News - Jan 16, 2019 (2 months ago)

Thank you for coming.

It's been a long time coming now, but it's time for Twenty Percent Cooler to close down. We've had a good run and had a great time in our heyday, but the sun has set on our little website and now it's time to go. You have about a week to record, save, and archive what you would like before everything goes dark, so please make the best of this time.

Thank you for all the memories and contributions to our community in these last 8 years. We had a great time.

~ Sincerely, Princess Luna
Lead Administrator for


White Lightning leapt back as Zenzar bolted upright in bed as if launched by a spring in his pillow. The zebra’s eyes were wild, darting around but unseeing. He had a look of naked horror on his face. Lightning had seen some extremely unsettling stuff not long ago but somehow nothing unnerved him as badly as Zenzar’s expression. It was the look of a pony who had seen something so bad it had broken their mind.

He planted a hoof in it. Zenzar fell back. The bed, in one of the two little rooms set aside for patients of Zheila’s, gave a creaking crack. Lightning instantly regretted the punch, it had been pure reflex. Zenzar groaned. “Ow.”

“Sorry! You scared me!”

The zebra sat up again, rubbing his nose. “S’alright. Had a…” His expression seemed to crumple, a glimpse of how he would look when old. “…a nightmare. Yeah, a nightmare.” He shuddered. “There were these masks and…” Zenzar spotted Lightning’s grimace and darting eyes. “Not a dream.”


“Well, I’m alive. Dat part was a nightmare.” He gave a firm nod, jaw set. “Just a bad dream.”

Lightning wasn’t going to ask. “You feel okay?”

Zenzar cocked his head, seeming to take stock. “I feel great. Dat can’t be right.” He shrugged and rolled his shoulders, causing much rippling of muscle. He brushed at his mane, scrubbing at it. Froze. “My mane.”

“It’s normal.” Lightning said. “And Zheila-”

Zenzar lunged forward and grabbed him. “Zheila?”

“Alive and fine!” It came out a squeak. “She even has two eyes again. Her mane’s normal for a zebra too.”

Zenzar sat back, tears in his eyes. “She’s alive.”

“Thanks to Matilda.” Lightning said.


“She saved you both. She…” Lightning trailed off. He had been there and the memories felt as if they were going to remain perfect and vivid until he died. He still had trouble believing it had happened. “Afterwards she helped be get you and Zheila here to the Garage. She jabbered at me the whole way like a squirrel full of coffee beans. Once we got you settled, clonk. Out cold. She’s in Zheila’s bed. I managed to piece together a lot of it from her jabber, and what I saw.”

Zenzar wiggled as if he needed to use the bathroom, but in impatience. He visibly forced himself to go still. “Start from when I showed up with da mask.”

“Well, you came in and Zheila breathed fire at you. She put me aside. Matilda got loose somehow. The bracelet was off her, she says you did that.” He gave a nod and an impatient gesture. “Well, anyway, you walked up to Zheila and she grabbed you in her…you know, claws. Hurt you bad. You headbutted her. Then…there was this light. Pure white. Like a thousand suns but…soft. It didn’t hurt my eyes. Matilda inhaled. You know, like she was about to say a lot or maybe yell really loud. All the light…flowed into her. I’ve seen a few unicorn use magic so powerful their eyes glow all white. Matilda…she was just this pony shape made of white light. It didn’t light up anything.”

Lightning had to take a moment to take a breath, and when he spoke his voice still trembled. Not in fear. In sheer awe. “It was the most glorious thing I have ever seen. Then she giggled. No echoes or hum or anything. Just this happy little giggle like she had just figured out the answer to a funny riddle. The kind of laugh a lot of adults forget how to make. She giggled and the light poured out of her like…honey. It soaked into everything. Me too. It felt right.”

Seeming subdued, Zenzar looked down. “Then what?”

“Then the light sort of faded away. Like it was all used up. The chamber was empty, with a flat stone floor and a well of water in the middle. You and Zheila and Matilda and I were lying around it, and you two were fixed. So was I. No more rainbow beard. Upstairs all the furniture and toys looked brand new. The walls looked freshly made. The building above the basement is still a wreck. I don’t think it got that far.”

Zenzar frowned in thought. “Don’t da Elements of Harmony do dat? I heard after Discord got free dat first time, da Elements put everything he messed up back da way it was.”

“Yeah, the histories say they did. I think this was similar, but…raw? Not divided into six Elements. Matilda wouldn’t stop talking. She was full of energy all the way here. Lots of repeating and breaking off to wonder about things like if moths can fart. I’m condensing what she said down to the important parts. From what she said, a lot of natural magic was gathered up to make the Faces of Summer and Winter. Pure stuff. Then it was split in half: light from dark, creation from destruction. The halves were massively unstable. They were bound in the masks. Carved from a single piece of wood, Matilda says. She says she knows that from an old book she found when she moved in, written by the old guardians of the Summer half. Each mask was a counterweight to the other. Each one was the anchor keeping the other one stable.”

“If one mask broke, both broke?” Zenzar said.

“No. They were indestructible. Those nasty, hopefully make-believe stories about a pony cutting out his heart and hiding it, and then he can’t be killed unless you find the heart? Imagine if two ponies swapped hearts. The only way to kill them would be to stab both of them in the heart at the same time. Matilda’s example. She says that the masks were destroyed because they touched. The halves of the magic rejoined. The masks went back to being plain wood and all that massive, pure, harmonious magic was let loose. Matilda said she didn’t pull it in, it poured in like water in a hole. She had to send it back out or it would have made her explode. She says her giggle was because she realized the power could put everything back the way it’s supposed to be. So she told it to do that.”

“Your mane ain’t blue again.” Zenzar said.

“This is who I really am. It’s a truer reflection of me than the face I was born with. I think because you and Zheila were out cold, it just had to go by your bodies. It gave Zheila her eye back and fixed everything ‘wrong’ with her. Her dragon curse is gone, but so is her long white mane. If you had been born cross-eyed and it was fixed by magic, this power would have made you cross-eyed again. It wasn’t about good or bad, Matilda said. Just natural and unnatural.”

“My curse is gone.” Zenzar said. “Da greed-makes-me-fat one.”

Lightning shifted, rump aching from the hard wooden stool. “You’re both a little taller, too. I guess you never reached your full potential size, growing up. This is how you and Zheila would have looked without whatever stunted your growth.”

“There were some hard years.” Zenzar said. He checked his forelegs. “Scars gone. You?”

“Scar-free, including in my head.”


Lightning had to smile. “I’ve never felt saner. I’m sure that any damage the masks did you your and Zheila’s minds and spirits was healed up like it never happened.”

“Reset button.” Zenzar said.

“Big one. Matilda wanted to know how you knew the masks would destroy each other if they ever touched. She planned to ask you, but…clonk.”

Zenzar met his eyes, looking bleak. “Lightning, I didn’t know. Never suspected. I tried to get Zheila to let me go so I could go to da Old Dead Tree. I planned to wear da mask. I just hoped my love for you three would let me fight it long enough to save ya. It was all I could think to do dat had any chance of working. I couldn’t just run away even if dat thing hadn’t wrapped me. I’d save ya or die trying.”

“Well, it worked. You held on.”

The zebra was shaking his head. “I didn’t. I couldn’t. It beat me, Lightning. My love wasn’t enough. I barely had time to focus on da Face of Summer as a threat and kind-of ‘aim’ mask-crazed me at it like an arrow. I thought dat would end with me or Zheila destroyed and da other so weak dat maybe you and Matilda could get da mask off them. Or get away. I thought love was always supposed to win in da end.”

“Uh, everything did turn out all right. Matilda is sure that only destroying the masks would have saved your sister, and you never could have made yourself put on the mask of winter if not for your love of us and desire to save us. Matilda said that love lit the fuse on this firework.”

Zenzar’s expression turned strange. Lightning scooted back as the zebra got out of bed. Before, Zenzar had been average zebra height but burly. Now? He wasn’t as tall as some earth pony stallions got, but he would stand out in a crowd. The pegasus retreated to the hallway as Zenzar left the little room. Zenzar gave the door to Zheila’s room a longing look, then looked away. “Where’s Zheila?”

“Watching Matilda. Zheila woke up about an hour ago.”

“What time is it?”

Lightning yawned. “Dawn. You’ve been out for over eighteen hours straight. I kept an eye on you three. You just seemed…asleep.” Zenzar was already at the door and passing through. Lightning followed.

Zenzar and Zheila were locked in a tight hug by the bed. Crying in near silence. Lightning slipped around to the other side of the bed. Matilda lay there, seemingly just asleep. He gave her a gentle shake. Nothing. He was really worried. Zheila and Zenzar had muttered if poked hard enough. Matilda never reacted even when he tried banging pots by her head. It seemed to be getting slowly worse. Her breaths had longer pauses between them. He was starting to wonder if there was a serious price to channeling the energies she had. Maybe she would never wake up.

After a few minutes he was aware that Zheila and Zenzar had ended their embrace. Zenzar gave a long wet snort. His sister gave him a look of fond disgust. He ignored her. Sitting by Matilda, he brushed at her cheek with heart-breaking tenderness. Gave her a gentle shake. Spoke her name. “Mattie? It’s me.”

Matilda was oblivious.

Zenzar trembled. Lightning could see the other stallion struggling with the idea that she might never wake up. Rather than rage or sob, he seemed to deflate. Zheila rested a hoof on her brother’s back. Zenzar didn’t seem to notice. He had that odd look on his face again. Gently, breath held, he lifted her head up a little and pressed his lips to hers.

Lightning looked away. Zheila came around the bed to press her side against his. He draped a wing over her back. Behind them, he heard a faint noise. A kissing noise. Another followed it, louder. Then more noises, the wet, hungry sounds of extremely serious kissing. Unable to believe it, Lightning turned to look.

And stared.

Rather than Zenzar passionately kissing an unresponsive Matilda, it was very much mutual. Her eyes were still shut; then again, so were his. She had her fore-hooves locked behind his ears. Zheila turned and then made a long, thin, high-pitched little squeak. Lightning gave a snort of laughter that matured into full-bellied delight. Zenzar and Matilda were oblivious to everything but each other. Lightning’s cheeks had turned red by the feel of it but he just didn’t care.

“Oh, that’s such a cliché.” Zheila said. “Waking a mare from an unnatural sleep by planting one on her.” Her attempt at appearing disgusted utterly failed. It was her grin.

Lightning spun her around and dipped her, then planted a kiss on her that had her melting like a candle in the sun. Once he came up for air, he met her eyes. Her two beautiful blue eyes, currently a little dazed. “That, my love, is a classic.”

It was absolutely the best wake-up Matilda had ever had. She felt the kiss tingling through her all the way to her hooves. Eyed closed, she didn’t question it. This felt deeply, perfectly right. But all good things had to come to an end, and eventually Matilda needed air. He did too, going from the way he panted after their lips parted. Matilda kept her hooves locked behind his neck and smiled. When she opened her eyes it wasn’t all the way. She felt flushed, like the old joke about what was black and white and red all over. Matilda felt double-awake, as if she was going to explode from happiness like some kind of firework. Her lips prickled, wanting more kisses.

Then the razzle-dazzle-wowie-zowie started to fade. Memories started to creep back. Once it began it turned into a flood. She remembered everything. Making the rose into a protective amulet. Slowly being poisoned by the madness hiding in it. She could remember now what she hadn’t sensed then. The twisting of how she saw the world, of what felt right. She also remembered Zenzar telling her he loved her back, and seeing in his heart that he was telling the truth. Every wonderful and awful moment of the last week hit her all at once. The feeling of power had been both. Balanced on a knife-edge between channeling the power and being destroyed by it. The perfect joy of restoring Harmony. The terrible knowledge that the moment would end and that she would never feel truly happy or alive again after this.

Matilda hadn’t wanted to wake up: not to face this.

The flood crested in a crushing weight of awed horror. Then, to her grief and relief, it drained away. A few patchy puddles of memory remained. Most of them were gone. The energy had healed her mind of the corruption of the rose. It had cut away the roots from under the memories formed while her spirit was being twisted. She had willed it to do that. To remember the corruption was to remain in some way tainted by it. To remember the moment of perfect Harmony would torment her. It was best if she forgot. Matilda grabbed hold of the one memory that absolutely mattered and held on tight, never ever letting go no matter what. The rest of the memories faded like a dream, and then the knowledge of why she had to forget.

Matilda blinked, feeling a weird sense of mingled loss and relief. Her last clear memory was dipping her fore-hoof into the Mask Pool to charge up the amulet she had made from a special white rose. Then she supposed she must have gone to sleep and started dreaming. Chasing after it, she could only find ribbons of emotions and a scatter of senseless images like photos taken at random by a foal playing with a camera. And one crystal-clear moment. Looking Zenzar in the eye, deep in them, and seeing that he had quietly fallen in love with her. She sighed. It had been that dream again.

Focusing on things outside her head, she found herself lying on her back in a soft warm bed, nose-to-nose with a half-familiar zebra stallion. Like Zenzar’s bigger, handsomer, normal-maned cousin. She was half in his embrace, his fore-leg lifting her head and her fore-hooves clasped behind his. Her lips twitched as another vivid memory burst in her head. Kissing. She had woken up to find him kissing her. She felt a brush of panic. Her eyes met the stallion’s and the clang of it rang through her bones like a huge gong. It was Zenzar. The face didn’t matter. She saw past it to the pony inside. He had changed from the last time she had seen him. There was more suffering in him. Bad memories if she had to guess. Mind-scars that would never fade: a tiny smidgen of some kind of deep-buried darkness. But it was past-suffering. He was stronger too, and calmer, and happier. So, so happy. In his heart she glimpsed a burning pink tower of passionate, rock-solid love.


Zenzar gave her nose a little kiss. The contact zapped her like nosing a doorknob after dancing on carpet in her socks. Her nose wrinkled even as heat flooded her cheeks. She couldn’t look away from those blue eyes. His changed face didn’t matter. The forgotten dream…if it was a dream…didn’t matter. It didn’t matter where they were. Nothing mattered anymore except that she was with him right now. She kissed him and it was like being flooded with molten sunshine. Tears leaked from her eyes, pushed out because the joy just didn’t leave any room.

A female voice spoke in disgust. “Get a room, ya mooks.”

Matilda and Zenzar’s lips parted with a pop. Their heads swung to the side at the same time and speed. Zheila stood there giving them a stern look with her face but almost weepy-happy underneath. White Lightning stood beside her, wing over her back and grinning like an idiot. Matilda stared. Not because of the pink hearts she saw swirling around them. That they were destined to fall in love had been obvious to Matilda long before it was obvious to those two. Hadn’t Zheila had a long white mane now? She was almost sure of that. She was sure Zheila only had one eye. This Zheila had two. She also looked different. A little less…haggard. It was like every bad thing her body had ever suffered had never happened. The little frown-wrinkles were gone from around her eyes.

Matilda and Zenzar’s faces swung back to each other. He smiled. Then she was swooping through the air, dizzy, until he set her gently on her hooves on the floor. She giggled. Wasn’t a stallion supposed to sweep her off her hooves? But this was nice too. She nuzzled his cheek, feeling shy and daring. Heated thoughts flickered though her, about things even better than kissing. A hundred lonely nights alone in her bed spent dreaming and daydreaming about doing them. Only with Zenzar, of course. It had only ever been him even when she shoved the feelings deep down inside when around him. Her cheeks burned, but so did her determination to make those dreams a reality. Just let her get him somewhere alone.

“Glad you’re back.” Lightning said. “You had us worried.”

Matilda gave Zenzar a molten glance full of promises that apparently made him almost swallow his tongue. But that was for later. She felt her smile fade. “Don’t panic.”

“Dat’s never a good start.” Zheila said.

“I know…stuff has happened.” Matilda said. The lingering traces of the probably-not-a-dream had a bad taste. “Not good stuff. I don’t remember. I think…I chose to forget. I think.”

Uncomfortableness filled the air. Lightning rubbed at his bristly-short white mane. “I have a few memories I wouldn’t mind losing.”

Zheila stared at nothing, nodding with a haunted expression. She shook her head hard. “I don’t clearly remember some of it. Especially at da end. I was messed up.”

Zenzar spoke, and there was a hollow tone from how he was trying to keep from really touching the memories he talked about. He described what had happened. The rose bracelet and Matilda going bad-crazy and the Masks. Matilda still couldn’t remember but it felt right. It felt like the truth. The Faces of Summer and Winter had actually been destroyed. Looking back, it was so obvious. Everything seemed fated to happen. Zheila and Zenzar, who were twins, had destroyed the twin masks. Looking back at what happened…it always did seem fated. Maybe it really was. Maybe not. Matilda was just glad it was over.

“Oh, no!” Matilda said. “What about the toys? Henson the frog and Carol and Lewis the piggy banks and Tuggy the boat and even that spooky monkey with the cymbals-” She bit her lip, for once aware she was babbling.

“They’re all fine.” Lightning said. “They all look brand new now. The power fixed them.” For a second, in his eyes, she saw herself glowing as if made of white-hot light.

“No…it was the Face of Summer that made them…live. I could always feel sadness in a lost toy but they never woke up and talked until I brought them home. Now the power’s gone and they’re all just…just toys again.” Her hind legs gave out and plopped her on her rump. Tears fell from her eyes, and not from joy. “All my friends are gone!”

Zenzar sat by her and pulled her into a strong, gentle hug. She clung to him and just bawled. It felt like it was never going to end. But then, eventually, it did. The sadness felt like a stone on top of her heart. Zenzar was still holding her. Quiet. Just being there. Sad because she was sad. Zheila and Lightning were gone. Matilda sniffed, then sighed. Her old friends were gone but not all her friends were gone. There were Zheila and White Lightning. Zenzar was her friend. More than her friend.

His tummy gave a long growling rumble. Matilda shocked herself with a sad little giggle. But it felt good to laugh. The sad-stone got a little lighter. She rubbed his tummy, which shocked him. Then he laughed and wiggled. “Sorry. Hungry.”

She moved on to his ribs, delighted to discover he was ticklish. Big strong Zenzar was ticklish. Oh, she was going to have so much fun with that. “Why didn’t you eat, silly?”

“Ya needed me.” Simple words, simply said. As if it should have been obvious. Matilda felt as if melting inside. The sad-stone lost a little more weight.

Then her tummy growled, and actually hurt a little. This was worse than when she forgot to eat all day. “Oh! I’m hungry too. I could eat a horseshoe sandwich.”

“Zheila’s cooking’s not dat bad.”

Matilda laughed and got to her hooves. He got up and then stretched like a cat, front and back. His spine crackled. Watching his muscles ripple, Matilda caught her lower lip between her teeth. He didn’t notice her watching. He had no idea how yummy he looked doing that. She just wanted to bite him. Then her tummy cramped again, reminding her that she needed to bite some food. Heaving a sigh, Matilda headed for the door. “Let’s go eat something.”

“Uh, dat’s…” he said. Matilda opened the door and walked right into cloth. Blinking, she backed up. Cloaks on hangers. She looked back at Zenzar. “…da closet.”

“Oh.” Matilda said. She giggled. “Sorry!”

Zenzar opened the door out of the room and swept a bow. He was being funny but sincere too. “Ladies first.”

Putting her nose in the air, Matilda glided across the floor with maximum snooty. Paused in the doorway and flipped her tail in his face. It made him snort in surprise. Matilda gave her rump a little bounce and grinned when his eyes locked on like a dog that had just seen a treat. She wasn’t wearing anything, no usual blouse-and-skirt-and-legwarmers combo. No pajamas. The derp-eyed, tongue-out smiley face of her cutie mark was out in the open and that didn’t bother her anymore. No more old sneaking sense of shame from all the teasing when she was small. She was Mad Miss Matilda and the world was just going to have to deal with it. She slapped his face with her tail again and high-trotted away, humming. He followed as if on an invisible leash. This flirting stuff was fun. She was going to do it a lot more.

Only with him, of course.

The smell of pancakes filled the kitchen as Zheila busied herself at the stove. She glanced over often at her pegasus sweetie. White Lightning sat at the low table with a newspaper and what might have been mistaken for a cigarette. The small cup of pink stuff behind the paper would reveal the actual treat. It was something called Fun Dunk. Tart flavored powders carried to the mouth as the coating of a stick made of hard white sugar. That one was ginseng and strawberries. Zheila had insisted he try it.

Zheila hummed as she worked, feeling far happier than she had any right to be, considering what she had just gone through. Cooking breakfast had never felt so good. After so much strange, she relished the normal. Lightning had told her what the Agents had told him about the Capra all fleeing Zevera. Watching him be normal and read the paper put a happy little smile on her face. With luck, things were finally calming down. Well, hopefully they had one last surprise left, but she was waiting on Zenzar to reveal it.

As her brother and Matilda ventured from Zheila’s bedroom and down the hall to the kitchen, she glanced around toward the sound of their approach. Making a popping sound with her lips, her left eye swiveled over at a box on the counter. It was weird having two eyes again. Not just the intrusive awareness of how far away things were. They kept wandering off on their own. She could look at two different things at once and somehow avoid that being confusing in her head. Maybe this was how chameleons saw the world. She carefully picked the box up, giving it the respect due to anything precious, fragile, or explosive. “Honeybunch, can you keep Mattie company for a second? I have business with Zen.”

White Lightning lifted up from behind the paper, sugar stick still in the corner of his mouth. “Hmm? Uh…” Whatever he had been about to say, he wasn’t fast enough. Matilda swept into sight, high-trotting and looking like she felt pretty. Then she transformed, darting around with ears high and forward. Her tail actually wagged as she studied and sniffed everything in sight. She was still…herself, then.

Matilda came to a halt at the skillet, giving the pancake spatula an expert toss and catching it. “I’ve got this, Zizi. She dipped a spoon in the batter bowl, stuck it in her mouth. “Hmphh…needs more sweet. Watch this trick!” She started stirring a little maple syrup right into the batter.

Lightning’s sugar-stick dropped from his mouth. He stared at her slack-jawed as if he’d just seen Princess Celestia raise the sun. “That’s brilliant.”

Matilda giggled. “I know, right?”

With a nod and a warm smile, Zheila trotted over to her twin brother, whose confused expression made him look stupid. Well…stupider. She butted her head into his side, shoving him toward the door leading to the stairs. “Wha…hey!”

“Zavros Wha Hae.” she said.

It was clear he didn’t the joke. She used his confusion to herd him down into the orderly mess of the garage over which they lived. She kicked the door shut behind her at the top of the stairs, pushed him over to his fiddly-work corner, and moved the box from her back to a workbench. She tried her best to look serious but not nervous.

“We have to make a choice. It’s a little unexpected, but I think it should be made as soon as possible.”

“I think Matilda should move in with us.” Zenzar said. Zheila felt her face go blank. “She can sleep in one of da patient rooms, and Lighting can sleep in yours. I respect your right to make your own choices, it’s your body.” He didn’t look happy but he did look sincere. “Just be careful.”

“What? We haven’t done dat yet.”

“I heard ya.” Zenzar blushed from the neck up. “A few nights ago. I went back to Mattie so ya could have some privacy.”

“What? Oh! He gave me a massage, ya daft bugger. I get da mistake; it probably sounded all kinds of wrong. I agree, Mattie shouldn’t live alone anymore, and I can keep you two decent until enough time has past dat you can get engaged.” He looked as if she’d brained him with a lead pipe, and then got a stupid little grin. She clapped her fore-hooves in front of his nose. “We need to talk about something important.”

Zenzar’s distant smile turned into dread. “Please, for da love of da Princesses, don’t tell me there’s a Mask of Spring and Autumn out there somewhere.”

She shook her head. “Yeesh, no. Give me nightmares, why don’t ya. You remember my bandolier of potions, right? Da ones I carried in case da Capra attacked?” The zebra mare put a hoof on top of the box and lifted the lid. White light poured out. Not hugely bright, but with a substantial quality. Like moonbeams made visible by fog, without the need for fog. Zenzar’s ears went up, then down, then up as he stared down at the glowing white contents. “Are these da same potions?”

Zheila nodded. In the box, held by form-fitting indentions in old balding velvet, lay a score of standard-sized potion vials. A tray lifted with the lid, revealing a second layer under the first. “I didn’t destroy them when I was all…mask-y. Da magic of da chamber made them perfect and then charged them up. Or maybe it was later, when Mattie apparently went all glowing-goddess-of-Harmony for a while there.”

“So they’re super-charged?”

“Sort of. They’re perfect. Flaws in a spell are like holes in a bucket. Da magic leaks out. Ya got a big bucket or a tiny crack, it takes a while. Da spell can last long enough. If ya keep up a trickle of fresh magic you can keep it going. Most spells fade with time. Potions go stale after a while. Da magic dissipates. Okay? Unless they’re perfect. If I buried these potions for a thousand years, whoever dug them up would find out they’re just as good and strong. Perfect means they can hold more energy without risk of a boom. So yeah, super-charged. Pour too much energy into a flawed spell and it’s like blowing a balloon up too far. Still have limits. I mean, da flash-bangs are still just flash-bangs. Not like they got so bright and loud they’ll leave ya deaf and blind forever.”

“So what’s da problem?”

“Perfect potions are rarer than honest used-carriage sales-ponies, Zenny. If these potions went to auction and rich ponies showed up to bid…we’d never have to work again. If word gets out we have them…some ponies would do horrible things to get their hooves on them.”

Zen put a hoof over his mouth. “Dang. Okay, so we hide them until we can set up an auction. My lips are sealed.”

“I want to keep them. Perfect is special, Zenzar. Perfect things, pure things, always have power just from dat. Pure not meaning good. Pure evil has a power dat ordinary evil doesn’t. In circle magic, using these potions as…totems, I guess…I can make more potions dat…”

“Explode and cause giant tsunamis?”

“No. Dat are closer to perfect. Hard to imagine perfection. Easier if ya have an example to look at. I can sort-of…channel their aura of perfect-ness into my work.” She gestured at the thick white beams of light. “Work dat would sell well.”

Zenzar’s eyes went wide. “You’ve been brewing.”

“I woke up before you did, lazy-butt. I kept busy while watching Mattie, and Lighting was with you.”

Zheila pulled two potions from the depths of the box, along with a folded slip of paper that had been under one of them. “I made these two. They’re da best potions I ever made, quality wise.” Zheila put on a whimsical little smile. “These are hairstyle potions. “Da one with da white cord makes a zebra’s mane grow out long and silky. Like mine was lately, but keeping da stripes. Da black-cord one is a mohawk potion. Like you had, only no static or spikes. You could finally work on an airship if ya wanted without being a fire hazard with lift-gas.”

He frowned. “We just got back to normal.”

“Your head feels weird right now, don’t it?”

The zebra stallion ran a hoof over his short bristly mane. “Yeah. Point taken.”

She nodded, thinking back. “I could have made mine pure white, but I don’t want to see dat much white again for da rest of my life.” She gave the vials a shake. “No rush, but no need to delay. Da potions last for life…unless ya speak a Word of Release. Ya feed them a trickle of your own magic to keep them topped up. Dat’s only safe with near-perfect potions dat don’t need much. I never could have made these, three days ago.” It wasn’t all about circle magic using perfect potions as focus objects. Being the Face of Summer’s vessel had left her with a deeper, broader instinct for potion-making. She’d tell her brother about it after some time had passed. Otherwise he might panic, or something stupid like that.

He nodded several times. “Yeah, I think I’ll drink da potion. I just want da weight back, honestly. I feel like my head’s gonna float off every time I nod.”

She gave Zenzar the vial with the black cord around its neck and kept the one with the white. “Now, these are technically curses. Don’t give me dat look; other alchemists make this kind of potion too. It’s an old trick and legal.” She had just never been good enough to manage it before now. “Once we drink these, da only way to undo da effect is da Word of Release attached to da potion. A lot of traditional curses do dat. Add a condition for breaking it and dat becomes da only way of breaking it. Make da condition something unlikely and ya really have them in trouble. Dat’s da only curse part of this. You will be ‘cursed’ with a mohawk until ya speak dat special word. Breaking it otherwise would take major magic. Counter-potions won’t work, and drinking other hair-change potions would just give us gas.” He snickered. She rolled her eyes. “Front end, nitwit.”

“What words?”

“Got them on da paper here. I picked really obscure words in Old Zebra from dat old translation dictionary of granny’s. Long words I knew I’d forget fast, and did. We shouldn’t look at da paper unless we want da hair reversed. Otherwise…ya know ya shouldn’t say a word, what do ya wanna do?”

“Say it.” Zenzar shook his head. “I just want to be normal. My normal. Give me da mohawk back.”

Zheila smiled. “Good. Without da mohawk ya look kinda…”

“Vanilla?" Zenzar said. They stared at each other, then broke into chuckles and giggles. As one, they un-corked their potions and drank. Hers had no taste, like pure water, but it tingled on her tongue and made her belly full like a hot saucepan full of frogs. Zenzar belched bass.

Zheila let out a sigh instead. “Any second n-”

What felt like lightning bolts danced all through her body, converging in a hot, tight, buzzing sensation that tightened her scalp. Her mane expanded with a sound exactly like a spring-loaded umbrella opening. So did his. Swirling stripes made of white steam and black smoke covered his head like some sort of Zebra Princess Afro. Hers too, she could glimpse. It concealed their standing-up manes.

It dissipated, and that was when everything went wrong. His mane fell down around his head in long black-and-white locks. One white lock fell over an eye. He looked like a mare. A hideous mare with five-o’clock shadow. Her own mane didn’t fall over. Reaching up, she felt a tall bristle-stiff mohawk.

The twins stared at each other, horrified.

Zheila must have mixed up the vials before she could tie the cords to them. Or forgot which cord went to what. Slowly, the horror faded. They still had the paper and the words. They could undo this, no permanent harm done. Zenzar glanced at the paper and relief flooded his face. He giggled, if anything in a deep baritone could be called a giggle. Zheila joined in with her own chuckles. They soon escalated to guffaws, going red in the face. They clung to each other for support. When that failed they rolled around on the hard flagstone floor.

White Lightning and Matilda rounded the corner around a tool cabinet and stopped to stare. Zheila tried to focus through the laughter-tears in her eyes. Her attempt to explain just came out as noises even she couldn’t understand. But then the spell passed, as it always did in the end. Zheila filled in the other two on the essential details of the misadventure.

“Okay.” Zenzar said. “Time to change back.”

Zheila grabbed the paper and opened it. Stared at the grocery list in slowly growing horror. “Wrong paper. I put da wrong paper from my desk into da box.”

“Where’s da right one?” Zenzar said.

“I’ve been a little paranoid since dat run-in with Rose Madder. Hard to affect a pony by using samples of their writing, but not impossible. Especially not your self-written signature. I’ve been burning my paper trash.” Her ears wilted as she forced herself to say it, make it real. “I burned da words.”

“Oh, cirrus.” Lightning said.

Zenzar…didn’t explode. He smiled, and even with two eyes searching his face it looked sincere to Zheila. His brother gave his head a shake. “Ya know what? I don’t mind at all. Da Face of Winter wasn’t fun, but it gave me some perspective. Even if da world doesn’t care whether I’m a good pony, I care. Even if nothing I do will matter or even be remembered in a thousand years…it matters now. I’m a better Buddyist than I was before. Hair? Dat’s not important.” His eyes moved to Zheila’s. “Family.” To Lightning. “Friends.” To Matilda. “Loved ones.” He spread-his fore-hooves. “Honesty, Generosity, Loyalty, Kindness, Laughter, and da Magic born when ya got all da rest in your heart. Dat’s what’s important. Life’s too precious to spoil it sulking over what can’t be helped. Every time I look at this mane, I’ll remember how hard I laughed right now. Dat alone means I can treasure it.”

“Me too.” Zheila said. It was a lie she hoped she could force into truth, because like it or not, she was stuck with it. She’d be happier if she learned to like it. “I think it’s just our fate. Things around here will never be normal.”

“Weird is our normal." Zenzar said. Grinning.

“And I wouldn't have it any other way.” Zheila said.

White Lightning was trying hard not to laugh, a hoof over his muzzle as his face turned pink. Matilda, on the other hoof…

“ZENNY YOU LOOK SO PRETTY! I’m gonna brush it and braid it and tie pretty bows in it and-and-and…”

The twins could only grin and embrace each other with a warm hug. Zenzar was right, Zheila decided. They were with their loved ones, alive and healthy. In the end, that was all that mattered. They had suffered but they had survived to become stronger, with a deeper appreciation for everything they had almost lost. It had all been worth it.

Tradewind shook his head, bleary and confused. He felt like he was waking up from a deep sleep. A strange greenish-blue pegasus, almost as big as himself, stared at him. A creeping sense of dread began to fill Tradewind as his vision began to clear. He had been here before, and it was not a pleasant visit. This was the room where Kincaid and Felicia had dragged him and interrogated him right after he came to Aura. He knew that because of a faint scratch up on the frame of the door behind the strange pegasus. He had stared at it a lot before, there being nothing else to stare at.

The pegasus sitting before him moved to stand, opening his mouth. Tradewind was faster, delivering a heavy blow with a wing to the side of the pony’s head. The pegasus went over like a tree. Gritting his teeth, Tradewind shook his wing to try to get some blood back into it, the move having jarred his bones and dragged his feathers along the wall of the small room. The other pegasus lay unconscious on the floor of the interrogation room, and Tradewind sneered. ‘That’ll show ‘em.’ he thought. Mostly he felt bewildered. He sat on the table of an interrogation room that he’d had literal nightmares about. Luna had managed to teleport him to exactly the last place he wanted to be.

“Tradie?!” The voice behind him made him spin around on his bottom, all worries evaporating as his eyes locked with the purple peepers of the pony peering perplexedly at him, a mixture of fear and horror in her expression. “Oh Luna! You killed him! You killed captain Straight Arrow!”

Tradewind shook his head. “N-no I didn’t, Fan. I just knocked him out! I didn’t know I’d be sent here! I didn’t mean…uh…” He blinked a few times, working through several scenarios in his head of what to say next, finally settling on the default, which was least likely to go wrong. “Uh, hi.”

Fantasy continued to stare at him in horror, before her features melted into a sigh of relief. “Oh Tradie!”

Tradewind gasped as she dived at him, knocking him off the table in a purple blur, landing with his back on top of the drooling unconscious pegasus and his nose pressed up against Fantasy’s. The grey pegasus stared, then slowly used his wings to lift himself up, rolling them to the side off the police captain. He ended up on top of her, which…wasn’t much better, though her startled expression carried hints that maybe she could be persuaded otherwise. He rolled a little more so they lay on their sides, still nose-to-nose.

Blinking away what was left of his tiredness, he focused on her eyes, as her face was a little too close to study. “Hi…uh, what’s a nice mare like you doing in a place like this?”

She giggled, to his relief. “Oh, just some stuff. They think I’m…well, working for Smog. They just dragged me here for questioning, but I’m a free pony, so I can leave wherever I want. And right now I think I’d rather like to leave, right away. Maybe we could get some lunch?”

Tradewind sighed inwardly, but gave a weak smile and nodded as he helped Fantasy to her hooves. “Sure, I guess. I mean, if that’s okay…”

A giggle was his reply. “Of course! What, you think I suddenly don’t want to hang out with you?”

Tradewind grinned weakly and darted forward to open the door for the mare, who moved even faster to stop him, half-tackling him. Motioning for him to be quiet, she waited for his bewildered nod before opening the door a crack. Her voice emerged quiet and tremulous and bashful. “Um, hi? Captain Straight Arrow said that one of you needs to go down and tell my friends I’ll be here a while longer? And maybe take them some sandwiches from the canteen?”

A murmur of male voice. Fantasy eased the door shut, seemed to count under her breath, then opened it again. “Oh, I’m so silly. Don’t know how I forgot. Can you run after him really quick and ask him to bring some sandwiches up for us too? Oh, thank you! I’m starving.”

She closed the door again for another count, motioned for him to stay quiet and follow her, then slipped out the door. Her manner had transformed again to tense but confident. He hesitated and she gave him a wide-eyed glare, barely breathing her whisper. “Come on, we need to get around the corner before Comic Relief Griffin Number Two catches up with Number One and doubles back. Once Number One gets back with the sandwiches they’ll find Straight Arrow and take care of him.”

Biting his lip to keep quiet, Tradewind followed her. Her magic eased the door closed behind him. The hallway was empty, and the place felt eerily deserted. Far too quiet for a police station at noon. He started to wonder if he was dreaming. This felt like the kind of one that started out weird and descended into terrifying. Once around the corner Fantasy kept going, taking turns like she knew her destination. A door like any other opened to reveal a squared-off stairwell going down, one pony wide and wrapped around a small elevator shaft. The stairs didn’t also lead further up.

That was wrong, right there. Equestrian building codes demanded all stairwell access be clearly marked as such, in case of emergencies. Nor did he think this was the top floor. Then again, he’d been arrested and held by Special Crimes, which he had later learned was Smog’s private army of goons in uniform. Of course they’d have a way of getting in and out without anypony the wiser. Fantasy opened the elevator using a small silver key, which seemed to be the only way to open it. Inside, the key unlocked the magical buttons linked to the mechanisms at the top of the shaft.

Thinking back, he realized he had a vague glimpsed memory of her lifting it off the unconscious pegasus cop. Smart thinking under pressure. Where was his sweet, harmless mare who had been sick after a bar fight? His memories clarified, reminding him of the sight of her in a towering fury, pelting that snot-wad of a ruffled-shirt unicorn with hurled barstools. She had always been able to handle herself in a corner, and if she fell apart, she did it afterwards. Tradewind mentally prepared himself to offer comfort when she did.

Sure enough, the door at the bottom opened into a small bare chamber that Tradewind found stomach-churningly familiar, though he had been three sheets to the wind on fortified cider. Fantasy left the key in the elevator, pressing the top-floor button and jumping out before the doors closed. He dimly recognized the alleyway it opened onto. A thin sliver of blue sky glowed way up between the two cloud-skyscrapers. It called to him. Fantasy turned to him, still tense but handling this better than he was. “Okay. The Captain, Baz, and Kirra are waiting in the lobby for me. I know it’s a rotten move but we can’t tell them anything. What they don’t know about, they can truthfully deny knowing. As far as anypony knows, the only one who could have assaulted Straight Arrow is me. The truth won’t fly, there’s anti-teleport spells on rooms like that, and we can’t say who did it despite them. Not yet, not until they reveal themselves publicly.”

“Uh, they’ll come after you. Me.”

“Maybe not. Things have been happening. Most ponies think everything’s fine but more of them are realizing it’s not. Most of [i]them[i] are just pretending it’s fine and hoping if they pretend hard enough, it will. Smog’s gone and Special Crimes police have all just vanished. Straight Arrow and a few other regular police have been using their levels to do some police work without making a big production out of it. Real police work. Trying to deal with scum that was always untouchable before. He’s wrong about me, but I have to admit if I were in his horseshoes I’d suspect me too. He can’t openly order my arrest, is my point. Not without telling his superiors he’s been working without proper oversight.”

Tradewind must have looked nervous, because Fantasy moved closer and nuzzled her nose against his. “Worst case? We get arrested and held for maybe a day before a certain somepony reveals their presence and orders our release. We just sit tight and not say anything, wait them out. Come on.” She trotted away, leaving him standing there with an aching wing and a tingling nose. Then he hurried after her.

The daylight was harsh on Tradewind’s eyes, who stood blinking for several moments. Noon indeed; the light almost reached the street level, making the cloud-towers burn with white fire. It was his first glimpse of the un-shaded sun in several days. It felt like longer. He had the growing suspicion that the hotel room with Jindalee and the Freeport beer and the card games hadn’t actually happened. Though maybe Jindalee would remember the same dream, and Tradewind’s epic win.

Fantasy waited at the end of the alley, looking a little concerned, but he quickly shook his head and gave her a weak smile. Walking in silence towards a tiny cafe, they chose a table indoors and Tradewind soon had a greasy breakfast sitting in front of him. It might be noon but he had just woken up. Fantasy had thick soup and a big salad, with strong coffee.

The unicorn mare chatted all the way through their meal, talking about what had happened since she had last seen him. The arrival of the Crew to Aura, Luna’s speech, what had happened at the Brass Hoof, the interrogation, some bugger named Forte Presto…she skipped around in time, not-quite babbling. That would be the nerves catching up with her, he supposed. Tradewind zoned out as she continued to talk, seemingly without pause for breath, mostly telling him things he already knew, but filling in a few holes here and there.

Finally Fantasy seemed to realize that their conversation was one-sided, and she smiled. “I’m sorry. How have you been? You’ve been very quiet.” Tradewind sighed, looking up at the mare with slightly-sad eyes. He could see her draw back, apprehensive. “Tradie? What’s wrong?”

The pegasus drew in a deep breath. “I think we should talk.”

“Oh.” Fantasy said. She studied his expression, his eyes. What she saw didn’t surprise her. “Of course we do.”

His eyes slid down and away from hers. “Fantasy…I-”

“No.” she said. A simple, calm word. It cut him off better than a slap might have done. “You aren’t running away from me again. You aren’t running from us. I’ll chase you to the ends of the earth and you know I can talk the Crew into helping me do it. I can pay them. My book’s been doing well. I’ll hunt you down, and when I find you, I’ll hold you down and kiss you until you agree to come back with me.”

She thought his hair actually stood on end a little. “But-”

Fantasy cut him off simply by taking a sip of the coffee. She knew it was a false clarity, that she was sleep deprived, but to her it felt like her mind had stepped aside to let her heart speak without filtering. “You have commitment issues. I got that from a certain other purple-boded mare you’ve been spending some time with. Not that she was telling me anything new. She said you’re afraid to love me because then you might lose me. If you avoid me, run away, you lose me for sure, and are miserable for sure. If you stay and love me, you only maybe lose me. Even if you do, you get all the wonderful days between now and then. Which you won’t if you run. She also said you’re afraid that if you stay, you’ll end up hurting me.” Her hoof reached out to rest on his. “I can’t promise you’ll never hurt me. I can’t predict the future. I can and do promise that as long as you never mean to hurt me, I’ll always forgive you.”

“Your father-”

“He told me about the last time you and he talked. You misunderstood him, Tradie. And you ran out before he could finish. He told me he respects you for having the…well, the stones, to confess what had happened up in that cloud, when we almost made love before my little mental problem got in the way. Do you know how many stallions would tell their girlfriend’s father something like that? But you did, and you did it because you cared about me more than you cared about being with me. You told him so that my father knew I needed help so he could make sure I got it. It was a selfless act. You wanted me to get whatever I needed, even if that meant an absence of you in my life. Daddy respects you for that. I adore you for it. You left Aura later without sending me so much as a letter. You thought you were doing the right thing. ‘Clean break’ and all that stuff. You didn’t mean to hurt me, so of course I forgive you.”

No more interruptions. Tradewind sat across the table from her looking…lost. Bewildered. Fantasy leaned closer, pulling his fore-hoof closer so he had to lean in. His eyes tried to avoid hers but she waited until, seemingly against his will, they met and stayed. “I still have issues. I got some professional advice that the best thing to do is to grind it down. I shook myself out of it last time. That’s progress. Every time it happens, I’ll snap out of it sooner. Until there’s nothing left, just a little mental hiccup I can easily ignore. I can’t learn how to get past this without being able to trigger it. For that, I need your help. If I don’t snap out of it every time at first, I know I can trust you to do it for me. I can trust you to stop me even if I can’t stop myself. There’s no other stallion I want to be with. There’s no other stallion I trust so much as you. Please. I need you. And I want you.” She drifted closer, and he might not have been conscious of how he leaned forward to mirror her. Her whisper was close enough to brush her breath over his lips. “And I love you.”

She kissed him. Very gentle at first, growing in boldness as he began to respond. It remained something soft and slow and sweet, but it lasted a long time before she finally decided to end it. She looked deep into his eyes, searching for…whatever she found. An answer, she supposed.

An old pegasus stallion at another table gave a wolf-whistle. Fantasy broke the gaze to give him a cool stare. The dark orange pony just grinned, but it was a kindly grin that said ‘ah, to be young and in love is a fine thing.’ Fantasy was inclined to agree, so she forgave him. Her eyes turned back to Tradewind. She felt calm. He could run but that would only delay the inevitable. He could run to the ends of the earth or even beyond. So long as he loved her in return, she had no doubt that she would find him.

Tradewind blinked; he hadn’t seen Fantasy this worked up since the fight at the Brass Hoof with those two ponies. It felt like a lifetime ago, and, considering what he’d been through, it probably had been. He was aware of a pony making an amused catcall behind them. Fantasy turned to look at the whistler, giving Tradewind a few precious seconds to shake his head clear. He snuck a glance, seeing a grinning old stallion that didn’t actually look much like a pervert.

Eventually, though, he knew he’d have to say something. Fantasy returned her gaze to his, and he gulped. Then he managed to get some words out. “Uh…I guess I don’t have a choice then.” Her relieved grin was enough to make him smile, and the clapping of the old stallion was enough to make him sigh. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

Helping the purple mare out of her chair with a gallantry he didn’t consider until he was halfway through the gesture, he guided her through the maze of tables and back onto the street. They were in the center of Aura, but at street level. Not the most appealing neighborhood. It was the business district. Up high in the sun were the fancy stores, restaurants, parks, and theaters. Down here were the looming squared-off cloud towers of bureaucracy. Tradewind silently offered the unicorn a lift, which she accepted with a pleased little blush.

Tradewind eventually reached the heights of affluence. Spotting a sizable balcony with a lack of any PRIVATE PROPERTY signs, he settled to his hooves. Fantasy practically bounced off his back, flushed and smiling. The balcony had a single beautiful conifer tree planted in the center, artfully gnarled like an oversized bonsai. Its massive flowerpot was recessed, no doubt underpinned by a block of floatwood. Backless, classically elegant benches of firm white cloud surrounded this vivid flash of green in Aura’s world of white and pastel rainbows. Pillars stood around its three open sides, breaking up the cool wind into more of a breeze. The sun was warm and direct. It was a little after noon. Any ponies coming here for lunch had gone again. The place was deserted, and so they found a seat and continued their somewhat awkward non-parlez. Fantasy studied the tree. Tradewind sat beside her and stared past the tree. Eventually he realized she was waiting for him to say something.

Finally Tradewind managed to break through his anxious silence. He turned to Fantasy. She turned to him, angling to match his angle. Her eyes were deep purple pools he had to avoid if he wanted to get the words out. “I’m sorry…I-I haven’t been in a great place since, well, since I came here.” He clicked his tongue and sucked in air through his teeth. “I was really considering just cutting my losses and going back to Equestria. After all; if I never thought about this again, I would never have to worry about it.” He gave a bitter laugh. “But then you came and ruined it all.”

Fantasy giggled, booping him gently on the nose with a fore-hoof. It was a better reaction than he hoped. She understood the bitterness wasn’t deep. “You fool, I would’ve found you eventually. Just be glad we’re doing this now and not a year from now, because I’d be much more inclined to thump you. And then drag you into the nearest closet. Now that I know that I’m still a vvvv…er, now that I know that everything is all better in your head. We can be together.”

Tradewind stared at her, then shook his head. “You need to concentrate on your career right now, and I…I think I need to go home.”

He dodged as Fantasy’s hoof, still pressed against his snout, drew back and then attempted to make less-than-gentle contact with his face. “What?! After all that, you still want to run away from me? You stone-headed lout!”

Tradewind huffed and used a wing to wrap around Fantasy, the strong limb pinning her forelegs to her body and lifting her off the bench. He gritted his teeth as her struggles sent a jolt of pain through his wing, which remembered having connected with a skull not too long ago. “H-hey! Stop it! I’m not running away!” Fantasy immediately stopped, ears perking up but eyes suspicious. Tradewind lowered her, releasing her from her feathery bind. “I’m not leaving you. I am leaving, but it’s toward, not away. And not for good. I meant home as in Freeport. My family, I haven’t seen them for too long, and well…it’s about time I did. I have a lot to tell them.” Including that he had met somepony. He sighed and smiled, looking into the unicorn’s still-narrowed eyes. “Family is important. You reminded me of that.” He chuckled as she looked ready to kick herself for her unwitting lesson. He spun around on the bench to face away from the tree, confusing her until he reached out with his other wing and pulled her into a tight hug. “But not for at least a few days. Whenever the Captain and his crew are ready to set sail for home.”

Fantasy deflated slightly, although still tense in his grip. “Fine, but you’d better come back!” She didn’t remind him that she would come after him. He didn’t need reminding.

The pegasus smiled and gently pushed her back enough to look into her eyes. He kept her wrapped in his wing. It was a little cool up here and he didn’t have a jacket to loan her. “Of course.” He took a sudden interest in the passing lanes of sky-traffic further up. “You know, you could always come. I mean…I’m sure your book has reached Freeport by now. A surprise signing by the author could really expand its popularity…we love a good show. And a pretty face.” And of course while there she would have to meet his parents…

Fantasy giggled. “That might actually work. I was going to do a book signing here in Aura but then Princess Luna upstaged me by showing up and everypony forgot about it. Even me. Now that everything is sort-er, well, less dire at least, maybe I can afford to leave Aura for a few days. As long as Bubbles manages to not cut off her own head by accident.”

Tradewind blinked at her, tilting his head. “Bubbles?”

Fantasy blinked in return, tilting her head to mirror him, then giggled and rolled her eyes. “Oh Luna, you don’t know about my cousin yet. Well, let me tell you about her…”

The two sat in animated conversation as the sun swept one way across the sky and the shadows of the tree and pillars swept in the other. Fantasy regaled him with hilarious stories about her sweet, kind, oblivious, and certifiably idiotic cousin. She expanded out into other family members. He shared the tales about what had happened since they had last parted. The parts he was allowed to share. Sometimes when he unthinkingly verged too close to the forbidden subjects, he ended up stuttering around a suddenly uncooperative tongue. Fantasy didn’t ask about that. In fact, she appeared to understand exactly why his tale had holes. His story was more hair-raising than hilarious but at least it held her interest. He moved on to his life. Growing up in Freeport, meeting Jindalee, wondering if Big Chew was all right, wherever the earth pony was. She listened in silence, snuggled up against him and sometimes giving a gentle nod. He told her little things he had never told another pony.

Evening caught him by surprise, the sun finally dropping below the horizon even for their height. He looked down at Fantasy to find her fast asleep. Maybe for quite a while. Tradewind had to smile. She looked so adorable. Time to flag down a sky-cab chariot and see her safely home. At least when he woke up on an interrogation-room table, he still had the stuff kept stashed under his wings. Like a small bag of bits.

Vlad sauntered back to the door to the interrogation room, where Ivan stood guard like he was standing outside Princess Celestia’s bedroom. Vlad’s tongue shifted, missing the lollipops he sucked as a nervous habit. Indulging when in plainclothes was fine, but now that they were back on official duty. More or less. Goodbye tasteful ascot and the purple-tinted spectacles that made his blue eyes pop. Hello, golden armor.

“The lobby-lurkers know it’ll be a while longer.” Vlad said. His brother just nodded, sitting at attention like some statue outside a library. Vlad looked around the empty hallway.

There was nopony else on this floor. The paper-pushers in Forensic Accounting were higher up, and the city police archives even higher. The proper Fleet Street Station was lower down. This floor and the one below it was Special Crimes Division territory. Or had been, before they all stopped showing up for work a few days ago. The general lack of oversight on that pack of scum meant that this dereliction of duty had not yet been officially Noticed.

Captain Straight Arrow had obtained a key to their private little elevator that didn’t show up on any of the building’s blueprints or maps. Vlad would have given a pretty to know how. They were using this place to be discreet. It came to something when a precinct captain had to duck his own superiors in order to actually enforce the law. Of course, some of those superiors were rotten as year-old duck eggs. The lanky, golden-brown pegasus had brought in Vlad and Ivan, a pair of beat cops with records clean of any reprimands or commendations. Kinda spooky how Straight Arrow had known to choose them. A pair of cops who were tired of looking the other way, who knew how to keep their beaks shut, and who were willing to work outside proper procedure in order to actually serve the law.

Then again, Straight Arrow’s cutie mark was a golden arrow pointing straight up. Not like a ‘this way to the salad bar’ arrow. The kind that flew through the air. Shiny gold from end to end, but even the silhouette had enough detail to be sure of that. The pegasus wasn’t just a straight arrow; he could spot them. And their opposite. That wasn’t the same as knowing when a pony lied. More like spotting when a pony was untrustworthy, devious, and likely to lie.

Vlad got the strong feeling the captain wasn’t happy about operating like this. No paperwork, no warrants. Disguises and false names. It had to be done. If he started openly threatening to go after ponies Smog had always protected, then every crooked cop with seniority on him, and every bent judge, would come down on him with all four hooves. They were scared, and they should be. Straight Arrow was ignoring proper procedure in order to serve the actual law, but he seemed to be gritting his teeth about it. Straight arrows didn’t easily bend.

It was actually encouraging that the pegasus could bend when he had to. Some straight-arrow types had all the flexibility of glass. Sticklers for the letter of the law over the spirit of it. Humorless and unforgiving bureaucrats with badges. Straight Arrow was a genuinely decent guy. He was mostly a stickler for the law because he deeply believed the laws of Equestria were good. That was Vlad’s take on the stallion, anyway. Maybe he was wrong.

Ivan finally unfroze enough to twitch the tuft of his tail and swing one evil yellow eye Vlad’s way. “Are you going to just stand there eating sandwiches at me?”

Giving a guilty start, Vlad realized he had a half-eaten sandwich in a claw. He was just glad he hadn’t stuck his fountain pen in his beak again. Last time, he’d had a black tongue for a week. Stupid ‘oral fixation.’ Ivan should be with one with it. Vlad only looked like a ‘pouf,’ as their father called it. Ivan looked like the kind of griffin that guys wanted to be and ladies wanted to be with, but he wanted to be with the guys. But no, Vlad was the one cursed with a compulsion to suck on things, and all the jokes that came with it.

Giving a snort at himself, Vlad pulled the tray from off his back and offered it to Ivan. They were Fleet Street Station sandwiches: sandwiches of great weight and presence. Hungry cops coming off a shift and facing a pile of paperwork didn’t want a little white triangle filled with paper-thin cucumber slices and a glaze of butter so meager it was almost imaginary. That stuff was for Charity Dinners, where the idea was to charge a lot for not very much food. The brown paper wrapping these had started to go clear in spots from leaking grease.

Ivan waved them off, still looking like he’d bitten into a ripe lime and found a worm. “They get first pick. I’ll have what they don’t. Did you make sure her friends got some food?”

“I did. Why so puckered, Van?”

“Just a bad feeling, Lad.” Ivan turned around and knocked, then knocked again. He opened the door a crack, then shoved it wide as he rushed through it. He began to swear. Not ‘cirrus’ and ‘haysucker’ either. These were foul; mostly learned from dear old dad when he really got hot under the feathers about something. Stalliongrad Griffin was a very good language for being angry. Then it cut off. “Captain!”

Vlad broke free of his paralysis, aware in some distant part of his mind that he had begun to grin. Just like he always did when the lightning hit the rainbow factory. Moving to the doorway, he saw his brother gently laying Straight Arrow on top the table. No purple unicorn and nowhere she could be hiding.

The pegasus had a prize-winning knock-knot on the side of his noggin. The military-short haircut did nothing to hide it. Vlad started having inane, irrelevant thoughts, like he always did. Straight Arrow was golden brown all over: body and mane. Like he’d been perfectly deep-fried. Well, usually. The disguise-charm he’d taken from the Special Crimes inventory currently made him grey of body and mane. Only a little bigger than most pegasi, he managed to look taller than he was by being skinny. Not fanatic-skinny. Forgets-to-eat skinny. The pegasus looked like some grizzled grandfather type, dried up a little with age but tougher than old boots.

Ivan gave the pegasus a gentle shake. Vlad was more unconventional, and decided to see if the captain had ticklish hooves. No reaction. Out cold. They poked and shook with increasing urgency. Then Ivan carefully prodded around the lump. Straight Arrow reacted by groaning and then growling a word that made Vlad, no stranger to bad language, glad he had already set aside the sandwiches. One of the very worst, treated like the verbal equivalent of Murder One by almost everypony, it was the one that rhymed with duck. Ivan looked more startled than shocked.

Then it happened. Straight Arrow opened his currently-ice-blue eyes and then, in the course of maybe a second, went from half-concussed to more awake and focused than most ponies ever got without resorting to espresso. Ivan made a well-meaning attempt to keep the pegasus from sitting up. He got stiff-armed backwards onto his tail with no apparent effort. Straight Arrow pulled the twisted gold charm out from inside his breastplate and shimmered as if seen through a falling sheet of clear water. When he came into focus he was golden brown everywhere, including his eyes.

Those eyes locked onto Vlad, who snapped to attention and saluted better than he had since the Academy. He still grinned like a goofball but he tried to offset it with respectful body language. “Sir!” It seemed safest, and safety was a concern. The pegasus radiated the impression of a tight-lidded pot sitting in a fire. It might be outwardly still, but pressure was building inside that iron shell and when it escaped Vlad didn’t want to be nearby.

The pegasus checked inside his breastplate again, not looking away from Vlad. His voice was the same gravelly whiskey-and-cigars baritone it always was. “Go check the secret lift. My key is missing.” Vlad saluted again and bolted, but he heard the captain address Ivan as he did. “How did she get past you?”

Vlad didn’t want to answer that question. Wincing for his brother, trying to choke back the insane urge to giggle, he went to check the elevator. It was at this floor, and the captain’s key rested in the inside panel with the buttons. He grabbed it and returned at a lope. Ivan looked furious when Vlad got back. But not at Vlad, so that was good. Straight Arrow was on his hooves. He looked just as full of controlled anger but no longer looked about to explode from it. Instead Vlad was reminded of a big dam with a small floodgate open at the bottom. All that pressure and force being channeled to a narrow iron-hard stream. Straight Arrow wasn’t bottling it, but he wasn’t about to haul off and punch something. His anger drove him in a specific direction. Vlad was prepared to bet his wings that his goal was to find the mare who had assaulted him and…arrest her for real this time. By the book.

Skidding to a halt, his assessment of Straight Arrow flashing past in an instant, Vlad saluted. “Sir! The elevator was at this floor with the key in the panel.”

Straight Arrow nodded. If his head hurt, he didn’t show it. He took his key back. “She sent it back to this floor with the key after she got off. If she had left it on the floor she got off, we could have looked at the floor indicator over the door and known what floor that was.”

“Wouldn’t she just go to ground level and leave?” Vlad said.

“That would be what most ponies would do. That is what they would do when made stupid by panic. She wasn’t panicking. If your plan is to run away with the biggest head start possible, you don’t stop to do things like send the elevator back up for your pursuers to use. She doesn’t want us to know what level she got off. Why would she do that if her plan was simply to run for it? No. No, she’s still here.”

Ivan looked worried. “Do you remember her hitting you?”

Straight Arrow got an odd look to his face. “No. The blow only mostly knocked me out. I couldn’t move but I could still hear. She called me Captain Straight Arrow.”

“I thought you were calling yourself Graylag.” Ivan said.

The captain looked even odder. “I was. She should not have been able to know my name. We never met before, for her to know my voice. I plan to ask her how, when we meet again. She didn’t assault me. A big grey pegasus with oversized wings appeared between us. He saw me and then wing-slugged me.”

“When you say appeared…” Vlad said.

Odder yet, as if his brain was trying to perform some kind of groin-straining gymnastics move. “Teleportation. Into a spell-warded interrogation room. The stallion looked as surprised as I was. The mare knew him but wasn’t expecting him. If I’m wrong about their surprise, they are the best actors I have ever seen. I blacked out around the time the pegasus decided to roll off the table and land on me. Going on deduction, one of them grabbed my key and she talked you two both away from the door long enough for her and the mystery colt to make a break for it. Smart. Not panicked. She called him something. Tray Dee.”

“Trey is a word for three.” Ivan said. “Three dee?”

“Illusionist?” Vlad said. “No, you said he’s a pegasus.”

“A trey is a card with three pips.” Straight Arrow said. “His wing covered his cutie mark. Speculating isn’t useful at this point. Not enough solid information.”

“What do we do, sir?” Ivan said.

The pegasus fetched his helmet from a peg by the door and put it on with no regard for his injury. “We get information.”

“Her friends might not be in the lobby anymore.” Vlad said.

Straight Arrow slipped past Vlad and out the door. “If they aren’t, that will tell us something. If they are, they will tell us something.”

Mithril wasted no time taking the old goat and her young partner back to the Fleet Street station. She couldn’t help but notice some kind of similarity between the two, but she couldn’t place it. One of those niggling little hunches. Every good cop developed them. Sometimes they were wrong, but they seemed to learn from experience. Or maybe she just got better at telling the real thing from simple nerves.

She and the goat couldn’t fly, but it was a short walk. Fleet Street ran in a ring embracing the very center of the city, marching around the ring of stairs and ramps leading up from the docking spire dangling below. It got its name because it used to be a pegasus racetrack way back when Aura had been a booming frontier trading town. The station rested just inside the northern edge of the circular street. They soon climbed out of the depths of the cloudy foundation of cumulus and onto a narrow street inside that circle. The near-noon light angling down between the tall, crowded towers seemed even brighter after the dim. Mithril led the way, leaving Pick to trail after the goat and make sure he behaved. It made her spine itch to turn her back but Pick was still struggling with paranoia. He was on edge, waiting to be jumped by the Skulldiggers or Princess Luna or little green booger-monsters for all Mithril knew. Usually that was a bad thing. Doubly bad in a cop. Right now…not so much. If there was one thing she could trust him to do, it was jump the goat the millisecond the billy hinted at causing trouble. It was still pretty crowded with all the ponies wandering around after listening to Princess Luna’s speech. Mithril used the excuse not to rush on their way to the station.

The mare used the time to think.

They had heard rumors through the police grapevine that Smog had vanished. Mithril had taken it upon herself to go and see for herself. Pick had been more or less willing. Smog really was gone from the Den. His office was empty. More importantly, it was unlocked. Mithril would believe that tiny purple bats flew out of her grandmother’s butt before she believed Smog would leave his office door unlocked when he wasn’t around to keep his eye on it. Smog was gone and not by choice. Or if so, he wasn’t planning to ever come back.

Six up, a half-dozen down. All that mattered was that the twin city of Aura and Umbra was going to suffer serious upheaval once word really got around. Mithril didn’t think Pick had realized that yet. She wasn’t looking forward to dealing with him when it sank in. Maybe if she literally sat on him. One problem at a time. Right now they had Angel Marie to deal with. She had walked into the bar from the back and there he was: bold as brass if not nearly as shiny.

This white-bodied goat looked like his face had been used for an anvil. Chipped horns, scars, lumps. His black suit looked twenty years out of style and had been stitched up almost as much as its owner. It had been cheap when new. But tough cloth. Bought to last, not look snappy. Greasy slicked-back hair, greasy goatee slicked to a point. Probably dyed black to hide the grey. Greasy lapels from wiping hair grease on them. But ‘greasy’ wasn’t the word for this goat. None of that poser too-cool-for-you slickness, all fake smiles or swaggering menace. That was for stupid young thugs. This one had the look of an old monster. The kind who didn’t have to make everypony think he was dangerous, because he knew he was. No fear in those eyes. None. If he wasn’t Capra she would eat her badge. The name Angel Marie didn’t ring a bell. That was a bad sign. Mister ‘Call Me Uncle’ had a face that betrayed a long, busy, and violent career. If he wasn’t known to the police across half the world, it meant he had a long history of getting away with it. Not caught, not even gathering a reputation. Old monsters didn’t get old without being cunning.

He had come along quietly because he chose. Not because he was afraid or had any respect for the law. Things were going according to plan, whatever his plan was. Mithril would have been happier without that thought. She was safer with it. This undertaker-looking billy had a plan. Knowing it, she could try and work out what it might be.

She held the front door to the police station lobby open for the two and let them enter ahead of her. Surprisingly, the goat passed through the weapon detectors without so much as the quiet buzz of a pocket knife. Unarmed and unafraid, with the face of a creature who liked his violence up close and personal. A face that said he could take a beating. Crud. This might be the kind of criminal that prisons moved around strapped to a wheeled dolly with a bite-guard mask over their muzzle. She and Pick were going to put him in an interrogation room. In close quarters, even cuffed, even against two ponies in armor…

…and now she knew why she had the weird feeling that Pick and Angel were somehow the same. They both had a sense of being very angry somewhere deep inside. Not anger at anything in particular. Pure anger, anger that didn’t need a reason: just an excuse. Either one of them might go from seeming calm to outright murderous in a flash if somepony pushed the wrong button. Mithril had a temper too. What she didn’t have was a lot of fine control over her magic. Not in a fight. Stopping a pony without hurting them was not her strong point.

Mithril knitted her brow, troubled thoughts running through her head as she took the lead again and headed for the elevators. This goat had some business with the pink dragon. Too bad; she had no idea where he’d gone. It was possible she might get an inkling as to his location from this ‘Angel.’ She doubted it, though. Even if he knew, he might not tell. Unless he wanted her to know it, he wouldn’t confess for anything short of actual torture. She was going to have to convince or trick him into telling her what he knew. That meant figuring out his game. Things were going to get chaotic pretty soon. Being patient under a time limit also wasn’t her strong point.

Straddling a backwards chair, forelegs folded on the top of the back, Pick stared at the goat sitting on the other side of the table. Uncle stared into the distance. They’d been at this for hours. From an hour after noon to an hour after sunset. The goat had said early on that he was in town to visit Smog and tell him face-to-face that the Capra hadn’t torched some kind of hotel the dragon owned in Zevera, the capital of Zavros. The Capra had made a play. Trying to taint the food stockpiles of Aura, Zevera, and Silverline, then make a fortune selling clean food from Hong Prong at a markup while using the chaos to sneak in and take over the local organized crime. The plan had included an attempted assassination of Smog. It had all failed. The assassin hired to kill Smog had poisoned the Capra’s leader and then vanished. He later turned up in Aura acting all chummy with Smog. Surprise, surprise: the trusted Capra assassin had been a double agent for Smog the whole time. The new leader wasn’t as ambitious, or maybe just not stupid. Now they were backing off and wanted Smog to know it. Whoever burned the hotel and left a death threat to Smog wasn’t Capra. They just wanted Smog to go after the Capra.

It made a twisted kind of sense, Pick guessed. The Capra sending somepony to tell Smog that. Uncle wouldn’t name names. Hadn’t said a word they could use to maybe arrest somepony or send along to the Hong Prong police to they could arrest somepony. Pick felt the muscles in his jaws twitch. Interrogation rooms were soundproof. That meant they were quiet inside. Uncle didn’t chomp or pop his gum but Pick could still hear it. Mithril had left to go get some food. Uncle said he wasn’t hungry. The first question he’d answered in hours.

Pick tried as hard as he could to stay calm and keep his mouth shut. Mithril made it clear his job was to just sit here and keep watch until she came back. The unicorn hadn’t said a word about Smog vanishing. Pick saw why. She wanted to pretend ignorance and watch for a slip. Uncle wasn’t going for it. He had answered the questions he wanted to answer. Ask the same question a different way and he just sat there.

Chewing his gum.

It got harder to stay calm. Pick didn’t think he had showed it, but Uncle’s slot-pupiled eyes swung and focused on him. Pick had seen a lot of stares, some of them from hard-core mothers. This one jumped right to his personal Top Ten. That ugly beat-up face had nothing to do with it. This was all in his eyes. It was a quiet stare, and seemed calm if you didn’t look closer. That was the stare of a creature that could imagine Pick dead and had no problem with the idea of making it happen. This goat could murder and not feel a thing. Not guilt, of course. No anger or hate or twisted pleasure. He would snap Pick’s neck with all the passion of a farmer yanking a weed.

Pick met the stare without flinching. Deep inside, part of him snarled. He was sick and tired of feeling guilty and terrified. Anger promised to take it all away and replace it with something strong and hot and pure. He hungered to put a face on his vague dread and then pound on that face until he couldn’t lift his fore-hooves anymore. He struggled against it but it got harder to remember why it was a bad idea. Probation. If he messed up it was back to the loony bin.

Uncle spoke. “Anger makes you weak.”

Blinking, the pegasus felt the growing explosion falter from pure confusion. “What?”

The goat slicked back his hair and wiped his cloven hooves on his lapels. The chain between his forelegs clinked. “I may look stupid but I’ve read a book or two. Had a lady friend who liked to burn the wax philosophical whenever she got plastered. Said the true nature of all power is choice. Options. Made sense to me. One of those, boom, light goes on in my head moments. Money, magic, friends, weapons, fame, talent…it’s all power. What’s the common…eh, what’s it called. Dominator?”

Pick couldn’t quite catch his balance. Suddenly the goat wanted to talk philosophy? “Denominator?”

“Right, one of those. It’s options.” Uncle leaned forward, looking more relaxed. “You got money, you can do things you can’t if you’re broke. You got magic, same deal. Being able to fly gives you power we wingless people don’t got. We had to build airships to get it another way. Same with friends. Not even the magical part. Just friends. Your buddies got your back, you can do stuff you can’t do by yourself. Anger makes you weak. What’s it do? Makes you stronger, sure. But you can’t use that strength for anything but smashing. You get angry enough, you just can’t stop yourself from acting on it. Even when that’s stupid. It takes away all your choices. Power’s not the prize. Give some goon a knife. They’ve got power. Boom, done. The prize is control. And you can’t control nothing unless you can control yourself. You can’t make choices, just do whatever stupid thing comes into your head. No self-control, no choices. No choices, no power. Just an animal.”

Pick felt a chill scamper down his back. He didn’t have a big moment of inspiration but there was some kind of sense in all of that. “Why are you telling this to me?”

“Because you’re thinking you want to maybe pound my face in. If you jump me, one of us is going to die. Either way, my mission goes down the crapper. I was thinking maybe if you looked at it a different way you’d decide not to. Anger doesn’t make you powerful. It makes you weak. Self-control makes you powerful. That’s the difference between me and some stupid thug.” His eyes narrowed to slits, but in amusement. “You’re scared. I can smell it. You feel helpless. You want to feel powerful. Anger makes you feel strong, but it makes you weak. You want power. Tell your fear and anger and all of that junk to sit down and shut its fat mouth. They’re not the boss of you. That, cop, is power.”

Pick scowled, but he felt off-balance in his head. “Says the goat with a face like a Nightmare Night mask.”

Uncle grinned, showing chipped yellow teeth. “Did I say I was perfect? I used to be some stupid thug thinking anger was power. I wised up before it got me killed. Besides, sometimes a guy has to let the beast off its chain, you know what I’m saying? Sometimes the smart thing is to pound some faces. The difference between me and you is that my anger only gets a pass when I say so. I hurt who I decide to hurt, when and how I decide to hurt them, and I stop when I decide they’ve had enough. You can piss me off, cop, but you can’t make me cross the line unless I decide to cross it.”

Not looking away, Pick forced himself to give a nod. He wanted something to fight. Well, how about his fear? Fear made a pony weak too, if it got out of control. It was an enemy trying to make him weak. He tried to take all his anger and point it at the fear. He focused on fighting his own fear. It fought back. Well, that just made it a fight. Pick didn’t feel better. The fear and anger turned his insides into a battlefield. He felt worse, but he also felt less shaky than he had in days. Like maybe he could actually decide what he was going to do instead of just reacting to his emotions.

Uncle gave a small nod too. “Better. You might be real dangerous someday, if you can get your head straight. Now. I’ve been patient. Smog won’t be rushed. I’m on a deadline here. I assume your partner has gone to get him, or arrange to take me to him. Yeah?”

His expression went blank; Pick could feel it. Then anger…no, scorn…boiled up. “I don’t work for that piece of cirrus. Ohhh. You think we’re Smog’s…what, receptionists?”

Uncle’s grin slowly faded as Pick spoke. He chewed gum in silence for a long moment. Then he gave another nod, the kind that said he’d made a decision. Pick didn’t see any warning signs. The shout of alarm exploded from his bones and he threw himself sideways without thinking. Chair and all. Uncle sailed over the table like his stool had been a catapult. Pick had seen a few ponies who moved faster but couldn’t think of any right now. One cloven hoof bounced off the side of his neck, leaving a burning scrape. If he hadn’t moved as fast as he had, the chain stretched between Uncle’s forelegs would have hit him across the throat. He’d be on his back on the floor with a goat on top of him, strangling him to death.

That horrible image flashed through Pick’s mind. Everything seemed to slow down, or his brain sped up. He managed to kick free of the chair and flap once before he could hit the floor. That just meant he hit the wall instead, but he hit it with his fore-hooves out in front of him. He landed and spun in time to see Uncle land where Pick had been only a second earlier.

What happened next made this whole thing feel like a nightmare. Normally a creature who missed a tackle had to pause for a split second to take in the new situation. Uncle didn’t. He hit the floor on all four hooves and charged sideways at Pick as if he’d planned to do this all along. Moving like he’d worn shackles all his life. Pick reacted fast with a flap that sent him straight up to rap his head on the hard, spell-webbed cloud of the ceiling. It was just barely fast enough. Uncle rammed into the wall below the pegasus, doing the goat head-butt thing.

It dented. The wall…dented. Not much but it definitely dented. Pick had seen a demonstration at the academy of just how tough the cloud-walls of a pegasus holding cell was made to be. They had all taken turns whaling on the wall with different things. It was almost impossible to make a dent without a sledgehammer, and any damage repaired itself fast.

Uncle bounced back a little. Pick dropped onto him from above, letting his golden-armored chest lead. He hit the goat hard and grabbed with all four legs. He got ready to flap. If he could lift the goat in the air where there was no leverage, he could maybe get the upper hoof. Not that he planned it out. There was no time to think. But hitting the goat was like hitting an inch of hard rubber on top of a boulder. He and Uncle faced opposite ways. Pick hadn’t thought that through, and his failure bit him in the butt an instant later. Or rather, stabbed him. Uncle reacted to the grapple by flinging his head back. A pony might do that hoping to hit their attacker’s face with the back of their head. Uncle had a pair of back-swept horns. They stabbed right into the meaty parts of his rump.

Pick didn’t scream; he had his jaws clenched too tight for that. Besides, the pain just set his brain on fire. Flapping hard, struggling to hang onto a goat that felt as if he were made of steel springs, Pick did a rising forward somersault and let go before Uncle could stab him in the butt again. The throw hurled the goat down onto the old wooden table in the middle of the room. The table did not break. If Uncle did, it sure didn’t seem to slow him down. Pick glimpsed his face as he bounced up and twisted on the rebound to get his hooves under him. It wasn’t angry. As far as he could tell past all the damage, Uncle just looked focused. Pick dropped, grabbed the edge of the table, and flipped it. Goats were agile, but they weren’t magically agile. Uncle’s hooves scraped and slid on the wood as it went vertical. Pick shoulder-rammed it, pushing off with all four hooves and his wings too. Even with armor, that hurt. He didn’t care. He used the table and the far wall to make a big goat sandwich.

A brief pause. Pick had time to take a breath and begin to wonder if he’d stunned or maybe killed Uncle. Then the flipped-up table he leaned against surged forward with impossible force. It slid right across the room and the only reason he didn’t end up getting smashed between it and the wall was because the table legs hit the wall first. One cracked. Pick grabbed it and broke half free, not thinking at all anymore. He ducked sideways and saw the goat, finally motionless. That wasn’t an improvement. Uncle waited with his head down, ready to charge once Pick showed his face. The pegasus felt his teeth sink a little into the wood he gripped, the splintery wooden dagger sticking out to his right. He turned his right side more to the goat, pointing his weapon.

Then Uncle moved, a blur even while everything else still felt too slow. He ignored the pegasus and hit the door, reared up. Then he slammed his fore-hooves down. The chain between them caught the knob and snapped it off. Uncle gave it a head-butt and it popped open, swinging wide. The goat didn’t want to kill Pick. He wanted to escape.

Pick jumped him. He had no idea if it surprised the goat, but it surprised the cirrus out of himself. Something deeper than the fear or even the anger saw Uncle getting away and said no. He got a double rear kick to the chest, but that was armored. Pick heard himself snarl as he turned his head and stabbed his makeshift weapon into the goat’s butt, right where they didn’t have a cutie mark. Uncle twisted around and Pick lost his grip on the wood. The head-butt wrenched his neck but his helmet saved him from the word of it. He lashed out blind and felt his hoof hit something. Uncle made his first sound. A croak like a gagging bullfrog. Pick realized he’d nailed the goat in the throat. Then he realized he had a chain looped around the back of his neck and a big set of chipped yellow teeth coming right at his face. He punched again, knocking Uncle’s head to the side. Those teeth snapped shut on nothing.

The goat drew back, snake-quick, and for a timeless second their eyes met. Uncle still just looked focused. Then Pick got a glimpse past it, deeper. What he was was…demonic. A rage like nothing he had ever imagined. And it was on a leash. Pick punched him right in the teeth. The goat never even blinked, just kicked him in the belly where the armor didn’t cover. The cloven hoof was more like getting stabbed with a blunt knife. Pick fought not to double up, but the next thing he knew he had a chain across his throat and a goat on his back. He leapt up, wings and hooves. Uncle didn’t even grunt when the pegasus slammed him into the ceiling. Pick realized something as the blood flooded his skull and face. That was how this monster won. He was willing to take more pain than they could dish out.

Something snapped inside Pick. No way was he going to die like this. He grabbed at the chain and heaved. The steel snapped. He was past being surprised. Or thinking. Or hesitating. Pick flipped over and kicked off the ceiling, flapped hard. He hammered the goat into the floor. Uncle clung like glue, wrapping his forelegs around Pick’s throat. Hot pain flooded his left ear and he realized he’d been bitten.

Then hot red light erased the world.

Ivan knew what was expected of him. Keep a half-length behind Straight Arrow and look impassive. He took the left. His brother Vlad took the right. Vlad wasn’t grinning. He made a very strong attempt to adopt a cop-appropriate deadpan. A-plus for sheer effort. C-minus for results. His struggle not to look like a prankster waiting for the custard to drop ended up giving him an expression that suggested acute indigestion combined with too-much-coffee facial tics. Still, it was a little less alarming than the manic grin he got whenever a sane pony would have looked frightened.

The airship crew that claimed Fantasy Longhorn as a friend hadn’t stayed for long in the actual proper lobby of the building. There were side-rooms that always put Ivan in mind of those little restaurants in classy hotels. Only not so nice. More comfortable chairs and benches, small tables, access to bathrooms. No access deeper into the building. Ponies could wait without cluttering up the actual lobby, which occasionally saw fun things like ponies doing their very utmost to resist arrest, or very angry (if rarely bad-hearted) ponies storming in to demand Justice for something.

Vlad muttered a few words through his painfully wooden expression, directing Straight Arrow to one of the smaller offshoot rooms. The pegasus captain motioned for Vlad to stay outside and watch the door. He motioned for Ivan to follow him in. The griffin had no problem with that call. The square room they entered wasn’t more than fifteen feet to a side. It had a floor of carpet over floatwood boards, and decorated in the Institutional Minimalism school of interior design around a color scheme of Bureaucracy Beige. The inevitable outcome of trying not to be offensive to anypony.

Planting his rump in front of the door, Ivan made a silent statement to the effect that passing through this door now required convincing him to move. The purple-striped and gem-bedazzled unicorn sat at the one round table centered on the floor. Facing the door, to Ivan’s total lack of surprise. A grease-spotted and crumb-flecked piece of brown paper in front of him said he’d eaten. In the back of the room, the skinny earth pony named Baz stretched out on a couch; a bulge in his belly and a certain low buzzing suggested he had eaten well and then decided on a nap.

The sugar glider was nowhere to be seen. Ivan had seen a few scary movies in his day. He looked straight up. A pair of big adorable eyes stared straight down at him. The glider perched somehow on the slight ledge along the top of the door’s frame. Her gathered paws and hunched posture made her look like the world’s cutest gargoyle. Ivan hadn’t forgotten her face-hugger trick. The eyes staring down at him slowly narrowed. It wasn’t an especially nasty look, but it had a certain penetrating quality. It reminded Ivan that Freeport’s organized crime stayed organized under the Longtails. Sugar gliders so hardcore that Smog reputedly had a mutual nonaggression pact with them.

One piece of paternal advice that Ivan absolutely agreed with was that no enemy was more dangerous than a smart coward. Make a brave or stupid creature angry and they would punch you in the nose. Get on the bad side of a smart coward and they’d smile to your face…then plant a knife in your back. He didn’t think most gliders were cowards. Gliders tended to be emotional and risk-averse, to the point of being oddly ruthless in an indirect way. Ongoing threats didn’t get ignored. They got Dealt With. If they could befriend you or buy you off, great. If you scared or angered one badly enough, the glider would do whatever it took to take you down. Indirectly, without taking risks.

Of course by all accounts the Longtails were a family of fuzzy little cold-blooded psychos. Very paws-off for the actual violence, though even there he’d heard rumors. They were smart and careful: two things cops hated to see in criminals. Why do your own dirty work when you could hire a few thugs and make sure of your alibi? There was more money in insurance scams than bank robberies anyway. While the majority of gliders were very nice creatures, Ivan looked up at Kirra looking down at him and reminded himself that not all of them were.

As he and she had their silent stare, Straight Arrow sat down across from Captain Nameless. Ivan forced his eyes to drop, though very much aware that gliders had few moral compunctions against fighting dirty when up against something as big and dangerous as a griffin. Ivan had seen what she had done to Baz at the airship docks. He had an idea how hard it would be to fight a small agile creature scampering all over his own body.

The pegasus spoke first, in his gravelly baritone. It was exactly how ponies thought a tough old cop should sound. “My name is Straight Arrow. I’m captain of the Fleet Street Station, First Precinct. It looks like the smallest on a map. Fleet Street Station covers all the central city areas from the tower-top boutiques and restaurants, down through office buildings, apartment complexes, and hotels, to the seediest rat-holes inside the docking spire. This tower also holds the offices for our administration, including the Chief of Police. It holds our archives, and specialists like the geeks up in Forensic Accounting.

“I’m telling you this so you understand. There are a lot of wigs in this building bigger than me. I am the captain of this station. It’s my responsibility to keep the peace and uphold the law in this precinct, not the Chief of Police. She has to focus on the bigger picture. Think of me as the captain of an admiral’s flagship.”

The unicorn appeared genuinely calm. He sat there in his nice blue ship-captain’s coat and his stupid purple stripes, and Ivan got a prickly sensation in the feathers along the back of his neck. He had seen what this unicorn could do, but now his instincts said that Ivan hadn’t seen anything yet. The unicorn had dumped any weapons he carried in a locked box before passing through the free-standing frame of the weapon detector. Ivan had a feeling that didn’t make him less dangerous.

“I see.” the unicorn said. “You have a lot of authority here, especially in matters that directly involve your responsibility to keep the peace and uphold the law. Now you’ll tell me why you think I need to understand this?”

“How about your name first?” Straight Arrow said.

“On legal documents I’m Spindrift.”

Straight Arrow seemed to gnaw on that. “On legal documents.”

“I had it legally changed.”

“Something to hide?”

“I didn’t like my name. It didn’t suit me.”

“That’s rare, among ponies.” Straight Arrow said. ‘Spindrift’ appeared not to consider that a comment that required an answer. The pegasus gave his head a slow shake. “Never mind. Are you acquainted with a pegasus stallion with very large wings, grey, by the name of Trey D?”

The earth pony Baz stirred on his couch, mumbled something, and rolled over to face the back. Then he broke wind with a sound like a muffled trumpet playing D-flat. Ivan twitched as a faint disgusted sigh came down from the glider above him. Spindrift didn’t react. At all. Not even by freezing. Ivan was…pretty impressed, to be honest. Then he noticed the unicorn’s eyes. Somehow, without changing, they had changed. The griffin got an unpleasant, fluttery feeling in his stomach.

Then the glider dropped onto his helmet.

Kirra dropped. Hard. She landed on the griffin’s helmet with as much force as she could muster. Truth be told, it wasn’t a lot. The glider had little weight behind her impressive grip strength, so while she could cause a lot of trouble by grabbing and pulling she would do little damage by dropping onto a helmet. It had a nice brushy crest to hang onto. He tried to look up. Predictable. She kicked up her hind legs and flipped forward over her forepaws. Landing with her rump on his beak, she used let go of the crest and used his instant of startled stillness to roll up onto her paws and fling herself forward in a graceful leap. Behind her, too late, she heard his claw hiss through the air to slap himself hard in the beak.

She smacked into the helmet of the pegasus sitting with his back to the door…and her. It wasn’t a hard impact. Therefore it shocked her when the pegasus reared up with a loud snarl of surprise, anger, and pain. He came down onto his hooves and shook his head like a maraca to dislodge her. Kirra grinned. Small chance of that. The helmet was the ancient traditional design, dating back to before pegasi were part of Equestria. The mane-like crest didn’t just give her the perfect grip, it gave her a cushion. She twisted and turned her head with his flailing, keeping it level and her vision clear as the pegasus moved beneath her. The magic in the golden metal couldn’t hurt her. It was purely defensive. He must have a souped-up model with extra-heavy mithril in the alloy. It made her paws prickle like a static charge.

Then the thrill ride stopped. Straight Arrow went completely still. Kirra exhaled before climbing forward and looking at the pegasus officer upside-down. “Say we do know him. What’s it worth to you?” She watched the pegasus slowly blink, trying to focus on her. She must have hurt him more than she intended. Oh well: in for a quarter-bit… She rapped between his eyes, causing him to wince. “Well, what do you know about this pegasus? Huh?”

Straight Arrow shook his head, more to clear it than shake her loose. His eyes focused. “I’m the one asking the questions.”

Kirra scowled as he regained his mental balance, staring into his eyes. He stared back, and she was slightly impressed. Not many could outstare the adorable gaze of a sugar glider, and he made it look like he wasn’t even trying. He wasn’t one of those lemon-hearted ponies who found cuteness nauseating. He saw her cuteness. It simply cut no ice with him.

The Captain coughed; a special what-in-the-name-of-sweet-nectar-are-you-doing cough he did so well. She waved a paw dismissively without looking around. This was apparently the wrong response. His magic plucked her from the helmet like a frog snagging a fly. She vented a squeal of protest, struggling as he lifted her away and set down on in front of him on the table. At least he pushed his messy sandwich wrapper to the side first. She bounced up, turning in midair, to land with paws on hips and glare on the Captain. He gave her an unreadable look and the tiniest possible head-shake. It gave her pause in a way a stream of profane threats wouldn’t. Continue annoying the police, it said, and no amount of mechanical genius or adorable empathy would spare her his wrath.

She kept her paws on her hips when they wanted to cross in front of her chest. She sneered, first at the pegasus now collecting and composing himself, then to the fabulous unicorn once she was sure the sneer was in place. The latter ignored her, watching the former. Baz still snored, and the griffin had settled back, although his ruffled plumage gave away his nervousness. Smart enough to be worried.

Kirra turned to trot back toward the police pony. She felt her paw slide back as it came down. She hit the table face-first, a rather embarrassing and painful way to be told to drop it. She glared at the wood. That was it.

Party time.

Giving a little whimper, she curled into a tight, shivering ball. Her muffled sobs filled the room as she peeked out with one eye at the ponies surrounding her. The Captain stared at her with the same impassive expression that never failed to infuriate the little marsupial. However, Straight Arrow looked down at her with something like pity tempering the steel in those eyes. She felt a gentle hoof prod at her. Awkward but kindly. She sobbed harder, curling up into a tighter ball and burying her head in her paws.

Straight Arrow’s hoof rubbed her back. The pegasi’s voice cut through her sobs. “Hey, come on, stop crying, little one…” Kirra bawled harder, making the pegasus sigh. “All right, all right; I’ll tell you what I can. Quid pro quo. Discord knows I’m not exactly blessed with leads right now.”

Kirra slowly stopped sobbing as the Captain leaned forward. “Ignore her; they’re crocodile tears at best. Why do you want to know about Trade…” He almost said ‘wind’ and turned his hesitation into false uncertainty. “…E? No, D. What do you want to know about Mister Trey D?” Kirra uncurled to watch.

The police-colt raised an eyebrow and did it well. Kirra almost raised hers too. What? Then she sensed something radiating from the Captain behind her. Nervous: almost fearful. She felt him trying to push it at her, make her understand his warning by sheer willpower. Sort of like the hidden stare of hateful eyes, but with a different flavor. This was new, and Kirra couldn’t help but turn to stare. He looked nervous, as if trying and failing to hide it. A fore-hoof tapped on the table. Then realization dawned. She suddenly started bawling again, much to the concern of Straight Arrow.

He resumed rubbing her back, which she had to admit was a perk. “Just tell me what you know. I know you aren’t accessories. You wouldn’t still be here if you were. What do you know about this Trey D pegasus?”

The Captain continued to broadcast nervousness in a way she doubted he could ever truly feel for anything short of a big dragon attacking his airship. Even then, only maybe. He took a deep unsteady breath and shook his head. “I…I shouldn’t say. He won’t appreciate-”

Straight Arrow interrupted, and he didn’t do it smoothly the way some cops could. “We can offer protection if needed.” On the other paw, his sincerity appeared to be genuine. This was a pony who meant what he said and kept his promises.

Kirra rubbed the Captain’s hoof. Three rubs. A signal to tone down on the act. The Captain gave no sign that he noticed, except toning-down occurred. He spoke, his voice not so much unsteady as implying it wanted to be. “He…frankly, he scares the Tartarus out of me, and as you can see he’s got Kirra so scared she can barely see straight.” Kirra felt the stroking hoof pause. She squirmed slightly and curled up tighter, resuming her tortured sobbing. The Captain continued. “He…honestly, I don’t know who he is. One minute he’s talking like a posh Canterlot nob, then with a Manehattan accent. Then he’s talking like a native Freeporter! He’s dangerous. He’s a confidante of Jindalee Longtail!”

Straight Arrow didn’t react much. One tight-wrapped son of a mare. Still, something about him suggested a dog that had just heard the can opener. Kirra bawled harder, although internally she was giggling at the whole situation. “He works for the Longtails?”

The Captain bit his lip as if to fight back a whimper. “I don’t know. All I know is he talked about Jindalee like they were equals.” The Captain drew another shuddering breath. “All I know is that he came into our lives and suddenly everything is different!”

Straight Arrow harrumphed and looked at a file he pulled from under a wing. Kirra smiled inwardly at his gift for perfectly awkward silences. The Captain continued. “H-he hopped aboard our ship mid-flight, paid us in c-cash. T-told us that we were to get to where we’re going as q-quickly as possible! N-no questions asked. W-we crashed in Zevera. I... I have no idea how it happened. I don’t know what happened next either. W-when we got off the ship after it crashed, there was a half-dozen dead zebras. H-he’s ruthless!”

Kirra uncurled as the griffin, she remembered his name was Ivan, stepped forward. “Celestia Wept! He’s still in the-” Straight Arrow whipped his head around. It must have been a serious glare because Ivan stopped like he’d walked into an invisible wall. Straight Arrow turned back and spoke slowly to the hyperventilating Captain. “Mister Spindrift. Do you think that he is a danger to Fantasy Longhorn?”

The Captain gulped in possibly-real surprise as Kirra’s mind vaulted to a conclusion from a standing start. She barely managed to force her reaction to look fearful rather than overjoyed. She leapt up with an ear-piercing shriek, diving onto the Captain’s head and clinging to his horn. “He’s here?! He came and took her?!” The pegasus didn’t react much, but she could tell she had guessed right.

The Captain wildly looked around, nearly dislodging Kirra. “If he’s loose in this place…we have to get out of here!”

Kirra wailed in semi-real distress as Baz finally snorted awake. The gormless goofball could ruin everything. “H-hey, what’s going on?” Kirra shrieked again and glided over to Baz, whispering in his ear under the cover of hugging him. Not the truth: just that things were hairier than a bear with a perm and he should be very quiet.

“You have to evacuate!” the Captain said.

Kirra clung to Baz’s face and continued her theatrics as Straight Arrow sighed. “A building filled with Aura’s Finest will have no problem. Don’t worry.” This apparently wasn’t good enough for the Captain, who almost wailed as loud as Kirra. “No! We have to get out of here!”

Kirra calmed down slightly, watching Ivan as he trotted over to Straight Arrow and whispered in his ear. The pegasus looked briefly angry, like a glimpse of light through the keyhole of a shut door. Then he just looked tired. “Oh, very well. Mister Spindrift, you and your crew are free to go. Ivan will escor-”

This met with another wail. “NO! If Trey D sees us with a cop-!”

Straight Arrow rubbed his temples. “Fine. He will escort you to the street, and then we have to continue our hunt.”

Kirra sniffed, growing still as the Captain nodded. “Y-yes sir…oh, thank you sir, thank you!”

Straight Arrow waved a hoof, irritated. “Leave. Ivan?”

Kirra made the effort to sob quietly all the way to the foyer, the griffin officer more-or-less kicking them out the front doors as soon as the Captain collected his weapons. The Captain walked unsteady, as did Baz, although from being woken into a confusing situation rather than acting. Kirra clung to Baz’s mane, still sobbing until they turned the corner down a side-street, out of view of the police building. Kirra suddenly giggled, climbing to the top of Baz’s head and dancing a triumphant jig.

Even the Captain managed a chuckle. “Nice job, treerat.” Kirra giggled and bowed. Straightening, she nodded as the Captain spoke again. “Right, now let’s go find Tradewind.”

Back up on the abandoned floors of the Special Crimes Division, Straight Arrow dragged off his helmet and made as if to hurl it across the office he had claimed. Barely a twitch before he caught it and set it with great care on the knoblike helmet-stand perched on the desk. Vlad grinned like the idiot he wasn’t, rattling a lollipop around in his beak. Ivan had a sensation knotting behind his breastbone.

“Sir, I get the feeling-” Ivan said.

Straight Arrow cut him off with a glance. He settled into the cushy chair behind the desk and dug a bottle of Willow Bark’s Headache Tablets from a drawer. He ate three, crunching them. Ivan winced. He’d heard it was a bad sign if you could take them like that. “That they were spouting road-apples?” Ivan’s eyes wandered up to the goose-egg lump on the side of the pegasi’s head, slowly plumping back out from its squishing inside the helmet. He swallowed hard and gave a nod. Straight Arrow stared back, unamused. “You wonder why I let them go if I knew they were lying.” Not a question but Ivan nodded again, adopting the middle-distance stare every cop soon learned.

Vlad did too, though his grin made his stare look as if he were off in the Land of Happy Dancing Mushrooms. They had filled him in on the way up here. Ivan scrubbed a claw through the feathers on the back of his neck. “Sir, I am confused.”

“I planted a tracker on the sugar glider.” Straight Arrow’s tone and expression said this confession of breaking the law hurt him more than the knock to his skull. “It’s intangible, wiped from a medallion I cupped in my hoof. It’ll last until the next dawn or until she takes a bath, whichever comes first. They weren’t accessories before the fact. I’ll stake my badge on that. If they aren’t planning to be accessories after the fact, I’ll eat my badge. With mustard.”

“Do we look for the intruders now?” Vlad said. He seemed to be lagging. Ivan had already figured it out.

“No.” Straight Arrow said. “They’re not in the building after all. The elevator ploy was a double-bluff. I remember the bandit attack ‘Spindrift’ mentioned. It did happen, and to the airship in which they arrived. That was his big mistake, mixing that truth into his lies. It reminded me that he had a passenger aboard at the time. A Mister Tradewind who matches the description of our impossible teleporting pegasus friend.”

Ivan winced. He hadn’t known Straight Arrow long, but he knew enough to recognize ‘friend’ as an ominous word for the captain to use to describe a pony who was not, in fact, his friend.

“Tradewind.” Ivan said. “Trade. Tray-duh. Trey D.”

“Tradie.” Straight Arrow said. “An affectionate shortening that the liars downstairs slipped and used a few times.” That sense of tightly controlled anger had returned, a slow hot burn driving the engines of his will. “This Tradewind does have serious connections. Nothing official, this is grapevine. I peg him as a high-level courier between the Longtails and Smog. Which of them holds his leash is less certain. He was taken in once by Special Crimes and released with a wing-ring tracker, which he subsequently ditched when he skipped town. Not much info on him after that. Strangely enough, the automatic warrant out for his arrest wasn’t pursued and later got annulled. I heard he briefly surfaced in Cervidas, causing an affray that made the local front page. The warrant out for his arrest there also vanished.”

“So…how much was lies?” Ivan said.

Straight Arrow spoke as if pronouncing guilt in some serious crime. “I know they aren’t afraid of him.”

“Oh.” Ivan said. He fiddled with his tinted spectacles, having pulled them from inside his armor. “You want us to follow them with this tracker thing.”

“No. We’re going to wait until sunset and go off duty. Then we are going to track them to where they are staying the night.”

“They might skip town.” Ivan said.

“I judge less risk of that than of ruining our one chance of catching Tradewind by following them now. I want to ask him some questions. That striped unicorn is the type to smell a tail no matter how skilled. Sugar gliders are also notoriously good at situational awareness.” His intense stare slid away from the brothers, to their relief. He glared at the ceiling as if trying to burn a hole in it. “That unicorn makes my wings itch.”

“He seemed dangerous to me.” Ivan said.

That got him a surprised glance from the pegasus, followed by a respectful nod. “Good eye. Good instincts.” Ivan shifted, a little embarrassed at how much it pleased him. The pegasus went back to glaring, now at the desk. “He was ready to kill us all. Not eager. Not willing. But if the only way to walk out of that room was over our dead bodies, he’d do it. I doubt he would have even broken a sweat.”

“That coat covers his cutie mark.” Ivan said. His tone was the sort a pony might use upon realizing there were signs of an intruder lurking in their house. It matched how he felt. “He legally changed his name.” His brother made a gulping noise.

Straight Arrow just looked angry and determined. “It’s always been a tricky subject, legally speaking. What do you do when a pony’s special talent ends up being something illegal? Can they be blamed for having it? Should they be viewed with suspicion, ostracized, made to feel ashamed? Should a pony with a talent for theft always be the Number One Suspect in local thefts? Our talent isn’t a choice. Morally, assigning blame always gets tricky once you consider things that aren’t choices or the product of choices.” The pegasus paused as if to order his thoughts.

“Officially,” he said, “you’re supposed to treat them just like other ponies. You punish them only for what they do, not what they might do. That’s not just in line with Harmony, it’s pragmatic. Treating them like a criminal only isolates them from the community. Take away their every reason to want to obey the law, to care about others, and it’s one in a thousand ponies who can stay good regardless. Hearts denied friendship and love turn dark and bitter. I refuse to assume Spindrift is evil or even a criminal. Not without proof. Dismissed.”

Link to last post in this plotline:

Dropping the bag of sandwiches and the tray of drinks, Mithril raced down the hallway toward the commotion. It had started with a loud bang and then a louder but hollow crash, followed by sounds she identified as Pick panting and snarling. Coming around the final corner showed her the interrogation room door hanging open with the doorknob broken off. More crashes and thuds of full-body fighting as she closed the distance, heat building in her horn. The unicorn mare turned sideways and her gallop became a skid on the smooth hard cloud flooring. She had timed it with unconscious perfection. Her momentum ran out just as she came abreast of the doorway.

Pick was down, the ugly battered goat called Angel Marie clamped onto his back; forelegs locked in an expert stranglehold and teeth clamped into Pick’s left ear. She held back for one long precious second to focus as best she could before fiery red magic erupted from her horn. It looked like sullen lava. Mostly kinetic energy, seeking to impart motion into anything it touched, but with a measure of heat mixed into it. Ponies at the academy had described it as getting sprayed with a fire hose that shot scalding quicksilver. A hot liquid cosh.

It hit the goat and knocked him loose. Pick got splashed but the heat was only scalding. Sunburn was worse. He was lucky he didn’t lose half an ear right then. A flickering wayward thought mused that with healdust set to soon become far cheaper, he could have afforded to have it regenerated. He’d lose the slashing scars on his forehead too, and the little bird-track mark on his cheek he’d gotten from the regenerating claw of Red-Eye Rasputin.

Pick had ended up in a fight with yet another monster. He’d needed help from allies then, too. Mithril picked up ‘Uncle’ in more normal magical bands and slammed him up against the back wall. Spread-eagled, head upright. The interrogation room table sat upright against one wall with its legs pointed at the wall. One had been broken half off at a sharp angle. The missing length stuck out of the goat’s buttock. “What the cirrus has been going on in here?”

She didn’t really expect an answer. The goat spat out a wad of gum, along with bloody saliva and some of Pick’s fur. He had a split lip and blood on the last inch of both horns. What he didn’t have was a trace of fear or pain in his eyes. After this sort-of answer, Uncle strained. The sheer force of it was more than a living creature that size should have been able to produce. She felt a non-mundane force opposing the magical bands she held around his four ankles. As if he was expanding, trying to burst the shackles. Mithril had to plant her hooves, lower her horn, and strain to slam him back in place. Sweat prickled under her armor. No wonder the steel chain of his fore-hoof shackles had snapped. Uncle had to be high on something illegal, and quite possibly magical.

Pick gave a tiny rasping cough and then a long ragged gasp as he resumed breathing. Mithril’s focus wavered as she looked toward her rookie partner. Uncle broke free of her magic and pushed off the wall. He flew toward her as if launched by a giant spring. Teeth bare and not to snarl. He obviously planned to bite. She swatted him aside with something like a giant fiery ping-pong paddle. His white fur and black goatee crinkled; his greasy black suit smoked. She ricocheted him into the wall opposite the one with the table and pinned him again. She was angry but also afraid. Now she knew it wasn’t a magical drug that boosted physical strength and magical resistance.

It was pure rage, even if Uncle didn’t look especially angry. She had felt it before a few times. That sense of a pony’s spirit expanding out beyond their skin, that unnatural strength, that indifference to pain. Uncle’s burly muscles were actually bigger: but only as if he’d spent some time in a gym pumping iron and getting them warmed up. Mithril focused on keeping him pinned this time. If it came to a fight, she knew she’d never be able to stop him without killing him.

“Pick?” she said. She kept her eyes on the goat. Uncle stared right back, flexing against her magic. “Pick, can you talk?” The pegasus answered with a hoarse string of profanity. “I’ll take that as a yes. What happened here, did he try to escape?”

“He-” Pick paused to cough. “Son of a mother bit my ear. He only came quietly because he thought we were working for Smog. When he realized we weren’t he tried to break out and run.” A new tone entered his ravaged voice. Something that hinted of a police-pony’s professional pride. “I didn’t let him. Thanks for the assist. He had me.”

Quietly, without any fuss, the goat died. He sagged in her grip, head drooping as if nodding off to sleep. Mithril had seen enough bodies to know when life had left the building. Maybe he’d blown a gasket, raging like that. Even so, this mess just got a lot messier. It always did when a criminal died in custody. They weren’t going to get much sleep tonight, she knew that much. There would be paperwork and interviews.

Double-checking to be absolutely sure Uncle was gone, Mithril turned her attention to her partner. One look had her hurrying out to grab a first-aid kit and return. Aside from many bruises, he had matching puncture wounds on his butt, a cloven-hoof kick on his belly had broken the skin, a nasty scrape along the left side of his neck, and his left ear was bad enough for the top half to flop over. That needed stitches to hold it together while healdust did its job. Mithril focused on doing what she could. Healdust ointment. Gauze, bandages, and tape. A kind of tongue-depressor-splint for his ear. Pick stayed quiet, eyes closed, giving little flinches sometimes but not making a sound. Then the pain pills started kicking in. Over-the-counter stuff but pretty good.

The pegasus started to go into shock a little, but Mithril was actually better at dealing with this than most. She wrapped him in a warm blanket of magic and forced him to sit up, demanded he open his eyes and focus on her. No idea what she said, she just said whatever came to her mind to keep him focused on her. The chills and shudders faded after a while. His pulse grew stronger and steadier. So did his breathing. Mithril used a pad of gauze to wipe the sweat off his face and kept him cocooned in warm magic. “We’re getting you to the infirmary.”

Pick got to his hooves, with care and some help. “You didn’t have to do that, but thanks.”

Gazing at his eyes, she saw no sign of concussion. “Of course I had to. You’re my partner. You’d do the same for me, I hope.”

“…I guess I would. Just…I didn’t expect it from you.”

Mithril scowled. “You really think I wouldn’t patch you up?”

The pegasus gave her a stare as if she was the one talking nonsense. Then it cleared, and clouded again with guilt. “Oh, right. I understand now. Sorry for implying you killed him for hurting me. You did it so you could focus on helping me.”

It took a long jaw-waggling moment before Mithril could re-engage the gears between her brain and her voice. “I didn’t kill him at all! He just…died. I think he blew a gasket straining to get out of my magic. Heart or brain, the end’s the same. The coroner will figure it out. You thought…!”

“Right.” Pick said. His ears tried to droop and he hissed as he remembered why he should keep them still. “Ow. Sorry. Uh, I was surprised that you’d kill him. I mean…being surprised about it means I didn’t really expect that kind of thing from you. Meaning I don’t think you’re the kind of pony who would do it. Am I making sense?”

Mithril’s anger faded. “Making enough. Come on, I’ll lift some of your weight and you just focus on following me.” That wasn’t hard: she had stripped off his magic-resistant armor in order to check for injuries. “Let’s get you to the doctor.”

He winced. “That evil mobster stabbed me in the butt.”

“Looks like you returned the favor.” Mithril said.

They emerged into the hallway. Pick looked around, eyes swiveling but neck kept stiff. He had a chain-pattern necklace of fresh bruises across the front. “Where is everyony? No pony came running. They should have.”

“Oh, that. When I left to get food I found out there’s some kind of big meeting going on in the auditorium. I peeked in when I heard voices. Straight Arrow wasn’t there; I assume he’s really busy. The bigwigs were all there. I get the feeling it was about Smog being gone.”

Pick followed her, but in the metaphorical sense he seemed to have trouble following. “You told them what we found in the Den?”

“No, though I should have. They must have found out another way. Things are going to get bad soon. Maybe not as bad thanks to Luna’s speech about staying calm and sticking together. Still bad. All those council-ponies are crooked.”

“Oh, crap.” Pick said. That thread of paranoia had slipped back into his voice. “What do we do? I can’t run with this ring on my wing. Not even if we run together.” He didn’t suggest they try to reach the tracker attuned to his ring. It was in a different station. Break or take it and he could escape the city without being dropped into an enchanted sleep. He may have been thinking about it, but he didn’t say it. Besides, it chimed an alarm if Pick entered the station holding it. They were not going to be able to sneak in.

Mithril worked to hide her own fear for his sake. “We get you healed up. We deal with the mess caused by that bugger keeling over. Then we do our jobs until somepony of legitimate authority tells us not to. Things are going to get bad. Smog made sure Aura and Umbra will tear themselves apart if he disappears. Things will be even worse if all the good ponies on the force don’t do what they can to keep the peace. We do what we can, as best we can, for as long as we can. Not because we hope for leniency when we face judgment. Because it’s the right thing to do. You with me?”

“I guess…” He paused and his tone firmed. “I’m with you. I still feel like I’m going crazy. I think I can keep a lid on it. I keep wanting to fight something, but I decided I’ll use it to fight my fear.”

“Glad to hear it.” Surprised too, but glad.

Pick’s tone turned very…odd. “I got some good advice.”

Last post in this plotline here:

“I’m done with running.” Morhoof said.

His anger felt like a granite mountain in him, a literal towering thing. No heat to it, no ferocity: something that refused to be moved. No matter how his fear raged like a storm, that anger shrugged it off. Facing Forte wasn’t a choice. Everything in him demanded it. The back of his mind did an inventory. Flare gun with sungold dust mixed into the charges. One shot loaded, two in the handle. The not-quite-weapons in his new brown-enameled mechanical leg. His familiar old set of knives and various useful things he tended to carry. The silver bracelet that bound his magic inside his body. It kept the parasite windigo under better control. It also appeared to make him as hard to grip in unicorn magic as a bar of soap in the tub. Last, and of dubious use in a fight, he had a box containing a cockatrice’s preserved eye. Smog gave him that to catch Forte Presto alive if he wished. For after capture, really. To keep the unicorn from escaping. Flailing it around in combat might end with Morhoof getting stoned.

So what’s the plan, little pony? As I recall, unicorns have this little advantage over earth ponies, let’s see…what was it called? Oh yeah! Magic! Couple that with the fact that he’s already handed you your rump once before I see a rather bleak outcome. Loco sounded-felt excited, pulsing cold; waiting for the kill, waiting for a chance to push anger into hate so he could finally mature and erupt out of this stubborn host.

Forte Presto wasn’t the only one with a few tricks up his sleeve. Undoubtedly the unicorn had already gone over a thousand and one thoughts as to what secrets Morhoof’s new leg contained, but even the best guesses were only guesses. Morhoof still had a chance of giving this unicorn a surprise. And while Forte didn’t know what he could do, he would be more cautious. That was an advantage too. ‘Right?’ he thought.

The thought echoed in Morhoof’s mind before the windigo eventually sighed. Sure, just don’t get me killed.

Morhoof reared, spun around on one hind hoof. From under his cloak sailed two blades headed toward Forte Presto. He followed it up with a stage-magician’s trick, setting off a whole wad of flash-paper in his living hoof. The brief roaring flash of white light turned the blackness behind his closed lids red. It was night. While the blue-lit undersides of Aura cast a kind of shadow-less, lifeless glow over the empty courtyard, there were no streetlights around.

Forte, forced to stare at the threat of the thrown knives, hopefully ended up half-blinded. Morhoof opened his eyes as soon as the flare of fake magic ended. He gripped the handle of another dagger in his teeth and charged forward, the sound of metal fore-hoof clacking against stone. Options rushed to form a list. A shock from his Zapper Claw, a faceful of knockout-gas capsule, or subdue the unicorn long enough to make the cockatrice eye a viable option. Showing it to the unicorn without glimpsing it himself was nothing he cared to risk in a tussle. The mere notion made his skin crawl.

Blinded or not, Forte wasn’t deafened. He had taken a big leap sideways during the moment Morhoof had his eyes shut. Out of the way of the thrown knives. Morhoof closed the distance, veering a little to account for the other’s change in position. Forte sensed him coming, ears up and forward. A blue-grey aura formed around Forte’s horn, a glow-wall of matching color blooming before him. Morhoof didn’t recall their last encounter but Loco had explained how the magic-binding bracelet made him slippery to Forte’s grip. Morhoof dropped his head and bulled forward against the ward. He was an earth pony of tremendous age and stubbornness. He shoved right through it. Not shattering it but as if he tried to dive into a pool of jelly.

Though it didn’t stop Morhoof it definitely slowed him down. Forte didn’t dodge. Looked like he had expected his magical barrier to have a little more of an effect. Forte Presto put a fore-hoof in Morhoof’s muzzle. Not a punch but keeping the dagger at a distance. The unicorn went over backwards like he planned it: planted both hind hooves into Morhoof’s belly and shoved. Morhoof shoved back as well to reduce the force of the kick. He tumbled gracefully back onto his hooves to find that Forte had also made a speedy recovery. Forte’s lips curled into a snarl, a mere flicker of hate before that cold, focused mask returned. A bolt of crackling magic energy shot from his horn; missing Morhoof, who leapt out of the way, but it drilled a smoking hole in the earth pony’s old patched cloak.

Morhoof smirked around the knife grip. “Guess I had the brighter idea.”

Yes-yes all very well, just keep closing the gap. As I recall magic takes a bit of concentration does it not? He might be very focused but enough blows to the head oughta make it difficult for anyone. Snap his horn off and this is over.

Forte Presto didn’t appear to be amused. His expression didn’t look confident, just wooden. “I’m sharper.”

The blade came fast even as Forte spoke, a whining silver flicker off from one side, where Forte had grabbed it in his magic and sent it hurling right at the earth pony. Morhoof had combat reflexes older than most fine whiskies. Metal or enchanted wood, an artificial leg was a fine thing for parrying unexpected blades. He didn’t command his foreleg to flick up and bat the knife out of the air: he simply watched it happen. The dagger leapt skyward like a startled fish, singing like a tuning fork. Loco whistled: Flukey.

Morhoof instinctively played it off as intentional. In the moment it took Forte to locate the second dagger that had skidded off, Morhoof was upon him again. A quick back-hoof with his mechanical leg across the face forced Forte to let go of his magical grip on the knife in order to duck it. Instead of flying at him it skittered across the old paving stones. Morhoof snatched it up without looking: he heard it coming. It was an old friend, that knife. Forte dodged the slash but a few dark brownish-grey hairs floated free. That was how close the unicorn came to coming down with a case of cut throat.

Ducking under a slicing wave of magic, Morhoof sheathed his returned dagger. No more sharing toys. Forte Presto’s horn flared bright, seemed to crackle, and then he vanished. Teleport! Morhoof spun around to the sound of cracking electricity behind him; received a hoof to the face. Staggering back, he still couldn’t see Forte. Invisible!

Loco’s words dropped into Morhoof’s awareness in an instant bloom of knowledge. Worse. He’s fooling your eyes into ignoring him. Like how you don’t see the moment of blur when your eyes flick around. Your brain edits him out, but I get the raw feed. I’ll show you what I see. Morhoof, sensing a disturbance behind him, whirled. No, you dummy!

Morhoof huffed at the sight of a piece of old greasy cardboard settling to the ground.

“Behind you!”

Morhoof recognized Perth’s voice despite being so high it was a squeak, and a corner of him felt startled that the koala hadn’t made himself scarce. Morhoof spun around again to face Forte Presto. The unicorn didn’t look quite real and an aura of dead blue-black flames surrounded him. Looking at them was like smelling with his eyes, and Forte reeked like sickly-sweet rotting garbage. Loco’s point-of-view?

He stood on the opposite side of the courtyard, apparently landing from a hasty retreating leap. He had aborted his attack when Perth warned Morhoof? Morhoof quickly looked around; it seemed that the both of them had returned to where they started. Forte looked openly furious that Morhoof’s eyes went right to him. That hallucinated aura got bigger. Presto’s horn glowed and Morhoof prepared to dodge. The magic unleashed headed right for Perth, traveling slower than it might have. Morhoof didn’t have time to swear. His mechanical leg quickly switched to the air-cannon mode. He pointed it back the way he had come as he leapt, the blast of compressed air shoving him forward.

Morhoof had never made a habit of jumping into the path of nasty magic, but he was no stranger to the punch that it could pack. Surprisingly, it barely stung, though it still hit him like a giant beanbag full of ice cubes. He didn’t land as bad as he could have, but he didn’t exactly bounce back to his hooves. ‘Yeah,’ he thought, ‘that’s gonna leave a bruise.’

Morhoof got to his hooves as fast as he could. To his amazement, it appeared to be fast enough. Forte Presto still stood on the opposite side of the courtyard, looking calm and collected while midnight-blue flames roared in a stinking bonfire of hate only Morhoof could see. “Another minion of Smog needing protection? No matter: with you handicapped by the need to defend him, this fight is as good as over.”

You’re good to go. Loco’s voice sounded flat. Not just serious but stark staring sane. The aches vanished.

Forte threatened to attack Perth just to get at him. Manipulating his loyalty and new friendship to the koala into a weapon. That was vile, dishonorable. Plus the truth of the hate boiling inside that false calm of his. A true monster. Morhoof felt cold. Cold right down to his marrow. The mountain of his anger had a glacier capping it now. He didn’t shiver. It didn’t hurt. It was a brisk, invigorating cold, a chill that made him feel alive. His thoughts turned into a lens of crystal ice. Everything sharp and clear. Morhoof felt like a full jug of water left to freeze, the ice expanding with slow but irresistible force. The bracelet on his living fore-hoof creaked as it frosted over, then shattered like glass. Fog put a second cloak around Morhoof as his cold rage spilled out from his body.

Forte looked worried for a tiny instant that Morhoof easily noticed. Then the unicorn noticed that Morhoof had noticed. A flash of shame, followed by a flash of fury. Something seemed to snap. His whole manner transformed. The calm vanished, replaced by something feral. His blue-green-grey eyes turned red, the whites turned black. Rather than blue-grey, the magic bubbling along his horn was black with a fringe of deep blue. Bolts of photo-negative lightning crackled around the unicorn’s head. Morhoof could see that hate-aura swirling into the horn, fueling this new power. Genuine black magic. Morhoof had half-feared, half-expected this ever since he first heard Loco mention this unicorn’s intense hatred.

Hoarfrost spread out around his hooves in a crunchy white carpet. The cool night air felt hot as flames in his mouth but it chilled to sweetness in his lungs. Black lightning danced across the stones around Forte, tracing lines that glowed red and smoked. Blue-edged blackness wove itself around his body into spiky armor. Morhoof flung his cloak aside. The fog condensed around him. Frost on the ground flowed without melting to his legs and up them. It crawled over his weapon harness and spread from there, forming steel-hard panels of milk-white ice. No joints. The ice flexed where he needed it to flex. Sleek, body-hugging, and slick. It armored his pouches without sealing them. Left the hilts of weapons exposed to grab. More of it wrapped the blade of the knife he still held in his jaws, becoming the core of a short jagged ice-sword.

Everything was so simple now. Everything made sense. All the fear, the guilt, Perth…it fell away to a vague ignorable itch. Nothing existed but the moment and the enemy. Black heat against white cold. It was poetic. Forte would die. Morhoof would kill him and dance on the frozen pool of his blood. Obvious as two plus two.

Huddled with his back to a wall, hugging his doctor’s valise to his chest, Perth watched as both his new friend and the enemy transformed. Morhoof threw aside his cloak as white ice wrapped him in a shell. All that stayed uncovered was his eyes and the end of his muzzle. His breath didn’t make steam and that seemed very wrong. His eyes were terribly, terrifyingly cold. Filled with dispassionate hate.

Forte Presto transformed as well. There was nothing cold or passionless about the hate that twisted his features into a feral snarl. His eyes went glowing red as shadows bloomed where no shadows had been before. They congealed into a suit of thorn-studded plate armor that hid everything except those eyes. Glossy black and yet reflecting nothing.

The unicorn slashed chaotic and unsettling lines across the paving with something like black lightning. Morhoof’s head sprouted a misty grey apparition like a gaunt and elongated pony with eyes made of blank cold blue light. It stayed buried from the waist down in the cropped hair of the earth pony’s head. The unicorn snorted blue-edged black flames and tore at the stones with clawed horseshoes that left spitting, lava-red gouges. Morhoof stood motionless as a statue, gripping a saw-edged sword of milky ice in his jaws.

The absurdity of their melodramatic appearances struck Perth. This dark abandoned courtyard, a confrontation between enemies that embodied opposing forces. Something had happened and these ponies were just avatars of magical forces using them for their own clashing. Metaphors made flesh. This was like something out of the old terrifying tales told to young koalas about Outside. The violent magic, the powers that bent or broke the natural laws to their will…where there were no heroes, only different flavors of evil. Morhoof did not look like himself. He was gruff and distant and melancholy, yes. Even hard. But not cold. Not like this. When he got upset there was heat behind it. There was a heart under all the crust. He was less sure of Forte Presto but had gotten the impression of a patient schemer with layers of plans who never let his passions control him. Now he was an ember-eyed thing in bladed armor, body language like something rabid. Magic aside, Perth suspected a psychotic break. He wondered if the parasite had something to do with that, a power to inflame Forte’s passions.

Most of Perth drowned in the most miserable terror he had ever felt. Shaking, fur on end inside his black suit. Like a bug two birds squabbled over. Whoever won, the bug lost. Only some detached splinter of him stood apart and did things like wonder why Morhoof had suddenly become a monster of frozen hate. It came to a conclusion: the spiritual parasite in Morhoof knew that its host could expel it now without fear of dropping dead from a long-overextended lifespan. The Philosopher’s Stone built into the cap fused to Morhoof’s stump would continually reset his physical body back to the age and condition it had been when the mechanisms in the cap first fused with his flesh. Morhoof planned to embrace friendship and love: it would kill the parasite. The absurdity of an ethereal malice-eating creature aside, it made a kind of demented sense. It was living hate, and a heart full of love had no room for hate.

The parasite was in a corner now that Morhoof no longer needed it to support continued ageless life. It did not wish to be destroyed. No more patient attempts to corrupt its host into a sufficient burst of hatred to let the thing complete its life cycle. It was desperate, and saw its chance now to shove Morhoof over the edge. Hard to imagine a more profound act of hate than murder. Forte had also succumbed to uncontrolled hate, his intellect drowned, somehow using the hate as a source of destructive energy. There would be a point of no return. Ending a life in that state would probably count. That death would only inflame its hunger for more deaths.

Perth felt his bladder try to let go as he absorbed this insight. He stood as witness to a duel between two proto-monsters, and whichever one survived would complete its metamorphosis. Struggling not to disgrace himself, fighting his terror, he slowly set down his bag and moved to undo the four claps in the sequence that would open it to a specific interior. It had never been harder to call on his Madness Place. The only reason he succeeded was because he opened a door in his mind he had always struggled to keep shut.

The koala had the seed of a monster in him too. His magical focus and creativity had a dark side. Something that reveled in the detached clarity of his Aberration. Perth had it in him to be the maddest of mad scientists. His spirit held a wellspring of inspiration for weapons, bombs, vehicles of cunning destruction. Worse, a desire to destroy just for the mindless glee of destruction. Perth let it out. He tried to keep it on a leash. Channel it. He might live to regret this, but he hoped he lived long enough for regret.

Then the Madness Place had him and not even a pair of monstrous magical beings waiting for the other one to blink could distract him. Unpacking certain tools and supplies, he closed the valise, locked it, and opened it in a different sequence. More objects removed, even as his mind danced ahead. Swift and precise, he began assembling a fun little toy. Amazed he hadn’t considered it sooner. That solar ray-shooting weapon he had made was an embarrassment. Crude physical destruction? There were so many more elegant ways to cause ruin.

Someone apparently blinked. Perth glanced up through his spectacles, annoyed at the thought they might finish their fight and the victor kill him before he was ready. Who charged first? Why did he care? Black lightning tried to drill through white ice as they rapidly closed the distance. Small cratered cracks and blooms of steam. The spirit riding Morhoof’s head shuddered, eyes flaring brighter. It fed on hate. Forte’s magic was saturated in hate. Well, then. Morhoof would win.

Ice-sword slammed into black armor with a shrill hissing scream and more steam. It shattered. Perth reconsidered again, allowing that Forte might have a chance after all. Then it was all rearing and hoof-punching, equine unarmed combat. Forte was faster and stronger, but Morhoof appeared to retain a sense of tactics and appreciation for defense. Cracks raced out through the ice and then vanished as it healed. Black armor of who-knew-what cracked, gushing blue-edged tongues of blackness that left behind strong welded-looking seams.

Dimly aware his conscience would give him considerable strife for this, Perth continued to construct the device that would swat them both down like insects. Perhaps his troublesome sense of morality would soothe itself with the excuse that Morhoof was dead whether he lost or won. Or perhaps he would simply remain in this wonderful clarity forever. His device began to twist inwards as he made connections and bent the laws of nature to behave as he demanded. It would be rather compact from the outside once complete.

Perth had never worked so fast or with such white-hot creativity. It felt wonderful to finally indulge the pent-up desire to make things that destroyed. His power worked by warping the natural laws into a different structure. So long as the new rules were internally consistent he could make them take almost any form. His new device was the logical extension of his power: it would impose his tailored set of natural laws across a wider area. Even better, he could decide exactly how to alter them; not just impose the set of unique rules the device itself used to function.

The final step was to tune the emissions matrix. Decide in what way to tweak the local laws of nature. Theoretically a very intricate and delicate process with all kinds of various effects. However, all he needed to do for this was turn it on, un-tuned. The matrix had a default, a baseline. Errors always crept in over time. Entropy always increased in a closed system. His device would create an area that counted as closed and maximize the entropy within it. Barring the safe zone near the device that would defend him, all forms of energy in the affected area would be dissipated through it. Molecular bonds severed, atoms rearranged in simple stable bonds that would take even more energy to shatter again. All coherent information dissolved into a hash of maximized chaos.

Why bother shooting rays of concentrated light that merely randomized bits of whatever it hit? This was the ultimate destruction: it left nothing that could be smashed further. He would shiver apart their bodies and the very ground into gases and dust, their very spirits and magic into bland white noise. If there was any sort of afterlife, these two would never see it.

Pausing to savor the moment proved to be a mistake. His conscience, passive and thus ignored, launch a counter-attack he wasn’t prepared to fight off. The leash hadn’t slipped; merely gone slack. Lulling him into a false sense of security. Waiting for the right moment to yank. It yanked now and Perth recoiled from the edge of a monstrous act. He shuddered, terror trying to break his focus, but then found a way to make the terror drive him onward. He was terrified of dying: finishing this device was the best chance to survive.

The tuning matrix of his device could, among many other things, quantify the ineffable aspects of the heart. Reduce emotions to numbers; mental states into equations. Then edit them. Perth tuned the device to a much less drastic change than ultimate destruction. He closed his eyes and activated the charging sequence. A low whine, rising in pitch and volume. Suddenly, the Madness Place vanished. He forgot how the device worked, but remembered what it did. What he hoped it did.

It was a hideous thing, unspeakably easy to abuse in near-infinite ways. Increase gravity and crush everything in the area. Reduce the strength of molecular bonds and disintegrate everything in a firestorm of released chemical energy. Transmute all matter inside into iron, or glass, or gold, or pudding. Transmute all matter inside to energy and set off an explosion that might possibly destroy the world. Increase informational entropy and destroy both minds and spirits. Reinforce the natural laws and make magic impossible. Which might well kill anything that needed magic to live or stay airborne. Tweak the rate of time so that from the inside, the bubble of effect lasted a hundred years. So that everyone trapped inside starved. So many ways…

That it would utterly destroy itself, mass converted to pure energy in order to fuel its brief reality-tweaking pulse, was a good thing. He would never build another, ever. Only calling on his inner darkness had allowed him to make it this time. Only desperation could force him to call on his darkness. Only helplessness in the face of imminent destruction could make him that desperate. From now on, he would carry the means to defend himself well enough that he would never be that desperate again. The thought of carrying weapons turned his stomach. Better that than risk…this. For the sake of his sanity and the world, he could never allow himself to be cornered. Too cowardly to just die rather than resort to evil to survive.

The logic was obvious: compromise or risk disaster.

His terror had vanished. A different kind of clarity than his madness filled him. Burned-out adrenal glands, possibly. Or fatalism. He had done all he morally could. If his device failed, if his calculations were wrong, they would all be unmade and it was too late to run.

Even if it worked, it only gave Morhoof a chance.

It gave both of them a chance.

A lifetime of raw senses controlled by raw force of will. Unable to ignore anything, no matter how trivial, he had learned how to focus on the important and not react to the rest. It had taken an opposite extreme to overcome his inborn flaw. Cold, logical, controlled, his passions channeled to useful ends. Relentless self-control not to smash every annoying ticking clock. However, he did have the ability to ignore things coming from inside him. He could lie to himself, and the biggest lie of all was his belief that he was honest with himself.

Forte Presto had formalized a moral code and strictly held to it, somehow not realizing the importance of exceptions to such rules. That justice must be balanced by mercy, that punishment must be balanced by compassion. The letter of the law had to be balanced by its spirit. He had done everything in his power to avoid becoming what he defined as evil and ended up at the opposite extreme. Which was also evil. The blind smug self-righteous evil of one who was certain that he knew what was best. Far too late, Forte realized this.

He was a helpless observer inside his head as decades of bottled-up hatred finally escaped. Through a red haze he watched himself fight…no, brawl…with Morhoof. His self-control was gone but his self-awareness refused to dissolve. That was his curse: he could never shut out his senses. Forte hated himself with a violent passion. Hated his inherited flaw, the stain of madness passed down from the founder of his bloodline. Spider Web had been a monster and tried to make monsters of his descendants. Forte’s passion for justice was nothing but an excuse to take out his hatred on acceptable targets. On other monsters. In this case, the Wandering Lute.

The bestial aggression controlling his body was entirely able to ignore things. A mindless creature of pure instinct. It existed in the present moment and focused on killing its enemy. Forte noticed, in the edges of his vision as they fought, that the koala still hadn’t run. He appeared to construct something that folded up much smaller than should have been possible. He seemed to waver, made some adjustments, and then slumped down to sit as if defeated. In front of him, a pinkish glow bloomed around something like a faceted metal egg.

The egg imploded to a tiny point of intense white light and winked out of existence.

Something slammed through Forte’s mind. It was a sensation so alien he couldn’t even construct a metaphor to describe it. Was it a force, a twisting, a breaking? Not at all. Every simile or image that came to mind was so divorced from the experience that it wasn’t even wrong. Just gibberish. Things in his head weren’t the same. He couldn’t really recall how they had been before. There had been…something. Something that had been there and wasn’t anymore. A patently impossible emotion, beyond insanity. A sort of…passionate urge to destroy.

A word bubbled up from his memory: hate. The concept behind it left him at a loss. It was like trying to imagine two plus two equaling pi. Forte dimly realized this inability was unusual. Sitting down, he stared at the earth pony he recalled fighting. Amber eyes stared back, seeming equally befuddled. The Lute’s odd head-riding spirit had vanished from sight. The black armor remained wrapping Forte. It was unpleasantly hot and greasy. So. Hate still existed, but somehow he had changed to find it so unimaginable he couldn’t experience it any more than a colorblind pony could experience red. That something had changed his mind like this should have caused outrage.

All Forte could feel was relief. Unable to recall hate, he could recall the misery it had caused him. A misery he hadn’t been able to notice because he had suffered it so long it just became how things are. The misery he had caused others, only some of them deserving. Memories unfolded in poisonous blossoms. Everything he had ever done from hatred, whatever justifications he used to mask it. Relief gave way to horror. Had he truly fire-bombed a hotel in order to trigger warfare between criminal syndicates? Attempted to assassinate a mare on suspicion of collusion with a criminal? Stood ready to plunge an entire city into chaos in order to take down Smog?

Horror gave way to something even worse as whatever had granted this moment of clarity…ended. Black vitriol of potent chemicals sizzling in his blood, raging brain-stem aggression, emotional cankers, neurotic knots of thought. It was sick, it was sickening, it was filth, and it filled him. It buried him in tar. Knowing it was wrong, unable to stop, he charged his horn with caustic black energy to blast Lute. He realized the pony was motionless because he couldn’t move. Whatever trick had made the ice armor flexible no longer seemed to work.

With an effort that felt like it burst vessels in his brain, Forte managed the tiniest nudge of control. Not to save Lute. He did it to defy the hate. Instead of blasting the earth pony’s bones to gravel inside him, the attack landed on the icy armor. Shattered it. That still hurt Lute. The ice didn’t all fly outward. Forte snarled and lunged, control gone.

Lute’s eyes were hard but no longer cold. Battered, bruised, the earth pony’s living fore-hoof moved like lightning. Drew something, snapped it down to point at the ground, and fired. Forte saw a flash, heard a muffled bang. His eyes twisted down even as his head dropped to point his horn at Lute. A fat cylinder with a mashed nose lay on the paving. A trickle of dull granules and fine golden dust spilled from a crack. Smoke sputtered from its butt end. Lute bolted sideways, throwing himself into a tumbling roll with one foreleg across his eyes. Forte skidded, trying to halt his charge to go after Lute.

The cylinder went fssst.

Golden light replaced the world. Brilliant, blinding, drilling pain into his eyes but glorious. A deep roar, musical as the crash of a bronze bell. Time seemed to slow. Forte felt his armor evaporate in an instant. The vile throb of power in his horn vanished. The hate burned away. For another instant he felt comforting heat caress his body. It was the cleanest he had felt since…ever. Then heat became pain. He felt the light shining into him, felt it on his bones. Imagined the shadow of his skeleton cast behind him. Had he been somehow teleported into the sun? The light digging into his eyes found his brain and began to white out his mind. He had to be dying. This was dying. Rather than fear, he felt relief.

‘It’s over.’ he thought.

Then the light died and he realized…no. It wasn’t over.

The pain had just begun.

Even blocking his eyes with his foreleg, the flash of light turned the dark behind Morhoof’s eyelids red. Heat kissed his skin right through the hair. It held the purity of sunlight but amplified. Shaken, he lowered his foreleg.

The abandoned courtyard, walled in by buildings with no windows or bricked-up windows, appeared unchanged. The sungold dust, goosed into intense brilliance by the heat of the flare powder, hadn’t melted. It never melted, only sent the heat out as more light. The dust had scattered over an area about the size of a large pizza. In its soft sunny light he could see Forte Presto. What he assumed was the unicorn. That armor of black magic was gone. So was most of his hair. The flash of light had caused it to shrivel into ash. Instead of pink, the bare skin was angry red, more scalded than sunburned. The unicorn held carefully still, the stillness of a pony who knew moving would mean pain. As Morhoof watched, small rafts of tiny blisters began to bubble up. Eyes shut tight, the unicorn gave a tiny whimper that sounded like a mighty effort not to scream.

Morhoof’s own aches and pains, feeling ignored, organized an ambush and pounced. When that last strike had shattered the ice armor, he felt as if he’d struck from all directions by clubs and dull blades. He couldn’t believe his luck. After whatever it was Perth had done, Loco had been badly shaken and Morhoof couldn’t make the ice armor flex anymore. If that last blast of black magic hadn’t shattered the armor he’d be dead right now.

He thought about the crystallized cockatrice eye he carried. Use it to petrify Forte, turn the bugger over to the authorities. Then he took another look. Forte had been blinded by that sungold flare. Permanent, temporary? Didn’t matter. For now at least, Forte couldn’t see. That meant the cockatrice eye wouldn’t work on him.

That flash must have been noticed. Ponies would come. Police would come. Blinded, Forte wasn’t going to be escaping either. Morhoof got to his hooves. The only part of him that didn’t ache was his mechanical foreleg. He felt torn between a desire to stay and make sure Forte was arrested and a desire not to be here when the police arrived. The original plan had been to escape Aura with Perth before Smog’s insurance policies could plunge the twin city into chaos.

In that chaos, an arrested Forte might find it easy to escape and vanish. But if Morhoof couldn’t trust the police to lawfully deal with this blackguard, what did he do? Take the unicorn with him? Try to escape the area with a dangerous prisoner? Was it throat-slitting time? To his dull shame the notion had a certain appeal. It was simple, easy, quick, and effective. A dead Forte Presto would be guaranteed to cause the world no further trouble.

Morhoof didn’t even hate Forte at the moment, so killing the other pony wouldn’t be an act of embracing hatred that could let Loco mature and rip its way out of him. Morhoof mostly felt numb right now. Perth had set off some kind of…anti-hate bomb. Morhoof had tasted what it was like to be so free of hate the feeling wasn’t even imaginable. The memory hurt worse than his battered body. An ache born from the certainty he would never feel that clean again. Even if he someday managed to stop feeling hate, he’d never forget how it felt. The wounds might heal but his scars would be eternal.

Loco had made his move. Not holding back, trying to flood Morhoof with cold hate so that he would kill Forte and in doing so, finally surrender to hate enough for the windigo to mature. Morhoof didn’t need the larval monster anymore. With the Philosopher’s Stone built into the cap fused to his stump, he didn’t have to worry about aging after the preserving power of Loco was gone. Finally in a position to have his cake and eat it too. Morhoof couldn’t blame the parasite. If he didn’t manage to mature soon, Morhoof would embrace the love of friendship and snuff him out. Cornered and desperate.

A windigo was essentially made of hate. Morhoof wondered if that anti-hate bomb might have killed Loco. Looking down, he saw that the silver magic-sealing ring on his living foreleg was gone. Sad to lose it but that was how it went. Things wore out and broke; he just kept going on. Morhoof poked around in the dark behind his thoughts. He hunted for that lurking presence that had been there so long he couldn’t remember what it felt like not to have it there.

There was nothing.

Far too cynical to be relieved, Morhoof had been on his guard for so long he didn’t even know how to stop being on guard. Approaching Forte, he once again considered a mercy kill. The unicorn had blistered second-degree burns everywhere the point-blank flare’s light had touched. The smell of burned hair filled the night air. Since it had gone off almost between his front hooves, the damage included the worst possible place to get a burn. His mane looked as if it had begun to retreat from baldness. Forte still had his eyes shut tight, tears leaking from them, giving whimpers he wouldn’t allow to become screams. Killing him would be simple, easy, quick, and effective. It would also be wrong. Even if it felt right; in his mind, he knew it would be wrong.

Biting back a curse, Morhoof fetched the cloak he had tossed aside earlier. Between it and the harness he wore under it, he had an assortment of equipment and supplies. Even better stuff since Smog had granted his wish-list of things he’d like to have for this hunt. Morhoof unfolded his metal hoof into a pincer and used it to hold a horn cap. It looked like a thimble more than anything. He popped it onto Forte’s horn. The sharp pins around the inside edge locked in place as the point of the horn hit the pressure plate inside the bottom. If Forte tried any magic now, it would backfire. Telekinesis would be like getting punched in the skull. How hard the punch depended on how powerful the magic he tried to use. The caps weren’t even enchanted or mithril. They took advantage of a natural weakness of how unicorn horns worked.

Morhoof pulled out his small bottle of burn spray next. It screwed into something that looked like a perfume atomizer, with a squeeze-bulb on a short tube. Misting the potion on Forte’s wounds would do a little to heal them. The potion had some healdust because why not? Mostly it was just extract of aloe and some anti-infection substances. Forte’s trembling and whimpers faded as the pain did. Morhoof used a soft bandage to blindfold the unicorn. As he did, killing Forte started to feel wrong.

Forte had done terrible things and deserved to be punished for them. Morhoof realized he couldn’t be the one to do it. The only punishment Morhoof could deliver was a swift death. The fact was Forte Presto was no longer a threat, he didn't need to kill him. Didn't want to. Morhoof had done terrible things too, but that didn't mean he always had to. That feeling of wanting Forte dead had been scrubbed away by Perth's device, replaced with a kind of indifference. But that was it. Hate didn’t always feel like hate. It could wear a mask of righteous outrage. Vengeance could dress up as justice. Even pretend to be callous, pragmatic. Forte had at least been sure what he did was right. Morhoof could name things he had done where he couldn’t claim even that much.

The ancient earth pony looked at Forte Presto and instead of seeing an enemy…to his surpirse, he just felt pity. Pity for this blistered, whimpering mass, that only minutes ago Morhoof would have been glad to put his head on a spike. This confused him. No longer hate, sure, but...this? Maybe that sungold did kill off the Windigo; when had been the last time he felt guilty for anything? In Morhoof's work it was easy to disassociate from the target and even easier to from the suffering it caused others. But now...

Forte Presto was still going to have to face the consequences of his actions. But Morhoof couldn’t be the one to convict him. That had to be done by the lawful process, by good-hearted ponies. Anything Morhoof did would just be hate hiding behind a pious mask. Conscience aside, taking a life from hate would kill Morhoof too, if Loco was still hiding inside him. Even cold pragmatism demanded mercy for Forte, for now. And so he decided. Drug him unconscious, tie him up, grab Perth, and am-scray before the cops showed up looking for whoever had set off the fireworks. He couldn’t leave Forte for the Aura police. They’d soon enough have too much to deal with to keep a wily prisoner contained.

Once he got back to the Brass Hoof he could sit down and try to figure out what to do next. Maybe Forte was no longer a threat. That anti-hate bomb might have been a wake-up call. If Forte knew what he had done was wrong, if the delusion of being a righteous paladin was shattered…he wasn’t likely to do further harm. In that case, maybe what he really needed wasn’t punishment. Maybe he needed forgiveness.


Loco didn’t pounce from the depths. He simply appeared, already everywhere inside Morhoof. Like tapping the edge of a saturated alchemical solution and watching clear turn foggy as infinite tiny crystals formed. In the solution of his brain, a fog of frozen hatred bloomed. Violently aching cold hammered nails into his body. He could sense his nerves, from the cable of his spine to the filaments in his skin. Loco tried to take physical control of him. Morhoof knew what the windigo wanted to do: kill Forte. He even knew why: because if Morhoof sincerely acted from compassion for someone as nasty as this unicorn…it would be embracing love enough to tip the balance and burn Loco out like an infection from a wound.

That clear insight made Morhoof realize there was a place inside him where Loco wasn’t. Loco burned cold in Morhoof’s nerves and brain but avoided his blood, and his heart. It was an epiphany. He felt as if he’d solved a riddle that he hadn’t even realized was a riddle. Morhoof remembered those drawings Fantasy had made: the tale of how Loco came to be. The image showing a tiny windigo sleeping in Morhoof’s…heart. The one place Loco had never seemed to be: preferring the brain. That was a lie.

Suddenly he saw just how weak and pathetic Loco was. His…no, its strength was nothing but convincing Morhoof that he was weak. It was the power of lies. Loco turned Morhoof’s strength back against himself. Self-hatred, self-doubt. Closing his eyes, Morhoof stopped fighting. Fighting hate was like trying to snuff a fire by pouring oil on it. He stopped fighting Loco and simply thought no. This was his strength, his body, his mind, his magic. His heart. …his hate. He didn’t push Loco away, he pulled it into himself.

Morhoof’s heart felt like a pile of shards reassembling into a pot. A butt-ugly pot that had never been pretty and had obviously been glued back together. This pot had a tight lid and some pathetic trapped thing stuck inside, scrabbling at its prison. Morhoof opened eyes he didn’t remember closing. His pincer-hoof held one of his knives near Forte’s throat. The unicorn had no clue. He slowly sheathed it. That had been closer than he realized. That moment between surrendering the fight and locking Loco away in his heart.

Loco wasn’t something alien planted in his spirit by a windigo. It took two parents to make a baby. Loco had been born from Morhoof’s spirit. How could it be otherwise? Windigos were all hate and destruction. They couldn’t create, they could only corrupt. Loco was, and had always been, a part of him. His own hate, given a mind of its own and the power to corrupt magic stolen from Morhoof.

Loco’s defeat had always been as simple…and as hard…as accepting this. That Loco was a part of him. He defeated the horrible thing with…a hug. Trapped the hate by surrounding it with love. No wonder the thing had always acted so vile, rather than pretending sweetness so it could gain his trust. It didn’t want his trust. If it pretended to try it was only to inflame his suspicion. It wanted him to fight it, push it away, and in so doing feed it both his hate and his strength. It wanted him to see it as something Other, something Not Him. The day he finally succeeded in killing the love in his heart would be the day he died, and the black remains of his heart flew free as a true windigo. No: this was his hate and he’d own up to that. The delusion of apartness was what had to go.

Instead of triumphant and clever or happy, Morhoof just felt tired. No grand dramatic final purging of Loco. Just trapping it in the light, denied Morhoof’s strength, and leaving it to slowly waste away back to mindless emotion. When he tried to feed Forte some healdust and sleeping capsules the unicorn obeyed; seeming to understand it was medicine, not poison. Or not caring. He gave the unicorn a drink from his canteen. Bandaged his burned ankles before tying them together with rope.

The pills worked fast or maybe Forte just passed out. Wrapping him in his inside-out cloak, which was ragged but soft, Morhoof hefted the unicorn onto his back. He walked over to where Perth sat holding a stubby brass and glass rod-thing with a pair of silver prongs on the end. Perth hurried to put it away.

“I must confess,” the koala said, “I was close to stunning you when you drew that blade. After the fight appeared to be over I made some quick modifications to give this device some range.”

“Time to go. Ponies will show up soon. That flash must have lit up half of Aura’s underside.”

“Oh. Yes, quite correct.” Perth stood but looked up with a puzzled expression. “I should think someone would have already come. You drew that blade with considerable…deliberation. Some minutes have passed since you began to reach for it.”

“Back to the Brass Hoof.” Morhoof said. “We took rooms for the night there, let’s use them. You distract Bubbles while I sneak him in. You can watch him while I go out and procure a cart. And more healdust.” He had a lot of money; that shouldn’t be a problem. “Then we’re out of this town.” Perth’s expression fell, eyeing Forte with mistrust. Morhoof surprised himself with a smile. “It’ll be all right.”

For once, saying that didn’t feel sarcastic.

Turning away from the battered earth pony, Perth reached for the valise he had been sitting upon. His paw closed around the handle and he went cold. From head to toe, from skin to marrow. Sudden absolute icy freezing cold. Not physical cold but the dreadful prickling chill of an unpleasant epiphany.

Perth stared at the valise. He distinctly recalled carrying it into the Brass Hoof Inn, carrying it upstairs, sticking it under the bed of his room for the night, and then walking out of the room without it. He vividly replayed the entire sequence of events without gaps or vague points. He had not had it when he left Bubbles behind to seek out Morhoof for her. Had not had it when Morhoof carried him away by the scruff of his collar. Had not had it when Forte Presto confronted them in this blind courtyard. And yet here it was. First it hadn’t been here. Then he had been hugging it to his chest. There was no sensation of discontinuity in his memories, and yet the exact moment it arrived eluded him.

The chill faded a little but shudders replaced it. He had been managing to keep his composure after that fur-raising battle, stiff upper lip for once in his cowardly life, or possibly just shock. Fragile discipline or fragile numbness, it cracked now. Perth had to hold the valise with both paws. His grip felt weak and his arms quivered. It hadn’t been there and then it had. His mind chased itself in a circle trying to resolve that impossibility. Of all the magic he had seen so far, this frightened him the worst. Slick as a con artist swapping out a real gem for a fake one as he handed it over to a gullible mark.

“After-fight shakes.” Morhoof said. “They go away. Can you grab my lute? I have this sad sack on my back.”

Trying to talk only produced incoherent stutters. Perth clenched his teeth together to keep them from chattering. Managed a jerky nod and stumbled to fetch the cased instrument. Burdened by the unconscious unicorn, moving as if weary and aching, Morhoof didn’t plod. Perth could almost smell the sheer stubborn pride keeping the earth pony from dragging his hooves as he moved. Perth waddled after him. Being in motion felt better. It was taking action. The haze of existential horror coiling through his mind became a smidgen easier to tolerate. Was that something that happened outside of Dust? Could things that happened one way simply be made to have happened another way? This impossible event had benefited him. That actually made it worse. It smacked of some unnatural magical force that had made a change in order to help him. Meaning it was capable of comprehension and intent. Without the components in the valise he could not have made that reality modifier. Things would not have ended well for anyone involved.

reality modifier.

Perth stared at nothing, following Morhoof into the alleyway like a mindless automaton. Had this been his doing somehow? Had the triggering of that device caused the smooth flow of causality to skip like the needle of a jolted phonograph? He remembered leaving his valise behind. Then his valise was with him as if he’d always had it with him. Then he used some of the contents to construct a device that created an area where hatred was impossible. Profoundly altered the fundamental nature of reality. He twisted natural laws inside his devices to make them work; this had simply been a ranged effect. As a consequence of that device’s action, had it distorted the past so that the valise was with him and not under the bed? Or had he originally taken it with him but then the past had been altered to what he now recalled? The effect was the cause: a serpent devouring its tail, a loop with no beginning or end.


With a convulsive mental effort, Perth shoved it all down into the dark and chained it there. If he didn’t stop thinking about it he’d go insane. Whatever had happened, it had happened. It was over now. Things progressed with continuity. That was the important thing. He stopped feeling quite so terrified.

“Is t-time t-t-travel possible?” Perth said. ‘Please,’ he thought, ‘say no. Laugh in scorn at my foolishness.’

“Oh, sure.” Morhoof said. “I’ve drunk a potion that sent my mind back into my own past as a powerless observer. Can’t change the past, only witness it all again. Works like a super memory refresher. There’s a spell that can take a powerful unicorn physically back in time for a few moments. Twilight Sparkle once used it; it’s in the book about her studies regarding the magic of friendship. It only works once per pony. From the sound of it, you can’t actually change the past. She got a visit from her future self and panicked. Her efforts to try and change the future ended up making it happen. In the end she went back to warn herself not to panic and ended up triggering the panic in her past self that started the whole mess. Why do you ask, want to go back and change something?”

“N-no. Morhoof…do you…do you recall if I had my bag with me when we left the inn? I have it now, did I have it then?”

The earth pony didn’t pause but his gait might have faltered. He stayed silent long enough for Perth to assume there would be no answer. When he finally spoke, Perth almost didn’t hear his quiet words. They didn’t seem to be meant for him. “Sometimes a dream is more than a dream.” Then, even quieter, the earth pony breathed an exceptionally obscene word.

Reaching the Brass Hoof without another word spoken, Perth ran the requested interference with the pale purple Bubbles so Morhoof could sneak Forte inside. She took one look and rushed over. The mare’s company was like giving his brain a hot bubble-bath. It amazed him how much her sympathy and concern assisted his return to something closer to normal. She herded him into the kitchen-slash-taproom behind the common room, set him on a tall stool, and fed him vegetable soup as she gushed about Morhoof in a most amusingly inaccurate way.

Perth surrendered to this pampering. Did he care it was some form of subtle magic? He did not. Right now he would have given serious consideration to any option that staved off the irreparable fracture of his sanity, up to and including a severe galvanic discharge through his brain. Or becoming intoxicated, though enough of his hangover lingered to make him rank brain-shocking as slightly more desirable than booze.

A clock on a shelf declared it was still a few hours before noon. This place wasn’t yet open for business, which apparently happened around noon. The whole confrontation had felt like it took months, not inside an hour. Perth hadn’t been awake that long but he would have quite liked to crawl into a bed and hide under the covers. Instead he finished his soup and pried himself free of Bubbles by declaring his sincere exhaustion.

He found the door that matched his old-fashioned key and let himself in. Morhoof’s room was across the hall. He was sure he had the right room despite the sight of Forte Presto, now a bandage mummy, lying on his bed: snoring the thick slow snores of the unconscious. Crossing the hall, he knocked on the door. No answer. Out fetching a cart and medicine.

Looking at the unicorn in his bed, Perth closed the door behind him with a tired sigh. No doubt Morhoof had picked the lock to get in here. No leaving the prisoner unattended, of course. Pulling out his anti-mugger stunner, he sat on his valise and leaned his back against the door. He had never been so tired, but he was not in point of fact sleepy. Lying down would be favorite but sitting down would do. He didn’t look under the bed. Either the valise would be gone, which would tell him nothing useful…or it would still be there, and Perth would require fitting for a straitjacket. Unless the collapsing paradox destroyed the universe. Bad bet, that.

Last post in this plotline:
Pick wanted to pace. He wanted to punch the walls and curse at the top of his lungs. Even if he hadn’t been injured and so tired his eyes felt gritty, he would have stayed lying down on the bunk in his cell. Not a loony-bin cell, not yet. Just a holding cell at Fleet Street Station. A doctor had treated his wounds. He had refused anything strong for the pain. It might have messed up his head even more than it already was. Part of him…a big part…kept howling at him that it was all over; Mithril would throw him under the train to save her own hide.

Turning his mindless anger against his mindless fear kept working better the longer he fought to do it. Inching increases but enough to be sure it was working better. It made a twisted kind of sense. He was cornered-rat angry, feeling trapped and looking for something to bite. His paranoia was what made him feel trapped and surrounded by threats and enemies. The anger was the fear’s fault, so yeah: turn the anger against what was really to blame. While they were busy snarling at each other he could balance on them enough to actually think.

Not about why he was so paranoid. He knew in a general sense that he feared being horribly punished because he felt like he deserved to be. Every time he tried to poke deeper his whole mind flinched away and the terror boiled back up until he didn’t know whether to cry or throw up. So yeah, he wasn’t poking around in there. Pick focused on trying to think about what was real. Not what felt real; his judgment was obviously twisted since he kept being wrong about the dangers he felt so sure were about to land on him. This was time for cold logic. Well, lukewarm logic would have to do.

He didn’t have anything else to do, either. He was actually pretty sure he was being watched. He was in a jail cell, half-crazy, and injured. Common sense said they’d keep an eye on him. Let them see him being all quiet, getting bed rest like the doctor lady ordered and totally not climbing the walls.

Really realness. He didn’t know what Luna was here for. He felt sure she was here for him. Mostly for Smog but for him too, among others…but him, too. When he forced himself to look for evidence, his rock-solid certainty turned into fog so thin even a pegasus couldn’t touch it. There was that dream he’d had while in the nuthouse. About making a choice. If that dream had been Luna doing her dream-walker thing then obviously she wasn’t totally set on executing him. She wouldn’t waste time torturing him like that, make him think he had a shot. Part of him said of course she would. He knew that was crap when he forced himself to think, not feel. Not everypony was secretly mean and vicious.

Thinking back just at her actual actions, Pick knew Mithril had bent over backwards and put her own butt on the line to help him. Staked her own reputation and probably job on her belief that he could…stop being crazy. Time passed, not days because he didn’t need to pee yet. Felt like days. A burly ‘nurse’ mare came in. She looked like an ex-Equestrian Games weightlifter who still kept in shape. Acted so nice even Pick couldn’t believe she was secretly an assassin. She checked his bandages, give him some healdust pills, offered pain pills again, then wheeled in a tray with food.

Pick felt his stomach hurt just looking at the thick greasy sandwiches. He took a bite to show how he was being a good little prisoner. His stomach hurt even worse and then seemed to open up into a huge cave inside him. Drool flooded his mouth. His belly hurt because he was starving. Next thing he knew he was eating, just chomp-chomp-chomp, his jaw got tired but he couldn’t stop except to chug milk now and then. The nurse seemed happy about that as she left. Pick gingerly lay back down on the disinfectant-smelling sheet and stared at the wall. The horn wounds in his butt had settled down to a strong aching throb, carrying the beat while his stitched-up ear bite ripped out a face-melting solo on a steel-stringed guitar. The hoof gouges on his belly and neck, the chain bruise over his throat, they were rhythm and bass.

It took him a long time to track down the weird feeling worming through all the fear, anger, tiredness, and pain. The breakthrough came when he realized he knew the song he imagined his injuries playing. Help, I need somepony; help, not just anypony… Pick stared at the wall and past it. Suddenly things moved in his head and he saw how deep down a dark hole he was, that when he finally saw a ray of light it was just pain in his eyes. Just a little spark of light. Hope or something. He needed help and now somehow he had this feeling it was possible to get some. Pick didn’t stop being terrified but suddenly he found something he wanted even more than he didn’t want to die. He wanted to get out of the dark.

That spark of maybe-hope got a little bigger. He curled up around it, feeling like he’d been lost inside a thunderstorm on a moonless night. And now…he was still lost in a storm but now he had a star to tell him which way was up. Gritty, burning eyes closing, he felt them burn worse as a few tears leaked out. This was it, the legendary Rock Bottom. He needed help getting out of the storm in his head. Either ponies would help him or take his dropped guard as the chance to stab him in the back. Trust and maybe get burned or not trust and definitely stay like this. That was a no-brainer. If he ended up dead…well, at least then he’d still be out of the storm.

Pick fell asleep, slipping into the usual nightmares of blood on a broken bottle and evil shadows circling him, getting closer and closer. Then a spark of silver light drifted out of the dark and touched his head. He sank deeper to where there were no dreams, and the darkness was something peaceful.


Blinking eyes with lids that felt reluctant to lift again, Mithril gave the fat forensic geek before her a level stare. She was beyond tired, floating in that grey haze where everything seemed clear and nothing seemed real. Her day had started at dawn, with the city-wide announcement of the Many Lunas that there would be a speech at noon. Given her shift started at noon, dawn was way too early to think about waking up. She and Pick had spent the morning working crowd-control; thankfully no pony had decided to be criminally uncivil near them. Heading to the Den after the speech, they found Smog gone, and on their way out again they found Angel call-me-Uncle Marie waiting at the bar for Smog. Brought him in and interrogated him for the better part of the afternoon before she went to go get food and came back to discover the goat trying to strangle Pick.

Now it was past midnight. Pick was in one of the special medical-issues-prisoners cells by the station infirmary. Uncle was down in the chilly depths of the morgue. Mithril had filled out far too much paperwork, fighting the urge to burn it all. She had gone on the record: literally on a record so ponies could play it back over and over as they studied every curl of tone on every word. Forensic ponies had done their thing, gathering evidence and building a picture while she sat here in a beige not-quite interrogation room built more to avoid offense than to provide comfort.

Now this bald green bottle-bottom-glasses-wearing CSI Buddha parody of laboratory nerdiness had decided it was a good idea to interrupt her not-sleep in order to offer her some gum? Mithril didn’t have the willpower to block her temper right now. Instead she used a mix of exhaustion and apathy, which she had plenty. Once she was sure the coals had died down, she spoke. “No, thank you.”

“Huh?” he said. His lab-coat nametag said Doctor Bunsen. “Oh no, I mean I discovered the cause of death.” His voice was high but not the unpleasant kind. The kind of lecturer that might put a pony to sleep but wouldn’t give them a migraine. “It was the gum he had been chewing.”

Memory flickered. “He didn’t choke on his gum, I saw him spit it out.” Too late she realized he might have been trying to give her a way to avoid the heat for this.

“Indeed he did, and we bagged it as evidence.” Holding up a hoof, the earth pony gestured to another pony hanging back by the door. Bugged-out eyes, wild red-orange hair, not enough chin and too much neck. His nametag said Beaker. Hurrying forward, he gave Doctor Bunsen a clipboard and retreated. After peering at the papers on it, flipping back and forth, he seemed to find what he was looking for. “Ah! Here it is. The coroner reported quite a mix of substances in the deceased’s bloodstream, which led him to request the forensic lab investigate the gum. It showed the same mix of substances.” Bunsen rattled off some medical-ese and science-ese for a while before smiling up at her. “Ergo, the cause of death was suicide.”

“Wait, what?” Mithril said.

Giving a sigh, the doctor adopted a pained expression as he down-shifted his vocabulary. “The gum contained a dangerously effective alchemical painkiller. It leaves the mind, emotions, and sensation unaffected but entirely removes the brain’s ability to perceive physical pain. The most unpleasant thing he could have suffered is itchiness. The gum also contained a poison and an antidote. So long as he continued to chew the gum he would be asymptomatic…er, not showing signs of the poisoning. The antidote is more of a suppressant, there is no known true antidote barring a potent magical general-antidote potion.”

“You mean he was chewing gum that poisoned him but kept the poison from killing him unless he spit it out?”

“Until, sadly. When the gum was no longer mastic…chewed to release the substances, either from being swallowed, spat out, or simply running out of ‘flavor,’ the poison would advance. Thanks to the painkiller his death was without physical unpleasantness. His cardiac muscle underwent a global tetanic seizure advancing to directly to rigor mortis.”

Mithril gave him her best me-dumb-cop stare.

“His heart turned into a big charley horse and after death went ‘stiff’ without delay.”

“Oh.” Mithril said. “It hurts, then?”

Bunsen appeared to be in minor pain from trying to dumb things down so much. “He would have suffered severe angina pectoris…chest pains…from the poison being held in check, followed by mercifully brief but excruciating pain as the antidote stopped being administered. However, the painkiller numbed him to it all.”

“Wait…I think I heard of this poison. Stoneheart.”

“That would be a fitting name for it. The most pertinent detail of our findings is that based on saturation levels in the gum and in his bloodstream the deceased had been chewing it for a comfortable margin of error before you encountered him. You were not the cause of his death, Officer Mithril. He was doomed before he entered the Den. This exactly corroborates your report regarding his claimed motives.” The bald pony seemed uncomfortable now. “He anticipated capture and interrogation upon delivering his message, and took steps to ensure he would not survive long enough to betray his employers. I have checked; this is in fact a known tactic for high-level Capra agents in certain circumstances.”

“So when he realized we weren’t Smog’s lackeys…”

Bunsen cleared his throat, shifting his weight on his hooves. “Yes. He realized his mission was compromised and he attempted to escape. Probationary Officer Pick delayed him long enough for you to return, at personal cost. You restrained him beyond his capacity to escape, at which point he…spat out his gum.”

Given what she had helped trigger in Dust and the violent consequences still raging in that country, Mithril had no right to be glad that she didn’t have this one death on her conscience. However, she was. A lot. “So we’re in the clear.”

The doctor cleared his throat again and took an intense interest in the lab report he held. “Of culpability in the charge of excessive force against a prisoner contributing to his death, yes. Of neglecting to obey proper procedures in registering the arrest of a suspect…I can’t say. That’s not my department. I am aware that certain…aspects…of law enforcement must by sad necessity be carried out in clandestine fashion and without a paper trail of formal documentation. I have no need to know nor wish to know if you were acting with such authority.”

“Right.” Mithril said. She hadn’t been. Special Crimes would have yoinked Uncle away from her.

“Probationary Officer Pick must stay here for medical evaluation, Officer Mithril. If you wish to go home to obtain certain belongings this is allowed but I was told that you would be escorted there and then back. I am aware of your need for sleep. There is a crash-nap bunk prepared for you.” For cops too tired to go home before they fell over. Like a cell, but the lock was on the inside. “The inquiry is scheduled for noon tomorrow, by Special Crimes Internal Affairs. As the deceased was a citizen of a foreign nation they have jurisdiction.”

Mithril didn’t let her expression change as the doctor took his silent assistant and left. A pair of burly pegasi came to escort her home to pick up her toothbrush and stuff, then bring her back to a not-cell where she could sleep. Noon tomorrow she would face a bunch of ex-criminal goons who got put in Special Crimes as a kind of working retirement by Smog. No doubt they wanted to know where their boss had gone and probably weren’t in a mood to be polite about asking.


The sound of his cell’s door unlocking didn’t make Pick jump.

Dragging up every half-heard comment he knew about meditation and other stupid mind-over-body stuff, he had cobbled them together and really tried them. Tried different stuff to see if anything worked. Something did but he was pretty sure it wasn’t healthy imagine a huge spike of ice that entombed all his bad emotions, thoughts, and stuff. Like what had happened to Sombra waaay back when. He imagined being able to see the nasty things in there, watched them wiggle and rage, but with a wall of ice between him and them. Pick didn’t try to deny they existed or ignore them. He just told them all to sit down and shut up. That ice was willpower. It was crystallized essence of no. So much badness in his head that locking it up left his mind dark and empty…but quiet. The quiet was nice.

Bad thoughts and feelings kept exploding or oozing or ghosting out of the ice. There was a trick to that. Rather than considering the escape of such things as failures, he just grabbed them as they came and hurled them back into prison. Willed the ice to seal them in again. The trick seemed to be that he had to keep doing it. Sure, his paranoia never stopped escaping and trying to tackle him from behind. His rage kept melting at the ice, burrowing out. He never stopped grabbing the escaped things and kicking them back in their cells. He got better at doing that. Slicker. He could imagine getting good enough for it to be pure habit that he did without having to focus. He was learning how to build a better ice-prison too. They escaped where there was a flaw. He put them back and tried to fix the flaw. They found another flaw. He fixed it. They got smarter but so did he. Maybe someday he’d fix the last flaw and leave them trapped forever.

Since the bad stuff didn’t get a chance to dig in and fester, his body stopped reacting to them. It had been really hard at first. He’d almost given up more times than he could guess. Now all the hot, aching tension in the back of his neck had mostly gone away. That on-edge feeling that made him twitch at small unexpected noises went away. Without his body being all worked up, the feelings had their fangs blunted. It was all imagination. He knew that. That bad stuff was still inside his head. His anger and fear and guilt were still there. But if imagining gross stuff could make his actual stomach heave, then why couldn’t imagining calmness make his actual adrenal glands stop freaking out? Turned out there was no reason why not.

So when the cell door opened Pick just opened his eyes. The prisoners all went nuts, like a kennel full of hungry dogs when someone walked in carrying a bag of kibble. Pick had to deal with a mass breakout that made little muscles in his belly flutter before he got things locked down again. That had been like diving into a thunderstorm…and right out the other side. Taking a deep breath, he let it out slow and opened his eyes.

Mithril stood in the doorway. “You’re looking…better.” Her tone held doubt and Pick wondered if his eyes looked as cold and quiet as his mind felt.

Pick nodded a little. His neck still felt horrible and stiff but just from almost being strangled. The physical pain wasn’t one of the prisoners. He was okay with the pain, all it wanted him to do was lie quietly so he didn’t hurt even worse. “You look like you got some sleep.” His voice was raspy.

“I actually slept myself out.” she said. “It’s three in the afternoon.”

Moving slow, Pick reached for the pitcher of water the burly nurse had left him. Pouring a glass of it with all the care of a Hong Prong tea ceremony, he sipped it without letting his thirst make him gulp. Doing that without sitting up onto his punctured rump was tricky. “So, is the verdict on me in?” His fear exploded out of the ice, snarling and wailing. Pick imagined time reversing, the emotion going backwards into the ice as shards imploded to become a wall again. It was all in his head: he could do anything he wanted in here. Every time he slapped them down he gained more confidence in his ability to do it again. “Am I going back to Merciful Luna’s?”

He wanted to know but he was already prepared for Mithril to tell him yes. They wouldn’t just lock him up and leave him to rot. They would actually try to help him. Paranoia melted its way closer. Yes-they-would-they’d-leave-him-to-rot! He imagined the ice it pushed through growing spikes to drive it back. Being paranoia, it was terrified of things that threatened it. No. The shrinks would try to help him. He needed help. He didn’t want to stay like this. Freezing out all his bad feelings worked but he knew it was a bad road to walk too far. End up unable to really feel any anger or fear anymore? Pick knew that song; he’d seen that coldness in Smog’s eyes. Now his own eyes felt like they might share that chill. Smog had been nuttier than squirrel crap, but it had been a cold crazy. He hadn’t regularly flipped out and gone on a rampage.

“Um…no.” Mithril said. She slipped inside and shut the door. All kinds of feelings, not all of them bad, kicked up a fuss. Turned out hope and relief and surprise could make a pony feel shaky too. “Straight Arrow pulled some strings.” Pick had to fumble for the memory. Oh, right. Straight Arrow was Precinct Captain of Fleet Street Station. Their boss’s boss. Pick hadn’t seen him since before he and Mithril left for Dust, and that felt like it happened a year ago. Sitting on the floor, Mithril continued. “The other half of your probation ring is in here now.” Her green eyes slid aside. His paranoia tried to paint that with dark undertones and lies. Pick fought it back and realized she was just…looking for a good way to share bad news.

“I guess that makes sense.” Pick said. His bitterness got free and he slammed it back into the ice. “My boss wants to hold the end of my leash.”

“He’s adjusted the settings. You aren’t confined to stay within a certain distance of either me or my house or the spell will curse you with eternal sleep only the tracker half of this set can…” Mithril seemed to realize she was telling him stuff he already knew. “It’s simpler now. You fly much beyond the city limits, you go to sleep. Otherwise, you’re free to go wherever. You can stay in this cell if you want. It’s safe here.”

Pick refused to listen to his paranoia but his common sense raised an objection. “Special Crimes won’t bother me?”

The unicorn mare became very serious. “Their independent Internal Affairs division was supposed to question me at noon. None of them showed up for work today. Not one member of Special Crimes. They vanished.”

“Luna.” Pick said. Then he had another mass jailbreak to deal with. Mithril nodded and Pick managed to recognize her look as sympathy for his struggle, not pity. Or contempt.

“Looks like you might be right, she’s in town to clean house. Or maybe they just all decided to get lost before the whole place explodes. Most of the cops are in major denial. Nopony’s asking where the S.C.D. are in case they get an answer they don’t like. Or worse, ordered to look for one. Either way, they’re gone.” Her expression kept changing. Fear, anger, hope, amusement, grief in flickers. “Straight Arrow dealt with his own not-quite-prisoner this morning. Looking to do some real justice on Smog’s untouchables before everything hits the fan. She got away but he has a lead on her. He’s moving on it at sundown. He wants to know if we want to come with. How we dealt with Uncle tells him we’re his kind of cop and he wants all the backup he can get. Er, no badges or armor this time. We’ll actually be doing something more like a citizen’s arrest.”

Looking at himself, struggling to see things as they really are, Pick took another sip. “I’m pretty beat up.”

“You agree to come with him, he’ll raid the Special Crimes stockpile of healdust. Dose you to the gills so much you’ll be peeling those scars off pink skin by the time we set out.”

The scars Rasputin had given him twinged and Pick had to shove some nasty memories back into the freezer. Pick sipped water and struggled to be sure his thinking was…sturdy, he guessed. That each step followed from the last, that he wasn’t leaping to decisions from paranoia or rage. But in the end his logic was pointless. A quiet, calm part of him, part of that spark of hope, told him he had to do this. He couldn’t just deny the bad. Pick wanted to be a good pony. He wanted to protect the innocent, bring the guilty to be judged and punished. All that jazz in the oath he took when they gave him a badge. Maybe he’d be judged guilty for his crimes and punished. That was tomorrow. Right now, today, what was he going to do? If this was his last day as a free pony, how did he want to spend it?

Pick remembered the Drop Bears, those insane koala commandos in Dust so loaded with super-healdust they couldn’t feel pain and healed almost faster than they got hurt. A dark part of him wanted that. To be invincible to pain, to be almost unkillable. The power. He thinned the ice between him and his fear until it started to cinch a band around his chest. Losing control made him weaker, not stronger. He had to fear to lose control. Pick crushed his eagerness until it died and then hurled what was left in the deepest ice he could make. Something was left, and it felt strong. Unhappy and determined.

Then he nodded. “I’m in.”

Taking the despised airbus up to Aura once again, Morhoof focused on the many aches and pains hidden under his hooded cloak to distract himself from his dread of flight. When that became too nagging he used his dread to distract from the sensation of having been stuffed in a barrel with threescore doorknobs and rolled down a flight of stairs.


Even in a life mostly spent avoiding trouble, Morhoof had accumulated quite a few unusual experiences. There might not have been quite so many doorknobs as sixty but he hadn’t ended up quite so thoroughly tenderized that time. Bloody griffins had no sense of humor about some things…he’d offered to pay them for a new weathervane, had he not?

Reaching the docks, he hurried to disembark, barking his living foreleg’s shin on the tatty tartan luggage that some frumpy old baggage had left out in the aisle as the signs on the walls clearly told ponies not to do. She glared as if by painfully applying his leg against her mislaid property he was somehow in the wrong. Using his politest tone and manner, he used an ancient and long-dead language to wish that she end her days with her bones causing a dragon’s painful bowel obstruction. Quite a musical tongue; it seemed to actually charm the shriveled prune. He made his escape before she tried to violate his ears by speaking modern Equestrian very loudly, slowly, and clearly at him. Morhoof would rather eat a pinecone.


Wandering the upper reaches of the docking spire, passing out bits in exchange for information, he soon located a gloomy blue-grey pegasus dockworker named Yore who had been in a good position to witness certain events while not attending to the work he was employed to do. The Just In Time had arrived near dawn. A zebra had disembarked with the crew of three. Morhoof found that faintly disturbing, but probably not relevant. Fantasy had arrived to meet them. He perked up, sensing the trail of that purple mare turning warm. He found the morose but descriptive play-by-play of a fight between Baz and Kirra faintly amusing. There was nothing faint about the disturbance he felt when he learned that Fantasy and the three friends of Tradewind had been last seen heading deeper into the docking spire being tailed by two griffins who ‘weren’t as good at acting casual as they thought they were.’

He had no evidence and needed none. Fantasy and the others had to be headed for the Den. Morhoof hadn’t forgotten the message stuck inside the newspaper delivered to the door of the apartment that had been so briefly his. Smog was gone and going near the Den involved an unknown degree of risk. After an inner struggle that felt strange without Loco’s mocking commentary, he decided that if anypony tried to mess with him there’d be some chaos kicked off early in Aura.

Braced for a battle, Morhoof was almost disappointed to discover the corridor lit by the flickering pink sign to be empty. Almost but not quite. Eying the blank white door of the Den, he chickened out. He entered the Avec Noir instead. The pegasus Fleur Blanc sat behind the counter playing with the charms hung on her bracelet. There was a new one, a moth on a white flower. She casually but quickly stopped toying with it when he entered. Might as well have grinned and waved while pointing at it.

“Good day to you, Madame Fleur Blanc.” he said. Her manner was pleasant on top of wary. “I’m looking for Fantasy Longhorn.”

Fleur revealed a deadpan that would have served her well in a professional poker tournament. “For what reason?”

“My goal is to keep her safe.” Morhoof said.

“And ze danger in which she’s in?”

“I’m surprised to still find you here. You and your brother should leave Aura as soon as possible. Before tomorrows dawn for certain. My task is to see that Fantasy gets safely away from the city. Ideally along with her family.”

“Oh. We are staying, my brother and I. We will face ze music.”

Morhoof withheld his opinion of that. He had to keep his priorities straight and if these two wanted to be foolish he had to respect their decision. “Have you seen Miss Longhorn today?”


The pegasus launched into a startling tale of the mare’s arrival. It contained amusing parts at the start, though he had already heard of the Captain’s bold new fashion from the dockworkers. Then a pair of griffins intruded upon the narrative. Morhoof found it difficult to hide his dismay as he learned Fantasy had been taken by the police. Woefully ignorant at best, rotten to the core at worst, he had no confidence in her safety within police custody. Fleur studied his face and then began to curse in her native language. Another musical tongue if you didn’t know what the words meant. Morhoof did, enough to follow the theme. It was a vividly obscene language in the mouth of an expert, and Fleur nearly turned the air blue.

He raised an eyebrow. Bloody hooves, even that ached.

Non!” she said. Another torrent of eloquent profanity that she cut off with a shake of her head. “You are ze insane if you try to go in there after her! You’d have to be some kind of fiction-movie spy thriller secret agent colt!” More profanity, this time basically emphasizing that trying it would end with Morhoof extremely dead.

Morhoof felt the idea take form with an almost audible ding. After all, why not? He’d accumulated skills, in a haphazard way, over a life much longer than normal. What was the old saying? A pony can learn anything given world enough and time? Morhoof mentally shuffled through the deep and tangled contents of his mind, looking for this trick or that skill picked up in a bored century. Could he cobble together the implausible-in-a-mortal-pony skill set of a ‘fiction-movie spy thriller secret agent colt?’

Another part of him searched for narrative parallels. In his millennia of life, almost all as a bard, he had developed an awareness that life often eerily emulated old stories. Or perhaps the old stories reflected some fundamental nature of the world. If there was enough potential for such a series of events…a storyline…to begin, he could begin it. Wear the mantle of the role and ride the well-worn rut of history repeating itself to the near-inevitable triumph of the heroic character.

He had indeed been a secret agent, however briefly, and for a villain. He certainly seemed to fit the villainy role of such a tale better than the heroic one. The magical-mechanical hoof and facial scars…almost a cliché. But…there were branches to the structure. An agent going rogue was a staple. So was an enemy defecting to the side of good, especially for the sake of a good-hearted mare. Not a great fit but he could make this work. Redeemed rogue rescues moral mare from corrupt cops. He even had a half-mad but fully good tinkerer to make his gadgets. That was a big one.

Bidding Fleur good luck, long life, and farewell, he ignored her urgent yelling about how much of an idiot he was being. It fit well into the set piece of an agent going rogue: the pony yelling at them not to be foolish, to highlight that they were choosing to take an action that wasn’t sensible or safe.

If Morhoof had any doubts it was his ability to cut a dashing figure in formalwear, despite how almost any pony looked good in a tuxedo. Paying for an air-cab chariot and gritting his teeth against the vertigo, he circled the Fleet Street Station on hoof at ground…or at least street…level. It was a huge and imposing skyscraper without much effort to make it pretty even at the top, where most towers exploded into a riot of bridges, balconies, porticos jutting into the void, gazebos, columned arenas, pocket parks, and other architectural frippery.

Settling down across from it, he pulled out his lute and set out a rumpled old hat. He never wore it but it was useful to have a hat. Begging bowls hadn’t been in vogue for over five centuries. Ironically he had used to wear his bowl for a hat. An old truism: no city pony wanted to see someone who wanted money from them. Even when they tossed a few coins it was in passing. It wasn’t invisibility but it sufficed. Plucking out the iconic leitmotif of the spy-thriller genre’s most famous series, Morhoof refrained from actually singing the words. Felt good to just sit and play his lute. The mechanical hoof was magnificently responsive and flexible. After so long learning to play well as a cripple he almost felt he was cheating. The metal hoof added a different tone to his playing.

A half-hour felt like enough foreshadowing. Packing up his lute and his surprisingly rich takings (seemed ponies appreciated street musicians better when they had talent…or maybe he just looked that beggarly), Morhoof headed for the nearest airbus station. He made a stop along the way. Two stops. Three if he counted dumping his beggar’s loot in the box of an astonished filly out collecting for charity. Bad form, keeping money given in charity when he didn’t need charity. An air-cab would be faster but no pony in Shadowville deserved to have his stomach contents dropped on them.

Once in Shadowville’s shadowy environs Morhoof wasted no time looking for a cart to buy. He located one for sale not five minute’s brisk trot from the Brass Hoof. The owner looked up, saw Morhoof approaching, and instantly cowered in abject terror.

“I would like to purchase your vehicle.” Morhoof said. He wanted to eyeball the pony but he was playing a role known for being self-controlled, never ruffled.

The large earth pony had a cutie mark of a barrel with a pickle on the side. Hard not to notice. Putting his head down and his fore-hooves on top of his head left his rump in the air. “Just take it! Free, no charge! Ah don’t want trouble!”

“Hrm.” Morhoof said. He was playing a heroic role, no taking stuff from ponies that apparently thought he looked about to mug them. Counting out what he thought was a fair price, he added a little more and set it by the earth pony. “It was strange doing business with you.” He had to try and be witty too, that was a key trait.

Dropping his heavy bag of purchases into the cart, he shrugged into the loop harness and trotted away. Time to find a store selling first-aid stuff and then get back to the Brass Hoof. Not much he could do to make his off-the-shelf tuxedo look better on him, but there were hours yet before sunset and the time to strike. Perth would no doubt be able to turn the bag of spare parts Morhoof had bought from a clock repair store into a thematically appropriate…and genuinely useful…assortment of spy gear. Maybe another stop after the first-aid run, get a few foal-rated alchemy kits and see what that mad genius cooked up.

In his head the theme music played, guiding him. Tradewind had run off without a letter of farewell to Fantasy. Deep inside, he felt a spark of hope that now he might ‘have a shot’ with her as the moderns put it. Surprisingly stylish, undeniably brave, rescuing her from durance vile, carrying her and her family away from a city about to implode from the revelation of its own corruption…she would be grateful and in need of comfort. Just a hope. Not a plan. Planning it would be worse than crass. No overt seduction of Fantasy, but…if anything developed in that direction he was certainly too much of a gentlecolt to refuse a lady. If all she needed was a friend, he’d be there.

As for his first and only love…he would always love her and miss her, but it was time to place the past within the past. He’d spent so long frozen, unable to move forward. Would she have truly wanted him to mourn her for eternity, wallowing in misery and cider? Refusing to love, too apathetic to hate? Burning with the memory of fire and his failure to save her? Of course not. She had loved him, and so she would have forgiven him for failing. He had tried, had he not? She would want him to be happy. She would want him to find love again if he could. With Loco’s influence gone or badly reduced, that finally felt true. Felt right.


Three creatures sauntered down the raised walkways of Aura’s main shopping district, perched in the middle atop the tallest buildings. They drew little attention from the crowds as they went about their business. Their first stop after leaving the Fleet Street Station had been the Avec Noir to tell Fleur that Fantasy was no longer in police custody, having done a runner. The pegasus had looked like she had something important to share at first, but after learning Fantasy wasn’t in custody anymore it had changed to a kind of wry amusement, and she seemed to decide it wasn’t important after all.

Fleur had given the unicorn an embarrassingly enthusiastic welcome, making Kirra and Baz giggle even after he gave them a glare warning them what would happen if they ever breathed a word of this. She had the Captain’s gift on her charm bracelet, properly assembled with the moth of his cutie mark on the white flower of hers. So long as he lived, she would know this. If he died, she had a master key to the Just In Time to do with as she pleased. He still held out hope that she would take her brother and flee the coming chaos.

It was a brisk shopping day in Aura, all those ponies cheerfully oblivious to the rumors and turbulence swirling through the city’s underbelly. The sunlight, now sloping in from the west, shone from every window; filled the street with the soft golden light of afternoon. The chatter of a hundred conversations cut through the air, along with the happy screams of children and various performers taking advantage of the larger-than-usual crowds. Luna’s speech had promised a flood of refugees from Dust and they had begun to arrive around mid-afternoon. Mostly they seemed to be those refugees with more money than most, who had been smart enough to run at the first whiff of trouble.

Baz and the Captain had walked quietly side-by-side for most of the way through the shopping district, largely ignoring the goings-on around them. Both appeared to be lost in thought as they traversed the crowded walkways and bridges, occasionally sidestepping a wayward child or bag-laden shopper. Kirra on the other hoof was lost in a daze of bright lights and consumerism. Darting from window to window, she gasped in awe at every find she came upon. Her path could easily be seen by her two companions, although she was only occasionally visible. Ponies scattered as she scampered through legs, and occasionally she would appear as she leaped upon an equine or griffin head to get a closer look at some dress or gewgaw.

Eventually the sugar glider rejoined her companions. She climbed up to perch on Baz’s head. Shaking his own, the Captain set his path toward a public pay-elevator, which for a very reasonable price of one bit would take them all the way down to street level. From there they would head for the airbus docks, grab one descending for Umbra, and seek out the Brass Hoof where Fantasy had offered them rooms for the night. Fleur had been nice enough to give him a map of Umbra. Much more detailed than the ones sold to tourists. Those had omissions to keep ponies from being tempted to wander into unfriendly neighborhoods. None of the three mentioned the possibility the unicorn mare would turn up there, but the Captain knew they were all thinking it.

A snatch of music made him pause: a familiar tune, although somewhat unexpected this far west. Kirra’s ears twitched, then she pointed to a street performer. The creature was cloaked, a thick hood obscuring his face, although guessing by the paws playing the cello in front of him, he was a koala. A smattering of coins lay in the case in front of him, and he nodded in thanks as Baz tossed a bit to join them, never missing a note. A thread of melancholy drifted behind the cheerful melody.

Kirra waved as they passed, although she didn’t get any kind of reaction. Shrugging, she settled back down on Baz’s head as the Captain continued to retrace his memorized steps back to the elevator that had brought them so high. Time to bid farewell to the hustle and bustle of the shopping district and return to the familiar territory of the dank, seedy underbelly.

Adelaide Whitetail was not a happy marsupial. She had fled Dust the instant the slightest inkling of civil war had reared its rather ugly head, and she fervently regretted the decision.

No regret for having abandoned her kin. She had none she considered family. Sanitation was good in Dust, at least in the city proper. It was only bad luck that her parents had been taken by a minor outbreak of the Grey Flu shortly after Adelaide was weaned. It took those in their prime, ignoring the young and old. Adelaide had been raised by both her grandmothers, and her parents were an abstract thing built from photos and stories. Her grandmothers had passed on peacefully of old age within a year of each other and only a few years after Adelaide reached adulthood. They had been upper-class enough to be a small family. Adelaide had been the firstborn, and there had been no chance to gain a younger brother or sister. Her uncle on either side of the family had been taken by the disease too, and her grandmothers had simply outlived their husbands, both to a ‘self-inflicted vice’ the old ladies didn’t talk about.

She had no complaints about her childhood: too young to remember those lost, she had been loved as much as any child could hope to be by a pair of doting grandmothers. Sole heir to two small estates which when combined provided enough income for her not to need to worry about money if she was frugal, and she was. It left her free to pursue her passion for the cello, at which she some genuine talent. The money she made from her position in the Royal Orchestra, she could spend on herself without feeling guilty.

Adelaide blamed Nanna Whitetail for her mad rush to leave Dust as she did. She had told little Addie terrible, vivid stories of the last civil war, passed down from her own grandmother: not the dry sanitized accounts taught in school. They had scared her to the bone from the time she was a joey. As soon as it looked like it might happen again, she had fled. Dressed up as a male in her father’s old clothes, of course, and an only half-forced screeching fit into a pillow to roughen her voice. Female koalas were not ever allowed out of Dust. Officially because it wouldn’t be seemly to check their pouches for contraband, but in reality to prevent any chance of a breeding population outside the Queen’s control. Things had been unsettled at the border in the wake of that unbelievably bold intrusion by an Outsider airship, and the Queen’s assassination. The guards knew which way the wind was blowing, and they let anyone who bribed them board one of the trains through the Breach do so without any search for contraband…or ladies in disguise. No doubt the guards would take their earnings and bolt as soon as the border began to close.

Adelaide had spent most of her money getting to this bizarre and magical city in the clouds. Her estate had not been in a form quickly converted to liquid assets, so most of her worth had been lost right there. More lost from bribes, and more still lost to a chiseling currency exchange in Freeport: may that sugar glider’s tail rot off. The notion of a city made of clouds was bizarre, a little terrifying, but oddly alluring. The Outside wasn’t the monster-filled chaos she had been taught it was. Seeing the near-mythical and magical pony variants of unicorn and pegasus had been oddly disappointing. Her grandmothers had told her tales of the Outside but the reality just didn’t live up to them. That was mostly a relief. She didn’t understand the magic by which their airships operated, but to be fair she didn’t understand the non-magic by which Dustan airships did, either. She had majored in musical theory. One mystery traded for another.

By personal experience it was pleasant enough Outside. Most of the creatures in it seemed to just want to get on with their peaceful, orderly lives of family and career. She encountered sympathy for her status as refugee, and heart-warming word that one of the Great Alicorn Queens (they were called princesses but Adelaide knew a queen when she heard about one) had bid her subjects to show Dustan refugees compassion and charity.

That had set her practical side to fighting with her pride. She didn’t even have enough money for a decent apartment. Not in Aura, where things cost. Instead she had been forced to find accommodation underneath the clouds, in the perpetual twilight of Umbra. Clearly the lower-class part of this place. For a creature used to the privileged existence that being on the edge of Dust’s cultural elite granted, living in the squalid little tenement that she could afford was much worse than she could have ever imagined. The first few days had been much more of a shock to her than she thought was possible. She had nearly fainted when she found out that Aura did not have a Royal Orchestra. Or even a ruler in residence. The city was one of many run by a governor, like some nothing town, in the service of distant queens. It was nothing but a massive trading post for Freeport, Silverline, and Zavros. Barring Freeport the names meant nothing…but the world map she had seen on public display had shocked her. The heart of this Empire wasn’t even on the same continent, and Dust was a tiny thing down in one corner. For the koala cellist, it was almost more than she could bear.

Still, if the rumors she was hearing about the situation in Dust were true, she was glad she had listened to her Nanna.

Of course, there was the often-repeated advice that her other grandmother had given her; mustn’t grumble. It never made things better and could sometimes make them worse. That and could be worse were her words to live by. Granny Waxweather had loved her granddaughter but not been as open about showing it. What she had been, almost to a fault, was sensible. She had taught her granddaughter how to be sensible too. It had served Adelaide well throughout the years, and it was going to continue serving her while she lived in these twin cities.

After settling in she had picked up her cello, swallowed her pride, and headed upwards to what her new landlord had assured her was the beating cultural heart of the floating city. She had paid the cost of an airbus up here and more cost to get a magical spell cast on her so the clouds became solid underfoot. To beg. To play in the street for coins. Mustn’t grumble. It was good advice, to a point. Her pride demanded she wear her hooded cloak. If she must beg, she could swallow the indignity better if it was money given in praise of her music, not in pity of her species and being a refugee.

And so it was that not long after Queen Luna had apparently used magic to cover this city in copies of herself, a young refugee with little of worth to her name but an instrument that nearly weighed more than she did found herself sitting on the edge of a fountain playing solo in public for the very first time, her instrument case in front of her to catch coins; her artist’s soul and koala’s pride being slowly corroded by the acid of her aching, empty belly.

Within half an hour, with the help of a darling pink filly who had offered her an edible bouquet, that hunger had subsided; replaced mostly by a deep and terrible desire to throttle the griffin mime busking on the opposite side of the street. She could barely see him through the press of ponies that stopped to watch him, and she wanted nothing more than to hit him so hard he plunged down through the clouds to his doom. No matter what she played he used it as a backdrop to his crass antics. He was also crude, making gestures that should not have been performed in public. He was annoying, his antics catching her gaze and distracting her from her music. And worst of all, he was popular. Making three times as many coins as she was, she counted the clinks. In the half hour he must have made fifty coins, while all she had in her case were around twenty coins, two of them half-bits, plus the admittedly pretty paper wrapper from the bouquet snack. Oh, and a shiny brass button. Thoughts of dark revenge for whatever joker had done that. She gritted her teeth. Now on top of everything she had to somehow find the money to fix her cloak.

Sighing, she stopped playing for a moment between songs to pull her hood even further down around her face, hiding the burning embarrassment and impotent rage that must have surely marred her young, pretty features. Picking up her bow, she launched into a new song, trying for something cheerful, but her skill betrayed her and her emotions snuck into the tone. The simple stuff she had played so far played into that mime’s claws. It really didn’t sound right without a full complement of violins, and of course without timpani it was frankly awful. Two ponies walked by, one with a little sugar glider on his head. Adelaide smiled a little. More refugees from Dust, perhaps, although the white pony was definitely not Dustan, he had a horn. She played a little harder, increasing her volume, but the crowd around the mime ignored her.

The earth-pony tossed a bit in her case, and she nodded in thanks. Playing with all of the strength left in her heart, no longer truly caring if the crowd found it pleasing, she segued into a double-time version of a complicated passage from a more obscure orchestral piece. A bubbling molten-gold waterfall of unending melody. It was renowned among cellists for demanding technical brilliance to play well, and true talent to play with emotion. Ponies slowly started to notice her. The mime left in a huff, probably an experienced old beggar who knew when it was time to find somewhere with less competition. The storm of melancholy anger transforming the piece faded with her mood, becoming something more upbeat. When she finally finished playing, her arm aching and paw numb from the vibrations shivering up the bow, there was perhaps fifty bits in her case. And a button, of course.

With a sigh, she began packing. The coins went in a little leather pouch she kept around her neck, and the cello went back in her case. Picking it up and half-dragging it back towards the cloud docks, she considered her day a success, although not by her usual standards. Not enough to get her through a week, but certainly enough that she could come back up here and play more tomorrow without fear that anything less than a major bounty would leave her out on the streets that night. Her hope was to attract the notice of a pony cultured enough to recognize talent and in the market for a good cellist. It wasn’t begging, it was advertising.

The descent back to Umbra was long on the cheap-and-thus-slow airbus she rode, and Adelaide hadn’t been sleeping well. She fell into a doze on the bench, clutching her cello like the vital support it was. Only the bangs and scrapes of the other passengers preparing to leave woke her up. She sleepily grumbled to herself, dragging her cello off the ship and through the streets. Few ponies passed her by. Umbra, unlike Aura, was a hive of activity at all hours. Save for the upscale place that catered to pegasi, the local elite. That was where this airbus landed, of course. Her hovel wasn’t near that area in the physical sense, but it was distant as the moon in others. Her muffled cursing as she dragged her heavy instrument bounced off the walls. No pony stopped to help. Part of her felt annoyed by this, while another part knew her manner might be the reason.

Dragging the case past a fancy jewelry shop looked up tight for the night, she almost ran into a pony at a crossroad. This one was young…maybe. He seemed old in a way. A cased instrument on his back snagged her eye. It made her blink, but she was too lost in her own troubles to really care. He walked a lot more loudly than other ponies she had met, and one hoof especially had a different tone. It didn’t occur to her to wonder about that until he had gone on his way and she hers. Just another pony in a city full of ponies.

Reaching her dank little ‘apartment building,’ she dragged her instrument inside, paid the landlord for two more days worth of accommodation, and dragged it right back out. There was an ‘eatery’ right next door, at least. She bought a hot meal. It was disgusting, some kind of slop made from oats, but it was hot and plentiful and she gulped it down, hungry enough to be grateful. Plodding back to her room, cursing every stair up to it, she settled on the bed and sighed. Lumpy, but at least a bed sized for a pony was roomy for her. Her last thought before she drifted off to sleep was: Mustn’t grumble.

Berry Jam worried about her daughter, of course. Racing off before dawn to meet some friends of Tradewind arriving in town. Now it was almost sunset and she still wasn’t back yet. Lute’s reassurance that she was safe helped more than she would have suspected. His advice to leave the city before the next dawn hadn’t awakened a flood of rejection in her heart. Abandoning the Brass Hoof would be like tearing off a limb. Staying in Shadowville for the chaos she mentally called Smog’s Wake appealed to her even less and she just couldn’t manage to doubt that Lute was both sincere and accurate.

They had spent the afternoon packing. A heartbreaking task. Of all the things they owned, which were essential or precious enough to take with them on the run? Trusting the tavern part of the inn to Bubbles’s earnest but scatterbrained keeping no longer seemed like such a big deal. Besides, she had nopony to deal with. Berry could tell there were no customers in the common room by the lack of noise. The absence of any customers felt like a confirmation of Morhoof’s warning.

Her son Punctuality’s magic might have extended to arriving on time at the place he needed to be even if he didn’t know he needed to be there. Might. Berry quietly cooked supper for five, not four. Herself, Tankard, Fantasy, Bubbles…and Punctuality. She made it something between a wish and a command in her heart that every pony would arrive for the meal on time. Punchy wasn’t in danger if he came here. He could teleport away again, even if he couldn’t take another pony with him. He could carry stuff with him. Like a certain batch of pilfered cookies. If he arrived he could carry more luggage to safety than his family could haul out on their backs.

If. If his power did in fact extend to arriving for appointments he didn’t know he had. If he didn’t fight the urge; they had made him promise not to teleport from school again without permission. Berry Jam didn’t see any downside to trying, besides disappointment.

Calling Bubbles in, the three sat down to eat. Berry sighed and lifted her fork in her magic. Tankard hadn’t asked about the extra plates because he understood. Bubbles…it probably hadn’t occurred to her to wonder. Then her young son appeared with the usual flash and zapping noise of his special talent. He arrived sitting on the stool before the food she had laid out for him. Tiny wisps of smoke rose from the singed tip of his horn. Every hair on his dark brown mane and tail stood up and crackled with static. Purple eyes wide and glazed, the gangly half-grown colt scrunched them shut with a shudder. The spells around the school dorms were to keep the unicorns from using magic after hours. It did not in fact stop them: it only made using magic hurt. The stronger the spell the more it hurt, but Punctuality had proven his ability to overcome them before.

“Ow! Ow-ow-ow, that stung!”

“That was cool!” Bubbles said.

“What the feather flipping cirrus?” Punctuality said.

“Language!” Berry said. But she couldn’t put any sharpness into it; she was too surprised and glad. “It’s simple. I set a place for you for supper. You were supposed to be here and you arrived right on time. So that settles that: your talent extends to arriving on time even when you didn’t know you’re supposed to be somewhere.”

Punctuality licked his fore-hoof and pressed it to his horn tip, which ended the wisp of smoke. It seemed automatic, his main attention busy being horrified. “I had a teacher right in front of me! I’m still on probation for that prank I pulled, they’re gonna expel me for this!”

“We’ll send you back with a note explaining it wasn’t your fault.” Tankard said. At least Punctuality had a full scholarship thanks to Smog, who always knew the best way to manipulate was to punish defiance but reward obedience. The money came from a scrupulously legitimate source outside Aura. There were hard times for the family ahead, losing their home and source of income, but they wouldn’t have to pull Punctuality from magic school. Tankard continued, knowing Berry’s plan even if she never told him. “Your mother called you home for a reason. We need your help.”

Punctuality heard the seriousness and stopped looking in a panic about having involuntarily teleported from school. Inhaling to ask something, a knock on the back door interrupted him. Quiet warmth leapt up in Berry’s heart. She opened the door using magic, not wanting to waste time walking over.

Tradewind stood revealed, looking tired and a little rumpled. Fantasy sprawled on his back, forelegs loosely hugging his neck and hind legs dangling to either side of his flanks, neck and head extended up the back of his neck. It was clear to Berry that her daughter wasn’t hurt, just asleep.

“Um.” the pegasus said. “I can explain everything but can I put her to bed first? She had a stressful day.” He shifted a big wing and winced with his body language if not his face. “We both did, but…it’s okay. Everything’s going to work out.”

Poor stallion was either ignorant of Smog’s Wake or in some heavy-duty denial about it. Berry pushed that aside and moved to help her husband magically lift their daughter off his back. Fantasy dangled like Mister Billy, her beloved stuffed goat doll. Bonelessly relaxed. That was when it really hit her. Fantasy rarely slept like this even at home in her own bed. She slept all curled up, vaguely defensive. If she could do this while draped on the back of a flying pegasus…her trust in him must be absolute. She really loved him.

Well, then.

“I got her.” Tankard said. His guilty expression didn’t make sense until she realized he was leaving her down here to explain the bad news about Smog’s Wake to Bubbles, Punctuality, and Tradewind. She let her husband go, unable to blame him.

“So, Fantasy’s not going to eat her supper.” She hustled Tradewind the rest of the way inside and closed the door behind him. “You look hungry. I’ll cook her something when she wakes up. No point letting this go cold.” Tradewind sat at the table and exchanged one of those male we-aren’t-friends-but-I-acknowledge-your-presence nods with Punctuality.

Then the pegasi’s tummy gave a long loud rumble.

Bubbles giggled. Tradewind gave Fantasy’s cousin an odd squinting look, and Berry couldn’t recall if the pegasus had met Bubbles yet. Then he did something remarkable. He gave a little shrug and ignored the mare to focus on the food. The notorious Bubbles charm slid off him like rain off a duck.

Looked like he only had eyes for one mare.

Well, then.

Mithril felt naked despite the hooded cloak she wore over a plain and functional shirt and pair of trousers. Brown, brown, and brown. An old sailor ditty called Fetch Me Old Brown Trousers looped through her mind. The sense of nakedness came from her lack of badge and armor. The golden badge and golden armor was for when she was on duty, an official representative of the law. Tonight’s raid was technically going to be a citizen’s arrest.

The other four cops were in mufti too. Straight Arrow wore nothing but a dark blue vest with golden star buttons. Long enough to cover his cutie mark, it managed to look both a decade out of style and brand new. She was prepared to bet it had been given to him as a gift by a loved one, and not worn much. Straight Arrow was the kind of cop who never went off duty, not in his heart. The griffin brothers Ivan and Vlad were a mismatched pair. Vlad looked stylish in a long camel-hair coat and a plum silk ascot that matched the round lenses in his wire-rimmed spectacles. The lollipop somewhat spoiled the effect. Ivan looked like he’d bought his outfit at a griffin military surplus. No insignia, no camouflage patterns, just tan trousers and olive green shirt, capped by a plain black beret not set at an angle.

Pick had a hooded grey cloak and an equipment harness under it, but no knives. The pegasus hadn’t even argued about that, and Mithril had let him go nuts with grabbing non-lethal goodies from the Special Crimes equipment lockers. They’d even had ‘booger bomb’ potions. Mithril caught him rubbing his mane, and recalled her promise they would load him with so much healdust he’d be peeling the scars off his face. Looked like it hadn’t been exaggerating after all. He had a bird-track of healthy pink skin on one cheek, and more sloughed-off scars up in his hairline that seemed to itch. The wounds given by Uncle were healed or on their way. The rich heavy meal he’d forced himself to eat provided fuel for the healing.

He didn’t look cool and collected. Mithril would have nixed him coming if he had. Pick was a bag of nerves, but they were low-key nerves. He didn’t jump at every noise and glare at the others with dark suspicion. There was something eerie about his self-control. Not its absoluteness, because it was far from that. Something too icy to seem healthy. Under the nerves and the ice was a sense that Pick was a long way from all right but no longer in a nosedive. He seemed to need to do this with them, even accepted it when Straight Arrow stuck him on rearguard and support. If others needed goodies or restraints, he had them. He had the big first-aid kit too. Doing that job freed up the other four to concentrate on the arrest they were here to perform.

The tracker-spell Straight Arrow managed to rub onto a sugar glider had just paid off in a weird way. The plan had been to let those three go un-followed to sunset, then track them down in the hope of catching them with Fantasy Longhorn. While flying around and triangulating with the compass that pointed at the glider, Captain Arrow had gotten stupidly lucky. He wouldn’t have been flying around in that area if not for the tracking spell…but what he saw made the spell irrelevant. He had seen the pegasus Tradewind carrying Fantasy down to Shadowville. Landing near Fantasy’s home address.

Stupid, but then criminals often were.

Now they were there, on the roof of the building across an alley from the back of the Brass Hoof. Ivan and Vlad had carried Mithril down, and they were polite with where their claws went. One of those centuries-old buildings, kept repaired but never upgraded. A historical preservation site but still open for business. Ye Olde Timey Inn. Simple floor plan. Ground floor was half a ‘common room’ with tables, chairs, and a bar. Other half was a taproom-slash-kitchen. Second floor was all little rooms for a night’s rent. Third floor was where the Longhorns lived. Attic, sizable cellar. Fairly solid rumors of a secret tunnel that Smog had used to get in and out of the place unseen sometimes. Not a likely escape route for Little Miss Fugitive: Smog’s style with on-the-ground secret stuff was for doors so heavy only he could open them.

The grapevine was sour tonight, it seemed. Mithril had never seen this old part of Umbra so deserted-looking around this time of day. The ponies around here weren’t all nice but they weren’t idiots. Something told them it was a good idea to stay home. The clueless ones bowed to peer pressure. Mithril could feel it lurking behind the crisp bite of the autumn air. Tension. Like before a storm, only not the kind with lightning and rain. The whole neighborhood…hunkered.

An approaching noise broke the hush. The clip-clop of hooves and the rumble of a two-wheeled cart sent her, Pick’s and Straight Arrow’s ears swiveling. Ivan and Vlad didn’t have visible ears but swiveled their heads. Mithril half-closed her eyes. One of the hooves sounded different. Metal. A pony with one horseshoe? A nightmarish old ghost story from her childhood tried to ambush her. Who’s got my rusty horseshoe?

Mithril scoffed under her breath. That old hag was fictional, plus she had three horseshoes and one bare hoof, hunting for the last of the set. One horseshoe? Wasn’t her. The noises came right up to the Brass Hoof and stopped. Mithril went on alert and she wasn’t alone. Another one of Straight Arrow’s short list was some creepy earth pony with two scars on his face, a lute case on his back, and a peg leg. Suspected of being a very dangerous pony indeed, and working for Smog. A kind of counterpart to Uncle: violent muscle with a brain. Possibly tasked with guarding Fantasy to the point that when she committed herself, he arranged to be committed in the same place not long after. The hooves clip-clop-clip-clanked a little more and vanished from her hearing. Gone inside?

Straight Arrow seemed to be doing some fast thinking. Then a small sound midway between a bird chirp and squeaky floorboard came from his vest pocket. He went even tenser, then outwardly relaxed, which meant he was really ready to rumble.

“Proximity alarm on the tracker.” he said. “The glider is coming and probably not alone.” Sure enough, two more sets of hooves soon approached down the eerily quiet street, stopped at the far side…the front…of the Brass Hoof. Seemed to go inside.

Seconds later, a faint bluish flash and crackle down in the dark crack-like alley between the Brass Hoof and a building beside it. Followed by a crash of hooves on cobblestones. Staggering steps, soon turning steady and speeding up. Not to a run. Heading along the alley toward the back, reaching the intersection of alleys, and moving away from the inn. Pick eased forward and peered over the edge of the roof they stood on. A surprised ‘haaa’ of laughter burst out, to be muffled when he clamped a hoof over his mouth. “You gotta see this.” His voice sounded strangled, shaking.

Mithril didn’t move to the edge, having no wings and a distrust of her footing on these sloped slate shingles. Vlad craned his neck to look. The feathers on his head ruffled up and his lollipop fell away into the dark. “Well, spank my bottom.”

Ivan hurried to look too. “Do we chase him down?” His angled head tilted more. “Yup, a him.” Vlad inhaled, opening his beak with a grin. Ivan didn’t even look, just reached up and back to thump a fisted fore-claw down on his brother’s skull.

“Male, matched set of hooves by the sound.” Straight Arrow said. “Not on the target list. Let him go, he’s probably a victim. We’re going in. Now.”

Mithril’s burning curiosity about the runner died a rapid death.

Perth didn’t suddenly realize that Forte Presto was awake. The unicorn had made the transition to consciousness with no outward sign, such as altered breathing. It was something much subtler, an awareness of…awareness. Forte was awake and he knew Perth was there. The realization crept over him like some insidious poison through his blood, something icy.

The leaden exhaustion that had left him happy to sit on his valise with his back to the door for…he didn’t even know how long…got pushed aside by the dread. Fingering the electrostatic stunner he held, for a moment he had a wild urge to use it. Perth quelled it. Forte was burned, blindfolded, and most importantly bound. Some kind of magic-blocking thimble thing on his horn and ropes on his ankles, with bandages under them to keep from chafing the blisters. Perth should be able to stun him if he tried anything.

He nearly shot Forte anyway when the unicorn spoke in a dull but clear voice. “Disappointing.”

Perth’s fur tried to stand up inside his somber black suit, which was beginning to look…and smell…a little lived-in. He didn’t know what Forte meant by that and every possibility tumbling through his brain was bad. After a moment to try and ensure his voice wouldn’t emerge as a stuttering falsetto, Perth gave it up as impossible. “M-move and I sh-shoot you.”

“Is your weapon lethal?”

His manic madness intruded on his brain, providing a list of ways to make the stunner lethal. “Y-yes.”

Forte heaved a small quiet sigh. “You shouldn’t get my hopes up, sir.” Perth pushed up his spectacles, unable to understand what he meant. “I hoped not to awaken. It seems that somehow my enemy found it in his heart to show me mercy. Perhaps that device you created showed him the same vision it showed me. A world without hate. My hate remains. If not stopped, I will do more evil.”

He was tired and frightened, and the words slipped out. Perth snorted. “There’s a solution to that problem. I gather that any magic you try will be bounced back into you.”

“I can’t end my own life. I tried as soon as I awoke. My hate won’t let me do it. All my vaunted self-mastery and I am helpless to do this one thing.”

Perth heard acid in his own voice. “Still have a hit list to run down before you can rest?”

“No. I hate myself too much to end my own life. Death would be the end of my suffering…but I deserve to suffer.”

Perth’s stomach did a slow roll. By the Gears, the unicorn actually appeared to be sincere. “Y-yourself?”

“I am insane.” Flat, factual. “I was born insane, as is every member of my accursed bloodline, descended from a unicorn named Spider Web. No two of us are crazy in the same way, but all of us bear a twist in our minds. I…can ignore nothing. The thread count of the bandages against my skin. A slight roughness on the end of one of the pins holding this cap on my horn. The scent of freshly cooked hay fries.” Perth became aware of that faint odor as he mentioned it. “Every tick of every clock. Every twitch of expression in the face of a pony in the background of a crowd. The faintest whisper of a draft around the edges of this room’s window. The smell of my own breath, good or bad. Every subtle pattern implying a malevolent cause behind seemingly unrelated tragedies. All of it. All the time. It is torment. I trained to deal with it. Ignoring the trivial is impossible. I focus on the important. Refuse to act on the trivial. I could not ignore the signs of evil in this world. I chose to give my life purpose by opposing that evil. Sheer arrogance to think I was worthy to fight monsters. There is a blind spot in my awareness. One your device revealed.”

“Yourself.” Perth said. “Yes?”

“Indeed. I always believed I was myself a monster. Corrupt, twisted, better off not existing. I refused to admit I felt that way. An emotion one cannot acknowledge…one cannot oppose. By refusing to face it I allowed it to fester and grow. My true motives are disgustingly clear now. I felt driven to fight monsters in order to prove that I was not one. I hated the evil in others because it reflected the evil within my heart. My righteous anger was a lie. Every villain I have brought down, I destroyed because in them…I saw myself. No wonder nothing seemed too extreme to justify. Hate has no limits.”

Perth felt no pity, maybe because Forte clearly didn’t appear to desire any. “You said if you weren’t stopped you will do more evil. Will you choose to do it now?”

“No. I will simply be unable to stop myself. Even knowing that it is from self-hatred that I strike out at others, it is too deep, too rooted in the very shape of my mind. It is inexorable as the need to breathe. The hate shall drive me to act whether I will it or not. As it did after your revelation device, when I still moved to strike him down. My mind knew better, but it was not the part in control of my body. My self-control was delusion. My profound willpower was an engine fueled by passionate hate. Now that my will opposes my hate I see what a shriveled and impotent thing it truly is. My only hope is that my hate drives me to attempt that which gets me killed.”

Perth had no idea what he might say to that. Not without the risk of saying the wrong thing and making it worse. Silence seemed like the wrong choice too, but one it seemed he’d make by default. Then he found something to say. “I’m not going to kill you, Forte Presto.”

The unicorn was silent for a while. “Your friend comes.”

A knock on the door, quiet but literally right behind Perth’s head. He squeaked, all that emerged from an attempt to yell, and fell over. His spectacles fell off, so he didn’t clearly see what happened next, but it was clear enough to see magic flare up the unicorn’s horn and then rebound to wrap his entire body. The ropes and bandages all burst into a cloud of shredded fibers. The skin underneath was still red and blistered where that sungold flare had kissed him. Pink everywhere else: the rebounded spell had ripped out every hair of body, mane, and tail. Forte reached up and yanked the horn cap off, then leapt at the window. The glimpse Perth got of one eye had a huge black pupil with a faint milky film over it. Magic neatly opened the little window, and Forte gave a writhing twist in midair that manipulated his body into passing through with effectively zero clearance. One hind hoof grazed the frame with a gentle click.

Perth sent a crackling self-contained ball of nerve-overloading lightning out the window, with better aim than he ever could have hoped for if he had stopped to think. Not good enough: he was inexperienced and failed to account for gravity tugging the unicorn down. It missed high and harmlessly hit the wall of the building beside the inn. Then Forte was gone, with the cloud of hair and fibers still floating in the air of the room.

The unicorn was gone, and Perth heard the crash of a pony landing hard…but on all four hooves. They staggered away, quickly growing steady and speeding up. Perth hyperventilated, heart humming at about four hundred and forty hertz from the feel of it. Another knock, not so quiet. Oddly numb, Perth got to his feet and moved to open the door.

Despite everything that had happened today, much of it inside his head, Forte Presto had relentlessly trained his mind since he was young. It held memory-maps of every place he had ever been. Not to mention every map he had ever studied. Even with his vision degraded, the center blotted out with pulsating green blob and the rest of it clouded over from corneal damage, Forte picked up enough visual cues to orient himself. Remembered details that told him where he was. He combined it with counting steps to measure distance and remembering in which direction north lay.

It was cold and getting colder, something he of course noticed with painful intensity but to which he chose not to react. On one level the cold was almost welcome. His skin stung everywhere it didn’t burn despite the over-the-shelf painkillers he had been given earlier. He was hairless as a mole rat.

The spell he had used to escape was telekinesis modified to cause a repulsive force within the target, focused on anything which had one dimension much greater than the other two. It would barely nudge a ball or sheet of paper but push a thread or wire away with great vigor. The horn cap had functioned as designed: the spell reached his horn’s tip, struck the mirrored disc, and bounced back down the length of his horn to strike his body. Just as intended. His spell had repelled all fibers from him with such force that it shredded his rope restraints. That it yanked out all his hair by the roots was an unfortunate side-effect. It even plucked his eyelashes.

Forte had secondary caches planted here and there; set up after he decided he’d be in Aura for a while. Each one contained a healing potion good enough to repair the damage to his eyes and these second-degree burns. Expensive but very prudent. Conveniently enough, some of the hoards had potions designed to make a pony go bald and then grow out new hair in a new color scheme. Job half-done already. Unlike dye or illusion, it couldn’t be washed off, seen through, or dispelled.

Once equipped and disguised it was time to head for the vault where Smog kept his most precious and powerful things. Forte hadn’t forgotten his original reason for coming here, a quest abandoned years before when he decided Smog had to be stopped. An item the dragon had stolen from Forte’s bloodline long ago. He’d never have a better chance to get it than this period between the dragon’s disappearance and the coming chaos of his spiteful postmortem revenge. Not to use it: in the coming chaos the vault would be looted. In the hooves of one not descended from its maker, the thing was an unspeakable horror. In Forte’s hooves, not using it was an option.

His birthright awaited him, the last and greatest creation of the mad unicorn Spider Web. Powerfully magical, reputedly indestructible. A violin made from blood-red cedar inlaid with stygian ebony and ivory from a source not known to Forte. Though he had come to have his suspicions about it. If he died in the attempt to retrieve it…well. No great loss. The thing would unleash horror but he wouldn’t be around to hate himself for failing to stop that.

Discord’s Fiddle…or death…would be his by dawn.

Bringing up the rear, Pick was the last through the door. Front door: those two griffins were guarding the back for runners. This place was ancient, like something out of a fairy tale or folk song, and smelled like the floor varnish was beer-based. Deader than disco tonight. Closed for special meeting of criminal scum, probably. Empty chairs around bare tables, nopony at the bar and nopony behind it. An opening in one wall showed the foot of some stairs going up.

Plenty of noise coming from behind one of those push-to-swing doors in the back wall, mostly voices. He pricked up his ears, trying to make them out. No dice, so he tried to count how many different voices he heard. Half a dozen? Nopony sounded worried, sounded…happy. Straight Arrow, that uptight monkey-missile, motioned for him to guard the front door while him and Little Miss Fireball went to crash the party.

Pick didn’t feel good but he felt better than he had in a while. Scared, of course. His paranoia wasn’t gone even if he was doing an okay job of sitting on it right now. This was a situation with actual threats. Being on high alert for attack was an appropriate reaction right now. He wasn’t as edgy as he had been. That bald pink stallion running away…Luna’s Butt, it had felt good to laugh. He wondered what the cirrus that was about, but the guy had looked perfectly fine from what Pick had seen through the blue gloom. Certainly moving like his legs worked. Captain Arrow said let him go, and that made sense. They had a fugitive from justice, a real rotten apple, to catch.

From somewhere upstairs, a male pony shouted a short word, drawing it out. Sounded like ‘duck’ but Pick was pretty sure it wasn’t. The tone was unmistakable, whatever the word. That was the crap-meets-fan tone. All of a sudden he felt like icy-hot lightning had shot up his spine. Maybe he hadn’t had much experience as a cop but he’d been a crook long enough to recognize when things had just made an illegal left-hand turn into Downtown Fubar. Mithril and Arrow seemed to realize it too, hurrying toward the door with the voices behind it.

Pick got a booger bomb ready to throw, eyeing those stairs.

The swinging door swung open as a pony on the far side hit it hard. Nailed Mithril right in the nose. Pick winced as the unicorn staggered back and plopped onto her butt, looking like that had rung her bells good. The pony stepping through was a big stallion earth pony…no, those were wings, it was a big stallion pegasus. Grey body, black hair. Looked kind of like Pick, if Pick had abused growth potions growing up. Hazel eyes, not green. Still, Pick froze for the split second he needed to double-check and make sure he wasn’t hallucinating.

The big bugger gave Mithril a big stupid stare, surprised and then sorry and concerned. Straight Arrow had moved spooky-quick when the door opened, hugged the wall on the non-hinge side. Now he whipped out some kind of magical thingy from the Special Crimes armory. Called a sue-trah or something. Looked like a wide white bookmark with intricate foreign writing on one side in gold leaf. Looked like the stuff on menus in restaurants that were all rice and paper lanterns. The pegasus cop slapped it onto the big pegasus like back-slapping a bro, and shouted some foreign gibberish.

The paper exploded into a puff of white…stuff. Looked more like cloud than anything. It spread to form a kind of cloudy belt on the pegasus, then imploded into a loop of shiny gold chain. It cinched tight and crushed the pegasi’s huge wings down against his body. It all happened fast too. Pick flinched in surprise. Fumbling the booger bomb, he hurried to grab it before he dropped it at his own hooves. How stupid would that have been? He got a good grip on it.

He was only distracted for a second but when he looked up there was a purple-striped gem-studded unicorn in a long blue naval coat soaring in a leap out through the door over the wing-bound pegasus. Pick didn’t even hesitate an instant to make a decision. He saw the unicorn and his hoof chucked the fragile potion vial. The unicorn didn’t even blink, just held up a foreleg. The vial grazed it. Not enough to break but enough to deflect it down and to one side at an angle. It hit Straight Arrow smack in the face and exploded into a sudden mass of sticky, fast-hardening green foam.

Pick might have yelled some profanity, all he could hear was a sudden high-pitched whine as total shock and horror hit him. The unicorn made a four-point landing as the foam turned tougher than stale bread. It dissolved after a while, but ten minutes wasn’t fast enough to matter when it covered your face. Oh-crap-he-just-killed-his-boss!

Straight Arrow made a blind leap forward and managed to crash right into the unicorn. Glued his sticky foam-encased head to the side of the unicorn’s coat. The big pegasus still stood there looking horrified. Trying to pull away, the unicorn realized he was stuck. Then Mithril growled, still sitting on the floor with both fore-hooves pressed to her nose. The unicorn moved fast. Whipped out a knife in his magic, shaved all the buttons off his coat in one swipe, and shucked it off like he had snakes for bones. Chucked the knife so it hit Mithril’s horn pommel-first and bounced off, disrupting the magic she’d been gathering in a spray of fiery sparks. The unicorn left the coat behind with Straight Arrow as he headed right for Pick. His expression was…annoyed. Like he’d just spilled something, or something.

The big pegasus yelled. “Wait!”

Nopony listened. Pick grabbed for something, anything on the harness he wore. He had a dozen different fun ways to drop or restrain a pony without killing them, and what did his idiot hoof do? Fumble after the handle of a knife he wasn’t carrying tonight. Then he was lying on his side with pain happening in his head and no idea how he’d got there. The unicorn grabbed something off his harness and marched off, all stompy. Pick told his legs to get under him and lift. They kinda wiggled.

The unicorn yanked the cork out of a little glass bottle and dribbled the red stuff inside on Straight Arrow. It splashed the foam and did to it what a hot shower did to cotton candy. The green stuff melted into fizzing brown slime. Straight Arrow snorted and spat out some of it, then inhaled deep. He looked…confused. But with an option on angry.

Pick felt a stab of shame and self-anger. The booger bombs came bundled with dissolver for exactly this kind of accident. He knew that, he’d been told it twice. Then he forgot. The unicorn put his messy coat back on. Pick tried to get up and almost made it this time. Mithril stared at the unicorn, then Arrow, then the unicorn. Back and forth.

There was chaos through the doorway, still held open by the big pegasi’s rump. Sounded like the griffins had heard the noise and decided to crash the party as per orders. Pick staggered to his hooves, glimpsed a purple unicorn with a cloud of kitchen knives and forks and other pointy stuff all hanging in a cloud and pointed the same way like a bunch of compasses pointed at a magnet. A female voice shouted things, it was toned like swearing but the words were all really mild. That nut Vlad was giggling, of course.

A strong sudden desire to just curl up with his head wrapped in his wings hit Pick. He fought it off and grabbed a pepper popper. Point, trigger, spits a cloud of sneeze-making, cough-making, eye-burning pepper dust. The unicorn turned his head enough to look back at Pick with one cold milky-blue eye. Not even a threat. Pick had seen that look before, in the rare psycho. That look said: I am trying very hard not to kill you and you. Are. Not. Helping.

Movement in the corner of his eye. Glimpse of hard amber eyes in a scarred brown face, then the owner saw Pick seeing him and did a fast fade back up the stairs he’d been coming down.

Straight Arrow inhaled like he was trying to explode. Veins popped up on his neck and face, which went from golden brown to bronze red. Eyes going narrow, lips pulling back from his teeth. His roar would have left a drill sergeant in need of requisitioning new underwear. “BELAY THAT!

Sudden frozen silence, Pick flashing back hard to childhood memories of when his mom finally lost her cool and yelled, and everypony else got suddenly quiet just like this. Straight Arrow gave a snort, looking like he needed a second for his brain to stop buzzing from that yell. When he spoke he was hoarse but then he always was.

“Those with me, truce. Five minutes with an option to renew. If you attack except to defend from attack I will personally nail your hide to a wall. Everypony else, truce. Maybe we can solve this without somepony getting killed.” His fried-golden eyes went to the stripy unicorn. “I have a feeling you don’t want that either.”

From upstairs, faint but understandable in the quiet, a female voice called out, sounding drunk. “Mom, dad? What’s going on down there?”

A female voice, sounded like the non-curser, managed to politely yell in answer. “Stay upstairs, sweetie!”

Mithril sniffed, she had a handkerchief out now and held to her nose in a wad by her magic. She got up and slapped at her pants with her tail, dusting them off. “Charlie Foxtrot.”

“Fubar.” Pick said. It just slipped out. The unicorn and Straight Arrow kept eyeballing each other.

The big pegasus was still just standing there. “Um, can somepony let me loose if this is a truce?” Pick looked down because the other guy did. That magic bookmark hadn’t just pinned his wings but made these golden chain anklet things with four dangling chains off each; ending in staples stuck in the floor. Staked down like a good tent, not an inch of give.

Despite the healdust in his blood right now Pick still felt as if he had a vise clamped onto his skull and the floor kept swaying a little. Fading but slowly. That unicorn had a mean punch, or whatever he’d done. Despite the pain, or maybe because of it, Pick had to fight an urge to giggle when he saw that the knife thrown at Mithril’s horn had stuck in the ceiling. Just hanging there. Why that was so funny, he had no idea, but somehow it was.

Silence answered Morhoof’s knock, followed by an odd buzzing crackle. Then he heard a more distant sound, maybe hooves on the street outside. He knocked again, louder. This time he heard scrabbling sounds like something being moved away from the base of the door. Perth unlocked it and swung it open. His koala face had an almost comical expression, big staring eyes and his features sagging down with sheer dread.

Morhoof shouldered the door wider. He took in the settling cloud of hairs and shredded ropes and bandages, the little open window, a certain general absence of a unicorn prisoner. A yawning void filled with icy wind opened in his stomach. He’d considered taking a hacksaw to Forte’s horn upon capture but decided that was a little too gruesome to consider. Not for the unicorn’s sake but for his own. He couldn’t have been sure his motives had been caution or vindictiveness. Hadn’t cared to risk the de-horning being the act of hate that matured Loco and killed Morhoof. Through the window came the slightly limping sound of hooves trotting away.

Perth spoke in a numb voice, neither stammering nor squeaking. “He cast a spell. The cap on his horn bounced it back into him. It ripped apart the ropes and bandages. It pulled out all his hair. He pulled off the horn cap and jumped out the window. I shot at him,” he waved that brass-and-glass thing with the two prongs on the end for illustration, “but I missed. He dropped into a fall and the shot went over him. This is bad.”

Morhoof fought not to snort at this massive understatement. Using the horn-cap to deliberately bounce a spell back into yourself to useful effect. The kind of idea that he’d never heard about before, but now that he had, it seemed stupidly obvious. Maybe others had worked out the flaw; they just hadn’t shared it. If the flaw became common knowledge horn-caps might be altered to fix it. Forte had either known or had a moment of genius.

“Not your fault.” Morhoof said. “I didn’t take enough precautions. We have to hunt him down now.”

Just then, of course, hubbub occurred downstairs. It escalated into a fracas within a few breaths. Morhoof gestured for Perth to stay where he was and crept out to investigate. More noises, from both the backroom and the front room of the ground floor. He wavered, then chose the front room on instinct. It just felt…like it held more danger. Easing down the stairs, he stopped when he could peer out into the common room. Grey stallion with green eyes and black hair guarded the front door. Hooded cloak shaped as if he wore a laden equipment harness underneath, holding a police-issue pepper-popper. Either pegasus or earth pony: no horn. Morhoof spotted a purple-striped and gem-spangled unicorn stallion. Long blue naval jacket splattered with streaks of green, red, and brown slime. A generally golden-brown pegasus stallion near him, his head equally slimed. Morhoof sensed the door guard spot him and backed up the stairs as fast as he quietly could.

As expected, a near-instant roar of alarm.

BELAY THAT!” It took a second for Morhoof to realize that hadn’t been ‘intruder spotted.’ After a moment of perfect silence, a hoarse voice continued at a more reasonable volume. “Those with me, truce. Five minutes with an option to renew. If you attack except to defend from attack I will personally nail your hide to a wall. Everypony else, truce. Maybe we can solve this without somepony getting killed.” His tone changed, sounding as if he spoke to one pony rather than all. “I have a feeling you don’t want that either.”

From the third and top floor a feminine voice spoke, sounding drunk, drugged, or woken from deep sleep. “Mom, dad? What’s going on down there?”

Morhoof felt all his body hair stand on end. Fantasy!

From below in the back room, Berry Punch called up trying to sound calmer than she was. “Stay upstairs, sweetie!”

Morhoof stopped thinking, at least with his brain. Moving in a mincing gait that looked silly but combined decent speed with decent stealth, he collected Perth from his bedroom and headed upstairs. He remembered the way to Fantasy’s room, having been there before for some…memorable…experiences. Perth rode on his back where Morhoof had set him. The koala still seemed dazed.

The earth pony got to the door just in time for it to open and Fantasy stick her head out. Their noses bumped and perhaps their lips brushed. Morhoof was prepared to swear with ninety-nine percent certainty it had been an accident. …okay, ninety-five. Fantasy drew back, but not a swift recoiling. Morhoof backed up a little too, off-balanced by powerful feelings that, for once, didn’t have a larval windigo dragging its scorn and mockery through them.

Then he realized she hadn’t felt anything. To her it had just been a random accident, not worth getting flustered over, like brushing past a good friend in a hallway. The glowing golden hopeful feeling tarnished a little. His plan to rescue her from the police, play the secret agent pony, now seemed the worst kind of juvenile…well, fantasy.

Fantasy gave a huge yawn. “Oh, hi. Sorry, I was totally asleep and I think part of me still is. Should I be worried?”

“Yes!” A half-grown colt, subtype skinny and high-energy, currently looking genuinely wide-eyed frightened, scrambled forward under Fantasy. “We’re being invaded!”

Morhoof identified Punctuality. “I caught Forte Presto but he just managed to escape, the ponies invading here are certainly part of some local thugs he hired, or something. Covering his escape.” That explained the ‘truce:’ delaying tactic.

Something poked at him, but it wouldn’t become clear.

Morhoof expected to be torn between the need to chase after the unicorn or stay and help defend Fantasy’s home. However, when he consulted his mind and heart he realized it wasn’t even a contest. Ancient tradition held hospitality as sacred, and a guest had an obligation to help defend his host’s home if need be. But that wasn’t why he stayed. The reason for that stood there with a sleep-tousled purple mane, blinking at him with big purple eyes. His lips tingled.

“Uh, I escaped police custody, technically.” Fantasy said. She looked more awake now. “Might be them.”

“The timing suggests otherwise.” Morhoof said. The voices downstairs, both familiar and not, all came from the common room now. The five-minute truce had apparently been accepted. “We will go down the back stairs in stealth and bide. I don’t believe these invaders have a scrap of honor. They know ponies are up here, and a smart pony doesn’t stay when the enemy knows where he is. Unless that position is defensible.”

“I’m coming too.” Punctuality said. “Look, if things get dangerous I can vanish. I’ll go get the cops.”

Fantasy and Morhoof exchanged a glance and the mare bit her lower lip, giving her head a little shake as her eyes slid to one side. Her little brother didn’t know certain realities about Aura and Umbra, such as the institutionalized corruption of many police officers.

“You stay behind us.” Fantasy said. “You get out at the first sign of trouble. The cops might try to insist you stay with them so they can keep you safe. Don’t let them. Tell them and then go. Go back to your school.”

“Okay.” the colt said. Morhoof knew that tone. Punctuality mentally reserved the right to change his mind and so something else. Fantasy heard it too. But…she didn’t push.

Soon enough, even sneaking, they reached the kitchen/taproom making up the back half of the ground floor. The remains of an interrupted meal covered the big table, along with a pile of what looked like every knife, cleaver, fork, and other pointy piece of metal in the room. A low sound of voices from the common room. Then the voice of Tradewind rose above them, sounding frustrated. The tone of a pony telling the truth but pretty sure he wasn’t going to be believed.

“I can’t tell you how I teleported into a warded interrogation room. My lips are sealed. By magic.”

A hoarse male whiskey-and-cigars voice answered. “I set you free from the sutra chains, despite your assault on me earlier today. I’m trying to be reasonable. Meet me halfway.”

“Oh shhhh…oot.” Fantasy said. “It is the cops.”

“Wait, what?” Punctuality said. At least he whispered, as his sister had done. Morhoof watched the doors and the stairs, trying to listen to the low but passionate voices from the common room but failing to make out a word. “The cops are after you? Why would the cops be after you?”

“I said I escaped police custody upstairs.”

“I wasn’t listening to you, I was looking at the koala!”

“Shhh, keep your voice down!”

“You first!”

Siblings, bleh.

Morhoof remembered Perth and moved to ease the koala from his back to the floor. Perth had a look in his eye. No more staring dread. He looked…like crossing him was a pretty bad idea. Without a word he stopped clutching his doctor’s valise to his chest in one paw and set it on the floor. Began to fiddle with its four latches. Fantasy and Punctuality argued in low hissing whispers, oblivious. Morhoof vividly remembered the last toy Perth had made, and now he wasn’t sure if he needed to be encouraged or terrified.

In the common room, the voices slowly became heated.