Please visit the forums for more details, or click here to read forum #11357
Baz seemed ill at ease. The earth pony kept wavering between resigned and anxious, with overtones of disgust in both states. He appeared to try and find distraction in work. Cleaning up the tiny galley, preparing a cold meal presumably to be served at midnight. Vacuuming the carpet, of which the Just in Time had a plentiful supply. Baz vacuumed the carpeted ceiling, walls, and floor. He even put down the table in the little common-room-slash-dining room so he could vaccum the carpeted tops of the panels that slid to cover it. The earth pony only missed the helm. The Captain was in there and Baz did not attempt to disturb him.
Raising the table again, Baz set out the meal he’d prepared. He pulled out his fat deck of cards and began to listlessly shuffle through them. Apparently the smell of the food began to make its way through the ventilation. Kirra appeared, still pink enough to offend all but the most diseased or deadened fashion sense.
“Oh, yum.” Grabbing a spray of flowers from the centerpiece, she began to empty them of nectar. “Thanks, Bazzy.” Baz responded with a grunt. Kirra surfaced from a blossom, licking pollen off her lips. “What’s wrong?”
“You two.” Baz said. The earth pony hardly seemed to dare be angry at the sugar glider. His ears kept shifting between hanging down and laid back. “Fighting. Tradewind might be in trouble. I mean, there’s a time and a place, yeah?”
Kirra gave Baz a long stare, until the earth pony became noticeably nervous. When she spoke, it was patient, almost kindly. But serious. “Would you rather we mope?”
“What should I do? Run around in a panic until I start stress-shedding? Exhaust myself thinking of all the horrible ways Tradewind might be hurting? That won’t do anyone any good. The best thing I can do for Tradie is be ready to do everything I can to help him. I can’t do that if I’m a nervous wreck. So I keep myself distracted. I keep him distracted too. No one wants to see him get frazzled. He’d throw a spoon and blow up the city, or something.”
“Uh.” Baz said. “Oh. I didn’t realize.”
Kirra crossed the distance between them in three hops and gently swatted him in the nose with the flowers. His answering snort almost blew her backwards. She recovered with a backwards hop and gave him a look of great fondness. “Bazaroonie, you are thicker than a yard of lard.” Kirra buried her face in a blossom and slurped.
“Oh, thanks.” Baz swiped pollen off his nose. “If you keep pranking the Captain after he runs up the white flag…”
“I know. Don’t worry, he won’t want to go out in public looking like a circus escapee. If he tries to surrender early, I’ll just be really smug about it and make him change his mind.” Coming up for air, Kirra waddled back to the centerpiece and inspected the contents of a covered dish. “Honeyed locusts!”
Baz turned smug. “Yup.”
“I had no idea we had any.”
“Of course not. That’s why we still have some.”
“Thankyou-thankyou-thankyou!” Kirra took a flying leap and hugged Baz’s face. Not for long. She bounced back onto the table and ate one of the fried insects in a manner similar to a very small wood chipper devouring a branch. Grabbing another, Kirra began to do something approaching a waltz around the table, head back and eyes closed.
“Gross.” Baz said.
Kirra took a big noisy bite. “Yum!”
“Honestly, they’ll eat anything in Camelu.” Baz adopted what he probably thought was a superior tone as he shuffled the deck in front of him. “Even goats won’t eat bugs.”
“Oh!” Kirra froze mid-dance-step and turned big dark pleading eyes on Baz. Her pinkness amplified the effect. The earth pony proved he wasn’t entirely stupid by becoming extremely suspicious. Kirra turned up the wattage on her cuteness stare until he started to melt. “Did you get any honey ants?”
“No. They don’t have them in Zevera.”
“Awww.” Kirra plopped onto her rump. “Nuts.”
“I got nuts.” Baz said. Kirra gave him a narrow-eyed look that the earth pony failed to spot. “Cashews.”
“Yuck.” Kirra dove into a new blossom and muttered from its depths. “They look like old monkey toenails.”
Baz chuckled. “Let’s make a deal. I keep my hooves off your grasshoppers and you keep my nuts out of your mouth.”
Kirra, by the sound of it, snorted nectar out her nose. After another narrow-eyed stare, she seemed to decide Baz had done that on accident. “Deal.”
Setting aside the deck of cards, Baz moved from the table. “I’m gonna tell the Captain there’s, err…you know what, I’ll just bring him his food.”
“No food in the helm.” Kirra said. “His rule.”
Baz set down the tray he’d grabbed. Muttering under his breath, he headed forward to the helm’s door. After he knocked twice the door slid open just enough for someone to peer out. Baz spoke, words indistinct but tone deferential. The door snapped shut. Shaking his head, Baz returned to the table. Kirra kept her face buried in her midnight snack. Baz picked up a sandwich which looked like a garden salad stuffed between slices of bread. He had to crush it before he could fit it in his mouth. Baz ate as if famished but his annoyed expression didn’t match his voracity.
Soon stuffing the last bite into a cheek, Baz slowly drained a tall glass of apple juice in one uninterrupted pull. Belching baritone, he headed for the helm once again. The door slid open as he neared it. Baz slipped inside, the Captain slipped out. The small stones bonded to his fur glittered in the light, which all came from the fixture above the table. The helm was dark besides a dim glow from some of the instruments. Otherwise all anyone would see in the windows was their own reflection. Baz slid the door shut behind the unicorn. The Captain moved to the table, sat, and began to eat. Kirra might not have existed for all the acknowledgement he gave her.
Uncomfortable silence fell. Kirra nibbled a honeyed locust. The Captain’s ear made the barest flicker at the quiet crunching. “Where,” he said, “is the sorcerer?”
“Ummm.” Kirra said. “I have no idea.”
The unicorn’s magic lifted a spray of blossoms that Kirra had finished draining. They lifted a butter knife as well. He studied both objects for a long moment. Then he flicked the flowers across the table.
It hit Xero in the throat. He felt his aura of passive non-involvement shatter. Suddenly an active part of the situation once more, he became noticeable. Kirra glanced his way and then did a double-take for the record books. Leaping away, she ended up clinging to the wall behind the Captain, her intensely pink fur fluffed out and eyes huge.
The Captain smiled in a quietly smug way. It faded as he focused on the zebra. He managed to radiate menace despite the purple stripes and glittering gems. Xero was reminded of Smog for a brief but intensely uncomfortable moment. “My talent trumps yours, Agent Green. I can know where you are because I can sense there is someone there whose death can be arranged.” The knife still hovered in a relaxed fashion.
Xero carefully made no move that might seem hostile. “Thank you for throwing the flowers instead, Captain.”
From her perch on the wall, Kirra sputtered. Pausing, she took a huffing breath. “The Nightmare is a sorcerer?”
“Her power is different.” Xero said. “Neither of us uses sorcery to vanish. It is our inborn talent.”
“How long were you sitting there?” Kirra said.
“Since the Captain confronted you about a theft. I decided it was best not to get involved.”
“Neither of us mentioned a theft.” the Captain said.
“Baz’n’I didn’t either.”
“It was a deduction.” Xero said. “I was the spy-master for Smog in Zevera. I’ve seen a great many ponies upset about a great many things. The Captain’s anger struck me as that of a pony who has been burgled to the ruination of his plans.”
“This is your one warning.” the unicorn said. The knife lowered to the table. “While aboard my ship, you stay visible. I sense you creeping around again, I assume hostile intent.”
“Understood, Captain. Thank you.”
“For?” He seemed puzzled.
Xero found the unicorn’s puzzlement puzzling. “For not wanting me dead. If you wanted an excuse to kill me, you would have said nothing in the hope that I attempt to use my talent again.”
“If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead now.”
“As I said, if you wanted an excuse to kill me. Desiring a measure of justification for your actions. Showing that you can sense my presence would, to many, have been warning enough. However, I might have assumed that if I do it again, you would simply reveal me again. You went the extra mile to ensure I understand the consequences of using my talent on your ship. Thus proving that you genuinely want to avoid a situation where I die by your hoof.”
The Captain gave Xero an unreadable stare. That was quite an accomplishment. Xero had been trained to read faces by an expert. The unicorn eventually gave a slow nod. “Thank you for being so understanding.”
Shrugging, Xero looked away first. “I can tell the difference between a threat and a warning.”
“Too rare, that talent.”
The Captain resumed eating. When he spoke again, it was with a rigidly enforced courtesy that could have been used for an anvil. “Finish eating, Kirra. I want you in the engine room keeping an eye on things. We shouldn’t be running hot enough for problems but she’s a new ship with even newer repairs. I’d feel better to know that what the helm instruments report actually reflects the reality.”
“Aye, captain.” Kirra said. Leaping off the wall, she opened her membranes for a moment to extend and slow her arc.
“You hungry, Agent Green?” the Captain said. “It seems you made Baz forget you enough not to make you anything.”
“No, thank you.” He stood, stifling an urge to groan as something in his lower spine twinged. “It’s been a very hectic day for me. I’ll attempt to sleep for a few hours.”
“We’ll wake you on the approach to Aura.”
“Thank you. Goodnight.”
“Night.” Kirra said.
Xero did go to his cabin, where he did lie down and close his eyes, but he had no intention of sleeping. There were preparations to make, contingencies to consider, instructions to give. By his calculations they might arrive in Aura with the dawn. Most of the spirits in his service were not at their best in sunshine.
Closing the door behind Zenzar, Matilda leaned up against it and just smiled. Stepping away, she stayed on her hind hooves and did a slow waltzing dance around the room. Along the way she scooped up the cookie plate and two empty glass bottles. His still had a sip of pink lemonade in the bottom. She polished it off, giggling. Drinking from the same bottle his lips had touched. Almost like kissing. Almost. Real kisses were better. She’d had one now. Dancing over to the sink, she set the cookie plate and bottles down to wash later.
It was well past midnight but not hardly morning. Sleep? As if! Dancing around the room, she straightened up some of her friends. Brushed some dust off the pair of piggy banks. Blew a kiss to a depressed stuffed frog. They were quiet. Some talking among themselves but none for her. Matilda was okay with that. She and Zenzar had talked for at least an hour. Mostly he had listened. She had talked and he had really listened, and cared. There were all these new feelings bubbling up inside her and she needed to think about them.
Dropping to all four hooves, Matilda felt her happy new feelings get more complicated. There was a basement under the basement. A cavern lined with gems that threw back the tiniest light a hundredfold. A cavern with a well of lifeless water and a powerful mask in the bottom. It wanted to be worn. It wanted to make everything grow and let nothing die. But it was stupid. No, not even stupid: mindless. Matilda knew better than to listen to the voice in her head when she got near. There was nothing real in that voice. It was part of herself talking. The part that wanted to wear the mask. The mask just gave that part of her a voice.
Nothing but a funhouse mirror, throwing back your reflection all twisty. But really, really dangerous. It had a lot of power. Just it leaking out was what kept her special toy friends lively when she brought them here. Matilda knew if she put on the mask, the twisty reflection would be in her head with her. The world would look like a different shape. It would make her see things more like it and less like her.
Matilda liked being who she was. Especially now. She had a coltfriend. For a second the happy was back and made her squeal in pure glee. Then the frownies returned. Zenzar knew about the mask. Well…he suspected about it. It had been all over him even if he hadn’t said anything. But he just wanted to help her guard it. That was all over him too. He didn’t really understand how dangerous it was. The mask would make part of Zenzar speak to him too. The part that wanted to wear it. It didn’t take badness. Just curiosity.
Shaking herself all over, Matilda hefted the crate of pink lemonade on her back. She took a step, making her thoughts go twisty in a certain way. Everything seemed to freeze, then go blurry. When it cleared and unfroze, she was down in her basement-basement, where she kept the food that needed to stay cold. Setting the crate down with a lot of grunts and two splinters, she managed not to let it bang to the floor. She started filling a shelf with the bottles. Beaming at their shining rows, she eyed the crate. On impulse, she sampled the straw that had been packed around them in the crate. Yuck: old and musty.
The crate never would have fit down the stairs to here. Even two skinny ponies couldn’t have passed each other on them. Matilda sighed and hefted it onto her back. Again she twisted her mind to see a way that where she stood and a place upstairs were exactly the same. Then she stepped through the blurry moment of frozen time. That made her tired. She couldn’t do it lots of times in one night. Matilda yawned as she pried the crate apart. The bent nails went in a jar; she knew an old blacksmith who would give her a bit for them. He claimed the best iron always had some old iron mixed with the new. The planks went by her little stove for firewood.
On a whim, Matilda retrieved the plank that read THIS SIDE UP. Turning it over, she giggled at the naughty thing it seemed to say if read backwards. Other planks on the sides had been stamped but the words went crosswise. Only this one from the lid was all on one plank. Dancing over to her bathroom door, she used the two least bent nails to fasten the plank on it. That made her laugh. As if a doorway could go all upside-down.
Matilda washed the few dishes. She danced some more, and thought, and sat a while, and thought some more. Then she sensed somepony at the door. Opening it, she caught Zenzar about to knock, again. His aura was all pink and yellow with embarrassment. She hugged him. “Hi! Welcome welcome!”
“Thanks.” Zenzar said. “I thought…can I sleep here tonight?”
Matilda felt her mouth fall open, then close again. Her face felt like it was on fire from the blush that prickled all the way up to her mane. “Um. Wow.” In the back of her head, a little her was doing cartwheels and saying yesyesyes. Her tummy wasn’t so sure, filling up with flutters. Something that felt almost sensible drifted past through the puffy clouds of her mind. “I…isn’t it too soon for us to do that together?” Not that she had more than a vague idea what that was. Part of her was willing to find out.
His expression went all confused, and then it was like he was retreating in a hurry while not moving. “Nonono, nothing like dat: I mean just sleep.” His ears laid back in a scowl. “I got home but Zheila didn’t expect me back I guess. She wants privacy tonight. Working on a new potion.”
That last part was a lie. The things he didn’t say were all there between the words he did. He was almost shouting them in his head. He had gotten home and headed for bed and then heard a noise from his twin sister’s room. A noise that said Zheila was doing…well, that. With White Lightning, obviously. Matilda had seen the love between the pegasus and Zheila even back when he was a bag of crazy and the love was just a yet-to-be.
Matilda frowned. That couldn’t be right. Zheila and Lightning wouldn’t do that until they were married. It was all tied up in who Zheila was. It was obvious as looking at a rosebud and knowing it would become a rose. But Zenzar was absolutely sure, the have-proof kind. Weird.
“I can go if ya want.” Zenzar said.
“Come on in, silly! You can have the bed and I’ll sleep on the floor.” Zenzar in her bed would be like a size-twelve hat in a size-six box, though…
“I’ll sleep on da floor. Always do.”
“Riiight. Buddyism. Kay, then!” Matilda bounced all around him as he came in. He had a rolled up pallet on his back. She snatched it away and raced for her bedroom. He didn’t chase her. Too bad. She unrolled the pallet by her bed. “I wish I had marshmallows. We could roast some in the stove and tell spooky stories and do each other’s manes.”
Zenzar had come to the door. He rubbed his mane, which crackled with static. It spronged back up into a mohawk of spikes once his hoof left it. “Can’t do a thing with mine.”
Matilda giggled. “I said I don’t have any marshmallows. Are you sleepy?”
The stallion just sighed, but that was enough answer. The tiredness was like heaviness all over him once she reminded him of it. Feeling daring, she motioned to the pallet. “As host, I’m obligated to tuck you in. I think.”
“I can sleep out here.” Zenzar said. He didn’t want to. He found the toys watching him a little spooky.
Matilda put on her stern face. “Bedrooms are for sleeping.”
He managed a smile. “I’ll try not to snore.”
“Snoring.” Matilda said. She giggled as Zenzar shrugged out of his big heavy coat. It wasn’t shining but it was his armor. He felt different with it off. “Go on.”
Zenzar lay down on the pallet. She tucked him in, which he liked more than he pretended. She darted in to give him a pecking kiss on the lips. He got very still. “Um…”
“I know, too soon.” She gave him another little kiss. But no pushing it. The new feelings weren’t all fun. Lot of nervousness. What if she messed up and he stopped liking her?
Matilda ran around snuffing lights and returned to the bed. She didn’t need to see to find her bed any more than she needed to see her nose to scratch it. Diving under the covers, she lay back and kicked at them until they were how she liked them. After a minute, she slowly rolled over and twisted around to peek down over the side at him. He couldn’t see her at all. She could sort-of see him. A long streak of dull tired wrapped with wiry restlessness, and a cloud of not-thinking-about-it with a hot coal of embarrassment right in the heart.
“I don’t think your sister was doing that with-” She broke off, because he’d turned pure startled. “Oops, sorry.”
“It’s fine.” It was too; he was calming down. After a murky, coiling kind of struggle, he spoke. “Yeah, she was. I’m not even surprised ya know. Ya always seem to know things.”
Ponies kept saying that. All Matilda ever did was state the obvious. “Zheila would wait to be married. That’s important to her. Down-deep important. Not the forgot-about-it-because-I-got-all-drunk important.”
“What could it be, den?” Another vivid not-saying-it: a creaking spring as Zheila made a loud happy-moan.
Matilda got a really funny fluttery feeling in her tummy. “No idea. But that just means I don’t know.” Rolling away from the edge, she pulled up the covers. There were scary-strong feelings all rising up like storm clouds and she wasn’t ready for them. “Goodnight.”
White Lightning shifted his weight, Zheila a firm and living warmth under his fore-hooves. He had filed down the semi-molten areas from his stupid-heroic jaunt into a burning hotel. Lightning had made sure they were all smooth, for her. She had lain awake for at least a few hours before whispering a request in his ear. A way to help her get to sleep. Technically a form of hanky-panky, though.
Lightning moved one fore-hoof in small circles in a specific spot. The zebra mare groaned with pleasure. He wondered why he had agreed to this. Somehow it had seemed like a good idea. He was all for anything that gave him an excuse to touch her. Now he felt as if he was going to go crazy again. He pressed a little harder, rubbed faster. Maybe he could convince Zheila to return the favor? Though he thought that would just make him nuttier.
She tensed under his hoof. He rubbed harder. Zheila gave a moan loud enough for Lightning to send the door to her bedroom a frantic look. Is her brother heard them… She went rigid under his hoof and then seemed to melt. Zheila sprawled, bonelessly limp, on the bed. “Oh…yowza.”
He had to laugh, though only a snort escaped before he caught it. “You actually said yowza.”
“Mmm-hmm. Dat…was amazing.”
Lightning edged away from her. “You’re welcome. I never did that before. I was worried I wouldn’t be any good.”
Zheila rolled on her side and sent him a half-lidded stare with her one blue eye. Her long white hair hid the patch hiding the empty socket. Then she stretched, like a cat. “It seems ya have a talent.” Her eye twinkled at him. “Now I can sleep, but I got ya all bothered.”
Zheila held out her forelegs. “Come on. Ya earned cuddles.”
Unsure if that was wise, Lightning was sure he was going to accept anyway. They settled down to spooning, her back to his belly. She was an evil, evil mare. Tempting him like this. Lighting tried to think about very boring things. Preferably cold ones. It was difficult not to let anything…come between them, as it might be phrased. She bumped the underside of his chin with her nose. He kept his eyes shut. “Hm?”
“Thanks for da massage.” she said. “I was so stiff.” Lightning’s next breath escaped as a heavy snort. “Sorry. Wrong choice of word.” A minute or so passed. Zheila seemed to fall asleep. Then she stirred. “You can go have some private time in da bathroom, ya know. Cold bath…or whatever.” Her ear lifted to press against his cheek. “Blusher.”
“Am not, it’s just warm in here.” A flashback hit him, of the night with Fantasy Longhorn that had never really happened. It led to later memories, like the letter he had sent her via Icepick, confessing that Smog had messed with both their heads. The letter that would be his death warrant if Smog found out about it. Cold baths had nothing on what that did to him.
She sensed the difference. “Wow. Is your self-control dat good or did I say something wrong?”
“Sudden bad memory.”
Zheila wiggled around until facing him. “My poor sugar-bear.” He blinked at the pet name. She kissed him. It started out tender before deepening. “There. Feel better?”
Lightning was surprised by the answer. “I do.” She answered with a smile and wiggled around to press her back against him again. “Thank you.”
She mumbled, sounding half asleep and fully smug. “Anytime.”
Closing his eyes, Lightning smiled. He no longer cared if he got any sleep. There was nowhere he’d rather be.
Zenzar wasn’t able to sleep. Every time he got close, he heard a bump or a creak and jolted awake. Unlike the Garage, where he knew which noises were just the building settling, all the noises here were unfamiliar. It didn’t help that he kept imagining the toys coming alive and creeping around. Half the time, just as he was drifting off, he could have sworn the noise that woke him was a voice. It didn’t help that he had always felt like they were watching him. Even the toys without eyes managed to stare, but he couldn’t explain how or why…
But, in the self-honesty that only seemed to come when lying in bed staring at the dark, Zenzar knew that wasn’t the only reason he couldn’t sleep. Zhiela hadn’t had a coltfriend in ages. Even then it hadn’t been serious. Getting out of the house wasn’t an entirely selfish venture; he tried hard to avoid those. He hadn’t wanted to listen to his twin sister making whoopee. Nor would she have wanted him listening, so he had taken his ears elsewhere. Unfortunately he hadn’t been able to leave his imagination at home. Worse than the X-rated images were all the ways things could be going wrong. He’d be astonished to learn Zheila had protection available, and Lightning didn’t strike Zenzar as the sort of stallion who kept one in his wallet. Somewhat less nightmarish, he could imagine Lightning managing to say the exact wrong thing. Zenzar wouldn’t be there to keep her from denting his skull with a crucible. But at the same time, he knew he should trust them, that they were two adults. Only he didn’t trust them. A small part of him wanted to dent Lightning’s skull himself.
Zenzar got tired of staring at the blackness to his left, so he rolled onto his back and stared upwards. Turned out Matilda snored. It wasn’t a snore to keep him awake. A very ladylike little buzz on the inhale, almost a purr. It had started out funny and ended up adorable.
Matilda. He’d kissed her. It had taken him a stupidly long time to realize his protectiveness toward her had deepened into something a lot more. There was no denying it. If she’d have him, she had him. Lying here in the dark, his brain chimed in its two bits. Sure, love was great and all. Matilda was definitely an adult…by count of years. Mentally, she acted more like a filly just a little too young to seriously think about dating. At first glance. Zenzar had seen deeper. He knew she wasn’t mentally a child. She was just mental. Cuckoo, bonkers, around the bend. That the stuff she saw seemed to really exist in some way didn’t change that. It just meant she wasn’t delusional-crazy. She could take care of herself. This little basement lair was a little messy but it wasn’t dirty. No dirty dishes or even dust on the shelves. Her clothes were threadbare but clean. Something in that cotton-candy-cloud of a brain was on the job.
What would it be like if they got married? What would ponies think about him? Then there were the idiots who would make fun of her for being her. Mattie being Mattie, they’d succeed in hurting her. There was a reason she had ended up a hermit in a neighborhood where everypony minded their own business. He didn’t want to see her hurt by anypony. Zenzar ran a hoof through his mane. Static crackled as the part not crushed under him sprang back into spikes. His heart was in an uproar at the very idea, threatening to march up his throat and kick his brain out his nose, but Zenzar wasn’t sure he could do it. Loving her wasn’t a choice. Pursuing a relationship with her…was. Mattie was too innocent, and too nutty. Even if she seemed to be giving consent, could he be sure she really understood what she was agreeing to? What if she didn’t? If she couldn’t give meaningful consent, then in the eyes of morality and the law, what he did to her would be…be…a very bad thing.
That thought was the last straw. All hope of getting to sleep vanished.
Easing off the pallet onto his hooves, Zenzar crept through the dark in the direction he remembered as holding the door. He found it, to his surprise. He’d expected to crash into something. Opening the door did nothing to lighten the dark. At least in the dark he didn’t get that stared-at feeling. Closing his eyes, he tried to remember the layout of her home. He was thirsty, and if there was one room guaranteed to have running water, it was the bathroom. Her bedroom door was…here. That meant her bathroom door would be…first on the left? Following the wall, edging around shelves of toys, he soon found a door. Opened it and cautiously slipped through. His care was wise: he discovered the edge of a drop without taking a fall.
From below, he could make out a faint, sickly green glow. The narrow staircase could have been imaginary. In fact, it took holding up a fore-hoof and seeing its black silhouette to convince him the light and stairs were real. He was in a basement…and there were stairs going down. At least two stories down, uninterrupted.
His suspicions rushed back in a flood: that Matilda was the warden or guardian of an ancient talisman made back when Zevera was nothing but a bunch of primitive tribes. There were myths about it. Too old and murky even to be legends, back when zebra histories were passed down by word of mouth rather than writing. Most zebras believed the tale of the two masks was an allegory about how evil lay not in destruction but in un-tempered absolutes. That anything, taken to extremes, could be harmful. Even joy. Even creation. The myth said the masks had been made to govern the seasons and the land of the zebras the way pegasi, unicorns, and earth ponies worked together to do. Only…the masks had proven too powerful to safely use, addicting and corrupting the wearer. Too powerful to destroy, they had been sealed away. The myth didn’t say where.
This one had to be the Face of Summer.
Zenzar’s mane would have stood on end if it hadn’t already. He knew he should go back to his pallet and try to sleep. His hooves and curiosity carried him down the stairs. Both of his sides just barely brushed the walls. He had to know if Matilda really was guarding the Face of Summer. In order to protect something well, he had to know more about it. Maybe he could work out ways to help hide it better.
The stairs ended in a vaguely natural-looking cavern. A trough of dirt around the edge of the floor grew glowing mushrooms. Condensation oozed down the walls and the air smelled of damp stone. It was colder than he would have expected, if not enough to see his breath. Matilda had shelves down here. Food and other things that kept in the cold. A well sat in the middle, with a pulley and rope and bucket. When he peered down, the water looked about ten feet down.
A dark doorway across the cavern beckoned. It also boded. Zenzar frowned, then spotted an empty milk bottle. He picked mushrooms here and there until he’d crammed the bottle full. A length of twine from around a bundle of carrots and he had a necklace that looked like he was going to a very cheap rave. Venturing into the dark tunnel, he discovered the bottle was just enough to stop him from walking into a wall or into a hole. The tunnel made a sharp right, then a sharp left a dozen steps later. It ended at a domed cavern lined with gems everywhere but the floor. Some of them lit up inside with green light as he watched. Then yellow-green and blue-green gems started waking up. The colors bled out to both ends of the spectrum and then not-spectrum colors like magenta and pink joined in. The end result was like a rainbow stuffed with kaleidoscopes. The feeling of being at a rave strengthened. All it needed was some thumping music and a party in this place would be off the hook.
The floor was plain stone. Right in the middle, about knee-high and five feet across, sat a raised stone disc. Most of the top held a slab of polished obsidian. It gave him pause. Black mirrors were usually bad juju. Zenzar edged closer. He realized it was a pool of still water and heaved a sigh of relief. Edging closer, he saw the mask. It was fat and jolly past the point of sanity, a zebra mask of the Late Tribal period if his half-remembered history lessons were right. If it was sized for a pony face, it was ten feet down. The water made it impossible to tell for sure. It could have been hoof-sized and close enough to touch.
The Face of Summer, all right.
“Oh, hello.” Zenzar had noticed the one pink and one blue ribbon trailing up from the sides of the mask. He could judge their length by how their width tapered. The mask was about ten feet down. The ends of the ribbons were probably in reach if he cared to stick his head under. There was another, younger legend about a pool that healed those who drank from it. A pool in a ‘cavern of dazzling lights.’ “Bingo.”
Maybe it would cure his selfishness-equals-fatness curse. He took a sip and waited to see what it did. It made him feel better. More awake, more alive. Everything was going to be okay. He took a deeper drink of the best water he’d ever tasted. Looking at the mask, he decided to pull it up and get a closer look. Not wear it, of course. That would be crazy. He plunged in his fore-hooves and snagged the blue ribbon between them. It was icy cold and he wondered if this was such a good idea. But then he was pulling the mask up by the long ribbon.
It broke the surface without a ripple or a splash, its bright hectic colors dancing in the rave-light. Zenzar grabbed the mask itself. It looked like painted wood, but once out of the water it was heavy as stone. He felt the deep hard buzz of serious power thrumming up from his fore-hooves all the way to his skull. Turning it over, he saw that the inner face had been covered in pure gold.
Putting it on, Zenzar felt pure life and joy fill him to the brim and overflow. A tiny crack opened near a hind hoof and a tiny mushroom sprouted from it. The long ribbons suddenly made sense. There were little hooks on around the edge of the mask’s rear. Like on army boots, to hook the laces. He crossed the ribbons around behind his head and below his chin, hooking them onto the mask again and again. The places they crossed went neatly between the spikes of his mohawk. It was like he had done it a thousand times before. Another tiny crack sprouted a different kind of mushroom.
Zenzar froze in the act of tying the ends of the ribbons into the final bow. This was wrong. It felt right but that was wrong. Zenzar forced himself to untie the mask. His hooves went clumsy. Taking it off didn’t feel natural at all. He kept at it, fighting the joyful feeling. It was a lot harder than fighting pain or anger. Then he thought of what Matilda would do if she found out he had done this. No amount of giddy optimism was going to overcome that.
The mask dropped back into the water without a sound or splash. It settled face-up on the bottom, exactly like before. Heaving a deep sigh of relief, he plucked the mushrooms that had sprouted. The cracks oozed closed. That was creepy. It made sense, he guessed. The whole cavern would be dense with containment and repair spells. And concealment, or somepony would have found this place by now. Taking another breath, he sighed. No harm done. He’d been stupid but lucky.
Zenzar trotted out of the cavern, through the bendy tunnel, and across the pantry-and-well cavern. His stomach growled. Pausing to nibble a carrot, he ended up eating the whole bundle. His sides gently scraped the walls as he climbed the stairs. The bathroom had been the door on the left…when facing the bedroom door. Before, he’d been facing away from it. Muffling a laugh, he headed there. Matilda had an actual tub. Big one; on little feet. The mirror over the sink was old and spotty. Ignoring it, he washed his hooves and splashed water on his face, trying to wash away the lingering sensation of the mask. It actually worked.
Looking up, Zenzar grinned. It had been a while since he realized just what a hunk he really was. That strong chin really suited him. Clean teeth, thanks to good habits learned young and a sister who made magically effective toothpaste. Clear blue eyes. His spiky mohawk mane looked rakish, not ridiculous. Plus he was really buff. Hauling all that blubber around for a while had really but the final swell and polish on his mechanic’s muscles. Then being all nobly selfless had taken all the fat away. He could have posed for an anatomy class learning the names of muscles. Now he had just a little padding, enough not to look like an obsessive bodybuilder. Even in the horrible green light of his bottle-o-mushrooms, he was awesome.
His mohawk actually seemed extra-full of static. Little blue sparks inch-wormed among it. Nice effect. So he’d tried on the mask. No big deal. He’d taken it off, that was the end of it. Telling Matilda would just make her upset. That would be bad. She might tell him to go away, which would be worse. He couldn’t help her protect the Face of Summer if he couldn’t get down there. He felt perfectly awake but knew he could sleep now. A deep sleep with good dreams.
Opening the bathroom door was like being the biggest rock star alive and stepping onstage at a sold-out concert. A sudden roaring wall of pure sound. The general tone sank in. More like a mob getting ready to riot. Looking around, the toys were all as lifeless as ever…but their stares were like a blanket of lead beads and they were all shouting. It finally clicked that he’d made a horrible, horrible mistake. The door to the bedroom, which he hadn’t fully closed, slammed open so hard it hit a bookshelf and bounced shut again. Matilda was a pink streak that cleared the doorway long before it could swing back and catch her. She skidded to a halt, kicking up wrinkles of rug. Her pink pajamas were mussed and her mane was a mess.
Her wide, wide eyes darted around the room and then fixed on him. The toys all went silent, one toy tugboat’s final word standing out before it too shut up. Not a nice word either. Matilda knew what Zenzar had done. He had no idea how she knew, or how he knew that she knew. Mattie’s eyes narrowed to slits. She wasn’t angry. It was far worse than that. All the jittery glee drained away, melted by her quiet disappointment like snow in the sun. Looking away as if she couldn’t bear to look at him, she rubbed between her eyes with a fore-hoof. For once, she sounded totally serious.
“Zenny, you’re a moron.”
It was around four in the morning, by Xero’s generally reliable sense of time, that a shrill scream reached him through the ventilation ducts. A faint sound. It must have been loud at the source or he wouldn’t have heard it at all. Of course, the mildly unpleasant spirit invisibly hovering in the room would have still alerted him about the strong emotional spike.
Opening his eyes, Xero blinked again at their grittiness. He rolled up to a sitting position and reached for his eyedrops, feeling the grittiness in his hip joints. A faint spasm of outrage ambushed him. Xero let it pass and die. No point getting angry about his premature aging. All the fury in the universe couldn’t get his youth back. There were things that could, but none could be reached from the path of wrath.
It felt good, though. The heat of the anger. The shift in perspective that made his condition the fault of somepony or something else. Fate, maybe. Of course it felt good. If it felt bad, it wouldn’t have been dangerous. Xero had been taught by Smog that the cardinal sin for a spymaster was self-deception. Lie to everyone else, but the day you lied to yourself was the day lies went from being your servant to your master. He had learned well. No believing a thing must be true because he wanted it to be true. The only one to blame for his situation was Xero. He had been young, arrogant, and with so little sorcerous knowledge that he could sustain the delusion that he knew it all. He had hunted down the afreet and bound it. He had made his bed, and he had to lie in it.
Eyes moistened, Xero left his bed. He’d barely disturbed the covers. His invisible sentinel wasn’t nearly excited enough for this to be a true emergency. The scream had not come again. Emerging from his room, Xero paused. From which way had it come? Then he heard something, one of those white sounds right at the edge of perception. Forward, then.
The Captain sat at the little table, smoking a pipe. A mesh of very fine wire sat in a frame that fitted down over the bowl like a lid. Xero stared, memory making a methodical search and a brisk identification. “I heard about those. From Dust. Something about the mesh acts to hinder the propagation of flame through a flammable gas mixture. If your pipe inhaled air with enough lift-gas in it to burn, the air drawn in would ignite, but the flame would not escape through the mesh.”
The unicorn gave a nod, expression faintly smug. Enjoying a victory smoke. “You woke early. We’re still a few hours to Aura. It’ll be close. Might not earn that bonus.” The Captain tilted his head, considering his pipe. “On the whole, that’s a regret that won’t keep me up, nights.”
Xero sat at the table. Before his time or not, he was old, and he wanted to sit. “Kirra lost.”
The unicorn shrugged. “She hasn’t won yet. Kirra set off that perfume-and-dye trap on purpose. Later, she went past the disarmed trap and emptied out my hoard of…mischief supplies. She knows: sometimes you need to lose a battle to win the war.” His lips curved up a little at the corners. “Seems she forgot who taught her that. I didn’t expect that she could get into my stash, of course. I won’t claim I did. But I did suspect that she might get into the helm, and I made sure one of the traps looked a little less unpleasant than the rest. I knew she might do something I couldn’t predict, and I made sure to have my retaliation ready for when she did.”
“Looked less unpleasant?” Xero said.
“That pink didn’t wash off. It’s her own gambit paid back on her. These stripes and stones? Semi-permanent cosmetic spell, takes a trickle of my own magic energy to keep itself charged. I need to speak a word of release to end it. Kirra knows the word, I don’t. Her pink fur is the same, except I know the word. She tricked me into drinking the potion that did this. I didn’t know what I drank, but I chose to drink it. She chose to set off that trap.”
“No spell sets deeper hooks than the one you invite inside.”
The Captain gave a deep nod, removing the pipe to point the stem at the zebra. “Exactly. She’ll be free of hers when she gains the word of release. It’s not written down anywhere.” The pipe-stem tapped his head. “The one place she can’t invade. No one short of an Equestrian Princess is going to scrape these spells off us otherwise. It’s a lot easier to modify a spell than pry it off. Old stories tell of things like that. Baby unicorn princess, back before Equestria: cursed to die, but somepony changes it to merely sleep, and with a condition that will let her wake.” The pipe-stem tapped his horn, which had a thin purple stripe winding around it like a candy cane. “I’m a unicorn. Few unicorns have much magic, besides what serves their talent. General lifting. It wasn’t easy, but I have the key to that spell, don’t I.”
“Kirra is no longer pink?” Xero said.
“She is still very pink, Agent Green. I changed the spell by crippling its immediate effect. All it did was make her pink. A short while ago, I simply undid the little spell of mine holding the rest of it back. Now she’s been pranked again, and will go mad trying to figure out how I managed it. Did I have a second cache? How? How could I have a place on her ship that she doesn’t know about? How could I have sneaked a second potion onto or into her without her noticing? If she doesn’t know how I did it, she doesn’t know how to stop me from doing it again. She will look and think, and she’ll never find the answer. It’s not there to find.”
“Unless she is eavesdropping.” Xero said.
“No, she’s…fully occupied right now. It’ll wear off in a few more minutes. Enough time to finish my pipe. Have myself a quiet gloat.” The unicorn sat back and puffed. “Amused?”
“In a way. I read the files available on you.” Just like that, it was as if a castle gate had slammed shut behind those eyes. Xero raised his fore-hooves. “You can trust me to keep those secrets. No other pony alive is more likely to succeed if he decides he wants somepony dead. I remind you that Smog wanted you to work for him, but he wanted you willing or not at all. He did not survive so long by assuming he can’t be killed, or by needlessly making enemies that could do it. He would have left you very much alone, barring things that are to your benefit, and no attempt to try and call in favors later.”
“Your point? Why are you so amused?”
“Your talent makes you deadly, but only in a rather straightforward way. If you try to kill a being, they die. But if you don’t know they need to be killed, if an enemy acts against you but conceals that they are an enemy…well. You could be dealt with in relative safety. That brain of yours is what makes you lethal. You’ve hidden that talent well. The files didn’t mention it. Tactical thinking, yes. A little of the strategic. Nothing like this grasp of the metagame you’ve shown me tonight. Making moves not to move, but to manipulate the opponent into moving how you wish, thinking what you wish. The files didn’t mention it, Captain. That means Smog didn’t know it, or even suspect it. He underestimated you. Badly.”
“Well.” The unicorn appeared to feel impressed and possibly flattered, though he may have tried not to. “Rare event?”
Xero mustered a thin smile. “You can’t even imagine. I can imagine you rising high in the game Smog plays. There is only one thing stopping you from being quite good at the game of…let’s call it organized criminal enterprise. Only one flaw, but it’s an enormous and crippling flaw.”
“Oh? Where do I fall short?”
“You have a conscience.” Xero said.
The Captain blinked. Whatever he had expected, it clearly hadn’t been what he heard. He started to speak, stopped, and gave a snort. Puffed his pipe, began to speak again, and once more hesitated. Gave Xero a long, narrow-eyed stare. Xero wondered if Kirra had learned it from him. Finally the unicorn removed his pipe. “Was I just complimented?”
“Yes.” Xero said. “It’s only a flaw if you play the game.” Xero tapped the table three times. “It’s an asset if your goal is to smash the board. Smog might be gone, never to return. There will be chaos in Aura if so. But what happens to a simmering pot of chaos when it begins to cool?”
Lifting the mesh lid, the Captain spat with great accuracy into the bowl. With a hiss, the coal went out. “The scum floats to the surface. Every heartless beggar in half the world will be looking to be on top of the pile when the dust settles. Smart money on Smog’s generals.”
“Looking to start a new match of the same old game.” Xero said.
That narrow-eyed look again. “Unless somepony keeps kicking over the board every time they start to play.”
“Yes. Somepony very clever in special ways…and with a talent for removing players from the field.”
“No.” the Captain said. “Never again. Not a vigilante. And why the bloody hay would you even want me to? You’re one of Smog’s little cabana boys.”
“My loyalty to Smog dies with him. He made no arrangements for a successor. Once he’s gone, he doesn’t care what happens to his empire. One big game of finders-keepers. Even his provisions to cause chaos and anarchy upon his fall were pragmatic and selfish. He held a knife to the city’s throat so that ponies like you, who might try to destroy him even if it cost your lives, would be restrained by the very thing that drives you to fight him: conscience.”
“You have a point to make, make it.”
“It all comes down to conscience, Captain. You can’t serve it by betraying it. You must do what you know is right. Sir, you could skim off the scum as it forms in Aura. Every time crime begins to reorganize, you can disorganize it by removing the organizer. Not forever. Chaos will give way to order. Law, and harmony, and peace. It’s amazingly hard for organized crime to get a foothold in a place like that. Weeds get plucked before their roots can grow deep.”
“You’re suggesting I break the law.”
Xero closed his aching eyes and rubbed them. “It’s going to be…very…bad. If a month from now there is any form of meaningful law or government in Aura, it will astonish me. I’m not asking you to do anything. I’m telling you what is going to happen. What you do…is what you choose. You’re the one who has to live with your decisions.”
“You want me to do this. Become Aura’s…dark knight.” The unicorn leaned forward, fore-hooves braced on the table. “Why.”
Xero met his eyes, feeling…calm. “I’m not the only sorcerer headed for Aura. I guarantee you I am by far the nicest. Smog kept us tightly leashed. Our obedience to Smog dies…with…him. They won’t want to rule an empire of organized crime. They will want the real thing. I trust you know the tales of King Sombra. Leave them unchecked and they will destroy each other. The very nastiest will remain. The civil war in Dust will be a forgotten footnote lost in the shadow of what happens next. If you won’t stay longer, stay long enough to deal with those.”
The Captain believed; it was in his eyes. Sitting back, he stared at his pipe. Turned it in his hooves. “You want me to deal with them. Why not you?”
“I’m too weak.” Xero said. “To gain enough power to beat them, I’d have to become as evil as they are. Even then? No. I’m not clever when it comes to original ideas. I’m good at carrying out a plan that’s given to me. I’m good at collecting and organizing information. I could never beat them. I’ll help you, if you wish. I can’t destroy the other sorcerers. You might have trouble finding them. That…I can do.”
“And then? They’re gone, and in gratitude, I let you take over a fairly benevolent little criminal organization? Some harmless smuggling, to keep you comfortable in your old age?”
“My severance package exceeds one million bits.” Xero said. “I could live like a spoiled brat-prince for all the years left to me. I’m sick of being evil.” Passion flooded his voice, always so carefully level and dry. “Every pleasure being evil gained me has been fleeting and left a sour aftertaste. Every triumph has been hollow and poisoned at the root. Love, friendship, peace of mind…denied me. I want to be able to meet my eyes in a mirror and not be sickened by what I see.”
Breathing hard, Xero realized he was leaning far forward to get in the unicorn’s face. He sat back. “My apologies.”
The Captain seemed oddly subdued. “No need.” Pulling a pocket-watch from his long blue coat, he squinted at it in the gloom. “She’ll stop flailing around about now.”
Xero still felt shaken. The fire had subsided but refused to die. It sat there like a red-glowing stone in his belly. Anger. It felt…cleaner than the usual kind. This was anger at evil: his own, and others. He was done with being a passive observer, watching evil be done and opting to preserve his own skin. Even if Smog was somehow still around, Xero would resign. He was committed. There being no further point brooding on it… “Flailing?”
The watch snapped closed. “Imprinted muscle-memory, the potion maker called it. A training thing. Lets a novice tumbler perform a master-level acrobatic sequence; gives them the unconscious ability that the donor trained long and hard to make second nature. It lets you feel how it…well, feels…to do it right. Actors sometimes use it to really play a role; get the body language right. That part of this potion wears off; probably has by now.”
“Amusing things happen when the receiver’s body isn’t the right shape or size. Imagine waking up and your legs were too long and jointed in different places. All your instincts for moving would be wrong. Worse than being drunk. Add to it this imprint being donated by a clown famous for his pratfalls and slapstick. Imagine a sugar glider trying to walk like a pony wearing clown shoes, one with an ingrained instinct to trip, stumble, fumble, tumble, walk into things, and generally look idiotic.”
“Ah.” Xero said.
Silence fell: rather…expectant. Kirra soon stormed in, managing to properly storm despite her small size and startling appearance. She did indeed remain violently pink. Patches of excessively frizzy fur marked her in a pattern similar to the hairstyle of fancy poodles. The one on her head was a fright-wig with rainbow stripes. The fur on her face had paled to white for the most part, barring black lines near the eyes and a big happy red smile on her currently scowling mouth.
A distinct odor of funnel cake, peanuts, and cotton candy wafted from her as she leapt onto the table. She ignored the zebra even though he wasn’t using his talent. Facing the unicorn, she glared so hard that Xero, unable to see her face, could sense its force. She didn’t speak. It was possible she was too angry to manage a word.
“Good morning.” the Captain said. His tone was polite on top but quivered with laughter. “You’re looking colorful. Shall we run away together and join the circus?”
Kirra spoke. Her voice had always been high-pitched. Now it she sounded like a record played too fast. “Curse you.”
Xero had decades of learning to master his emotions and his face under the most stressful and dangerous of circumstances. He needed every scrap of it now, to keep from laughing so hard he might actually injure himself and die from it.
The toys were silent.
Matilda hated being serious. She had learned a long time ago how to not be serious, how to float in her mind so that nothing seemed to matter so terribly much. Half the time her mouth babbled all on its own, and she did things on impulse. That distant serious part just nudged her once in a while, reminding her to do things like eat regular meals and keep the house clean. It was useful for that. Closing the distance was like putting on a horrible hot too-tight sweater that itched.
The serious part had taken control again, and become the point of view that was her. Memories tried to hit her, like they always did. Memories of her sister dying, and memories of how Matilda had been living her life since then. Now that she was serious, her floaty, ditzy state of mind felt like what it was: craziness. Caused by the potion she had tried to make and had exploded in her face. Embraced instead of fought, afterwards. All the ugly serious feelings like grief and regret had sharp edges again.
It was hard to push them aside but she did it. There was a reason to be serious now. It was harder to push aside her feelings for Zenzar. Part of her wanted to forgive him and cover his face with kisses. She was terrified of driving him away but she knew what she had to say.
“I took it off.” Zenzar said.
“At least you aren’t trying to deny you put it on.” Matilda said. She could see the whorls of green and gold all around him. He smelled of hot sunshine and cool greenery. She didn’t feel like she was dressed for a dressing-down. Threadbare pink pajamas didn’t say ‘authority.’
Her seriousness seemed to unnerve him. That was bad, but also good. It meant he might actually pay attention. He moved as if to come closer and stopped. “I took it off. I was strong enough to take it off again.”
“It doesn’t work like that, Zenzar. It makes you want to put it on. It doesn’t make you put it on. It can’t force you to do anything, only make you want to. If you do put it on, it’s a choice. You chose to act on that wanting. Inviting the mask power in. It got its hooks deeper in you. Now the part of you that wants to put it on again is stronger. The part that wants to take it off again is weaker. Every time you put it on the balance tips even further. The more time you spend wearing it, the less you can want to take it off. Eventually, all of you wants to wear it and none of you wants to take it off. It doesn’t matter how strong-willed you are, the wanting will be even stronger. Do you know what happens then?”
“Bad things.” Zenzar said.
Matilda closed the distance between them, getting right in his face so he was forced to meet her eyes. “You die, Zenzar. You starve to death because you’ll want to keep the mask on more than you’ll want food. The mask doesn’t want to kill you. It doesn’t want anything. There’s no mind in there. It’s just a thing. The zebras who made it tried to make a good thing but they messed up. They could have put in things to make it safer but those limits would have made it weaker. They wanted it to be powerful. They made it too powerful for anypony to control. The mask twists you and stains you with its power. It makes its power a part of you so you stop feeling whole unless you’re wearing it.”
“I won’t wear it again.” Zenzar said.
Matilda bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling. He believed he meant it but she could see the wanting way back in his head. She could see how he wasn’t fighting it. He was denying it. If he fought it, he could beat it down and make it weaker. In time, destroy it. But he had walled it away. He pretended it wasn’t there. Now it was whispering to him and he didn’t know the whispers were coming from it. It was coming at him like a suggestion to a hypnotized pony. He was ordering himself to find some way of justifying wearing it again.
Matilda sat on the floor and took one of his fore-hooves in both of hers. She still wore the braided, thorny bracelet twisted from a rose. Its clean white blossom was like a gem on the bracelet. The Face of Summer had helped her make it. Well, the part of herself touched by it. A protection against a terrible afreet, the thing that had murder-transformed a unicorn into this rose. Afreets were hurt by things touched by death. Wood of a tree grown over a grave could kill them. The bone of a dead pony was even stronger. This rose…was a pony. The hot desert spirit of terror and malice was destroyed now. Matilda wasn’t sure how to safely remove the amulet. Her plan had been to not refresh its power by dipping it in the mask’s pool. Just…let it die. Finish dying.
Nopony seemed to have noticed the bracelet. Maybe at first. It was hard to remember a lot of things from when she was crazy, but then it seemed to have made itself forgotten. Even she could forget she wore it. All the thorns pointed outward but they refused to jab her skin.
“Do you promise you won’t wear it again?” Matilda said. She knew this wasn’t a nice thing she was about to do. “Promise me that you won’t wear it again, please.”
“I swear never to wear da Face of Summer again.” Zenzar said.
Matilda stabbed his ankle with her bracelet. He yelped and tried to jerk away. She held on long enough to catch one drop of his blood on the blossom. Direct hit to the yellow core hidden among the petals. That didn’t feel like an accident. It felt like her bracelet had a hunger for blood. Zenzar rubbed his ankle, looking confused. “Is there a horsefly in here? Something bit me.”
So he wasn’t allowed to notice the bracelet. She could feel the new plucked-string hum in the power of the amulet: a delicate metaphorical chain. It couldn’t stop him from breaking his promise. That kind of blood magic, taking away free will, was evil. But this wasn’t a compulsion or a binding. If he broke his promise, it would break the spell. She would know. Matilda wanted to trust him…but she didn’t.
“Sometimes bugs do get in.” Matilda said. “Tomorrow morning I’ll ask some of the ravens come down. They like a good bug hunt.” No lies there, but they felt like lies.
A very fat teddy bear named Pudding Tom muttered from his section of a shelf. He wore a dark blue soldier uniform. “They try to steal my buttons.” His uniform had shiny brass ones that he was vain about.
“Oh, crap.” Zenzar said. “I heard dat.”
“You drank water from the pool. It opens up your mind to things that sane ponies usually can’t notice. Not noticing everything is part of being sane. If your mind doesn’t have any walls it just spreads out in a big puddle. These toys were all loved by foals once. They were alive to their owners. Love is the most powerful magic there is. It gives them a kind of life, and being near the mask makes it stronger.”
“Huh.” His eyes scanned the room, and she saw part of him thinking that he wasn’t aware was thinking: that if he wanted back down in the mask chamber, he would have to avoid all these watching eyes. He had only managed it the first time because he had done it in the dark, and her toys had been blind. “So ya don’t really live alone, do ya?”
“I really don’t.” Matilda yawned, only half-faked. The seriousness was fading away. “Let’s just go back to sleep.”
“Okay. I’m pretty tired.”
Matilda believed him. The rush of energy from the pool water was mostly faded. She had pulled it from him with the blood spell, using it for the spell. By morning he wouldn’t be able to hear the toys anymore. It would make his craving for the mask a little weaker, maybe.
Lying on her bed in the dark, Matilda lay awake until she felt Zenzar fall asleep on his pallet. Then she lay awake a little more, until she could chase away the stormy bad-feeling clouds enough to relax. They came back, of course, casting shadows on her dreams.
Kirra paced, trying to figure out what to do, the stars through the porthole teasing her as she muttered. The Captain had won, curse him; he’d won and there was nothing else she could do to him. She had fixed herself, true. Temporarily. A bottle of inky-black dye and some fur-straightener, both made from things available on the airship, had returned her to a decent color while taming the poodle-poofs and circus afro. She was even sleeker than usual. They’d wear off if not reapplied. Even if she could afford it, that would be murder on her fur.
She still had a helium-high voice. She’d reverted back to her usual demeanor, not speaking and instead using her actions and expressions to get the point across. Mister Green had seemed confused until Baz explained to him that this was how most gliders were, and that Kirra’s recent loquaciousness was for his benefit. Kirra wondered where Baz had picked up a nine-bit word like loquacious. Maybe from the zebra; he sounded like he knew a lot of long words.
Kirra growled and tugged her mind back on track. Her dyes and the various tricks she had stolen from the Captain had been small game. He had upped the ante, messing with her voice, and now they were playing for keeps. She couldn’t think of anything she could do…except the Big One. She grinned. The lights of Aura would actually be visible from the helm. What with the dark and the traffic, Baz was guaranteed not to leave the helm on autopilot. Good. No interference.
Kirra had promised the Captain that she would never use any passages inside the ship to enter his personal cabin without permission. She had sworn it on her honor as an engineer. It was a promise she intended to keep. He was still her captain, after all. Even if he was an idiot who didn’t know how to keep a ship running. Honestly, he kept coming up with daft suggestions like re-coupling the engines so the flywheel would spin at twice the speed. The Just in Time wasn’t like their old tug, the Longreach. It only had the one engine and didn’t store momentum in a big flywheel.
Oh well; time to do this. Grabbing her goggles and flying scarf, she scurried out of her cabin door only to slam into a pony’s leg. Landing on her rump with a high-pitched curse, she looked up to find the face of Mister Green staring down at her. He smiled…maybe. It looked like he didn’t get much practice doing it. He offered her a hoof up.
Taking it, she clambered back onto her hind paws and smiled back. Over the past night, the zebra had become much less intimidating. Once she could move past her memory of their first meeting she could see how much he had changed. His lizard-yellow eyes were amber-brown; his white stripes no longer looked like old yellowed paper. He almost looked kindly, in an old-uncle way. And he hadn’t so much as cracked a smile at seeing her clowned out. He gave her a nod. “So, off to do something to the engine?”
Kirra grinned as he spoke. She nodded, walking stiffly towards the engine bay in silence, the zebra ambling stiffly next to her. Opening the door a crack, she squeezed inside. Mister Green realized he wasn’t welcome past here. He bid her good morning and trotted away. Kirra smiled. That zebra was nice, all things considered. For a sorcerer. She closed the door and closed her eyes for a moment, nerving herself.
Grabbing a little back-pack, she loaded it with a few things. Kirra opened a porthole and stuck a spare ventilation-cover grille out of it. Made sure it was braced. Then she scurried up to the ceiling and through an access panel. It was cold and still up in the envelope. But not quiet, with the wind roaring over the outside of the envelope. She made her way forward and dropped through another panel. The recessed balcony was tiny, for a pony. Roomy enough for her. Good design sent the wind whipping past the alcove rather than into it. She tied one end of the thin strong cord she carried to the railing. Then it was time to abseil…horizontally.
Kirra faced forwards, balanced on the rail, and then leaned sideways. The wind caught her and yanked her back. She belly-flopped against the hull with an oof. The scarf now pulled up over her muzzle let her breathe despite the wind blasting in her face. The wind rippled her fur, stung skin sensitive from chemical treatments, but the thrill of danger made it bearable. She was a little black shadow on the pristine white hull, but there were none to see.
The cord came on a spool and the spool had a handle. Also a ratchet. Kirra let out cork a jerking foot at a time. Sliding back on her hind paws, she kept her body curved so the wind force pushed her toward the hull. If it pushed away she’d end up a kite. She passed several portholes, counting under her breath, until she reached a larger one. A pre-bent wire slipped between porthole and frame, caught and tripped the hatch. It opened backwards, of course, so opening it under speed would slam it shut rather than rip it open. That was where a miniature jack nicked from a repair crew came in. It was like reverse pliers, or a tiny paw-cranked Jaws of Life: made for jamming in cracks and prying stuff apart. Wiggling in, she pulled the jack around so it was on the inside and then cranked its jaws shut. Jaws, huh. More like a small metal platypus beak.
The porthole thunked shut in its watertight rubber-lined frame. There was no sudden snort of wakefulness. Kirra left the spool dangling, the cord caught by the shut porthole. She stowed the jack. It was dark, and felt stuffy-warm after the brisk jaunt outside. She breathed slowly and silently, waiting to see if she really had woken the room’s occupant. She blessed her large eyes, drinking in faint glimmers of light that would otherwise be useless to a pony.
Hopping up into a corner of the bed, she suppressed a giggle. The white unicorn was in the middle of a nest of tangled blanket and sheets, his head buried under a pillow and his rump in the air. She entertained launching a flying martial-arts kick at the target. He continued to breathe slowly and deeply, snoring from the depths of the pillow. Kirra exhaled and dropped to the floor. Ducking underneath, she took a quick look in the box ‘hidden’ underneath. Perhaps less secure than it may have been, but its owner was content in the knowledge nobody on his crew would enter his personal chambers to snoop. Kirra smiled as she snooped, making sure that the Captain wasn’t hitting his personal stash of rum too hard, before closing the lid and moving on. A creak made her freeze, and she strained her ears only to hear a muffled thud, a grunt, and a smacking of lips as the Captain fell over on his side. She unfroze and crept from under the bed. There, hanging on a hook behind the cabin’s door, was her prize. She padded over and gently climbed it. Once at the top, she perched on the hook and unhooked it. The next thing she knew, she was upside down, stretched on a rack between hind paws clutching the hook and forepaws clutching her prize. She went bug-eyed with strain as she fought to keep it from falling to the floor, maybe taking her with it.
What did he keep in it, gold bars? There was nothing for it. She grabbed her prize with her teeth and let go with her forepaws. Letting go with her hind paws, she flared her membranes as best she could to slow the descent. Dignified, it wasn’t. Stifling a squeak as she landed on her head. Cursing in careful silence, spitting the taste of his collar, she spent a long tense minute emptying the pockets. He’d added more since last time. Wallet, birth certificate that definitely wasn’t his real one, a little change, magnifying monocle, set of lockpicks, ring of keys, individual spare keys in individual pockets in the lining, the derp-faced gem she had left, assorted goodies and junk…and a number of concealed weapons. This was a unicorn who could probably commit murder with a paper napkin. It was anyone’s guess what he could do with a cosh, pepper spray, four throwing stars, a switchblade, and a brass horseshoe. They seemed brand new.
No gold bars, curse the luck.
Kirra carefully folded the coat and attempted to stuff it in her backpack. Not a chance. It soon became clear her plan to abseil further along the hull to the grating platform she’d arranged was going to be tricky. Perched on the inner rim of the porthole frame, she contemplated her next move. The door would no doubt have an alarm, although it might not be a problem if she was fast enough. On the other paw, trying to carry the heavy coat back along the hull risked certain doom; she could easily glide to the ground, even from this altitude, but the coat might be lost forever. That meant, in the long run, her fall would not be survivable. He would kill her.
Kirra stared out at the mocking stars as they began to pale toward the coming day. Panic almost took her before the answer hit her. She slapped herself in the back of the head. So simple. There was an alcove at the back of the galley with a sorry pedal-cranked excuse for a washing machine. This fine cabin had a laundry hamper on the wall, a shiny brass box with a lid on top. Drop in dirty clothes and bedding. Shutting the lid allowed the door in the wall to be opened and the clothes removed. She hauled the coat over and, after a struggle, stuffed it in.
Returning to the porthole, Kirra let herself out. She cranked it open and eased it shut without incident. The Captain never stirred, and she watched as she used the wire to re-lock it. Abseiling to her engine-room porthole, she wedged the spool and raced up into the envelope again, hurrying for the tiny balcony. Untied the cord and let it go, then raced back to the engine room and reeled it in. Pulled in the grate and closed the porthole. Her equipment went back to its hiding place. Scurrying through crawlspaces once more, she dropped into the galley to fetch the coat. Heigh-ho, back to the engine room once more.
Home and dry. Cold and tired, but dry.
Kirra snickered at the memory of him sleeping with his giant pony rump in the air. His death’s-head-moth cutie mark in plain sight. Her snickering died. Taking the coat was enough revenge for what he had done. It might be smart to arrange a little preemptive revenge in case he got stupid again. Something she could trigger with ease. She had the most brilliant idea, too.
Baz yawned as they neared Aura. Near enough that legally he had to slow down. Risks of crashes and whatever. He could see it clearly now, but they were still an hour or two from dock. More if they had to wait while assigned a berth. Setting the ship’s crude maintain-this-heading autopilot, he got out of the chair he’d been warming for too many hours. The Just in Time was maturing. He was vaguely aware the interior wasn’t quite so cramped. Lived-in buildings always got bigger on the inside. Even animal dens did it. Sometimes pockets did it, without any special unicorn magic. It was just how the world worked. He only bothered to notice because he was glad it had finally started to kick in. They might end up with whole new rooms. Then he wouldn’t have to share with Kirra.
Of course, anything they put in the rooms still had weight, and lifting tonnage for airships was something the household magic didn’t seem to increase. Baz yawned again and tried to shake the fuzz out of his brain. Next he’d be thinking about how water was wet and gravity was downwards.
Agent Green was in the galley making coffee. He offered a mug to Baz. The earth pony took a sip. He could have kissed the zebra. Four sugars, no milk, strong enough to float a nail. Just how he liked it. Pouring a second mug, no sugar, he carried it on a tray towards the Just in Time’s main cabin. Knocking on the door, he called out: “Coffee, Cap’!”
The lack of an answer didn’t worry him. For all his alertness when awake, the Captain was a seriously deep sleeper. Probably because when he finally did get some sleep he had to make it count. Baz knocked again only for a shout to immediately answer: “I heard, ya drongo! Don’t get your tail in a knot!”
Baz paused; okay, not good. This wasn’t the Captain’s grumpy morning voice. This was pissed off. “Er…Cap? You okay?”
Silence dragged on for a full thirty seconds (Baz counted) before a defeated-sounding voice answered: “Marmalade.”
Baz blinked. “Er…on toast? I don’t think we have any. We got apricot jelly, Kirra hates it so I know we still have some, is that good enough?”
A loud thump as something heavy hit the door. “No! Marmalade is the trigger word to get that muck off the fur of that useless, scheming, conniving little she-devil of a sugar glider. Curse her cute hide! For two bits I’d use it as a bog roll!”
Baz felt his face and mind go blank. After a moment, he put the pieces together. He broke into wheezes of near-silent laughter. Setting the tray down, he sat by it and convulsed in carefully silent, gasping guffaws. So Kirra had done the impossible. Again. She’d won. Just like back on the Beautiful Celeste and the First Great Prank War. He composed himself, mostly by thinking about what would happen if the Captain opened the door and caught him laughing.
Very sobering thought, that. “I’ll tell her directly, Captain. And for the record, I’ll make sure she cleans her bunk up nice and good.”
The reply came back as a growl. “Just you get me my coat back, you sod-sucking pillock.”
Baz had the decency and the good sense to get out of earshot before bursting into uproarious laughter. He had fled to the galley and his outburst startled Green, who was spreading apricot jam on toast.
The Just in Time didn’t have to wait for a berth. Xero was expected. There would be ponies here whose job was to make sure nothing got in the way of his task. There would be those who didn’t want Smog’s absence confirmed as permanent. Anypony who knew about the Ritual of Confirmation and didn’t want Smog’s safeguards activated, for starters. Mostly Smog’s generals. Anypony who knew Xero was a sorcerer and found that objectionable, for another. Fellow sorcerers, already freed by confirmation, looking to thin the future competition in Aura. Maybe even the police. With Smog gone they were soon to lose all authority when their high officers had their dirty secrets or association with Smog revealed. In the window between Smog vanishing and their power vanishing, the decent ones might decide it was time to clean house.
Xero was surprised, if not disappointed, when they managed to dock and disembark without incident. All his servant spirits and sorcerous senses were on high alert, making the air around him buzz in a way more sensed than heard, painting every sharp edge in his vision with smears of phantom light. Auras of misty color surrounded things with life or magic. Sky-blue for pegasi, showing the magic that helped them fly. Shimmery blue discs rippling out from their hooves like waves in a pond, showing how they spread their weight through the cloud, while stiffening it, so as to not fall through.
The zebra sorcerer caught faint murmurs of other’s thoughts. Moving things had something like after-image ‘tracers,’ except these flowed ahead. His naked spirit let him peer into the very near future. Just a second or two. A little longer for more certain things. Uncertain events had overlapping tracers showing different possible outcomes, the more likely ones appearing ‘realer.’ It was time enough to remove the usual pause between perception and reaction. Time enough to duck.
It was quite like a mild hallucinogenic, but the things he sensed were very real. He’d been ramping up his sensitivity and mustering his servants since midnight. He didn’t do it all the time because there were side-effects. This state of mind was bad for the sanity. It also made it hard to concentrate. Xero made Baz a coffee just how he liked it, when Xero shouldn’t have known how. Picking up a stray thought, Xero had made toast with apricot jelly. Worse than having sensed it, Xero had been so distracted that he slipped up and revealed his inexplicable knowledge. Luckily Baz hadn’t noticed.
This was dangerous too: one of the fundamental rules of sorcery was if you can see it, it can see you. That rule was right up there with the Golden Rule of sorcery: do not call up that which you cannot put down. In a very real way, his metaphorical rear end was waggling in the wind. If the wrong spirit took notice of him…well. Another rule was if you can see it, you can affect it.
A wavery and hollow shout of warning jolted Xero from his distracted brooding on sorcery’s fundamentals. It made him jump. The physical shout came reached his ears on the heels of the precognitive ‘echo.’ The pegasi of the docking crew stared down at him in varying clouds of horror and confusion. Xero blinked back, then down at his hooves. His fore-hooves stood on the naked cloud beyond the floatwood platform. Pulses of lemon-yellow energy rippled out from his hooves, his life-force twisted to do the work of a cloudwalk spell.
Xero leapt back and then contrived to act as if he hadn’t actually been standing on clouds. It was a dangerous and unreliable thing, power-mimicry. Exhausting; and that was just the start. That little stunt had shaved another minute or two off his lifespan. He only did it well when he did it without thought. If he hadn’t gotten off the cloud before he really thought about what he was doing…it was a long way to the ground from here. They had a berth right near the top of the giant dangling stalactite of the docking spire.
The Captain gave him a funny look, possibly sensing something about Xero’s unveiled powers. Xero didn’t look back. He sensed the dockworker pegasi adjusting their memories. What they had seen was impossible. Therefore, they couldn’t have really seen it. They had been mistaken, and Xero had been stopped before he stepped off the floatwood. Not even magic: they did it all themselves. Xero gave the Captain a nod, and passed over a document deeding fifty thousand bits to the bearer. Suppressed anger made the unicorn’s aura look like a bed of flame-licked coals. Not at the zebra. The unicorn still bore purple stripes and small glittery gems. Kirra had returned the coat, but not shared the word of release for the cosmetic spell.
Xero glanced at the sugar glider, perched on Baz. He got a scrap of her mental singing. With it, and her smug look at the Captain, Xero knew the word of release. The name of a bird. He understood the joke behind her choice: there was another name for that bird, a rude one. He considered telling the unicorn…but no. Explaining how he knew would take too long and raise issues they were happier not knowing. They would have to work it out among themselves.
Kirra suddenly gave him a startled glare. Xero realized he had started humming along to the song in her head. Her fur, restored to its usual appearance, brushed out until she looked twice her size. She didn’t say a word, or take her eyes off him while they visited a kiosk where a unicorn sold twenty-four-hour cloudwalk spells. The spell felt like being given a brief cold shower. It made the unicorn stallion frown. He sensed the strangeness but didn’t recognize it.
“This is where I leave you.” Xero said. “I have a mission I must complete. We might not meet again.”
“I won’t be upset if we do meet again.” the Captain said. A brief future-echo followed of something he almost said, then changed his mind. “Good luck.”
“Bye.” Baz said. “It’s been…weird.”
Kirra said nothing, and her fur remained fluffed. Her aura had turned into a steely bubble. All he got from it was the taste of metal. Some kind of spiritual barrier, essentially the opposite mental state of what Xero did right now. Untrained but solid. She really could have become an impressive sorceress.
Xero left them there, sensing that the Captain was intent on finding Tradewind but at a loss as to where he should look. Xero knew a place to start. Not looking around, he sensed various pegasi and griffins casually forming a loose ring around him. His guardians: sharp with vigilance. Then he realized his thought of Fantasy was a future echo as he spotted her galloping down the spacious corridor toward their berth. His senses interpreted her thoughts as glowing pink letters over her head, reading TRADEWIND! So much for the idea of him being with her. She thought she would find Tradewind here, with the crew.
He moved aside before she could notice him. Her aura was impressive, if unsettling. Thickly veined with the warm pink of love, it was darker and broader than normal. A powerful heart and the unhappy shadow cast by knowledge of evil. Her aura had a twisted, rippling effect. Like a whirlpool made of glass spiderwebs. Xero knew what it meant. That mare was a focus point, a pony in which certain fate-like forces took a sharp interest. Around them, there was no such thing as a genuine coincidence. Xero had heard stories about how a butterfly could flap its wings, innocently setting in motion a chain of increasingly large events that spawned a wild hurricane out on the untamed ocean. Fantasy was like that butterfly. They had both more and less free will than other ponies. Their choices could trigger profound changes…but their situation often dictated which choices their nature demanded they make.
The zebra had seen that effect before, around a very few beings. One was Smog, who had made himself center of a web by sheer persistent effort. Another, if lesser…was the Captain. It wasn’t born of his talent. In fact, the reverse might be closer to the truth. Fate had tapped the unicorn as one of its champions. The bad luck of villains was no accident. Evil hearts and evil acts attracted fate’s hostility like tall copper rods did lightning. Truly vile creatures were fated to be defeated. That meant something had to be fated to defeat them.
Xero realized that Fantasy and the other unicorn were soon going to be close together. Without needing orders, his legs moved from a walk to a trot. It jolted his hips but he didn’t stop. Physical distance was a poor guard against being sucked into whatever was about to happen. Better than nothing. There was a chance he could avoid being drawn in.
He had to get to the chamber prepared for him and perform the ritual that would confirm if Smog was dead or otherwise permanently removed from power here. Then he would be free of his compelled loyalty to Smog. Free to flee this city…if he still could.
He started singing under his breath. “Merry-merry king of the bush is he…”
Zenzar’s eyes popped open. He didn’t leap to his hooves only because he was petrified with dread. That…might have been the worst nightmare he’d ever had. The memories vanished when he reached for them. It was like trying to grab eels: they slithered away, leaving nothing but a slimy residue. There’d been…bright green light, and somepony…screaming? He couldn’t face trying to sleep again. Not after that. Zenzar stared into the darkness until he realized it wasn’t totally dark. A hint of sickly green light crept under the door. His bottle of glowing mushroom was still out there in the main room.
A sudden tense need gripped him. He had no idea why, but he had to get out of this basement. He needed to go home. If that was cowardice, then paint his belly yellow and call him a chicken. If he was going to spend a sleepless night, he’d rather do it trimming his bonsai while wearing earplugs against the noises coming from his twin sister’s room.
It wasn’t all sourceless paranoia, though. Guilt was hammering at him like an evil midget with a mallet. He had suspected it for a while, but now he knew for sure. Mattie wasn’t crazy. She really wasn’t. Not deep down inside. It was just that her mind was so open to the universe that she was constantly distracted from the mundane here-and-now. It must be like trying to balance your checkbook after eating the wrong kind of mushroom. The zebra bit his lip, guilt winding up for a grand slam as he considered the promise he’d given her. No way was he going to go back on that: he didn’t even want to wear the mask any more. He had a horrible thought, though. A loophole. He had only promised not to wear it. His guilt paused, seeming unconvinced but willing to hear him out. What was the right thing to do in this situation, now that he knew what this mask was capable of?
He had to get it away from Matilda. It was the thing that was making her crazy. Or at least it was keeping her from getting better. He remembered what drinking the water had done to him, and her bubbly brand of nuttiness suddenly made sense. She probably drank from it every day. She was devoting her life to guarding it. Well, half. The other half went to the dolls. Surely there was a better way to deal with the Face of Summer than a lone guardian who might be addicted to its power.
But, Zenzar couldn’t imagine destroying it. The old myths said the masks couldn’t be destroyed. They were too powerful. Stood to reason: no pony smart enough not to use them would let the masks go on existing if they could help it. But what, then? Bury the Face of Summer in the deepest, hottest part of the Camelu desert? That might work…until ponies turned up to investigate the strange new oasis that had popped up. Encasing it in lead and dropping it in the abyss of the ocean? He imagined some deep-sea monster eating it, and the power leaking out to fill it with life-energy…no. Hurling it deep into the wild energies of a leyline, where no magical spell or intelligent mind could survive? Zenzar shuddered. Dropping the Face of Summer in a leyline sounded too much like throwing a torch into a fireworks warehouse. He had to be honest: this was beyond him. He needed a smart idea.
Zenzar curled up, raising his fore-hooves to the sides of his head. They slid up and back, shaking sparks off his mohawk. He muttered under his breath. “Baaaaah. I’ma mechanic, not a witch doctor…” It clicked, then. Witch doctor. Zheila should know about this. She’d know what to do; potions and spells were her department. Of course she’d kill him if he called her a witch doctor where she could hear him.
Zenzar got to his hooves and rolled up his pallet-bed, mostly by feel, and slung it on his back. Slipping out the bedroom, he frowned at the green light. The bottle was visible through the crack. The mushrooms were glowing brighter than before. Bright as a good lamp. He thought back. The bottle had been on a string around his neck. It must have dipped into the pool when he lowered his head. He didn’t remember, but there it was. Looked like the magic had turned up their wick.
Zenzar slipped out and walked right into a stifling cloud of silence. This wasn’t just the absence of noise. This was a hush: a silence caused by things that could make noise being very, very quiet. He knew the toys really were staring at him this time. Having them stare at him in the monochrome green gloom unpleasantly reminded him of the nightmare he’d mostly forgotten. He eased the bedroom door shut. Then his eyes slid to the pantry door like compasses seeking north.
A voice spoke. “Go on. I dare ya.” Zenzar tracked it to its source, a toy boat on the counter of the kitchenette area. It didn’t move or give any sign of life. “One step toward that door and we’ll scream so loud it’s gonna sound like a Nine Inch Hooves concert where the mosh pit caught fire.” A pair of piggy banks gave snorting snickers before being hushed. “We’ll see ya, this time. Matilda will wake up and won’t that be fun? She’ll kick ya out and sic the ravens on ya, ya hockey puck.”
‘A toy boat just called me a hockey puck.’ Zenzar thought. ‘…I want my gram-gram.’ Zenzar scowled to hide his desire to whimper. “I’m not going near da mask. I’m gonna leave. Uh…tell her when she gets up? Sorry I snuck out, but I just…it’s best I go.”
Penetrating stares from every toy in the room. Then he sensed them swing somehow, with no actual movement, to the boat. It gave a snort. “Okay, fine. Get lost.”
Zenzar gave a respectful nod to the toys and crossed the room, snagging his coat by the door. He cast one last glance towards the door leading to the mask. Shuddered. He had to get it away from Mattie. Figure out some way of dealing with it that didn’t demand she expose herself to it. He would save her. He had to: he loved her. Between himself and Zheila, it would be a piece of cake.
The stallion quietly slipped out the door.
Zheila woke up to a dull thunking noise. Giving White Lightning a fond glance, she quietly slipped out of his embrace and from under the sheets, tucking him back in without disturbing his sleep. Another thunk, from the window.
The zebra mare grabbed her eyepatch off the nightstand and put it on without having to think about doing it. Pulling her new crossbow from under the bed was an entirely conscious decision on her part. It was quite a small crossbow: the straps fastened it to a foreleg and she could fire by flexing a certain way. The Garage supposedly had bodyguards watching it. Zheila slept better knowing she had her own line of defense. The weapon held a hypodermic dart with enough knockout potion to drop an enraged bear.
A third thunk on the window. Peering past the curtain, she saw her brother. A zebra, that big, with a mohawk, wearing a long dramatic duster-coat? Who else could it be? She watched as he fished in a pocket and tossed. Something small and bright red, even in the moonlight. Sounded like a rubber ball. She opened the window and discovered a green gummy bear on the outside ledge. It smiled up at her.
Zheila gave her twin brother a glare so evil he sensed it even in the dimness. She saw him flinch. “Why are ya out in da alley throwing candy at my bloody window?”
Zenzar ate the candy he held. “Come down, it’s important. Just to da garage, not out here.” He stuffed his hoof in his pocket and then in his mouth. “Hurry up.”
It was hard to shout a whisper, but Zheila tried. “Why didn’t ya just come in and knock?! Hey, get back here!"
Her brother had moved out of sight. Zheila mouthed what she believed to be a very bad word; an ancient and hissing swear she had heard her grandmother use once. Zheila didn’t know much Old Zebra, but she thought it meant something like ‘the hollow darkness.’ The green gummy bear gave an unpleasant sizzling sigh and developed a coat of grey-green fuzz. She caught an odor like fermented fruit mixed with squashed mushrooms. Mold. Zheila gave it a shocked stare, then flicked it off the ledge with one arm of her crossbow. That hadn’t ever happened before.
More important things grabbed her attention. “I haven’t done it since I was a little filly, but I swear I’m gonna to go right down dere and bite him."
She closed the window. She wasn’t concerned too much about waking up White Lightning, considering she’d been woken up for nonsense. They could yell at her stupid brother together. Zenzar wasn’t acting like his transmission was meshing gears the right way. Now that she thought about it…his candy snacking was a bad sign. That stupid curse she’d laid on him. Thinking selfish, greedy thoughts made him hungry and made sure it all went to fat.
Zheila left her bedroom at speed, then doubled back and pulled off what she had been wearing. She wasn’t about to parade around in front of her brother wearing that. Besides, she was angry, and it was hard to look scary in sheer pink nightie. She descended to the garage at a near gallop. He sat on a toolbox near Sasha, messing around with her engine. She reared up behind him and barely resisted the urge to give him a hoof to the skull. “Ya stupid idiot, I swear, ya can’t just-”
Zenzar threw a wrench. Not at her, but it whirred end over end in a straight horizontal line to slam into a metal equipment locker. Made a horrible racket and a big dent, then tinkled on the flagstone floor. Zheila stood motionless, shocked silent. Zenzar breathed in a way she knew, with heavy controlled exhales. Keeping his temper, calming himself down.
“Dat flying rat rigged Sasha so I can’t undo her changes. Fused da adjuster knobs within a limited span, fused da screws holding da knobs. I’d have to rip out half da engine and replace it to undo what she did. When did she do dat? It wasn’t dere when I rigged da noisemaker!” Surging to his hooves, making Zheila hop back, Zenzar picked up the toolbox he’d been sitting on and carried it over to a workbench. He carried it like an empty lunch box, but when he dropped it the bench shuddered from the impact. Then he rested his fore-hooves on it and lowered his chin down onto them. Stood there, breathing slow and deep.
Zheila stayed quiet until Zenzar had gotten control of himself again. Then she cleared her throat. “You wanted to talk?”
“Face of Summer.”
Zheila had been edging closer. Now she stopped. Her long white hair was loose and fell over her one eye. She flipped it back out of the way. “Say what?”
“Da Face of Summer. Do ya know what it is?”
“Only what granny told us both. Old stories.”
“I bet ya remember dem better.”
“Dat’s a safe bet. What’s got ya so worked up about some old make-believe mask from way back when?”
He wouldn’t turn to face her. “Not make-believe, Zheila.”
Zheila stopped breathing. She started again, and chose her words with care. “Start from da beginning.”
Waking up alone in bed was business as usual for White Lightning. Rolling over, he discovered more bed to roll around in than seemed right. As he drifted out of sleep, he began to suspect that waking up alone was, in this case, noteworthy. The pillows smelled good, like feminine shampoo. Memories slipped into focus. Sitting up, he looked around Zheila’s bedroom.
No Zheila in sight, which was disappointing. No scowling Zenzar fondling a length of chain or a crowbar, which was a relief. Rolling out of bed onto his hooves, he indulged in a thorough fore-and-aft stretch and then yawned. She was probably making breakfast. The light outside the window was indirect thanks to the neighboring building but it had an early-morning quality.
Lightning rolled his wings this way and that, working out the kinks, then smoothed down a few ruffled primaries. A worm of unease gnawed at the underside of his mind. His mind was still recovering from Smog’s uninvited manipulations. Better, though. He no longer hallucinated that sinister ponies were after him. Well, there were some fairly sinister goats who were almost certainly wishing to, as he’d heard an old pony once put it, ‘do him a mischief.’ Lightning had learned to rely on third-party perspective for a reality check. He was sure Zheila and Zenzar were real. If they confirmed they had also seen or heard something, then it was probably real. If he shared a concern and it concerned them, then it was probably something worth being concerned about.
When he couldn’t do that he kept a wary eye on signs of relapse. Turned his paranoia against itself, or tried. The flaw of even the most realistic hallucinations, he had discovered, was that they hadn’t actually happened. In some big or small way, they disagreed with reality. There were ways to test them. Saw a pony lurking in the garden? Go down later with somepony else and see if there were hoof-prints. There were always flaws. Details that didn’t fit. The delusion only survived as long as he didn’t poke at it.
Lately, Lightning had spent a lot of time poking himself. Snorting a laugh at the unintended suggestiveness in his mental turn of phrase, he yawned again and headed for the hall door. There to the bathroom, where he planned to do some heavy work with his toothbrush. The unease sharpened to anxiety. He refused to listen. Give it a chance and it might turn into a full-blown panic attack. It got stronger anyway, putting a sour taste on his tongue that mouthwash couldn’t shift.
Something was wrong.
Lightning remembered that things really could go wrong. His life since coming to Zevera was proof of that. Just because his paranoia kept setting off false alarms didn’t mean that all alarms would be false. He might be going ‘the pony who cried wolf’ on himself. He forced himself to stay calm and think it through. Paranoid anxiety was felt, not thought. Any reasons were invented to support it, not the other way around. ‘Okay.’ he thought. ‘Logic. Exactly what is wrong?’
“The house is empty.” Lightning said. He hadn’t expected to, and it made him twitch. But it seemed to help clarify his thoughts, so he went with it. “What, it ‘feels’ empty? No, too vague. Evidence? No sounds that might be made by ponies. No breakfast smells. No, stupid: go look. The building is empty or not. Go and see and then you’ll know.”
That seemed reasonable. Lightning went and looked. He’d been right. Zenzar and Zheila were gone. Lightning checked the attic. Then, anxiety bouncing around inside him like a claustrophobic squirrel in a box, he looked for signs they had been…taken. Instead he found a letter on the nightstand by Zheila’s bed, along with an absence of eye-patch. Zheila and Zenzar had gone to visit Matilda. The harmlessly nutty zebra mare that had helped rescue Sir Vorpal.
She wanted him to ‘hold down the fort’ until they got back. Probably by noon, definitely before sunset. So until sunset, he had no excuse for true panic. Lightning found himself calming down. Or…no: the anxiety wasn’t weaker, he just felt stronger. More able to control it. Zheila trusted him to guard her home. His fore-hooves tingled, remembering how it had felt to massage the tension from her muscles. And later, snuggling with her. Touching her, knowing she wanted him to touch him. He hadn’t realized how hungry he had been for that until he got it. An old ache of loneliness. Not even for…hanky-panky. Even as a cop, before Smog ruined his life, he’d been isolated. No true friends on the force or off it. No dating. Cut off from his family. He hadn’t realized how badly he had wanted somepony to just…hug him. Pat him on the back. Brush against him in passing, comfortable in getting that close.
Now he had Zheila. Zenzar too, but Zheila…loved him. Trusted him. He wanted, needed, to be worthy of her trust. So he was going to hold down the fort. Checking every door, every window, every vent, he even went up on the roof. There was a police zebra, not the weird one but a grizzled old overweight cop with a very specific look in his brown eyes. The type his mentor had called ‘street monsters.’ The kind of cop who knew how to hit without leaving a mark, the best place to get a beer on the house. The kind of cop who carried a brass horseshoe and a set of lockpicks. Most of them weren’t rotten. A little dirty, but not rotten. They might not really respect the letter of the law but they still had a conscience. Turn a blind eye to an illegal dice game? Sure. It wasn’t hurting anypony, bigger fish to fry, and so on. Let a murderer walk for a fat bag of gold? The murderer would end up in jail, and their offered bribe would turn up during the cavity search.
Zevera’s police were, by reputation, a whole herd of street monsters seasoned with a few truly rotten ones. Lightning wasn’t upset. Street monsters had instincts. Being more than half criminals themselves, they could spot their own kind. Pick out a would-be purse-snatcher in a crowd with ease. They could smell trouble, too. Right now, some very powerful ponies and zebras would be very angry if the Zevera City Police were found shirking their duties. The police chief would take the brunt of it, but then he’d turn a vengeful eye on those street cops whose misconduct had landed him in the frying pan. A good cop knew there were times to stop being a good cop. Bad ones knew there were times to give their badge a polish and do things by the book.
Lightning had come prepared, with a pitcher of mild cider and a sandwich. That bought him some goodwill: a street monster was a lot more likely to be vigilant body-guarding a pony he or she personally liked. Lightning had come up to check on the police presence. In the age of airships, including sneaky little pedal-powered two-seaters, any decent guard on a building stuck somepony up top. But by bringing food, he had done more than buy some goodwill. He’d made it look like he’d expected to find a cop up here on watch. Even untrustworthy ponies liked to feel they were trusted. Maybe especially them.
In truth, Lightning would have put it no higher than hoped. If there was a Capra attack, maybe the watchers would handle it. And maybe not. Lightning did what little he could to prepare for that. Then there was nothing left to do but fret and pace.
Or so he thought. Downstairs, the bell rang. Lightning stopped trying to balance an empty beer bottle upside-down on top of the back door’s knob. You could pick even a good lock, and the new back door had a good one. Harder to open a door without knocking over a bottle balanced on the inside knob. Hurrying downstairs, he peered through the new improved peephole, with a fish-eye lens.
Agents Seafoam and Buttercup of the Imperial Bureau of Investigations stood outside. White fedoras and trench coats. They usually looked as if they’d had to trade their sense of humor for their badge. Right now they seemed especially humorless. Lightning opened the door. All the way. He wanted to peer out a crack, but that would have looked guilty. Seafoam’s expression didn’t so much flicker, but Lightning sensed his attempt not to look guilty had been recognized as calculated.
“The Capra are leaving Zevera.” Seafoam said. No asking to come in, no ‘good morning.’ Just straight to the point, and it hit Lightning like a kick to the belly. “Bobby Clover’s dead. A hit. Reasonably professional, especially the way the trail to the killer’s employer just vanishes.”
“…I’m sorry, who?” Lightning said.
“The goat in custody, found trapped in a metal storage cabinet during the…incident with an unknown dragon…was found dead in his cell. His food had been poisoned. A gentle poison, which fits the Capra’s M.O. for the regrettable times when a loyal goat member must be…silenced.” Lightning must have looked lost. Agent Seafoam scowled. “They couldn’t bust him out so they ganked him to make sure he didn’t talk.”
“Okay.” Lightning said. “How does that attach to the bombshell about the Capra leaving the city?”
Seafoam adopted a patient tone. “If they planned on staying in numbers, they would have left Mister Clover alive until they were ready to spring him. He wasn’t talking. If they had always planned to kill him he would have died before now. Word that they had left would eventually get out. Once Mister Clover learned he had been abandoned…well. The Capra weren’t going to save him. He might as well talk, and see what kind of deal he could cut to save his own butt.
“There is other evidence that they have either left or are in the process of evacuating. One point is indirect. After fire-bombing the Hotel Casablanca, it would be incredibly unwise to remain in the city for long. They have offered a very public insult to an exceptionally dangerous person. Said person is likely to want a swift, public, and local gesture of reprisal. Some form of gory atrocity to drive home what happens to those who violate a place he protects.”
“…good point.” Lightning said. He had a brief vivid flashback to his heroic and pointless visit to that inferno. Nopony left inside to save. That he had rushed in was proof he truly was a good pony, deep inside…but he still felt stupid. “Yeah, after doing that…I’d run like my tail was on fire and my mane was catching. Won’t change my fate but I might live a little longer. Now what?”
Agent Buttercup actually broke his glowering silence. “The Capra likes to synchronize its farewell gifts to make sure all the recipients are taken by surprise. A number of suspected Capra informants were found dead last night. Others have vanished, presumed deceased or fled. If there was going to be a serious Capra attempt on your life it would have occurred last night. As you are not a corpse, you may be cautiously optimistic about remaining so for the near future.”
Lightning nodded, avoiding the yellow pegasi’s eyes. He had once hit the agent in the head with a collapsing baton. Hard enough to cause lingering problems that demanded magical healing. Buttercup didn’t appear in the mood to forgive or forget. That Lightning had been hallucinating that they were Smog’s thugs coming after him had cut no ice, from all evidence so far. Horrible first impression. He had hit Seafoam too and stole his fedora, but the greenish pegasus appeared prepared to at least extend a kind of cold, formal politeness.
“Let us talk to Miss Zheila and Mister Zenzar,” Seafoam said, “so that we can confirm their continuing survival, and then you may consider your business with the Bureau complete.”
“Er.” Lightning said. He had the letter with him. He had read it again a few times. Making sure it still said what he thought. He held it out. “Here. Found this around dawn, maybe a little later. So they left before dawn.”
They had left…last night. Low-hanging fruit for the Capra, especially if the two had done what he feared and ditched any attempt of the building’s anti-Capra watchers to follow.
Seafoam read it and gave it to Buttercup. The agents exchanged a silent glance. Seafoam took it back and gave it to Lightning. “The cordon did not inform us that they had departed. It appears they managed to leave unnoticed.” His tone suggested somepony was going to get chewed out, quite soon.
“Potions of inconspicuousness?” Buttercup said.
“Plausible.” Seafoam said. “Do as she asked, Mister Lightning. Stay here and hold the fort. You want to help. What you want and what might happen are not the same. You aren’t trained for this type of situation. Leaping in willy-nilly has a high chance of making things worse.”
“If they were attacked, it’s over by now.” Buttercup said. Seafoam gave his partner a Look. Buttercup continued in a tone seasoned with forced optimism. “There is a definite chance they are alive and well. You are a higher-priority target; you have caused the Capra more trouble and insult. You were not attacked last night. There is hope.”
“They slipped away without some moderately vigilant eyes noticing.” Seafoam said. “It’s possible they also avoided any watchers working for the Capra.”
Lightning managed not to pitch over the brink of panic. He didn’t even realize how close it had been until after the danger had passed. Now he was aware of his panting breaths, his fine sheen of cold sweat. That was another lingering gift of Smog’s meddling with his head. Sometimes he was dangerously unaware of his emotions. He fought for self-control and managed to grab it. “Thank you.”
“Stay out of trouble.” Seafoam said. Usually that turn of phrase came with a hint of humor and fondness. This sounded like a stern warning.
“I’ll try.” Lightning said. Then he bit his lip.
Seafoam stared at him for a long, intensely uncomfortable moment. Then he gave a nod that might have held a grain of respect. “Honest answer. Good morning and goodbye, Mister Lightning. Come on, Buttercup. I heard a rumor of a place near here that actually makes decent bagels.”
The yellow pegasus perked up before masking his interest behind his usual scowl. He gave Lightning a nod containing nothing even remotely approaching respect. “Try hard.”
They left. Lightning shut the door and then leaned sideways against it until his legs stopped shaking. The squirrel-cage feeling was back in force. Zheila might be dead, might be hurt, might be captured, might be in trouble. He gave his head a shake, knocked it against the doorjamb. She also might be perfectly fine. Probably was fine. He had to remember that. Everything might be just fine.
He’d be blowed if he said it out loud, though.
The knocking didn’t wake her up; the toys took care of that with a cheerful yammering of words like ‘door’ and ‘visitors.’ Matilda felt slightly cranky. For a long time she had lived without an alarm clock or even a window the morning sun could come through. She slept until she was done sleeping. Waking up before she was done wasn’t an experience she had much…um…experience with. Whoever it was could wait a while. Matilda visited the bathroom for semi-urgent business. Afterwards she washed her hooves and face, brushed her stiff zebra mane into order, and brushed her teeth. Meanwhile the knockers kept knocking once in a while and the toys were all trying to tell her about Zenzar leaving in the night. Talking over each other. Matilda just let the noise flow past her. Most of it was just repeating. The important details stuck and drifted together in her head without trying.
Matilda wasn’t surprised to wake up and find him gone. She had felt him leave, even in her sleep. Nothing that woke her up, it was just knowledge in her head when her eyes opened. Matilda changed into one of her going-out outfits, with her mismatched legwarmers. Even though she felt it was still nearby, she hurried down to the deep chamber to make sure the Face of Summer was in its watery pit. Nearby was not the same as where it was supposed to be.
Heading back up, Matilda headed for the door. Shouts from the toys, directing her attention to the bright green glowing bottle lighting the room. A visitor might wonder what that was. She lit a few lamps and buried the bottle in her scrap-cloth basket. Then, now that she was good and ready, she opened the door a crack. It was Zenzar and Zheila.
He had told his twin sister about the mask. Matilda wanted to be angry but that was fair. Zheila was trustworthy, though maybe not quite so much as before her aura had transformed into a red wingless dragon-thing. It was a shadow on her heart and mind. Not an imposed spell like a traditional curse. Nothing was in her spirit but herself. But Zheila had been scarred by drinking a potion tailored for somepony else. Her body and spirit had been forced into the shape of a dragon’s, more or less. It was back to normal now…more or less. Both flesh and spirit remembered that other shape. Returning to it was now an option, especially the mind-shape. The dragon perspective, all selfish greed and casual cruelty, was something she could slip into if she wasn’t careful. Zheila had learned an ugly new trick and she could never unlearn it.
Removing the ‘curse’ would be an amputation. Even if a leg got all infected and gross and cutting it off was the only way to save a life…it was still losing a leg. Amputating part of a pony’s spirit was even worse. Not something to consider unless it was that or die. Maybe not even then. Cut a chunk out of a mind and the rest sometimes went crazy. Matilda felt sorry for Zheila, and a little scared of her too. The aura-dragon only had one eye, like Zheila, but it was a red coal.
Matilda decided to pretend she didn’t know that Zheila knew about the Face of Summer. They would see if Zheila would be honest about knowing or pretend she didn’t. Zenzar wasn’t changed. Still denying he felt any desire to wear the Face of Summer, still being prodded to find some way to justify wearing it by a mental voice he wasn’t even aware he heard. Zheila looked worried, Zenzar wouldn’t look at Matilda.
“Can we come in, Matilda?” Zheila said.
“Okay.” Matilda said. She moved back, opening the door but where it stayed between her and them. Then she focused on how where she stood was like the place behind the door of her bedroom. She had left it open. Everything froze and blurred and came back. She was behind the bedroom door. She left the bedroom the normal way, closing the door behind her.
Zheila stared. “How did ya get over there?”
“Oh, yeah.” Zenzar said. “Forgot all about dat.” He was lying; he had just decided not to tell his sister about it. Matilda could tell why: he wanted to respect her privacy and secrets as much as he could. She guessed she could be okay with that. Zenzar rubbed ay his static-stiff mohawk. “She has to see how…uh, how da two places are da same, some way. And it won’t work if she’s watched.”
“Yup.” Matilda said. “Sit down, I’ll make breakfast.”
Zenzar’s stomach rumbled. His curse was a real curse. Zheila could have lifted it if she was able to truly be sorry she cursed him and truly believe she should remove it. She couldn’t do it. Zheila truly thought her brother was better off with a curse making him as fat as he was greedy. It would push him to work hard to avoid being selfish.
Zenzar was hungry, but it wasn’t a healthy hunger. He shook his head, motioning a hoof to say none for me. Zheila pretended not to notice that, or the faint signs of fatness. Matilda made a cold breakfast, not lighting the stove. Fruit and salad stuff. Zheila ate enough to be polite.
“How did ya learn how to teleport?” she said.
Matilda shrugged. “I dunno. I just did it one day. It felt like remembering something forgotten.”
“How long ago?”
“Not long. Definitely not a month.”
“Mess with anything magical lately? Or maybe-magical. It might be some piece of jewelry ya found.”
Nopony seemed to notice the rose bracelet. But it wasn’t invisible, just good at nudging minds not to notice it. Zheila studied Matilda looking for changes. When she saw the rose she went pale. “Is dat…”
“What?” Zenzar said.
Zheila didn’t answer. She put a fore-hoof over her eyepatch and sank into a deep quiet focus. Zenzar and Matilda kept quiet, sensing it would be bad to distract her. Redness swirled in from her aura like the eyepatch was a bath drain. It gathered and brightened. Zheila raised her fore-hoof, pushing up the patch. To Matilda, a ghostly red-coal eye filled the empty socket. It actually was the ghost of Zheila’s lost eye. Forced to exist as strong as it could. Matilda could tell it hurt: memory-pain of losing the eye. But an eyeball of naked spirit-stuff was a useful thing if a pony knew how to use it. It could be used to see…well, like Matilda saw. All auras and stuff.
Some sorcerers even lost an eye on purpose. Most just spent months in the total dark until they were so hungry to see that they forced their minds open to the Unseen. And doing it too much left a pony kooky: Matilda was a perfect example, if one of the luckiest she ever heard about. When some stupid sorcerer or even a nice wizard left their mind open too much…there were all kinds of crazy, and some of them were nasty.
“Oh…Tartarus.” Zheila said. “Your aura is just…”
“Bandage-mummy with thorny green vines?” Matilda said.
The other mare blinked her living eye. “Uh…yeah.” She shuddered and dropped the patch over the socket. The spirit eye exploded into swirling red sparks that washed back into her aura.
Zenzar didn’t see a thing. “I see it now. Da bracelet.”
“It’s a…powerful spell on a…not-nice…artifact.” Zheila said. She was picking her words with care. Matilda studied the long thorny stem wrapping her ankle three times, all braided with itself and the end fused to itself at the base of the white blossom. Zheila continued. “It’s blood magic.”
Matilda didn’t look up. “Nopony bled but me. Nopony paid any price but me. I fed the rose a drop of my blood. On the cut part of the stem. I put a little of me in it so I could make it part of me. Then I could bend it to my will.” That she had done her crude little spell in the mask cavern made it easier, the same as any act of creation. Then she had washed the bracelet in the pool, to make it strong and flawless. “It protects me from evil things.”
“Da afreet.” Zheila said. The light had gone on for her.
“Okay, I’m lost.” Zenzar said.
Matilda poked at her breakfast while Zheila focused on her brother. “Remember da rose it gave Sir Vorpal?”
“Uhhh…yeah, he said it did.”
“Dat was Rose Madder.” Zheila said. “It transformed da unicorn into a cut rose. Into something dead. No coming back from a transform like dat, brother.”
Zenzar glanced at Matilda’s bracelet and then did a double-take. His aura went all nauseated so it was probably good he hadn’t eaten anything. He saw what Zheila was really saying. “Rose Madder was an expert at teleporting.”
“Yeah.” Zheila said. “She was. Da rose doesn’t have a mind, it ain’t even aware as an animal, but there’s an…echo. Matilda used blood to reach out and touch da rose. Things can pass through an open door both ways.” That last at Matilda, in warning tones.
“It taught me how to teleport?” Matilda said. “I just made it into a protection against the desert spirit.”
“Afreets can’t handle things touched by death.” Zheila said.
“I heard.” Zenzar said. He swallowed hard. “Dat unicorn was ten pounds of crazy in a one-pound bag. Da afreet is dead now. You should take it off, Mattie.”
“It might be poisoning me?” Matilda said. “I don’t feel any different. Of course I am, I can teleport. So I can change without feeling it. I might not feel it.” Matilda went to fetch her good scissors, the big heavy old-fashioned ones you could use for a pry-bar. Wiggling one blade under the braid, she tried to snip it in half.
The lack of progress reminded her of the time she had tried to cut up a pair of tough old boots. She made the scissors chomp at it, then yanked them free with a disgusted snort. The nicks it had left slowly melted away. “Tough, and it heals.”
Zheila rolled her eye ceiling-ward. “Blood magic. Why did it have to be blood magic? It’s tied to ya, Matilda. Hard to break it while ya live. I can do it, with some preparing. And your consent. I can help ya break da thread between it and you. Then it’s powerless.”
“I’ll stop being able to teleport?”
Matilda wasn’t okay with that, but she should have been. Not being okay with it wasn’t how she should be feeling. Once she realized that, she could feel how it was something being done to her by the rose. Then she remembered the other spell on it. If Zenzar broke his promise, she would know. But if she lost the bracelet, then she wouldn’t know.
“Are you sure it’ll hurt me?” Matilda said.
Zheila was very serious now. Very sincere. “Dat unicorn was rotten to da bone. Nothing in any echo of her would do anypony any good. At least let me show ya how to break da thread.”
Matilda glanced up from the bracelet. Zenzar was giving her puppy-dog eyes. “Well…okay. I guess. But this bracelet isn’t what you came to talk to me about. Let’s talk about that.”
Zheila wasn’t going to let Matilda change the subject.
“Dat can wait. As far as I’m concerned, we have a more urgent problem. Ya used blood magic to make an amulet and now dat thing is gonna start corrupting ya. Dat takes priority. You take priority. You’re our friend. Right, Zen?”
Both mares turned to find Zenzar staring at a doorway across the room. Zheila was willing to bet it was the door opening onto the stairs Zenzar had described to her. Matilda’s expression cinched it. It was clear Zenzar was longing for the mask trapped in the pool. He had told her he didn’t, and she had believed him. So what was this? Proximity effect?
“Right, Zen?” Zheila said.
The zebra stallion blinked and gave his head a little shake. He took a half-step back. Then the words he’d heard finally seemed to reach his brain. He looked over at his sister and nodded. It was clear he had no idea he’d been staring at the door like a dog at a juicy bone. If he had, he would have looked guiltier. Zheila kept her eye from going narrow. So. Zenzar hadn’t lied to her about not lusting after the Face of Summer. He was lying to himself about it. That was even worse.
“Of course.” Zenzar said. “Mattie, please let her help ya.”
Matilda gave both of them a cold stare. Unnerving, considering Zheila would have bet money the youthful mare wasn’t capable of that sort of expression. As Matilda slid out of her chair and moved away from the two, she gave them a look over her shoulder and a quiet sigh. “I said I’ll let you teach me how to break my link to this bracelet. I accepted your offer of help. Now, please stop beating around the bush. You’re here about the mask, so talk about the mask.”
Zheila glanced sideways to see her brother glancing sideways at her. Her one eye met his two. Each one saw that their twin shared their sudden unease. They’d both understood that Matilda was crazy. Harmless, but she was the loony mare that talked to stuffed animals. This wasn’t a sudden attack of sanity. Zenzar had told Zheila about how Matilda had become serious last night. If this was like that, Zenzar wouldn’t look so worried. This was a new kind of crazy…and Zheila thought she recognized it. Not the voice, but the tone. She hoped she imagined the faint trace of cheap strong rose perfume.
“…it’s all part of da same thing, Matilda.” Zheila said. “We’re concerned for your safety, and dat thing…” is making the evil rose strapped to your ankle a lot more powerful “…if it’s really da Face of Summer, it’s not safe here in da middle of da city. Ya can’t keep it hidden forever. We need to find a permanent solution to getting rid of it. I mean, if Zen can stumble across it, then what’s to stop a pony that specifically searches for lost magical items? It’s only a matter of time.”
Matilda smirked. “Zenny didn’t elaborate on my security system, did he.”
Zenzar was too busy staring at a stuffed rabbit to reply, but Zheila could put two and two together. She tried not to think about that word, elaborate, and how out of character it sounded coming from Matilda. “Da toys can’t do anything, and you’re just one pony. I’m not sure if ya realize what you’ve got your hooves on here. It’s power, Mattie. Raw uncontrollable power in your basement, guarded by a bunch of stuffed animals. Work with us, please.”
Matilda’s head tilted. Eyes squinted in suspicion. The expression, the way her head tilted, made Zheila’s skin start to crawl. She had seen that expression before. Matilda gave a tiny nod. “What do you propose?”
“Let me to study it.” Zheila said. She put a hoof over her heart. “I won’t put it on. Da analysis of magic items without using them is only unreliable with subtle things. This thing is so powerful, reading its aura will be a snap. I’ll take it back to our home. We have guards, it’ll be secure. Once I’m sure of its nature, I’ll be able to work out how to destroy it, or at least craft a cage dat actually muffles its power. Also…”
She glanced at Zenzar and bit her lip.
“Da other mask. Where’s da Face of Winter?"
Matilda giggled. The wrong kind of giggle. This was a simpering fake thing, the giggle of a snotty female bully putting somepony down. “Winter is coming.”
Zheila frowned. Well, yes: it was. That was what autumn meant. There was a sinister trace of sarcasm in that last statement. A hint of deeper meanings.
The twins exchanged a look again. Matilda went to toss her mane with a flick of her head, and was disconcerted to remember it was bristly-short as a zebra’s should be. Zheila had a long luscious wavy mane. Matilda wanted it. Pity about the color, but white could be dyed. She brushed at her bristly mane with a fore-hoof, quietly breathing in the scent of the rose. Part of her felt as if things were deeply wrong, but she ignored it. The rest of her felt confident and strong. Free of doubt. More so by the minute. The sweet sting as a thorn of the bracelet broke her skin only made her focus sharper.
“Oh, where do I begin?” Matilda said. “First of all, this place went unguarded for centuries between the last of the old guardians dying and the day I found it. The Mask of Summer works to perfect and sustain all spells and enchantments. You think those glowing gems lining the cavern are just for ambiance? There’s a nested globe of wards, like a giant onion. The inner ward hides the mask. But…a ward that powerful would be about as subtle to magical senses as a burning flamingo in a flock of penguins. No idea what it hides, but it must hide something big. The next ward out? It’s a little weaker. All it does is hide the first one. And so on and so on, weaker wards hiding stronger ones, until the outer one is so weak it’s almost impossible to sense. I only did because my spirit is naked to the world. Painfully sensitive.”
Matilda turned away, unable to stand their stupid expressions. They didn’t understand. “Do you think it’s an accident it was put in a pool of pure sterile water in a cavern cut from the lifeless bedrock, down far away from the warmth of the sun? The ward-spells gobble up almost all the power it leaks. The energy has nowhere else to go: no life to feed. If you take it from here, even if you don’t wear it, the magic will gush out. It promotes all life, all growth. Insects will breed and mature too fast. Plants will grow fast enough to notice. Anypony with an infectious disease will find it being filled with deadly vigor. Living mold will devour dead food. Ask Zenzar how drinking the water made him feel. That’s how it would make everypony around it feel. Good luck doing objective research with a brain-load of crazy-happy.
“It gets better. Powerful spells have to be absolutely perfect. The more energy they hold, the greater the strain. The tiniest flaw and it shatters. Those wards are perfect because the mask made them so. They’re pressing in, fighting the power pushing out. They resist it, oppose it. That’s their nature. Take the mask out of that cavern unworn and you’ll push its untempered power into those wards. They’ll pop like a balloon stabbed by a thorn. They’ll implode.” Matilda brought her fore-hooves together with a sharp crack that made them jump. “All their energy gets dumped in the well as heat. The water doesn’t just turn to steam. It gets shattered into gases and heated until it glows. It turns into fire. You better be wearing the mask when you walk out. Otherwise you don’t have a snowflake’s chance on the sun of surviving. The cavern will collapse and the mask will be sealed in the molten rubble. Not ideal, but better than having it loose in the world.”
“Dat makes no sense.” Zheila said. “Why spare da boom if da mask walks out on a face?”
Matilda gave the mare a scornful glare. It was clear she thought Matilda was lying. “Because the elders who made this prison understood the day might come when there’s an emergency so terrible that using the Face of Summer is an acceptable risk. A pony pure of heart and strong of mind could be chosen to wear it for a short time and deal with the emergency; then bring it back to the cavern and take it off while they could still muster the strength.” She moved her glare between the two. “You two. You march down here, so certain you know what’s best. Certainly better than poor little old mad me.” She fluttered her lashes. The building anger felt good. She felt focused, alive. Trust was for morons. “The zebras who made this place are the ones who made the Faces of Summer and Winter. Can you make an incredibly powerful magical artifact, Zheila? Do you think a second-rate alchemist who dabbles in circle magic could ever possibly manage to unmake one? Or build a better cage for it than this one? Don’t make me laugh.”
Zheila looked wounded and afraid. Matilda switched targets to Zenzar, who just looked angry. But the fuel for that fire was fear. Matilda could see it like a wiggling brown worm. “And you. Mister Denial. Oh, you don’t want to wear the mask, honest! Please.” She took a moment to inhale the perfume from her rose. It didn’t calm her but it made the anger smoother, less turbulent. “You want it: you just refuse to admit it to yourself. You’re like a foal hiding their face in their hooves and thinking if you can’t see them, they can’t see you. Let’s have a little honesty.”
Matilda gestured the fore-hoof with the bracelet. A jab of pain from the thorn stabbing her. The thread of the spell linking it to Zenzar twanged like a plucked wire. Inside his head, self-imposed barriers unraveled. That sick-strong hunger for the mask boiled up into his awareness. Once she rubbed his nose in it, he could never wall it away again. His reaction was disappointing. Only a moment of horror and then his expression and aura turned to stone. No longer denying it, he was fighting it. Good. Now he had a fighting chance to resist it, beat it down. The Face of Summer was hers to guard. Nopony was going to take it from her. She didn’t need to wear it. The water was so useful. Healing properties, amplifying spells, keeping her precious rose alive.
Sir Vorpal knew about the mask, and that was an oversight. Fortunately she had kept a lock of his hair as…ugh…a keepsake. With that as a focus she could guide a teleport to wherever he may be. Into a place and time when her arrival wouldn’t be observed. Then she could bind his tongue to silence. Keeping the mask hidden was of the utmost importance. She had always known that. Only now, with sudden clarity, did she realize it was too important to let things like emotion get in the way. Better for one to suffer to keep the mask hidden than risk its release and the suffering of untold numbers.
Matilda looked back to Zheila to discover an alarming sight. The mare’s one blue eye had gone slit-pupiled, and her angry snarl exposed quite pointy fangs. Her mane had gathered into defined locks that subtly shifted in a manner quite suggestive of snakes. Even her face seemed to have changed shape. Narrower in the muzzle, more angular. But that might just have been the cold fury. “You put a spell on my brother.” Her voice came out deeper, with a hint of gravel and echo. “I sensed it when ya used it just now. It smelled like blood and roses.”
The spell was a lot harder to focus without a horn. Why did Matilda feel she should have had one? She was a zebra. Though it would have been nice to be a unicorn. Still, she managed to force the spell into shape anyway. A small star of white light that flashed bright as lightning before winking out. It made both her unwanted guests blink at the same time. In that sliver of unobserved time, Matilda stepped away.
Not far. Just down to her pantry. From there her hooves would have to carry her into the mask chamber. No teleporting into it, or out of it. But teleporting around inside it? No problem. She would wait for Zheila there, in the dark. No glimmer of light to make the gems glow. Zheila would come. Maybe looking for her. Maybe not. She would definitely come to look at the mask, the idiot. No chance she would let her precious brother follow her down here. Zenzar wouldn’t want to come. Or rather…he wanted it too much to trust himself.
The ambassador could wait. These two knew about the Face of Summer being here and that had to be fixed. But they were two against her one. Together they were a problem. One at a time, not so much. Divide and conquer. Zheila only had one eye. When she blinked it, she was blind for an instant that Matilda could use to change her position in the cavern. Matilda hadn’t shared all the details she had learned from the book written by the last of the guardians. The wards on this cavern would not react well to entry by a dragon. Zheila’s curse put a taint of the draconic on her. Especially now that she was furious. Matilda wanted to see if the wards mistook her for a dragon. Interesting to watch, if messy to scrape off the walls afterwards. If Zheila made it through, Matilda would teach her what happened to a zebra unwise enough to engage in hoof-to-hoof against a teleporting enemy.
But first, a dip in the water for her precious rose…
Skidding to a halt near the white unicorn, Fantasy discovered her headlong run had left her too out of breath to say a word. Her eyes had already answered the most important question. Tradewind wasn’t here. When the anonymous note arrived telling her that the Just in Time would dock here at dawn, she had known it was from Luna. The elegant copperplate writing and jasmine-scented paper was a hint, but walking into her room to see the note pinned to Mister Billy clinched it.
Fantasy had gotten dressed for going out rather than dressed for going to bed, as originally planned. Dealing with her cousin Bubbles had made her night’s work in the Brass Hoof even more tiring than usual. Sheer excited energy had carried her here. At least she had remembered to bring the mysterious letter with her. She had planned to read it in the privacy of her room before going to bed. Instead she had read it on the airbus up to Aura. From White Lightning, revealing that the night they spent together had been nothing but a false memory implanted in them by Smog. Nothing she didn’t already know, but White Lighting hadn’t known that. It had been nice of him to tell her, especially given the risk he thought he had been taking, messing with Smog’s business. It was nice to know he was doing okay settling into a new life.
Fantasy was glad to know Lightning wouldn’t actually get in trouble for the letter. Smog was gone. His insurance policies were being quietly nipped in the bud by the small army of pegasi and unicorns Luna had brought with her. The ones who, under an illusion of being Luna, had given the speech to Aura and Shadowville. Fantasy hadn’t heard any rumors about them. Not directly. Rumors that Smog had vanished were spreading, though. And others were beginning to disappear. Sleeper agents intended to help kick-start the chaos vanished before they could.
The déjà vu still cropped up now and then, but it had a fragmented quality. Like paragraphs and short scenes from a familiar book recycled verbatim in a new one. Things were starting to diverge from the disaster that had harmlessly unfolded in a city-wide shared dream. Luna was halting the chaos. Of course things would get trickier as the world stopped following that script and Luna could no longer predict where trouble would start next. Hopefully by now she had dealt with most of the ones who had been set to make trouble.
Looking up, Fantasy realized the crew of the Just in Time had been patiently waiting for her to catch her breath. Kirra perched on Baz, and the Captain…Fantasy stared. He scowled back until she looked away, blushing at her rudeness. His visible body was striped with purple and graced with small sparkly gems. Given her knowledge of the three, she suspected Kirra had pulled some kind of prank. “Um, I heard you were coming.”
“You heard right.” Baz said. “Hi again.”
“Hi.” Fantasy said. Kirra leapt over and hugged her neck, nuzzling her little nose into Fantasy’s mane. Fantasy pressed a hoof to her, hugging her back. “Hello you to too, cutie.”
Kirra whispered in her ear. “Tradewind’s in town.”
“Where did you hear that?” Fantasy said. She was rather startled. She knew he was here, but her information came direct from Luna, who had been keeping his presence a secret.
“From a…” the Captain said, “…a friend.”
“We hoped he was with you.” Baz said. The Captain and Kirra both looked at him. He stared back. “You mean you didn’t? Where else was he going to be? I know if Fantasy was my special somepony I’d never want to leave her be-her side.”
A somewhat uncomfortable silence followed. Kirra hopped back to the earth pony’s head and gave his left ear a nip. The Captain ignored this, and the one-sided scuffle that followed. It consisted of Baz trying to swat Kirra, while Kirra dodged so his hooves only hit himself. The unicorn guided Fantasy a little way off, near a wall and out of the main trickle of traffic. “You thought he was with us?” His eyes glanced at her simple but rather fetching lavender-blue dress.
“I know he’ll turn up today.” Fantasy said. “Not how. Just that-” She tried and failed to stifle a yawn. “Excuse me. Just that he’ll come to me, or I’ll find him. Today. If you want to find him, just stick with me. I guess.”
“We need a place to stay.” the Captain said. “I suppose the Brass Hoof is a better place than many. Sometime today? Nothing more specific?”
Fantasy had given it some thought. Luna might have meant ‘a full twenty-four hours’ when she said Tradewind would be kept asleep and out of the action for ‘a day.’ If so, that would be noon to noon. “Noon?” she said.
“May I know the source of your certainty?”
Fantasy gave him a smile, maybe a teasing one. “A friend.”
He took the point with a wince. “Nice to have friends.”
“It is. So it’s settled. You’re staying at the Brass Hoof tonight. Until then…” She yawned again. “I guess I can follow you around if you have things to do.”
“You look like you need sleep.” She tried to protest until she saw his expression. “I can’t make you go home, but you should. If Tradewind turns up before we get there, don’t let him leave. Knock him down and sit on him if you have to.”
Fantasy snapped a salute. “Aye, sir!” She got a quickly concealed smile as her reward. “But really. I’m not that sleepy. Where are you going? If it sounds exhausting I’ll leave you to it.”
His expression went odd. Shifty? No, not quite right, but in the neighborhood. “The Avec Noir.”
“Ohhhh.” Fantasy said. She realized how knowing that had come out sounding and blushed. “I mean, oh. That’s okay. I’ll come along. That’s nice and relaxing. I’d like to see Fleur and Flambé again. Plus they have big soft beds. I mean, I can catch a nap while you do…you know, whatever you’re…er, I’ll just stop talking now.” Plopping on her rump, she hid her face in her hooves. “Eurrgh.”
His low chuckle made her peek up. “It’s fine. Fleur and I have an…understanding. It’s not a secret. I want to see how she’s getting on, what with…recent events.” He gallantly offered a fore-hoof, which she accepted in rising to her hooves. “We’re both lucky ponies.”
“Too right, mate.” He blinked and she realized she had attempted a Freeport accent. “Sorry. Bad?”
“It wasn’t terrible.”
He led her back to Baz and Kirra, who had attracted a loose circle of amused onlookers. Kirra had the earth pony in something like a modified submission hold, gripping an ear in each hind paw and the end of his tail in her fore-paws. If he tried to fight or even move, there would be pain. Of course if he was willing to take the pain, Kirra would have to let go or end up doing a turn on the rack.
The Captain noticed them, but he seemed not to care.
“Sorry.” Fantasy said. “About the accent thing. No offense meant, I swear. I get silly when I’m sleepy.”
“I get surly. You win. Alright, Kirra. Let him go.” Kirra failed to do anything of the sort, dangling above Baz like a small furry hammock. “Okay, you two can stay here while Fantasy and I go visit some friends of ours. Put a hat out, maybe you can earn some bits.” He turned away.
Kirra let go of Baz, whose face was red with anger and embarrassment. She perched on his head, which he tolerated with sullen resignation. They soon caught up to Fantasy and the Captain, who hadn’t slowed down or looked back. Fantasy did, and she saw two griffins in the little crowd exchange a look. Then they ambled off, trying to look as if they just happened to be headed the same direction as Fantasy and her friends.
They almost managed it, but not quite. No déjà vu. This hadn’t happened in the dream, meaning Luna almost certainly didn’t know it was going to happen. Fantasy waited for the fear, but instead she got a slow burn of anger. She knew about the Captain’s special talent. If those two birdbrains tried anything they were going to be badly…if briefly…surprised.
Zheila blinked away the floating blob in her vision. No special rush, she knew Matilda was gone. Teleported away when they weren’t looking. Some kind of light-flash spell…from a zebra? No potion or powder, just boom: magic? That was more like unicorn magic. The teleporting was too. That remnant of Rose Madder was even nastier than she had feared. It seemed to have reacted to the attempt to cut it off by pushing its influence on Matilda hard. Part of Zheila’s mind with nothing better to do wondered if Rose Madder also could only teleport when unobserved. She met her brother’s eyes. To his credit, he didn’t flinch away from the sight of hers with a slit pupil.
“Da wards guarded it for hundreds of years with no problem.” He said. “I say it’s better off without a guardian. Da old zebras wanted it kept so they could use it in emergencies. I say it’s not worth da risk of turning into an emergency. Mattie’s always been crazy but now she’s insane. Dat rose never would have been a problem without dat mask and its pool. I say we save her and then collapse da tunnel to da cavern.”
Zheila felt a surge of warm sibling affection that chipped away at her draconic ire. She took a deep breath and ran her hooves over her muzzle, blinking her eye and trying to calm down. Anger would make her stupid. She needed to be smart if she wanted to get this done. “It’s da sad truth. Ponies mess up. I think you’re right.”
Zenzar gave a heavy snort. “We gotta find Mattie first.”
“She’s in da mask chamber.” Guarding it. For all the wrong reasons now, but still guarding it.
He frowned, but not in doubt. “Ya sure?”
“I can still smell blood and roses.” Zheila said. “She’s down there. I can taste her in my head.”
“Through those wards?”
“Those wards are only for keeping da mask’s power hidden.”
Zenzar rose and backed toward the door up to the surface. “I ain’t going anywhere near dat mask.”
“What did she do to ya?”
“Pried my mind open like a walnut.” Zenzar said. He shuddered. “I didn’t want to wear da mask, and she waved her hoof, and suddenly I did want to, and I realized I always did.”
“Oh.” Zheila said. Matilda had forced Zenzar out of denial. Still mind magic and blood magic and all-around bad, but at least it wasn’t some imposed compulsion that would drive her brother insane. Matilda hadn’t put anything in his head, hadn’t changed anything. Just rubbed his nose in the truth. Probably just to be cruel. Rose Madder had been cruel. Deep in those green eyes, some kind of…spark had been gone.
“I can’t trust myself near it.” Zenzar said. “I know dat now. I took it off once, but I don’t think I could do it again. Besides, da Face of Summer can’t break spells, and dat’s what we need: to break da spell on Matilda.” He heaved a breath. “Ya can’t rely on me around her, either. Not if she has a spell dat can let her mess with my head.”
Zheila shook her head. “No. I can’t. I think I could handle being in da mask chamber okay. My little…problem…is acting up.” She motioned to her slitted eye, lifted her lip to show off the fangs. “This part of me is all about destruction. Da mask would have a harder time getting past dat. Actually…” She stared at the ceiling as a horribly risky plan formed in her mind. “Dragon me and fat you." Things started to slot into place with a terrible sense of perfection. Zenzar and she were twins, but opposites. Even their curses were sort-of opposite. Zheila knew Fate was a real thing, even if it never really touched the lives of most zebras. When it did, there were signs. Themes. This mask…was a twin.
And they needed something that could destroy a powerful blood-bound amulet poisoned with a dead unicorn’s insanity.
“Yergh, don’t remind me.” Zenzar said. “I’m carrying a little pudge from wearing dat mask.” The male zebra gave a worried glance back at himself, face twisting into a grimace. “I’m greedy for it.”
“I have a plan.” Zheila said. She tried to sound confident.
Zen turned back to face her and nodded twice. “I’m game for anything. Just say it.”
“She gave me da spark of da idea. Matilda did. Ya know how sometimes she used to say stuff dat made no sense, and then a while later something happened and then it made sense?”
“Yeah, dat’s spooky. Go on.”
“Matilda’s in there, fighting. Her old kind of crazy is fighting da new kind. She said something and I think it was a prediction. Winter is coming. Coming here.”
Zenzar blinked, clueless. “I don’t get it.”
“Da Face of Winter. It can break dat rose amulet.”
He got it now, and didn’t want it. “Uh.”
“Matilda said dat a strong-willed pony can wear it a little while and den take it off. You say ya love her. You can save her. Think either mask can overwhelm love?” His expression hardened and she knew she had him. Now she just had to hope Fate really was on their side. “Da Face of Summer’s sealed up away from life and things dat support life. Da Face of Winter should be opposite. Someplace full of magic and life.”
“Da city parks?”
“No, it would have to be in da oldest part of da city. All da old parks got swallowed by buildings long ago. Wait. Da caretakers of da masks all died out a long time ago. Left alone, da Face of Winter would kill or drive off all life, work against any magic except maybe destructive stuff. So…someplace lifeless dat used to be alive. Someplace nopony ever goes, except maybe to do evil.”
His eyes met her eye and they spoke as one. “Old Dead Tree.”
Zenzar nodded. “I got a hatchet in Sasha’s saddlebags. No magic in da tree, right? No wards. Just dead wood it can’t ever escape because da mask kills off all da living stuff dat causes wood rot. Nice trap. I guess it worked better when da tree was alive, but even dead it keeps da mask locked up, and da mask chases everypony off with da creeps."
“A hatchet? Dat’s…convenient.” Or fated.
“A hatchet’s a tool, not a weapon. If da cops searched me I didn’t want to get caught with a real weapon. If da Capra made a move on me, I didn’t want to get caught unarmed.”
“Right, them.” Somehow it was hard to take the goat mafia seriously right now. Zenzar headed for the stairs. “Zenzar?” He looked back. “Do not get White Lightning involved. I think we should take care of this, just us.”
Zenzar sighed. “Sure. Just like old times. How are you gonna to fight her? She can teleport.”
The mare grinned a little and moved to take her cloak off the nail by the door. She put it on and pulled something from one of its many inside pockets. “I went out this morning loaded for goat too. All kinds of goodies. I’ll open with this.”
Zenzar recognized what she held. “Oh, I get it. Teleporting won’t do her much good after dat thing goes off.”
He left, trotting up the stairs. She heard him rev Sasha, to the sleepy complaints of the crows. Zheila grinned, defying the sick fear in her guts. It was almost like old times. Back when Zenzar was the protector of the playground, the sort-of bully that kept the younger foals safe by threatening to pound anypony who messed with them. She wasn’t as strong but she was smarter. She came up with the plans, he helped carry them out.
The potion she clamped in her teeth gave off a fitful, jittery, but diffuse white glow, like lightning dissolved in milk. It gave her just enough light to get down the long narrow stairs without falling. The glowing mushrooms ringing the floor of the cave-room at the bottom gave her pause. She made a note to collect some after all this was over. Zenzar had described the turn-then-turn-back zigzag of the tunnel. Pulling the potion into her mouth, she felt her away along in the dark with as little noise as possible. She just had to keep Matilda disabled or occupied until Zenzar came back.
Reaching the end, feeling the open air beyond, she stopped as a gathering tension seemed to condense around her. A definite sense of warning. The wards didn’t like her? She had to risk it. She moved her patch over her good eye. Working the little twist-spigot on the potion was tricky with her tongue. She managed it, causing a small amount of powder in the neck to mingle with the liquid. It began to buzz on a rising tone. Zheila spat it out into the cavern as hard as she could and then hit the floor, crushing her fore-hooves into her ears and squeezing her eye tight. Even so the sound hit her like a physical slap to the eardrums. The dark behind her eyelid and eyepatch went bright red. Over the dull ringing of her ears she heard a teakettle shriek.
Zenzar used to keep a few of them in his coat back when he was hanging with a bad crowd. Zheila had made them for him, for if he ever needed a quick escape. They didn’t hurt anypony and the police only frowned on civilians with them. They weren’t actually illegal. She’d still had a few gathering dust, and taken to carrying them since the whole Capra mess started.
Opening her eye and flipping up the patch, Zheila had expected darkness. Instead she was dazzled by swirling rainbow light. It was like something out of a mushroom hallucination. Right, the glowy gems. Well, crud. She had been expecting a period in which she could see but Matilda couldn’t, in order to soft-pitch some follow-up potions. She’d like to see Little Miss Teleport move around with her vision flipped and her sense of gravity inverted. Zheila squinted past the glare as she charged forward, a pair of potions in between her lips.
The warning of the wards hadn’t been a bluff. Bolts of green lightning wrapped in golden fire hit at her from every direction. Her curse surged, tingling at the flood of pure magic rolling in from the chamber. Zheila felt her hooves melt and split into dragon-like claws. The bolts started to hurt even worse, digging into her like blunt red-hoot knives. They set her cloak on fire. Her mane and tail caught fire next. She gave a snarl and surged forward past the warded doorway. The piercing spells tore free. Her long white beautiful mane? Somepony was going to bleed for this.
Another whistling shriek answered her snarl. Matilda tackled her from the right, went to grapple, and then recoiled with a different kind of shriek as she found herself hugging a bonfire. She leapt away. Zheila stopped thinking. She saw and acted.
Blissful cold wetness embraced her as she dove headlong into the pool of water. She had a split second to think ‘oh, fu-’ before all the air in her lungs escaped as a giggle. Pure glorious vitality flooded her. The burns on her body melted away. Her hair grew back out. Even her burned cloak repaired itself, the frayed parts stitching back together. Every potion hidden in it was washed clean of flaws and filled with power. It was optimism and joy and confidence. Fear? What was that?
And there it was on the bottom, the smiling source of it all. A little voice in the back of her head yelled at her to stop, but she ignored it. This felt right. Holding the mask in her fore-hooves, she kicked up off the bottom. The mask broke the surface, then her head. It was a lot heavier in the air.
Matilda came shrieking at her. Zheila beamed and pressed the mask to her face. The other zebra convulsed into helpless hysterical giggles. Holding the mask in place, she did up the laces in a hurry. Her face had gone all dragon along with the rest of her, but the long muzzle melted back so the mask fit her better. Zheila kept her lower half in the water. It felt glorious even with the burning green-gold sun of pure life burning in her mind. Zenzar didn’t have the mystic senses to appreciate what he’d had. Zheila knew some circle magic. She knew about manipulating her life-force to magical ends. Now she had a limitless supply.
The other mare was starting to go blue, laughing so hard she couldn’t breathe. That wouldn’t do at all: she might die. Zheila sent her into a deep soothing sleep. She took stock of her surroundings. Ugly dead stone, ugly dead gems, but full of wonderful magical spells. Zheila removed her too-small cloak, pausing to admire the rainbow light dancing on the water beading her black-and-white-striped scales. She paused again as she realized she held the cloak in…well, her hair. Long luscious living locks that obeyed her merest whim like tentacles.
“Oh, dear. I probably look frightful.” In the water, her long tail swished back and forth. More puddled on the floor. She folded her forelegs on the raised edge of the pool. Her hair deftly unloaded the cloak. “Ooh, lovely. Seeds. All sorts of seeds. Poor little things, I was going to use you in potions when I should have put you in some nice soft dirt.” Glancing at the gems, she made their light turn to that of the sun. “There. I’ll just turn this old rag to dirt.” The emptied cloak dissolved. “There you are. A little water and…”
Green plants erupted from the heap like a forest of tiny spring-loaded umbrellas. Roots shot into the stone like nails into a pine board. The spells made the stone fight back, trying to close the holes. Zheila urged her precious babies to fight back, to grind minerals out of the rock. They didn’t need dirt: just water, air, sun, and those minerals. The patch of greenery crawled outwards from the pool. Taproots poked sideways into the well and tickled her belly. Matilda ended up in a snug cradle of moss. Transforming the plants to wider varieties was stupidly simple. All life spoke the same language, deep down. They just said different things. Plant, animal: it was all the same. Plants around the cradle sprouted watchful, unblinking eyes. “Wake up, sweetie.”
Matilda snapped awake, took one look at Zheila, and started swearing. Vines wrapped her and held her down. The rose bracelet was a vicious, selfish thing. A shriveled little hateful thing. But it was alive, so it was beautiful in its own way. Zheila shook her head and tsked. “Oh, dear. Mattie, can we not fight? I’d rather just have the boys over for lunch. Yours and mine.” She wanted White Lightning in here. There was no better time to start a family. Matilda said something truly foul. “Oh, well. My brother will be back soon with that dreadful mask. Only thing in the world that doesn’t deserve to exist. I’ll just take care of it. Then I can see about making this city of brick and stone bloom again.” Around her, trees like over-large bonsai began to bear fruit. Some swayed in the still air. Others rippled. Seeds, eggs: it was all the same.
A big melon near Matilda burst open to reveal…breakfast. In natural wood bowls, on a wooden tray. “Now eat up, sweetie-pie: you need to stay strong and healthy.”
With a sharp turn and a skid, Zenzar brought Sasha to a halt just inside the courtyard known to most as Old Dead Tree. He cut her engine and she died oddly fast, without the brief usual wind-down. He dropped her kickstand and tried to tell himself that the deep quiet was natural, that the sense of chill to the morning air was just leftover from the night and preserved by the shadows of the buildings surrounding this place. He tried and failed. Maybe it was having worn the Face of Summer. Maybe it was just coming here knowing what was here. He felt it. He felt the Face of Winter.
Zenzar had been expecting…malevolence. Hate. Evil. But the masks hadn’t been made to be evil. Their evil was an accident. Creation and destruction were two sides of a coin named change. Creating anything destroyed something else. Smelting metal destroyed the ore. Burning wood created ash. Growth and dying. Creation and destruction. Summer and Winter. Nature needed both. Each half moderated the other one. The old zebras had messed up when they tried to treat them was separate things. Like an engine with a throttle but no brake. Unchained, unchecked, unbalanced: uncontrollable.
It felt like three in the morning, when he sometimes woke up to stare in the darkness, filled with a quiet sense that his whole life was pointless. Horribly aware that some day he was going to die and rot in a grave, and eventually be forgotten. Those terrible lonely moments when the whole world felt like a painted skin stretched over an infinite void. But then the sun rose and his stomach demanded breakfast and the feelings faded, forgotten. Zenzar felt it now: despair.
Zenzar stoked his passion. Even fear could be bent to drive him forward rather than back. His dread of what was happening to Matilda made alliance with his love for her. If the Face of Winter could kill the spiritual parasite wrapped around her wrist and her mind…he’d wear it. For her, he’d make this old mask come to heel. Ears pinned back, hatchet fetched from Sasha’s saddlebag, Zenzar took in a deep breath and let it out. He started toward the old dead tree, which was barkless and weathered to silvery grey. Missing a lot of twigs thanks to strong winds but mostly intact. The mask’s power killed or drove away anything alive. It hadn’t been able to destroy the lifeless wood. Just as, Zenzar realized, the Face of Summer hadn’t been able to transform the dead stone of the cavern into living plants. The masks both had a focus on life. And magic, but even dark magic came from life. If only by feeding on it. It took the will of a wearer to do anything wider.
Zenzar knew better than to linger near the mask longer than he had to. Hopefully the stain of Summer on his brain would give him a little more time, a little more insulation. He still needed to hurry. He forced himself to stride up to the substantial trunk. “Chop-chop, Zen. C’mon.” His self-directed pun fell flat. Hatchet gripped in his jaws, he hacked at the wood. The blade was sharp but the oak had aged into something nastier than iron. No need to probe around, hoping the mask was inside rather than under the tree. This close, he could have pointed right at the mask, the same as he could turn his face toward a fire even with his eyes closed tight. Maybe it had been put in a dug-out hollow and the panel of living bark replaced over it to heal. Maybe it had just been nailed to the tree by its eyeholes and left for the wood to slowly engulf.
But it was definitely in there.
Something shifted. His passion was guttering out, taking his courage with it. The dread it fought against was dying too. All his emotions were losing color. Even love for his sister, for Matilda. The reason he was taking this horrible risk, the reason it was worth taking. They stopped making sense. Doubts boiled up in their absence. Doubts weren’t emotions. Nor was the dark urge to smash this tree apart and claim the mask inside. It spoke to him in the little insane voice that sometimes whispered jump when he stood near a long drop. The sick urge to turn over something dead and see the worms. The part that was fascinated by death, seduced by it.
The Three A.M. Voice.
Dark urge versus logical, dispassionate doubts. He slowed his hacking, which had been getting subtly easier. Surely there were other ways, less dangerous ways, to free Matilda. Perhaps he didn’t need to resort to this. Perhaps Zheila could handle it herself. They just needed to kill the rose. Of course. There were bound to be other methods to pull that off. Surely the risk of him wearing this ancient artifact was unjustifiably high while there were still less extreme options. It might be a last resort, but had they reached ‘last’ yet? Besides, while he could remember his feelings for Matilda they no longer made much sense. Hormonal insanity. The breeding urge wrapped in the heart-print paper of romance. Should he risk destroying himself for somepony else?
Take me. Wear me.
“I think not.” Zenzar said.
Turning away, he walked to Sasha and replaced the cover on the hatchet blade. Hatchet in saddlebag, himself in the saddle. He had to roll her along the alley away from the courtyard, kicking the starter, before her engine purred to life. The influence of the mask started to fade. His emotions came back like an air-starved fire given a good fanning. Love, terror, hope, horror, and shame. He almost stopped to turn back, but then a shudder rolled over him. He kept going. Unwillingness to risk his life had saved him from the Face of Winter. Not a fear of death. There had been no fear. Just a cold selfish refusal to risk ending his life for anypony else. That had survived even when love had been half-smothered and warped into something hollow. He didn’t know how to deal with that.
More shame at his cowardice. He gunned Sasha, only throttling her back once he got to more populated streets outside the old city center. Maybe his willpower just wasn’t as strong as he’d always thought. His will was an engine, but the fuel it ran on was emotion. Passion. The Face of Summer took all the fire away. Nothing left but cold iron. If he put that thing on, he’d never take it off. There had to be some other way. Meanwhile a little gnat-whine voice sang to him that he could put on the mask and make all his bad feelings go away forever…
The stallion skidded to a halt outside the Garage, dully surprised that he wasn’t back at Matilda’s. He didn’t really remember much of the drive. Then he decided that part of him might have had a reason to come here. His sister was always hiding things from him. Magic things. Maybe she had something that could handle this evil rose. Walking Sasha inside, he didn’t bother to roll down the big metal door behind him. He wouldn’t be here long. Heading upstairs, he made a beeline towards his sister’s room. It was an effort to keep his tail from curling forward between his legs. He felt so scared that he bet the dark stripes on his face had paled.
Keeping their distance, Ivan and Vlad followed the target. It soon became clear she was headed into the heart of the docking spire, a gloomy collection of corridors so deep in the clouds that no natural light filtered through to them. All the bustle was closer to the outside.
“That dress.” Vlad said. “Lavender on purple? Is she colorblind? I hope she is, that means it’s not her fault.”
Glancing over, Ivan rolled his eyes. His brother was one tough son of an egg and had an eye for the ladies, despite a number of signs that would have suggested against both those things. Ivan was tough and looked tough, but he had no interest in ladies at all. Their father didn’t approve of either of them. He had moved here from Stalliongrad with his wife before having kids. He blamed Aura for his sons growing up to be ‘soft.’ Compared to that raggedy old rock farmer, granite was soft. He did approve of his sons being fine upstanding members of the police. Upholding the law and keeping the peace.
If only he knew.
Secrets and lies, every time they went home to visit. Mustn’t disappoint father or break their mother’s heart. So Vlad left his ascots and purple-tinted sunglasses at his apartment and Ivan made excuses to his boyfriend, which was getting harder. Fred was tired of sneaking around.
“That unicorn, though.” Vlad said. He moved the stick of his lollipop to the other side of his beak.
“Oh, boy. Here we go.”
“Oh, go snort fire-ants. I think he actually pulls off the look. It’s how he carries himself. You need some serious rocks to go out in public looking like that, but he owns it.”
“You do realize this is serious.” Ivan said.
His brother didn’t look away from the mare they followed even to give his brother a glare. “You do realize this is how I always get when things are about to get hairy.”
“What hair? There’s no hair. You know our orders. You know we can do this without any trouble.”
“I also know the fat lady’s warming up in her dressing room, and when she sings she’s going to bring down the house. Are we really doing this, Van?”
“We have our orders.”
“Not long ago we would have quit before we obeyed this order.”
“Not long ago the boss would have jumped into a swimming pool full of snakes before he ordered it.”
Vlad shuddered. “Shut up about snakes. I’m serious, Van. Why are we doing this? Ponies are disappearing. Ponies we know are insiders. Just gone without a trace. Some of them are seriously scary mother-huggers. If they’re leaving, we should be convincing mom and dad it’s high time we finally take a vacation as a family. Somewhere a long way off from here.”
“Why are you here if you aren’t committed to doing this?”
“Because I can tell when you’re sure you have a good reason for what you’re doing. Now I’m having second thoughts so I want to know what it actually is.”
Ivan didn’t answer for a long moment. “If you can’t guess, then you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
It seemed Vlad could guess. “That’s it? That’s the only reason?”
“It’s not enough?”
Vlad crunched the lollipop, pocketed the stick, and unwrapped a new one without breaking stride. “It’s enough, I suppose. I just assumed that couldn’t be the whole story.”
“I’m…tired, okay? Tired of pretending to be what I’m not.”
“I know dad’s old-fashioned-”
“Him? I don’t mean him. I mean our job, this badge. Look at us. Are we cops? Do we uphold the law? We’re not police, Vlad. We’re criminals pretending to be police. I’m tired of pretending. I’m here because I’m not pretending anymore.”
After a long pause, Vlad sighed. “I hear you. If the end is nigh, like that old nut on Fifth and Ash keeps saying, we might as well be who we really are. So. We’re really going to do this. Cross the line.”
“Looks like it.” Ivan said. Up ahead the mismatched quartet seemed to have reached their destination. Not the Den. That was locked up now. Not that there was a stampede of ponies wanting to go near it. The four of them went into the ratty little hotel across the corridor.
“I hate that glowing sign. Pink’s a little tacky but forgivable. I just want to hit it until that flickering letter either stops flickering or goes out. If we have to wait out here long, I’m thumping it.”
“We’re not.” Ivan said. He hadn’t slowed, so when Vlad did he fell behind and had to hustle to catch up.
“We’re going in there? Are you crazy!?”
“Probably.” Ivan said. “If I’m crossing the line, I’m not going to poke a talon over it. I’m going to drop a deuce on it and keep walking. Whatever happens, I’m going to know I did it my way. Just like the song. You with me?”
After a moment, Vlad made that always-abrupt transition from anxious dandy to fearless lunatic. Some beings were paralyzed by fear. Some got angry, or ran, or cowered, or fainted, or turned stubborn. Vlad started grinning, as if somehow danger had become funny. Or maybe not. The grins never reached his eyes. Those sparkled with something else, something unsettling. “All the way, brother of mine.”
Clanks, clatters, and quiet cursing from Zheila’s bedroom. Lightning nearly had a heart attack, since he had been creeping past the door to her room when the noises erupted. He’d already been on edge when it happened.
Lightning had thought he heard an engine out in the street. He had gone out the back door, looping over the roof so he could look down and check the street. A paranoid but compelling image had stopped him from just going downstairs to the garage and the front door: the image of doing that, only to be shoulder-barged by some Capra-hired thug. It was all well and good for Agent’s Seafoam and Buttercup to say the Capra were all leaving, and maybe the actual goats were, but what stopped them from hiring some local rent-a-goons to settle a few scores?
Facing the door, Lightning tried to slow his heart down from a frantic buzz. It had been hard to resist the urge to get something nastier than his collapsing baton before going to check the front. Discovering the big rising door open had made him second-guess himself. Lightning had avoided the door, knowing just how perfect a target his silhouette would be in the doorway with the bright street behind him. All while peering into the dark interior. He had flown to the back door and begun creeping along the hall listening for intruders.
Now, discovering there really was one, Lightning really regretted his restraint about arming himself. It had seemed sensible at the time. Deadly weapons upped the ante of any situation. Carrying a weapon could trigger an instant attack from a pony that might pause to hear out somepony unarmed. He’d prefer to try talking, and if that failed, thump a few heads and then run like his tail was on fire.
‘Annnd I’m procrastinating.’ Lightning thought.
The door was ajar. Lightning moved to ease it open and stopped just in time. His raised hoof trembled. So did his lower lip, just a little. The door was creaky. The slower it swung the louder the creak. Taking a deep breath, he opened the door fast, holding the knob so he could stop it just as fast before it hit the wall. Almost no sound, unless his staggering heartbeat counted.
The rear end of a heavily-built zebra protruded from the closet. Not heavy with fat either. Wearing a long brown coat. Zenzar wore that kind of coat. So did half the thugs in the city, and about ninety percent of the wannabe thugs. Zenzar would never be ransacking his sister’s room. Therefore, it was somepony else.
Lightning gathered himself for a charge. He wasn’t about to fight fair. This trespasser was built like a barge. Going hoof-to-hoof usually still favored a pegasus, even indoors. Unless the room was tiny. A room this size, there was room to dodge. Pegasi could dodge upwards as well as sideways and change directions mid-leap. Not to mention a blow from a wing could pack a punch. Pegasi usually had an advantage. Lightning was a very fast flier. He wasn’t an agile flier. Braking was a problem. Any attempt to dodge upwards would end with a skull-shaped dent in the ceiling. He’d done that before.
Besides, the thug probably had a weapon.
At the last second Lightning turned his charge into a leap. No warning sound of hooves on the floor. Landing beside the closet, he grabbed the tail of the coat, braced a hind hoof up on the wall, and heaved with all his might. His hope was to flip the thug up and then over onto his back, hopefully stunning them or at least surprising them enough for Lightning to get in a thump to their belly. He would have been satisfied with dragging them backwards with no flip, enough that he could reach their head with his baton.
What happened was this: the heavy breathing of the closet-rummager cut off in a strangled grunt of surprise. The thug could have been a statue that was nailed to the floor for all Lightning moved him. The hind legs lifted and lashed out. Hitting nothing but air. Lightning had learned, long before he ever joined the police academy, not to sneak up right behind a pony. Good way to get kicked.
He had also learned a number of dirty tricks, including one called the Wheelbarrow Waltz. He lunged, moving by instinct. His brain was still panicking over the sheer mass of his opponent. Lightning grabbed those hind legs as they lifted at the height of the bucking kick, positioning himself behind the zebra now. It was a little like holding the handles of a wheelbarrow. Now for the waltz. Lightning backed up, pulling on the zebra’s ankles. He danced back on his forelegs in an instinctive effort not to fall over. Lightning closed his eyes and flinched as the zebra swatted him in the face with his tail. He danced the zebra back out of the closet, then pulled down on the left hind while pushing up on the right hind. Strength was great but it couldn’t beat superior leverage. The zebra crashed over on his left side.
The floor bounced like a really stiff trampoline. Puffs of dust squirted up from between some of the boards. Parts of Zheila’s alchemical glassware tinkled and chattered. Lightning dropped his baton from his teeth into a hoof and landed on the zebra, hoping to pin him. It was hard for even a strong pony to push themselves up if they couldn’t lift their head. To his surprise, Lightning landed just as planned. The baton extended up along his foreleg and pressed across the zebra’s neck right behind the jaw. Lightning was half on the thug, but the half that wasn’t on him was on the side that didn’t have legs.
The muscles under him tensed. It was like lying on top of a boulder. Lightning felt the panic stab at him again. Then the zebra sagged. A moment passed in silence. During it, Lightning became aware of a very distinctive hairstyle, very close by. When that finally sunk in he leapt up and away. “Zenzar!”
The zebra just lay there on his side. An ear twitched. “White Lightning?” He slowly climbed to his hooves. “What did ya do dat for?”
“I thought you were…I don’t know, a burglar!” Lightning saw Zenzar flinch and realized he was shouting. And waving the baton like a conductor might at an incompetent musician. He collapsed it and put it away under a wing. “Sorry. Seriously, though. What are you doing?”
Zenzar’s eyes slid aside. “Looking for something.”
Things weren’t adding up. Lightning had seen Zenzar fight, out in the scrublands against those bandits. Jumping him should have had a hilariously bad outcome for Lightning. He looked closer. Zenzar was afraid. Seriously afraid. Lightning knew the look of a pony hanging back from panic by a thread. He’d seen it in a mirror often enough since his whole life took a turn for the worse. “Are you all right?”
The answer came too fast and a little too high-pitched. “I’m fine. This doesn’t concern you.” Zenzar turned back to the closet, but then he wavered. Regained his mental footing a little closer to the edge or panic. “Has my sister told ya about any really powerful secret potions or things she keeps secret? Maybe some circle-magic stuff?”
Zenzar dropped onto his rump, causing another floor-tremor. That was seriously weird. Lightning knew how much Zenzar weighed. He would never, no matter how hard he tried, forget the time at the embassy when the zebra sat on his head. Zenzar didn’t seem to weigh any more now. Lightning had felt that when he pulled the Wheelbarrow Waltz. But…the zebra seemed to have too much momentum and inertia for his weight. It was as disconcerting as picking up a lightweight wooden bat only to find it was as hard to swing and hard-hitting as a sledgehammer.
The mystery got pushed aside as Lightning realized Zenzar seemed on the point of tears. Lightning brushed at his bristly-short mane with a hoof, feeling awkward. “Uh…hey now. What’s wrong?”
A very brief but furious battle seemed to rage behind Zenzar’s face. “Matilda’s in bad trouble.”
“How can I help?” The question came without an instant’s pause or a hint of uncertainty.
“Screw da promise.” Zenzar said. “Lightning, da afreet turned Rose Madder into a rose, ya remember?” Lightning had forgotten, but the memory made a gleeful return. He gave a nod, filled with a foreboding that things were only going to get worse from here. “Matilda found it. She turned it into a magic bracelet dat could protect her from da afreet. She used…” Zenzar paused to audibly swallow “…blood magic. Her own blood, not…other blood. Still bad. Dat rose was all poisoned with Rose Madder’s crazy and it’s got Mattie. Zheila’s with her; got her knocked out and tied up, probably.”
“She sent you here to get some stuff for her?” But hadn’t told him exactly what she needed, by the look of it.
“Uh…ever hear an old zebra story about da Faces or Masks of Summer and Winter? A myth kind of thing.”
Lightning’s foreboding got worse. If fiveboding was a thing, he felt it. The question came slowly, because he really didn’t want to ask it. “Is this myth relevant to the problem?”
“Matilda’s been guarding da Mask of Summer. It’s what makes all her toys a little more alive than usual. Da power…leaks out a little, see?” Zenzar blinked. “Maybe da dolls and things soak up da leakage. Huh, never thought of dat. Anyway she’s gone crazy. Not her usual harmless head-in-da-clouds stuff. Mean-crazy: all paranoid and selfish and narsit…narsissy…all snooty better-than-you.”
“What are these masks? I never heard of them.” He’d hated school when little, and after he was determined to become a cop he had studied hard…on the stuff he needed to know. Lightning knew the ground and air traffic ordinances for Aura almost by heart but the only thing he knew about zebra myths was that they were myths, and zebras had them.
Zenzar tried to explain. He rambled and backtracked and skipped parts but Lightning tried to be patient and keep him on track. It wasn’t long before enough pieces had spilled out for Lightning to assemble something like a picture.
“Crap on a stick.” Lightning said. Zenzar hadn’t been stupid: he had just been too afraid to think straight. What do you do when afraid and at a loss? You run home. Mentioning it wouldn’t be helpful. “Okay. Here’s what we do. We go to Matilda’s house. You said Zheila has her?”
“Yeah, I’m sure of dat. Why go there now?”
“If there’s anything here that Zheila can use to help Matilda, the only pony who knows what it is, is Zheila. We go there, we ask her. Whatever she needs, I can fly back here and get. I’m really fast in a straight line.”
Lightning could see Zenzar fighting the fear. Fighting to think about things against the sour yellow flood of panic trying to swallow his mind. Zenzar gave a nod. He seemed more stable now that he had a plan and a goal. “Right.” His expression flickered. For the briefest half-imaginary instant, Lightning thought he saw Zenzar’s expression turn to something frightening. Something emotionless yet predatory: like the stare of a lizard on a rock. Then it was gone, barring twin chips of hard, sharp-edged flint deep in Zenzar’s eyes. “I almost hope dat da Capra try something today.”
“Oh, right. After you two left, the I.B.I. agents showed up. All signs point to the Capra leaving town as fast as they can. I think they don’t want to stick around for when Smog decides to find somepony to punish for the Hotel Casablanca thing.”
“Good riddance.” Zenzar said. He adjusted his coat and gave the collar a snapping tug to settle it. Lightning could tell it was just a fragile shell of bravado over fear, but if it kept Zenzar moving in a sensible direction then Lightning wasn’t going to call it bad. The zebra headed for the door with a purposeful stride. “Let’s go.”
The sign of the Avec Noir loomed garishly pink and guttering, and the group was rather glad to see it. Kirra had taken her place atop her new surrogate Tradewind. Fantasy had proven to be an excellent perch. The addition of a horn for a paw-hold handle was a boon; the Captain didn’t like her touching his. She spent the trip from the berth to the hotel whispering news and gossip into the purple unicorn’s ear.
It seemed, to Kirra, that Fantasy was far too distracted. She could practically see the desperate yearning that the unicorn was doing. She could guess for what, or more accurately whom, and the glider had to tug quite hard on an ear more than once to get her to snap out of it.
Opening the door of the Noir, Baz poked his head in. He recoiled a little at a high-volume squeal of feminine delight. Kirra just about fell off her perch as the high pitched cry caused her ears to ring, but managed to recover in time for shouter words to make her flinch again. “Sacre Bleu! You have returned! Get in here, all of you!” Baz was yanked out of sight like something out of a scary movie. Fantasy followed next, chuckling under her breath. Kirra gave the habitual glider glance around the room, looking to see what may be seen. Just a tiny cube with two doors on opposite walls, and a third door set behind a counter cutting off a third of the space. Fleur Blanc had apparently hopped the counter. The armless chair set behind it was still spinning. That was new.
Madame Fleur bounced up and down on her hooves, and a rather well-built mare of a certain age dancing in place like an eager filly was quite a sight. She lapsed into her native tongue, though everything she said sounded complimentary. Kirra managed to zone out for a little while as the pegasus fussed around with Baz and Fantasy. Not enough sleep last night.
The Captain had remained in the doorway, hanging back. It was semi-justified. Four ponies on this side of the counter would have left the little room fairly cozy. Fleur Blanc wasn’t fooled for long. Nudging Baz aside with a swing of her hips, totally unaware of making the earth pony blush, she grabbed the Captain into the room and into the light. Kirra perked up, expecting some imminent fun.
She was not disappointed. The Captain moved from shadow to light like a meadow at sunrise, the gems all sparkly like dewdrops. Fleur Blanc gasped in shock. The Captain blushed. Kirra sat up, unblinking, not quite able to believe her eyes. A trick of the warm pink light? No. The Captain. Was blushing. Baz was apparently shocked too. Fantasy just looked nervous. On the way here, to the Captain’s clear relief, she had Not Asked about his new look.
Fleur tossed up her wings in exasperation. “Merde! I should ‘ave known! You are one of those…fun ponies! I ‘ave been to your, how you say, Mardi Gras down in your Freeport! That scary cutie mark was a fake! How many mares fall for your ‘accidentally saw my terrible cutie mark, angsty confession of a tortured heart, hold me’ horseapples? Sacre Bleu, why did I ever think that you would be-” She switched languages, and it no longer sounded complimentary. Kirra giggled as the Captain’s blush deepened. Then she decided enough was enough. Kirra took a leap, startling Fleur by landing in her high-piled mass of midnight-blue curls.
Getting comfortable, Kirra giggled and whispered the story into her ear. Fleur listened with angry patience at first. Then Kirra got to the good part, causing Fleur to break into mad giggles. Climbing down, Kirra stretched out her muscles with ostentatious disregard for the way a giggling Madame Fleur draped a wing over the Captain. “Oh Captain, I must admit you had me worried. You just seem too good to be true.” She planted a noisy kiss on his cheek, adding a new shade of lipstick red. “Come, we must spend some time together before you head off on your next whirlwind adventure. And I must say you have ze most delightful rouge, can I ask what brand?”
The Captain’s expression, under the blush, would have done justice to an old donkey who had been caught out in the rain. Fleur seemed to realize the rouge was, as it were, all natural. Giving a silent ‘errr’ sort of expression, she practically dragged the Captain out of the room, deeper into the hotel. A breathless silence fell over the rest of the occupants. Kirra held her breath too, the embarrassment falling thick over the three of them.
As usual, Baz’s refreshing lack of tact or wit saved the day. As the silence reached a painful depth: “What the hay just happened?”
Kirra fell over, red and giggling, the tension unwinding like a spring as Fantasy joined in on the guffaws. Then Baz as well. Not getting the joke had never stopped him from sharing a laugh. Kirra had it worst of all, barely able to speak as she rolled on the floor. And yet, she must. “Did…did you see?! The Captain was blushing!”
Baz tried to stop laughing and managed to trigger a coughing fit. “I…I did see that-” cough “-he was bright stinkin’ red! Like a sunburned tomato!”
Fantasy evidently found that bizarre image hilarious. Kirra eventually found her laughter tapering off to hiccupping giggles. She became aware of Fantasy staring at her with some concern. “Yes?”
“Are you all right?” Fantasy said. Kirra nodded and climbed onto the counter. Baz backed into a corner and made like a Ceiling Inspector as the two females watched each other. Fantasy seemed serious. Kirra had no idea about what, and waited for the mare to spit it out.
Finally, Fantasy spoke. “I think you need to fill me in on the Captain’s recent…bedazzling.”
Kirra started giggling again, but not enough to stop her from stringing words together. “Well, it all started when he confined me to quarters…”
The sounds of giggling and snorts trying desperately to be muffled reached Ivan, and he wasn’t even listening at the door. Vlad was. Ivan kept watch on the corridor. Not likely anypony would venture near the Den, but those that might were certain to be trouble. Vlad pressed the side of the head against the door and it swung open an inch. He froze, lollipop poised mid-suck. The conversation Ivan could hear now was in a different language. Pulling out his little round mirror on the telescoping stick, Vlad eased it through the crack down low and angled it. Whatever he saw made him give a near-silent huff of laughter.
Vlad shook his head and turned away from the crack, twisting his head around owl-fashion, and whispered. “Five to one says that stripy unicorn is Madame Fleur’s sugar daddy.”
“No deal.” Ivan said. “Stay focused.”
Vlad’s grin just widened. Ivan bit back a growl. Of all the reactions to being in tense situations, why did his brother have to get the giggles? “Maybe we can go to the Freeport Mardi Gras when we finally skip town.” Vlad said. “Sounds like my kind of party…”
Ivan rolled his eyes and pushed Vlad aside to listen at the door himself. He had heard Fantasy’s voice back at the docks, so he recognized it now. She seemed to be asking about the story behind ‘the captain’s’ new look, which apparently wasn’t a consciously chosen fashion statement after all. Vlad seemed all set to settle down and eavesdrop on this juicy gossip. Ivan gave him a nudge and a glare. Glancing at Ivan, Vlad sighed through his grin. Then gave a sharp nod.
Slamming the door open, Vlad burst in and took a menacing stance. “All right, freeze: this is the pol-ACK!”
Ivan hurried into the room as his brother suddenly began stumbling around, knocking the little summon-the-desk-mare bell off the counter. The other occupants fell over themselves trying to stay out of his way. The little sugar glider had apparently hurled herself at the doorway the instant it banged open. Vlad had caught the marsupial flying squirrel with his face. She had latched on. Given her poofed-out tail and the way she had her eyes closed and her head turtled down between her shoulders, she wasn’t letting go anytime soon. Vlad fell over and grabbed at her, but apparently she dug in her claws the moment he touched her. He gave a muffled yelp, and then tried again with the same results. Muffled sniggers followed.
Ivan’s mouth was on autopilot, unrolling the words he’d been mentally rehearsing. “Miss Longhorn, we are police officers and we’d like to bring you in for a friendly chat. No charges filed, not yet. We think you may have information relevant to our current investigation.” His brain finally managed to catch up with current events and his annoyance boiled over. “Vlad, quit giggling or I swear by our mother’s egg I’ll hide all your ascots in the garbage!”
His crazy brother slowly climbed to his feet, still blinded and probably half smothered. His reply was muffled but sounded rude. The glider had her eyes open now, with a look on her face as if she would quite like to let go but wasn’t at all sure she’d like what happened if she did. Vlad went still, turning his head back and forth. Listening. A good idea, for once.
Ivan shook his head. They’d only ever pretended to be cops until now. The ‘work’ was easy, just walk the beats and deal with the occasional idiot purse-snatcher. Ignore what they were told to ignore. It was easier to ignore their consciences when they knew crossing Smog would definitely not end well. Smog was gone now and their captain had decided it was time to do some real crime-busting. Their first job as real cops had every appearance of being a train wreck. Vlad was down, which was a mixed blessing to be honest.
It was all up to him. “As I was saying. We think you have information relevant to our current investigation. May we take you back to the station for an interview?”
The purple unicorn didn’t look very convinced. Vlad was still making small muffled noises of amusement. Ivan tried to look serious and dignified. She narrowed her eyes. “That depends. For whom are you investigating?”
That question ended Ivan’s doubts about the mare. Fantasy knew enough to know that at least some of the police worked for Smog. Hardly anypony knew that unless they were ‘in the know.’ Looked like the precinct captain was right about her being nose-deep in the funny business.
Ivan tensed as the skinny earth pony stallion in the corner, previously doing nothing more than watch the furry face-hugger attack Vlad with blatant glee, cleared his throat. Ivan forced himself to stay where he was. Violence was a last resort of the real police. This guy didn’t look tough, but he had a look in his eyes. Smug. Like he knew something they didn’t.
The griffin decided it would be best to avoid violence while the glider had his brother’s eyeballs hostage. He opted for honesty, like a police officer should. That was the point of why they were here. “Miss Longhorn, we have reason to believe that you are involved in activities of a criminal nature.” Vlad went rigid, turning to give Ivan an accusing stare despite his squirrel-covered face. “We’re not after you. We’re after bigger fish. Miss Longhorn, our captain wants to talk to you about how you can avoid doing any prison time at all. Believe me when I say that if your answers are ones we don’t like, cooperating now will still be taken into account. The best thing you could do is cooperate.”
Fantasy stared at him as he spoke, just stared, and he had no idea what she was thinking. Then her gaze slid past him, filling with something like fear. He slowly turned, keeping one eye on her and the earth pony. Something appeared so close to his other eye that his lashes brushed it when he blinked. After a long moment he realized it was the point of a knife with its grip glowing with unicorn magic. The unicorn, the striped-purple one, had somehow gotten out of the hotel without passing through the front room. He stood in the doorway to the hall, and there was absolutely nothing amusing about his flat, narrow-eyed stare. He was grim death sprinkled in diamonds.
The unicorn growled his words. “And who does your captain work for, pretty-bird?”
“Mmphppmphpm! MMPH!” Vlad said.
The unicorn rolled his eyes without looking away from Ivan, a trick the griffin would have paid money to learn. “Baz, pry Kirra off that other one.” A second knife slid from inside his coat, gliding like a steel piranha through the air. Ivan’s peripheral vision gave him an impression of Kirra being removed from his brother. He wanted to wince at the distinctive little sound of feathers being plucked, but a knife point barely a lid’s thickness from his eye inspired stillness. Ivan’s muffled panting stopped being muffled. His brother appeared to be staring at a knife-point now too. The earth pony’s smug expression made sense now. He had seen the unicorn in the doorway behind them.
Vlad gave a flinch and a short sucked-in-breath. Ivan had the impression of his brother moving his claw down away from his wing. Probably reaching for a weapon, the fearless nutball. Then Vlad spoke, sounding almost rational in tone despite his huge grin. “Our boss works for the city of Aura and Umbra. Just a precinct captain, not the captain of Vice or Violent Crimes or Magic Crimes. We’re just beat cops.”
“Vlad,” Ivan said, “badge time.” He lifted his left wing with his brother in practiced unison: flashing their badges was one cop talent they actually possessed. He felt small paws on him, climbing his left foreleg. Not daring to look down, he felt his simmering anger bubble a littler faster.
Then a small, high-pitched voice spoke. “This looks legit, Captain.”
The knife glided away a few inches. Ivan exhaled a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. He glanced sideways. Vlad blinked so much he looked as if he were in a mood to flirt. He pushed his pointless little spectacles up his beak. The knife made a special twitch that was good as an order to turn around. Ivan did and found himself face to face with the earth pony and Fantasy and the glider.
His patience ran out, or snapped. “I should arrest you right now, all of you! Assault on an officer! Threat with a deadly weapon!” He flexed his talons. This didn’t have desired effect. The earth pony huffed and turned away, the little glider crossed her forelegs and stared right back, and the unicorn…slipped from behind them, apparently unconcerned with any threat the griffins might pose. Moving to stand before Ivan, he did nothing but raise an eyebrow.
The tension thickened. Vlad clearly fought to keep from laughing out loud, meaning he sensed it. He might be acting goofy but that wouldn’t stop him from being effective in a fight. For once Ivan was actually doing what the law and his conscience demanded. These…criminals thought they could flout the law? Maybe when Smog was around, but not anymore. He was going to see justice done today.
A small voice spoke, or rather squeaked. “I’ll go.”
Ivan felt his hard, righteous fury falter. “Huh?”
“I’ll go.” Fantasy Longhorn stepped forwards. “I’ll come in for questioning. Luna help me, I actually believe you’re straight cops.” Vlad made a noise as if he had almost said something. If he had made some sort of comment about Ivan’s lack of ‘straightness,’ Ivan might have popped his brother right in the beak. Fantasy looked between the griffins. “You’re too incompetent to be crooked.” Vlad did giggle at that. “I’ll come, but only if my friends come with me. I think they aren’t going to let me go alone, you see. If you’re legitimate, then it shouldn’t be a problem if they come with us to the station house you mentioned.”
Ivan stared, trying to mask his deep suspicion. So did the unicorn stallion, but he made the knives vanish inside his long blue coat. “What,” Ivan said, “just like that? No attempt to get out of it?”
The unicorn shook her head. “No, I’ll come quietly, as long as they can come too.”
Ivan sighed. “Fine, they can all come. But they have to leave their weapons at the door when we get to the station. That is the law, and the weapons alarms are the latest model. This is still officially unofficial, just you choosing to help us with our inquiries, but after this…well, let’s say I’m less inclined to keep it that way.”
They all filed out into the corridor. Danger past, Vlad had finally stopped grinning. Simple nervousness replaced it. He fiddled with his ascot, making sure it was straight and contriving to look harmless. Their not-prisoner and her escort trailed along behind the pair. Ivan scowled straight ahead. Vlad glanced his way. “Well,” Ivan said, “here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”
Poking her head into the front room, Fleur found it empty. Not knowing what to do, she did nothing. She had taken the Captain to her room for a passionate welcome-back kiss. The room had a door leading to the front room, behind the counter. It had been closed, but it hadn’t been soundproof. They had heard the commotion.
The Captain had gone from amorous to frozen iron in a heartbeat. He asked her if there was any way to get into the corridor out front without going through the front room. She had hurried him to the secret rear exit, the one she never would have dreamed of revealing to him before Smog had vanished. He had raced off without a word, clearly intent on looping around to ambush the ambushers from behind.
Hurrying back, she had been delayed by running into her brother, who had demanded to know what was going on. In short: trouble in the front room. It had then taken precious moments to convince him to let her go past him. The argument that carried the debate had been a folded wing applied to his belly. Not an elegant rebuttal but it carried a lot of force.
Flambé burst through the door behind her, almost running into her. He had a huge carving knife in his teeth like some kind of pirate chef. He looked ready for anything…except an empty room and a bewildered, quietly terrified sister.
Flambé spat out the knife. “Sacred Blue Sky Above, what now?”
He had spoken their birth tongue; Fleur answered in kind. Even to herself she sounded numb. “The Captain was here with his crew, that skinny earth pony and the darling little squirrel-mouse. Fantasy was with them. I took the Captain in my room and then we heard a fight in here. I showed him the back way out. Then I hurried back here. You tried to stop me.”
Flambé grunted and rubbed his belly. “If your coy hints have any truth in them, there aren’t many things that could subdue and drag away your nameless boy-toy. It’s time to grab those calculating machines Perth left us and-”
“No.” Fleur said.
“You said yourself, running makes us look guilty. We have to wait until somepony questions us about Smog disappearing.”
“If anypony was coming, they would have by now.” Flambé heaved a sigh and sat on the floor. “It seems that Luna was more thorough than we assumed. Smog wasn’t the only one to disappear. I’ve heard rumors. All his generals have vanished. Maybe fled or hiding…but I don’t think so. Chaos is not erupting all over Aura. You know what that means. Nopony cares about small fry like us. They have bigger things to worry about. Let’s go, sister. Please.”
Fleur turned her face from him. Her eyes caught on the ring-for-service bell. It sat on the counter but not in its usual position. She walked over to shift it and to avoid her brother’s pleading eyes. Something sat by it. A brown box, about the same proportions as a paperback book but half the length, width, and thickness. Picking it up, she discovered a folded slip of paper under it. Opened, it revealed a spiky-hasty pencil scrawl: Cops came 2 question Fantasy, seems legit. Gone with her 2 make sure. Be back later. If not, go to JiT. Key inside.
Opening the box revealed a layer of white tissue paper with a shiny silver key lying atop it. It was engraved with the words Just In Time. She removed the key and discovered the words MASTER KEY. Fleur, eyes wide, carefully fastened it to her charm bracelet, barely able to imagine the level of trust this gesture implied. There seemed to be something under the paper. Certainly the box had more depth.
Lifting it aside, Fleur gasped aloud. Nestled in form-fitting recesses within a rectangle of grey velvet lay a pair of gorgeous little charms: about the same size as the charms on her bracelet. Rich enamel atop metal. Something about the style seemed…zebra. The gleaming white flower was like one of the three on her cutie mark. Almost, but not exactly. He must have described it to the jeweler by memory. The other was a hawk-moth, also known as a hummingbird moth for how it could hover. Its colors were a subdued but rich mottling of greys and browns. That was part of his cutie mark, but again not identical. The white mark on the moth’s back wasn’t a skull. Just a scatter of tiny white dots like a field of stars.
Fleur lifted them free with reverent care. Her brother said something she didn’t bother to hear. The moth wasn’t a charm for her bracelet. It was a pin, with a spike in the back as if for wearing on a lapel. After a moment, she had a suspicion. Fleur placed the little moth on the little flower as if sipping its nectar. The spike slipped into the flower and locked with a tiny click she felt through her hooves. A tingle hummed up her spine. The halves were actually a whole. Holding it, she knew the Captain was alive. With absolute certainty. Nothing else, not direction or emotions. Just that he lived. The spell was no true enchantment. The magic would die when he did, but that was the point of it. Those tiny, tiny white flecks had, she was certain, come from his horn. Filings from an ordinary horn-sharpening.
With even greater care, Fleur hung the dual charm from her bracelet next to the airship key. She doubted he had planned for her to get his gift this way, but smart thinking of him to leave it and a key when trouble loomed. If he died, she and Flambé were to take the airship and get out of here. The symbolism, combining their cutie marks, gave her the flutters to consider. The trust as well. A nasty pony could use this thing against him. He had given it to her.
“Fleur!” Flambé said. She jumped. He spoke, sounding as if repeating himself. “What is that?” She passed over the note, which he read. “Oh. Not so bad, then.”
Fleur felt a silly smile curve her lips.
Tradewind was drunk. Not roaringly so, but enough that he was happily relaxed and talking a shade too loud. The twin Gryphons who had been charged with making sure he and Jindalee were as comfortable as possible had ‘accidentally’ left a nice selection of Dustan and Freeport wines and Beers in the little fridge in the corner of their windowless room, and the two friends had passed the time by polishing off a good half of the contents within.
Now they were just sitting around, waiting. Luna had been kind enough to leave several games for them to play, and they both relived a part of their childhood by playing repeated games of The Elements of Harmony. So far the games were tied at three all, but this was the decider.
“I... I put Fluttershy down in Attack position!” Tradewind slurred, chugging another bottle of wine as he does so “And I set my Rainbow Dash to healing position on my grumpy bunny!”
Jindalee giggled madly “Trade, that was a bad move! Now my Twilight Sparkle is in the perfect spot to buck you!”
Tradewind laughed as the attack missed entirely, Since the card was, on the board, at least five moves away from being anywhere near range “I wiiiiiin!” He stood and pranced on the spot, making a face as he shouted out obscene taunts, this continued for several moments until a furry body hit him full in the face and his world turned into a little ball of pain. Knocking the table over, he flailed, his wings opening and knocking down everything within the room as Jindalee grabbed pawfuls of his face and heaved.
Just as everything started to go dark, an annoyed sounding cough eminated from the corner of the room, and Tradewind’s head turned, allowing both he and his tiny furry attacker to see whomever interrupted their grudge match. They both instantly froze as Princess Luna watched them with disdain. Behind them two Gryphons stood looking sheepish.
The Alicorn spoke shortly “It is midday, as promised I will deliver you to your Fantasy. We will be in touch soon. Geoffrey, Gina, I believe we must have a conversation about your choice of refreshments.
Tradewind stared at Luna as she berated the two Gryphons, not interntionally, but because Jindalee was still holding his eyelids open. He shook his head, dislodging the little tree rat and knocking him to the ground. Luna turned and looked upon the both of them with an expression of mild disapproval “Tradewind, I thought we suggested you do not get drunk for a while?”
Tradewind giggled as Jindalee hopped on his back “But it was FREEPORT wine! I can’t pass that up!”
He giggled again as Luna rolled her eyes. Her horn lit up and suddenly the feeling of muffled happiness disappeared, replaced by cool recollection. Tradewind blinked and shook his head “Wow... that was weird. Sobering spell?” The princess nodded “And now you must go to your fantasy.”
Tradewind grinned as Jindalee tugged at his mane, and everything went black
Fantasy told the truth. Mostly. She certainly didn’t lie. Honesty was the only sure way to avoid being caught lying. The binding promise she had given Luna meant there were some things she could not talk about. Namely what she had done to Smog. Fantasy wasn’t magically tongue-tied about what Luna had done to the city, but Luna had asked her to keep quiet about it. Fantasy had the impression Luna was eventually going to reveal her continued presence in Aura. For now, Fantasy was going to keep this particular cat in its bag.
There was no clock in this windowless interrogation room. Its floor and walls and ceiling were made of cloud so smooth and hard she almost wondered if it would support her even without a cloud-walk spell. Remembering her clairvoyant writings, she wondered if this was the same room where Tradewind had been illegally interrogated under Felicia Ravenor’s hypnosis. The bare table was the same; the uncomfortable, deliberately-rickety stool upon which she sat matched descriptions.
The precinct captain was an old grey pegasus with a grizzled but kindly face, an uncle kind of face. He had eyes like needles of blue ice. The mind-numbing tedium of his questions, which were just the same ones asked in different ways and in different orders. Trying to pry loose more details or catch her in an inconsistency. She didn’t blame him for not believing her story. She had lived it, and sometimes she caught herself wondering if it had all really happened.
It didn’t help that her story had holes, from the parts she declined to share. Like her brief clairvoyant powers. Smog’s attempt to blackmail her by making her think she had disgraced herself. How had she learned he had done that? Fantasy didn’t lie, but she sometimes refused to answer. That was her right. She stuck to the important part: despite looking as if deeply involved with Smog, Fantasy hadn’t done anything criminal. He had bribed and blackmailed her into reporting what she saw and heard at the Brass Hoof, but doing that wasn’t a crime. It was called gossip.
On top of it all, Fantasy had been about to go to bed when she heard the news that made her rush up to Aura to meet the Just in Time. She had lasted a while on adrenaline but this quiet room and the friendly, relentless questions left her brain feeling as if packed in wool. It took her a while to realize her stomach had begun to complain.
“Can I have a sandwich?” Fantasy said. She realized she had interrupted him, but upon consideration she just couldn’t care. “You know what? Forget the sandwich. It’s been hours since you asked a new question or I gave a new answer. This conversation is over.”
He raised a bushy, expressive eyebrow. “Oh, really?”
Fantasy met his raised eyebrow and raised him one slow blink. Smog had looked her in the eye and threatened to crush her entire family down into abject poverty if she defied him. She had seen things and experienced things since then, amazing and terrible things, including a brush with insanity and falling in love. This pegasus just couldn’t intimidate her. “You haven’t arrested me. This is just me Helping The Police With Their Inquiries. I can leave whenever I want, and I do want. I’m hungry and it’s so far past my bedtime it’s almost my getting-up time. I’m going home.”
He began to stand. “I’ll get you some food and a coffee.”
“No, thank you.” To her surprise, it actually came out sounding polite. “We’re not making progress anymore. You’ve got what you’re getting.” She pushed to her hooves. “I’m leaving. You want to stop me? Arrest me. If you do, you can’t deny me sleep or food. Or you can let me go home to my own bed, which I’d much prefer. Either way, this conversation is over.”
“Miss Fantasy, you are withholding information.”
“I missed hearing about the new law where ponies have to tell the police anything they want to know. If you ever find proof I was withholding the kind of things that count as obstruction of justice, feel free to arrest me then.” She met his eyes. “You look like a sharp pony, good at reading faces. Do I look like I have a guilty conscience to you?” Somewhat to her own amazement upon thinking back, she couldn’t actually find much that she’d done about which she felt ashamed.
“You need a conscience to have a guilty one.”
Fantasy actually found that funny. “Oh, and a pony without a conscience would sit here and stonewall you for hours when they could just lie? Goodbye, captain name-withheld.”
A flicker of guilt from him. “I’m called Graylag.”
“You know my name.” Fantasy said. She stood. “You know my address, if you want to find me.”
With a deep purplish-blue flash and humming crackle, Tradewind appeared on the table between them. He gave about three-quarters of a snore before it turned into a snort. Raising his head, he looked around with wide eyes. He saw Graylag before he saw her. Their eyes locked: both pegasi appeared flabbergasted.
Fantasy face-hoofed with slow deliberation. Luna had a weird sense of humor. Either that or she was implausibly oblivious about Fantasy’s location and circumstances.
She just wanted to sleep.
Coming to a halt, Xero felt a crawling, prickling sensation bloom over his entire body. It was the feeling of glancing down just in time to see an unexpected pit just ahead of his hooves. The frisson of a brush with death. When it happened for no reason, the traditional saying was ‘somepony walked over my grave.’ To sorcerers, there was dark humor in that. His ring of bodyguards were trained enough to go on high alert without asking questions. No more pretending to be just random tourists. They were deep in the docking spire’s sunless heart, a few levels below the Den. Very near the door to the ritual chamber where he would determine what had become of Smog.
Seconds passed as Xero studied the source of the sensation. Powerful magic wrapped him. Or, to be more precise, it was about to. He could see it looming out of the near future like a glowing green iceberg. Its sheer inexorable certainty pushed a long shadow out in front of it. Beyond the moment the magic struck was…nothing. An utter blank where his hazy sense of the future should have been.
This short-term precognition was nothing more than his near-future self sending echoes of memory back in time. It only worked over the short term because the possibilities branched too widely, diluting the signals into a low hiss of white noise. The basic point was that a pony could only ‘premember’ the future if they were alive to experience it. That oncoming void was his death. Absolutely unavoidable. Not one faint whisper of some outside chance of survival. Usually the only thing that could cause this was death by old age.
Nothing he could do, no matter how bizarre or unlikely, would cause it not to happen. If he entered the chamber he would die, but he was bound and compelled to enter anyway. His final duty to Smog. That being the case, he chose to preserve his dignity. Closing his spirit off to the world wasn’t easy, but the more progress he made the easier it became. Within a minute he had reduced his senses to the usual five. Everything felt dreary and colorless, but at the same time it was a blissful relief. No longer a raw nerve, he could think clearly once more.
“Wait out here.” he said.
A griffin, the leader of this escort, scratched at the scruffy greenish-white feathers of his head. “Our orders-”
“-were to get me here safely. I am here, I am safe. Follow me through that doorway and you will not enjoy what happens to you.” That was one thing he could change: whether these creatures would be swept up in that hammer of magic.
“Uh…bah, whatever. Sorcerers give me the creeps anyway. You want us to scram, we’ll scram. If there’s an ambush waiting in there, we can tell our boss you chased us off. Come on, guys.”
Xero waited until they were out of sight.
He opened the door. A janitorial closet. He closed the door behind him and opened the door hidden in the back wall. The invisible rune he traced to work the lock hummed under his hoof, allowing him to trace its lines. Few non-sorcerers would have felt a thing, even if they had some reason to touch the back wall of the closet. It opened into a spacious chamber that appeared to be perfectly round. A massive, roughly square slab of dark purplish-black slate took up much of the floatwood floor. The fossilized bones of fish-like things protruded from it here and there. The kind of fish that lived in the depths where no sun ever shone. An age-blackened band of seamless iron had been inlaid within the slate, inlaid in turn with crude symbols of red gold. The kind of language that was a short step up from little pictures. An outer circle, made to hide whatever was done in a lesser circle drawn inside. Cabinets around the walls would hold the various equipment needed for circle magic. Such as, among other things, chalk for drawing upon the slate.
Xero had another reason to be glad he had restored the walls between his spirit and reality. This room was almost as old as Aura. The slab was far older. Countless spells and rituals had been performed here. Most of them illegal, immoral, and occasionally insane. Stepping bare-minded into the accumulated miasma of all that dark magic would have been like going for a swim in a pit full of hot garbage.
He closed the door behind him.
The spell hit, and with his spirit locked in his body he wasn’t able to sense the moment it came. He flinched. Then, to his surprise, he continued to exist. A pre-storm kind of energy hung in the air. Prickly and electric but also heavy and oppressive. Generally a bad sign, with sorcery. It usually meant the presence of something so powerful it simply couldn’t fully conceal its presence. The sheer mystical ‘body heat’ of it crackled through the air. A vast spirit.
Or…the grandmother of all warding spells.
Xero nearly laughed from sheer relief. Closing the door had closed a circle. The spells in the walls were the accumulated work from centuries of skilled sorcerers and other magic-workers. Of course it would block scrying. It seemed they even blocked the ability to send memories back into the past. What happened in here was impossible to learn about from outside it.
Turning from the door, his throat locked dry and tight around the need to yell. Princess Luna stood in the center of the iron ring with a hanging-judge expression. Xero managed to resume breathing but his heart lurched in his chest, skipping beats in a way he normally would have found alarming. Luna’s night-colored body seemed a shade too dark, her green eyes brighter than the low light would explain.
“You are the only sorcerer,” she said, “to make it here. The others are intercepted as they arrive in the city. You merit what they did not: a chance. Or so I was told. I see now I was told correctly. Your heart is not lost.”
Xero slowly came to realize he might not actually die. He decided not to lie. He had done enough of that in his life. If he couldn’t convince her to spare him with the truth…he didn’t deserve to be spared. “I have come to regret my path. Being evil has taken many things from me and every gift it has put in my hooves has been fruit of a poison tree.”
“You were willing to die to see the afreet dead.”
Xero wasn’t surprised that she knew about that. “That wasn’t a noble act. I had come to hate it more than I feared death.”
“Better not to hate at all, but hating an evil thing is the least reprehensible sort. Not that such hatred cannot lead down a dark road. A pony can become as monstrous as that which she battles, should hatred of the enemy consume her. Hate should never be fought with hatred. Fire is not fought with fire, but with water.”
“I’m tired of hate.” Xero said. He sat on the floor, nor caring if it seemed disrespectful. “I’m just…tired.” Taking out his eye-drops, he gave his chronically dry eyes a little relief. “I’ve done so many evil things. Place me in a court of law and I will confess them. I’ll face the consequences.”
“Do you formally confess to the breaking of laws that merit the ending of your life in punishment?”
Xero closed his eyes. Instead of fear, or even relief, he felt the oddest sense of…peace. “I do. I have bound a dark spirit and by my command caused it to end lives.”
“Then I judge you guilty and condemn you to death. Now let us discuss a stay of execution.” His eyes popped open. Her green eyes were unreadable. “It would be only a stay of execution, not a pardon. You would be on probation for the rest of your life. Break the law again and your sentence will be carried out.”
“I understand.” He understood what. Not why.
“The stay has a condition. Renounce your sorcery.”
“Renounce.” Xero said. “You mean…”
The notion made him flinch. “Why are you giving me a chance?”
“I shall not divulge that unless you prove your dedication to turn away from evil forever. You must show faith.”
“Faith. In what?”
“I…am uncertain I have any.”
Luna remained unreadable, a statue except for the slow ripple of her translucent mane and tail. “If you truly wish to die, simply decline to renounce your sorcery.”
Xero was tempted. A simple shake of the head and the moment would pass. He would die. It would all be over. His tiredness. His guilt. Not the regret over failing to stay and help the Captain defend Aura from sorcerers. Luna seemed to have things well in hoof here in Aura. Xero didn’t need a ritual to confirm that Smog really was gone. The proof stared at him with emerald eyes. It must have been Dust. The Princesses had finally decided to deal with the dragon. It appeared they were confident they could prevent chaos from erupting in the wake of his vanishing.
Xero didn’t make a conscious decision. Something shifted in his heart and he simply found himself reaching into the depths of his mind. Settling his willpower, he gave a sharp twist. Every sorcerer worth their salt worked out how to do this. Very few were ever even tempted to try. It wasn’t complicated. Neither would it be complicated to stab a fork into his own eye.
The pain was instant and intense. Not physical. A sickening flood of emotional agony. As if a beloved friend had died. As if a trusted friend had betrayed him. As if everything he cherished in this world had been destroyed. It tore a hole in his heart. Xero swayed but didn’t fall over. He had done it. He had poked a fork of willpower in his inner eye. His ability to see spirits, his ability to call out so they heard. Gone. He was no longer and would never again be a sorcerer. The minor spirits bound to him by pact and bargain were freed.
“I place a stay upon your execution.” Luna said. Her voice had a new, gentler tone. “Come with me and I shall endeavor to give you a new purpose in life, one serving Harmony.”
“I’m nothing.” The truth was a bleak absolute. “I’m nothing at all anymore. Not a sorcerer. I’m a zero.”
Luna reared up. When her fore-hooves came down the ancient slab shattered into jagged wedges. Even the iron snapped; brittle as glass. Green and purple flames boiled up from the deep well of vile power in the stone. They engulfed her. He flinched and shuddered…but sensed nothing. Bolts of silver light slashed the dark energies into shreds. Luna stood revealed with eyes like silver suns. More moonbeams ripped through the cabinets around the walls, smashing them apart like a fire hose turned against a sand castle. The entire chamber rang like a wooden bell.
Xero curled up in a ball. The air smelled of lightning and sawdust but all he sensed was the aching numbness of loss. Luna picked her way toward him over the rubble; he heard her hooves. She used a fore-hoof to gently lift his muzzle. Her gaze sucked him in and the pain seemed to recede a little. “I see you, Xero. I know what drove you to sorcery. Loneliness. Well do I understand that. Your talent is a rare one, and a hard one to bear. Come with me, serve Harmony. While few shall know of your deeds and your fate…I shall be one of those few.”
“Anything.” Xero said. This was all he had ever wanted. To be seen: not cursed by his talent to move through the world untouched and unnoticed. Her words set him on fire. “I’ll do anything you want. Anything.”
Luna moved her hoof from his chin and pressed something into his hoof. He looked down to see an open black wallet holding a shiny six-pointed-star badge. I.S.I. Imperial Secret Intelligence. He stopped breathing. Luna gave a solemn nod. “You are an expert organizer of covert information-gathering. While you are no longer a sorcerer, your knowledge remains. I give you the chance to use it to help end the evil that corrupted sorcerers commit. That is far from nothing. Rise, and come with me.”
Xero tried to leap to his hooves, but his hips reminded him that he would never be young again. Luna seemed to read his mind, and possibly did. A flare of magic and a perfect apple hovered before him. It shone as if covered in pure gold leaf. Once more, he stopped breathing. He barely dared to hope. “That…”
“Yes. This apple comes from a special tree in the royal gardens of Canterlot.” The apple vanished with a quiet bang. “I would give it to you now, but once you eat it you shall fall into a sleep of considerable length. When you awaken, all your hurts shall be healed. Even hurts of spirit. The years stolen from you by sorcery shall be returned. Not one moment longer, mark you. First, you should meet your new boss.”
“All right. I…understand why you didn’t tell me about this before. That I wouldn’t have to endure this…pain.” It was still there, that aching hole. “You needed to see if my desire to renounce evil was strong enough to do it anyway.”
“Yes. Of all your many regrets, renouncing sorcery should not be among them. Take pride in it. Few have ever done so. You shall still suffer, Xero. Very few ever taste a golden apple. That is to the good. The curse of such is simple: once having tasted it, you shall forever long for more. Thus I give you the option to refuse this gift. You may still do good in your remaining years.”
“I’ll accept it.” Xero said. He had spent his entire life hungering for acceptance and admiration. Swapping it for a hunger for golden apples was a fair trade. He took a deep breath past the heavy grief in his chest. “I am ready.”
Her magic embraced him and he was elsewhere. Part of him realized that her trashing the ritual room was calculated as well as heartfelt. Anyone coming across it would assume Xero had done something wrong and blown himself to fine mist. They would assume he was dead. The world would believe he was dead.
Princess Luna would know he was alive. That would be more than enough. Looking around the dark chamber, taking in the dense crystal formations, he recognized it from descriptions. “This is deep under Canterlot. Where Princess Cadance was once held prisoner by the Changeling Queen.”
“Very good.” Luna said.
“Who shall be employing me?” Xero said.
A new voice spoke: deep and quiet as distant thunder. “Me.”
Xero turned and beheld his new boss. Even lacking his sorcerous sense, even with the drastic transformation, Xero knew instantly who it was. It was the eye. The laughter that bubbled out of him was weak and wavering. He barely remembered how it felt to laugh without bitterness or scorn. Part of it was admiration for Luna. What a brilliant, unimaginable coup. Part of it was surprise. Most of it was simpler. An old ironic saying had popped into his head upon seeing his employer.
‘Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss.’
Blinking slowly at the glass before him, Perth initiated the complex coordinated interplay of muscles and joints required to grasp it with his paw. This appeared to proceed according to expectations, but it seemed that a calibration error existed between eye and paw. His grip closed on empty air. Perth recalculated and tried again. No dice. Resting his paw on the table, he slid it at the glass until the nerve endings in his paw reported contact. That let him line up paw and glass for a third go. Perth carefully assured a secure grip and raised it to tip the fiery amber contents into his mouth.
He missed, and ended up pouring whiskey on his leathery koala nose. Not much. He didn’t think it had been much. Sliding the rim of the glass down to his lips, he took a drink before placing the now-empty glass on the table with painstaking care. Adjusting his spectacles, he squinted at the earth pony across the table. Morhoof watched him, expressionless. Possibly not expressionless. Perth’s vision was degraded in a way spectacles didn’t fix. Unless there was a magical lens to fix drunken bleariness. He had heard mention of a thing called ‘beer goggles’ that might be such a thing.
“I apologize.” Perth said. He constructed the words with patient precision, remembering learning his letters and carefully spelling out his name. “If I annoy. This is the drunkest…most intoxicated…I have ever been. It is quite relaxing. The crazy part of me has been drowned in sweet golden silence.” He brooded on this. “Is this how stupidity feels? I quite understand why fools are often merry.”
Morhoof shrugged, holding a glass in the unfolded pincer his new artificial hoof could become. He said nothing. Perth sighed. This day was taking forever to pass. He checked his pocket watch and stared in dim confusion at all the dials and needles. Then he recalled it didn’t tell time. There had, ha-ha, been no room. Some of the things were made to detect magic via its disruptive influence on universal constants. Others were mundane. Everything was motionless. Even the thermometer, which should have registered the cooling of being removed from his warm vest pocket. Fantastic: it had broken. Only the compass still seemed to work.
A ticking intruded, making his furry rounded ears twitch in time. Perth attempted to stand. He managed to do it, with moderate concentration. He followed the tick to a clock on a shelf. Quite old and intricate. Perth beamed, for he was blissfully devoid of any desire to dismantle it. His smile melted away as he realized the clock showed a mere half hour after noon. Perth shrugged. It felt longer, but he was drunk.
“What time is it?” Morhoof said.
Perth turned around and had to take a waddling step to catch his balance. “Um…half past noon?”
“Something,” Morhoof said, “happened.”
“My word. What was it?”
Morhoof hadn’t moved, not even to look over at Perth. His tone was flat. “Luna gave her speech and vanished. Then Smog vanished. We ran away, you and I. One day passed and then Aura fell apart. There were fires and panic and riots and…just chaos.”
“All I recall is spending the morning with you, having agreed that we should wait here to hear Luna’s speech before fleeing the city. I asked if you would let me travel with you for a time, as I am a stranger in a strange land and your experience is vast. I recall that Luna only asked for the city to show kindness and generosity to my dispossessed country-folk. I recall my relief that she wasn’t here for Smog, and then your insistence that we have a drink. One drink led to more and now I am inebriated. It’s pleasant. I would remember days of strife. One half-hour by the clock and we remain in Aura.”
“Is it possible you had a nightmare?”
The earth pony slowly turned his head to give Perth an expression that the koala mentally labeled ‘horrified epiphany.’ Perth twiddled his four thumbs and managed to tangle them together. Morhoof’s eyes slid closed. “Yes. It was all just a nightmare. A horrible nightmare.”
Letting go of the glass, Morhoof staggered to his hooves. His new fore-leg’s automatically folded the gripping pincher away into a hoof. Perth watched him stumble out of sight. After a moment, he followed. He was in time to see Morhoof enter a bedroom with room for more furniture than it held. The earth pony climbed up to stand on the bed. Then, with the ponderous dignity of a felled tree, he fell over.
“Oh.” Perth said. He chuckled. “Well done.”
Morhoof answered with a dull, heavy snore. Perth returned to the main room and then forgot what he had come in here to do. Instead, he tidied up a bit. Once he had, he remembered. Filling a pitcher with water, he took it and a glass carefully back to the bedroom. Filling the glass with such care he barely spilled any, he left it and the pitcher for when Morhoof awoke suffering alcohol dehydration. A second trip to get a bucket for beside the bed, in case of nausea.
Thinking about being sick made him queasy. Perth hurried for the lavatory with a rolling waddle and several encounters with walls. There was no genteel or comfortable way to empty one’s stomach via regurgitation, but Perth endured it. Afterwards he drank more water than he wanted. The couch in the main all-purpose room called to him. He answered the call.
Rather than sleep, Perth found the room slowly beginning to spin. He started to get up and discovered that keeping one hind paw on the ground helped stop the spinning.
Consciousness returned like a hammer to the nose: sudden and unpleasant. Perth groaned, then clutched his head as the sound shuddered through his skull like a foghorn. It took several tries to get his eyes open. Once he had, he wished he had kept them shut. The ticking of the clock stabbed at his ears. And then it began playing a sprightly tune; a faint hissing quality suggested a record. Perth clamped his paws over his ears. He had slept in his fancy black suit. His spectacles were on his face, not even askew.
A horrible cramp knotted up his right leg, which had dangled down off the couch. Perth whimpered and tried to find a way to ease it until it finally gave up. His fur felt like the dust on a ledge over a kitchen stove, all gritty and greasy and just plain foul. His mouth confirmed the accuracy of every loathsome metaphor used to describe hangover-mouth. Perth drank, swished, and spat water at the kitchen sink. The sound of running water conjured other urgencies. He barely had time to dig his towel from his valise before making for the bathroom.
One long hot shower later, Perth felt as if he could once more spot ‘normal’ without using a telescope. He waddled out of the bathroom with the towel around his waist and his scrubbed fur standing out as if he’d just seen something absolutely terrifying. Or been struck by lightning, perhaps.
Morhoof was awake. He sat at the table, eating a plate of something greasy with more determination than enthusiasm. It looked like fried potato slices and eggs. Giving Perth a bloodshot stare, he nodded and went back to eating. Perth couldn’t help but stare at this masochist while trying to keep his nausea under control. “How can you eat that?”
“It helps.” Morhoof said. “I’ve tried a thousand crazy hangover cures. Know what works? A greasy breakfast.”
Morhoof watched Perth, who tried to ignore the eyes on him as he gingerly unloaded the pockets of his clothing. Activating the device built into his valise, he opened the correct sequence of latches to access the internal space with one of his creations. Made in anticipation of being on the run, then dismantled enough to deactivate the parts that would object to being twisted into an imaginary dimension for storage.
Reassembled, Perth stuffed his suit, shoes and all, into the box. Closed it. Opened it and dug out his belt before closing it again. Hums and buzzes and a brief unbalanced juddering resolved by a precisely calculated kick. Then a ding that made he and Morhoof both wince. Perth removed the clothes and shook them out. All stains and dirt on them fell away as fine dust. The wrinkles were gone as well. Morhoof stared, fork hanging motionless. Perth disassembled the box and put it away, then politely retreated to the bathroom to dress. When he emerged, Morhoof nodded at him. “How did you get it clean like that?”
“Not sure how to explain. I do know it doesn’t employ water, so I call it my dry-cleaning device.” Perth felt a lot better now that he was properly dressed, his fur brushed down. “Do you have any rice cakes or granola? I’m sure greasy food might hasten my recovery but not if I am unable to retain it.”
Morhoof rose to check a closet that turned out to be the pantry. Found a waxed-paper bag. “How about shelled, roasted, and salted peanuts? Not too greasy, but they should help.”
Trying a few, Perth decided his stomach would tolerate a few more. He munched in silence, sipping water. It did appear to have a marvelous effect on his headache and general malaise. Soon he was merely miserable. The silence of un-broached subjects clouded the air. He peered at the clock though his spectacles. “After seven? My word, it must nearly be sunset.”
The earth pony had beer with his meal. He took a drink before answering. “Wrong. It’s not long after dawn.”
“We slept all afternoon and all night?”
Morhoof gave his mug a dark stare. “I don’t know how long we slept. I’m only accepting that it’s early morning because of which way the light is angled outside. I’ll know what day when I get a newspaper.”
Perth realized the room was quite dim, the heavy curtains drawn and not even a candle lit. He could see fine. Imagining opening the curtains made him shudder. “No one came here to check on you, or us?”
“If they did, we slept through it.” A thud outside the door made Perth flinch. Morhoof merely nodded. “That’ll be the newspaper. I get the Equestrian Times, Aura Edition delivered to my door. Can you get it?”
Perth remembered his duties as guest and quelled his urge to decline. The paper outside hung from the knob by a string. The thump had been it swinging against the door. Perth wondered why as he stepped into the hall to look for the deliverer. He saw no creature, pony or otherwise, but he might have missed them. As his shoe descended toward the cloud-floor of the hallway he recalled how long it had been since his walking-on-clouds spell had been renewed. Too late to stop. His shoe encountered no resistance.
Around his waist, his belt suddenly warmed and emitted a mosquito-whine hum. A tremendous wave of static electricity flared out from it to wrap him. His fur strained out away from him, while his clothing clung in uncomfortable ways. As the charge reached his sinking shoe, he felt a springy force shove it upwards. Barring the dryness, it was like trying to push a buoyant log underwater.
Perth was half-hurled back from the door. His belt went quiet and began to cool. Lying on his back on the wonderfully solid floatwood floor, Perth wondered how one self-diagnosed heart palpitations. Saved by paranoia. Not that he had been absolutely certain the device folded away into the bigger-on-the-inside buckle would work.
“Sproing.” Morhoof said. Perth rose and dusted himself off. Grabbing the paper, he shut the door and presented the paper to Morhoof with ill grace. Morhoof grabbed it with his pincher. “Thanks.” He studied the headline, visible without unrolling it. “Luna gives speech.”
“The date?” Perth said.
“It’s the day after the day Luna gave her speech.” Morhoof gave the newspaper a long suspicious stare. Perth was trying to ignore it, but Morhoof’s actions were making him worry about the earth pony’s sanity. Morhoof sighed and began to unfurl the paper. “Whatever.”
“Do we return to the Den?”
A business card fell out of the newspaper. Morhoof picked it up and then dropped it as if hot. Perth leaned forward and reached out. When Morhoof failed to object, the koala pulled the card closer to inspect it. An old typewriter had been used, from the look of it. The message was simple: SMOG HAS VANISHED. AVOID REPEAT AVOID THE DEN: PROBABLE POLICE SURVEILLANCE.
“I guess not.” Morhoof said.
Perth felt his small eyes grow larger. “Your nightmare.”
“Yes.” Morhoof said. No tears fell, but sorrow filled his eyes. “My nightmare is coming true.”
“What do we do?” Perth said.
Reaching the Den, Uncle paused to check his watch again. About an hour after noon. It had taken a half hour between docking and reaching here. Given the modest distance he’d walked from the docks, that was pathetic. The crowds had been to blame. His wallowing cow of an economy-class airship from Zevera had arrived a half-hour late. It had been due to show up at noon, which happened to be the same time when Princess Flipping Luna had given a public speech.
The airship had arrived at the city to find the docking spire and other docks around the city edge in a state of kicked-anthill chaos. No airships had been going out all morning, ever since Luna turned up ‘all over the place,’ because nopony wanted to miss the big speech announced for noon. Now there were a lot of delayed airships pulling a White Rabbit.
After a moment to scowl, Uncle retreated from the Den’s doorway and found a public restroom. Off with the cheap sunglasses hiding his slot-pupiled goat eyes. Off with the rakishly tipped-back top hat hiding his horns. Now he looked like an ugly old beat-up pony with goat eyes and goat horns and hints of goat around the face. Closing his eyes, he muttered the word to end the potion-based spell wrapping him in a cheap illusion. When he opened them he was just as ugly, old, and beat-up looking, but definitely a goat.
Smoothing back his greasy black hair, Uncle smoothed his goatee into a point, and then wiped his hooves on the greasy lapels of his old black suit. He grimaced at his reflection, watching the various scars and lumps rearrange themselves. If he was going to die, it was going to be as himself. Smog needed to know the Capra hadn’t fire-bombed the dragon’s neutral-ground hotel in Zevera. He needed to know that the Capra hadn’t left a stuffed pink dragon doll there with a fake dragonsbane leaf pinned to it by a wooden spike. Someone else had done that. Maybe a goat, maybe not, but whoever it was, they weren’t a friend of either the Capra or of Smog. The Capra had all pulled out of Zavros. Zebra country was, once more, uncontested Smog turf.
Uncle was here to tell Smog that, and he knew he’d be believed. The dragon had a legendary ability to spot liars, among creatures in the know about him. He also had a legendary ability to get information out of the unwilling. Uncle was here to deliver a message, not to spill Capra secrets. Smog wasn’t going to take him alive.
That thought didn’t bother Uncle. He was old. Technically he was only middle-aged, but it wasn’t the years that made him old: it was the mileage.
He hurt. He always hurt. He woke up aching and he went to bed aching. Bones, joints, muscles. Uncle had always been really good at taking a beating. When he fought, the deep driving well of fury in his heart let him ignore things that would drop almost anyone else. He had pummeled much bigger and more skilled billys into submission through sheer refusal to accept that he’d lost. Made them cry ‘uncle’ until that became his nickname. Uncle won his fights but each one had left him a little uglier, a little less like the girly-pretty little kid his mother decided to name ‘Angel.’
Uncle knew how to handle pain, but the pain made him tired. Worse, the tiredness frayed at his self-control. Uncle hated losing control. When he lost his temper it made him feel weak and helpless, stuck watching himself be an idiot from somewhere in the back of his head. He worked hard to keep his ever-bubbling rage on a leash. Somepony could bump into him in a crowd without having his skull kicked in for it. Some wise guy he was sent to talk with could insult him and Uncle would stay calm where it showed. He could be polite. He could walk away. When he got revenge he did it the way it was best served: cold. When he got violent it was by choice and for a purpose. They didn’t die unless he wanted them to. That and his loyalty was why he’d climbed the ranks from thug to trusted enforcer.
He wasn’t losing his edge. He was getting too close to the edge. He was losing control. Just little spasms now. Little ticks and twitches. Keeping the lid on his inner inferno was harder, especially when he was tired. He was always tired lately. Tired and aching. It was only going to get worse. He was becoming a liability to the Capra. It just wasn’t fun anymore anyway. Time to do one last service and retire. There was only one way to retire from the Capra, but Uncle planned to do it on his terms.
Pulling a little paper-wrapped brick of gum from his inside pocket, he chewed it. Mingled flavors of cinnamon and mint with a metallic zing in the background. Just like that, he felt better than he had in a long time. The tiredness and pain all melted away. It was special gum. Illegal. He’d carried it for years, but never used it. He had never used anything for dulling pain. Too easy to get addicted, and relief from chronic pain would only make him feel worse when it wore off.
No point worrying about the future anymore. Uncle gave his reflection a grin that could send small children screaming for their mothers. Just let Smog try to torture him now. Tugging his lapels straight, he talked out of the restroom almost feeling jaunty. Fear was born from uncertainty, same as hope. He’d flung both of them in the toilet. He knew his fate.
The corridor outside the Den was empty. No sounds of music. Not knocking, Uncle let himself in through the unmarked white door. The inside was as described: a big high-ceilinged rectangular room made of cloud so poisoned with smoke it was black as a chimneysweep’s handkerchief. Made of smog. White floatwood tables sat in a squared-off ring around the open middle, with a white bar across the back wall. Shelves with bottles on the wall behind the bar and a big mirror behind the shelves. You could sit at the bar and watch the door. Little balcony up over the bar: a DJ perch with big speakers.
No pink dragon in sight. No one at all. He eyed the door in the back wall, not behind the bar but off to one side of it, tucked in a corner. Giving a shrug, grinning at the lack of twinges, he perched on a stool and waited.
He didn’t wait long. A few minutes later the back door swung open in a glow of magic. A unicorn mare dressed in the golden armor of a police officer stepped through. She saw Uncle and stopped dead. Somebody out of sight bumped into her with a clang. Uncle swapped the gum to his other cheek and gave her a polite nod. The police in Aura worked for Smog. The abandoned Den started to make sense.
The unicorn shot an annoyed glance behind her and then stepped the rest of the way into the room. She had blue eyes, her body the soft grey of ashes with a black mane that looked swept back by wind rather than a brush. Her cutie mark was a ball of fire. Uncle recognized the silver ring snugged around the base of her horn as a rare permanent enchantment of cloud-walking. Another cop came into sight. Pegasus stallion. Also grey, a little darker and with no softness to it. Like slate, maybe. He also had black hair, but with three distinct stripes of white crookedly sitting on top his head. The front ends of the stripes gave way to rather ugly scars. Looked like something with talons had tried to scalp him. There were more scars on the forelegs where the armor didn’t cover. A weirder scar marked one cheek. Turned upside down and circled, it would have been the Peace symbol. It was anyone’s guess what had caused it. His cutie mark was some kind of green triangle thing.
Dark green eyes narrowed in suspicion as they focused on Uncle. He knew a fellow loony when he saw one. Uncle pegged this pegasus as seriously paranoid. He also pegged the unicorn mare as being the organ grinder in this pair.
“I’m here to talk to Smog.” Uncle said.
“He’s not here.” the mare said. She even seemed sincere. “I’m Officer Mithril, this is probationary Officer Pick.” She flashed her badge. Cleared her throat.
Pick showed his badge, scowling more. The ‘probationary’ part had been aimed at him, not Uncle. A kind of ‘remember you can’t afford to be stupid’ reminder, if Uncle had it right. Then the pegasus mildly surprised Uncle by closing his eyes and taking a deep, calming breath. Trying to keep his cool. Uncle respected self-control, even more in some creature obviously on the edge.
“Angel Marie.” Uncle said. Why not give his real name? It wasn’t like he had some reason to hide it. Bless his poor dim-witted mother’s heart; she had given him such a sissy name he’d had to grow up tough and mean just to survive. Pick squinted, but not amused. More like he wasn’t sure he had heard right. Mithril went professionally deadpan. A real cop.
“Why do you want to talk to Smog?” Pick said.
“Just gonna clear up a little misunderstanding. Think he’ll be back today? I’m on a deadline. You want I should leave for now, come back later when the place is open for business?”
Pick turned to whisper at Mithril, but not quite quietly enough for Uncle to miss it. “This guy’s shadier than a beach umbrella.” He gave Uncle a narrow-eyed glance and whispered some more, too quiet to catch.
Mithril remained wearing that courteous, opaque expression cops wore when they wanted to hide what they thought. Uncle wondered how much if this was an act. Smog owned the cop. He didn’t mix his real business with his legal place of business. Not so anyone could tell. These two might be here to take Uncle somewhere else. Officially to a police station. In fact, to somewhere private where Smog could meet the goat. Somewhere with soundproof walls.
“Mister Angel.” Mithril said.
Uncle felt a muscle in his cheek twitch. The initial giddy rush from lack of pain was wearing off, his habitual state of chained fury coming back strong. “Call me Uncle. Most do.”
“Mister Uncle. Would you mind coming with us to the station and answering some questions? Your presence here at this time is suspicious, and in point of fact you are technically trespassing on private property. You aren’t under arrest at present.”
At present. As threats went, it was polite. Pick putting away the cuffs he had begun to draw, looking disappointed, was a nice touch. Good Cop, Bad Cop. Or at least Reasonable Cop, Aggressive Cop. Uncle became certain they were here to take him to Smog. He gave a nod, smoothed his hair back, and hopped off the bar stool. “No problem, officer. Lead on.”
Morhoof rested his chin on his living fore-hoof, pondering. Both vague and vivid images bubbled up concerning Aura’s destruction. With Smog was gone that was certainly inevitable, but Morhoof was not one for being a visionary. More a disturbed dreamer. Morhoof sighed and stabbed a potato slice, waving it around in front of his mouth before dropping it back onto the plate. His appetite was deader than disco.
He noticed Perth watching him. The koala apparently hadn’t meant his ‘what do we do?’ as a rhetorical. “Smog is gone.” Morhoof said. “That means everything is going to fall apart. Quite quickly once it begins, I do believe. Being prepared for hasty exit is top priority; I assume you’re already prepared for that.” Perth nodded. Morhoof nodded as well, eyes dropping to his plate. “I, however, still have a few loose ends to deal with.” And goodbyes to give. “After that, I think it’d be best to make our leave before things start to snowball.”
Yeah, let's do. I’ve rather enjoyed the cooler air up here, but if things are gonna heat up I’d rather be as far away as possible. Preferably now. The lizard is dead and things are going to go up in flames with its dying breath, take twenty by just avoiding the dragon altogether, right?
Morhoof brought the potato slice back up for round two and won this time, though it turned bitter on his tongue. Loco pointed left, so it was Morhoof’s job to go right. Unless Loco was using reverse psychology, telling Morhoof to go left to make him go right. Or was Loco double-bluffing, expecting Morhoof to think the parasite wanted him to think it was reverse psychology, pointing left so that Morhoof would go right…
Oh, please. Don’t do this, you old coot. Not hung over. It’s your headache but I gotta live with it too.
Perth twiddled his four thumbs before speaking. “Do you believe everything will hold together until you are finished? I know being your tagalong leaves me little room to dictate the itinerary, but I’m sure you can understand my concerns?”
Morhoof nodded again. “I was just thinking that myself. It might be too risky for me to remain here for long, but I’m confident that we have at least a day before things truly begin to fall apart. By tomorrow morning we should expect to see the beginning of the end.”
“Because of your dream?”
“That wasn’t prophecy.” Morhoof said. Or he sincerely hoped not. Not knowing the future was often the only thing that let him face it. “Luna took Smog, I am certain of it, and it is something I feared might happen. I dreamed my worst fear. As for having a day before things truly erupt…I know how Smog works. He would want everything to hit at once. Maximum chaos. If some revelations follow others, the latter ones might be ignored in the furor over the former ones. That means there must be a delay so that everypony can all get their ducks in a row, and a pre-arranged moment to strike so everypony can act as one without knowing anything about each other. Dawn feels right. Ruin their day from the start. This dawn was too soon after he vanished. The next one…”
Perth looked more ill than the hangover alone could explain.
The fork tapped his plate. “I think it’d be best if we retreat to Umbra for the time being.” Morhoof said. “It’ll be easier to escape the city from there. Assuming the airbuses will continue to make their rounds is overly optimistic. My tasks involve stopping by a place that is suitable for us to rest tonight. After that, if you still fear for your safety you’re welcome to accompany me when I leave. I don’t believe I’ll be venturing into anything dangerous.”
Perth looked a bit skeptical, but nodded. “That sounds reasonable. Assuming this place in Umbra is safe…?”
“It was owned by Smog, recently relinquished back to the proprietors and occupants. He used it as a secret and not-so-secret meeting place when necessary. I doubt the police are bothering to post surveillance on the Brass Hoof. I packed while you were showering. If you have everything you plan to take with you, we can leave immediately.”
Perth donned the vacant expression of one reading through a mental checklist. Morhoof forced down the rest of his breakfast, not entirely certain when his next meal would be. If all went well he could have lunch at the Brass Hoof. There was no guarantee of all going well. He finished and checked his own belongings. Many were hidden in his cloak or the pouch-hung harness under it. The rest were in saddlebags under the table, including the special preparations he had made. Everything was present and accounted for. Morhoof ditched the hacksaw; he now had a nifty rotary saw built into his new leg. Not positioned to be an effective weapon but perfect for cutting off shackles. Perth meanwhile had fetched his oversized-for-him doctor’s bag and fretted by the door. Morhoof shouldered his lute.
“Um.” Perth said. “The cloud-repelling field generator in my belt is more of an emergency precaution. Controlled locomotion is problematic, the energy source is finite, and I was unable to give it adequate thermal regulation without-”
“Smaller words.” Morhoof said.
After a pained moment to down-shift his vocabulary, Perth tried again. “If I use the thing to cloud-walk I will be like a drunkard on a trampoline. If I use it for more than a minute without giving it a rest, my belt will catch fire. If I use it for more than ten minutes all together it will run out of fuel and I will fall through the clouds.”
Morhoof gave the koala a long unamused stare.
Standing at the docking station, a thought reoccurred to Morhoof. Staring ahead, Morhoof spoke just loud enough for Perth to hear. “I don’t think I properly thanked you. For the leg. I don’t think I ever will be able to repay you. But, thank you. Even if it was by the orders of Smog, I am deeply indebted.”
For once the silence caused Morhoof to feel uncomfortable. It almost got to the point of being unbearable before Perth spoke from his perch on Morhoof’s back. “I’m glad to be rid of it. The Stone. You can’t begin to imagine the things I could have done with it. The glorious engines of destruction…” He coughed. “The leg…I enjoyed making it. I hope it serves you long and well. If we ever meet in the afterlife…as I must now seriously consider one may in fact exist…we should get a drink together. Whenever you turn up.” Morhoof slowly turned to look at the koala, who did his best to avoid Morhoof’s stare.
A stroke of mundane luck saved them some time in obtaining passage to the ground. The ticket mare at the airbus station had taken to heart Luna’s speech about showing expatriated koalas kindness and generosity. Also, she thought Perth was ‘just the cutest l’il thang.’ Morhoof slipped her a sizable tip. Money was something he actually had in abundance for once. The checking account soon to be frozen assets, he had made a stop at a bank on the way in order to make a sizable withdrawal of ‘business expenses.’
Morhoof and Perth descended via airbus into Umbra. Just a fat wallowing sea-cow of a thing built to rise and fall but never go anywhere. Morhoof passed a glance at Perth, who seemed unfazed. Morhoof huffed inside his mind, unable to shake the feeling of self-loathing pertaining to his uneasiness about flight. He, at least, took a bit of solace in the fact that walking on clouds no longer left his mouth dry and his bladder heavy. It still niggled at the back of his mind despite the safety nets he had learned were strewn through the clouds to catch detritus and foolish ponies. Something out of sight like that…if a patch of netting was gone, how long before it was noticed and repaired? Morhoof didn’t like those odds. Not with his usual luck.
For the most part, trips between Aura and Umbra hadn’t been harrowing enough to call for an abandonment of ship. If the envelope was patched, they were tidy patches and there were no signs of un-patched damage. Morhoof would eat his own hoof…the metal one…before allowing himself to let his guard down while suspended more than thirty feet above the ground.
The journey ended as it had begun, slow and without conversation. Following what Morhoof could only call an inborn cider compass, he led the way through Umbra towards the Brass Hoof. Even early in the morning it was all a-bustle. Shielded from the sun by Aura, forever lit by its blue-burning lampposts, Umbra never wholly slept. Right now looked to be busier than usual. Shift change: night workers getting off, day shift heading for work.
“So, the Brass Hoof.” Perth said. “Is this just a place to sleep tonight or are you meeting someone there? Should I, uh, wait outside?”
Morhoof shrugged. “I shouldn’t think so. There won’t be any dangerous kinds of meeting there.” Morhoof glanced sidelong at Perth, who seemed to be struggling to keep pace. Morhoof slowed a little and took note of Perth’s expensive and very black suit. Morhoof had gained at least something of a reputation here, but at least anypony who had heard of him would have heard things that made them unlikely to bother him. Even just on sight, Morhoof looked like trouble. With Perth looking businesslike, an idea formed. “If it anypony asks, you’re wealthy and looking for a house to buy in Shadowville. I’m hired security. Try to look less rabbity.”
Perth fiddled with his spectacles. “Why, exactly?”
Morhoof shrugged again. “If you’re going to lie, best to get your story straight before you need it. Saying that we’re ex-employees of a crimelord is a bad idea.”
The two continued on their way down streets of ponies collecting their morning sustenance of coffee, doughnuts, or other sundries. Morhoof saw a Jolly Juice and his hung-over stomach gave a slow nauseous roll. A growing sense of tension filled Morhoof. He knew when he was being watched, being hunted. Usually. Right now he was having trouble telling if the feeling was that or just indigestion plus paranoia. Brushing past a fat bearded unicorn stallion in an antique suit, Morhoof was slightly shocked to hear himself growl. Loco burst into giggles. Morhoof stopped dead, craning his neck to look back at the russet unicorn. The flab-flanked stallion never looked back, seemed oblivious and out of breath.
A cold chill ran through Morhoof; his left ear and eye twitched at the same time. He was about to give chase, not even sure why, but Perth tugged on his cloak. “Uh, Lute? The constabulary is observing us.”
Morhoof turned back and his eyes swung right to the golden-armored unicorn cop in the intersection up ahead, now being joined by an earth pony that Morhoof assumed was her partner. Words passed between them and Morhoof managed to glimpse their lips between passing ponies and wagons. He spotted the words ‘looney lute.’ Morhoof swore, inside. “Detour.”
The two cops headed their general direction trying to look nonchalant, but Morhoof had icy prickles all along his spine. That wasn’t police-nonchalant. That was criminal-nonchalant. A creature could easily be both cop and crook, here. It was a crowded street. Police…or seeming police…could abduct a pony in broad daylight. Morhoof grabbed Perth by the collar of his suit, slung him on his back, and darted for the nearest alley. The wild zigzagging path he charted was random. Escape first. Then they could ask for directions.
Perth held on tight, the jolting of Morhoof’s gallop making him stutter. “Wh-at ha-ppe-ned to sub-tle-ty?”
“They recognized me.” Morhoof said. A sliver of his awareness loved the smooth, springy action of his new leg. He’d long gotten used to the jolt of the wooden one when he ran, so much that the absence felt strange but wonderful.
Morhoof left one alley intending to cross the street and vanish into another. As the Brass Hoof came into view Morhoof skidded to a halt so hard he almost ended up sitting down. Had he really managed to run right toward it despite taking an unfamiliar route? The building had warm dancing light in every window. Morhoof ached to see it, a bittersweet longing. A moment later the light flared bright. Every window blew out and an infernal geyser of flame erupted through the roof. Morhoof didn’t think. He raced for the front door.
Everything stuttered, as if he had blinked without closing his eyes. The Brass Hoof stood solid and dark. Morhoof tried to stop and skidded on the ancient, worn, and somewhat greasy cobbles. He barely got his fore-hooves up so they rammed the door instead of his skull. Then Perth head-butted Morhoof in the back of the head before tumbling onto the ground. From somewhere inside, a sound like a shattering plate followed by a choral version on the same theme. Oops.
That bracelet didn’t lock me out of your perceptions. I just decided to let you think it did until I could really get you. It’s the same thing over and over and over again. Nopony even called wolf this time, you realize? You’re losing it. It ain’t gonna happen-
Morhoof’s anger burned cold, not hot. “I’ll tell thee one thing that shall happen. I shall toss thy abhorrent being into the deepest pits of Tartarus for all eternity. Mark my words, windigo.” He had enough sense to whisper the last word, if not the whole thing.
Loco smiled; a gloating expression in its silent voice. That’s it, meatbag, embrace the hate.
Morhoof forced himself to let go of the emotion, though the effort caused him actual pain. It lingered but he had stopped feeding it. That would have to do. He raised his mechanical hoof but decided against knocking, unsure of his control with it, or if it could actually punch a hole through the thick wood. They knew he was there. Forcing his expression smooth, he turned to Perth. The koala sprawled on the street looking dazed. Morhoof held out his metal fore-hoof. His intent to help Perth stand up made the pincer unfold, as it was better for grasping. Perth accepted the help up.
Keeping a grip on the pincer, the wobbly koala adjusted his spectacles. For a miracle, they were intact. “What…what happened?”
Morhoof turned his head away, scowling. “Nothing. I got ahead of myself. I’m sorry. Are you okay?"
Perth nodded, not seeming certain. “I-I think so. Did you say something just a moment ago? Tartar sauce?”
The door had no peephole. Morhoof recalled it having one, but it was possible he was thinking of the back door. He heard a lock unlock. The door opened a crack so that one eye, nearly the same shade of amber as his own, could inspect him. The door opened wide enough to identify the eye’s owner as Tankard. The unicorn slowly clapped a hoof to his earthy-orange face. “I should have known we’d see you again.”
“-isn’t here. Now if you don’t mind, we’re closed in the mornings.”
A voice that sounded like Berry Jam called out from inside. “What was that bang, sweetie?”
Tankard pulled his head back out of sight and raised his voice in answer. “It’s nothing.” His head returned, speaking in a low whisper. “Scram. You never show up without bringing trouble with you. It might not be your fault but I have to watch out for my family.”
Perth, unseen by Tankard by being off to the knob-ward side of the doorway, had spent this time hurriedly dusting himself off. He had pulled his bowler hat from his valise and set it on his head. Then he had pulled a fat, stubby black rod from inside his suit’s jacket. He gave the silver knob on top a twist. It snapped out, becoming longer and thinner. A koala-sized walking stick. If it had joints, they were invisible. Now he stepped smartly forward and stuck the end of the cane into the doorway just in time to stop Tankard from closing it.
The unicorn yanked it wider again, mouth open to vent hot words, and saw Perth. He blinked, mouth still open.
“One moment, my good publican pony.” Perth said. His accent had gotten downright plummy, like some Canterlot butler. “I was under the impression this place of business sold rooms to rent as well as spirits to imbibe. Are you so wealthy that you can afford to turn away business? My new bodyguard vouchsafed to me the virtues of this place, which while not spacious or ornate, is clean, secure, and discreet. Forgive my crassness, but did not one of your rulers implore this city to be kind and considerate to those coming from Dust?”
Tankard’s mouth moved up and down but nothing came out. Morhoof was just as surprised, if better at hiding it. Clearly against his better judgment, Tankard swung the door wide and stalked away into the dim interior. The common room beyond appeared unlit except by the little warped-glass windows in the front wall. Perth turned back to Morhoof and his snooty confidence dissolved into wide-eyed disbelief and relief.
Morhoof looked at his mechanical leg. “Think it’s too late to add a thumb? I’d like to be able to give a thumbs-up. Seems like a useful gesture among the digit-endowed. Occupy Tankard for a minute or two while I have a word with Berry Jam.”
His help turned out not to be necessary. Tankard lit some lamps and then stomped away up the stairs. Berry Jam emerged from the back. She gave Perth a long look and then turned her attention to Morhoof. “Well, what’s wrong now?” Her manner was exasperated but not unkind. “You usually don’t make a commotion unless something’s happened.”
Clearing his throat, Morhoof perched on a stool at the bar. Perth clambered up on another. “Tankard said that your daughter-” The swinging door to the back room swung open again. Fantasy poked her head out. Morhoof did a double take, wondering why in Equestria the mare had decided to bleach her mane and body nearly white. “…wasn’t…here…?”
Fantasy stared at him without recognition, and then with beaming delight. Even her eyes were pale purple. “Oh, cool. You have a guitar! Like, musicians are totally awesome! I like, totally dig the scars, dude.”
This wasn’t Fantasy. Berry Jam turned to give the strange mare a stern look. The mare retreated into the back room looking abashed, but managing to slip Morhoof a sultry wink.
Berry gave a long-suffering sigh, but a faint twinkle to her eyes spoiled the effect. “She’s not here. She raced off up to Aura before dawn when she heard news that some friends of Tradewind were about to arrive. Why? What’s wrong?”
Friends? Jindalee? Or some other ponies? The latter was presumably better, as Jindalee might be at or on his way to the Den. “Smog is missing.” He also had a slowly crystallizing certainty that the fat bearded unicorn had been Forte Presto in disguise. Loco might have tried to keep Morhoof from sensing that unicorn’s potent miasma of curdled hate, but it just hadn’t been able to resist laughing. If not for the bent cops distracting him, Morhoof might have ended it right there, and to Tartarus with all the witnesses. But with Smog gone and Perth to babysit, Morhoof had other priorities.
“…what.” Berry Jam said.
Morhoof pulled out the card he had found in his morning’s paper, which was one of the lines of communication Smog had arranged along with the apartment and only-on-paper job and so forth. “I haven’t confirmed but my source is probably reliable. This might all be a false alarm but the wise course is to prepare for the chance it is real.”
Berry Jam took the card, read it. Her face paled. She gave it back to Morhoof as if afraid it was about to explode. “I know what it means if he’s gone. Fantasy! You have to find her!”
Morhoof slipped the card back into hiding. “If she is with friends of Tradewind, then I can assure you that she will be safe.” Morhoof wasn’t as sure as he sounded, but making Berry terrified would do nopony any good. “The city shouldn’t descend into disarray for another day and night. You have some time to make plans and pack. However, I will seek out Fantasy to ensure her immediate return. Perth, do you think you’d be able to tweak the leg to be less sensitive to motion? It was a good idea, but might prove impractical if things become…hazardous.”
Berry seemed to notice the new leg. Perth blinked at Morhoof, polishing his spectacles on a handkerchief. “Motion? Oh, do you mean how reflexive usage of it as a limb causes the automatic disengagement of active devices?” Perth took the mechanical leg from Morhoof, who had willed it to detach. “Trivially easy to modify, but this may make it more awkward to use. No need to worry about damage. I made it to last. So long as it is attached to you, its capacity for self-repair is phenomenal.” Hopping down to grab his valise, he climbed back up and opened it. Removing a toolbox that must have barely fit inside, he closed the valise, locked the four latches, unlocked them in a different order, opened it, and removed another toolbox of a different style.
Berry Jam had composed herself and color returned to her face. Now she goggled at the doctor’s bag. Perth was oblivious, donning magnifying goggles and laying out delicate and bizarre-looking tools. Morhoof pulled out his old wooden leg, which of course he would never dream of discarding. Now he discovered that, thanks to the Philosophers-Stone-containing metal cap fused to his stump, he could no longer fit the cap of his old leg in place. Berry backed away, flustered and distracted. “I need to talk with Tankard. Bubbles! Take their order!” Berry Jam ascended the stairs after her husband.
The pale purple Fantasy look-alike sashayed back in through the swinging door, making her serving-maid outfit look like something briefly worn by the kind of mare that made their living doing athletic gyrations with the aid of a tall metal pole. The mare, apparently named Bubbles, gave Morhoof a slow, warm smile. She leaned against the bar, right across it from him, with one fore-hoof toying with a lock of her mane. Then her eyes caught on the wooden leg.
“Like…are you a pirate?”
Perth sampled the mug placed near him, absentminded, with his attention on the innards of the mechanical leg visible through the access hatch. His mind had settled into the detached focus of his creative insanity. Then the taste of the cider burst through his mouth and shattered his Madness Place like a hammer hitting a blown-glass alembic. Not much like that. This was gentle and pleasant. Perth paused to take a longer drink.
“That,” he said, “is delicious.”
“Sweet Apple Acres cider.” Morhoof said. His tone held a smile.
Perth took another drink, unable to believe it tasted as good as his memory insisted. It did. “Is it magical?”
“Some would say so.” Morhoof said.
Perth had to force himself back into his Madness Place and complete the adjustment. “There. No more automated deactivation of auxiliary functions.”
Morhoof stuck out his stump, capped by the gleaming metal housing for the Stone, the age-reversion device using it, the nerve/mechanism translator, and the power-generation systems for the leg. Perth fitted the top of the limb over the cap and sensed it lock with a satisfyingly intricate click.
“Thanks.” Morhoof said. The earth pony tapped his old wooden leg, which lay on the bar. “Later on, I want you to see if you can make it so this fits again. You can make things bigger on the inside. Can you make something that covers this chunk of metal fused to me, with an outside shaped like the original stump? Hopefully without damaging the old wood leg.”
Perth adjusted his spectacles. “That sounds tricky. It sounds like an interesting challenge.” The mug drew his eye. He took a long drink that ended up lasting until the last drop danced past his tongue. Sighed in bliss. “Business settled?”
One brow lifted. “You weren’t listening?” Morhoof said.
Perth tapped the side of his head. “Madness Place. Everything except that upon which I focus ceases to be important.”
“This was before I gave you the leg.”
“Oh, then. I was trying to have a panic attack without showing outward sign. That performance at the door…”
“Well done, by the way.”
Perth looked down. “The terror didn’t hit until it was over.”
Morhoof took a drink from his own mug, seeming to savor the contents. “Best time for it to hit. Get the job done, fall apart afterwards. No shame in it.” He heaved a deep sigh. “The mare I came here to see is up in Aura.”
Turning his paws to the task of packing his toolboxes, Perth was tempted to swear. “Oh…bother.”
“She’s probably fine.” Morhoof said. “Hurry up. I want to get out of here before Bubbles comes back.” Perth gave Morhoof a blank look. Morhoof’s expression went odd. “Don’t ask.”
Perth didn’t ask. At Morhoof’s direction he went upstairs alone, hauling his valise and matching a door number to the number marked on the old-fashioned key the earth pony gave him. The room beyond was small and basic, though a pony-sized bed was more than sufficient for a koala. Hiding the valise under his bed, he hoped this wasn’t the last time he ever saw it. He locked up behind him and hurried downstairs just in time to see the front door shut and the swinging door opposite of it open.
A unicorn mare with very pale purple body, hair, and eyes emerged to look around. Her smile faded into disappointed confusion. Perth found himself waddling closer, filled with an urge to see if he could help bring back that smile. Her eyes found him. “Where did your pirate friend go? He was here, like, a minute ago.”
“I’ll go look for him outside, Miss…?” Perth said.
“That would be great! Huh? Oh. I’m Bubbles. Hi!”
“I am Perth.” He swept a bow.
She giggled. “You’re cute. Like, totally a teddy bear, but all dressed up like a gentlecolt.”
Perth beamed. “I’ll go find M…Lute forthwith.”
“Fourth with what?” Bubbles said. Her brow furrowed.
Adorable. “As soon as possible, Miss Bubbles.”
“Thanks, teddy bear!”
With a spring in his step, Perth left via the front door. Morhoof grabbed him by the collar of his suit and trotted to the nearest ally. Perth crossed his arms and scowled. He kept his paw away from the pocket with his anti-mugger device. “Put me down, I am not a kitten. Why did you run outside?”
“She was coming back.” Morhoof said. His voice was muffled by the cloth between his teeth but quite near Perth’s ears.
“You…” Perth said. He trailed off. “What just happened? I saw that mare and instantly I was willing to drag you back in there for her.”
Morhoof lowered Perth and let go. The koala sniffed, then regretted it. Even in the magic-loaded Outside, it appeared the unfortunate odor of alleyways was universal.
“Magic.” Morhoof said. He set off at a walking pace Perth could match without jogging. “It was her magic.”
“She put a spell on me?”
“No. Yes. Look, it’s not always so simple. The term ‘natural magic’ gets bandied about. All…well, almost all…adult ponies have a cutie mark. It symbolizes their special talent, their life’s purpose. Some use the word destiny. Don’t misunderstand. The mark comes when you discover and accept what your special talent is: what you want to spend your life doing. The mark is just a visible sign of that moment of self-enlightenment. Even very powerful magic can’t force a cutie mark to appear before the pony is ready to recognize and embrace their talent.”
Perth made his tone dry. “We do have earth ponies in Dust.”
“Right, right.” Morhoof said. He sounded distracted, speaking with half a mind as the other half watched for trouble. “Anyway. All ponies have a spark of magic in them. Even earth ponies. It’s just subtler, connected to the land and living things. A rare few unicorns have magic as their talent, but for most ponies, their powers are limited to things touching on their talent. Say an earth pony’s talent and love is gardening. They can raise bigger, healthier plants. It still takes hard work watering and weeding but their magic enhances the effect. Their hard work bears more fruit than a garden tended the same way by some pony whose talent is doing accountancy. They have to be good at it and also enjoy doing it. But they don’t actually cast spells, aiming magic at the vegetables. It’s…natural.”
“I…see. Like my gift with mechanisms.”
“More or less, yeah. It’s not something they do, it’s something they are. I’ve studied magical theory.”
“Most ponies seem to have theme-appropriate names.”
“More natural magic. Pony parents pick a name that feels right even if they don’t know why. Most of the time it proves to be attached somehow to the foal’s inborn talent. The parents don’t know what talent the foal has, and the foal doesn’t know, but the magic in the foal knows. All magic has a shape, a theme. A purpose. Every pony has magic, so every pony has a purpose. A talent, a destiny. Doesn’t have to be a grand destiny; I’ve met ponies whose talent was an amazing ability to wash dishes or haul garbage.”
“I was born with my talent, so in a sense ‘destined’ to it.”
“In a sense, yes. Bubbles has a talent for being…bubbly. I’ve met ponies like her before. She is good at being happy and making others happy. Ever met somepony you couldn’t help but like? That, only more so. It’s nothing she controls. It’s just…who she is. If it helps you, this kind of thing only works when backed by sincerity. That feeling of trust was justified. You could ask her to hold a gold brick for you and she’d never even consider running off with it. Being a unicorn rather than an earth pony or pegasus lets the effect be more…focused. It wears off a little when you get away from her. Yeah?”
“Yes, it has. Somewhat. How did you resist?”
“Thousands of years spent avoiding romantic entanglements.”
The koala didn’t understand. Then he did, and a slow grin spread across his face. “Oh. Oh, my. She was being flirtatious toward you?” Stopping dead, Morhoof growled under his breath. Perth stopped too. “I’ll shut up.”
“Get back.” Morhoof said.
Perth did, realizing this wasn’t about his impertinence. They had entered an empty, desolate-looking paved courtyard, perhaps fifty feet wide and sixty long. None of the buildings flanking onto it was less than three stories high. Two had no windows. The other two had windows plugged long ago with bricks. Most of the gaps between them had also been bricked up at ground level. There was only one exit beside the one near them.
A unicorn slipped into sight from that other alleyway. His body was a darker brownish grey, his stubble-short mane a paler greyish brown. Neither appeared due to age. He wore a hooded grey-blue cloak with the hood pushed back. His eyes were pale; the nameless shade where grey, green, and blue lost their individual identities. The kind of eyes that seemed to change tint depending on mood, lighting, and outfit. A darker ring marked the division between iris and pupil and they seemed to have less sparkle and vitality than most pony eyes. Hard and cold and intense. They were the most unsettling eyes Perth had ever seen.
Given that he had met Smog, that was saying a lot.
“Forte Presto.” Morhoof said. “Nice disguise.”
The unicorn spoke, quietly but carrying well. A trained baritone, like a singer or orator. His voice held an undercurrent of absolute certainty that made Perth’s fur fluff out under his suit. The unicorn possessed held a cold malignant charisma, the deadly fascination of a dancing cobra. “No disguise this time, Wandering Lute. I have accorded you the honor of facing you as myself. How did you know it was me?”
“You first.” Morhoof said. “How did you get ahead of me?”
“I brushed past you earlier and planted a tiny splinter of wood in your cloak. It is attuned to a resonance compass. I tracked you and then hurried ahead when you neared a suitable place to intercept.” The unicorn waited, emanating polite inquiry.
“You stink.” Morhoof said.
Perth backed further away from Morhoof, hopefully ignored.
“I can smell hate.” Morhoof said. “You’re rotten with it.”
No reaction at all from the unicorn. “You are wrong.” Delivered without emphasis, it made the certainty behind the words all the more obvious.
Morhoof was motionless; they both were. “Any chance of you just walking away?”
“No. The dragon is gone but his deadliest talon remains. I came to end your evil, assassin. Will you attempt to flee?”
Morhoof’s ears pulled back flat against his skull. He gained his own subtle aura of danger; something that Perth visualized as a slow-rolling boulder that would crush anything that stood in its way…and spare anything that did not. Shrugging off his cased lute, the earth pony gently set it aside without once looking away from Forte Presto. “I’m done with running.”
Sasha quietly rolled through the big hole knocked in the side of the long-abandoned building. Zenzar killed her motor and parked her by Matilda’s cart. The ravens were up in the wall-fringing remains of the second and third floor, darkly muttering. Morning sun angled in through a few small holes in the roof but it felt like three in the morning in Zenzar’s heart. White Lightning landed outside and crept in. Dead silence fell. He gave the flock a wary look. They stared back with the stern disapproval like the audience at an execution.
Then one of them fluffed up its feathers. Beak open wide, high-kicking like a burlesque mare, and making a noise like a tea kettle with the hiccups, it proceeded to hold its wings as if they were a skirt and pranced in place. The raven next to the dancer reached out a wing, deadpan, and slapped it right off the ledge. The dancer gave a startled honk and did a few uncontrolled tumbles before stagger-flapping back up to its original perch. It looked abashed.
“…what.” Lightning said. “Matilda taught ravens to do comedy acts?”
“I-” Zenzar said. He broke off as another raven started to imitate the maniacal laughing call of a kookaburra, only to be pecked by both flanking ravens. “I…don’t think so.”
The door at the bottom of the basement stairs was open. Zenzar couldn’t remember if he’d shut it or not. As he looked at the dark beyond that door a cold shiver ran down his spine. His mane would have stood up if it hadn’t already. He gave White Lightning a look. The pegasus frowned back. They shared an unspoken confession: if either of them had been alone, they wouldn’t have gone down those stairs for all the healdust in Dust. A raven imitated a belch and cut off with a thumping noise and a small oof. Zenzar had a bad feeling. His heart was already double-timing. Now it triple-timed.
Zenzar was almost as weirded out by the birds as the doorway. It helped him force his hooves down the steps. Lightning followed. Nopony in the toy-filled room. No light from the lamp on the table, which Zenzar thought he remembered being lit when he left. Lightning sniffed. “What’s that smell?”
Zenzar would have done almost anything rather than go down in that sub-basement and the chamber beyond it. Something was wrong. That smell. Hot lush greenery and a sulfurous musk he had smelled before. The memories of where had run and hid. He couldn’t think about what the smell might mean.
“Gnnnh.” He wasn’t sure what word it had been, but not much more than a groan could get past the lump in the back of his throat. His dread had reached the point of paranoia. He tried to tell himself everything was fine, but he still felt like something had gone horribly wrong.
“…Zenzar? I hear giggling.” The zebra stallion looked up from staring at the carpet. Fear had swollen until everything was vivid and unreal as a fever dream. White Lightning’s ear pressed against the sub-basement door. “I guess it’s all right, if they’re laughing.” He opened the door and passed through. “Zheila? You down here? Hello?”
The formless dread…formless because his mind refused to face the source of it…gained a lesser focus and a load of guilt. One of the last things she’d told Zenzar was not to get White Lightning involved. His tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. He felt weak, helpless, stupid.
“Wh-White Lightning. Wait.” He barely heard his own mumble. Something goaded him into approaching the longer, darker, narrower stairs. He didn’t go very fast. There was an invisible band around his chest, slowly squeezing out his air.
A masculine yell of surprise echoed up. “AAARRRGGGHHH!”
At that, Zenzar found himself propelled forward as if by a giant slingshot. If his hooves touched more than a dozen stairs on the way down he would have been astonished. He leapt the well in the sub-basement pantry and bounced down the zigzag tunnel without feeling the impacts. Some kind of curtain blocked the end. He burst through and it recoiled like a nest of startled snakes. Brilliant sunlight should have blinded him but instead his eyes instantly adjusted.
The mask chamber was a miniature jungle. The gems crusting the dome from its apex all the way to the floor glowed like suns. The deep narrow ‘well’ in the center had the top half of a pudgy wingless dragon-like creature sticking up from it like the strangest potted plant ever. Bold black and white stripes marked its scales. Its face wasn’t a dragon’s. Too stubby: hidden behind a brightly colored and happy mask. The dragon had a silken white mane. It spilled to the ground all around it, twining among the riot of plants and little trees all the way to the walls. One blue eye stared from an eyehole of the Face of Summer. Zenzar knew it was Zheila but something in him refused to believe it.
He had to look away. Matilda caught his eye. Vines ending in wooden manacles held her stretched out like the old famous Vitruvian Pony drawing. She started to yell something. A glistening white lock of hair reared up like a tentacle, gripping what looked like a snack cake. More of them hung from a little tree nearby, like fruit. It shoved the cake in her mouth. Then it wrapped around her mouth and nose. Matilda chewed fast and swallowed with eyes full of tears and hate. The hair unwound and gave her a pat. Zenzar noticed how much Matilda’s belly bulged.
A deep, echoing, dragon-like but inarguably feminine voice boomed from behind the mask. “Boys!” White Lightning tried to leap back and fell over. Hair had twined around his ankles. He yelped and then froze rigid as the hair lifted him up and brought him forward. More locks of hair grabbed his head and forced him to nuzzle the mask. Then they swaddled him like a fly in a spiderweb. The slit-pupiled sapphire behind the mask focused on Zenzar. “So glad ya brought my sugar-stallion, Zenny. What a nice surprise.”
White Lightning appeared to be in shock. Zenzar knew he was. Zheila had used the mask. Somehow, she had been tricked or forced into wearing the mask. It had charged up that lingering transformation curse and made her into a dragon. All the fear just…drained away. It felt so good to be alive…
Zenzar fought it, but all he could do was prevent a total surrender. The unnatural optimism made his body relax. Some dark stone of secret knowledge anchored his mind, a slow quiet fury kept his heart from being drowned in insane joy. He wanted to gibber and whoop and kick up his hind hooves. Run wild and happy, feasting and fighting without a care in the world.
“Ya look good.” Zenzar said.
“I know, right!?” She flicked a lock of hair away from the mask with a talon, like a diva posing for the cameras. “I’ve wanted a beautiful mane like this for ages. Now I can just grow it all da way out. Mmmmm.” Zheila giggled, unnervingly pony-like. Matilda glared hot hate at all three of the others.
“Um.” Zenzar said. The craziness riding him was mindless, directionless. It thought everything was a great idea. He could nudge its focus, make suggestions. Get out of here… “Great seeing ya, sis. Hey, how about if I take Mattie upstairs? We can have some fun, and give you and Lightning some privacy for some fun of your own. Know what I’m saying?” His eyebrows waggled.
Zheila gasped as White Lighting blinked a few times. “Yes! Dat’s a great idea! She’s been a naughty little mare, saying mean things to me. Maybe you can cheer her up.” The vines stretching Matilda out started to sag. Then they tightened. “Wait. Why do ya need to leave for dat?”
“Like I said, privacy.”
“There’s no need. Why be ashamed? It’s a beautiful, natural thing. It’s da act of creating life. Go on, she’s right there.”
For one unspeakably horrific moment, Zenzar imagined doing it. He wasn’t tempted, but he vividly imagined it. He recoiled from the thought with his entire being. He should not, would not, could not do that. It just wasn’t in him. Suddenly the mad glee was outside him again, a liquid pressure trying to find any crack in his resistance. Zheila went still, then cocked her head as if sensing his return to sanity. The miniature jungle stirred, and pony-like eyeballs on vine-like stalks lifted out of hiding to stare his way. Here and there on a trunk he glimpsed the gleam of teeth. Sharp teeth.
Zenzar’s eyes widened in reborn terror as tendrils of hair erupted from the greenery near him. The chamber spun and swung. When it stopped he was hanging upside-down with his eyes on a level with his sister’s one eye. It was…gone. He didn’t see Zheila in it, just something bright but shallow. A force, not a person. Zenzar squeezed his eyes shut. He had no idea what was going to happen, but it couldn’t be worse than what had happened to his twin sister.
Hanging cocooned in silky white hair, White Lightning watched with growing horror as Zenzar dangled upside-down in front of the thing that Zheila had become. He was acting as if under the influence of something powerful. Lightning knew it had to be the power of this ancient mask. He could sense its power too, like diving into blood-warm water deep enough to feel the pressure in his skull. For some reason, it couldn’t seem to get inside him. He could feel it trying to find a way.
Just before she had grabbed him, Lightning had seen that manic gleam in the zebra’s eyes gutter out, replaced by fear and the Zenzar that Lightning had come to know. Somehow he had shaken off the power. How had that happened? Zheila had suggested that Zenzar have…relations…with Matilda right here in front of her and Lightning, while Matilda was still tied up.
The truth hit Lightning in a flash of brilliant insight. The wild energies of the mask couldn’t simply take him over. They had to find something in him that resonated with them. Some seed of selfish craving for pleasure and life that they could make grow until it swallowed him. Right now there was not the tiniest hint of happiness in Lightning. Nothing about this situation gave him any kind of pleasure, no matter how twisted.
Lightning might not be quite sane but he knew who he was. The potion made with the Seed of Truth had transformed his body to reflect his true self. Rather than looking like a shifty weasel-rat it had made him heroic-handsome. That had forced him to confront his true self: see past his guilt about past crimes to the goodness in his heart. Not that many days ago, Lightning had flown into a burning building without a second’s hesitation or thought. That there hadn’t been anypony inside to rescue didn’t change the significance. He had thought there was, and his first impulse had been to put his life in danger to save them. Even though they would be strangers.
White Lightning had rejected selfishness when he turned his back on how he had been raised. He wanted to live but never at the expense of other ponies. If he had to die to save another’s life, he’d do it without hesitation. He knew that beyond any doubt. Courage had nothing to do with it. If the cost of survival was standing aside and doing nothing while another pony died, then he’d rather die. If the cost of gaining something was another pony’s suffering, he didn’t want it. All his happiness came from helping others. It came from being honest, kind, generous, loyal, and from making others laugh.
He might have problems with paranoia and nightmares, he might still have guilt over his past crimes, he might not quite be able to trust his senses, and he might be plagued by doubts about whether he was smart enough or strong enough to help when help was needed…but that was all head problems.
Not a heart problem.
Zenzar had remembered his heart, had discovered some stronghold of goodness inside him that the power couldn’t poison. No force in the universe could make Zenzar want to violate an unwilling mare. He had returned to himself.
Zheila and her twin brother locked gazes. “Where’s da mask, sweet brother of mine?” Tendrils of mobile hair stroked Zenzar’s face, his sides. One of her clawed forelegs petted his mane, the static-charged hair springing back up after each pass. It was a little longer each time, the dark striped bleaching grey. “Ya said you’d come back with da Face of Winter. I’ve been waiting for dat. I even held back from making da city bloom until ya came back with dat awful thing. It is da only thing in da world dat deserves destroying.”
Lightning let out a cry of horror as Zenzar grinned. His eyes danced with that crazy light once more. Zenzar didn’t seem to hear the yell. “Sorry, sis. I went to get it but I chickened out. Ask Lightning.”
The happy masked face turned to him. The pressure intensified until a faint general sense of tingling pleasure brushed over his skin. There was absolutely nothing in him that would let it touch his heart or mind. Lightning could never remember being so utterly empty of happiness or hope. He would have done absolutely anything to save them, to stop this. He couldn’t do anything while tied up like this. Nothing except talk, and they were too far gone to reason with.
…yes, they were, weren’t they?
Lightning plastered a big happy smile on his face. Zheila seemed to find that acceptable, and not faker than a wooden bit. She had expected him to look happy. She couldn’t doubt that he should and would, so she was blind to the deception.
“It’s true.” Lightning said. He forced a giggle that wouldn’t have fooled a small foal. “He couldn’t even finish cutting it out of the tree before he ran home and got me. We decided to come back here and see if you could think of some other way to save Matilda.”
Lightning needed to get untied. He needed to make her trust him enough to untie him. Then when Zenzar brought the other mask back, Lightning might have a chance to grab it and…use it. Maybe he could counter her long enough to let Zenzar and Matilda escape. Maybe he could even get the mask off Zheila. If he couldn’t…he knew what had to be done. Saving her didn’t necessarily mean keeping her alive. Better dead than a monster. He had no hope of surviving this himself. That was okay. Even if he failed to save anypony, he knew he had to try.
“I’ll go get it now, sis.” Zenzar said. His mane was long and pure white now, standing up in a huge dandelion puff of static. “Pinkie Promise.”
“Not yet.” Zheila said. Her deep voice was a purr. Locks of hair stripped off his long coat. “I have something to give ya first. You’ll really like it.”
Lightning closed his eyes, nausea cramping his stomach. There were rustling noises, then wet fleshy sounds. Not the kind he had been dreading. One eye opened a crack. Vines capped with eyes were withdrawing. Zenzar wore…a suit of armor? A very bulky suit of armor, worked to look as if molded over monstrous muscles. Bright blue with pink zebra stripes, with white rib-like bands wrapping him from just behind the shoulder to just ahead of his hips. The mask over Zenzar’s face was a mirror to the Mask that Zheila wore. He looked like a caricature of a deer wrestler, the kind with brightly colored leotards and ornate masks.
He moved a leg, and the sculpted muscles flexed. Veins popped up here and there, pulsing and…green. Some kind of animal-plant abomination wrapped the zebra. It had muscles of its own, and a row of black breathing tubes like stubby spikes down his spine. Lightning hoped it was living armor, and not Zenzar transformed. Then the bone-colored ribs wrapping his body unfolded into at least a dozen pairs of bug-like legs. Zenzar folded his real legs up under him. Now he was lower-slung. Eight little red eyes opened on the forehead of the mask.
“What is this thing, sis?” Zenzar said. His voice was the same, but muffled. Not transformed, then. Yet.
“It’ll get ya to old Dead Tree in a hurry without having to ride dat awful unliving motorcycle. It will take ya there and let ya rip dat dead tree apart, then bring ya back with it. It won’t let ya go anywhere else. Just in case ya chicken out again.”
“Might get noticed, though.” Zenzar said.
“Oh, silly.” Zheila said.
Zenzar rippled, the colorful stripes fading and bleeding into each other. He took on the greens and other colors of the jungle, the details coming into focus until he was quite hard to see. He shifted on his centipede legs and the patterns shifted with the motion, causing a ripple effect as if he were made of glass. Only the eight little red eyes and Zenzar’s own blue ones were truly visible.
“Now go, my pet. Take my brother where he needs to go.”
Turning with hideous skittering agility, the thing wrapping Zenzar fled the chamber. Matilda drew Lightning’s attention by thrashing. “You demented hag-monster, I’ll rip that mask off you and shove it up your scaly-mmf!” Another snack cake cut off her screeches. She was blocked from breathing until she had chewed and swallowed. Once she had, she started to open her mouth and another snack cake hovered, ready. She clenched her teeth together and growled.
Zheila gave a deep indulgent dragon chuckle that turned into a high-pitched filly-ish giggle. Her eye turned to Lightning. “So white all over, and dat military-short hairdo. Ugh, gag.” Vines and hair-tendrils lifted all around, each one ending in or gripping a…thing. Some he recognized. Bushes, both for hair and for paint. Bowls full of liquids and pastes and powders. Other things, he couldn’t recognize. A few…he wished he didn’t recognize. Zheila clapped her scaly claws together. “Time for a makeover!”
Zenzar felt like he was about to throw up, but he didn’t dare with this mask stuck to his face. The inside of the thing wrapped around him was hot and slimy. And alive. It kept his legs folded up under him as its bug legs carried him through the narrow twisty streets and narrower alleys of the Old Town. There were zebras out but none seemed to see him. Some kind of magic, he assumed. The thing had hatched from dozens of fruit-egg things on those nightmare trees in the cavern. Hatched and then put itself together around him. That seemed to imply Zheila had planned for him not coming back with the mask. Planned to maybe need to make him go get it. Only she didn’t seem able to plan like that anymore. Maybe she had just decided to make her twin brother a nice present, and using it like this was just a happy bonus.
It had been hard to hang on, even after that suggestion about what he could do to Matilda snapped out of it. Having Zheila stroke his mane had felt wonderful. The way he imagined it felt to be hugged by a mother. It had been wrong, hollow somehow, but still wonderful. He had fought it. There was more to life than…life. More than just mindless pleasure. There were more important things. Love. Brotherly love for his sister, the love of friendship for Lightning, and romantic love for Matilda. They were more important to him than his life and happiness.
He was being taken back to Old Dead Tree by force. The last sound he’d heard from the cavern was something between a giggle and a squeal out of the dragon-monster that used to be his sister. He wanted to puke. He wanted to cry. He wanted to struggle. That little shop of horrors in the cavern was what she wanted to make out of Zevera, maybe all of Zavros. The stakes couldn’t be higher and the awareness of that tried to paralyze him. The only thing that could match the Face of Summer was its twin. His only hope was the slim chance he would be able to stay himself long enough to save the others, and the city. He was determined to try. He had to do what his heart told him was right. What he did, he did for love, and hoped that was enough. Wearing the Face of Winter was an unspeakable risk. He had to take it. He could only keep a stiff upper lip and try to keep his bottom one from shaking too much.
The living armor reached the small, always-deserted courtyard. Where had the time gone? It was closer to noon than dawn now. The mask split in half and pulled apart. Hot, dry, dusty air had never tasted so good. Then, with a muscular heave, it spat him out. Zenzar knew that if he somehow survived, that moment was going to wake him up in the dark for years to come. He staggered to his hooves, covered in slime.
The suit closed up and stared at him with eight little red eyes on the mask-face’s forehead. Only the eyes were really visible. The rest…chameleons wished they were that good at blending in. No wonder nopony had seen them. He took a step to the side and it moved to block him. Nope: not letting him leave. Not without the mask. But he understood why it wasn’t going to go near the tree itself.
The slime dried to dust, but the memory lingered. His mane stood up and crackled. It was at least twice as tall now and pure white. No spikes, just a poofball. White Lightning, however, was worse off. He didn’t want to imagine what she was doing to him right now. Lightning. Zheila had said not to involve him. If Zenzar had gotten the mask, or just ran back to Matilda’s rather than the Garage, at least the pegasus would have escaped what might be about to happen.
Zenzar had no hatchet. It was with his bike.
But he didn’t need it. He remembered how, as the Face of Winter’s power wormed into his mind, the blade had bitten deeper into the tough old wood. He didn’t have to wear it to use it. The power hung so thick here that anypony could touch it if they tried. Zenzar stalked up to Old Dead Tree, the silvery grey wood seeming shadowed and dark despite the sunshine. He studied the chopped-up scar the hatchet had left. Rearing up, he gathered his will to destroy and punched the trunk with a fore-hoof.
The wood shattered like a clod of dirt. It crumbled like sand and kept crumbling. It rained sawdust that felt more like sand. The tree dissolved. He ignored it. Nothing was important anymore but the hot coal of love in his heart and the hard knot of determination in his mind. It was a losing battle. Even love wasn’t enough. Not for him. He was like an ant standing in the path of a flash flood. Whatever amazing willpower it took to wear these masks even for a while and remain sane…he just didn’t have it.
But then, as all his emotions started to fade, he saw it. The simple truth that he had known but failed to understand. The Faces were mindless. They needed a wearer to give them direction and purpose. They were a flood of wild power. If he fought that flood, he would be crushed. But if he embraced it, the power was his to command. If he went with the flow…he could ride it. Yes, it would corrupt him: you go swimming, you get wet, and eventually you drown. But that corruption would take time to finish pulling him under. In the meantime, he could tell the power what to do. He had to focus on his goal in terms of cold calculated destruction. He knew what had to be done, and love…love would actually make it harder.
Zenzar spoke under his breath as he pulled the mask from the pile of dust. “This is my last chance to make things right.”
He studied the mask. It was surprisingly colorful. Pure white and deep cold purple. Just like the other in style, but with the eyes and mouth turned down in an expression like grief. His emotions draining away, he went back to the living armor that had brought him here. Deadpan, he let it swallow him again. It carried the Face of Winter down under it using two of its legs. The horror the thing had made him feel was gone along with every other emotion. It would get him to where he needed to go faster. Logic told him to tolerate it…for now.
Part of Zenzar was surprised, in a chilly way, that the Face of Winter wasn’t trying to transform him. Then he wondered why he had been surprised. Even not wearing the mask, the power was already responding to his will. He had sent it at the wood of the tree. It worked for him, not against him. Zenzar didn’t will his own destruction. He had another target in mind.
The ravens hadn’t kicked up a fuss as he left. Maybe they hadn’t even seen him, what with the chameleon-trick the living armor did. When he returned, they erupted screaming into the air; not fleeing but in a blind panic. Zenzar ignored them. He turned his will on the living armor. He no longer needed it. The thing shuddered around him. Zenzar moved, and he regained control as it weakened. Then the ravens were there, ripping at it, no longer making a sound. They soon had it crippled, its green muscles torn. Then the ravens fled. He ripped away the living mask and casually placed the real one over his face. The wild power found a channel to race along. His. A flick of thought turned the shredded living armor into mulch. He used the ribbons to tie the mask to his head.
Going down the stairs, he liked the cool lifeless stone of them. The door at the bottom was half-open. He slipped through the toy-filled room beyond without doing any damage. Random destruction wasn’t logical. He could take no joy from it, had no motive or desire to destroy it. Vague plans formed: helping the world embrace the serenity of pure passionless thought. He stayed on mission. The Face of Summer was his greatest threat, and it had a wearer. Dealing with that took priority. He went down to the sub-basement, ignoring the white hair and vines now crawling from the tunnel and covering the floor and walls. They whipped back out of sight as he approached.
Turning the second corner and onward into the chamber, he saw the Face of Summer. Its wielder held what almost looked like Princess Celestia. It was White Lightning, now sporting a long rainbow mane and tail. And beard. A crown of glowing yellow flowers and a vest of leaves set like scales. Matilda was unchanged, though looking even more over-stuffed. A flick of thought destroyed the enchanted bracelet she wore, freeing her mind of its poisonous influence. Zenzar wanted her and Lightning alive. They would be the first to be purged of painful emotion and receive the gift of true serenity. He would ignore them for now. He would not allow distractions from his most important goal. He only broke the bracelet so she wouldn’t be able to teleport away beyond his reach. This chamber offended him with its heat and steam and its choking stink of rampant life. He remembered when it was all hard gems, dead stone, and lifeless water.
A bass screech. “YOU PUT IT ON!”
Zenzar focused on the Face of Summer. Its wearer was even fatter than before. Stupid, emotional, sentimental, short-sighted. He said nothing.
“YOU TRICKED ME! You put it on! Wh…wha…”
Typical melodrama: stating the obvious, unwilling to accept the self-evident truth and take swift action. Wasting time and energy on surprise and anger. Zenzar strode forward, holding his power in hard and tight and dense around him. Tendrils of hair lashed at him and puffed to dust an inch from his skin. Vines did likewise and became damp mulch. Brightly colored little monsters leapt at him. Their dry bones and ashes tumbled around him. Nothing further away than an inch was harmed.
Finally the Face of Summer’s wearer sent its power at him. Now he encountered resistance. A hot torrent of green-and-gold flame belched from that smiling mouth-hole. It was energy exactly counter to his. Where they touched, both were transformed into something so balanced and passive it was impotent. Zenzar slowed, then stopped. He settled himself. Let the waters rage: the stone was unmoved. He gathered his power into a sharp wedge that split the flames and diverted their force. He advanced again.
Taloned fore-claws grabbed him and squeezed. His pain was there but meant nothing. The other’s wearer tried to crush him. He let it draw him close. Then he grabbed its malformed head in both fore-hooves and brought their masked faces together into a headbutt. All his will to destroy focused on that contact, on that other mask. He was aware of something despairing in some corner of his mind still clinging to emotions.
‘Zheila,’ the corner thought, ‘I’m sorry.’
Oblivion swallowed him. No light or sound, no sense of having a body. It was as if everything but his mind had been destroyed. A universe of empty darkness. For a fleeting second, he felt the most tremendous sense of peace. Then the flaw in the void began to nag at him. Something still existed. Easily remedied. All that remained was to let his mind unravel and his purpose would be served.
His mind refused. In fact it rebelled. It clung to existence. It wanted to live. Even in the void. Fire erupted as his heart awakened from its black sleep. Not crushed. Just buried, locked away. It all came rushing back. It all felt good. Even the terror felt wonderful after the bleak emptiness that had swallowed him. Had he destroyed the universe? He actually couldn’t care. Given his lack of a body he appeared to have at least killed himself. He didn’t care. All his remorse came from killing his sister.
Something brushed against him in the dark.