “Oh, hang on. If you could just look at this for a second?” Chief did, even as his instincts started to yell.

The ruby gave a bright flash.

Chief blinked at the green blob floating in his vision. Must have glanced at the sun before he came back in. Amp and Al were in his and Jay’s room. He gave the door a look, then transferred it to the earth ponies. They looked shifty but didn’t speak. So Chief did. “You picked the lock?”

Al spoke. “The ambassador asked us to do something for him.”

Jay and Chief spoke as one. “We know.” Al burst into shrill, nervous giggles. Chief continued alone. “We confronted him outside the exit to the escape tunnel. He convinced us to let him go. We followed him in secret but he managed to lose us at the docks. We looked for a while. Then we came back here.”

“Stone the crows, it worked.” Amp worked. He pushed his goggles up to show his eyes. Why had he worn them down, anyway?

“What worked?” Jay said. His overly polite tone promised an impolite one if they didn’t answer.

Al giggled again. “New invention we rigged up, no name yet. We just call it the flashy thing. Just in case, we made sure to get implied consent from you both.”

“What does it do?”

Amp stroked his beard. “Uh…promise not to beat us up?”

Jay and Chief spoke as one, again. “No.”

“Start talking.” Jay said.

Tradewind awoke with a snort, the vivid horror of his dreams burned into the inside of his eyelids. The cackle of Reason continued to play in his head. When he opened his eyes, a dark corona ringed his vision. He closed them again and sniffled, curling up and attempting to cover himself with his wings. Nothing happened. Tradewind’s eyes snapped open in terror, the last images of his dream flooding back, that of having his wings mangled when he mouthed off to the wrong fellow prisoner. The last thing he remembered was hearing a doctor say he’d have to amputate. A mask over his muzzle, a whiff of gas, and then he…

…woke up.

The fog filling his mind burned away as Tradewind panicked, leaping to his hooves, spinning in all directions, looking wildly about in an attempt to get his bearings. The silver compass needle that usually lurked in his mind was blunted, a mere hazy sense of north from south. His sense of direction was better in the sky than on the ground but this was even worse. His bearings were gone.

His desperate spin was suddenly halted by a hard, yet somehow gentle pair of claws. They gripped his shoulders. Tradewind panted, head hung low, not daring to look at the griffin he assumed held him. A voice spoke in a concerned, soothing whisper, rather raspy but sounding feminine. “Hey, you’re okay. You’re safe. It was just a dream. I think.”

Tradewind sighed in relief, trying to catch his breath. He looked up and backwards to see who had spoken, only to see a silvery-green nightmare with orange eyes. Memories sank fangs into his brain. One of a horrible creature, one who had caused him so much pain. Tradewind flew right back into panic mode, a cold fragment of his mind watching as the rest of him stopped thinking. He bucked and kicked backwards with both hind hooves and connected with something that felt like a thin layer of rubber over solid rock. The claws gripping his shoulders went slack. He bolted. His wings refused to co-operate. It was night. He was outside on a beach made of rounded rocks with a lake to one side and forest on the other. A campfire in a ring of rocks. He pelted full-speed into the trees, dodging the trunks, ducking and jumping occasional low branch or high root. He had no idea what direction it was, except Away. Away from her, away from his memories, away from the voice that whispered the word coward over and over again.

The top of his head hit a branch he hadn’t quite ducked under. The pain made him stagger. A root caught his hoof with malicious perfection, guiding his stumble into a trip. He tumbled head over hocks at least once before he had a very brief glimpse of an oncoming tree trunk. The impact caused a flash of déjà vu almost as brilliant as the pain. Everything went black. Again.


Pain. That was the first thing he noticed. It wasn’t about to be ignored. None of this wishy-washy emotional pain, or mental pain, but proper, get-me-some-willowbark pain, centered right between his eyes. Tradewind clutched his head and groaned, though he had no idea why. Touching his head only hurt worse and his groan made his skull feel like a cavern used for testing foghorns. A worryingly familiar claw gently pried his hooves away. Fever-hot, hard as wood, skeletally thin. Something very cold and rather soothing pressed against the pain. Damp rags? A cloth band secured it in place. He whimpered and kept his eyes shut tight, afraid of what he would see. A second claw cupped his chin and gently forced his face upwards. The voice of his most vivid nightmares spoke. As cracked as a teenage colt, jumping between squeaky thin tenor and resonant bass. The voice of the Nightmare spoke in tones of concern. “Open your eyes, I need to make sure you’re not concussed.”

Tradewind complied, though it baffled him as to why. Maybe fear that if he didn’t, she would try to pry his eyelids up. A silhouette swam into view, of a dragon’s lean, predatory head blunted with strangely equine touches. A small horn down between her nostrils, like a shark fin or rose thorn of ivory. Ears like a bat and a mohawk mane of spikes. He whimpered again and winced as she lifted a small lantern with a shutter that poured light through his eyes and directly into the pain center of his brain. The creature sighed. “No concussion, I think. But I think it’s not the concussion that’s the biggest issue right now.” Tradewind shut his eyes tightly again, as Reason cackled in agreement. The creature kept talking as she checked over the rest of his body. He would rather it had been snakes crawling on him. “You were brought here for closure. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

Even Reason flinched as red hot rage filled every corner of Tradewind’s mind. His eyes snapped open. He hadn’t felt like this since he’d learned of Smog’s dealings in Dust. “You’re sorry?! You’re sorry…” Tradewind snorted and trotted in a circle, the pain in his head an annoying ache. The Nightmare sat motionless and nonplussed. “Oh Berta, you’re SORRY?!” His lips spread into a grin so wide it hurt. “Well, that’s okay! You were only working for the most evil, diabolical creature since Discord! I guess I can’t BLAME you! After all, you’re SORRY! It’s not like I’ve just had the worst month in my entire life and had a nightmare that felt like it lasted a year. It’s not like my life is so far off track I might as well just settle for staying here until I rot! It’s not like I’ve had nightmares of your ugly, pathetic mug every night since you captured me. It was EASY for YOU! You just tore Smog a new hole and left, ran! You haven’t had to deal with any of that since you ran! I DID!” Tradewind shook, wondering if his head could literally explode. “SORRY!”

Berta still hadn’t moved a muscle. Tradewind stopped circling and began pacing. “Do you know what’s happened since you left? I’ve gone through two…psychotic breaks, or something, which most likely will haunt me forever! I fell head-over-hocks in love with a mare who I can’t possibly be with! I’ve had my life ripped bodily from its path and thrown headfirst into the chocolate-bloody-rain! I’ve had to deal with the fear that my parents might be casualties in a war that SMOG started!”

Tradewind panted, the red haze fringing his vision fading to black once again as he hung his head. The inner inferno collapsed into ashes and the tears flowed freely. “And then…when I thought that at last I had managed to get away…I end up in front of you. Again…”

His eyes snapped back up to Berta’s, his gaze making her look away, downwards. “And you know what? I can’t even muster the strength to care anymore. I’m done.” He turned away from the creature and trotted away. “I don’t care where I am, or that I can’t fly. I’ll keep walking until I find somewhere else or I die. I don’t care anymore. I’m finished. I’m finished with Aura, and I’m finished with Equestria. I’m finished with you, and Smog, and stupid purple unicorns. I don’t care if you follow me, feel free, but whatever you had to say, there’s no point saying it. If you’re looking for forgiveness, you’ve got it. You’re forgiven. You’re forgiven for kidnapping me and delivering me to the streak of cirrus who’s caused all this trouble. Easy enough to forgive what I don’t give a flying feather about anymore. I don’t care anymore. I’m leaving.”

Tradewind strode purposefully toward the trees again, the blunted sense of direction giving him no clue as to what direction it might be, but it was a direction. He could hear the click of stones as Berta shifted her weight. He didn’t speed up, or slow down. He just kept his head pointed resolutely forward and kept trotting.

Moon Pie didn’t cry. His words had ripped her open, hurt her in ways she had never even imagined she could hurt. She almost wished she would cry, but the misery knotting her belly seemed somehow distant from her, like a hideous but fascinating bug safely trapped in a jar. It would be a long time before she shook off Smog’s slow, subtle twisting of her. She would never fully recover. This hated detachment was part of it. The detachment he had trained her to develop. It had stopped coming between her and her more pleasant emotions. But if anything offered her an emotional hurt, the glass wall slammed down between it and her. She felt it, but it had no power over her. The pain she felt didn’t make her cry or shake or fling herself to the ground. It wasn’t even a struggle. Somewhere in the gearbox of her heart, an important linkage had popped into neutral.

She couldn’t even stop thinking objectively about the horrible wrongness of her physical non-reaction. Moon Pie couldn’t find it in her to hate Tradewind for his harsh words. He spoke from a place of despair. She had tasted that herself. It was impossible to hate him. She understood him too well.

Princess Luna didn’t reappear, because she hadn’t disappeared. She had simply faded into the background, and now she popped back into the foreground. Moon Pie jumped. Fear had always been one emotion that refused to be entirely walled away. Now she understood what it must have been like for ponies when they had suddenly noticed her. The alicorn’s expression was an odd mix of deep sorrow and determination. Moon Pie said nothing, just sat down across the fire from the Princess. Magic glistened along her long dark horn.

Part of Moon Pie was constantly aware of the elegant beauty of numbers and equations, a shining mass of crystalline logic, a fractal web spun through and under everything. Most ponies saw the written numbers. They saw the metaphor, the symbol. Moon Pie had always seen the truth behind them. Normally she ignored it, the same way she ignored the feel of her own breathing. Now the web shuddered. Numbers changed, values shifted, as the web bent. She had sometimes caught those tremors in the natural laws when magic was worked nearby. Nothing this extreme or this subtly perfect. Not even close.

It was like having stuffed-up sinuses.

Tradewind’s marching hoof-steps had been fading into the distance but Moon Pie had good ears. She could still hear him. Without breaking stride, they began to draw closer again. He emerged from the trees and stopped in shock. Ignoring Moon Pie too utterly to be unaware of her, he stared at Luna.

“You.” His mouth worked for a moment. “You brought me here. You put me into that nightmare.”

Princess Luna turned to watch him, grave as a judge but grieving. “It was a dream, and yet it was not. I did not permit anything in the dream to behave contrary to the waking world. What shaped your dream came only from what you chose to say and do, and from your expectations. Those in turn came only from what lay within you. You saw the path you are doomed to walk again, this time waking, unless you muster the will and desire to change.”

“Forget this.” Tradewind said. He turned and trotted away. “Freaking lectures…” For about thirty seconds they grew more distant. Then they grew closer again. He hadn’t gotten as far this time. Tradewind stepped out from under the trees, saw them sitting by the campfire on the rocky beach, and gave a disgusted snort. He turned and left once more, but slower. Berta saw him watching the gaps in the treetops, trying to navigate by the stars.

It took longer because he moved slower, but he didn’t even get as far as last time before the turnaround. This time he emerged into the light looking furious. Furious, and under it, afraid. “Oi, are you messing with my head?”

Luna shook hers. “I swear by my crown, I am not. I have closed a circle around this place. Escape from it is not possible. Nor is entry, none could even find it. But that is no concern to us. The path outward leads inward. The circle has no edge, no barrier you can pierce or beat thy head against. Even if you could fly, it would avail you naught. Were you a unicorn and could teleport, you would leave, only to arrive where you started. March until you drop from exhaustion, if that be your will. I spelled your wings against flight only so that you could not fall from the sky and do yourself harm.”

Tradewind sputtered.

“Your time of running from what you should face has ended.” Luna’s voice remained soft, but there was stone under it. “Time itself has become a serpent with its tail in its mouth. We pass through the same minute, different each time but always the same minute. No matter how long it may seem, when the circle falls only a minute shall have passed.” Her voice dropped to a mutter that Moon Pie doubted she was intended to hear. “Evil or no, Sombra was skilled indeed. To circle an entire city thus, for a thousand years…”

The pegasus didn’t seem to really hear most of that. He had stopped listening. “Horseapples, you only spelled my wings against flying. I can’t even twitch my wings, and my inner compass is all messed up.”

“That is no doing of mine.” Luna said. “Look within yourself for the answer.”

Tradewind turned and bolted into the darkness under the trees, trailing curses. Only seconds after Moon Pie lost sight of him, he came barreling back into sight. It wasn’t comfortable to watch. There had been no time to stop and change direction and no faltering in his hoof-beats. He saw them up ahead and gave a hoarse roar of frustration. He ran right toward them, between them, vaulting the fire, and charged into the lake. He hit the mirror-still surface and vanished under it, merging with his reflection. Not a splash, not a ripple. The instant the last trailing strands of his tail slid from sight, the tip of his nose burst from the same spot they had been. He erupted with the same eerie effect and landed hooves-down on the gritty pebbles lining the water. Not even wet. Eyes wide and staring at nothing, he charged along the coastline. Before he went fifty paces, there was an eye-twisting moment and he was running toward them.

The wide-open night felt as stuffy as a closet, and Moon Pie didn’t handle enclosed spaces well. Only the dead certainty that running was pointless let her stay seated. Luna pulled a teakettle from the picnic basket and called a bubble of water from the lake to fill it. Settling it on a flat rock right by the flames, she fished out the rest of a proper tea service. Sugar, honey, lemon, mint, the works. Only a shadow of pain in her eyes marred her seeming serenity. It was hard to watch Tradewind’s increasingly desperate efforts to run away.

Luna had brought provisions. She was prepared for this.

The water in the teakettle heated. Tradewind picked up a rock bigger than his head and heaved it a few paces into the lake. The rock vanished into the surface as he had and bounced right back out. He had to dodge to avoid being hit as it came back along the same arc of flight. Luna filled a white teapot from the kettle and added tea leaves to steep. Tradewind managed to climb up into a tree with low branches and headed off into the forest like a very large and clumsy squirrel. He was barely out of sight before he found himself once more headed toward the campfire. Luna set out three cups on saucers. Tradewind ripped off the damp folded cloth Moon Pie had tied over his bump. He lowered his head, pawed at the ground, and charged a tree like a goat. Luna hung the sugar tongs over the edge of the sugar bowl. Soft pink light bloomed from the heart-shaped scar on Tradewind’s head just as he hit the tree. He stopped dead but with no jolt or sound of impact.

Staggering back from what appeared to be sheer astonishment, Tradewind tried again. He grabbed the trunk and did his best to imitate a woodpecker. Dim pink light fluttered with every impact and the rough bark might as well have been made of pillows. He took a diving leap at the biggest boulder, her backrest from earlier. A similar lack of result. Moon Pie curled her tail in tight around her gathered claws and hooves. The night had grown silent and still. If she closed her eyes she felt as if in a room so small she could reach out and touch every wall. Her suffering was nothing to his. She couldn’t think of any way to help. He didn’t want her help.

Tradewind’s voice cracked as he yelled. “Stop it!”

“That is no doing of mine.” Luna said. She poured dark tea into two of the cups. “Except indirectly. My circle makes it easier for the power to manifest. Your head denies the truth but your heart cannot. Your heart knows that you do not truly deserve the pain which you seek to inflict upon yourself. You love her, and she you. Unless that changes, the blessing she laid upon you shall not tolerate your efforts at self-harm. Much of your anguish could be swept aside if you but open the mind you have closed to that love within your heart.”

The pegasus tried to sneer but it looked more like he’d just swallowed something bitter. “I don’t love her!”

“To force your acceptance of the truth would drive you mad.” Luna said. Her tone had gained a faint edge. “At present, this is the only reason I do not take your mind by the scruff of its neck and rub its nose in what it seeks to deny. I have walked in your dreams, Tradewind Windchaser. I have walked within those of Fantasy Longhorn. She loves you, and you her.”

“No!” Tradewind said. He bolted into the trees again, reared and wheeled when he saw them in front of him, and ran away again. Again. Again. His breath heaved and rasped.

Luna heaved a sigh deeper than any ocean. “Love is not a thing that must be earned. It is freely given, and all that is required to be worthy of it is to be judged worthy by the one who gives it. You are filled with fear. You run to save yourself from pain and to save others from the pain you fear you will cause them. Darkness presses close around you, Tradewind. It crowds close enough to see.”

Luna sipped tea from the cup before her. Moon Pie picked up hers and mirrored her, without thinking. Then she gasped. The tea held deep and complex flavors, with sweet and bitter so perfectly balanced it was like water on her tongue before the flavors and scents bloomed to fill her mouth. Putting sugar or lemon in it would have almost been blasphemy. Tradewind had slowed to a loose-kneed shamble but refused to stop.

“This is the secret of darkness, Tradewind.” Luna said. “It is nothing. It has no power over you save what you permit. None save what it tricks from you. Its power is the power of whispered lies, and this is the cardinal of all its falsehoods: that you have no choice. Lies shatter when truth is revealed. Darkness cannot stand where light shines. Strength of the light means nothing, for the darkness has none. All the darkness in the universe can be held at bay by a single candle. Your mind is full of darkness but your heart holds light. Open your heart, Tradewind, and the darkness shall flee.”

Moon Pie forgot her claustrophobia, her guilt, her tea. A light had bloomed in her mind, sparked by the alicorn’s soft but passionate words. The detachment shattered and her emotions hit her like a brick to the face. She felt a burden lift from her heart. Fear, self-loathing, a secret belief that she wasn’t worthy of being loved. Darkness and lies. They shattered and blew away like dust. Love for Turpentine Heartwood flooded to fill where they’d been. It left her literally breathless. He knew what and who she really was. She had never lied to him about that. He knew the worst things she had ever done. If he believed she was worthy of his love, then she was. It was his decision to make, his love to give.

Slowly, Tradewind sagged to his knees. From there he went over onto his side like a ship with a slow leak starting to slide under. He dripped sweat, but his shivering didn’t seem to be because of the chill autumn air. His breaths were the deep, harsh gasps of total exhaustion. Luna pulled a blanket from the basket, which appeared deeper than common sense would suggest. Gently gathering the pegasus in its red-and-white-checked folds, she set him down near the fire and filled the third teacup. He shifted as if to stand but couldn’t even move enough to shrug off the blanket. His eyes stared past the hovering cup as his starved lungs continued to heave.

Luna watched him and he stared past the fire. Tears finally welled up in Moon Pie’s eyes as she looked at him too. Unable to cry for herself, she cried for him. Seeing his pain caused her pain, and not just because she was partly to blame for it. She stared down into her teacup. A tear fell in it and made the captured reflection of the stars dance.

Luna’s quiet voice held sincerity. Not certainty, which rejected doubt, but something that endured despite it. “Nothing can close your heart to love but you. Love will never forsake you. You must turn your back to it. Love abides. It will always be there. Merely reach for it. Tradewind, you need not be alone. You need not fall to darkness. You are loved, if only you would allow yourself to believe it.”

No reaction beyond a blink.

“It is hard.” Luna said. “There is no shame in asking for help. Even I needed help to drive the darkness from my heart. Let me help you. Please. One word of assent, a nod. Let me show you your memories as they truly were; the true feelings of your heart. Let me show you the true Tradewind. There will be pain, and you will learn things you would be happier denying. I promise you only that what you see shall be truth and that the truth shall destroy the dark voice in your mind. It itself is a lie, for it claims to be more than simply the voice of your darkness. Let me help you.”

Moon Pie didn’t plan to speak. She just found herself speaking. If there was one thing she understood better than she liked, it was the bone-deep, nerve-sapping dread that her brother could inspire. “Princess Luna, you stole Smog’s eye from me tonight. You told me that you plan to use it against him. You plan to free Aura and Umbra from him. Correct?”

Tradewind gave the sudden impression of listening.

Inclining her head, Luna answered. “This is so. He will face justice.” Her green eyes moved from Moon Pie to Tradewind and back, and Moon Pie saw enlightenment dawn in them. She gave Moon Pie a tiny nod. “I can arrange a ‘ringside seat’ of his fall for you, Tradewind. You need not fear the future for fear of him. This is not a gift freely offered. I cannot do what needs to be done with you by my side, not as you now are. Let me help you, and you shall watch the fall of Smog with your own eyes. Refuse me, and you shall be sent to a place where you are kept confined in comfort. You will not be harmed but not allowed to do harm to others. You shall not leave until you are sane…or until you die. I will not lie and say you have no choice. There is always a choice, however bad the options may be. Always: no matter what the dark might whisper. Choose, Tradewind. What path shall you walk?”

Pick stuck out his left wing, half-turning that side toward Mithril. He would have turned further except she still used magic to pin his hooves to the cloud under them. “Fine. I’ll play along for now.”

Mithril didn’t seem to like how he phrased it, but didn’t argue. She closed the silver tracking ring around the base of his wing. It felt warm, then cold, then tingly. Goosebumps rolled out from it to cover his body. They faded and the ring felt as comfortable as something he had worn for years. He twisted around until his neck almost cramped to study it. Seamless. Just a little too shiny. He flexed his wing. It would do anything he told it, except when he told it to spread and rise for the downbeat that would take him skyward. Then it was like…he had forgotten how.

“Let’s go in.” Mithril said.

Pick followed, wishing he hadn’t drunk that beer with their late lunch. She claimed he wasn’t an addict but that didn’t mean he wasn’t tempted to just crawl into a bottle and pull the cork in after him. He doubted the lock on her liquor cabinet, fancy as it was, would stop him. Pick cased the room, half like a thief looking for loot and half like a cop looking for…things that didn’t fit. He saw plenty, both ways. The walls had shelves and the shelves had figurines and statuettes, mostly of Luna and Celestia. Most were middling-cheap. None were creepy, except as a group. At least they weren’t porcelain clown babies. New, top-end record player on one corner on a yard-sale end table. A worn but comfortable-looking recliner took pride of place. A ring-marked old coffee table, cheap even when new, supported more Princesses. One of them caught his eye: Luna, done in a realistic style and pose. Smoke leaking from it produced a mane and tail that looked exactly like the real ones. Magical incense: expensive. The little Luna had actual carved emeralds for irises, backed by sungold so they glowed. Moonsilver on the cutie mark so it glowed too. A thousand bits, minimum. The smell of smoky peppermint seemed to come from it.

“Been spending some of your dough, I see.” Pick said. The room was almost as messed up as he was. New and expensive all mixed up with old and cheap. Everything was clean, though.

“No. Brando bought it all. Then he left Aura.”

Pick bit back his first thought. “That sucks.”

The unicorn mare rubbed at her mane, avoiding Pick’s eyes. “It never would have worked between us. He saw that. I did too, eventually. Oh, I don’t think you heard yet. Brando swallowed the real vial of healdust for safekeeping. He was the reason the other one was fake. It was a decoy, the devious bugger.” Pick stared, his face and mind gone blank. “Smog got the real healdust spores from Brando later. The mission didn’t fail. Whatever harm we did on that mission, the good we set out to do…actually got done.”

Mithril didn’t say that Red Raider hadn’t died in vain, so Pick didn’t plant a hoof in her teeth. Pick wasn’t sure how to feel about learning this. There seemed to be signs that he might actually feel good about it, or at least it might make him feel less bad. Mostly he just felt confused. Mithril didn’t wait for him to say anything. She approached the liquor cabinet and pulled out her key-ring.

Pick perked up. Mithril studied the booze. “Funny thing, this kind of locking glass-fronted drinks cabinet is called a tantalus. There’s a myth about a pony called Tantalus in Tartarus cursed to stand neck-deep in cool water with ripe fruit dangling on a branch overhead. Whenever he tries to drink, the water drains away. Whenever he goes for the fruit, the branch rises out of reach. S’where we get the word ‘tantalize.’ Learned that in school. The things that stick in your head.” She gave hers a slow shake.

“There a point to this?” Pick said.

“I was thinking about how it’s unfair to torment you with booze you can see but can’t have.” She unlocked the cabinet. Pick perked up more. “So I’m getting rid of it. If I won’t let you drink, it’s not fair to drink in front of you.”

Pick watched her magic drag a crate from under the record player’s table. Bottles sailed through the air to clink as they settled into the box. “Oh, come on!”

The unicorn didn’t waver. “You can drink when I do. We can go out for dinner, have one or two beers with it. I won’t let you over-drink, so I can’t get drunk either. It’s the only way to be fair.” She headed deeper into the house. The box trailed her and Pick trailed the box. In the kitchen she started pulling out more booze. Wine bottles. Even the cooking sherry. Pick couldn’t speak. He couldn’t believe this.

“Okay,” Mithril said, “I’m going to go get rid of this. Can’t bear to dump it, so I’ll see that it finds a good home. You can go about a hundred feet from me, including up and down, before triggering the tracking ring’s alarm at the station. Same goes for this house. When I’m not here, you have to stay here. You’ll get a warning tingle as you get near the limit.”

“This is totally ridiculous.” Pick said.

“That’s how it has to be.” Mithril said. “I really do care about you, Pick. I think you got a raw deal from Smog and I want to help you heal from that. Alcohol will numb, but it won’t heal. I didn’t tell you before, I didn’t want to even look like I was trying to guilt-trip you, but I had to call in favors and promise more before I could get the chief to agree to give you this chance at parole probation. If you screw up, I can kiss my career goodbye. My rump is on the line, right next to yours.”

Pick forced a scowl. The expression that wanted to form was a lot weirder-feeling. “Thanks, I totally don’t feel guilt-tripped now.”

“Yeah. But you didn’t know that when you made the choice. Sure, you didn’t know the consequences to me when you did it. But those were my consequences to risk, not yours. I’ll own them. I didn’t try to force you into this. I let you be the one to choose. Try to remember that when I’m being a hard-case, okay?” She headed for the front door with purpose. “Be back in an hour or two. There’s all kinds of food in the kitchen, go nuts. Just don’t make a huge mess. I’ll try and pick up a decent folding cot or something for you to sleep on tonight, and we can get you a real bed soon.”

Pick’s back complained, of the cot in the loony-bin and the cot on the Snark before that, and even his cheap cloud mattress in the hovel of a cloud shack he’d lived in as a rookie cop. “I want a really good one.”

Mithril paused in the doorway. “Sure. I can afford it.”

“So can I, remember?”

Her green eyes went a little shifty. “I’ll pay for it, okay? You’re my guest. We’ll talk more when we get back. Unless you feel sleepy before I do, then you can take the bed. I’ve slept in the recliner before, it’s pretty good. No backache. In fact, take the bed tonight anyway. The mattress is new and so are the sheets. It’s awesome, like a warm cloud wrapped in a silk bag. If you want a bath, feel free. There’s two bathrobes, you can use one.”

“Whatever.” Pick said. Then, to his surprise: “Thanks.”

Mithril smiled: warm and open and pleased and relieved, but above all, sincere. “You’re welcome.”

Then she was gone and the brief brightness faded. Gloom pulled back around Pick. He actually hesitated, which was probably a good sign, before indulging his urge to snoop. Maybe he just hesitated because of all the little Princesses watching him. He didn’t take anything and put things back where he got them. The locks he encountered weren’t any problem. Saving the bedroom for last, he discovered it wasn’t at all…frou-frou. He’d almost expected for Mithril to have some secret soft side under all that leathery old-cop crust, kind of like a good bagel. It wasn’t a masculine room but there were no frilly throw pillows and no trace of pink at all. It was a bedroom for sleeping in, not living in.

A box lay under the bed. Sturdy wood with brass fittings, almost like a pirate chest. He had it unlocked in moments. Opening it, he took a second to make sense of what he saw. Then his eyes almost popped out of his head. It was a…toy-box. Once he picked his jaw up off the floor he took a second look. Nothing too…extreme. There were things with clockwork, and one of them would have made an elephant feel inadequate, but overall it looked like a box for nights when she was alone, rather than nights she had company. He reached toward them, to see what lay under the top layer, and then pulled back. Brando had been here. Pick had that griffin pegged as a male who enjoyed a nice toy on occasion.

Mentally replaying his last thought, Pick groaned and face-hoofed at his horrible and unintended pun. Then groaned again at the mental image it produced. He started to close the chest when something in one corner snagged his eye. There were other bottles but this one looked out of place. Moving with great care to touch nothing else, he lifted free the square-sided bottle. His breath caught as he turned it to find a label. OWLBEAR AND MONKEYBEE’S VERY PECULIAR APPLEJACK. Under it, so tiny he almost mistook it for a decorative line: Dudgeon and Dagon Distillery, Dice Makers, and Sofa Repair. Under that, larger and red: Keep Away From Metal And Open Flames.

Pick had never heard of the stuff. Yanking the cork, he took a sniff that hit his sinuses like a rusty cheese-grater and burned his eyeballs from the inside. “Hnnnynunnng.” He rammed the cork back in place and tried to get his eyes to uncross. It was alcohol, all right, rather than Celestia-knows-what in a repurposed bottle. It smelled of rotten apples, damp woodpiles, slightly of hoof-polish remover, and just a hint of frosty autumn nights overlaying the rest like a dusting of fresh snow on a compost heap. The smell told him everything he needed to know. Cheap and raw and strong, guaranteed to get you falling-down, throwing-up drunk and cause a near-lethal hangover. It was the kind of bottle you put in a paper bag. Trying not to dwell on why Mithril would keep a bottle of cheap powerful booze in her toy-box, he put it back, closed the lid, locked it, and shoved it back under his bed.

Then Pick realized what he had done. He hadn’t thought, just acted. His action had been to…not drink. Of course now the temptation to take a nip or five surged up in him like a bad bean burrito. He shook his head. It would take true desperation before he drank that crud. Not quite daring to snoop anymore, Pick decided he might as well unpack.

It lay right on top of the rumpled mass of his clothing. It hadn’t been there when he stuffed them into it after getting his stuff back at the loony-bin. He lifted the flap of the saddlebag and there it was. A square of cheap paper folded in half. He unfolded it and stared for a few moments, seeing but not understanding. Puzzled, but nothing more. Then he dropped it like a live scorpion. A pony skull over crossed shovels. The sign of the Skulldiggers.

Somepony had put it in his saddlebag. Somepony had gotten close enough to pull a reverse-pickpocket on him without him suspecting a thing. He was more than a little paranoid right now. Knowing that didn’t stop it. Paranoid or not, he hadn’t sensed them. There was no writing, but there didn’t need to be. The message was clear: I could have been a knife in your back and you never would have seen it coming. It wasn’t fair warning. It wasn’t some code of honor demanding he be warned that the sentence had been passed on him. It was to make him squirm. Pick felt as if some curse cut his every breath in half and gave him the shorter one. He’d half-inhale before hitching to a halt. It took him a while to realize just how terrified he felt.

Moving like a sleepwalker, Pick methodically checked and locked every window and door. He found some empty glass bottles and balanced them in places where an intruder would probably knock them over. Halfway through, he had to stop by the bathroom to bring up his lunch and that one expensive beer. Grabbing the biggest knife he could find in the kitchen, he sharpened it on the steel rod used for that. Then he retreated to the bedroom. The knife went on the nightstand. They hadn’t given his knife back, of course. He pulled the booze from the box, locking it up afterwards.

Pick took the bottle and crawled into bed, pulling his head under the blanket. He yanked the cork and took a small drink. The taste was…everything he had expected. Rather than drive out the taste of bile, the two became friends. It went down with barely a hint of burn. He replaced the cork, disappointed as well as numb with dread. Its bark was worse than its bite. Then white heat erupted in his stomach. His throat burned like he’d tried to drink lemon juice cut with ground glass. Even his gums stung. The fumes reamed out his sinuses again, coming in through the back this time. Even before the alcohol hit his brain, the stuff had done its job. He had forgotten about absolutely everything else.

True night had fallen by the time White Lightning, Zenzar, and Zheila got back to the Garage. The Captain had refused to come along and insisted Baz and Kirra stay as well. Lightning couldn’t blame him for that. There were practical reasons. If the bomb had been bait to lure them out of their well-watched house and into an ambush, it wouldn’t have gotten all them. Zheila shooed Lightning straight into the bathroom for a bath, with orders not to take too long. She wanted to check him for injuries. Lightning had a vague memory about smoke inhalation sometimes having a delayed onset. They felt fine for a while, then boom. They fell over.

Say one thing for the infernal heat of Zavros, it didn’t take a genius to harness that powerful sunlight to heat water. Zenzar had rigged something in the attic that, at the end of the day, resulted in a tank of almost frighteningly hot water. It was the perfect temperature by morning, which tended to be cool. Lightning would have preferred a cold bath after being lightly broiled in a burning building. If he couldn’t have cold he’d prefer hot over tepid.

It turned out to be a good call. The heat soaked into his muscles and pulled out all the aches. He had spent a few days dealing with various flavors of scum in the coalition, plus a pair of I.B.I. Special Agents who clearly thought he was in danger of becoming scum. Days spent waiting for the Capra to make a move, quite possibly violent and quite possibly toward him and his friends. Tension had knotted the muscles in his neck and spine. Another knot in his guts. He hadn’t really noticed how much had built up until the hot water and quiet safety of the little tile-walled room eased it away.

Lightning submerged until only the end of his muzzle poked out. All he could hear were muffled hoof-falls from elsewhere in the building, plus that strange water-in-the-ears noise. ‘I flew into a burning building.’ he thought. Disbelief and a kind of embarrassed pride struggled against each other. ‘That’s like, the gold standard for heroism. All those years trying so hard to be good. Leave my past behind. Change my ways. Choosing to be good, rather than having it come natural. I always wondered how I’d act if I had to act without thinking. No, I always worried. I always feared that if it really came down to it, I’d chicken out and realize my goodness was all skin-deep. That when push comes to shove, my selfish old ways would come right back. I worried my handsome new face was more a reflection of who I wished I was, my heart’s desire rather than the truth of my spirit. Now I know. Push came to shove and I flew right into the fire.’

A weight fell from his heart, one that had been there so long it had stopped feeling like a burden and just became the way things were. He smiled. ‘I made it. I really and truly made it. I’m one of the good guys.’ He had thought he was utterly relaxed before. Now he knew better. He had always worked so hard to watch himself. Second-guessing everything he did, for years. Now he realized he didn’t have to be quite so paranoid. There was no powerful evil him waiting to take over if he dropped his guard. He could trust his instincts to be good ones. Now, finally, he felt confident enough to let go.

The next thing Lightning knew, something had hold of his ear and dragged him up out of the water. He struggled to get his hooves from under him so he could get some weight off his ear. It was released and he blinked water out of his eyes to see Zheila trying to look angry and failing to hide her amusement. “I told ya a quick scrub-down, and ya went and took a soak. Ya fell asleep, ya daft flyboy.”

Lightning resisted the instinctive but impolite urge to shake himself dry, then had to fight off the impulse to do it anyway as payback for the ear-yanking. The water in the tub wasn’t black as ink, but it was more than murky enough. He accepted the towel she offered and draped it over him as he stepped out. He gave her a look and then glanced at the door. She gave a nod and headed for the door…which she locked. He cocked an eyebrow as she turned back to face him. She somehow managed, with her single eye, to wink at him. Face warm, Lightning tried to ignore her as he scrubbed at his damp mane. He smelled like…like wood-smoked soap. Face burning worse than when he was surrounded by flames, he finished drying off.

He tried to think of something to say. “You know, my mane and tail haven’t gotten any longer since that potion transformed me to look like this. They should have by now.”

“Everypony’s mane and tail has a natural maximum length. Hairs only get so long before dey fall out and grow a new one. Same as with da body, only dat’s a lot shorter and more…”

“Consistent?” Lightning said.

“Yeah. Your mane and tail have a new maximum length.”

Lightning rubbed his crew-cut white mane and twitched his tail, which ended in a straight-line cut not much beyond where his flesh-and-blood tail ended. That hadn’t improved his already sub-standard agility in the air. He felt like a bottle rocket missing its stick sometimes. All speed and no steering. “Well, I guess it’ll save money not needing haircuts. Have you figured out yet if your long white mane will ever wear off?”

Zheila preened a little, adjusting her mane. “It’s permanent. Part of why curses wear off is because da victim fights it. I never fought it. Dat unicorn tried to hammer it in me against my will, only I was willing. Hammered so hard, it stuck.”


Zheila turned thoughtful. “Also, I was already under a permanent transformation curse. Changing somepony is hard. Changing somepony more…ain’t as hard. How do ya feel? Any burns? Heavy feeling in da lungs?” The questions came at him like an unexpected bat while flying at night. “Your eyes look less bloodshot, dat’s good.”

“I feel okay. Tender here and there. I’ve had worse sunburns. A little minor not-quite-charring on my hooves. Need to take a file to them, I guess. My lungs are fine, but my throat feels scratchy. No coughing, though. How are the others?”

“Zenzar’s downstairs, tinkering with Sasha. Said he ain’t gonna be able to sleep tonight anyway. Da other three left. Da Captain said da Just In Time is fixed enough now for them to live in it while it’s fixed da rest of da way. Da docks are gonna be really secure for a while, so dat’s safe enough. He told me to tell ya dat he’s decided he can’t get involved with all this. ‘Can’t,’ not ‘don’t wanna.’ I got da impression he can’t because he does wanna, too much to trust himself. Da only way he can keep a lid on dat talent of his is to avoid da temptation to ever use it.”

Putting the damp towel in the hamper, Lightning rummaged for q-tips to get some water that refused to be shaken out of his left ear. “I can respect that. They just…left?”

“They wanted to say goodbye, but it was getting later and ya weren’t coming out of here as fast as we thought ya would.” He started to blush and then realized her cheeks had gone red. Her lovely green eye studied the ceiling. “I want it clear. There ain’t gonna be any hanky-panky until we get married. My granny raised me right.”

Lightning stuck the cotton swab in his ear and chased the drop of water lurking in there. “I think I just got proposed to.”

“Nah, but just putting it out there dat after things calm down some, ya might consider asking me. I might not say no. No hanky-panky, but ya flew into a burning building. Okay, nopony needed rescuing but you were all set to if they did. I won’t have ya sleeping on a pallet on da floor tonight. My bed’s pretty wide.” Lightning almost impaled his brain with a q-tip. She pointed her eye and a fore-hoof at him. “No. Hanky. Panky. Dat ain’t me playing coy, ain’t me saying ‘oh no, please don’t, wink-wink.’ Try anything and you can sleep on da floor.”

She looked dead serious, and if somehow she really was hoping he tried something, she was going to end up disappointed. He put hoof to heart. “I promise.” His voice continued, to the surprise and alarm of his brain. “Now, is cuddling on the table?”

Her eye twinkled. “Dat’s…negotiable.” Then she sobered. “Lightning, there’s something I’m not telling you.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“Bah, I said it wrong. There is something that I am not going to tell you. I figure if I’m gonna keep a secret from ya, you should at least know there is one. Ya might be angry if ya find out what it is. Angry at me for not telling ya. I told Zenzar and I wish I hadn’t. We both promised da Agent it won’t go past us. Seafoam, not Green.”

“Pfthah.” Lightning said. “Agent Green and Agent Seafoam. I wonder, is that a coincidence or somepony’s idea of a joke? Eh, whatever.” He closed the distance between them. “If Agent Seafoam asked you not to talk about it, then you shouldn’t talk about it. Not even to me.”

“Thanks.” Zheila said. She gave him a kiss on the nose and then laughed at his stunned expression. “Time for bed. And no-”

“-hanky-panky. I got it.”

She chuckled. “I was gonna say snoring.”

Uncle attempted to give the terrified message-runner a reassuring smile. He should have known better. The goat took one look at Uncle’s old-boxer face, with the scars like a railroad map, and almost had a heart-attack. Uncle sent him on his way, sour amusement tinting the grimness he felt. At least the messenger would be too busy being afraid of Uncle to be scared of what he should really be worried about. Uncle entered the other of the two rooms in this underground safe-house. “Louie?”

Across the cramped room, Louie Legstrong, his second-in-command, bookkeeper, and ideas goat, fumbled his pipe. The herbs he’d been stuffing in it scattered across the dinky table he used for a desk. “Yeah, boss? We finally get orders from home?”

“No, but we’re done waiting. We’re getting out of Zavros tonight. You and me. The boys will follow as soon as they can manage it, two by two. Can’t leave in a crowd, we’d get spotted.”

“Bad news, boss?”

Uncle wished there was something to punch. He didn’t punch anything that didn’t need punching. Not anymore. He’d survived as long as he had by learning self-control. His never-ending river of undirected rage was carefully dammed up and stored, then let out in a narrow high-pressure stream that powered the turbines of his will. “We’re being framed for the hotel business this afternoon.”

Louie dropped the pipe he’d been fiddling with. “…uh.”

“Yeah.” Uncle smoothed his goatee and wiped his hoof on his lapels. “Go home and report, Louie. If I don’t come back, my advice is to glue your lips to Gordon’s butt. You’re reliable with paperwork and planning. He’ll see you’re useful.”

“I-I don’t understand, boss. Come back from what?”

Uncle surrendered to the urge to sit. “We’re leaving Zavros tonight. You’re going to Hong Prong. I’m going to Aura. Centuries of evidence say Smog can spot a liar when he sees one, even the best ones. I’m gonna tell him the truth, right to his face. We didn’t do the hotel. If it was a goat, he wasn’t under orders. The Capra aren’t making war on him. Not at the moment. Not anymore. He’ll believe me, because I won’t be lying. That’s no guarantee I’ll survive.” That was half a lie, hinting Uncle might survive. Smog wouldn’t miss an opportunity to pick the brains of a goat so high in the Capra. Uncle wasn’t going to spill any secrets. He’d make sure of it, one way or another. He was getting old anyway. Might as well cash in his chips before the game stopped being fun.

“I…boss, I…”

“Surprised?” Uncle said. He grinned, feeling old scars pull and twinge. “I’m a horrible old billy, Louie, but I have a few virtues. I’m loyal, right to the marrow. Maybe the Capra could survive a war against Smog. We couldn’t win one. He’d mangle us. He’s like me that way. Just because he knows he’s gonna lose don’t mean he’ll stop fighting. He’ll throw everything he has at us until he’s dead. And probably after, the old pink monster. He will do his level best to take us with him, Louie, or at least make taking him down cost so much we wish we hadn’t won. Any last-minute business?”

Louie, the old softie, looked almost ready to shed a tear before he got hold of himself. “Uh, um…Bobby Clover is still in custody. Still got his mouth shut tight.”

Uncle sighed. “I would have broken him out, if it was up to me. But I decided to wait for orders. Now it’s too late to set up a jailbreak. We got somepony in place to take care of him?”

“Yeah, boss.” Louie picked up his pipe, gave it a nauseated look, and tucked it away. He blew bits of smoking herbs off his tidy paperwork. “Two cutoffs between them, no way of tracing him back to us. He might suspect who hired him, but he doesn’t know and can’t prove it. It’ll be done clean.”

“Good. We can give him that much. Get packed, Louie. You were right about that tunnel into the docks. Pain in the butt to dig on the quiet and cost a quarter of last year’s discretionary funds, but now it’s gonna save our butts.”

After stepping out of the office, Morhoof stood motionless for a moment. Smog’s words troubled him. In order to preserve the illusion of being a monster, I must do monstrous things. True, and said in tones of deepest bitter regret, but all the more worrying for that. There was only so much that Breaking Dawn could do to quell Smog’s evil. Morhoof had helped Smog, more than he had Fantasy, by revealing the true past to him. It had been a help, despite the heavy weight that would continue to plague Smog’s conscience for…ever, if Smog truly had dug himself such a deep hole he could never climb free.

Morhoof had doubts, or at least hopes. He wanted to believe that it was possible that, with time, Breaking Dawn could find some way to pry free of this sticky web without pulling Aura down. But would Smog even allow himself to hope? Arrogance was a failing of dragons. Smog believed that the web he had spun was inescapable. That none could overmatch his cunning, that his work had no flaw. But was it true? More importantly, could Smog forgive himself? Morhoof knew what it was like to lay blame on oneself. There was a kind of arrogance in the belief that one was truly beyond forgiveness. In a bout of hypocritical gusto, how long would too long be? A difference between accident and deliberate, it would be a lot longer than a reasonable length for an accident.

Still. There was always a chance of forgiveness. Morhoof understood what had happened between him and Rose. Smog’s black elixir had restored the true memories to him. They burned worse than the flames had done. It still weighed heavily on him, but acceptance had come and healing could finally take place. But what about Breaking Dawn? Smog was a psyche, a way of thinking, a way of being. Some of it had been cast aside but everything that had been governed by that psyche still needed to be governed. It took a spider to rule a web. Without hope of escape, from the web and the need for the old, cold Smog, could Breaking Dawn remain strong?

Morhoof could have left Smog as Smog, could have done that and possibly still prevented Fantasy from taking revenge on Smog, but then Forte Presto would have still come along. With Smog still being Smog…Morhoof doubted that Fantasy would have been offered the forgiving deal she had gotten. The whole thing spun Morhoof’s head. ‘Did I do the right thing?’ he thought. ‘I shall never know…and always wonder.’

Morhoof stepped down the hallway, three living hooves clicking and a wooden hoof clunking on the white floorboards. Back into the main room, unnervingly floored in cloud, however black and solid it might seem. The two ‘janitor’ pegasi were still around. The police unicorn had gone, as he had expected. Another figure had shown up in the meantime. One of those sugar gliders, all dressed up in a fancy suit and radiating the kind of danger usually found in coiled vipers. The Den was closed, so it meant only one thing. Morhoof gave the glider a polite nod. “He’s all yours, neighbor.” He felt tempted to tell the inexplicably deadly-looking fluff-ball to try again later, but it was probably important. The sugar glider nodded in return and dropped off his barstool and out of sight.

They passed each other, careful not to get too close. Morhoof swiped the mostly-full bottle sitting near where the glider had sat. It vanished under his cloak. He doubted that a drink would be waiting for him at his new apartment ‘home.’ The twin pegasi seemed none the wiser, or just didn’t care.

Outside the Den, Morhoof paused to study the Avec Noir’s door. Part of him wanted to check up on Fantasy, part of him told him that it wasn’t necessary, and another part said that’d he would likely embarrass himself. That last one wasn’t a quip from Loco. Morhoof sensed almost nothing from that thing. It had gone dead silent after Smog’s announcement. That worried Morhoof, although there was something else. Not a feeling, more a thought.

Climbing out of the underdark of Aura, he consulted the note Smog had given him with his new address on it. It was quite nearby the Den. Almost directly above it, though about as low as things got while still with windows. The neighborhood had a higher percentage of coffeehouses and art galleries, populated with ponies in black turtlenecks and small round sunglasses, than he liked. Mere newborn foals compared to him, playing at being cynical and jaded. It was almost cute. Almost.

It wasn’t a complex apartment in any sense of the imagination, but at least it had floatwood flooring throughout. A large main room, with huge panoramic windows looking out onto a balcony and a spectacular view of the building across the street. Outfitted with a couch, accompanied by two small end tables on either side, the main room also held a modest dining table with chairs nestled close to the kitchen opening off of it. A small hallway close to the kitchen led down to the washroom and two other rooms. The smaller stood empty. The larger held a bed and other bedroom furniture. Presumably the other was a spare bedroom.

Perhaps he could use it as a workshop.

Morhoof breathed in. Something smelled off about the place. A stink he couldn’t pin down. It vanished when he moved only to creep back when he stopped. Loco chimed in, seemingly unable to resist: That’s you, dolt. Morhoof took a whiff of himself. He hadn’t realized it, but he smelled like a barroom ashtray. The end tables had candles on them smelling of cinnamon. Morhoof lit one. Tossing his cloak over the couch, he set his lute on it and his saddlebags nearby. After shrugging out of the laden harness of knives and pouches, he headed off for a much-needed shower. Old habit made him keep one knife with him, hanging from the harness holding on his wooden foreleg.

A considerable time later, Morhoof emerged from the sauna of the bathroom feeling as if he should squeak as he walked. The apartment had hot water, with a cunning device that used lift-gas flame to heat the water as it came. No water heater to deplete. He lathered up and rinsed off several times and then just enjoyed the pounding, skin-scalding deluge. It was still early, by the feel of things. He went out on the balcony, re-settling the knife on the harness. He looked up as the distant sliver of blue sky. No hint of the sun. There didn’t seem to be a clock in the apartment. That spurred Morhoof’s memory of that old Dustan clock he had seen, the one that played a different song on each hour. He’d buy it. Smog certainly paid him enough. It seemed easier to move it here rather than half-way across the world. Later. A courier would drop by with what Morhoof had listed to Smog. So said the note. At noon, being a perfect signal to return to the Avec Noir for Fantasy.

Morhoof planted himself on the comfortable couch and investigated his stolen bottle. Nectar brandy? It smelled like floral perfume and tasted a little like mead but it went down with a smooth fire he appreciated. The scented candle he had lit hadn’t burned down over-much, though he wasn’t going to leave it burning for much longer anyways. He felt oddly at ease, even though a number of things gnawed at him. The possibility of being rid of the windigo and surviving, indefinitely at that, filled him with an astounding sense of anticipation and, while maybe not the precise right word, glee. There was, of course, those ‘other things.’ Fantasy’s safety, Smog’s mental health, and whatever Loco might spring. He didn’t seem the kind to be above self-destruction to prevent another’s continuation.

He didn’t worry about Forte. For him, Morhoof had plans.

Soft indirect light filtered in through the windows, sunlight bounced down from the sunlit tops of pristine towers. Capping the bottle, he dropped it gently to the floor. His saddlebags and lute followed it down. He stretched out on the couch. The brandy had a deceptive kick. A few nips and his brain felt full of fog. The sleepless night didn’t help, no doubt. He wasn’t certain when he’d last had a meal either. Rest was probably a good thing. He didn’t know of many that would dare to trespass on Smog’s territory to go after him.

Knock, knock, thunk.

Morhoof awoke to find his living foreleg extended and the sheath hung from his harness empty. The stubby throwing knife quivered in the wood of the door, having hit it at the same instant as the third knock and likely striking the very spot opposite the rapping hoof. Loco sniggered. A little jumpy there, eh? Morhoof rubbed at his bleary eyes. “Maybe a little.” Morhoof rose, tossed on his cloak, and un-shanked the door. It had a spyhole, the fancy kind with a lens that distorted everything but lent a wider view. Nopony he knew, but the pegasus wore a uniform of some description and carried a box. Morhoof went to unlock the door but realized he hadn’t actually locked it. Resisting the urge to bang his head against the door, he opened it up to the waiting pegasus.

The blue stallion peeked at a clipboard. “Package for a Mister Lute." Morhoof nodded. “Sign here, please.”

Morhoof took the offered pen and signed the form, eyeing the box that most certainly contained his wish-list. It was going to almost be like opening a Hearth’s Warming Eve present. Lovely holiday: he has special reason to like it, though he predated the events inspiring it. Then again, he predated most things, including the three great hallmarks of civilization: hot running water, good dentistry, and soft toilet paper. Morhoof lugged the box inside and over to the table, laying everything out. Most of the things he could have gotten himself, but he supposed it was just easier to have it all sent at once. Those included, but wasn’t limited to, a roll of duct tape, a hacksaw, and flare gun with flares. Anypony tracking his individually-innocent purchases might have wondered what the hay he was up to.

Then there was a small amount of powdered sungold in a glass vial, some of those knockout-gas tablets Smog liked so much, and…a small box of something that looked like tarnished lead, felt like satin-finished wood, and clinked like steel. It sat well in the hoof. With an envelope taped to it. The letter within had that printed-type perfection writing, distinctive of Smog. A small dull-gray key lay stuck in a blank wax disk dripped on the bottom.

Enclosed in the box is my spare cockatrice eye. Anything that looks into the box will be turned to stone. Not useful in deep darkness or against the blind or wary. Figuring that you would wish to honor Fantasy’s wishes of apprehending Forte Presto so he may face lawful justice, I give you this. I have the antidote, so his petrification would not necessarily mean virtual death. Please be extremely careful with it.

“Hm. Interesting." Morhoof tucked the sungold bottle inside his pouch of bits. The box was a little different than the one that housed his clingy sapphire, but it would still fit in the place he usually kept that. The rest he swept back into the delivery box and set under the table. He’d come back for it later.

Down into the dark heart of Aura. Morhoof paused when he stood between the Avec Noir and the Den. Fantasy probably wouldn’t care to see Smog again, at least not until she had some time away from him. He wavered between checking on her first or inquiring about the Eye that Smog had saddled him with. He decided to check with her first. She might decline to come with him, but he would give her the opportunity. Morhoof wanted to know what, precisely, he was supposed to do if he managed to petrify Forte. He didn’t feel comfortable with just leaving the villain alone while he went to hire a hauling service. He wouldn’t trust the unicorn to stay stone.

Entering the Avec Noir, he rang the bell at the desk. Best to let somepony know he was around before skulking about. Nopony answered. He rang again. Nothing. He slipped deeper into the hotel. He was at the kitchen door before he realized his stomach had directed his path. Delicious smells called out to his achingly empty guts. How long had it been?

Flambé glanced back over his shoulder. The dark-red pegasus had his blue-black mane up under a chef hat. “Bonjour, Monsieur Lute. Fantasy, she is still asleep.”

Morhoof nodded and almost replied with ‘bonjour’ but stopped himself, unsure of why. “Good morning, Mister Flambé. May I inquire after your sister?”

Oui, she is out clothes shopping with ze koala.”

“I beg your pardon? She what?”

Flambé gave something a forceful jab with a fork. “Exactly what I said when she told me. Would you like something to eat?"

Morhoof’s stomach threatened bloody mutiny if he didn’t say yes. “Yes, that would be grand. Perhaps an omelet or something simple like that. Unless you want to make something fancy. I’m far too wise to tell a chef what to do in his kitchen.”

“Wise indeed. For that…” Flambé sprouted a flickering halo of whirling knives and other utensils, juggling them better than most unicorns could have done with magic. “…you get my best.”

What happened next was pure artistry, and entertaining to boot. Morhoof’s resolve to pace himself ended the instant the first hot, rich mouthful of omelet hit his tongue. Herbs had been mixed into the egg, and the savory filling of mushrooms and stir-fried vegetables…ancient bard that he was, words failed him. His mouth experienced something that he usually associated with an area much further south, though it had been an unspeakably long time since it had seen use. The next he knew, the omelet was gone. So were other foods he vaguely remembered through a haze of ravenous bliss.

Flambé watched him, wiping his fore-hooves on a cloth and sporting a crooked grin. “Where do you put it all? Is ze wooden leg hollow?”

Morhoof felt like a python that had been tricked into swallowing a bowling ball. He belched, which made him feel a little better, but a look down showed him a bulging belly. “You are a chef nonpareil, Monsieur.”

“But of course.” Flambé launched into a tale of how he had come to discover his talent. Morhoof listened, filled with logy contentment. There was no rush to get Fantasy. His job was to simply see her safely home. Better if she sleep longer, so she would be alert for the trip down. He needed to digest a little or he’d be no good in a fight.

Fantasy eventually wandered in, her mane and tail recently brushed but still managing to look sleep-frowzy. She saw him, gave him a muzzy smile, and then made a beeline for the hot hay-fries Flambé set on the table. Morhoof watched her stuff her face with the first twinge of indigestion. “Good morning. I’m here to take you home. We can go back down whenever you feel ready. It need not be just yet. Before we go, however, I need to ask Smog about something. So I’ll be right back.” Fantasy nodded to him and showed no interest in accompanying him.

Unable to quite regret his overloaded stomach, Morhoof headed for the Den.

Tradewind shuddered. Luna’s words had cut deeply into his heart, and even the ever-present voice of Reason had been momentarily silenced. But then it came back, louder and more insistent, sounding much, much more serious. “Tradewind, we both know that no matter what you do, nopony will ever accept you or Fantasy. Her father’s reaction was the pinion on the wing. No matter where you go, a pegasus and a unicorn…” Even Reason’s voice sounded unconvinced near the end, and Tradewind knew that he was wrong. There was no such thing as a taboo like that anywhere in the Empire. Snooty Auran pegasi might prefer their children to marry pegasi, but it wasn’t a law and the disapprovers weren’t even the majority. Tradewind’s mind suddenly blossomed with a weak, golden light. He inwardly giggled. He recalled seeing a newspaper article about an earth pony who had married her favorite rock.

Reason, suddenly sounding angry, flooded back as the light dimmed again. “And besides that, where will you go? She’s famous, you’re so unremarkable that I’m surprised even I managed to notice you the first time. No…there is only one road for you to walk down. Luna is right, it’s unpleasant, but it has to be done. Beg her. BEG her to kill you. There is no choice anymore. Do it now!

Tradewind suddenly focused. Still unmoving, his eyes locked with the alicorn sitting not-quite-beside him. He managed, through the haze of fear and doubt, to croak out the words that he knew would be his last. The words that would end his suffering and make the world a slightly better place for everypony else.

“Please…help. Help…me…die…

His mind spoke the words, his ears heard them. His ears weren’t that trustworthy anymore. He hoped that his mouth had enough energy to make the sound reach Luna’s ears. He closed his eyes and waited for the end.

Moon Pie started to relax as Tradewind spoke. “Please…help.” Then everything went wrong. “Help…me…die…” The final word was a sigh with no strength behind it.

Luna gave a formal nod. “I shall help thee, Tradewind.” Head still lowered, she moved to touch the point of her horn to that little pink scar.

Moon Pie felt both her stomachs free-fall toward the center of the earth. She didn’t waste time thinking Luna was about to grant his wish. That was silly. No, something far worse had vaulted into her mind. Luna hadn’t heard the final word. Moon Pie had barely made it out, and she could make out a pony’s heartbeat at a dozen paces if she focused. She thought Tradewind was asking for the help she had offered. Luna thought she had permission to open Tradewind to his heart.

She froze. Moon Pie rarely did that. When things got hairy, her hard-won detachment slammed into place and left her emotions an ignorable nuisance. Not always, but often. She froze from indecision when she froze, not terror. Luna’s words had opened Moon Pie’s heart and knocked aside the icy talons caging it. She had been sure overcoming them would be a long hard struggle. That had been just another fear-born lie she told herself. It had always been as simple and difficult as…letting go. Now her horrified realization and blooming alarm flooded her and there was no glass wall to hold it back.

Moon Pie didn’t have any practice surfing the wave of a strong emotion, she had always dammed them up instead. Her thoughts raced and time seemed to slow, giving her plenty of time to appreciate what was happening. Her body felt as sluggish as cold honey. One clawed foreleg rose, beginning to make a palm-out stop gesture. Her jaw dropped open. Air slipped into her lungs, her throat already flexing to shape the coming exhale into a yell of warning.

Too slow.

Magic rolled along Luna’s horn in a pulse that met the heart-shaped scar and bloomed into a warm pink coal. Tradewind’s hazel eyes flared pink at the same moment. Afterwards they seemed less focused but more intense. It was the stare of sudden revelation, when understanding hit the brain like a thousand lightning bolts. Moon Pie got her own lightning bolt when she realized exactly what Luna had one. Tradewind was forced to confront a vision of himself. Every memory stripped of comforting denial or revision. Every emotion revealed in all its glory or horror, with their cause…or lack of cause…made plain. Every vice, every virtue, every strength, every weakness. Every worthy and unworthy desire, and what fueled it.

Tradewind got a full-bore vision of his true self and there was no hope of denying its truth. Some called it a ‘reforming’ spell. That was based on the notion that creatures were basically good at heart, and forcing them to confront the truth of that inner goodness would compel them to reject evil. Moon Pie didn’t assume she could really imagine what that would be like. What she imagined fell far short of the reality. Even that pale shadow left her speechless with awed horror. The darkness might lie, but in that light there was nowhere to hide. That kind of self-knowledge was a harsh thing even for a decent pony. It was a spell that might shatter a monster…except maybe the vilest ones, who were truly rotten to the core and perfectly content to be so. Even her brother had proven not to be one of those; for all that he had tried to become one, he had failed.

Tradewind hadn’t given consent for this. There was a slim hope, though. Luna wasn’t actually changing anything in his head; wasn’t forcing him to feel or think or act against his nature. Quite the reverse. She forced him confront who he truly was. Not who he thought he was. He wouldn’t go insane from the spell itself. Telling a pony a truth they weren’t ready to face was more than bad enough. Unable to deny and unable to accept: those were the forces that could tear a mind to pieces. They had to want to face the truth, or facing it could break them.

The spell ended after a moment that stretched out to eternity. Luna raised her horn and head. Tradewind stared at nothing. His stunned expression slowly turned into something that probably had no name in any language. He looked…blasted. Cleansed but scoured. The self-knowledge would fade fast. It had to. No creature could be that self-aware and stay sane. Its after-effects would linger. The harsh light of truth had swept through his mind like a new broom.

Tradewind blinked and gave a shiver. Awareness returned to his eyes. Then it twisted and crumpled up into another expression no language could truly describe. The noise started out as a shaky whimper but soon scaled up into full-throated bawling. Tears flooded down his cheeks and muzzle as he huddled under the picnic blanket. Sorrow, anger, joy, relief. It was all of those things and none of them. A building storm eventually had to break. Rain had to fall. Sometimes everything just got too much and there was nothing to do but let it out. Moon Pie understood that all too well. A few times a week she woke up in the night, cried for no reason she could name, felt better, and went back to sleep.

Moon Pie sat in her own wretchedness, wanting to help and not daring to try. She drank more tea for something to do. To her surprise, it made her feel better. Well, steadier. Less like a piece of driftwood in the flooded river of her emotions. More like a boat, with a rudder. Luna sat by the pegasus and folded a wing around him. She cried too, silvery tears running down a face that somehow mixed regality and tenderness.

No storm lasted forever. Tradewind eventually cried himself out and grew quiet. Luna urged tea on him. He held the cup up near his muzzle in both fore-hooves and took little sips. After the first few, he stopped looking so much like an old wrung-out rag. Luna moved her wing away and shifted enough to give him some space without making him feel abandoned. Tradewind watched the flickering fire, eyes flickering too as if thoughts and memories were swirling through his head. They probably were. He must have a lot to think about. Assumptions to reconsider. Learning that a belief had been a lie was one thing. Deciding what to do about it…was quite another. Moon Pie understood that too.

Moon Pie studied the fire, noticing how the wood burned and burned but wasn’t consumed. It wasn’t a mere loop. The dancing flames never repeated their dance. Even so, the wood never burned down. This spell had done some really weird things to her numbers-sense. Especially the three laws of thermodynamics. Mostly the second, but the first had gotten a serious revision too. Tradewind finished his tea. Luna replaced it with a big mug of hot soup from a thermos. He drank it, between staring into it. Moon Pie sipped her tea again. It had gotten no colder. Was it possible to starve in here? Possibly. It was clearly possible to become exhausted. She didn’t have to be thirsty to enjoy this tea, though.

A dozen times, Moon Pie almost said something. A dozen times, she reconsidered. There was something about the silence. It didn’t feel strained. She kept quiet. However long it took Tradewind to get his mind settled, she would give him that time. Eventually he would decide to speak. Until then she would hold her tongue and drink tea and try not to think about how she felt as if crammed in a too-small room. It was stupid to hope he would forgive her for what she’d done to him. Just because he remembered what had actually happened didn’t mean he’d feel inclined to accept her apology. She hoped it anyway.

Then she went and broke the silence anyway. Lucky thirteen. “Princess Luna?”

Luna looked down from stargazing. “Yes, Moon Pie?”

“Um, there’s something I need to tell you. In private.” Luna looked at Tradewind, who seemed lost in thought. She moved down to the shore of the lake. Moon Pie followed. She kept one ear pointed back at the pegasus. “Um…it’s about my brother. You mentioned walking in dreams. So I guess you know a lot of stuff about Smog. Gathering info on him. But it’s all indirect. I mean, he doesn’t sleep at night. He’s more dragon than I am that way.”

Luna didn’t look amused, exactly. But it was close. “Is this about his recent…change of heart?”

Moon Pie’s ears wilted. “It is.”

“I know of that. I would have known of it even without your dreams. There are a few others who know. It does you credit that you would bring it to my attention. After his treatment of you, forgiving him could not have been easy.”

The words were literally bitter in her mouth. “I don’t forgive him. I just…understand. He needs to be punished. I know he knows that, and I think he wants to be punished. Only he’s trapped himself. He shouldn’t be punished more than he deserves. That’s still a lot, don’t get me wrong. I almost hope you stick him in a dress and make him be your maid for a few centuries. But he’s sorry and that has to count for something. Otherwise punishing him’s not justice. It’s just revenge. I don’t think he should be executed.” Even if he wanted to be, and Moon Pie had a feeling he did.

“Justice must come before mercy. He will be judged for his crimes. Then, and only then, we will take into consideration things such as his remorse when determining his punishment. Even if genuinely repentant, he will be punished.” Her stern expression softened. “I doubt he will be executed. That is not our way, my sister and I. We seek to reform creatures of evil and chaos into willing servants of goodness and harmony. ‘The best way to defeat an enemy is to make a friend of him.’ Your brother has said that on occasion. It is indeed truth, however cold-bloodedly he saw it. I find that hopeful. Smog could be a potent force for good, when his punishment is done. Even when evil, he was never a force of chaos. Not until he crossed the line with Dust.”

Moon Pie had the bizarre mental image of Smog joining the Imperial Bureau of Investigations. Smog. With a badge. Turning that diabolical mind of his to hunting criminals. It was…unsettling. Very, very unsettling. “I don’t know what you’re planning to do. I just…if possible, can you give him a chance to…surrender? If you’ve found a way to arrest him without throwing Aura into chaos, I think…I think he’d probably help you do it. I think you should give him the chance to surrender. The…choice.”

“We shall see. I plan to use his eye in his punishment. Though it remains an option should he decide to…resist arrest. It is something I feel is…appropriate.” Luna seemed to hesitate. Then she told Moon Pie what Smog would suffer.

Even with her lingering hatred and total lack of love for her brother, Moon Pie felt queasy. And awed. It was horrible, but horribly appropriate. Appropriate for Luna to do it, appropriate for Smog to suffer it. Even appropriate that his own eye would be the key to punishing him. It would be justice of the poetic sort. And nopony could say it wasn’t justice. Smog would reap no more or less than what he had sown.

Tradewind sipped at his soup, wishing it was more tea. The sweet bitterness of the brew had filled his mouth and calmed him down immensely. The soup was good too. It was amazing how much it soothed his hunger and exhaustion. Occasionally he would draw a shuddering breath, watching the fire. Berta and the Princess had slipped away to talk. They returned a few minutes later and now took up station on either side of the shivering pegasus. Princess Luna draped a wing, almost as large as his own, comfortingly over his back and shoulders. Tradewind sipped at his soup and stared at the fire. His dark side had retreated. It wasn’t gone; he wasn’t stupid enough to assume it was. It could just be lying low, either out of fear or anticipation for another surprise assault on his mind. The darkness that had blurred his vision for so long, inside and out, had receded for the time being. He was willing to enjoy it while it lasted.

Finally, something akin to a spell was broken, as Berta shifted and turned her head to Tradewind. The pegasus instinctively felt her gaze on him, as prey would. But something was different, much less predatory and more…wary. As if she was worried about him attacking her.

Tradewind closed his eyes for a moment, and the darkness behind them was just…darkness. No nightmare visions and awful memories assaulted him. He could actually think. It suddenly dawned on him. Berta wasn’t to be feared. He vaguely recalled the strange feelings he had towards her on the Pig’s Eye. Most of his memories burned with clarity now but his feelings for her were a murky haze. Probably because they had been a murky haze when he felt them. He picked at them, and now with clear eyes he could make sense of them. It wasn’t pity, and it certainly wasn’t love. Tradewind slightly smiled, eyes still closed. It was…kinship. The feeling of seeing some creature who was in the same boat, flying the same sky, floating on the same cloud…sharing the same pain. Wasn’t she a victim of Smog too? If she was a willing crony, she wouldn’t have clawed one of the dragon’s eyes right out of his head. He opened his eyes again, turning his head towards Berta. His emotions had lost their hard edge, that mistrustful prickliness that made him assume dark motives behind every pony and every act. He felt more like he had when he had first arrived in Aura. Tradewind gave the dragon-pony a wan smile.

Berta actually looked taken aback. Her eyes darted between his gaze and the fire. Tradewind put down his mug and rested a hoof gently atop Berta’s claws. She actually jumped, staring down at his hoof as though it was a dangerous creature. Her head slowly swiveled up and sideways to meet Tradewind’s gaze.

Tradewind smiled a little wider, still feeling bone-tired and worried, but with a warm core of hope. Finally he broke the silence. “Berta…I-”

She cut him off with a shake of her head. Her tone wasn’t reproachful, just quietly firm. “Not Berta. Moon Pie.”

Tradewind nodded. “Okay, um, Moon Pie. I’m sorry. I haven’t had the best time since I ran afoul of Smog or you.” Moon Pie winced. Tradewind patted her claws. “Sorry, I’m not good at tact, haven’t needed to really use it for a long time. Point your nose at the destination and go in a straight line, that’s what I’m good at.” He sighed and shook his head with a weak chuckle. “A-anyway, about what you said before. I forgive you. I really do this time. You’re off the hook for anything you did.” He let out another sigh, a sharp huff of relief as if he’d set down a huge burden. It felt good to let go of the hate. More than he ever would have imagined. He felt lighter, cleaner; more at peace.

Tradewind chuckled again at Moon Pie’s shocked expression. Why she was shocked he wasn’t sure, but he sighed a little wistfully and rested his head in the nape of the dragon-pony’s neck, nuzzling her gently and slipping the blanket off himself. Extending a long, rather ragged-looking wing, he curled it around her, letting the spikes along her spine nestle through his feathers. Moon Pie felt like a sun-heated boulder. Too prickly to comfortably hug. She looked like she needed one.

Besides, the heat baking off her was actually nice. He opened his eyes and looked up at Moon Pie, who used her dragon-long neck to hold her head to exactly face his. Her expression would have cheered up a funeral. Like a foal who got everything they wanted for their birthday, and too shocked to properly squee. The fact he was making her a least a little bit uncomfortable too chased away a little more of the darkness he still felt inside him. It was there. It just had no voice anymore. It lay at the bottom of his heart like a pool of tar. All of it was his, a part of him. Tradewind wasn’t perfect. He could hate and fear and suspect and envy.

But he could choose to turn his back on it. He’d never be perfect but he could get better. Tradewind smiled a little wider at her blush, and his thoughts suddenly swung to Fleur Blanc. ‘No wonder she likes to do this to colts,’ he thought, ‘it’s hilarious…’ He looked at Moon Pie again, and then closed his eyes, nuzzling into her neck. She used a foreleg to hug him close, moving as if afraid she’d break him if she squeezed too hard. For all he knew, she could. He smiled again. He didn’t have to fear she might hurt him. He knew she wouldn’t. He whispered, less noise than simply vibrations in his throat, but he was certain she heard him. “You know, I stand by what I said last time. You’re surprisingly pretty when you’re not trying to terrify somepony.”

A low, anger-free growl was her reply. “Thank you, but I’m spoken for. His name is Turpentine Heartwood and I’ll never understand what he sees in me…but I don’t have to understand it to accept that it’s true.”

This drew another chuckle from Tradewind. “You’ve got nothing to worry about. So am I. Spoken for. Well, I was. I…might have messed it up. But I’m not going to try you on, love. I’ve been told I have ‘personal space issues’ sometimes.”

Tradewind was aware of a subtle shifting in Moon Pie’s position. He lifted his head and gave her a quizzical look. Her reply was a raised eyebrow. He kept up the stare. “Don’t try it on, pegasus; that Manehatten accent isn’t fooling anypony. I’ve been to Freeport before. You want to pretend to be one of them, you must talk far more like a Canterlot elite.”

Tradewind laughed, actually laughed, and laughed harder when Moon Pie’s orange eyes went wide with shock. Luna’s wing rustled slightly, reminding him she still draped it over his back. ‘What a thing to forget.’ he thought. She watched them but said nothing. Tradewind shook his head, partly in disbelief at the situation. Of all the ladies to find himself sitting between, these were the two he’d least expect. “Yeah, I know. Posh like they’ve got a solid gold rod under their tail. I’m from Freeport. The Manehatten accent is force of habit. I lived there, and wanted to fit in. I should probably drop it before it becomes my actual accent.” His voice dropped to an annoyed mutter. “As if I’d even want to be a native of Manehatten, bunch of stuck-up earth ponies too good to get their hooves muddy…”

Luna actually laughed at this, clear as a bell, with the same power that might carry for miles. Even Moon Pie smiled. A little, and it was like she wasn’t quite sure how. Her face fell a moment later. Tradewind tilted his head and tightened his wing-hug on the dragon-pony. “What?”

Moon Pie shook her head. “Nothing. Just…I’ve been to Freeport many times. I might not look it, but I’m centuries old. I served him for the last hundred or so. I was sent when S-Smog felt that the Longtails were getting too comfortable…and a few times for other reasons. Luna called you Tradewind Windchaser. Windchaser. That’s…a name I know.”

Tradewind was suddenly stern. Not angry, but hovering on the verge of sarcasm. “Please do tell.” He rustled his pinions when Moon Pie gulped. He gave a reassuring nuzzle even as fear entered him like a thin stream of icy water. “Sorry. Moon Pie, when I said all was forgiven, I meant all. Anything you did for Smog was Smog’s fault. I’d like to know. Freeport is still my home. Any information you might have…”

Moon Pie sighed, and looked directly at the pegasus. It seemed to take an effort. “Well, Smog occasionally had to order…uh, terminations?” Tradewind nodded and patted her talons. “I was his courier for the most secret orders. Nothing written down. About thirty years ago now. There was this smuggler. Running untaxed booze between there and Equestria. He wanted to stay independent. Of Smog. I carried the order for his death to an assassin. Smog had to give me a bonus for that, I never liked-”

She stopped, because Tradewind had removed his wing and his hoof. He sat upright, staring directly into her eyes. He looked at her and spoke slowly and deliberately. It was that or scream. “What was his name?” He asked, but he knew. Tradewind watched Moon Pie gulp.

The dragon-pony didn’t look away as she whispered. “Speakeasy.”

Tradewind broke the gaze, flopping down onto his belly with his head on his fore-hooves. He stared at the fire. The words started out halting but soon they were an unstoppable flood. “Dad never forgave Granddad Speaky for disappearing and never coming back. He pretended he never existed when I asked about him. Lucky Grandma kept a big box of photographs. I never met him, he disappeared before I was born, but his adventures were all Grandma ever talked about when we were alone. I dreamed of being a smuggler like him, until I realized that wasn’t a good thing. Dad did everything he could to make sure I never knew about his life. I don’t think Grandma ever told him that I knew. It really tore Dad up. I think that’s why he spent so much time trying to make me legitimate. I know for certain that’s why I tried so hard to get away from Smog, because I didn’t want to go down the same road. He was going to pull me in. I didn’t want to disappoint Dad. Funny. I’ve always wanted to follow in Granddad’s footsteps. Whenever Grandma talked about him she made him sound so…dashing. She never stopped believing he’d be back any day now.” Tradewind looked up to Moon Pie from his chin-on-hooves position. “Do you know what happened to his body? It…it would really close a wound in my family’s history. If we could bury him.”

Moon Pie’s eyes glistened with tears by the time Tradewind got to his question. She shook her head. “His airship exploded over Eternity’s Crossing. The fuel tanks went critical. His ashes scattered to the four winds. Oh Tradewind, I’m so sorry…”

Moon Pie buried her head in her fore-claws and began sobbing. Tradewind sat up and looked to Luna. Luna just nodded, staring into the fire. Tradewind shuffled over until his cheek pressed gently against the crying dragon-pony’s shoulder. Draping his wing over her back, wincing as one of her spikes found flesh, he hugged her close. All the frustration and anger whipped up by telling that story melted away, replaced by compassion. Then it surged back with a new target. Smog had a lot to answer for, and Tradewind was going to make sure he got what was coming to him as hard as possible. But then…that wasn’t right either, was it? Those feelings bubbled up from the tar-pit in his heart like foul, toxic, flammable gases.

Tradewind looked around to Luna. “What will you do to Smog, once you capture him?”

Luna’s reply was short and to-the-point. “Punish him.”

Tradewind nodded, but then made a strange face. It felt strange, and it was anypony’s guess how it looked. “And you want me to be there to watch him brought to his knees and begging for mercy?” He stared at Luna as Moon Pie finally got a grip on her tears. He felt her swapping her gaze between the back of his head and Luna’s face.

The alicorn gave him a regal nod. “If that is what you desire, yes. I made a bargain with you. In exchange for permitting me to help you, I would allow you to be present for his fall. I made the promise and I shall abide by it.”

Tradewind sighed, and clicked his tongue a couple of times. “No. That’s not what I need. Smog is evil, pure evil.” Moon Pie made an odd face, but he barely noticed. “But to see him humiliated…what would that get me? Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have a front-row-center seat at whatever happens to the world when he’s out of power, but not to him being punished for his crimes. It wouldn’t magically make everything all better for me. The things that happened can’t un-happen. All I can do is move forward. That’s all anypony can do. Any creature. I don’t care what he’s done, he deserves a chance to be sorry and…and if he deserves it, be forgiven.” He twitched his head to the side as the tarpit bubbled and heaved in wordless outrage. “No, shut up, I’m NOT listening to you anymore. Luna was right, you’re nothing!”

Tradewind refocused on Luna. He watched her, not sure what to make of that penetrating stare. He had yelled at himself to shut up. Not a hallmark of sanity. Just when he was getting seriously anxious, the stony expression cracked into wide, happy smile. “We have been waiting for thee to show thy true colors! Thou have shown the compassion that I saw in your heart!” She transferred that smile to Moon Pie. “It worked, Moon Pie. The darkness in his heart no longer controls him on any level.”

Tradewind blinked. “Er…what?”

She smiled at him, cleaving his tongue to the roof of his mouth with her sheer vibrant living beauty. “What I mean, Tradewind, is thou are no longer bound by the darkness that was controlling you. Deny your darker heart and thou deny any hope of control over it. That terror made you run from me, from your Fantasy.”

Tradewind waved a dismissive hoof. “Nah, I got that.” Luna raised a severe eyebrow at his flippant tone, and Tradewind hurried to continue. “I’m talking about those words you keep using. Thah-oow. I’m guessing it’s something I’m supposed to understand. Also, who else do you mean by ‘we?’ Is Princess Celestia in on this?”

Moon Pie snorted, a little damply, then gave a great big unladylike sniff. Luna rubbed her temples. “We…I…am tired. Maintaining this spell is like balancing a palace-sized boulder atop a needle, after first lifting it. I have only been back in Equestria for a half millennium, and the language changes so much that by the time I have caught up, I am once more decades behind. Thee and thou mean ‘you,’ and the we was the Royal We. It is…a thing done when a ruler speaks for her nation and not for herself. Ignore my slips, please.” Tradewind nodded, trying not to dwell on a sudden mental vision of Luna wearing a black silk slip.

He looked to Moon Pie and found her suppressing laughter with evidence of considerable internal strain. Their eyes met. Luna began muttering about the destruction of a once-proud language and the blight of ‘Hay-Hop’ music upon the collective intelligence of pony kind. That was all it took to send the pegasus and dragon-pony falling over each other, peals of raucous laughter erupting from them. Moon Pie somehow managed a profoundly bass giggle, which struck Tradewind as utterly hilarious. It was the laughter of the desperate, the hysterical laugh of ponies ecstatic to discover they were still alive to laugh. At first. It slowly turned into genuine mirth. Luna rolled her eyes and muttered about mad ponies, but there was a sparkle in her eyes and no real anger in her scowls. Then she rolled onto her back with all four legs in the air and idly kicking, all sense of propriety apparently forgotten.

Or set aside, maybe. The truly wise knew when to act foolish.

Tradewind eventually ran out of laughter. Hiccupping, he flopped down next to Luna and emulated her pose, wings spread a little for bracing. Moments later, Moon Pie joined them. All three looked up to the stars. Somehow, Tradewind knew that incredible spell had fallen. It was an open feel to the air, a sense that the stars were once more slowly wheeling. Tradewind started humming a familiar sailor’s shanty, getting a wing-nudge from the Princess in return. She joined in with a pure contralto hum. Moon Pie joined in, and for a wonder her voice didn’t crack once. They watched the stars as the fire sent its sparks into the night sky to dance with them.

Like the sparks, this night couldn’t last.

It was beautiful while it lasted.

Kirra was restless, and when she got restless, things went ping. She had already taken apart the redline system and rebuilt it better than before. It hadn’t been hard. The shipyard that made it had been good, but they had also been cautious. Redliner kits were legal now, and pretty safe with the new stabilized liquid red. Most engineers still saw them as dangerous aftermarket stupidity. The Just In Time had a redliner system with big fat tolerances and safeguards all over the place, to make absolutely sure an ignorant moron couldn’t possibly do anything to make the engine burn out or explode or deliver more torque than the transmission could handle. Including if they used un-stabilized red. Kirra didn’t have to worry about most forms of pilot stupidity. Even Baz could push closer to the edge without risk of pushing too far. She didn’t have to worry about lawsuits, either.

She had voided the warranty with extreme prejudice and considerable glee.

There were more things she wanted to do. They’d have to wait until she got access to an industrial lathe and a lift-gas blowtorch. She had only managed to maybe get an extra ten, fifteen percent more power when redlining, max. Now she was bored again. The Captain and Baz were having their fortieth game of poker. Idiots, you needed at least four for a decent game and they wouldn’t even let her play anymore. Not for money. Those big shiny pony eyes, was it her fault she could make out their cards in the reflections? At least enough to tell black suits from red. Like she needed it. Baz was rubbish at bluffing and the Captain might be unreadable but he never bet more than he was prepared to lose. Play not to lose and you never win big.

She was not happy at the Captain. He had hustled them back onto the ship instead of letting her spend more time with the zebras. She had been looking forward to showing Zenzar a few more tricks that he could do with his bike. Plus, he had an industrial lathe and a home-modified blowtorch rig that had given her heart palpitations. Anything from soldering a broken watch-chain link to cutting steel I-beams in half. Kirra was bored, very bored. Annoyed and bored. And the Captain was to blame. Kirra rubbed her paws together and pulled a lever, leaping up and swinging from it. Carpeted panels dropped a few inches and slid sideways out of sight. The small table lifted up from its recess on its telescoping pillar. She dropped to the floor when it was barely a quarter of the way up. The lever jammed and the table did too. Just like she’d rigged it.

Wiggling under the table, she dropped a few feet down onto the carpeted panel that would pop up flush with the floor when the table fully rose. She inspected the panels visible around the edge of the square pit. Pressing hard on the upper-left corner of a stern-side panel, she gave the bottom right one a sharp kick. It popped free with a quiet ping. There were mechanisms under the floor, of course. The table didn’t work by magic. Mechanisms meant crawlspaces for repair and maintenance access. Crawlspaces meant empty space. More, they meant access to dead spaces. Places that existed only because nothing had needed to go there, like inside a house’s walls. Airships were built as light as safely possible. They had more air trapped in them than Dairy Princess ice cream.

Somepony coming down into the under-galley crawlspace would face a blank panel on the forward wall and assume it was the one she had dislodged. In fact it was the dummy panel she had welded in place a foot away from the real one. Reaching into the hidden space, she pulled out a bag, muttering to herself. The Captain had spent countless spare hours poking around every ship he had ever shared with her. He had never found this bag. Even the deer wouldn’t have found it, even if they had poked through every crevice looking for contraband. There were places a deer or pony just couldn’t fit. Kirra giggled and studied the contents, finally nodding and pulling out a vial of vivid purple dye. Kirra indulged in an evil laugh, tapping her fore-paws together under her chin. “Oh yes. He hasn’t been purple in a while.”

Putting away the bag and replacing the hidden panel, the glider tucked the vial in one of the pockets of her overalls and trotted over to the lever. A yank and the table finished rising. Another yank and it descended again. She tried to open the door leading forward to the cabins and bridge…which revealed itself to be bolted from the outside. Kirra cursed; they had locked her in the back half of the ship. Oh well, no matter. She climbed up the carpeted walls until she got to a little panel of open mesh. It looked like more carpet at a glance but concealed an air vent. Levering it up, she crawled inside and banged her nose on another mesh panel, this one of light, tough steel. Kirra just about screamed in frustration. But no, it would echo and she’d never give him the satisfaction.

The Captain had anticipated her. Leaping back onto the floor, she opened the path to her hidey-hole again. She pulled out another, much smaller bag and checked the stamps and stencils inside. Mostly simple shapes, like moons, hearts, and stars. She muttered angrily, rubbing her nose, and vowed revenge. Not just a head-and-tail dye job. He was getting the full service. If she could find an arts-and-crafts shop that sold fake gems, she’d bedazzle him. He’d look like a pop-rock wannabe when she was done. But revenge had to wait until she could reach her victim. If there weren’t mesh guards on the vents to the Captain’s cabin, she would eat her tail on a hot-dog bun. No matter, she’d rig them to open for her as soon as the work-ponies returned and she could bang around in safety. But for now…

Kirra sighed and curled up on a seat cushion. Nothing to do but sleep. She had always been able to sleep when she wanted, or at least dive into daydreams so deep that she was oblivious to the world. It was pretty much the same thing. In the ancient past she might have been respected as a dream-walker or something. Got the top tree house in some towering eucalyptus. Now, other sugar gliders just considered her out of her tree.

Kirra yawned, looking idyllically bored and utterly fabulous as she lounged on purple silk cushions. Good-looking males surrounded her; some ponies, mostly muscular gliders. A rather lithe glider fed her grapes while another fanned her with a palm leaf. Most of the others simply gazed up in awe at her splendor. They had to look up, because groveling involved getting acquainted with the floor. She smiled and took a sip of wine from the goblet grasped in her paw. The sun was bright and cheerful in this part of the manor, and she basked in the light and warmth it gave through the high-domed glass ceiling.

This mansion was more than a daydream, it was something she had worked on expanding and refining since she first imagined a little tree-house playroom to have tea parties in. It had been years later that she found mentions of such things in old books about ancient times, tales of how lore and history were preserved before sugar gliders had a written language. Reproductions of paintings and sculptures she had seen lined the walls. Windows looked out on beautiful views she had seen. There were whole wings devoted to work. Libraries with books that held the memory of reading those books. She could page through them to summon the knowledge, like how a scent could trigger powerful memories. Blueprints, schematics, maps, file cabinets full of numbers she needed to remember. Her grade-school locker number was in there somewhere, if she cared to dig it out. Even the Captain never guessed how tidy a mind lay behind her erratic behavior. Of course she had to be deep-daydreaming to really access this place. When awake she used her memory the way most creatures used theirs. As far as she could tell.

But there were parts just for fun.

Her daydream changed without her willing it. Warm sunlight became cold moonlight, shining down from a blanket of stars. Her mostly-closed eyes snapped open to find a huge pony standing before her. Sometimes that happened. Some idle whim or dark thought would manifest. Kirra willed the mare to vanish. The mansion shuddered and rippled, but the mare remained solid. Squeaking a little, she almost panicked. But then she realized she must have actually fallen asleep. Her control got shakier then. Clapping her paws, she signaled for a figment-pony to place an enormous cushion opposite her own smaller one. The pony sat. She had a horn, and wings, and a black crown, and a mane of flowing, glowing…stuff. Kirra wondered what part of her insisted on imagining Princess Luna dropping in for a visit. Still, stranger things had happened in here. Playing along could be fun. Kirra smiled and bowed her head slightly in greeting. “Hello, nice to have you here. I don’t often entertain guests. Please, help yourself to a drink.”

Kirra clapped her paws, adorned with so many rings and bracelets the sound was a jingling clang. The figment-Luna smiled and accepted the goblet of wine from the tray a pair of burly gliders offered her. A silver tray and goblet, instead of gold. It floated in the air but without a magical aura. Simply willing it to float, the way Kirra could in here. Figment-Luna sipped. “Mmm, very nice.”

Kirra nodded. She was proud of her ability to vividly remember scents and flavors. “Made from bluegum nectar, it’s my favorite!” She sipped at her own goblet and looked back up to the pony. “You, of course, know my name. And you are…?”

The alicorn set aside the goblet, expression formal. “Indeed I do know thee, Kirra. I am Princess Luna of the Equestrian Empire. And I must say that if this is the manner of dream I would encounter amongst your species, I regret that political necessity and good manners alike forbid me from paying closer attention to the dreams of Freeport citizens.”

Kirra paused mid-sip. “Dream?” It was hard to keep up an outward air of calm. Luna had a…weight to her, now that Kirra focused. Like a boulder in a fogbank. This was no whimsical figment, but the actual alicorn come into her sleeping mind. “Oh, thank you.” She said that to a figment of the Captain, carrying a tray of nectar-dripping flowers.

He gave the air a blank stare as he responded. “I am a big stupid pony dummy, who doesn’t know how to keep a ship running properly and also I smell.”

Luna remained regal but her eyes twinkled with mirth. Kirra dismissed the unicorn with an imperious wave. After he trotted off, she smiled at her visitor. “I’ve heard that you can enter other creature’s dreams. Never from anyone who had it happen. It was always their friend’s sister’s hairdresser’s mailmare. I figured it was a load of bull.” A simple nod was Luna’s answer, and Kirra pressed on. “Have you been watching Tradie’s dreams? He spends a lot of time whimpering when he’s asleep.”

Luna nodded again. “He is why I am here.”

Kirra waved dismissively, and Luna took it as something else. She looked toward the direction of the wave and made a gesture. A burly sugar glider floated into the air and drifted to her fore-hooves. She held him by the sides, under the forelegs, facing away from her toward Kirra. “Hazel eyes and a pink heart upon his…loincloth. Is this thy dream-image of Tradewind? How he would appear as your own kind?” The male hung in Luna’s grip, limbs limp, dangling in the relaxed way of a pet cat. A strange dull-eyed smile on his face. When Luna gave a gentle squeeze he made a sound like a rubber ducky.

Kirra shook her head. “No, no, that’s just a glider.” No way was she going to admit it was Tradewind…as he had looked when briefly transformed into a sugar glider. “Tradewind’s over…here he comes.” She pointed behind Luna. The Princess glanced behind her, only to do a double take. She dropped the glider-Tradie, which bounced with another squeak, as she whirled and stood in a single motion.

Kirra giggled and gestured. The figment-Tradewind dragged the big pillow over next to Kirra’s. Luna sat on it, still staring, as Kirra clapped her paws. “Oh, Tradewind?”

The big grey stallion turned and bowed. “How may I be of service, M’Lady Kirra?” His accent was posh and gentle, his chin almost touched the floor as he bowed, eyes never leaving Kirra. The glider smiled, and waved a paw again. “Please stay there for the moment while I talk to my guest.” Tradewind nodded and bowed deeply to Princess Luna also. “Of course, M’Lady.”

Kirra turned to Luna, a huge, wicked grin plastered on her face, and gestured at the pegasus. “What do you think?”

Luna blinked several times. Her poker face was good but her eyes were too wide and a tightness to her lower lip said she was trying not to bite it, and wanted to bite it to stop her jaw from dropping. After a long silence, she seemed to regain her balance. Never taking her eyes off the pegasus, she spoke to Kirra. “It is quite like the uniforms in the palace, but I must say I do not believe that it suits him.”

Kirra giggled and clapped her paws again. “You haven’t seen the best part! Oh Tradewind?” She smiled and pointed as the pegasus bowed deeply once again. “That spot on the floor, my goodness, we can never seem to get the stain from it, please see to it?” Tradewind nodded, a wash-cloth appearing out of nowhere to be gripped in his teeth. “Of corf M’Lady.” He turned away from them and bent, going about his duty with care and diligence.

Kirra turned back again and spread her paws, causing a musical Ta-Da to play from no apparent source. Luna tried to look stern, but one eyebrow and one corner of her mouth kept twitching, and her dark cheeks had a hint of pink. Kirra could literally feel her flabbergastedness radiating from her like heat off a fire. She clapped her paws and gliders stepped forward to refill the goblets. She and Luna watched Tradewind dust the seemingly un-cleanable floor. Luna’s head tilted slowly, first to one side, then over to the other. Kirra watched her stare. Luna seemed to want to speak, but couldn’t find the words.

Finally Tradewind stood and turned back around to face them both. “It appears that the spot is now clean, M’Lady Kirra, M’Lady Luna. Can I do anything else for you?” Kirra shook her head and Tradewind trotted out of the room, his head held high in the pride of a job well done. The little black skirt of his maid uniform didn’t so much conceal his hindquarters as frame them. Kirra turned back to her guest and grinned, waiting for Luna to regain her power of speech.

Eventually, Luna did murmur something in a language Kirra didn’t know. She gave her head a slight shake. “Do you realize that his heart belongs to another?” He bears the mark of true love upon his brow.”

Kirra giggled. “Oh yes, Fantasy. I think she’s lovely, and she definitely deserves him, and Vicey Versy. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t have a giggle. This is my dream. And he just looks so cute in that dress!”

Luna blinked a few times and then slowly brought her hoof to her forehead, bringing it down to cover her lips as she exhaled through her nose. Her wings gave a funny little twitch. “Cute.”

Kirra giggled again. “Anyway, what was it about Tradewind you wanted to talk about?”

Luna blinked a few more times. She shook her head and turned to look at Kirra. “He is the reason I have visited thee, though he knows not what I do. I know that he cares for you a great deal. He would wish for you to know what I now tell thee. Tradewind is safe and sound. He completed his delivery of the perilous urn. He was deeply wounded of mind and spirit. I could not let him depart in good conscience. He remains with me. I have aided him in confronting the true nature of the wounds he bears, which is the first step toward healing. If he has the will and desire to heal, he shall.”

Kirra leapt into the air and turned a somersault from pure joy. “Oh, yay! Madame Fleur Blanc told me about his little…turns. I was really hoping he’d get some help. He couldn’t have anypony better than you.”

Luna seemed uncomfortable. She rose to her hooves, once more every inch the regal princess. Almost haughty, but Kirra could tell it was just stiffness. Falling back on formality when she was flustered. “I must depart now that my message has been delivered. I return to waking to watch over Tradewind and Moon Pie. Thank you for a…most interesting time, Miss Kirra. Feel free to tell Baz and the Captain of what I told you. Also, if you would, tell the Captain that I can put him to great and virtuous use should he be interested.”

Kirra leapt up onto Princess Luna’s head, where she hugged her face. “I will. Um, don’t tell Tradie?”

Luna laughed, clear as a bell. “Never do I speak of what I see in dreams. It would be improper.”

Kirra found herself back on her cushion with no clear idea how she had gotten there. Luna called a doorway from the floor in a boil of deep purple-blue flame. Looking through it, Kirra saw…something. It was like a greenhouse full of night-blooming plants, a machine filled with glass gears, a geode lined with milky crystals, and a grand palace made of mirrors, all…mingled together. Unimaginably huge and complex. Instead of chaotic, it spoke of a deep order and subtle harmony. Kirra had the strong impression her brain told her lies, trying to make sense of something beyond her. Chiming ticks and the sigh of wind through branches, the hum of crystals bells and the excited laughter of foals. The smells of jasmine and crisp autumn leaves, of lightning and snow.

Luna passed through the doorway, which vanished like a mirage.

Kirra flumped back into the giant cushion, feeling shaken and awed. Had that been…Luna’s dreams? Did the Princess have a mansion of memory too? She scrambled out of the cushion before the impossibly plush thing could close over her head. Clapping her paws again, she summoned a very dapper Jindalee Longtail. He sauntered in wearing gauzy harem pants and carrying two large fans. Sitting back and drinking her nectar-wine, Kirra smiled and waited to wake up.


Kirra awoke with a huge smile. The memories of her dreaming didn’t fade, except for what she had glimpsed through that doorway. She wondered what joli petit cul meant. Also, who the heck was Moon Pie? Oh well, Tradie was safe, and that was good news indeed. The porthole showed the darkness of deep night. Rattles and clangs and muffled swearing from up in the envelope declared that the night shift of repair workers had begun doing something that involved being noisy. Kirra gave a happy sigh. She went back to the engine room for a rummage in her tools. The Captain was a sucky welder. Little dabs here and there. She could have the mesh panels loose with ease. Baz would be happy to hear about Tradewind. So would the Captain. When he woke up. And after he stopped screaming.

All things considered, it had been a good day. Mithril had been returned to active duty with no black mark on her record. She had about four hundred thousand bits to her name. Not least, she had easily located an air-cab to fly her to the center of the city. From there it was straight down into the tunnels of Aura’s cloudy foundations to the Dragon’s Den. Below the towers, above the docking spire: geometric dead center in all dimensions. Mithril doubted that was an accident.

It was about time some good happened. After that little adventure, things seemed to have been falling apart. Brando running off, Kincaid disappearing into retirement, Red Raider’s death being confirmed, and Pick going off to the mental asylum. It had felt like all their efforts had been for nothing. Truth be told, though, they really hadn’t gotten that close. Not close. Mithril was aware of it. She knew little more about the others then when they had first started. Not about their true selves. It still felt like a blow when they’d all gone their separate ways. Not even a proper drink together to celebrate their safe return, or mourn the loss of a comrade. It had been grating on Mithril’s nerves. No…closure.

Things were starting to look up. Pick was out of the nuthouse, if on probation. While she wouldn’t call him healthy, she was hopeful that he’d get there in time. Brando would survive, same as he’d always done. Kincaid would probably live comfortably, wherever he had ended up. And Mithril would live as best she could. The best part was that she wouldn’t be alone anymore. While she’d never tell a soul, not even her own father, she was lonely. She had been, ever since Brando left for the first time. That was a lot of the reason for her leathery old-cop crust. Hiding the ache.

Mithril snorted at her own thoughts. When had she become introspective? It felt annoying, thinking about her thoughts and asking herself how she felt about her feelings. Like chasing her own tail. Or like having an in-house shrink. It seemed selfish too. Her thoughts, her feelings, her problems. How had the others felt about the adventure? It had driven Pick cuckoo, so there was one answer at least. She sighed and shook her head, continuing her walk. A little magic kept the crate of bottles balanced on her back.

It was a shame to see them go. Brando had good taste in firewater. She’d planned on getting completely smashed. Another day, maybe. Someday. Right now, though she hadn’t told Pick, she had her own reasons to avoid the booze. Perhaps they’d celebrate Pick coming off probation. They could go out and get blind together. That was the future. At the moment, the booze had to go. Mithril considered herself to have good taste in alcohol. There was a formerly-pink dragon that, if the his barroom stock said anything, had good taste as well. Criminal scum though he may be, Smog could mix drinks with the best of them. Practice made perfect, she guessed. Mithril doubted he’d complain about buying these. She’d offer him a bargain. The Dragon’s Den came into sight, and Mithril trotted casually up to the door, ignoring Headwind and Tailwind. She reached for the knob. Headwind (or Tailwind) gave her a look. It wasn’t a threatening look. It didn’t have to be.

“Heya, boys. Got a houseguest who needs to dry out, thought Smog wouldn’t mind taking my booze off my hooves at a sweetheart rate. Plus I’d like to tell him about my houseguest. I’m sure he’ll find out soon, if he doesn’t already know, but…you know. Common courtesy. Maybe get his opinion on it.”

Tailwind (unless it was Headwind) herded her back and opened the crate to poke around inside. His twin poked his head through the door and said something Mithril couldn’t make out. She made out Smog’s sour and exasperated reply: “WHAT’S ONE MORE AT THIS POINT? SEND HER IN.”

The twins let her in. She swept her eyes across the room, a glance that the unwary would assume was casual. Perth was there, hiding behind Madame Fleur Blanc. The pegasus mare looked anxious behind her smile. That gloomy-looking earth pony with the wooden leg and scarred face, she’d seen him in here this morning. He was still here, or had left and come back. Rounding out the rogue’s gallery was none other than Jindalee Longtail. Music played, fairly loud but classical orchestral rather than a driving dance beat. No pony up in the DJ balcony over the bar.

Smog sat behind the bar. He had a white eye-patch over that creepy crystal ball. His living right eye was as cold and unreadable as ever. He wasn’t blackened anymore. Not only was he pink again, he was pinker than ever. An amazingly garish shiny pink, the pink of tooth-rotting candy. Even in this dim black-walled hole of a bar, he almost glowed.

“Hey, lizard-lips, I’ve got a crate of booze to sell you. Most of which would probably turn you green, if you fancy another color-change.” She actually surprised herself with how genuine her calm felt. She was feeling better then she thought if she was trying to joke with Smog, of all creatures. She’d probably get a more favorable response by waving a red flag at a hung-over minotaur.

Smog spoke, and he wasn’t making with the volume control anymore. That distant-thunder bass. “BEFORE YOU ASK, I SHED MY SKIN. ARE YOU ONLY HERE TO SELL ME ALCOHOL?”

“No, I also came to tell-”

He cut her off with infuriating ease. “IS IT URGENT?”

“Not really.”

“THEN WAIT.” He moderated his tone as his eye swung to Jindalee. “Barring further interruptions, I would appreciate it if you asked your question now. No promise of an answer.”

“Of course.” Jindalee said. He began to speak. Then he gave a theatrical pause and turned to stare at the door to the corridor. The gloomy earth pony huffed a quiet laugh.

Mithril fumed, but kept her teeth clenched on what she wanted to say. Smog was a hard read. The twins had been edgy, though. Guarding the door, searching her crate. It was nothing she could put her hoof on, just a feeling. Looking at the others, she wondered if she had walked in on something nefarious. But no, Smog’s reaction to her arrival said otherwise. His comments too. All these ponies arriving separately at the same time? Mithril knew it sometimes happened. Just one of those weird things, like a sudden hush in a crowded room. Her cop instincts sat bolt upright, like a napping guard dog that had just heard a burglar coming in a window.

Something crackled in the air. Mithril knew this feeling. She had felt it sometimes in a barroom just before a brawl erupted, or in a crowded street just before a riot. A couple of times there had been no warning signs. Everything had seemed fine. Nothing but this crawling itch at the nape of her neck, a sense of an oncoming storm. In scary movies, this was when the violins would start making that rising-pitch wail as the camera did a close-up of the hero’s hoof reaching for the knob of that so-innocent-looking closet door.

The classical music faded and music from The Prance of the Sugar-Plum Filly began.

Jindalee watched the door, but nopony else came through it. Shaking his head, he twitched his tail and adjusted his lapels. Then his cuffs, and if he didn’t have a knife up one of them then Mithril would eat a horseshoe. She thought he felt it too. The gloomy stallion perked up as if he’d heard his name whispered. He looked confused but wary. Fleur’s smile turned glassy. Perth just poked at the floor with a shoe-clad hind paw, oblivious.

Jindalee seemed mostly unruffled by the tension twisting through the air. Smog sensed it and knew enough about such things to be wary. Some things didn’t happen by accident, though ‘fate’ seemed to behave more like a blind force than anything intelligent. The theory Smog favored was that sometimes, an intense experience sent ripples back in time. Like memories, only working in reverse. Plus a hint of self-fulfilling prophecy, as the unconscious knowledge of the future subtly guided their steps along the path leading to it. They didn’t need to find that path desirable, only unconsciously believe it was inevitable. On the short-term, backwards-echoing memories it gave rise to hunches and premonitions and confusing but obvious-after-the-fact prophetic dreams. On the long term…something like fate. Ponies destined to share a bond of friendship or love someday could share a bond even before they met: the magic in that joining of hearts echoing backwards through time. Love transcended everything else: why not time?

Smog let his thoughts amble on as Jindalee did his little theatrical show of waiting to see if yet another visitor was about to arrive. The Tempus Redux had been created when a zebra attempted to make a potion that would send her consciousness into the brain of her future self. Clairvoyance in a can. The high alcohol content was to loosen the mind’s grip on the body. Simple yet effective. It used the ashes of stygian ebony as an ingredient. A catalyst, really. The rare stuff didn’t easily burn, though dragon fire could get the job done. Smog had found that handy more than once. That ingredient was why the potion was black, and why it activated at dusk and lasted until dawn. Linked to the energies of night, a time of sleep, when the mind drifted free of the flesh in dreams. The night wasn’t always evil, but it was wilder. Less bound by rules. The potion’s effect crested at midnight, when the world balanced on the edge between today and tomorrow. Between future and past. It worked as planned, except it sent the mind into the past instead.

The stygian ebony ash was also why it turned the drinker’s urine black the next day.

The sugar glider obviously felt the tension too but didn’t seem to find it cause for much alarm. He was a guest here, however unwelcome and annoying. If anything happened he could rely on Smog to have his back, at least enough to keep his furry hide intact. Adjusting his cuffs and checking the switchblade tucked up one, Jindalee finally deigned to face Smog.

The sugar glider struck a pose and tone of mocking formality, like a professor opening a lecture. “My question is about the safeguards you have in place to make your death, disappearance, or arrest too damaging to this city for a creature of conscience to find acceptable. For those without conscience, you use the fear of horrible vengeance from you, likely even postmortem, arranged through proxies.”

“My killer is unlikely to enjoy long life, no.” Smog said. “Have you concluded your prefatory remarks?”

“Not quite. I considered something almost every creature knows about dragons, but few stop to consider. Feel free not to answer, but I have to ask, just so I know I asked. What arrangements have you made for Aura when you sleep?”

“I don’t sleep.” Smog said.

“But you eventually must, yes? And for a long time. What then? Will you appoint a steward of some kind?”

Smog didn’t answer, because his mind had gone utterly blank. Jindalee said something more. All Smog could hear was a dull rising whine as a final and well-hidden dungeon opened in his mind. His eye opened wide in horror. He hadn’t considered that question. Not once since regaining the memories of his true past. He had locked it away. Both halves of his nature, the fiery Breaking Dawn and the icy Smog, had agreed on that. He couldn’t face it because…

…it was the death of all hope. There was no arrangement for when he slept. He had planned to hone Aura into a weapon, armed with a blend of Dustan technology and Equestrian magic. A hammer to bring the dragons of the world to their knees: humble their arrogance and force them to be law-abiding. So that, small as he was, no dragon could take away his hoard of gems and gold. His criminal empire, built over centuries? A means to an end. Aura was a tool to discard once its purpose had been served. A dangerous tool. Once he was done with Aura, he would have broken it to remove that danger. Found a distant cave and slept for a long time while the memories of his crimes faded from the minds of the short-lived races.

That plan had been discarded when he regained his memories and conscience. If nothing else, the remembered childhood of being bullied by other dragons…had never happened. Seeking revenge for torments that hadn’t actually happened was nonsensical.

Smog only got through each day because of his vow to atone for his evil. To do as much good and as little harm as he could while maintaining the illusion that he was still the same old Smog. Trapped by the very insurance policies he had created to protect him. A fortress that became a prison. He could only stomach the charade because the alternative was unspeakable.

He had buried the knowledge that it was also inevitable. Eventually, he would have to sleep. When he did, there was no provision to stop chaos from being unleashed on Aura and Umbra. If he tried to insert one, his sleeper agents would obey their standing orders: assume the new orders were false or coerced from Smog. He had made them impossible to dismantle because he had never imagined a scenario where he might want to do that. Arrogant. Paranoid and arrogant and smug.

Smog’s throat locked shut. He could almost feel the noose tightening around his upper neck. He’d knotted that noose himself, worn it like a necktie. Like the literal noose his sorcerer in Zevera had worn. But Xero had managed to break free of his pact with an afreet. There was no hope of escape for Smog. His heart thundered in his skull. No air could get past his throat. It seemed likely he was about to faint.

Then a furious itch erupted between his nostrils. Smog had thought his horror was as deep as it could possibly get. Now he knew how wrong he was. Along with his true memories had come an awareness of the spell keeping him dragon-shaped. More, he had gained an intense desire to undo that spell and revert to his true form. A maddening itch, on his snout and in his mind. A need like a drunk for a drink. It had never stopped. He had locked it away behind walls of willpower. Pushed it out of his awareness like the tick of a familiar clock.

As hope died, his will faltered. Smog scrambled to recover. He could still hold off the inevitable for centuries. Even without hope, he knew it would be wrong to stop fighting. Every year he could delay the eruption of chaos was a precious thing. His concentration was in ruins. The crawling itch wormed it way up inside his snout and spread through his sinuses like invading ants. He was going to sneeze.

Smog sneezed, a bass thunderclap ACHOO that rattled the bottles on the shelves behind the bar. Some desperate convulsion of willpower managed to force him down to all fours, snout pointed down. The green fireball punched through the floatwood floorboards like a bucket of boiling water dumped on a sheet of cotton candy. The thick black smog-cloud beneath fared no better. The floatwood-framed steel plating dented slightly and glowed cherry red, but held. Smog had never liked the thought of some assassin with a dragonsbane-tipped mithril spear coming at him from below. Now his paranoia saved the ponies further down in the heart of the docking spire.

It was more than just a sneeze. The sudden clench twisted through his entire body. For a second he had the impression he had sneezed so hard he turned himself inside-out. He opened his eyes. Only one eye showed him anything. The crystal ball might be a window to other places and times, but only if he popped it out and looked at it. In his head it was just a ball. His eyepatch had fallen off. The strap had been cut in back.

Smog felt his ears pull down and back against his head. It had been so long since he had external ears that the sensation was indescribably weird. His forelegs were longer, though the talon-tipped claws on the end looked the same. Still scaly. Still pink. His wings felt pretty much unchanged. His snout, what he could see of it, was a little shorter and wider. Not so angular. And tipped with a back-curved ivory horn rising up between his nostrils.

Rising up from behind the bar, aware of but ignoring the shouts and swearing that erupted, Smog swept bottles from shelves and then tore the shelving free. The expanse of mirror thus exposed showed him a mostly draconic head, though with something equine about the muzzle and a pair of pony ears. Not outsized, like Moon Pie’s. There were other differences. Her horn was like a shark-fin. His was more like an eagle’s talon, longer and narrower with a wicked point. Rather than a brushy stripe of ivory hedgehog spines, he had a row of spearhead-like blades marching from between his ears to the tip of his still-dragonlike tail. The biggest, between his shoulders, was six inches. The smallest, on his head and tail-tip, wouldn’t make decent arrowheads. He was as large as Celestia but a little burlier, with more neck and tail.

One eye was still a crystal ball, crossed by the scars of his sister’s talons. Smog’s numb mind latched onto an unimportant detail. One of the blades on his spine had cut his eyepatch free, slicing tough leather like cheap cotton. Smog shifted a hind leg. He heard and felt his hoof tap the floorboards. He became aware of the weirdness in his hindquarters. Turning to look, he beheld short, bright pink hair covering a pony’s back half. No cutie mark. He hadn’t expected one but an ancient bitterness rose up to add more pain to the heap. He never had found his special talent, his true destiny.

The sudden silence got through in a way the commotion hadn’t. Music from the Prance of the Sugar-Plum Filly continued to play. His DJ had set up a stack of records to automatically cycle through. Classical, as Smog had demanded. The grey unicorn had a weird sense of humor, and not much fear of Smog. The stallion had no idea what Smog really was. The music should have been something dark and thunderous and dramatic. Something to fit the moment. Smog stared at the witnesses to his transformation. Morhoof. Jindalee. Mithril. Fleur Blanc. Perth.

They stared back at him. Morhoof looked shocked but colored with recognition. The sight of an old friend’s true face. Jindalee also had an air of recognition, but different. He knew what Moon Pie looked like. Smog could see the wheels starting to turn in the glider’s mind, working through the implications of this transformation. Mithril sat on the floor with her eyes huge and her jaw dangling. Fleur had pretty much the same pose. Neither seemed to have the slightest idea of what had happened to him. Perth had gone rigid but looked ready to curl into a gibbering ball or run in a screaming panic.

Smog’s horn hummed, still maintaining the spell that amplified his resistance to magic. That was all it would ever be able to do. For a moment he was tempted to drop it and make a threatening move toward Mithril. Something clonked into place in the smoking shambles of his mind. He spoke, voice switching at random between a clear feminine soprano and a gravelly masculine bass. “If you have any love of this city and those who call it home, listen to me now. Some time ago I was forced to confront a truth I had buried about myself. My mother was a dragon but my father was a unicorn. I chose to be transformed into a dragon and bury my true memories under a false past. My true nature was buried under a false personality. That is no excuse. The evil I did was all my own. I chose to cast aside half of my nature. The things I saw as weakness. Things like my pony features, and my conscience.”

Dead silence from his audience, barring a stifled snort of laughter from Perth, who seemed increasingly dazed. Smog used their shock while it lasted, speaking faster.

“I managed to keep from transforming back but my memories returned. Everything I locked away came back.” His face gave a spasm, twisting in strange ways as emotions twisted his heart. “I felt guilty for everything I did. Since then I have been pretending that nothing has changed. I had no other choice. Die? I wanted to. Run away? I was tempted. Confess to the police? It would have been a relief. But doing any of those things would have thrown Aura and Umbra into chaos. Pain and misery for countless innocent creatures. I…couldn’t let that happen. I planned to try and atone as much as I could while keeping up appearances. Good deeds done in secret. I killed off all the assassins that I sometimes hired. I buried the thought of having to eventually sleep, because…to answer your question…I made no arrangements. My plan was to use Aura and then discard it. Aura is doomed. I can’t stop it. I never could.” His burning but tearless eye found Jindalee, now deadpan. “When you asked me that question, you made me face the truth. My concentration broke and the final part of the spell broke with it. I can’t change back.”

“Then you are screwed.” Jindalee said.

“There’s a chance.” Smog said. “Not a good one. There are code phrases known to my highest employees. I can inform them of my transformation. Just the physical part. I can prove that I am still me, in the head. If I can do that before rumors begin to fly, if I can solidly confirm to them that this body holds the true mind of Smog, and let that word spread through my network…then the sleeper agents set to trigger my insurance policies won’t take this change as a sign to act. Please, all of you. Keep silent about what you have seen. I only need a few days. Either it will work by then or not at all.”

“This isn’t my city.” Jindalee said. “Or my problem.”

Mithril bristled. “You son of a-”

“I gave you my word to look after the Dustan refugees.” Smog said. He was amazed that he still had his skill for interrupting. “I cannot keep it if I fall from power. Do not mistake this for weakness, Longtail. I will do what I must to retain the illusion that I remain the same ice-hearted manipulator as before. I must do it to preserve the city, for as long as I can. I have done and will do despicable things in order to prevent that greater disaster. I cannot afford to die or be defeated. If the Longtails attack me, I will fight them even more viciously than the old Smog.” Smog dropped to a whisper, remembering that he could avoid those stupid shifts in pitch that way. “If you do anything to trigger my insurance policies, be sure you kill me. If I survive, then I swear that I will personally come for you. I will find you and I will end you. Horribly. Even if I die doing it. I own things I never used. Too high a cost. Too high a risk. I kept them to make sure they were never used against me. Do not put me in a position where I have nothing to lose.”

Jindalee was unreadable, eyes flat and hard. Smog couldn’t concentrate enough to read any subtle signs. The others still appeared in various forms of shock. Except maybe Morhoof. The reality hadn’t struck home yet, but they appeared to have absorbed his words. He wasn’t sure. Smog had severe trouble just remaining in control. It was a struggle to think, to speak, to sit still. If his control slipped, he’d…something. Probably go berserk. The sensation of that metaphorical noose around his neck made him want to lash out. Though curling up in a ball and sucking his claw was a possibility. The old Smog hung in the back of his mind, not a personality so much as a suit of mental armor. Hideously tempting. Dive back into that fortress of black ice where emotions like guilt had no power. Do the smart thing: kill these creatures and vanish. Abandon Aura to save his own hide. He could use his true form as a disguise. Take up a new identity far away and leave his enemies to hunt in vain for the dragon Smog.

“You.” Fleur said. “You have…a conscience now? A…heart?”

Smog felt his face spasm again, twisting as emotions he had forgotten how to express tried to escape. “I do. If you want, if-if you are willing, I can have your memories of this event removed. You might b-be happier if y-y-you d-d-d-”

The view through his eye dissolved into a blur. He blinked and something hot danced down his cheek. Smog blinked again as another ran down his other cheek, proving that his tear duct remained whole. Smog looked down and more tears ran along his snout to drip off the end. He rubbed at the droplets on the bar in disbelief. As shocked as some of the others seemed, they couldn’t have been as shocked as him. Who was he kidding? Convincing his network that he was still himself was a long shot at best. He had more than transformed. He had broken. Jindalee’s question had only broken him because he’d avoided asking it himself. Like a coward, avoiding a painful truth. Refusing to accept it until forced. This was on him.

All his strength whooshed out of him. Sitting on his pony rump, he landed on one of the bottles that he’d swept from the shelves. Unbroken. He wouldn’t have been able to stand even if it had been vicious alcohol-coated shards. The discomfort was meaningless. Nothing mattered. It was all over. His fore-claws lay like dead things on the bar. His neck sagged to drape across it. His head dangled, staring at the floor between two barstools. Dripping tears. No fury, no catatonic dread, no reversion to heartless evil, no…nothing. Not even sobs. He felt like a clockwork toy with a snapped mainspring. The truth had dawned on Breaking Dawn, and it had broken him. Not even the ironic appropriateness of his name mattered.

The music started on its dramatic but upbeat denouement.

Mithril stared. She just…stared. It was all she could manage to do. She raised a fore-hoof and gently bit her ankle. It hurt, so she wasn’t having some strange, twisted dream.

Unfortunately, that meant this was all real. Smog, probably the meanest, toughest, smartest crime lord in the world, wasn’t a real dragon. He was half dragon, half unicorn. Though it did answer a few mysteries, like how come he never got any bigger no matter how rich he got. Even more unbelievable, he actually did have a heart under that crusty candy-colored hide. He had apologized for all the horrible things he’d done, and now he was crying. Sagging across the bar in abject misery. Shedding real, honest-to-goodness tears. Mithril had actually been glad when that little fuzzball Jindalee opened his trap. It helped break her out of her stupor. Hearing Smog threaten the sugar glider and offer them all spells of forgetting brought a hint of normality back to this surreal scene.

‘…yeah,’ Mithril thought, ‘I need a drink.’ She popped the lid on the crate she’d brought in, freed the largest bottle of whiskey, and gulped a few mouthfuls of the stuff down like it was water in a desert. It was stupid but not as stupid as trying to stay sober. The fate of Aura and Umbra balanced on the edge of a knife now, and that wasn’t a thought to face without something to blunt the edge.

It was stupid, but sometimes life handed a zebra the choice between doing the smart thing to doing the right thing. Zenzar tried to be smart about it, anyway. He left a note, of course. He had disabled the noisemaker on Sasha and rigged up something to muffle her noise even further. It would make her more prone to overheating, but he was going to ride in the cool of the night and at no great speed. He could also knock the rig away with a simple kick if it turned out he needed to go fast. His long coat was tough and he’d riveted a few strategically-placed metal plates to the inside. Anypony trying to kick him in the kidneys, for example, was going to get a painful surprise.

Even so, venturing outside the Garage alone was stupid. Doing it late at night after the streets had emptied was double stupid. Riding Sasha so he outran anypony set to follow and protect his tail was beyond stupid. He didn’t worry about leading the Capra to a friend’s home. Matilda had already been involved. If the goats didn’t already know where she lived they were even stupider than him. Zevera felt abandoned as he rode through it. The streets usually didn’t get this empty until after midnight.

Zenzar reached the Old Town, the central part of the city that had once been nothing but a town. It wasn’t a nice neighborhood, doubly so for strangers. But not rotten. The zebras living there had rules and limits. They also had a survival instinct. After what happened at the Hotel Casablanca, the local night-life had decided to stay indoors tonight.

The flock of ravens living in the abandoned building knew him. He killed the engine, dismounted, and walked Sasha in through the gaping hole in one side. Some of the birds woke up, peering down at him from the ragged ledges and dead-end beams that were all that remained of the upper floors. Nothing but moving patches of darkness in the shadows. He gave them a salute that only felt half-sarcastic. Matilda fed them when she could afford to. Gave them shiny garbage she found. He wouldn’t be surprised to learn she had named them. Anypony or goat interested in ambushing her would discover a few hundred angry ravens prepared to defend her. Zenzar wouldn’t come here planning mischief unless wearing full plate armor. Even then he’d rather not. They were spooky-smart and held grudges. He had heard about a few zebras who had been forced to leave the city because they had messed with this flock. Swarmed when they went out, rotten garbage dumped down their chimney, and you better not leave a window open…it was like that Alfalfa Hitchhock movie, only personal.

Leaning Sasha on her kickstand, Zenzar moved the crate from the rear of the seat to his back. He had picked it up on the way. The shop had still been open, if empty of customers. Merchants in Zevera were in business to make money. If somepony had died in the fire they would have closed up out of respect, but nopony had. He had the receipt, so he got the crate. The reason for all this stupidity was simple: he had made a promise. He headed down the stone stairs to the basement door.

Matilda opened it, lamplight pouring out around her. She wore threadbare pink pajamas instead of her usual mismatched legwarmers. Her pigtails were unbraided and her mane gloriously mussed. She yawned, rubbing her eyes with a hoof, clearly having just gotten out of bed. Zenzar lowered the hoof he had been about to use to knock. “Dat’s spooky, girl.” He said it with genuine fondness.

The mare gave a squeal of delight and threw her forelegs around his neck. “Zenny!” She squeezed. He tensed a little so she couldn’t strangle him. Matilda went still and then backed away to look at him. “You got buff.”

“Been lifting weights, sweetie.” Blubbery weight.

Matilda turned solemn. “It suits you better than being fat. Some fat ponies can be jolly, but not you.”

Blushing a little, Zenzar shifted a hoof. “Ya heard about dat?”

A blank stare answered him. “Heard about what?”

“Dat I was fat.”

Her face turned stern and disapproving and disappointed. “Oh, Zenny, you got fat? You need to be more careful or that curse is gonna turn you all fat and gross, as big as a hut!”

“Ya heard about da curse?”

“No. Nopony visited me since the tea party with Mister F-I mean Sir Vorpal and his bod-I mean, his friends.” No blame colored her voice. “Come in, come-come! Everypony, it’s Zenny!”

Zenzar did. It was comfortable, not too hot or cold, and smelled nice. Homey, if you could ignore all the toys and stuff watching from…everywhere. He set the crate on the floor. Matilda had vanished when he looked up again. Then she reappeared behind him somehow. He almost kicked out at her thinking somepony must have snuck down the steps behind him. Matilda shut the door, oblivious to his start, and hopped onto the crate. “How did ya get behind-”

“What’s in the box, Zenny?” She did a little excited dance on the crate, as if it had turned hot. She crouched down and peered at one side. “P-U…E-D-I-S…S-I-H-T. Pee-yew…eat-dis…” Matilda gave him a look of shock and horror. “Zenzar!” She hopped off the crate, blushing and looking disgusted. Then she looked at the crate again from the new angle and blushed harder. “THIS SIDE UP. Oh…gosh.” She hid her face in her fore-hooves.

Zenzar managed, though at risk of rupturing something, not to laugh or even look amused. Rather than talk, he pulled a short pry-bar from inside his coat and opened the crate. Matilda’s squeal of delight started at glass-shattering and spiraled upwards to pitches that Zenzar thankfully couldn’t hear. The words ‘pink lemonade’ may have been in the sound somewhere.

Matilda glomped onto him again, covering his cheeks with kisses punctuated by rapid thankyous. He laughed and tried to get away, but not too hard. Then she missed and got him right on the lips. Both of them froze, eyes wide and locked. Then their lips locked too. Just for a second. He blinked. The hooves holding his head and the lips against his vanished in a whoosh of air. When his eyelids flickered up again she was clear across the room, bright red from the neck up.

It would have taken a lot to drive what just happened from his mind, but that managed it. “How did ya get over there?”

“Um, um.” Her eyes danced everywhere but never looked at him. “Um, just a trick I learned. You see, you need to see how this place is like that place, see? You, um, find the place where they’re like the same place and then you…well, step across. Only I can’t do it with anypony watching. Nopony like, alive-alive. My friends are okay. But you’re my friend too!” Her fading blush surged back and she looked away, biting her lip.

Zenzar sat by the crate and tried to make sense of his feelings. Not something he did a lot. He had loved Sasha. The real Sasha, not his bike. Matilda’s older sister. She had gotten sick and died, but not before Matilda tried to use Zheila’s equipment to make a cure. Ever since breathing those fumes she hadn’t been right in the head. Evidence had piled up lately that she wasn’t truly crazy. That the things she saw were real. Now she seemed to have some kind of teleporting ability. That was not a zebra magic. The ambassador had made a few comments while debriefing them that made Zenzar suspect something. Not even comments, just expressions. Hints of leaving something out when he talked about staying with Matilda. Zenzar hadn’t told anypony about his suspicions, even his sister. An old, old legend about a secret cave, and a well, and a dangerous magical mask…

Zenzar had always seen Matilda as Sasha’s nutty little sister. Emphasis on little. Her slight build, how she dressed and acted, helped him see her that way. But she wasn’t that many years younger than he was. Sasha had been older than him. Zenzar wasn’t that young anymore and Matilda was no filly. That kiss might have started as an accident, but then she had really kissed him. It had felt like being zapped by static. Looking at Matilda, he felt as if something in his head had been twisted around. He looked at her and saw a mare, not a filly. One who lived alone, who had no close friends, whose ditzy cheerful nature concealed a deep loneliness. Of course it did. All these toys…even if she really could talk to them, it was obvious she wanted their company. Wanted to not be alone.

Who had always been nice to her? Visited her once in a while to make sure she was okay? Didn’t treat her like an idiot or a loony? Zenzar. Feeling like a blind idiot, he realized she must have been carrying a torch for him. An innocent crush had been there even before Sasha got sick. Looking back, it was painfully obvious. He’d never seen. He hadn’t looked. Matilda had just been Sasha’s little sister. Then after…looking at her had reminded him of Sasha, which hurt, so he hadn’t visited Matilda too often. That…was unfair to her. Unfair to himself too. Unfair to Sasha. Was he going to mourn her forever? Was spending his life alone, never moving past the pain, something Sasha would want him to do?

Then he turned up in the middle of the night with a crate of her favorite drink. Zenzar flinched. “Uh, da crate is from Sir Vorpal. He didn’t have a chance to say bye before he left. He asked me to bring this to ya.”

“That was nice of him. Um, um…Zenny? Sorry. About the…smooch.” The final word emerged as a mutter, and she didn’t actually seem that sorry. Hopeful, in fact.

Zenzar stared at nothing. He took a look at his life so far, and the road ahead, and decided he didn’t much like it. Zheila was a part of his life, his sister, his twin. But that was all she was and she wasn’t all he wanted. Needed. Zenzar felt as if a light had bloomed in his head. Matilda was weird, but she had a good heart. He had always liked her. There was a definite sense he could come to…love her. It wasn’t anything instant and passionate. It had been something quiet that snuck up on him. Like his cutie mark. He had always been good at messing with machines, so he had never seen it as something special. He had hunted for his special talent while it lay right there in plain sight. Ignored because it was so much a part of him, like how he hardly ever gave his ears much thought. It had taken an embarrassingly long time to realize the truth.

That was how he felt now. He had looked for love, in a casual kind of way, but always expected it to be a thunderbolt, a hurricane. Like it had been with Sasha. Not the quietly growing light of dawn. He wasn’t sure there could be anything between them. But…he knew he owed it to himself to be honest with himself. Part of him wanted to try. He coughed, suddenly nervous as a colt asking a filly to the dance. “Ah, I can stay a while. Unless ya want to get back to bed.”

She peeked up at him. “Stay? Why?”

“Just…talk, I guess. Catch up on each other’s lives.” Zenzar wasn’t good at being subtle and Matilda…wasn’t that good at spotting subtle. “Okay, I’ll be honest. Ya kissed me.” She ducked her head again, staring at her fore-hooves. “It surprised me, but…I’m not mad. At all. It was…nice.”

Matilda looked up at him again, this time a sudden direct stare. Their eyes met with a silent clang and he knew for a stone fact that she was getting some kind of peek inside him. Maybe his mind, maybe his heart. It…wasn’t as unpleasant as he would have thought. Not with her doing it. Then something shifted and he got a glimpse of her too. A bundle of feelings that weren’t his. Yeah…she had a crush on him, something she had kept buried but couldn’t kill. Flaming up now.

Then the weird moment ended, though Zenzar knew he was never going to forget it. Matilda suddenly smiled, but not in her usual sugar-crazed-foal kind of way. This was quieter but deeper. A little shy but not afraid. “Would you like some pink lemonade? I have some cookies too.”

“Sounds good.” Zenzar said. He’d see where this went. And if she really was guarding some kind of powerful…thing, then he was okay with that. He’d help her guard it.

The question popped like a moon-sized balloon. Morhoof had never thought about that, or at least he didn’t think that he had thought about it. He had just assumed that dragons slept for such long time for the lack of things to be done, rather than the necessity of sleep. Though it made a kind of sense. Stay awake sixteen hours, sleep for eight hours. Stay awake for eight centuries, sleep for four. More to the point, it appeared that Smog hadn’t thought of it too. His expression suggested it came as a terrible surprise.

Then Morhoof recognized the expression as it matured into a twisted, eyes-closed sneer. Sneeze. There wasn’t much warning. Just a sharp intake of air and then Smog ducked down out of sight behind the bar. A sneeze like a clap of thunder, deep and loud. The floor trembled. Smog rose back up into sight a second later. Morhoof felt a jolt. Suddenly Smog was only half the dragon he had been before. It looked more familiar to Morhoof than the one called Smog. He swept aside bottles and tore away shelving to expose a patch of the mirror covering the wall behind the bar. Studied his reflection.

Smog got to talking, fast. Trying to drive nails into the coffin as fast as possible to keep it from coming undone. Morhoof fought an urge to tune him out, not really wanting to understand what just happened. Or rather, the implications, which Smog proceeded to spell out. It didn’t work, much. A sense of dread and joy mingled uneasily in his heart. His old friend had returned to his true form. At the same time, his brain told him that this was a bad thing. There was some talking from the others, Morhoof declining to participate, and then Breaking Dawn finally couldn’t keep up a calm pretense any longer.

Loco rolled around in a metaphorical sense, consumed by hysterical laughter. The squirrel is right! Smoggy-Woggy is screwed, and everypony in the city with him!

Morhoof bit back a sigh. The sound of a cork coming out of a bottle drew his attention away for a moment. The police mare tipped up a whiskey bottle. ‘Yes,’ Morhoof thought, ‘good idea. I could use a drink. We could all use a drink. The imminent destruction of a city is nothing to face sober.’ Morhoof looked back to Breaking Dawn. Now he found something to say. “It’d be best then if you were to contact your sleeper agents immediately. The longer you wait to let bad things happen, the sooner they will come pass.”

The sight of Smog silently crying sent a strange, awkward hush over the room, and Jindalee took the moment to take another swig of the brandy that he held. The situation was…amusing, to say the least. It reminded the sugar glider of a particular moment in his childhood. The Ringtail Brothers had him cornered, again, and before he could produce the tiny knife that would make them think twice, a rather annoyed Big Chew had decked them both.

The earth pony called Lute said something, but Smog didn’t react and Jindalee wasn’t listening. He was reminiscing.

Jindalee chuckled, earning a glare from Madame Fleur, who seemed torn between embarrassment, concern, and fear. All floating in a sea of can-this-really-be-happening-ness. Jindalee rolled his eyes, but then blinked. What had happened after that…? Oh, yes. Chew had pulled both Brothers to their feet, decked them both again, then helped them up and gave them each a piece of his private taffy stash. Both Brothers had been mewling for their mothers, rather pathetic. Jindalee chuckled again, albeit inwardly. ‘I suppose that’s what happens,’ he thought, ‘when you’re a child.’

The liquor in his mind suddenly slapped him across the ears, changing flavor to another brandy, one from the past. It was a thought, not a memory, but it hissed at him in his father’s voice, complete with brandy breath: And guess who really won that day, eh? Your mate Chuzzle or Chomp or whatever.

Jindalee felt his mind hurtle backwards in time, the memory clamping on like a crocodile and taking him down for a spin. He remembered, with a clarity that blotted out the present, being in his father’s study. It was some years after that incident, the final incident, with the Ringtail Brothers. He was close to taking over, but still learning, and talk had swung around to Jindalee’s adventures out on the mean streets. When he told his father about the events of that day, his father had thrown a piece of bark at him and spoke in a dangerous tone, a deceptively quiet one that had become more and more kindly with every word…even as the accompanying smile kept getting colder.

“He showed compassion to a defeated foe, and you mock him for it? You’re a Glider, boy, and don’t you forget it. I’ve taught you how to hide your true feelings day in and day out, but now you need to learn a harder lesson: how to stop hiding them from yourself. You have to know how to be kind, as well as cruel. Kindness is a powerful weapon. Treat some creature with respect and compassion and they’ll pay you back with unbreakable loyalty. A week from now you’ll take over this little family business. I’ll be around for advice but the triple-cursed paperwork is all on you. I can live up a tree again and keep reasonable hours.

“You could, if you wanted, send a couple of blokes around to that ringtail’s house and beat him until he can’t see, hear, smell, talk, or even breathe. But what in the blackest pits of Tartarus would that get you, eh? Nothing but a passing satisfaction, and trust me on this, lad: those feelings lose their blush faster than plucked flowers. But, if you let bygones be bygones, let the idiocy of the past-”

Jindalee had opened his mouth to interrupt then…and been cut off.

No, don’t argue. They were idiots, YOU were an idiot, your mates Tradewind and Chew were idiots. You were idiot kids and you have no right to claim anything else.” The moment faded and his father went back to seeming like a laid-back gentle-creature with not a mean bone on his body. “Where was I? Oh yes…if you can let that go, then you might just make an ally for life. This Bruce bloke sounds like he can handle himself, at least he could when you were joeys. Maybe he still can. So a few weeks from now, after you’re settled, invite him over. Invite him to a friendly chat and a drink and tell him that all is forgiven and forgotten. Then he’ll see you’re a creature capable of forgiveness, and that’s a fine thing to be. Watch how he reacts. Trust your instincts. Trust your heart. I taught you how to protect it and hide it, but never think you can wall it away without becoming something less than fully alive. You’re a glider, boy. You’ll know whether to trust him or not. If you can open your heart as well as your eyes. No creature can see true if they lie to themselves.”

Jindalee opened eyes he didn’t remember closing, his father’s words ringing in his ears. He looked at Smog. Neck draped across the bar top with his head hanging down between two stools. The dragon…pony…thing hadn’t moved a muscle. His tears had washed a patch of the smoggy-black floor to a pale grey. All the others present seemed unable to move. Too afraid to move, or shocked; Jindalee wasn’t sure. The glider closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose. Yes, there was Smog’s scent, like a bucket of sun-warmed vipers that had been playing with fireworks. Different, but still recognizable. Still mainly dragon.

Toying with the dragonsbane-tipped knife he kept up the sleeve of his impeccably-cut suit, Jindalee rolled the scent over and over in his mind. He remembered a drawing passed down from his grandfather. A sketch by a street artist who had seen the Night Mare and drawn it before the memory slipped away. He knew who the Night Mare was now; or strongly suspected. Smog wasn’t an only child. It seemed he and his sibling had stuck together. But Smog had admitted to forgetting his true past. Smog had become a heartless user, a manipulator. Jindalee studied the scars raking down Smog’s face. They could have come from the Night Mare. Not just anything could cut through dragon scales. Dragon claws topped the list. Or half-dragon? Betrayal by Smog, confession of betrayal by reformed Smog…and the Night Mare had replied without words. That felt right.

His heart beat slow and steady. There was no fear, not because he had trained himself to ignore it, but because he wasn’t afraid. Jindalee looked at Smog, and he saw with his heart. He saw something broken. He saw despair and deep, quiet self-loathing. But he didn’t see evil or cruelty. Looking back, he reconsidered how Smog had been acting. The truths he must have danced around without lying. Omissions no one noticed because…really? Smog with a conscience? His actions, like wiping out all his assassins and readily agreeing to foot the bill for the Dustan refugees. Pulling all his spies from Freeport. Smog rediscovering his heart was the keystone of the puzzle. Suddenly it all made sense. Jindalee looked at Smog and knew what he didn’t see: an enemy.

Judge a creature not by their words, but their actions

Jindalee nodded to himself and opened his eyes, climbing onto a barstool near Smog. On the right, the side with his living eye. A flick of the wrist and the knife was in his paw. The blade snapped open. Fleur gasped and the police-mare looked ready to try and nail him with the whiskey bottle she held in her magic. She would probably miss, but she wasn’t drunk enough to miss something wrong in Jindalee’s manner. Something that didn’t promise violence. Smog’s eye opened a crack. It took in the knife, then Jindalee’s face. Back to the knife, then closing again. Smog was past caring, possibly even grateful.

Jindalee nodded. Smog was willing to die. That told him what he had to do. With care but no great force, Jindalee pushed the point of the knife down into the bar’s top. The wood gave way like cardboard. A split cracked out along a few inches of the grain. Floatwood’s toughness was mostly magical; otherwise something so light would make balsa look like ironwood. It meant nothing to a blade alloyed with mithril. The same went for the toughness of dragon scales. He hadn’t walked into this dragon’s Den without carrying the means to kill Smog. Letting go of the knife and leaving it to stand upright, Jindalee dropped back to the floor. Smog’s head hung at the perfect height for an eye-to-eye. The dragon-pony opened his green eye again. Jindalee edged closer until he could see his reflection in the eye, which wasn’t too much smaller than his head. The dragon-pony looked back, his eyes still dripping. A whimper from one of the ponies, he wasn’t sure which, caused him to shake his tail in a warning gesture. He never broke their shared gaze.

Then Jindalee put a paw on Smog’s snout. His sudden movement made the police mare audibly jump and mutter a curse. Smog didn’t react. Jindalee tried to lift the big pink head. After a moment, Smog lifted it, cooperating but passive. His head stayed raised when Jindalee let go, like positioning a catatonic. Jindalee climbed back up onto the stool and urged Smog’s head higher, then up into the bar and higher still. Smog held his head there, his eyes the same height as the glider. Jindalee gently, kindly ran a paw from the tip of Smog’s snout up towards his eyes. Smog…flinched. Nodding in satisfaction, the glider climbed up into Smog’s snout. It was hot and hard as a sun-baked rock and his sharp little claws didn’t find much purchase. Jindalee held one of Smog’s temples in each fore-paw. As the tears kept flowing from the dragon-pony’s eyes, Jindalee moved forward, pressing his forehead gently against Smog’s. This was it: the glider side of him he hid so well behind the facade of a well-spoken, emotionally-reserved, and above all ruthless business-creature. Few creatures had seen this side of him before he’d taken over the family, and fewer still had seen it since.

Smog let out a choking sob. Jindalee closed his eyes and made a purring sound in the back of his throat, not of contentment, but the kind a mother would use to calm her frightened joeys. A deeper hush spread through the creatures at the bar, and Jindalee was aware of a moment never to be repeated. Two ruthless crime lords, responsible for the livelihoods and lack thereof of so many, sharing a hug. Jindalee smiled very slightly as Smog’s sobs intensified. Not from joy at Smog’s pain but in satisfaction that his own heart had led him true. Maybe a little from the dramatic scene he had staged. Smog wasn’t an enemy anymore. He wasn’t a threat. He had been on his knees. Jindalee could have put him in the ground. Instead he’d taken the harder road and helped Smog to his feet.

It lasted only a few seconds, and when Jindalee opened his eyes, Smog’s were closed and leaking tears even faster. As the glider slowly slid off the dragon-pony’s muzzle, the expression on Smog’s face seemed torn between anguish and relief. Not that those two were much different, when intense. Not a word had been spoken between them, but much had been said. There were some things that went beyond words.

Jindalee sighed quietly and stroked Smog’s head. The dragon-pony made a wet gulping sound. Jindalee smiled and hopped down behind the bar. Not just the expected mess of spilled bottles and shattered shelves, but a great big char-edged hole in the floatwood floor. Heat rose from it like the mouth of a chimney. He took a quick peek, eyes squinted, saw a foot-high empty space floored with riveted steel plates. A patch of the age-blackened metal glowed dull red. That had been a serious sneeze, but Smog’s paranoia meant this tavern was a very low-key fortress.

The under-bar storage looked as if organized by an anal-retentive army quartermaster. Jindalee doubted what he really wanted would be back here. No bartender with half a brain would keep something so rare and precious…he found it. After giving the dusty bottle a lopsided look, he shrugged. It wasn’t as if Smog was an average bartender. Anypony trying to rob a dragon’s bar, even if they knew nothing about Smog, was a rare kind of idiot. It wasn’t that big a bottle by pony standards, though big for him.

Jindalee made a staircase from a rank of drawers and hopped back up onto the bar with his prize and a pair of glasses. All eyes were on him as he opened the cork, sniffing it deeply like any true connoisseur, before emptying it out into the glasses. One was glider-sized. The other was big enough to take the rest of the bottle. Even Smog watched him as he took the smaller and pushed the larger towards the dragon-pony’s head. Holding his aloft, Jindalee silently toasted him. Then he gave the big mug a meaningful look. Smog responded by sitting up a little straighter and taking the glass in one claw, inhaling deeply over it before slowly tipping the cup in tandem with Jindalee. They drained their drinks in perfect harmony. Though at different rates of flow.

Jindalee nodded, placing the glass on the bar, and climbed down the customer side with as much dignity as he could muster. He was aware of all eyes on him, but that was nothing new. He didn’t stop, and he certainly didn’t look back. He walked out without saying a word. The silence followed him out the door, as if the whole world knew of this moment, and he used it to lick his paw and smooth down the fur on one of his ears. The twin pegasi guarding the doorway had no idea what had been going on, the poor buggers. This was the beginning of something big. Jindalee could feel it like a storm on the horizon.

Smog used a polishing cloth to dry his eyes and blow his nose. It felt awkward. He wasn’t used to things being awkward, but it had been a very long time since he’d needed to dry his eyes or blow his nose. That his nose wasn’t quite the same shape as he was used to didn’t help. He caught the cloth on his horn, which was just as needle-sharp as it looked. Unhooking it, he paused to shift and remove the bottle he sat upon. Tarhoney Rum, of all things. If that bottle had been upright instead of on its side, Smog would have suffered a painful and humiliating injury.

The taste of one-hundred-and-eleven-year-old elderberry wine lingered on his tongue. Smog hadn’t given Jindalee all he had of the stock which had matured this year. There was always a chance somepony would come in and order it before the winter solstice took away its alleged magical properties. Jindalee had sent a clear message with that selection, and by insisting Smog join him for a drink. Echoes of their last formal meeting, their negotiations. Smog had, among other things, made promises. He had promised to take care of the Dustan refugees that would come to Aura.

Elderberry wine was supposed to silver the tongue, lend the drinker eloquence of speech. Make them more convincing. Smog had never seen any evidence that couldn’t be explained by the simple confidence caused by holding that belief. Smog was going to need all the persuasiveness he could muster in order to convince his employees that he was still the true Smog. That the same cold, confident monster resided in this transformed body. Tricky indeed, since it didn’t.

Tugging the little switchblade free of the bar, he closed it with great care and tucked it away for later disposal. The steel had mithril in the alloy, illegal as anything got. He would do what he always did with such weapons and send it to the Princesses. Jindalee had said something in leaving it behind. He said that he didn’t have any plans to kill Smog, and saw no need to defend himself against Smog. As gestures of trust went, it was very effective.

Smog’s still nearly-flawless memory handed him something Jindalee had said then. Let’s pretend to be two reasonable creatures. Maybe we can fool ourselves. Barring that, we can hope to fool each other. Smog nodded to himself and wadded the polishing cloth up in a fist. He had promises to keep, and both parts of him agreed: promises must be kept. Even without hope of success, he knew that his conscience demanded he try. After all…even he could be wrong. But while he was hoping for the best, he’d plan for the worst. He could keep up the charade at least for a few days provided nopony else saw him and nopony who had seen him said anything.

Smog could do a lot in a few days. He had many employees and specialists that were extremely good at their jobs. Transferring assets, setting up trust funds with deviously interlocking spheres of responsibility to discourage things like embezzling. All investments and properties outside Aura, all legitimate executors, all legal paperwork that the Empire would honor even when Aura dissolved into financial and social chaos. He could see to it that the refugees would be aided even after he fell. Plus more to help Aura itself recover once it started picking up the pieces.

Another promise, one made to himself, demanded a more personal involvement. As luck would have it, his audience included both parties required for the keeping of it. “Lute and Perth.” He hated his voice; an old, old hate born anew. Cracking between bass and soprano, masculine and feminine. Smog thought of himself as male, but he wasn’t really either. Even his true form lacked certain defining traits of gender. Moon Pie had been luckier there, she was definitely a female.

The named males hadn’t looked pleased to be singled out. Perth actually tried to edge behind Fleur. “I would like to speak with the two of you in my office. Please. It is important. Mithril and Fleur, you may stay a while if you wish to compose yourself before leaving.”

Smog left, finding it both easier and harder to slip through the door to the back of the tavern. He was somewhat leaner but a different shape. The sound of his hind legs clip-clopping along on their hooves was going to take some getting used to. He wouldn’t have tried to fly for six tons of sapphires. Getting used to his old body was going to be a lot of work. He had barely settled behind his desk before Morhoof came in. Perth came in first, but obviously being herded. Morhoof closed the door and slid the bolt.

“There isn’t much time.” Smog said. “I can definitely keep up a pretense of business as usual for a few days. I’ve always been notorious for unpredictably closing the Den for a night or three. Lute, I would ask you to continue guarding Fantasy. If nothing else, I suspect you have a score to settle with Forte Presto and I have a feeling he will find you if you stay near her. I’m going to transfer a chunk of assets and properties to your name. Things outside Aura and the countryside it governs. Legitimate, if not in my name. They should survive the city’s fall.”

“I-” Morhoof said.

“Is it important?” Smog said.

“It’s about the eye you gave me.” Morhoof said.

Perth looked at the earth pony, then at Smog’s crystal-ball eye, then back to Morhoof. He looked back and forth a few more times. Then he looked ill. “Oh…dear.”

“Not that eye.” Morhoof said. He gave a muffled belch that smelled like a gourmet breakfast buffet. “Scuse me.”

“What about it?” Smog said.

“In a word…why?”

“I covered that in the letter. You can capture Forte without killing him or risking his escape.”

“No…unspoken reason?”

“No. I trust you with it. Besides, I have another.”

“Yes, they do come in pairs, eyeballs. If you may be…no longer around…soon, then perhaps I should also carry the antidote?”

“I’ll send it to Fleur.” Smog started to feel, if not better, then more in control. He was acting, thinking, planning. Doing what he was good at. “She will know to un-petrify you or others if needed. You shouldn’t carry it with you. If it’s petrified along with you…”

“Point taken.”

Smog opened a desk drawer and fixed his eye on Perth. “I promised never to mention them again in your presence unless you did first, so I won’t mention them.” Smog lifted out the armored steel case and unlocked it. He lifted out the light-beam weapon Perth had made and then reworked into something else. A device to energize, attune, and direct a philosopher’s stone. Then he lifted out a smaller cubical case of six diamond panes in a steel frame. Inside, held immobile by spring-loaded pins pointing in from the eight corners, sat the stone itself. It didn’t look like much: a blood-colored ruby cut into a dodecahedron, like a twelve-sided die. It was about the same size as the larger sort of marble.

Morhoof began to swear, loudly and in a language that had been ancient when Equestria was new. Smog felt a twinge of amusement that startled him. “It appears you recognize this object.”

Morhoof broke off a convoluted vulgarity involving the nailing of a pony’s ears to an oak tree. “Is it real?”


“You fixed it!” Perth said. He looked like a foal who had woken up on his birthday and discovered the contents of a toy store heaped in his room. “By the queen’s ears, you fixed it!”

“I figured out how to make it fix itself.” Smog said.

“It was broken?” Morhoof said. “Wait…why does the koala know about it?”

“Please, be quiet.” Smog said. “Lute, Perth created it while drunk out of his marsupial mind on Freeport ale. He has magical talent that manifests as a kind of…mad science. He can make things work as long as he thinks they should. I’ve tested the stone a little, but not as much as I would like. Time is no longer my ally. Perth, I wish for you to create an artificial foreleg for Lute, who as you see is missing one. Make it attach to a socket fused to the stump. I leave the particulars of the leg itself to you, just confer with Lute. Don’t add any features unless he gives approval first. The socket, not the leg itself, should contain this stone and the bare essentials to power, attune, and direct its energies. The attunement focus will be a hoof clipping from Lute, the energy source will be sungold kept warm by his own body heat. It should periodically discharge itself into Lute’s body.”

“That…makes no bloody sense.” Perth said.

“It will constantly reset his physical form.”

“Yes, to his own form. It won’t change anything.”

“It will return him to the age he was when he grew that clipping.”

Perth staggered, tried to drop into a chair, and failed to recall the seat was a little higher up than his rump. He banged into it with his rump and his skull on his way to the floor. Perth lay there staring upwards with his glasses askew. When he spoke, it was a whisper of awe. “Immortality?”

“Agelessness.” Smog said. “Not the same thing. In a nutshell, ageless doesn’t mean unkillable.”

“The things really do that?” Perth said. He scrambled upright using Smog’s desk for help. “I was sure that was a load of nonsense and wishful thinking. But yes, I see now how its power to transform things could be utilized in such a manner.”

Morhoof had been standing by with his jaw dangling. Now he closed his mouth only to open it again. “You want to stick a philosopher’s stone to my stump to keep me from growing old?”

“I do. I have just begun the final stage of testing it, having a pony teach a few dozen mice tricks while waiting for them to age. Once they did, I planned to use fur plucked from them when young to revert them and test to ensure they retained all their memories. No time for that now. To be honest, I also want to do this to put the stone somewhere it can never be used…or abused. Not even by you, since you won’t be able to use it for anything but staying alive.”

Morhoof gave a heavy snort. “Yes, and carrying a philosopher’s stone around is historically such a good recipe for a long life. Everypony and their grandmother will be after me!”

Smog shook his head. “The existence of this stone is unknown by any but we three. So long as we don’t share it, nopony will ever come hunting you for it. Perth can be trusted to keep it a secret. He wouldn’t want to risk it being used for evil.”

“You could use it to change back.” Perth said. His tone had changed, become calm and confident but with a sense of chilly, clinical disregard. “You’d just need a scale from when you were a dragon. I suspect you possess one.”

Smog had already considered and dismissed that idea, along with a hundred others. All of them flawed. “My changes were magical, held in place against the natural pressure of my true form. My scales were never truly dragon scales, just shaped like them.”

A thought struck Smog. He had occasionally sold his shed scales, in powdered form and made useless as a focus for curses sent his way. Why not? Powdered dragon scale was a high-end commodity for potion-making. He…wasn’t a true dragon. It was possible that would warp the effect of a potion in which it was used. Not most potions, where it was a general intensifier. Just there for its magical potency. But for magic trying to invoke some aspect of a dragon’s nature…

Xero’s reports from Zevera emerged from the orderly library of his memories. A zebra mare named Zheila had made friends with the pegasus White Lightning. Xero claimed she had made and taken a dangerous transformation potion. One that had turned her into a dragon, or close enough. The potion had been flawed and left her with a lingering curse: saddling her with a tendency toward the draconic mindset. With all its selfishness, arrogance, and greed. When she let those feelings grow strong, she manifested a slit pupil, fangs, and a hiss to the voice. Smog felt yet another brick added to the mountain of evil he had done. That the zebra mare had long ago lost an eye seemed like an ugly joke on fate’s part.

“I will install safeguards.” Perth said. “Should Lute ever be killed or the stone’s housing breached, they will destroy the stone. I will not permit it to be used for evil. Even if it means never permitting it to be used for good, save the arguable good of indefinitely prolonging a single life. The stone could be used to mass-produce rare medicines. Not gold, of course, that would cause the economy to crash. No, better to nullify it than risk the tremendous harm it could do.”

“If Aura destabilizes,” Smog said, “it won’t instantly plunge into total chaos. The ponies and griffins of Aura and Umbra are decent folk by a vast majority. The revelation that their entire police force and government are hopelessly corrupt won’t instantly spark riots and looting. It will take a while for law and order to break down and for the freezing of all my assets and companies to wreck the economy. Be prepared to leave in a hurry and you’ll get away clean.”

Smog whipped out a blank scroll and wrote, surprised but pleased to see the words form with the same printing-press precision as always. “Here is a list of places where you will find sanctuary and basic supplies in various cities in and outside the Equestrian Empire, as well as the passwords to let them know you deserve it. Don’t stay in any of them for more than a few days. They’re way-stations for my spies, nothing ore. Even after I fall, many of my employees will honor their obligations for as long as the automated accounts from which they are paid have cash in them. Use the way stations to equip yourself and plan a less hasty journey to somewhere safe.” He copied it out twice and added a pair of resonance compasses. “These compasses point to each other. Use them to find each other. Don’t delay running in order to do it together, if Aura begins to fall. Just run, and meet up later.”

“Should we flee now?” Perth said. He studied the compass he held with abstracted disgust.

“No. For now, Lute needs to stay here. The safest place for you, Perth, is under my protection. Anything you need for this project, name it and I’ll do my best to get it for you without delay. And maybe a miracle will happen and I can convince my employees that I haven’t been mentally compromised.”

“Hm, by creating a dimensional manifold I can pack considerable functionality within a casing of limited size. Not all accessible at once but with many options, like a folding multi-tool. How would you feel about a segmented hoof that can split into sections which unfold into digits, including opposable thumbs?” The koala looked at his paws, with three fingers and two thumbs each. “Perhaps just one thumb. That would make the required mechanisms less complex. A simple pincher claw would be less dexterous but quite robust. Extreme durability and ease of repair will be essential. Galvanic nerve impulses within the stump can be redirected to deliver and receive messages to the artificial limb.”

“A thought-controlled clockwork leg?” Morhoof said. “Full of gadgets, with a hoof that unfolds into a gripping pincher?”

Perth cocked his head to one side. “Essentially correct.”

“If you need a fake leg,” Smog said, “why not get one with all the bells and whistles?”

“Bells and whistles. There is potential within the manipulation of harmonic frequencies to cause physical damage or mental distress to a designated material or target.”

Morhoof looked lost. “Like a singer breaking a wineglass?”

“Indeed. I am confident I can create a pump-powered whistle tuned to cause extreme gastrointestinal distress without causing lasting harm.” Another head-tilt. “Save for the potential emotional scarring caused by experiencing an involuntary and violent emptying of the bowels.”

“Oh, the ‘brown note.’ That’s a myth.”

Perth began to polish his glasses. “Perhaps not for much longer. If you would prefer something of more straightforward deadliness, I could install a weapon which shatters living bone or causes massive rupturing of cerebral capillaries. Of course that is only within the realm of applied sonics. We should consider wider possibilities. A sturdy blade seldom goes amiss. Hmmm…perhaps something in a vitrified metallic alloy, utilizing micro-serrations and high-frequency vibrations in order to enhance its cutting power.”

Morhoof was lost at sea without oars. “What?”

Smog translated as best he could. “A saw-toothed blade of glass-sharp metal that moves like a high-speed jackhammer.”

“Crude but not inaccurate.” Perth said.

“Is he serious?” Morhoof said.

“He is.” Smog said. “If you think a philosopher’s stone would be a nightmare in the wrong hands, it’s a peashooter compared to what Perth could do if he let the darker side of his imagination off its chain. The stone can only transform. Perth can create. Try to keep him within the bounds of sanity, or at least nothing banned by international treaty. Perth, make a list of the things you will definitely need no matter what optional extras Lute decides to get. I’ll keep the stone for now, but you can have the empowering device back. Lute-”

“I know. Escort duty for Fantasy.” Morhoof left without saying goodbye. Given his dazed expression, Smog couldn’t blame him. Perth didn’t leave. He righted the fallen chair and perched in it. Smog eyed the now-unbolted door. “Yes?”

“I have completed the list. Shall I transcribe it or dictate?”

“Tell me. I’ll remember.” Smog awkwardly rose up on his hind hooves to remove the hidden ceiling panel. Not many message capsules had accumulated. Slow day. Until now. He wobbled and almost fell. Then he clapped a claw across his eyes and dropped his still-dragonlike tail to brace against the floorboards. With three points of support, he was stable as a tripod. “I may not appear to be paying attention, but rest assured I will be.”

Mithril slouched at the bar, brushing her mane back with a hoof. It kept falling forward again. Wilted right along with her mood. She’d abandoned the whiskey. Swilling down something that fine was almost a crime. She had moved on to another bottle lifted from the jumble behind the bar. Something called Tarhoney: that rang a faint but ugly bell. It tasted like really cheap, really strong rum. Smog served to all tastes, she guessed. It wasn’t as bad as the special bottle she kept hidden under her bed. Mostly she drank in moderation. For the taste as much as anything. A fine drink after getting home to help her relax. Mostly. Sometimes…just sometimes…a cop saw things that couldn’t be faced sober. Things she couldn’t stop seeing when she closed her eyes. The bottle under her bed was an off switch for her brain. Things always looked better in the morning…at least when compared to the hangover.

She didn’t usually abuse her liver, but this was a special circumstance. Mithril felt completely and utterly helpless. She wasn’t a crimelord. She wasn’t a mastermind. She was a cop, and she had no power here. The city would fall unless a miracle occurred. Smog hadn’t looked hopeful. The secrets would all come out: enough dirty laundry to bury the city. Mithril, along with every other honest cop in Aura, would be vilified with the real scum on the force. Not that Mithril was all that honest any more. She had made her deal with the dragon. It was an awful knowledge sitting in her head. She drank more of the bottle.

Today was turning into an emotional rollercoaster for Mithril. She had been going up, hopeful things were going to start getting better…but then she had come over the modest rise and seen a long, near-vertical drop. She had a feeling she’d be throwing up at some point, and not just from the alcohol. Mithril tried to focus on the bottle’s label, failed, tried to remember what it was called and failed again. She gave up and took another gulp before corking it. Mithril was alone in the front room. Madame Fleur had helped that Lute fellow herd Perth back toward Smog’s office and then made herself scarce. Moping about the situation wouldn’t get anything done. It was time to go home. If she was going to be useless, she might as well do it on her comfy new mattress and crazy-high-thread-count sheets.

Mithril slipped off the barstool, swaying a little before she figured out where all her hooves were, and stuffed the bottle in her saddlebag. A smidge more alcohol on the way home would be good for her…well, actually, no, it wouldn’t, but it would at least improve her mood. Humming a song, she trotted for the door. Like the lyrics, she soon hoped to be comfortably numb. Working the knob on the second try, she opened it and found herself face-to-rear with one of Smog’s matched set of ‘janitors.’ Her inner cop wanted to arrest them on suspicion of dirty deeds. Edging past the pegasus, she saw a purple unicorn mare standing in front of the Avec Noir’s door. Even drunk, Mithril took in the book cutie mark and any other distinguishing features for later description to a sketch artist. It was pure habit. She noticed with only a small twinge of envy that the mare’s horn was longer than her own.

“Ho there, shitizen…fine having we’re evening, ishn’t it?” Mithril realized she was slurring mid-sentence, and attempted to correct it…but no luck. The mare, to her credit, didn’t seem to find Mithril amusing.

“Good afternoon. It’s not yet four o’clock, Officer Mithril.”

Mithril decided to let this seeming jab at her too-early drinking pass so she could ask a more important question. “How’d j’ya know my name? We met before? I have an exchellent memory for faces and yours doesn’t…who are you?”

“I’m Fantasy. Miss Fantasy Longhorn.” Mithril’s eyes slid up to the horn. Not alicorn long, not by a long shot, but longer than usual. The other unicorn looked kinda like Twilight Sparkle, only with solid purple mane and tail. Fantasy blushed. “Um. We haven’t met, but I’ve heard things about you.” She was making with the shifty eyes.

“What’re you do…doing here?” They both ignored the pegasi twins, who returned the favor. “Bad part of town, here.”

“I know, Officer Mithril. I’m waiting for Mister Lute; he’s going to make sure I get home safe. Madame Fleur said I should wait out here for him. I think she wanted…never mind.”

“Lute looked like he could kick some rump, yeah.”

“Do you know how long he might be?”

Mithril tried to eye the other mare but her eyes wouldn’t get with the program. Talked like she swallowed a book on etiquette all of a sudden. Mithril bit back a horrible joke about not knowing Lute well enough to know how long he might be. This mare looked like a blusher. “I don’t. Schorry.”

“Oh, it’s all right. It seems there was some kind of meeting? I saw…a sugar glider in an expensive suit. Coming out a few minutes before you did.” A nod of her head indicated which direction Jindalee had gone along the corridor. Mithril blinked, slowly tilting her head as her inner cop tried to make itself heard through a layer of mental fuzz. Then things lined up like a slot machine. Triple lemons.

“Well, nishe meeting you, ma’am. Miss, I mean. I’ve gotta be on my way now…have got shome very m-portant…shtuff to do…polishe shtuff. Very m-portant.”

Fantasy gently tapped a hind hoof against the floor. Looked nervous. “Of course.” she said. “Have a pleasant afternoon, Officer Mithril.”

Mithril couldn’t suppress a snort, but it was at the comment, not the commenter. “You too.” she said. To her surprise, the words came out clear.

She moved fast along the corridor, heading for the stairs up to street level. One of them. There was no central staircase rising up through the docking spire. It would be too big a traffic bottleneck. There was a ring of staircases, each gentle spiral wrapping around a cargo elevator’s shaft. There were smaller staircases here and there inside the ring but Mithril doubted Jindalee would use them. He would, she felt certain, take the most direct public route. Inside the ring of stairwells was a bad neighborhood with the Den in the middle. Outside the ring was even worse: semi-illegal tunnels and chambers winding through the massive cloudbank foundations of Aura. Competing for space with the maintenance corridors and sewer pipes. It was rock bottom up in the clouds: pretty much underground despite being up in the sky. The area around the ring of staircases was decent. Lots of traffic up and down, good police presence, well-lit. Shops selling stuff to tourists and travelers were so thick it was like a weird mall.

Mithril passed a shop and her head tried to stop. She skidded a little before the rest of her got the message. Jindalee knew what she looked like. She went into the shop, which sold costumes. She grabbed some things and paid with a check. The pimply colt behind the counter wanted to demand cash but her ID and badge were proof enough that Mithril’s check wasn’t going to bounce. Mithril got dressed and stuffed her saddlebag in her new one, woven out of cheerful golden wicker. It occurred to her to wonder why there would be a costume shop here. The only thing that came to mind was that ponies who headed for the Den often didn’t want to be seen there. Typical of Smog to provide a convenient place where they could pick up a disguise. Or maybe…maybe criminals looking to skip town who needed a disguise to get past any cops in the docking spire.

Stepping back out into the corridor-street, Mithril paused to make sure her fake moustache was on tight. She wore a tropical-print shirt that practically glowed, a pair of huge sunglasses, and a floppy-brimmed brown hat of the sort favored by fat, older ponies who went to the beach to sit under an umbrella and read bad novels. And a fake mustache. Appleloosa handlebar, and the color matched her mane. Her disguise rendered her unrecognizable. Hat hid her horn; shirt hid her lack of wings. She hurried onward up and around the stairs, getting a little dizzy but only more determined. She eventually spotted the little lemur and began tailing him.

Mithril stuck to the meager shadows, hiding in doorways and behind garbage cans, leaping from cover point to cover point. Her inner cop was yelling impolite things but Mithril wasn’t listening. She knew how it was done. All those noir detective movies and Sam Shovel books she read growing up said so. As she snuck, she monologued: “The intrepid…and shexy…dectetive stalked the shneaky…shneaking schoundrel through the shity shtreets. He-he, I meant city. The shneak wash clever, but no match for the shexy shnoop’s shmartness.” In the back of her head, the forever-sober part of her was face-hoofing, making little half-sobbing laughs. Mithril ignored it. This was fun. “She watched her target’sh shteps take him further up the shtairs to an unknown deshtination. Her keen tracking shkills making sure she never losht shight of his fuzzy butt. She totally failed to notishe how well schaid butt looked in that thouschand-bit schuit, not being at all a perv. As he reached schtreet level and paushed to hail a schky-cab, Mithril cunningly crept closher to the crepuscular crimelord…”

Jindalee tapped his hind paw on the cloudy street, arms folded, as the city of Aura went about its business around him. He half-heartedly hailed a sky-cab, only for it to ignore him, possibly because it hadn’t seen him. A mare had begun following him on his way up to street level, muttering to herself. Quite loudly: he could hear her even through the crowd of shoppers and ponies going about their business. He turned away from the street and pretended an interest in a shop window. The reflection showed the mare sneaking up on him. He silently laughed. It was the cop from the Den. The mare had decided to disguise herself in a violently-colorful button-shirt and straw hat, complete with big sunglasses and a bigger moustache. A golden wicker pannier completed the touristy look. And yet she had forgotten to buy something to cover her fireball cutie mark. Okay, obviously she was drunk, but she was still following him for a reason. Jindalee sighed and shook his head.

Bolting down the street, a deep canyon between towering cloud-buildings, Jindalee was satisfied to hear a gasp behind him, followed by the hurried thump of hooves. He let instinct take over, directing him into a narrow, high-walled alley. His natural flight instinct sent him straight up the nearest wall. His claws found easy purchase in the cloud, which felt like wood thanks to the spell that kept him from falling through. There he clung, high above, watching for the mare.

She did not disappoint, skidding into the alley and stopping dead, wildly looking around. Jindalee permitted himself a smirk, then narrowed his eyes. Time to set aside instinct. The pony slowly trotted further in, looking in all directions except up. Jindalee guessed it was the hat blocking her from properly lifting her head. Oh well: time to learn the purpose of this farce. Judging his moment, Jindalee leapt down, spreading his skin-flaps and slowing his descent. He aimed straight for the pony’s back. Before the unicorn could react to his landing, he knocked her hat off and slipped a thimble-like metal cap over her horn’s tip. It went click as it locked in place. At the same time, the other paw produced a telescoping sword with a blade nearly as long as he was tall. Minus the tail. It went snick. Rather than round tubes, the sections had a cross-section like elongated teardrops. The weapon was too fragile for stabbing, but he could have split raindrops with its single edge. When he laid the flat of the blade against the mare’s neck, she froze. Her next instinct would be to try magic. With that cutie mark…no, he needed her able to talk.

Jindalee hissed right in her ear. “I capped your horn. Don’t try any spell you don’t want bounced right back into your brain. You were at Smog’s. Yes, I recognized you. Now tell me why you followed me. Smog’s orders? Or just taking the initiative? I saw your reaction in the Den, are you hoping that you can take me out to cheer Smog up? Or do you have plans for the both of us?”

The mare audibly swallowed.

Mithril froze, standing motionless. The flat of a knife pressed against the side of her neck right under the jaw. She swallowed and felt the edge shave away a few hairs. Her mind raced. She had heard that sometimes danger could make a pony go from drunk to sober in a heartbeat. Now she learned it was both true and false. She felt a lot more sober. She could think of at least five different ways to deal with Jindalee, and she was pretty sure it was him. He had, ha-ha, gotten the drop on her. The problem was that none of the five had a high chance of success with her horn capped and her blood full of booze. Adrenaline might have driven it back from her mind but she didn’t feel any steadier on her hooves. Or any more in control. Most of the sobriety ended up in the already-sober part of her head, and it wasn’t exactly in charge right now.

That little, eternally sober buzzkill in the back of Mithril’s mind was thinking ‘I told you so’ in the most annoyingly smug voice. The kind of tone that made Mithril want to strangle the speaker, but in this case, the speaker was herself. It created an aggravating paradox.

Now wasn’t the time for drunken mental rambling. She had a deranged lemur clinging to her back with a big knife pressed to her throat. If she squinted and looked down, she could make out the end of it. Meaning it was more like a sword for a creature that size. How the hay had he hidden it? Now was the time for deep thought, careful consideration, and…Ms. Buzzkill suddenly stopped griping. She had an idea. Not Ms. Buzzkill, the real Mithril had an idea. Or maybe it was the booze that had the idea.

Mithril inhaled and opened her mouth as if to speak. Instead she got out half a word before it turned into the kind of belch that caused whole bars full of ponies to go quiet. The second thing to come out was just about as eloquent. “Git offa mah back, fuzzbutt.” The words were fueled by liquid courage, and inner Mithril began screaming profanities at the top of her figurative lungs. “Imma cop, not a asshasshin…heh, that word shoundsh funny when I’m drunk. I ain’t here to put a knife in yer back, I’m here to make sure you don’t get up to no good in my town mishter fuzzy wuzzy crimelord.”

Inner Mithril began beating her head against a figurative wall. Mithril decided to give her a figurative mohawk and figurative face paint so she looked like a head-banging zebra. It was a hilarious image and she couldn’t help but giggle. Her idea was simple and brilliant: play the Harmless Drunk card. It wasn’t exactly acting. More like…going with the flow. Her, a threat to him? No, sir: she was a harmless drunk.

Jindalee blinked down at the mare, though he had a terrible angle for reading her expression. Her drunkenness became more and more obvious with every passing moment. It was a little like being on a boat in a gentle sea. He supposed the sobering chill of his ambush had begun to fade. The fumes from that belch made his eyes sting. If there had been an open flame nearby…but the belch convinced him of her drunkenness in more ways than one. Frightened creatures felt their throats go tight and dry. Hers obviously wasn’t, despite the sharp edge pressed to her throat. So she wasn’t planning anything dangerous. He relaxed, inside and then outside. Leaving the feedback cap on her horn for the time being, he lifted the sword. With the flick of a switch, it collapsed until small enough to put in the inner pocket of his jacket. He wound it back up before putting it away, so it would snap out again the next time he wanted it. Smoothing his suit, closing the hidden break-away seams that let his gliding membranes unfurl, he harrumphed and then chuckled.

The mare still seemed worried, trying to stand still despite her gentle swaying. He paced further down her back, taking a moment for a peek in her ridiculous wicker saddlebag. A bottle of Tarhoney rum caught his eye. He wrinkled his nose at the faint hint of snakes-and-sulfur odor clinging to it. Yes, it was indeed the bottle Smog had sat upon. Clearly she had no idea, and it would be cruel to tell her. Grabbing her wallet from an inside pocket of the pannier, he confirmed she was a cop. Memorizing her name and home address, he tucked it away again and climbed down off of her. He strode to where she could see him. If not, it soon became clear, focus on him.

Jindalee spoke without a trace of anger, his manner and tone all amicable concern: “My apologies, Officer. Being that you’re in the employ of Smog, I figured that-”

Mithril cut him off with another belch. He braced his hind paws and leaned into it a little to keep from being pushed back. The fumes almost burned the hair off his face. Eventually it ended. He rolled his eyes as the mare resumed trying to focus on him. “Ah…t-that’s okay…little squirrely thingy! You jus’ protectectectin’ yoursel…er…slef…SELF.”

Jindalee rolled his eyes again and strode closer to tug the mare’s false moustache. “Come along.” Even behind big sunglasses and a bigger moustache she managed to look skeptical. “If you want to keep an eye on me, you might as well do it openly.” She seemed agreeable, though she paused to fix her hat. It was the kind with a string that went under the jaw, so it hadn’t fallen through the alley’s cloudy floor when he knocked it off. She settled it back on her head with the hauteur only available to hereditary nobility and the truly sloshed. Smoothing her moustache, she made a grand gesture for him to lead on, spoiled by losing her balance and almost face-planting.

He led the disguised mare back down into the tunnels, reaching the Avec Noir and herding her inside. Fleur wasn’t at the front desk, as he had suspected. She was truly loyal to Smog and would be somewhere quiet trying to deal with what had happened. By the time he had managed to drag her into his room, she seemed utterly confused. “Bu’ Misser Jin-jin-squirrel, I go’ go home! P-Pick-pick-pickle…hee-hee, pickle.” She broke down into blubbering laughter for a few seconds, before seeming to swallow it back. “P-Pick needs me at home! He’ go’ a C’ndition!” She looked around, knocking her sunglasses off to scowl. “H’eh now, you little…fellow. Don’ go getting any ideas jus’ cause I’m…in-eee-bree-ate-ed. I’m not…not that kind of mare.” She went a little shifty-eyed at the end.

Jindalee resisted the urge to roll his eyes again. Or, a more juvenile part urged, mime sticking a paw down his throat. Take advantage of her? Even if he had liked mares, he had standards. A cop? His ancestors would do a synchronized roll in their graves. “You are drunk, Officer Mithril. You need to sleep it off. Or should I go get Smog and tell him I found you wandering around in public, pickled as a cocktail olive, thinking out loud?”

Mithril almost sobered up at that. “Crud on a stick, I was. No! No-no-no. No Ssssmog! He’ a meany old meany-pants dragon! I…wait, he’s no’ a meany-pants anymore! Or a dragon. Awwwwwwwwwwwwwww…he has ears like a fruit bat.”

Jindalee stood back as Mithril apparently lost herself in a moment, staring at something a mile beyond the nearest wall. He tapped a paw against the floatwood floor, clicking his claws, until she finally came back from wherever she had gone. “You’s two…w’r so CUUUUUTE! Y’hugged! And y’were all friend’s an’ stuff!” Her stare went distant again, but the view didn’t seem so nice this time. “Uh, wow. Smog and Longtail in bed together, tha’s no’ good for th’ coppers.” She gave a huge snort of half-stifled laughter. “In be’ together.”

Jindalee had lowered his guard too much. When the mare stumbled forwards, much quicker than he anticipated, he squeaked in an undignified way. She managed to catch him between her fore-hooves. He squeaked again as she squeezed him to her chest, her nose nuzzling the top of his head. That second squeak was due to pressure alone.

Jindalee felt his expression settle somewhere between boredom and exasperation. Enduring her cuddles with dignity, he did nothing to encourage her. His fore-paws twitched, but she had them pinned down by his sides. Finally she got whatever-it-was out of her system and put him down. Getting up off her rump, she staggered over to the bed and collapsed sideways onto it with a noise like a woof. Jindalee sighed and brushed himself off, trotting towards the door.

A muffled sob stopped him dead. He spun slowly on one paw. Mithril curled up on the bed, trying hard not to cry and failing. The glider in him couldn’t have let Jindalee leave now, even though he wanted to. Climbing onto the bed with as much dignity as he could muster, he uses a paw to wipe some errant tears from the mare’s cheeks. Then he gently rubbed one of her ears. His mother had done that to calm him, though his early years felt far away and long ago. Her tears were slowly subsiding, but she still sniffed.

She broke the silence by looking directly into Jindalee’s eyes and starting to wail again. “O-Oh mister Ji-Jin-Squirrel! I’m s-so sor-hee! This is all my fault!”

Jindalee knew a drunken confession when he heard one. He carried on rubbing the mare’s ear and stroking her mane in a half-hug as she continued. “S-Smog made us go to Dust! I’d get fired if I said no. Framed f’r being dirty cop. We were just stealing healdust spores! He said it was to help everypony! Sure he’d make lots of money selling spores but then it would be all cheap an’ stuff. Then it was raining killer koalas and everything went wrong…and Perth. He di’n tell us bout him.”

Smog hadn’t told Jindalee about the reason for the civil war. Jindalee’s contacts had mentioned a big to-do in Dust City just before everything went pear-shaped, with the infamous Drop Bears going after a traitor and a thief aided by a few foreigners. They hadn’t said what had been stolen. Jindalee started to piece together a picture he didn’t like. If healdust spores hit the market, soon the Dustans would find their main export devalued. They would still need food imported. What to trade for it? Technology was the obvious answer. Who had arranged to snatch a Dustan mechanical genius? Smog. Obviously the plan had been to patent the secrets of Dustan technology himself, making lots of money and putting the Dustans in an even worse position. Smog loved negotiating with the desperate. Jindalee tried to imagine Smog taking over as King of Dust. No more skulking in the shadows, having to play at the simple bartender and do things on the quiet. Smog was a nightmare even with that shackle. Without it…

The Dustans had clammed up once the civil war kicked off. There was no official news getting out but the refugees told the tale. Bad and getting worse as the six Lords fought over the throne. Destroying the country while fighting over it. He shook his head. Smog had abandoned that plan, and Jindalee now knew why. A change of heart, by discovering he had one. Even so, knowing the shape of those plans was a bargaining chip Jindalee might one day find useful. Switching ears, he let the mare calm down enough to drunkenly continue.

“B-But n-now BRANDO is gone! A-and Red is DEAD!” This brought on a fresh rush of tears. The mare shook as she cried. “A-and Pick is sick inna head and Smog is all sad and not-Smoggy and now Aura is gon’ BLOW UP! Everything has gone wrong!”

Jindalee put his paws on each of the mare’s cheeks. “Officer Mithril, I give you my solemn word that I will not allow Aura to fall into chaos. Things will happen with Smog deposed-” the mare interrupted with a damp, nose clearing sniff “-but I give you my word as a Longtail that I will do what I can to make sure Aura is brought back to order and the rule of law as swiftly as possible. That’s in the best interests of me, Equestria, and everyone in between.”

The mare quieted by degrees, hiccupping, but nodded as best she could with her chin planted firmly on the mattress. Jindalee continued speaking as he climbed down off the bed to undress. His suits projected a certain essential public image. For one thing, it helped him be recognizable even to the all-gliders-look-alike sort. Nothing wrong with being nude. “Smog is a changed creature. Believe me on that. I don’t think he’s been a good being for many hundreds of years. He’s likely forgotten how to be good. But it appears he still knows how to be Smog. More eel than dragon when it comes to ducking trouble. If it’s at all possible to weather the crisis caused by his change of form, he will certainly manage it. If he can’t, there’s nothing we can do about it. We’ll deal with what happens next. Let’s go on assuming it won’t until it does. He’s going to need all the help he can get from good ponies. Ponies who can steer him on the right path. He seems like he wishes to walk it, but wanting to walk a path and being able to find it aren’t the same thing. You could be one of those ponies. Fleur is another. I’m half-tempted to tell Tradewind to stay in Aura once he returns from Canterlot, but that would make me an awful friend…if a smart business-creature.” He shook his head with a small wistful sigh. “Anyway, the point is this: be strong, Miss Mithril. For your friends, for Smog, and most of all for Aura.”

A hiccup was all the reply he got. He took it as his cue to leave. The thing about always being seen in a suit, all he needed to disguise himself was to take it off. Trotting towards the door, a sudden rustle of sheets halted him yet again. Making a small noise of frustration, he turned to eye the pony on the bed, still lying with her chin on the mattress. She had her back legs straight, holding her rump in the air. Seemingly trying to stand. As he watched, her rear legs twisted, letting her rump fall to one side. He winced. Pony spines could be a lot more flexible than seemed possible, but her rump didn’t hit the mattress. Too close to the near side of the bed. It kept going down and something crackled. Her hind end dragged the rest of her off the bed in a slow-motion disaster. Only her head remained on the bed.

Jindalee chuckled and helped the pony back to her hooves, mostly by prodding her and giving encouragement. He got her back on the bed again, this time under the blanket. But first he got her out of her saddlebag, and that garish shirt, and the hat, and of course the moustache. After he had her tucked in, and paused to think, he fiddled with the feedback cap in the special way that caused the locking pins to come loose. As he patted her cheek, she opened one bleary eye. “Teddy? Teddy Rocks-Pen? Who drew stripes on you with a black marker?”

The pathetic flailing of blanket-bound limbs that followed made him smile. She got her forelegs free and held them out in a ‘hug-me’ gesture. Flicking his tail and making his fur fluff up, he chuckled and slowly curled up against her chest between her forelegs, which tightened around him. He gave it a few seconds, then a few seconds more. “Mithril?”

A quiet snore answered him.

Jindalee curled up a little tighter, not moving. His mood teetered between disgust and hilarity. Today had been a strange day. He could allow himself to be a teddy for one night. ‘But if she tries to sneak out,’ he thought, ‘I’ll pretend to be asleep. I’ll be a wombat’s backside if I’ll try to stop her again. If she goes out in public and blabs, I can truthfully tell Smog I tried to stop her. I just didn’t try twice.’

After Mithril unsteadily trotted out of sight, Fantasy heaved a sigh of relief. She had messed up, revealing she knew the mare’s name. Lucky the other unicorn had been drunk or she would have been more suspicious about that. Fantasy still wasn’t a very good liar. It had been hard to fight an urge to just run back into the Avec Noir to hide. But Fleur had suggested she wait out here in the corridor and Fantasy had picked up that it hadn’t really been a suggestion. The pegasus had looked like she wanted to curl up in bed, hug a pillow, and have a long hard cry.

Fantasy became aware of Headwind and Tailwind staring at her. She gave them a nervous smile. No visible effect. They weren’t exactly hostile, though it had been clear from the moment she slipped out of the Avec Noir’s front door that they weren’t going to let her into the Den. When Mithril started to open the door they had jumped sideways toward each other so Fantasy couldn’t get a peek inside the Den. She wasn’t sure why they were so grim, though she had a guess. There had been a noise earlier like a small thunderclap or modest explosion. Fantasy had bolted out of the kitchen toward the Den, astonishing herself, only to be stopped dead by a little head-shake by Headwind. Or Tailwind. She remembered that one had a little nick in one ear, but not which one.

Not long after that, the door had silently opened a crack and Jindalee Longtail slipped out. She had almost swallowed her tongue, barely managed to give him an awkward hello before he strode away. Then a little later Fleur had come out looking as if holding back tears by a frayed thread and asked Fantasy to wait out in the corridor rather than follow her back into the hotel. So she had. Then Mithril had emerged looking drunk, with a far-off look to her eye that said she wasn’t drinking for fun. It was gloomy out here, even with the sputtering pink magical sign of the hotel painting the white cloud-walls and white floatwood doors pink. It made the green hair of the pegasi twins look blackish and their yellow bodies look sickly orange.

It occurred to her that the light was pink like Smog. How had she never realized that before? Or had it? She wasn’t sure. For a place that had no actual sign or even an official name, the Den had more than a few hints about its nature. Dead center of Aura in all three dimensions, and the front door painted pink with light. Even the sputter of the badly-tuned magic was probably deliberate. A malfunctioning glow-sign was a near-universal signal for The Bad Part of Town. She had to try hard not to stare at the broken-lensed half-a-goggles dangling from each pegasi’s neck. She knew they had to belong to Captain Redeye, and knew what that had to mean. But…Fantasy couldn’t be glad that Red Raider’s killer was dead. Relieved, yes. And not at all sorry. But it felt wrong to feel glad that anypony was dead.

Some kind of explosion…or maybe roar…and Jindalee had been in there. Fleur came out looking almost hysterical. Mithril came out with a thousand-yard stare and booze-breath that could almost knock down a wall. Fantasy hadn’t really wanted to see Smog again, and if there was any chance he was in a bad mood…double nope. She was afraid. So scared she felt sick. She didn’t know why, though she sensed she could know. The deep, quiet fear in her heart was a specific dread of something, er…specific. But she didn’t want to know what it was.

Easier to just wait out here in the corridor for Morhoof.

After what felt like a long time and probably wasn’t, the door to the Den swung open once more. The twins did their sideways hop again, and then the one with the little nick in his ear went stiff and wide-eyed. He hopped forward and turned broadside to Fantasy, blocking her view even more with his raised and spread wings. Ears laid back, he glared away from her. Fantasy didn’t dare to try and peek, and not just because the other pegasus was still watching her like a hawk. In fact, he watched her like a hawk might stare at a mouse that had just walked up and made a rude gesture. Not sure whether to get angry or just laugh. It was a weird look to be giving her. All she’d done was stand here.

“My apologies, neighbor.” Morhoof said. “Though I doubt you are any less sorry than I. That was a risk you took by standing with your hindquarters presented to a door somepony might come through.” The door closed. The twins moved out of the way, resuming the positions flanking the door like griffin statues outside the Crystal Empire’s library. She had seen a picture of it, which was probably the closest she was ever going to get to the place.

Morhoof came in sight as the pegasi moved. He used a corner of his old cloak to rub at his face. Fantasy launched herself at him, wrapping her forelegs around his neck in a hug. She might have planted a kiss on him from sheer relief if not for knowing where his face had just been. He was all right! She glimpsed the twins. The non-nick-eared one gave his brother a sly sidelong smirk. The one Morhoof had…walked into…stared into space, scowling.

And blushing, just a little.

After a few moments, Morhoof awkwardly patted her back with his living fore-hoof. “Come, it is past time for you to be home.”

Fantasy waited until they were on a big, slow airbus down to the ground before she stopped biting the inside of her cheek. There was hardly anypony else aboard and nopony nearby. She took a breath, opening her mouth…and Morhoof gave her a look. It wasn’t a hostile look, though it held a warning. It also held traces of fear, sorrow, pain, anger, and something she couldn’t quite name. Too noble to be called spite, too spiteful to be noble. It was the look of a pony facing something he couldn’t hope to defeat, but planned to go down fighting and spit in its eye with his last breath. It was a pony without hope who still refused to just roll over and surrender.

“Something bad happened.” Fantasy said.

It wasn’t a question, but Morhoof nodded. He pressed his lips together and pretended an interest in the view out the window. Fantasy wanted to grab him by the ears, make him face her, and demand answers. It might have even worked. She sensed he wanted to tell her, if only to lighten his burden. She also sensed it was something she shouldn’t know. That her knowing couldn’t make things better but might make them worse. She rested a fore-hoof on his shoulder and did what she could, which was to be there for him.

Neither spoke again until they reached the Brass Hoof. Fantasy wasn’t quite to the point of a rush to the bathroom, but the delicious meal Flambé fed her gave definite signs it might soon leave her again. She really hated her weak stomach. Her cutie mark was a book, not a shield or something. Fantasy was suited for writing about adventures, not having them. At least Forte Presto hadn’t attacked. She actually hoped he was a long way from Aura with no plan to return. She didn’t believe it for a second, and she wanted him punished, but she hoped he had somehow realized what he was doing was wrong and…turned off the dark path. It soured her stomach even more to think about him escaping justice. He had tried to kill her. Her mother wanted him strung up from the nearest lamppost. Her father hadn’t said what he wanted, which was probably for the best. It hadn’t even been personal, which made it worse. But she couldn’t quite kill the hope that he had taken the defeat as a wake-up call. Couldn’t quite believe it, either.

“Fantasy.” Morhoof said.

Her queasy stomach seemed to shrink. If words were stones, that one would have hit the street and fallen though it like a bowling ball through a cloud. She had to swallow a few times before she felt safe to open her mouth. “Y-yes?”

He wouldn’t look at her, staring up at the tavern’s old wooden sign. His words came slowly and with that same sense of weight. Of absolute seriousness. “I want you to consider leaving Shadowville for a while. Not right away, but to quietly prepare so you can be ready to leave in a few days. You and your parents. Your brother is away at school. Perhaps you could give him a surprise visit. If you three own anything truly irreplaceable, consider taking it with you.” Fantasy started to say something and closed her mouth in a hurry. What would come out wouldn’t be words. Morhoof glanced at her. “I don’t really think Presto will bother you again. He’s smart. He will realize that your insurance policies against Smog must be destroyed by now. If not by you, then by Smog. Killing you would serve no purpose now. Yes, that means I won’t be leaving with you. I must stay, no matter how this ends. I must stand by my friend. Tradewind is a lucky stallion. Make sure he never forgets that…Lady Fantasy.”

Morhoof gave her a little kiss, darting in and back quick as a snake striking. He spun away in a swirl of ragged cloak and was galloping away before she could do more than blink. Face burning, lips tingling, heart and stomach both in an uproar now, Fantasy fled into the Brass Hoof and up to her room. Her parents heard her thundering hooves, calling her name in a questioning tone. They were down in the back-room. She yelled back, voice far too high: “I’m home, I’m okay, I-just-need-some-time-to-freshen-up!” Almost to her door, a thought hit her with unpleasant force. ‘That felt like a goodbye.’

Skidding to a halt, she pulled a bootlegger’s turn, pivoting on fore-hooves while her hindquarters swung around. Even with that maneuver and using her magic to open the bathroom door before she got there, Fantasy still almost didn’t make it in time. Midway through the…unpleasantness, she had another thought that made her feel better. Whatever had gone wrong, Morhoof clearly thought Tradewind was okay and would go on being okay. Her secret fear showed its face now: that something had happened to him and that Jindalee was going to make Smog pay for it no matter what the consequences were for to Aura.

Fantasy flushed the mess and then grabbed her toothbrush. Soon enough she had scrubbed up enough foam to look like she had rabies. Her eyes met the eyes of her reflection in the mirror over the sink. Tradewind. She loved him. She barely knew him, even with spying on him with that weird clairvoyance. Even with the time they had spent together she didn’t really know him. There was that hang-up she had thanks to Smog’s mind-control. Mustn’t forget that. But she loved him with all her heart and everything else too. It was a fact like gravity, and like gravity, trying to ignore or deny it promised nothing but pain. She knew she couldn’t leave Aura either. Not just because it was almost time for her first public appearance as an author, a book-reading at a Barns and Royal store up in Aura and a big fancy party afterwards.

She had to stay for Tradewind. She had to be here when he came back. Just because he had run out on her without so much as a goodbye letter didn’t give her permission to do the same. An eye for an eye left the whole word blind. Somepony had to stop giving tit for tat, mare up, and do the harder thing: forgive and forget. But if she wouldn’t leave, her parents wouldn’t leave without her.

…not unless she told them a little fib.

Spitting, Fantasy swished with water and tried to look grim and determined while her cheeks bulged. It looked like she had better get better at lying, and fast. No way was she going to let Punctuality be an orphan even if the worst happened.