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


Pick waits, silently fuming, as Mithril uncuffs Brando. Once they get back to the station, Pick deposits his armor into his locker and immediately leaves again. From there Pick heads back to the near-shack that he calls home. Once inside, curtains drawn and door locked, he opens his little lockbox. From inside he takes a small insignia: an equine skull with two shovels beneath it. As much as he wanted to leave the past behind, he needed to keep certain mementos to remind himself of what he used to be. Though every day he felt guilty, he used it to drive him. Once, he hadn’t felt guilty at all. That he could was proof he could change.

Pick crosses the short distance to his rickety work table and writes down all the events that had happened today, as well as ways he could improve on himself and avoid mistakes in the future. As he starts to write he empties all of the day out of his head. How he almost lost his cool and started a riot in the bar, how the strange pony he had met earlier that day stopped him from making a fatal mistake, how he learned that his partner was a dirty cop, and of course, how his first arrest had failed. ‘Well,’ he thinks, ‘it didn’t end in disaster, so that’s one good thing to look back on.’ The rest of the day passed in a haze of boredom: Pick alternating between writing and wandering aimlessly around his little shack. After a while he cranks up his old phonograph player. The record he plays, however, is close to new.

Pick lingers over his journal entry, oddly driven to try and fill it out with useless details. At one point he writes the word ‘surprise’ multiple times over three sheets of paper. Once he has finally completed it, he suddenly remembers: he never went to thank Red. On his rushed way out the door he crashes into a delivery colt. After apologizing, Pick helps him get his mail picked up, and the delivery colt hands him a letter addressed to him. Pick rips it open and slips out the small single sheet inside.

Precise handwriting, literally neat as printing, marches in perfect lines across the unlined paper: Pick, no one can outrun their past, though I respect your attempt to try. I can make sure certain secrets of yours never see the light of day. Let's discuss what you need to do to make that happen. Nothing that will compromise your shiny new morals, upon my solemn word. The Dragon's Den, sunset.

At the bottom, simply but perfectly rendered, is a drawing of crossed shovels behind an equine skull.

As Pick reads those words, his heart seems to vanish into dark emptiness. His mind races with thoughts of who could have known: he had made sure it was completely covered up. He goes back inside and sits, then gets up and paces, then sits again. He re-reads the note a couple of times but the words fail to change. Putting the insignia and note back in the lockbox, Pick rushes over to Dragon’s Den. Once he arrives he slows down and takes a deep breath. As much as he tried he couldn’t fully stop himself from scowling. But that might actually help him fit in. He enters the bar ready to scan the room for who could have sent the letter.

[From here on is by internetcatchphrase, though using Pick’s perspective.]

But no one is there. No music plays. The dim table lamps are dark but two bright ones hang over the bar: from the underside of the DJ balcony. The white floatwood tables and chairs are empty and very clean. They seem to float upon the smoke-blackened floor. Of course they do exactly that, but this is something more surreal. It could have been Pick’s mood, though.

Then Smog emerges from the back room, slithering through the too-small-for-him doorway with practiced ease. He settles his body behind the long floatwood bar and begins rapidly making a complicated cocktail. Pick stares. The pink dragon stares back, claws still busy with the cocktail. ‘Poison-green,’ Pick thinks, ‘is more right than I’d realized when I thought it.’ He swallows and hears his throat click with dryness. “Smog.”


“I got a letter.” Pick can’t quite bring himself to believe what his instincts are shouting. “Someone wants to meet me here. Why is there no one here?”


Pick starts to nod before realizing: he hadn’t mentioned the time.

“HAVE A SEAT AT THE BAR.” Smog’s thunder-rumble voice turns amused, but those eyes have all the hilarity of jade hammerheads. “BEFORE YOU FALL OVER.” Pick walks over, not certain if he moves by his own will. The rainbow-swirled drink in the mug looks like a fever-dream amid all the black and white.

Pick drinks, and finds it a true taste explosion. But oddly helpful in helping him master his growing dread. He drains half before setting it carefully down and forcing his eyes to look up at Smog’s. “You.”


“Y-you.” Pick said. He forces himself to speak clearly, if not calmly. “You said you can make it go away.”


“Why do I doubt that?” Pick said.


“How do you know about this? You can’t know as much as you’re pretending. I bankrupted myself tying up loose ends and shutting mouths.”


“I still think you don’t know anything, Pinky.”

Smog doesn’t react to the insult. His voice drops in volume and rises in pitch to something that might have come from a pegasus or griffin. “Everyone gets to make one comment at the expense of my coloring.” Pick had thought those eyes were cold and hard. Now he realizes he hadn’t known anything. “One.” Then the former, relatively mild bartender returns as if nothing had happened. “YOU DON’T BELIEVE I’M BLUFFING. BUT YOU WANT TO, AND YOU JUST MIGHT MANAGE TO CONVINCE YOURSELF I AM.”

Smog pauses, then speaks three sentences. After another pause, he names three names. Pick pulls his wings in tight against his sides but that doesn’t quite stop them shaking. Only some of it is fear. Most is rage. Pick forces himself to think. He’s been in bad situations before.

“Why do you want a clean cop in your pocket?”




Pick feels the outrage erupt. “You saved Brando’s tail this morning! You arranged this whole thing!”

Smog doesn’t even bother to blink. “I DID?”

Pick bites back some acid words and tries to wash them down with more Rainbow Dash. This time it doesn’t help. The dread has settled down to stay, sitting on his heart like a brick of lead. The hope that he might actually get out of this mess doesn’t help: in fact, it somehow makes things worse. Smog makes him another Rainbow Dash and says nothing about payment. Pick drinks, blackly and bleakly amused. Bits might not be changing hooves, but he’s paying for it, all right.

Brando slides down against the inside of the locked door. With wings unfurled he lets out a long sigh, momentarily glad to be by himself, aboard his own ship, and free as can be. Fortunes can be regained with far more ease than freedom. Realizing he has far fewer bits on hand than he'd thought, he decides it might be best to skip on seeing Smog about the gloves. He would've used the ones for work in the engine room or manning the anchors, but he didn't want to get them sullied. They were probably new, or at least clean, as he couldn't smell any strange odors emanating from them. Still, no reason to take chances.

It takes him almost a full hour to find a shop that sells sturdy enough claw gloves for the task: actually finding a couple bags with which to put them in first. Taking his time getting back, he picks up lunch along the way. It gives him time to stare up at the sky. Small personal blimps putt-putt by one another; larger zeppelins used for mass transit floating among them like whales among fish. Brando thinks the ships look quite a bit more magnificent than whales, though. Regardless of how used to them most others had become, he still finds them breathtaking: something worth taking a moment to watch dance in the skies.

After burning another half-hour or so eating his lunch and staring up into the sky, he finally heads back to the Snark. He should've realized what was happening when he noticed the levers were in the wrong place. It could have been booby trapped, for all he knew. He'd been getting too lazy. Too much good fortune did that to a griffin. Well, he'd be a lot more careful now, having been dragged that close to the end. He pops the locks back open and walks back in, having not even bothered to re-secure his secret hold, seeing no point at the moment.

Brando hums to himself as he digs through the embarrassing things, placing most in the first bag, saving the damaged ones to toss into the second. Shouldering them, he sets out to sell them. First stop is right at the edge of the berth, and the convenient waste bin there. He holds the bag of rejects over it and shakes them out, laughing riotously as he hears them plop and squish into whatever liquid garbage already lay inside. He shakes his head: lazy janitorial staff it seems. Second stop: every shop and person he can find.

Some hours and several dozen smacks to the face later, he's managed to sell just about every last one. The majority of them had been sold to an elderly pegasus mare whose face positively beamed when he'd jokingly offered them to her. That…was going to haunt him. He had two left, one he had likely overpriced and one whose refusal to sell was a complete mystery to him.

He decides to call it a day, now having enough bits to pay for plenty of fuel and a good week and a half of meals. After that, though, he’d have to find some form of work, or go back to piracy. That was no fun though, and it'd gotten him permanently banished from Stalliongrad. Nothing much to miss there, though. As he turns to leave, he spots a mailpony staring at him, a puzzled look on his face. Brando walks over to the pony, who seems to be quite worn out from a full day of deliveries, though in somewhat of a good mood seeing as how his saddlebags are almost empty.

"What's wrong?” Brando said. “Why're you staring at me like that?" It comes out gruff. Realizing he sounds like a jerk, he goes for happy but puzzled.

“It's just your, uh…face…it seems to be a bit…ruffled. You are Brando, correct?" The mailpony is having a hard time keeping from laughing: Brando hadn't realized before now that his head-feathers are completely messed up from the all the abuse taken by various hoofed persons.

"Ah…well, thank you." Brando said. He smooths his feathers back into position, making him look a bit less like a crazy hobo running around with a bag of devices. "Yes, that's me. I take it you have something for me?"

The mailpony nods, pulling out a letter and handing it to Brando. He opens the envelope. He reads it slowly and with caution: ‘Brando, I have a job for you. While not to your usual taste, it will pay better than the gems would have done. The identity of the thief is something I am not prepared to offer. Not for any price you're likely willing to pay, in any case. The Den. Sunset. Let's talk.’

‘That pink-scaled son of a lizard.’ Brando thinks. Then he starts chuckling, turning finally into full-on laughter. That dirty dragon had caught him completely off guard. He'd have to think of a proper way to get him back for this. Much as he wants to hate Smog for the theft, he can only manage a slight displeasure, blending with his mirth as plans of revenge start to form in his head. The most obvious and simple one is already on his back.

The mailpony was still there. Why was he, though? Oh, right, tipping. He doesn’t have bits to waste, though. In mid-thought, he snaps his claws with an idea, causing the mailpony to blink in confusion. "Your tip, of course! Here you are." Brando pulls out the last normal device and hands it to the mailpony with a plop. The pony looks at him, and he stares right back. The mailpony makes a motion to slap the taste out of Brando's beak, but having been thoroughly experienced with smacking that day, he catches the hoof in his claw. "That device is worth twenty times what I'd tip you in bits. Be thankful I tipped you at all. If this wasn't from Smog, I'd have told you to get lost."

The pony relents: his pretense of dignity seemingly satisfied as he eyes the device with more than a little interest. Catching himself, the pony tosses it into the empty mailbag, huffs at Brando, and trots off. Brando gets another chuckle out of the silly pony's reaction.

Brando heads for the Dragon's Den, what with no reason to go anywhere else at the moment. After that long day of pain, he could seriously use at least a couple rainbows. Nah, something heavier. Maybe a Pan-Equestrian Gizzard Blaster. That sounded about right for painkilling. He'd make sure to order it first thing. Making his way into the Den, he stops short as he sees Pick sitting at the bar. He takes a moment and leans to the side of the door frame. Nobody else in the place save for Smog. Still taking the precaution to look into the corners of the room, he makes his way inside. Surely not even someone with a temper like Pick's would try to get revenge in Smog's place: that was just begging to get flame-broiled. He catches Pick's eyes in the mirror behind the bar as he crosses the floor, still carrying a sack on his back with a rather large object inside of it. How peculiar, it looked as if the cop was distraught. It wasn't that big of a blow: plenty of cops screw up the first day. He slides onto a stool right next to Pick, and after the day he just had, he slaps the rookie cop on the back and sighs: being almost sincere. "Ahh, again, sorry about your luck earlier today. I'm sure you'll do better tomorrow, eh?" He then looks up at Smog. "Smog, old friend, old buddy! I've got a present for you! I think it's just right for you, actually."

He takes the bag and slides the last huge device out. It flops onto the bar, making Pick's drink bounce slightly as it settles to stillness. Brando was right, just about the perfect size. Clearly an intentional gift from the thief, as he waits for Smog's reaction, he remembers to order himself that drink, jaw shooting pain from the talking.

Mithril freezes and stares at the trove. Outwardly she is unfazed, but on the inside she is forcing back a bright blush, an embarrassed squeak, and raucous laughter all at once. THOSE weren’t gems. She also felt anger, but relief at the same time. Those WEREN’T gems. Brando wouldn’t have to take the fall, but at the same time, someone would need to. That meant her, most likely.

“So Brando,” Pick said, “are these those personal items that you mentioned earlier? I have no idea why you thought we would ‘take a cut’ of these. Okay, ha-ha, very funny, but the joke’s over: tell us where the gems are.”

Brando turns back to him, and for once the expression of honesty he wears looks genuine to Mithril. “This is my only hidey-hole: I’ve not put in any other hidden compartments on the ship. As to why you’d take a cut, well, I just thought maybe they suited you." His expression fades back into his usual poker face. “I told you I had nothing contraband aboard my ship. I’m a completely legitimate businessman. Please, feel free to dig through them to make sure there's nothing hiding underneath the pile. Just remember to wash your hands afterwards." He pauses for a minute. “It really is a shame, you not finding anything. Well, if that will be all, officers, I would quite like to get back to my own business, which involves locking you two back out of my ship, pretty and inviting as she may be.”

Mithril glares quietly at Brando. She has known him more than long enough to tell when he’s lying, and he isn’t. She watches him struggle with his wing-cuffs. "OW! Son of a…uh, hey, officers, you mind?”

Mithril lets out a sigh and uncuffs him. “Alright, Brando. You’re free to go. No gems here. I’ll buy you a drink later to make up for it.” She stuffs her cuffs back under her armor and stalks out, Pick a silent thunderhead on her heels. The walk to the station is quite possibly the longest she’s ever taken. The elevator up seems to take forever, and she feels a slight pit form in her stomach as she opens the door to her superior’s office. She sits and gives her report, stating that she hadn’t found any gems on Brando’s ship.

The larger pegasus stares at her from over his hooves and nods. “Alright, Mithril. I hate to do this, but we’re putting you on leave. Unpaid.”

She had seen that coming, so she simply nods. “How long?”

“Indefinite.” he said. He holds his hoof out for her badge and her cuffs, which she hands over. Instead of going home, however, she goes to her favorite sweets shop and buys as much as she dares. She then goes home. An hour passes in gloomy self-indulgence. With a sigh, she sits in her favorite chair, debating what she should do with her unexpected day off…and the next one, and the next one. She shakes herself out of it. She would not let this get to her. Mithril pus on her favorite non-police jacket, a simple brown number with grey fur lining it. She locks the door and simply begins to wander the town.

When Mithril comes home, she hasn’t accomplished much. Actually she hadn’t accomplished anything. She had done a lot of window shopping, and picked up a couple books she had been looking at. They’d help pass the time. She lets out a sigh and is about to sit down again when a knock comes at her door. Mithril’s finely honed instincts stand up and scream. But she goes to the door anyway. Outside is a green pegasus stallion with bright blue eyes. He holds out a sealed letter to her. She takes it and nods to the pegasus. He nods back and takes to the air. Mithril opens the letter and looks it over.

‘I will be direct. If you want your job back, I can give it to you. Let's discuss a strictly legal business venture, you and I. Be at the Dragon's Den at sunset.’

Mithril reads it three times and then just glares at it. There were very few people in Aura with the power to get her job back. One of them is a certain pink dragon. She sighs and shuts her door, locking it behind her, and heads towards the Den.

Meta: Quick edited. I hadn't seen the additional message. I actually had no intention to sell the pipe. Doesn't seem too much of a big deal.

Red exits the club after Smog dismisses her, walking in a haze of giddy excitement. Not only would she be able to pay off the debt she owed Smog, but also get to be the master DJ of the Sonic Rainboom! It just seemed too good to be true. 'I wonder if Smog was lying?' She dismisses the thought. 'Smog wouldn't do that to me.' Reaching the edge of the cloud-docks, she launches herself into the air and flies for one of the vertical tunnels that led to the topside, where she had a modest house in one of the cheaper apartment towers.

Red thought as she flew. She pondered what the job might be, and wondered if it would be just her and Brando. She would have to wait for a signal though, something from Smog that told her when to get involved. As Red nears her house she realizes that sending her with Brando meant this had to be something very important to Smog. She liked to think he trusted her, and Smog had already proven to be very honorable in how he handled her debt to him. Not once had he asked her to work overtime or docked her for showing up for work a little late sometimes. She even had plenty of time off for the jobs that actually paid for her food and rent, and he could always point out where she should look.

Doubts still nag and gnaw at her. Smog had said what they were going to do was 'perfectly legal', but that was either in Smog's terms, or barely legal at all. She hesitates at the thought and stopped flying forward for a moment, and just hovered there.

“I don't need anymore trouble with the police.” She says it to herself stoically, then regains her usual cheery demeanor. “I'm sure everything will work out, it always does." Red resumes flying.

Red makes it home, thinks about eating, snorts, and crashes into her tattered but plush cloud bed. When she awakens it’s an hour past noon and her stomachs are making like dancers in a mosh pit. After a huge meal, she thinks about going to look for an afternoon job. Instead, too many days of not sleeping quite enough hours join forces with the meal and send her stumbling back to bed.

Knocking drags her back awake after what feels like only moments. Stumbling to the door, she opens it to find a mail pony on her balcony porch looking annoyed. That vanishes when he sees her. He hands Red a letter and greets her: "Here you go, DJ." She smiles at him as she tosses him a tip, and he smiles back before flying off. As she opens the letter she thinks, 'Wow, somepony who actually knows me!' So few in the city did, but she vows that will change soon. The letter said for Red to come to the Den at sunset: she recognized Smog’s handwriting. She looks into the sky and frowns. It was almost sundown.

"ARGH! I'm never gonna make it!" She runs and jumps straight into the air, flying toward the Den as fast as she can. At least it was mostly downwards.

When Red gets there the last of the colors have just finished fading from the western sky. She hopes she isn’t late enough to make Smog mad. She walks in the door panting and her mane and tail a wind-whipped mess. When she enters, the first thing she notices is Smog at the bar, along with Brando. But Pick is there too, and that unicorn mare. She goes over and sits down next to Brando, a one-seat gap between them. He gives her a look, and she notices he has his pipe back.

“Sorry I’m late, Smog.” she said.

[the below is written by TheRookie]
Pick glares at Brando. It should have been extremely obvious that he isn't in the mood for back-slapping or friendly chatting. Pick speaks without the happy, carefree tone he had in his voice when Brando first met him. Instead it is filled with seriousness and anger. “First of all, touch me again and I'll add to the beating it looks like someone’s already given you. Second of all, don't talk to me about luck when a thief sneaks onto your ship and changes out your merchandise." With that Brando looks at Pick with surprise, but before he can speak Pick continues. “I’m here for more or less the same reason you are. Oh but don't worry, you'll have Mithril and that DJ from earlier to protect you and make sure I don't do anything. And don’t ask me why I'm doing the job with you, you won't get an answer." With that Pick goes back to staring into his drink, taking occasional sips from the mug. He rather hopes Smog will teach Brando a lesson for the insulting ‘gift’ lying on the bar.
[from here on it’s all me]
“Pan-Equestrian Gizzard Blaster, Smog.” Brando said.

After a long moment, Smog turns away and mixes up that masochistic drink, though Smog privately named it ‘Goodbye, Mr. Brain.’ It has all the subtlety of a kick to the skull, and as Pick observes, Brando looks like he had already suffered a few literal ones. But if Brando wants to make himself stupider for the upcoming negotiations, Smog isn’t complaining.

Setting the drink before him, Smog mentally adds it to Brando’s new tab. Skewering the…device…on a claw with a garunch-sproing of wrecking clockwork, he flicks it down behind the bar into a trash can. Smog cleans his claw with a welding-torch flame from one nostril, then hones it against his thumb claw like a knife and steel. Reaching behind the bar, he comes up with his claw in a fist. Brando tenses. Smog opens his fist so Brando can see the pipe in it: identical to the one Mithril had stolen earlier that day, but brand new. Setting it by the mug of brain poison, Smog gives it a sarcastic nudge.

“IT WAS GOING TO BE A GIFT. I’LL ADD WHAT IT COST ME TO YOUR TAB.” Brando winces. Deep under his chilly self-control, Smog fervently wishes he had crushed it in his fist instead. “IF YOU ARE DONE BEING PETTY, PERHAPS WE CAN ALL NOW ACT LIKE ADULTS.”

Brando fills and lights the pipe, wincing as he catches the stem firmly in his beak. “What’s the rookie talking about, comrade?”

“HE’S HERE FOR THE JOB.” Smog said.

Pick and Brando have been sullenly ignoring each other. Now they look sideways: Brando with shock and growing horror, Pick with sullen resignation. Brando looks back to Smog. “Is this some sick joke?”


Pick’s expression goes blank around widening, horrified eyes as he puts two and two together. Smog idly polishes a mug with a rag, grinning inside. Yes, little pegasus: I want you for those talents.

Brando has his own problems. “If we’re going anywhere near Zavros, you smug…” He stops himself. “Wait a minute. Legal plus profitable equals trouble.”

“THERE’S AN ELEMENT OF DANGER INVOLVED, YES. BUT DETAILS MUST WAIT UNTIL THE OTHERS ARRIVE. AS PICK SAID, THEY ARE MITHRIL AND RED RAIDER, WHO IS SOMEWHAT MORE THAN A SIMPLE DISC JOCKEY.” Smog casually planted that seed of suspicion and not even Brando managed to notice when he did. If they felt Red was not who she appeared to be, they were less likely to try anything clever against her.

Four people?” Brando said. “On the Snark?”


Pick finally recovers from his horror as a new realization hits home on a wave of outrage. “You want me to work with him? That’s not what you promised, Smog. How can I possibly work with him, he’s a crim…inal…” Pick trails off as certain facts return to his awareness. “Fine, he’s not officially a criminal.”


Pick’s jaw muscles work. “I am not okay with this.”


“You manipulative…” Brando said. He takes a drink, an unwisely large one, and groans in pain. He grabs his head in his hands, but this only causes more pain from squeezing his bruised cheeks. Pick watches with no small amount of ill-concealed satisfaction.

Smog does as well, though perfectly concealed, until he remembers the message sent to him earlier today. All humor vanishes. That message was the reason he had rushed this meeting, when waiting a while would have suited him better. Time for tempers to cool and desperation to grow. But Smog wants this business set in motion in case he has little free time in the immediate future.

Silence rules until Mithril walks in. She goes expressionless as she sees Pick and Brando. Her poker face is good, but her eyes narrow and her nostrils flare when she sees Brando’s pipe. She reveals she has the original on her by dipping a small cloud of magic into a pocket of her coat. Making sure it hadn’t been lifted: smart mare. Her glare shifts to Smog, moderated with the healthy wariness of someone who knows very well what he is.

He gives her a nod. “NICE COAT, LIEUTENANT.” She snorts. Smog studies a claw. “UNTIL YOU HAVE BEEN FIRED, A POLICE LIEUTENANT YOU REMAIN.”

Mithril takes the barstool opposite Pick from Brando. Smog has a Strawberry Gelato already prepared in his icebox and sets it before her. She sighs and pushes it back. Smog raises an eyebrow, not truly surprised. “I’ve had my fill of sweets today, you old schemer. Hit me with the sour.” Pick looks sidelong at her. She ignores him. Smog makes the gelato vanish and deftly whips up a bowl of snow and crushed diamond-ice: drizzled with sweet-sour lemon syrup, a little liquid yellow for added bite, and a small amount of sea salt for contrast. Mithril gives the dessert a long stare. “You did know I was being metaphorical, right?”

Smog just stares back. He knows she had been literal about the overindulgence in sweets. It was perfectly in her character after the day she would have had. Mithril snorts, not without humor, and tries a spoonful. Her mouth demands more, seeking to balance out all the sweet she had eaten earlier. A tipsy Brando is a good thing, for Smog, but he wants Mithril to commit to this in the soberest possible mood, and that includes not being cranky and restless from too much sugar.

Brando sips his drink and winces less each time as it starts to work. Pick nurses his third Rainbow Dash. Mithril slowly eats, getting not just some salt but quite a lot of water in her from the ice and snow. Just as Smog begins to entertain the notion of worrying, Red Raider trots in looking like she had rolled out of bed and raced straight here. She had done that before, so Smog judged that was probably what had happened.

Brando’s presence doesn’t surprise her, but the others do. Sitting by Brando, though with a seat between them, she gives Smog a worried grin. “Sorry I’m late, Smog.”


“Smog…” Mithril said. “You’re giving me a headache.”

“My apologies, Lieutenant.” Smog said. “Let us waste no time getting to the meat of the business. I wish for the four of you to travel on Brando’s Snark to a location, retrieve a certain package, and deliver it to my hands. It must be done within two months. I work on behalf of another in this, and I am prepared to evenly split my finder’s fee four ways among us. Red will be forgiven a previous debt and paid a very substantial favor.”

“How much?” Brando said.

“Five hundred thousand bits.” Smog said. He enjoys the profound silence that follows. “Less expenses.”

Even tipsy, Brando has an abacus in his skull that rarely failed to serve him well. “That’s a hundred and twenty-five thousand bits each, before expenses.”

“No.” Smog said. “Five hundred thousand each.”

Brando’s beak drops open and Smog deftly snatches his falling pipe before it lands in the mug and sends the Gizzard Blaster up in a fireball. Mithril freezes, spoon in mouth. Red eeps. Pick chokes on his Rainbow Dash. He sputters, swirled colors dribbling out of his nose. “Someone’s paying you two million bits?”

Smog hands Brando his pipe back, who takes it likes a sleepwalker. “I’ve handled bigger deals. Not as a daily event, I admit. And the expenses could, at the maximum, equal almost a third of that.”

Brando mutters for a moment. “Three hundred and thirty-three thousand bits after expenses? Each. It can’t be legal.”

“I think I’m being cheated.” Red said.

“No, my dear, you are not.” Smog said. “You’ll make over a thousand bits a week at your new job. Over a ten-year contract, even barring month-long vacations and occasional missed work, you will easily earn five hundred thousand bits. Your payoff will merely be stretched out.”

“Yeah, we’re the ones being cheated.” Brando said.

Red subsides, looking stunned. Smog whipped up a simple honeyed cloud-cream for her to sip while visions of money and fame dance through her mind. Smog waits, knowing it is best to make them ask rather than just tell them. Brando does it, grey eyes narrowing.

“Where do you propose we go, Smog?”

“Dust.” Smog said.

META: I broke this uber-post into halves for the sake of the server of 20pc.

Red frowns in confusion, but then her eyes go wide. All she would know were children’s tales, but those were bad enough. Mithril stares at Smog as if seriously doubting his sanity. Pick just closes his eyes as old memories no doubt rose from their graves and launched an assault. Brando, predictably, starts cursing in his native Griffin, which is a very good language for being angry. Smog waits him out, amused at Brando’s sheer inventiveness. After a while the griffin begins repeating himself. Smog clears his throat with a sound like a demolition charge going off at the bottom of a well. Brando’s beak clacks shut.

“Dust.” Smog said. “South and west from Aura, then west into the Fringe and Firelight Woods. From there through the Twin Breach and north to Dust. Perhaps a thousand miles there and the same returning.”

“Take an airship,” Mithril said, “through the Twin Breach? The frayed ends of those leylines would rip her magic apart, destroy her engines. She’d never make it.”

“No.” Brando said. He has a glint in his eyes now, as his thirst for excitement awakens. “She would just have to be fast. Very fast.” His expression falls. “But I won’t do that, Smog.” He jerks a taloned thumb at Pick and Mithril. “Not with them aboard.”

Smog is tempted to shake his head and sigh. He hadn’t been about to risk the police discovering Brando’s engine modifications. They couldn’t have arrested him, not under the warrant they had, but they could and would have accused him of endangering the cloud-docks by knowingly bringing the Snark into them. They would have escorted him from Aura’s territory…right into the waiting hooves of the Zavrosi Air Patrol. But Smog had ensured certain laws due for repeal had been lifted a bit faster than the politicians would have done on their own.

“The law changed.” Mithril said. She gave Smog a hard stare but spoke to Brando. “Just a few months ago. That’s why I didn’t bother insisting we search the engine room for contraband. Your redliner kit’s legal, now.”

Red perks up. “Oh, cool, you have a redliner?”

“A what?” Pick said.

“The Snark’s Spectrum Engine,” Smog said, “has been modified to burn pure liquid red.”

“But that’s explosive.” Pick said. “An unstable explosive. How the stratus does that work?”

Brando smoothes down his head feathers, proud of his ship and unafraid to show it now that he has no fear of being arrested. “Very well, if very carefully done. I won’t say she could make a sonic rainboom, but mostly only because the forces would rip her apart. I got her up to three hundred miles an hour on a testing.”

“Some of the expenses,” Smog said, “go to installing a liquid diamond-ice coolant system that will let you redline for minutes instead of seconds. More will go to buying a batch of prism-distilled red with the new additives that make it acceptably safe with sensible handling. Enough to run through the Breach three times. Not to mention triple reinforcement on all the magic, to counter what erosion will still happen.”

“So we aren’t riding in a flying bomb?” Pick said. His tone is acid on top and relieved underneath. “That’s one less way for us to get killed, at least.”

“No more a bomb than any airship.” Smog said.

“Say the Snark can run the Breach.” Mithril said. “Fine. You’re asking us to take an airship into Dust, where magic-based technology is illegal.”

“It isn’t.” Smog said. “They never bothered to make it so, since no magic-based technology has ever been able to pass through the Breach without being destroyed. I expect that will change after this, but laws don’t work backwards in time. By the time they can get the laws changed, you four will be long gone again.”

Brando bursts out into deep, full-bellied, utterly scornful laughter. “Laws? You think laws will stop those cute little maniacs from dropping us all down a hole and rolling a boulder on top? They only look harmless and they hate magic. Smog, comrade, you have gone insane.”

“Three hundred thousand bits after expenses.” Smog said. Brando shoots him a dirty look, but only because he knows it was going to work. “Clean money: no need to be careful spending it. The most advanced redliner kit in the world and unlikely to be rivaled even by military interceptors for a few years. And a place in history. If you think for even a moment I haven’t considered how to deal with the danger of ‘those cute little maniacs,’ it is you who needs to question his sanity. Or at least sobriety.”

Brando takes another drink. “Bah. Da, I’m in. You always knew I would be. And these two cops are under your thumb, somehow. They want to come back to Aura and be police, and they have integrity, so they won’t let me just fly away with my upgraded ship and never return. What are we bringing back that someone is willing to pay two million bits to get?”

Smog’s smile is only in his voice, but it is very nearly outright laughter. “Dust. Healdust. Those ‘mines’ are nothing of the sort, just breeding caverns for a kind of fungus that grows nowhere else. The miraculous drug known as healdust is nothing but that fungus, dried and ground to powder. They bake what they sell to make any spores in it sterile. That makes it less potent, but still enough to command the obscene prices they demand. The job is to fetch a pound of unsterilized spores from a contact in Dust who is willing to betray his people for the right price. My employer wishes to sell small amounts to various nations and become extremely rich, with the side-effect of the fungus becoming widely grown all across in the world. Healdust would become common and cheap, to the obvious benefit of all."

Brando seemed at an utter loss of words, for once. None of the rest looked much better. Red still seemed afraid, but no longer on the verge of a metaphorically and literally bolting. Pick looked a lot less unhappy as well, as he realized this would be a major deposit on the right side of his moral ledger. Mithril was too aware of the danger to be delighted, and too wary of hidden catches, but she clearly had no personal objections to breaking the Dust monopoly on healdust and all that would follow.

Even so… “Questions, anyone?”

META: No need to post your PC asking questions in post. It’s boring and we can do it off-screen. Just email me any questions about things like Dust, healdust, its inhabitants, the upcoming preparations for the mission, and so on. I’ll gather them all in one list, answer them, and then post it for all to read. We can proceed from there, but don’t expect Smog to be personally involved in much.

Here’s a few things I predict people are going to be curious about. Think of healdust as magically turbocharged penicillin that heals wounds and numbs pain as well as cures infections. To me it seems like something that this kind of world might reasonably contain. Eat enough of the most potent form and you’ll get darned-near Wolverine level regeneration. Though too much regenerating and you’ll starve to death in hours. The natives of Dust are basically koalas, head-height to the average pony’s back. Like the Ewoks, you do not want to underestimate the adorable little buggers. I’m actually going for Victorian English rather than Australian. They have no magic and want nothing to do with it, and their technology is a bit more advanced than elsewhere. I think you’d call it a mix of clockpunk and steampunk. Their military is hopped-up on healdust, so they can safely take a lot of abuse without any danger of death or lasting harm.

Morhoof said:
There was no specific reason for being in Aura. Maybe just some old memories, the feel and smell of that air, as well as the possibly of an old associate still kicking. Luck was with him: a young pegasus was dropping off some mail along with picking some up. ‘Delivery colts...pawns for sinister games of wealth and power.’ The thought was solid in his head, and just as heavy as you'd imagine. The drifter approached the unfortunate colt, who'd begun to hurriedly collect everything in an effort to avoid a confrontation. Too late, though. "Listen, you: I need a message sent to a place that you might not be familiar with. That's not my problem and you wont have one if you do as I ask. Up in Aura, there is a place called the Dragon's Den. Tell the Barkeep that The Lute is here, and I'll meet him on the southern outskirts of Shadowville. Preferably at the Brass Hoof. Got that?" His voice was blunt, clear, and straight to the point. The pegasus merely nodded, not bothering to make eye contact, and flew off. Hopefully to deliver his message first.

After his four pawns leave the Den, Smog descends through the heart of the cloud-dock’s inverted tower by a secret tunnel. Emerging from the very tip, he falls away like a drop of pink water from a vast white stalactite. Opening his wings by degrees, he turns his plummet into a steep dive that gradually levels out. Flaring them to catch his headwind, he checks his speed and lightly drops down into a certain courtyard in Shadowville. Bricked-up windows face onto it and all four buildings believe one of the others owns it. Lifting a massive paving stone with a grunt, Smog slithers underneath, holding it with his tail and lowering it behind him. The tunnel is full of dust and cobwebs…

…right until he flames and fries it all to ash, a substance guaranteed not to cling to dragon scales. Smog furls his wings tight and snake-crawls down the downward-sloping tunnel to the far end, which leads to another slab flooring a cellar. It’s packed with barrels and crates, all of them full of drinks and ingredients for drinks. Smog laughs in his mind, imagining what a sneeze would touch off. Looking up, the amusement fades. If he could have been sure it would finish off the unnerving little equine, he would have seriously considered just such an ‘accident.’

Smog didn’t know nearly as much as he liked about the Wandering Lute. Worse, the Lute knew entirely too much about Smog. Why is he here now? Smog has possibly the greatest scheme he had ever attempted in the works, and he turns up. That it was a coincidence was possible but, Smog knows, not flaming likely. Smog closes his eyes, wrapping his mind in crystal armor of self-control and calculating thought. Creeping up the cellar stairs, he emerges into the back room.

A purple unicorn barmare spots him, eyes enormous as she inhales to scream. Smog moves like pink lightning, catching her gently but firmly by the neck. His tail grabs the tub of dirty mugs as her magic releases it, keeping it from crashing to the floor. A gentle-as-possible pinch to a nerve and her scream emerges and a tiny squeak. Flipping a tiny glass capsule from under a scale, he crushes it under her nose when she inhales again. The vapors whip down her throat and she falls into peaceful slumber.

Gently setting her down on a pile of folded towels, Smog leaves her to sleep it off. When she awoke she wouldn’t remember the last few waking minutes. Smog shakes his head. Let a discreet entrance go unused a mere century and everyone forgets it exists. He’d have to talk to the latest generation of the family that owned the Brass Hoof: reminding them to warn their employees. They didn’t own it outright, but Smog charged them no rent except a very occasional favor and use of the secret entrance.

The common room of the old-fashioned tavern goes deathly still as Smog enters it. Mostly earth ponies and unicorns, the crowd is salted with a pair of pegasi and a lone griffin with yellowed white feathers, an eye-patch, and a balding crest. Providing rather more salt than necessary, a trio of Diamond Dogs from the northwestern mines sit at a table in one corner. The doggies look like Smog had come in threatening them with a bath. Smog pauses in the doorway, waiting to see if anyone is going to be stupid.

As one, most of the people present look suspiciously into their drinks. A huge brown earth pony, sitting between the pegasi, starts to laugh: a whinnying giggle. His companions tackle him, practically sitting on his head as they hiss at him to shut up. Female twins, they have pale yellow and blue coloring, reversed on each. Smog’s tidy memory hands him a report. Brightwing and Glorywind. No one in particular: though if they got promoted higher in rainbow manufacture they might become interesting. Unlikely: they only got their jobs through family connections. Obviously slumming, looking for a weekend fling with some earth pony hunk. They wear dresses that cover their cutie marks and are stupid enough to believe that is enough to disguise their identity. The slumming is a tidbit he hadn’t already known and one that might prove useful, though he would have to use it before this became common knowledge. He doesn’t know their male friend, which suggests their friend didn’t know of Smog.

The twins hustle their snickering companion out the front door and into the night. The Diamond Dogs follow, slinking away with ears and tails down. The old griffin gives Smog a downright evil glare with his one red eye. Smog looks back, calm and utterly motionless, until the griffin clacks his chipped beak and goes back to his drinking. Small noises, muffled coughs and shuffling hooves, only underline the silence.

Then a hooded pony in another corner laughs. His voice is rich, a natural talent lovingly polished, and the laugh is like the first ray of light on the first dawn at the world’s beginning. Smog’s mood goes from sour to rotten. The laugher’s fore-hooves bang slowly together in a mockery of applause, one of them made of carved wood. “Smaug Silvertongue, you scheming serpent’s son, you haven’t changed a bit. Still pinker than a maiden’s blush.”

There is a sudden, almost polite, but insistent rush for the door. Smog ignores them as he sits upright, eyes closed, and commits violence in his mind. The old griffin is the only one to linger. Smog opens his eyes to stare at him, letting the inner inferno show behind them. His lips part in a un-grin wide enough to show every fang. The griffin bolts like a startled lizard. Smog closes his eyes again, now furious with himself. Control. Power is slave to control. All control begins with the self. I am in control. His crumbling restraint steadies as he locks away the ancient memories in their crypt, puts the rage back in its chains where it did his will.

The cloaked pony remained, no longer clapping. “Well, that was rude of me. I never meant to step on your tail, truly, old friend. The Brass Hoof sells the most wonderful cider these days. I have partaken perhaps too deeply while waiting for you to appear.”

Smog moves to crouch at the table, pushing the useless chair aside. He is fully in control again, his mind once again a place of clockwork and ice. “I’M HERE. WHAT DO YOU WANT, MORHOOF?”

Morhoof watched the patrons scatter, one or a few at a time, out of the establishment. He was beginning to want to play something to lighten the staleness of the mood. If it weren't for the cider, which he took a swallow of, he might have chosen a different location.

His ears flicked under his hood, just a little peep somewhere else in the building, 'Wonderful…’ his conscience squeaked at him. Morhoof smiled, a bit mockingly, to himself, as Smog sat down before him.

"Oh dear, I certainly hope you didn't give that unicorn too much of a scare." He flipped back his hood, letting his choppy mane fall about him. The entire left half of his mane was purely white, while the other half had the same, yet slightly darker, complexion of his russet hide. His umber eyes were still deep and thoughtful, maybe now even to more so. He looked to be about in his forties, with two straight scars running the length of his muzzle. "The years look as though they have treated you well, Smog. To be honest I'm surprised you even bothered to show." He treaded a little lighter in his words, sensing tension in the air. "Didn't take to the idea you'd believe in ghosts, Smog."

"But I digress. You know me, enough, to know that I'm an everywhere sort of earth pony. It doesn't seem that anywhere I go, that there isn't something that interests me. This is true, although only momentarily remembered as the shadow of Aura clouded my eyes." He leaned a little closer to the dragon. "The information I have, albeit as old as I care to remember, is that a certain Magician, whom is under your reign, is escorting a myriad of shiny Clown Noses to and fro." He leaned back, taking a draught of cider. "One in particular interests me. A certain blue one, say the shade of oh...sapphire? Quite a marvelous one, more art than...what it is." He sighed and sets his chair stable beneath him. "But all this business can be quite drab after awhile. A little disheartening when you arrive to expect me to want something of you. Can not two old friends meet for a round? I suppose not. You made the poor server faint."

Pick walks out of the bar, his brain focused tactically on what he's going to need to bring, as well as some former allies that could help him and his 'business partners' get some supplies. But not the ones who think he’s dead. Pick takes the long way to his little shack, making a few stops along the way. Once inside he puts on a pinstriped dress jacket that is torn and tattered, with noticeable dirt and cement stains on the arms. Pick stumps over to his lockbox and removes the insignia. He pins it on the lapel, as well as one that looks the same but is something more. After getting them settled, he slips it off and shoves it in a saddlebag. He puts a few carefully selected items in his lockbox of mementos and sticks that in the other saddlebag. Pick fishes his shovel from under the bed, shoulders the bags, and heads for Brando’s berth. Pick looks the Snark over and then pounds on the door, not wanting to wait any longer to stow his most dangerous possessions aboard.

Morhoof said:
"But I digress. You know me, enough, to know that I'm an everywhere sort of earth pony. It doesn't seem that anywhere I go, that there isn't something that interests me. This is true, although only momentarily remembered as the shadow of Aura clouded my eyes." He leaned a little closer to the dragon. "The information I have, albeit as old as I care to remember, is that a certain Magician, whom is under your reign, is escorting a myriad of shiny Clown Noses to and fro." He leaned back, taking a draught of cider. "One in particular interests me. A certain blue one, say the shade of oh...sapphire? Quite a marvelous one, more art than...what it is." He sighed and sets his chair stable beneath him. "But all this business can be quite drab after awhile. A little disheartening when you arrive to expect me to want something of you. Can not two old friends meet for a round? I suppose not. You made the poor server faint."



Smog feels a sensation not unlike indigestion, but uglier. Much uglier. His decision to eat the evidence suddenly seemed prepared to bite him on the tail. Morhoof was not likely to take that news well. “DESCRIBE IT.” Perhaps a forgery would do.

“More of a trinket. Just a piece of art that happens to be made out of Sapphire and Emerald, in the shape of a Rose.”

Smog is suddenly torn between relief and cold fury. On the one claw, he had eaten nothing but un-worked gems. He tries not to devour art: it is almost always more profitable to sell it. Or anonymously turn it in for the reward. On the other claw, there is no way that Brando could have held something like that back without Smog sensing it. The thief he sent must have kept it back. If he had truly been stupid enough to believe he could get away with it, there would have been no hidden anxiety to sense.

A faint sound draws Smog’s attention downward. Curls of pale shavings lie around the deep new grooves cut into the age-blackened table. His claws had done that entirely without permission. Smog focuses inward again, plugging the cracks where his rage had leaked through. Shifting his weight, he pries his toe-talons out of the floor.


This is, provisionally, and pending approval from an admin, I present to you the National Equestrian Anthem of the Equestrian Empire in this RP universe.

Just don't have your PC sing the line about Faust if it ever come up in-universe.

Morhoof dropped his jaw in a mocking fashion. "You don't say? I never expected you to have to go to those lengths for a pretty face. Maybe I should keep her company, to ward of anypony that might be a bit mischievous in nature, eh?" He gave a wry smile.

Smog seemed not to have heard him.


"Hmm... Does said Sky Magician not work for you? How could you possibly not have such a piece wrapped under lock and key? Or whatever is used nowadays. This is quite a problem, I can tell that you believe the same thing." He nodded to the kindling Smog had just peeled from the old table. "Here I thought that you, of all beings, would know how to hire an honest hoof. For shame Smog, for shame." He did not bother adding any mocking or sarcastic tone to his voice: he knew all too well that Smog could peel him just like that table.

Morhoof downed the last of his drink, lapping his tongue inside the tankard to scrounge the last few drops that never seemed to want to leave on their own. "Where is this blackguard? I'm at least sure you have some knowledge of whom you have hired, and whereabouts to find them if such an event has gone awry. I would very much like to know the whereabouts of my possession."

Morhoof said:
Morhoof downed the last of his drink, lapping his tongue inside the tankard to scrounge the last few drops that never seemed to want to leave on their own. "Where is this blackguard? I'm at least sure you have some knowledge of whom you have hired, and whereabouts to find them if such an event has gone awry. I would very much like to know the whereabouts of my possession."

Smog studies Morhoof, outwardly inscrutable. The gemstone is his. Not something he covets, but something he owns. Or owned, and desires to retrieve. That put rather greater urgency on locating it. Smog decides to be more forthcoming than he would really prefer. “THE MAGICIAN IS IRRELEVANT. I HAD HIM ROBBED. FOR HIS OWN GOOD: BEFORE THE POLICE COULD CATCH HIM WITH THEM. THE THIEF I EMPLOYED DELIVERED NO SUCH GEM TO ME AS YOU DESCRIBED. I WILL LOCATE THE THIEF AND RETRIEVE THE GEM. I WOULD DO SO IN ANY CASE. NO ONE CROSSES ME WITH IMPUNITY.”

“Good, good. I trust you can deal with it.”

Smog watches with care. If the threat in the last sentence had registered, Smog sees no sign of it in those heavy umber eyes: hears none in that voice, like honey poured over thunder. He wants Morhoof gone from Aura soonest. Beyond the threat of old secrets exposed, just looking at him, smelling him, hearing his voice, shakes the foundations of everything Smog has clawed and scrabbled to become. He can feel the memories like a pressure in his skull, fighting to surface. Memories of the most sublime music in existence. True music: blends of melody and lyric, of instrument and voice, of technical skill and passionate emotion.

Smog has learned, with painful effort, to face the truth at the heart of his self: he is a near-total failure as a dragon. Self-delusion was a weakness he sought to purge. He had been driven to leave dragon society (to the limited extent they had one) because he could never compete. Even if he gathered a pile of treasure, he lacked the power to defend it. Most of the Old Ones had tongues larger than him. In acid envy that had long since congealed into poisonous disdain, Smog had scorned the direct personal power he could never possess. He had turned from his own kind, vowing that he would rather be a prince among ants than a pauper among dragons. But even after he insinuated himself into the lesser races, he had shunned physical wealth. He turned instead to control, and found it an acceptable substitute. Smog’s hoard is information, and secrets, and influence. It resides only in his skull and in fiendishly well-encoded journals. His hoard is less substantial than spiderwebs and moonlight, but with a word here and a nudge there he could set such events in motion as to bring an Old One to its massive knees with no personal risk of injury whatsoever.

That was true power.

No one could take Smog’s hoard from him. Or rather, no one could gain it from him. Morhoof knew things that could destroy Smog’s reputation. Crafted over centuries: shattered at a word. Now Morhoof wants a gemstone back and Smog must scramble to retrieve it. The stunted dragon feels the old hated helplessness of his youth and the rage it always provoked. That gnawing, bitter, helpless rage that had manifested outwardly as meekness. But he could have easily dealt with it, if that had been all. Long ago, Morhoof had sent his music creeping in past all of Smog’s defenses and awakened something in his heart. It had been wonderful. It had been horrible. It had been unforgivable.

It had been, try as Smog might, unforgettable.

Insanity. Unthinkable. Obscene. Smog is a pathetic dragon but a dragon he remains, and he refuses to even entertain the notion. But the hunger is in him. Usually it lies quiet but now it is awake and gnawing at him. Morhoof spun subtle magic into his playing. It was the only possible explanation. What Smog wanted to know was if it had been deliberate. If it had, Morhoof clearly had no desire of claiming what he had won. The thought twisted a knife in his guts. If it had been an accident, then some flaw or predisposition in Smog had left him susceptible. A different knife, but no lesser.

That longing proved Smog had no right to call himself any kind of dragon at all. Smog had never come close to indulging. He rarely even felt tempted. The lesser races were mayflies to him. Flowers that bloomed and withered in a handful of moments. He appreciated their beauty in ways no proper dragon ever should, but they were nothing he coveted. The pieces changed but the game went on, the eternal game of manipulation and control. But there Morhoof sat, looking exactly as he had all those centuries ago, and those eyes had been ancient then. Smog felt the most alien and un-draconic emotion imaginable. The weakness shared by all the lesser races: the flaw that forced them to cling together or go insane.


“You are quiet tonight, old friend.” Morhoof said. Smog can smell the cider on his breath and mentally vows to sell his entire stock of it as soon as he can. “Plotting and scheming, no doubt. I heard a little about you. Only whispers, and not from many. You cast a vast shadow.”

Smog’s eyes narrow a fraction despite himself. Morhoof, busy uncasing his lute, fails to notice. Or pretends to fail. Had that been a compliment or a crack about his size? Morhoof idly strums the strings, and then makes a tiny adjustment to a peg. Smog’s innards vanish into a cold and drafty cavern. He rises up from his habitual hunch, the spines of his crest lying flat and still pressing against the ceiling. He does to Morhoof what all dragons should do to lesser races, and looks down on him.

Smog fights a need to tremble. He wants to rip Morhoof’s head off. He wants to kiss him. He wants to grovel before him. He badly wants to bolt for the door. And he wants to hear him play. “THE GEM YOU WANT. THE GEM YOU SHALL HAVE. IS THAT THE LIMIT OF YOUR DESIRES?”

Morhoof looks down, plucks a single lingering note of distilled sorrow. “I came to Aura desiring to meet an old friend. Too much of the world is fleeting. I remember when the Mare in the Moon appeared. Sooth, it lasted a goodly while, but then it too vanished. All to the good, but even so.” Morhoof strums a minor chord, more wistful than sad. “Were we friends at all? Music sustains memory, but is it mere replacement? Do I remember wrongly, Smaug Silvertongue? Were we ever friends?”

Smog trembles on the verge of breaking the one vow that he has never once broken, not in all the centuries since he swore it. It is the keystone of his reputation and gives value to his hoard. In many ways, it has become the core of his identity. He hovers right on the edge of betraying it by speaking a knowing, direct untruth. But only for a moment. Smog retreats from the edge and settles back down into a crouch.

“Yes.” he said. “But things change.”

“Sooth. ‘Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.’ Would that we had stayed friends, Smaug. Would that we had.”

Morhoof idly strums the strings, seeming to ponder whether to put the instrument away or begin to truly play it. Smog hangs in a barbed web of dread and longing, hoping that he both does and doesn’t. He is not at all certain what he will do in either case. So it is with both annoyance and relief that Smog hears two sets of hooves clatter through the doorway of the Brass Hoof.

META: Rapid, looks like you're the last. If you honestly can't think of anything not covered, just email me to let me know.

DioBrando asked:
Q: How much direct resistance will we be facing post Breach?
A: Hm. As much as I think I can get away with, really.

Q: How good is the traitor at keeping secrets?
A: Considering what would happen if he was discovered by his people, extremely. They won't bother to question him, just...end him.

Q: Do I have to listen to Red's music the whole way?
A: Almost certainly.

Q: What talents does Red have?
A: Let’s leave that undefined for now, shall we?

Q: Have any better maps of Dust and/or the Breach come out recently?
A: You’ll have a decently detailed map in-universe, but again, let’s stick to making things up as we go along rather than limit our options right at the start.

Q: Will I get an instruction manual for the new gizmos going into the Snark?
A: A basic one. It’s still experimental.

Q: Do I get to watch them put it in, 'cause I don't trust people in mah ship?
A: This question, I think, answers itself.

TheRookie asked:
Q: What would happen if we don't survive?
A: You’ll survive. Unless you decide to quit the RP, then your PC dying is an option, though not the only one.

Q: What about if we're stranded?
A: Hmmm. That’s a definite possibility. Might be you lot will end up ‘hoofing it’ back to Aura. But only maybe. I have subtly set up a very plausible get-out-of-jail-free card for this very situation, but it’s only for use in the worst of emergencies, where no other plausible solution exists.

Q(a): What if we decide to keep the merchandise
Q(b): and stay in Dust?
A(a): That could happen. You’d never be able to come back to Aura and Smog would put a price on your heads, but it can’t be discounted as a possibility.
A(b): That would be almost certain suicide. I can think of a few ways to swing it, but they’re…let’s just say they’re unlikely and complex to set up.

Q: Can I contact a few 'friends' when we get there so we can have some help?
A: Oh, indeed you can. The koalas aren’t anti-other-species, just anti-magic. I expect there’s griffins artisans, earth pony workers, and diamond dog miners/fungus-farmers living there, under a snooty but bearable koala upper class. No pegasi or unicorns, and nature works basically on RL rules: like the Everfree.

DJAL3X asked:
Q: Does no unicorns and pegasi mean that we will be attacked or shunned if we are seen?
A: Is spotted by the koalas, very much so.

Q: Are there large cities, small villages, or both?
A: One big city. Small towns and farming villages scattered around it. The land is used to support itself and feed the city, which is where all the industrial side happens.

Q: Will you introduce any action on the travel?
A: Assume the journey will be eventful, yes.

Q: About how much passenger room is in the Snark?
A: The Snark has a cabin slung under an envelope shaped like a football. The cabin is basically canoe-like, but a bit wider for the length. The prow holds the helm, the rear holds the engine room, a hallways connects them. Two doors off the hallway, leading to rooms down the sides. One is for living, the other for cargo.Small is a relative thing for airships. Call it fifty feet long for the cabin, twice that and a bit for the envelope. So, for the two mid-ship rooms, let's call them thirty long, maybe twelve wide.

Q: Will the Snark be attacked when seen?
A: Yes, but it might be a matter of if. The Snark can wrap herself in cloud and make like an innocent little cumulus. Brando uses that to lie up in the day, the old fly-by-nighter. More useful in Dust, where people expect clouds to move on their own.

A single woeful note echoed for a time before he began to speak. “I came to Aura desiring to meet an old friend. Too much of the world is fleeting. I remember when the Mare in the Moon appeared. Sooth, it lasted a goodly while, but then it too vanished. All to the good, but even so.” His mind was divided between two realities. The words 'Mare in the Moon,' brought back too many memories that he too, similar to Smog, wanted to forget. He held his love in his hooves, being dragged into the past as his tongue wandered in the present. Perhaps his words may have been less of what they were if he'd drank one less mug of the Brass Hoof's finest. His words had spoken truth, none the less, a rarity indeed, seduced by swirling ciders or not.

His eyes gleamed with grievous melancholy as the fires lit before his eyes, sobbing filled his head. Incessant cackling of the infernal fires clawed at him. He snapped back as two ponies burst through the door of the Brass Hoof. A pearl-coated young earth pony, whom was quickly tackled to the floor by an ashen colored pegasus. Proudly, if not cockily, adorned in uniform. The pearl pony looked up to see Smog, his eyes blank and delirious.

"Morhoof!” he said. “The fourth wall! Fourth wall! Midnight! Point A to B! A to B!"

The pegasus in uniform blinked, his expression becoming even more confused. "What's going on here?"

He'd never get an answer. Tankard sailed and struck the pegasus square to the face with a thud. His eyes crossed and he slumped into oblivion. "You dolt!" Morhoof said. He pounced on the earth pony before he could scramble away. "Speak!" He seemed very on edge.

"Fourth wall! Midnight! A to B!" The earth pony squirmed free and bolted away into the night.

Morhoof gritted his teeth. Before taking a lesson from Smog. He relaxed himself and faced to his scaled guest. "Do one thing for them one time, and they think they own you. By Celestia's Mane they'll get a taste of their own treacherous exports." He shook his head vigorously. "I apologize, friend, I would absolutely love to have our little get-together be extended. But you, as a business don, too know that time is of the essence. Mayhaps you might be able to assist me soon. One of your local knowledge would know exactly the best course of carting goods discreetly?"

Smog eyes the knocked-out police pegasus with well-hidden but genuine amusement. Seeing Morhoof so…discomfited…did him a world of good. Then there is that obviously urgent message. The fourth wall. Midnight. A to B. It suggests nothing solid to Smog at present, but that it contained sense is beyond doubt. That is inarguable, given how Morhoof had reacted. And now Morhoof clearly needed something more than he had anticipated needing from Smog. And threats of revelation would do no good here. Morhoof suddenly needs Smog’s web of information and contacts and associates, which means he needs Smog to remain perched in the center of the web.

At least for now, but for now is more than Smog had possessed only moments ago. He has a bit of guaranteed time he can devote to digging for the meaning behind the message, and quite possibly unearth some counter-leverage to make Morhoof more cautious about revealing those old secrets. And there is further potential in the words Morhoof’s cider-loosened tongue had let slip: Do one thing for them one time, and they think they own you. By Celestia's Mane they'll get a taste of their own treacherous exports. Morhoof clearly has his wooden hoof stuck in a web, and all signs point to him being a fly to another’s spider. Well, more a pissed-off preying mantis: quite likely to turn the tables on its would-be devourer. But however it stands, Morhoof has other things and beings to worry about, and Smog smells opportunities. Perhaps he can make them worry Morhoof more, or offer to make them go away…for a price.

Smog feels almost himself, and quite invigorated.

“ONE MOMENT.” Smog moves to the pegasus and expends another capsule of knockout gas, ensuring the grey stallion would be quite hazy recollecting events leading up to that unplanned trip to dreamland. Including who had given him that knot on his skull and the words his would-be-arrestee had been so very eager for Morhoof to hear.

Smog carries the pegasus into the kitchen and gathers up the barmare. Lugging them up the back stairs, wrapped in his wings like cocooned caterpillars, he finds an empty room. The Brass Hoof was a tavern first, but had rooms to rent by the night: usually for people too tipsy to go home. He swiftly removes the stallion’s armor and the mare’s apron and saddle-dress, tossing them about. He arranges them on the artfully disheveled bed in a snuggled position that will suggest only one possible conclusion. Smog flicks a vial of healdust cream from deep inside a cheek and daubs a bit on the stallion’s head injury. The swelling would be gone in minutes and there would be no bruise. It would counter the gas a bit, but Smog considers having them awaken closer to the same time a plus.

Tucking the vial away, Smog brings out another and lets a drop of the green-glowing contents fall onto each pony’s ear, where it worms out of sight. Smog whispers words to their now-receptive minds, guiding them into dreaming a certain series of events. Vague, but if they compare notes they will recall points of similarity. Turning away, Smog unscrews the door’s privacy lock with a claw-tip, adjusts the innards, and replaces it. Leaving, he gently closes the door behind him and then gives it a sharp blow. The delicately rigged spring flicks out the lock’s metal tongue. Smog commissioned that lock’s creation through proxies almost two centuries ago: and barring that ‘trick’ it is simple, durable and reliable. One of his better long-term investments.

Heading downstairs, Smog is well satisfied. He is aware his action might cost the mare her job and the stallion his career. It could ruin their reputations. There is the personal distress as well. Being aware of it does not mean Smog in any way cares. The locked door will guide them away from any notion that their position may have been staged by a third party, or that their dreamed ‘memories’ might in fact be false. Smog makes a mental note to follow up on the situation in case either one finds themselves in desperate enough circumstances to risk entangling themselves in his web. Though it is possible they will simply agree to keep this encounter a secret. In which case Smog can blackmail either of them with it, should he find some advantage in that.

Smog settles himself back at the table, where Morhoof stares moodily at the empty and slightly-dented mug. His precious lute has been stowed in its case. “WE HAVE AT LEAST TWENTY-FOUR MINUTES BEFORE THEY AWAKEN.”

Morhoof looks less grim. “They are alive?”

“OF COURSE. CORPSES HAVE A HABIT OF MAKING MORE THAN ONE KIND OF STINK. AS FOR YOUR QUESTION, THE BEST WAY TO DISCREETLY MOVE GOODS DEPENDS GREATLY UPON THINGS LIKE THEIR NATURE, QUANTITY, DISTANCE TO TRAVEL, DESTINATION, AND HOW MUCH DISCRETION AND HASTE IS REQUIRED.” Yes, tell me all about what it is that has lodged a bee so suddenly in your ear. “IF THE URGENCY IS ENOUGH THAT WE MUST DISCUSS IT WITHOUT DELAY, I SUGGEST WE MAKE A DISCREET EXIT THROUGH MY PRIVATE TUNNEL AND CONCLUDE OUR BUSINESS IN THE BLIND COURTYARD TO WHICH IT LEADS. THERE WILL BE NO FURTHER INTERRUPTIONS.” Blind indeed: it had no way to enter or leave save by tunnel or air and the buildings all around remained abandoned at night. Smog would have to carry Morhoof out, and he feels good enough about the current situation to grant his despised yearning this one small indulgence. Making Morhoof crawl through the ash-strewn tunnel satisfies other, far more properly draconic desires. “AFTER THAT WE CAN PART WAYS WHILE I SEE TO ARRANGING IT, AS WELL AS RETRIEVING YOUR LOST GEM.”

“No…not quite that urgent. Expect another message asking you to meet me in a while.”

META: Shadowville started as a logical extension of a basic premise: Aura needs earth ponies and unicorns, so where do they live? Where does all the industry you can’t float on a cloud get done? Duh: on the ground. But it looks interesting indeed, a sort of wrong-side-of-the-tracks counterpart to Aura. Here, uptown and downtown aren’t metaphors. RPrs could have a lot of fun in it, I think.

Alone on the Snark, Brando looks over the space his ship has. Barely enough room for this new crew, and it would be best if they slept in shifts. He recovers pretty quick from drink, but even so he is still a bit mentally loose from what he'd ordered. At least it dulled the pain. At the moment he is playing with his new pipe. It didn't feel quite right, regardless of where in his beak he put it. Proper pipe fitting was important business to mildly out-of-it griffins. Just as he'd gotten it seated nearly right, someone banged on the door. Brando jumps, which of course made the pipe fall out of the nearly-right spot. He sighs and disengages the locks, pops open the door, and stares at Pick. After a few seconds of staring he goes back to playing with his pipe.

Pick finally runs out of patience. "You going to stand in the doorway all night fiddling with that thing, or are you going to let me put my bags in your ship?" He looks quite perturbed that Brando seems so calm about all this.

The griffin looks up at Pick's face, sighs again, and with reluctance moves out of the way. He holds his hands out for Pick's bags, which causes the pegasus to immediately back away from him. Brando cocks an eyebrow. "You alright there, comrade? Fine, fine, go on." He mumbles under his breath about testy pegasi.

Pick heads down the hallway, looking first through one of the open doors and then the other. He then turns and stares at Brando. "Well?"

"Well what?" Brando said. He cocks his head to the side, which in turn makes the pipe slide out of the almost-right spot in his beak yet again. He'd have to see Mithril about where she'd sold his pipe: this one simply wouldn't do. Hopefully they'd exchange the pipe for his current one: it was brand new after all.

"Don't you have some secure place for my stuff?"

Brando gets a good chuckle out of that. "Unless you want to put your stuff in the secret compartment, the one that I've not washed out yet, no. I usually fly solo, and the door serves as a good enough lock. Well, it did until recently, anyhow. Regardless, I highly doubt anyone's going to have the time to go through your things while you are not looking. I was, indeed, being honest when I said I'd not had a chance to add any extra secret holds to the Snark."

Pick is obviously displeased with this turn of events, even with Brando attempting to reassure him by showing him the rest of the cargo cabin, which now holds several gryphon-sized jumpsuits with various stains on them, as well as several other recently shuffled-around boxes that contain the griffin's own personal items. Though the boxes did have their own, albeit cheap, locks. Finally unable to reassure Pick further, he gets an idea to get rid of him.

"Fine,” Brando said, “I tell you what: I'll spend the night away from the Snark as well. I've got things to attend to anyways, and then you can curl up with your shovel all you want in the morning. Maybe you can talk to Smog about adding some locking cargo bins with some of your cut. I'm sure he'd be happy to oblige."

Seeing no other way to persuade Pick, Brando waits for a response while heading for the door. Pick seems to grudgingly give in, probably not wanting to be aboard the ship any more than necessary before it was a requirement. Finally getting the pegasus out of his ship, Brando re-locks the Snark, and takes a moment to ask Pick one last question.
"Say, Pick, you happen to know if Mithril still lives on…I forget the name, but where she lived when I was here last?"

Pick’s eyes narrow in suspicion. "Why?"

"I need to ask her where she sold my pipe." Brando looks despondently at his new one, which seems to give Pick a bit of satisfaction. "Thanks for letting me know.”

“But I didn’t tell you.”

“Your face did.” Brando chuckles at Pick’s expression. “Have a good time with your night, comrade: we won't be having many more easy ones for a while."

Without waiting for a response, Brando extends his wings, carefully and with practiced measure. A wing in the wrong spot aboard the Snark could lead to losing feathers, or more. Being a bit foggy in the head doesn’t help either. Brando launches himself into the air, taking a few moments to hover, before lazily drifting off towards Mithril's place: still fiddling with the pipe in his beak.

Pick watches Brando fly off. He paces a bit, and then sits outside of the Snark to think. If he was going to go back to what he used to do (even for a legal and worthy cause), he needed certain supplies. Not-legal ones. 'Good morals can wait until we get back,' Pick thinks.

Pick flies down to Shadowville and searches around. The old neighborhood has changed: unrecognizable houses in a once-familiar area. After some searching, he finds an alley that he remembers and approaches the door at the end. 'Bingo.' He knocks.

A small hatch snaps open to expose one suspicious eye. “Password?”

Pick glares through the slot and recognizes a scar near the pony’s left eye. "Just open the door, Keeper, you old sot." The door opens and Pick slips inside. Luckily for Keeper, Smog hadn't mentioned his name among the three. Otherwise Keeper and Pick would have had a ‘special talk.'

Pick offers Keeper a quick smile as he walks by into one of the black market’s more permanent locations. The customers looked weary, angry, scared, or a mixture of them. The dealers all had the same professionally blank face as they tried to sell their products: some faulty, some actually worth what they were charging. Pick walks by the items that were either too good to be true or too high-priced to dare trying to lift. He slips back into the bad old habits like a comfortable pair of boots. After walking around for about a half hour Pick has bought a new set of new saddlebags and managed to make a knife end up in one without anyone noticing. As he is walking by a new stand, Pick notices an item that would be both useful and provide a decent profit when this insane mission to Dust is over. He has hope of ending up rich, but he isn’t about to assume. Pausing, he waits until an earth pony nearby looks ready to wander off before lifting it. The earth pony shuffles away. Pick stays, studying the other items for sale, until the vendor spots the new gap. As the unicorn sends his diamond-dog enforcer after the other pony, Pick strolls for the door.

Back at home, Pick locks the door tightly behind him. He places his new belongings in the middle of the floor next to his guitar. He makes a mental note to take it all straight to the Snark in the morning. Pick crawls into his bed and quickly falls asleep.

Flapping back up to his secret entrance, Smog pauses, hovering. He’d lost track of time after parting ways with Morhoof. Chasing down contacts in Shadowville, setting certain things in motion. Midnight had come. That was the time when the cloud-city’s sewers dropped a day’s worth of stored-up waste all at once, through a shaft that dropped straight down through the inverted tower of the cloud-docks. It fell into a deep basin sited below it, though sometimes on windy nights it was blown unfortunately off-course. The midnight event is humorously-named ‘chocolate rain’ in Aura. It has less euphemistic ones in Shadowville, which had a vulgar nickname from it.

Smog’s secret entrance wouldn’t be available to him for an hour: two if he wanted to be fastidious and wait for it to be flushed out with clear water. Smog flies at the cloud-tower and concentrates. Flaring his wings, he flips upright and hits the wall with all four sets of claws. The cloud goes firm where he grips it. Smog pauses a moment, looking around, and then swarms up the outside like a lizard up a wall. His memory guides him right to the Snark’s berth. No one there. He rips through a patch of wall and uncovers another secret path. Smog pulls the cloud shut behind him and wiggles down the narrow tunnel. It hadn’t been made for him, but for his thief, and the very softness that let him squeeze down it would ensure it closed up and vanished in less than a week.

The Dragon’s Den is closed, and that means a rare opportunity to catch up on his true work. In the shelf-and-cabinet-lined office that is as close to a home as Smog cares to possess, the pink dragon eases a crystal disc from its velvet-lined box. It resembles a phonograph record, but has ridges instead of grooves. Smog rummages through his cabinet of chemicals and mixes a measured batch of resin. Spreads it across the bottom of a mold and sets the crystal disc on top. Presses down with great care but also great force. Smog composes messages and orders while waiting for the resin to cure. Once it does he gently pries the disc free, wipes the crystal down, and puts it away. Setting the fresh record on his antique (bought new) player, Smog cranks it up and eases the needle into the beginning of the groove. Settles his bulk behind his desk. Pours a bowl of water to sip. Closes his eyes.

The mournful voice of a single cello emerges from the flaring trumpet of the player. It sounds tinny and small. It sounded worse each time, Smog reflected, because the new records and players kept improving. Eyes closed, Smog listens to the record’s one long song. It is a recording of one of the finest performances by an Equestrian pony named Octavia, now almost five centuries gone. Smog had arranged for it to be stolen and smuggled to Aura. All the other records pressed from it have long since worn out, or no one dares to play them anymore. Her sublime music is his and his alone. That gives him no small sense of satisfaction. Even only using it to make one new record a decade, Smog knows the hard crystal will eventually wear out. He feels a sense of vague but genuine regret about that. On the plus side, it ensures he doesn’t take a single playing of it for granted. Song done, Smog restarts it and goes back to writing. Precise lines sweep from his quill even as most of his mind attends to the music.

The papers go into scroll-shaped canisters. The canisters go down one of many holes hidden under the floatwood floorboards. Gravity hurtles them down and out to drop in secret caches where various employees will pick them up. More bureaucrats than traditional criminals, they make a good living ensuring their batches of orders get carried out or passed on further down the line. Done, Smog resets the record and tackles the basket of canisters that have accumulated in the nook above the floatwood ceiling. Information, of course, had to come in as well as go out. Some of what he reads leads to more messages sent. His latest journals get updated, and then he eats the pile of old messages that now serve no purpose but to incriminate him if discovered. Smog resets the record and ponders the complex web in his mind, watching as the new information causes shifts. He sends a few more messages and prepares others, his main attention drifting back to the music.

It ends yet again. Smog looks down and blinks. The top half of the page bears small perfect writing. The bottom half bears an ink-line drawing of a bouquet of wildflowers. It has the same near-living detail as the drawings of faces and valued objects that he sends out to his spies and thieves. He has no gift for creation. What he draws is what he has seen. Nothing less, but nothing more. Smog stares at the drawing and remembers those flowers: bright as gems and short-lived as flames. Plucking each with care, ensuring it was perfect. He remembers how they smelled. He remembers…

Smog’s tranquility shatters at the same time as the glass drinking bowl in his grip. Water beads on the waxed floatwood and patters on the floor. Smog ignores it, and ignores the fist crushing the shards into splinters. He ignores the pain as a lucky few find gaps in the scales. The pain twisting behind his ribs is far worse. He stares at his other claw, the traitorous one still holding the quill. Flame snorts from his nostrils but can’t shift that terrible scent of wildflowers.

Smog sets the quill aside. He uses his talons as tweezers to pry the glass from his skin. He picks up the page and inhales. He doesn’t exhale flames to burn it to ash. Smog shudders, but he can’t do it. Slicing away the top half, he sets the bottom half in a folder and tucks that away behind the files in the S-Z drawer. Silence closes around him like a fist of iron, underscored by the ticking hiss of the spent record. Smog mops up the water and throws away the shattered bowl. He puts the record away in a leather sleeve. He re-writes the message on a fresh sheet. He writes the rest that need writing. Then he leaves his office long enough to get a small keg of extremely hard cider from his storeroom. Hunched behind his desk like a vulture, hating himself for being so weak, Smog rips off the top and chugs the entire thing. Almost five thousand bits: vanished. He hasn’t drunk anything stronger than cloudcream in a very long time. It hits him hard and fast. Too hard and fast to let him do anything stupid.

Tiny or not, Smog is old, and while old dragons sleep a long time when they do, those times are far apart.

But dragons can pass out.

Mithril left the bar, the taste of the lemon ice lingering on her tongue. She could’ve used a much harder drink, but she decided against it. Now was probably a good time to keep her wits about her. She swung by a place called ‘The Crown:’ a smoke shop she knew Brando frequented. He had taken her there a few times, usually just because he’d needed to pick something up. Mithril looked at the array of smoking herbs and pipes and dottle picks and other paraphernalia. She even remembered the exact blend Brando always got: Red Dragon.

When Mithril left the shop, her coin pouch was a bit lighter. Red Dragon was a lot more expensive than she’d remembered, but that was fine. She’d nearly choked when Smog had told her what she’d be making. 500,000 bits. That was more than enough for anything the mare could want. She could even retire from the police force if she wanted. She doubted she would, though. She’d spent her whole life trying to get into it. The day she got her shield had been the happiest of her life.

Mithril let herself drift back to memory as she walked.

The day had been bright. Almost painfully so. Mithril, up on the stage, didn’t care. Staring out at the crowd of her class’s friends and family members, her eyes scanned for one griffin out of the many there. The ceremony had begun, each pony and griffin who’d graduated the academy now standing tall and proud. Mithril was smallest one there, but it had never been much of a hindrance to her. Being one of the few unicorns had more than compensated. Her heart began to sink as the sergeant pinning the badges on their armor drew closer, and she had yet to see Brando. Finally the pegasus got to her, and with a respectful nod, placed the badge of an Auran guard on her breastplate.

After that had been a blur of smiling faces and hooves and claws to shake. Mithril remembered walking off the stage with the rest of her group, and she remembered removing her armor. She also remembered wondering why Brando hadn’t shown up. She had gotten a surprise when she was about to leave and found Brando there: panting a bit and dressed in a suit. It didn’t fit, and he looked as uncomfortable in it as Mithril would’ve been in a dress: not at all. She had laughed at him, and then they’d gone to the nearest bar for a few celebratory drinks.

As she drifted back to the present, Mithril glared at a nearby street sign. “Memory Lane? Really? Is someone trying to make a pun?” She shook her head, turning onto the street. She continued walking the cloud streets until she finally arrived at her home. Taking off her jacket, she set the pipe and herb pouch on the table next to her chair. She draped her jacket lazily over a different chair and went to her room. Pulling a small wooden box out from under her bed, she went back downstairs to sit.

Mithril took a seat, loaded the pipe, and with the smallest flame she could create, lit it. Took a puff, coughed, and shook her head. She’d never been much of a smoker. The scent brought back memories with painful clarity. She slowly opened the box and brought out a bundle of pictures. All of them showed her, Brando, and the few other close friends they’d had. It had never been a large number. She puffed on the pipe as she remembered those days.

Brando had been her first friend. He had been the only one safe around her. When she was younger, her magic had been completely unpredictable. There had always had to be someone with a fire extinguisher on hoof in case she set herself, or something else, on fire. Setting herself on fire never hurt, but like anypony would, she’d had a tendency to panic when she found that her mane had become an inferno. That would usually lead to her casting more magic out of fear, and other things getting set on fire.

That was where Brando had come in. He had, by some turn of luck, ended up in the same school as her. When it was discovered that he was fire-proof, he had been immediately elected as Mithril’s ‘handler.’ It had been embarrassing at first, having the griffin follow her everywhere with a fire extinguisher at the ready. Over time the two had slowly grown to know each other, and eventually became the closest of friends. There had been good times and bad times, like any friendship. Mostly good. Over time, they had gathered a small group of other friends. Mostly ponies who had something or other wrong with them. Like Silent Night, a unicorn who wasn’t capable of magic, or High Riser, a pegasus filly who frequently gave off electrical discharges. Each of them odd in their own little ways, and they’d stuck together because of it.

Mithril wondered if she should visit them after this whole thing with Dust was over with. She’d drifted away, busy with her career. She sighed again and leaned back, puffing on the pipe and giving the occasional cough. She flipped through the pictures and remembered what had happened when they’d been taken. Remembered everything she and Brando had done over the years before they’d parted ways. Even the bad times didn’t seem so bad anymore.

Brando landed on Mithril’s front porch. Her lights were still on: well, that was a good sign. He hadn't wasted any time flying here and his flight muscles burned: cruising everywhere in a zeppelin had left him soft. He mulled over options on how best to approach her, how to get the calmest responses. Brando finally decided to go with being extra tipsy. The last time they'd met at her doorway with him in that state, she hadn't immediately kicked him out on his hindquarters. Quite soon after, yes, but not immediately.

Then again, that was the day she'd found out he was a smuggler: the kicking part of that kicking-out had knocked the wind out of him and sent him sprawling backwards into the alleyway. If not for the horrible pickup line at her doorstep, he might've actually been able to talk her into forgiving him. Well, probably not: she was rather stubborn. That was likely why his mind couldn't let her go. Oh sure, he could shuffle it away to concentrate on gems or fleeing or whatever was at hand, but when he had nothing else to think about all his mistakes came back to haunt him. Hard to get to sleep like that.

Brando shook his head to clear it. Enough self pity: there was a pipe whose location he desperately needed, before he went mad trying to find the right spot for the new one. He wondered, as he got into character with wobbling and prepared his slurred speech, if it had been as difficult with the first pipe. Brando figured it probably had. He figured Smog was probably having a good laugh right about now at his expense. Though he couldn’t really imagine the dragon laughing. Looking smug, maybe. Brando gingerly knocked. He waited a moment for an answer, then banged on the door. Hasty hoofsteps thudded to the door, which slammed open. Thankfully for Brando, it still hinged inward. Mithril loomed, backlit by the inside light but still clearly furious.

"Do you have any idea what ti-" Mithril stops in mid-rant, staring at the griffin before her. "Brando? What the hay are you doing here?"

"H-hey…" Brando slurs the word, avoiding the eye contact that would give his deceit away. "I, uh, mmm…where'd you schell my pi-pipe? I, I sorta neeeeed it, this one just doeshn't doesn’t…work right. It keepsh fffalling."

"Are you serious? You get yourself completely smashed and then come to my house in the middle of the night wanting your [i]pipe/i]?" She was, indeed, furious now. Not for the visit, but that the only thing that mattered to him was that accursed pipe. "I don't remember where I sold it, Brando: now go back to your ship and sleep it off."

Brando felt something was up, and it only took a few more moments before he figured out what. He could smell it: the special blend that so few shops had, most of the world away from Stalliongrad. Red Dragon! Well, now he had no option. ‘It’s a good thing I've been faking[]/i being tipsy.’ he thought. ‘It makes barging in that much easier.’ He stumbled into Mithril and then onto the floor. "Uhm…shorry. I, er…didn't mean to bowl you over, you [i]shure you can't remember 'cause it's sorta important and…" Brando continued to ramble on, staggering slowly to his feet.

"It's alright, Brando, but you really should put that down!" Mithril rushed to Brando and grabbed the small alicorn statue out of his apparently drunken claws.

“Shure is a nice placesh you got 'ere, Mithril. I forgot how nice it looked on the inshide…" Brando stumbled himself towards the direction the smell.

Mithril followed him. "Yeah, thanks, stop touching thi-no, you actually need to lea-ah…cirrus. It's not what it looks like, Brando." Mithril rested a hoof on his shoulder. He pulled away, and she let him. He had dropped the act as soon as he saw his pipe, recently extinguished, lying atop a set of pictures on the little table beside her recliner. He picked them up, ignoring the pipe.

Mithril made a halfhearted effort to stay furious, reacting out of instinct to get herself back on guard. "You tricked me with that tipsy act, jerk."

Brando stared at the images, the pipe lying forgotten on the table. Without looking, he sank down to sit in the chair. After some effort, he managed to get his throat, suddenly almost painfully dry, clear enough to produce a hoarse but understandable voice. "You said you destroyed them. Burned them. I thought…"

"I lied." Mithril grabbed a chair and sat next to him. She studied his face. Emotions raced across it faster than she could track, good ones and bad, but mostly regret. And relief. "I was so mad at you, then. I wanted to hurt you as deeply as I could. I wanted you to feel what you'd made me feel. I didn't realize, until now, how much I succeeded. You hid it behind your sarcasm so well I thought you really didn't care."

Brando stroked the knuckle of a folded digit against one of the photos. Touching it with a talon would have been…wrong. It was the one he'd wanted when they'd parted ways. The last photo taken of them together: forelegs draped over each other, grinning, as they stood in front of the newly-purchased Snark. Two days later she'd found out how he'd been able to afford it, and then everything had gone right down the drain.

Brando looked up at Mithril and saw the regret he felt mirrored in her eyes. He cleared his throat again. "I should have told you how sorry I was. How much I cared. I thought we'd just move past it: in a couple days you'd accept what I'd done, and if I had to I'd get out of the trade and go legit. When you said you never wanted to see me again, I refused to come groveling back to you. I thought it was just a game. I should have, though, I should have…" He lost his voice again, swallowing hard.

After a long moment of thick silence, Brando dared to look her way. She stared back, her eyes saying more than any words could have conveyed. She placed a hoof into his open claw and he reflexively grasped it, the digit he used to caress the photo now repeating the motion against her silken-coated hock. He realized his defenses were down, and so were hers. A dangerous place to be, but he wouldn't take advantage of her, regardless of how desperately he wanted to. With all she'd been through: essentially losing her job, being forced to cut a shady deal with Smog to get it back, having to deal with so much…she was in a delicate state. A delicate flower. Maybe someday they could talk, heal the old wounds, but for now he had to get out before his less noble instincts took over.

"I should go, Mithril.” Brando said. His voice was hoarser than ever. “I should go home." He stood, slipping his claw from her hoof. He didn't want the pipe anymore. In fact, the thought that she wanted to keep it brought him joy. He could certainly get used to a new pipe for that, and every time it slipped it'd remind him of who had his old one.
The slight stagger as he headed for the door wasn’t feigned in the least, though he’d never felt more sober.

Before Brando could reach it, Mithril moved in front of him, blocking the doorway just as she had when she’d opened it up to see him standing there. "No." she said. Her voice had all the softness of a brick wall. "Not tonight." Her tone rapidly downshifted into a purr, but her stance stayed that of a policemare. She slammed the door shut with her magic, and Brando heard the locks closing. "No more flying under the influence for you, ‘comrade.’ You're staying here to sleep it off." She moved closer, resting her hooves on his shoulders, and smiled. “Even if I have to cuff you.”

Brando grinned back. 'Oh right.' he thought. 'How could I have forgotten? I was always the delicate flower in the relationship.'

Smog had left shortly thereafter, leaving a puzzled wanderer to his lonesome. The Brass Hoof seemed better to Morhoof this way: empty. Dim lights cast more shadows then they cleared, leaving him to delve deep into his thoughts. Now, obviously, there was a slew of new things to gnaw at him: his jewel being momentarily misplaced, a babbling colt spewing information. Morhoof pondered that. Although garbled, it was never good to release anything that could be decoded or traced in the slightest…

Wait a minute… Morhoof’s thoughts suddenly caught on that specific point. How would that pony know anything about that? That's not something… It couldn't be… Morhoof threw his head back and vented a moaning sigh, then let it droop toward the table. "I was followed." Morhoof muttered it, then sighed once again. Maybe I am getting too old for my own good. It doesn't make sense that anypony would be able to follow me without me hearing them. Wings or not. It must have been something…else

Morhoof growled to himself. Midnight. He had until then to figure out a slew of new things. Morhoof really didn't want to rely on Smog for help: being in the grasp of one master was bad enough, and Smog would not be so easily taken care of if things became…fraught. But the ball, or in this case crate, was so suddenly dropped into his hooves that it would be difficult to manage without external help. Morhoof tapped the tabletop a few times, wood on wood, and decided to head to the backroom. The taps were going to be self-service for the next little while, so why not take advantage?

Feeling a little lightheaded, Morhoof managed to stumble his way to his destination. He found himself another tankard and filled it with cider. Taking a deep swallow, he thought about his course of action. The fourth wall. Aura. It should be about four to eight miles in any direction from Shadowville's limits. Morhoof set his mug down, sliding a little dagger from inside his cloak to scratch at the counter top. He etched a small grid to help him determine the best possible course of covering said drop zone. It was going to take awhile, but he could use that time to decide what to do with it once he found it. Morhoof took a look at his drink, now half-empty: more of it wasn’t going to help him in the least. He tossed a few bits into the cider and filled his own flask from the keg, then headed for the back door. Pausing with a muttered oath, he doubled back to reduce his map into an ugly but nonsensical patch of scratches.

Morhoof huffed for breath, giving the rising sun something between a squint and a scowl. It had been too long since he’d done this much running, and he was paying for that now. Despite the burn in his legs and the stitch in his side, he couldn't have felt better. Or he would have, if he had actually found what he was looking for. For better or worse, however, at least he’d sobered. Morhoof wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, but he knew that something must have gone amiss somewhere. This was not getting any better, and it was now beyond doubt that he was going to be behind schedule. If there was anypony that could help Morhoof get back on track, he'd have to nab him quickly, before he had a good chance to dodge.

This is pretty much the epilogue for Chaper One.

Cue week-long timeskip, everyone.

Also, long post is long.

And kinda dark.

The high, painfully sharp sound of a bell triggers Smog’s sudden but unwelcome return to consciousness. The people who fed Smog information had a few capsules equipped with a clockwork-powered bell and a trigger on the side. Held down as it shot through the tube, it sprang proud of the side at journey’s end: causing the bell to give one chime every five seconds for three hours or until opened. They were for time-critical messages.

Half-opening an eye that feels rolled in diamond dust, Smog moves as quickly as he can without jarring his skull. Locating the red-painted emergency capsule, he tries to hook the point of a talon under the tiny catch. The bell chimes again. Smog opens the capsule by biting off the noisy end. He chews the clockwork, wincing in pain with every chomp but taking vicious satisfaction at quieting the bell. Shaking out the scroll, he blinks and rolls his open eye for a minute until his vision regains something like its usual sharpness.

What he reads is enough to make Smog almost stop caring that his pounding heart seemed to have migrated to his skull. The thief had been located and detained. Moorhoof’s thrice-cursed trinket had not been retrieved, and the thief refused to say where it might be. One of his most trusted troubleshooters was on hand to extract the information. Smog need only send the go-ahead.

After committing it to memory, Smog stuffs it back in the ragged-ended brass capsule and eats the thing. Opening his chemicals cabinet, Smog mixes up a bowlful of aqua regia and adds fine pellets of a dozen different metals. The resulting suspension of metal salts was guaranteed to cause almost anything drinking it to die in a horrible way. Smog gulps it down, refusing to shudder at the vile taste. It was a constant of the universe: whatever the species, whatever the ingredients, a hangover cure tasted horrible. After a minute of furious revolt, his stomachs settle down. Another minute and he begins to feel the leaden ache drain from his bones.

Smog cleans his quill and composes a short command, writing in all capitals and with vicious precision: TAKE HIM TO THE HOLE AND WAIT FOR ME. Marking it with the various coded signs to verify its origin and to whom it was addressed, he pops it in a ringer and flips up a floorboard to send it shooting down a tube. It takes only ten minutes to polish his scales and spines: the motions have long since become unthinking habit. He listens to the new-cast record as he does. Outwardly once more his lean and gleaming self, Smog takes the time to replace the healdust, dream-nectar, and knockout capsules he had expended at the Brass Hoof.

Then he catches up on the morning’s new reports. No real progress yet discovering Morhoof’s mysterious employers: just a report that he had spent the later half of the night running around Shadowville as if looking for something. Whatever it was, he seemingly hadn’t found it. Pick had done some shoplifting. An angry merchant deprived of a quite costly item had sent a pair of thugs after him. The trio tailing Pick had both warned them off and paid them off. Smog signed off on the expense report with no regrets. Just one more cost of doing business. Brando had spent the night at Mithril’s. Smog finds his mood improving quite a bit as he reads that. His hold on Brando had always been the most fragile, spun entirely from self-interest. The griffin placed a high value on his own hide, and if the mission got too dangerous he was extremely likely to run. Now the griffin had a personal reason to see the mission through even if things got dangerous. All it had cost Smog was one rush-order, custom-made pipe…with a subtly faulty stem. Brando was far more predictable than the griffin liked to think. Smog had drawn in Mithril for her fire magic, and to ensure no gross breaches of Auran law were performed during the mission, but also in the hope that she would provide another hold on Brando.

And Red…he’d need to talk with her when she came to work tonight.

Business done, Smog slips out the back way. His path leads him down through the sewers again, flushed free of everything but a lingering odor. This time he makes a detour near the end, where a small chamber lies. He arrives to find the others already there and waiting. Smog had intended exactly that. His troubleshooter, a griffin so dark a red he is almost black, sits in the back: smoking a carved-ruby pipe and looking bored. Flint almost always looks bored. Smog once saw him set his own broken foreleg without that expression once wavering. Only one thing makes his eyes light up and Smog is fairly certain they are shortly going to do so. A pair of dumb-muscle pegasi had helped Flint carry the thief here. They flank the doorway looking grim and professionally thuggish. They stink of fear almost as much as the thief: standing with all four hooves shackled to the corners of a light metal frame. Netting binds his wings to his sides and a gag ensures his silence. Smog motions for the pegasi to wait outside. They don’t waste time obeying. Smog settles down on his haunches and coils his tail around him.


Shadow looks baffled. He had never been the stiffest feather in the wing, though Smog had pegged him as being the kind of stupid that obeyed orders to a fault. That he had been wrong didn’t help Smog’s mood. The pegasus tries to shuffle and chains clink. Smog glances at Flint. The griffin undoes that gag. Shadow swallows a few times before finding his voice. “Um, what was all that?”

Smog shifts from muted thunder to a silken whisper. “It could be your obituary.” Shadow knew the word, though from his expression it took a moment to dig it up. The chains jangle with his trembling. Smog inspects a talon. “Rain Shadow, you know I don’t lie. Everyone in Aura who knows about me knows I don’t lie. That reputation is my most precious possession, so I make sure never to lose it. Keep that firmly in mind, Shadow, and listen well.

“I direct your attention to my associate.” Shadow twists around to look at Flint, as if against his will. Flint picks up the greasy leather valise that had sat behind him out of sight. Withdrawing a book-shaped leather case, he reverently opens that to show the pegasus what lies within: a dozen small objects forged from blued steel. Smog speaks softly. Shadow doesn’t look away from the case, which is fine. “I have questions. You’re going to answer them. The only uncertainty is what my associate has to do to make that happen. Once we cross certain lines, we have no choice but to make sure you never have a chance to tell anyone what we did. It will be the end of you.”

Shadow begins to softly cry. Smog studies another talon, expressionless. Flint sends smoke oozing from his nostrils and looks a bit less bored. He closes the case, revealing the faded trio of pink roses on the back. Makes sure Shadow sees it. A long moment passes in perfect silence as Flint puts the case away…but leaves the valise open. Then Shadow figures it out. Smog winces as the rising series of horrified screams hammer at the remains of his headache. Flint looks almost happy, puffing his pipe so that the ruby glows evil red from within. Shadow soon trails off into bawling sobs. Flint was far from stupid: nothing in his bag of tricks was technically illegal to own. Just suspicious as nimbostratus. The ‘cutie mark’ was a fake, a tattoo that wasn’t even that ominous without the proper context. But Flint did enjoy his little games.

“Shadow.” Smog gains the pegasi’s sudden and undivided attention. Something sharp and uncomfortable jabs at Smog, and the suspicion that it might be guilt puts an edge in his voice. “I’m in a hurry, which makes you a very lucky pony. There is a way you can leave this room alive and unharmed. The only condition is that you must then disappear from Aura forever. I will handle all the arrangements and costs of seeing that done. Your family won’t suffer from you being gone. All you have to do is answer my questions. It’s fine if you don’t know all the answers. All I ask is that you tell me the truth.”

“Y-you promise?”

Smog finds himself touching foreheads with Shadow, fangs bared and one claw lifting the stallion into the air by his throat. The pegasus hangs frozen, stiff as wood. Their eyes are bare inches apart. Smog barely restrains himself from squeezing. Flint turns one maroon eye to look Smog’s way. From him, that is an enormous reaction. Smog sets Shadow down. He even does a bit to smooth the pegasi’s rumpled mane. Retreating, Smog steeples his claws before his chest and idly rattles the talons together. This is not going well. Flint goes back to staring at nothing.

Despite all he can do, Smog’s whisper emerges as the hiss of acid eating through steel. “Shadow…I don’t lie. I have said I will do it. That means more than any promise. But like I said, I’m in a hurry. Start talking.”

“He made me take it!” Shadow said. “I didn’t want to, b-but he told me he’d hurt my f-family. Please, Smog. I-I’d get on my knees if I could. Please. I didn’t want to do it.” It got incoherent and repetitive after that. Smog listens for a while, feeling much calmer.

“Stop.” The word cut Shadow’s babble short. He gulped for air and fought back the whimpers. “You’re a genuine moron, Shadow. So I’ll keep this simple. When you agreed to work for me, you became mine. Dragons don’t let anyone take away what’s theirs. By forcing you to work against me, by threatening your family, they touched my stuff. I don’t let that kind of thing pass, Shadow. A third option just appeared. Would you like everything to go back to the way it was before?” Shadow gives a jerky nod. “I thought as much. Work with me, Shadow. Tell me what you know. Help me get my claws on the one who insulted me. I’ll send some of my best enforcers to take care of your family. I give you my word: an untimely death is the last thing that will happen to them.”

Shadow talks. Smog listens with genuine attentiveness and asks questions that extract every useful detail. Afterward he takes the key from Flint and unlocks the shackles himself. Shadow is almost calm. He manages a smile, though his lips quiver. “Thank you. I’ll never forget this, Smog. Um, that you were understanding. I’ll never betray you again, sir: never.”

“I believe you.” Smog said. “Now go wait outside the door with the other gentlecolts while I talk with Flint.”

Shadow staggers out. Smog latches the soundproof door and turns enough to look at the griffin. Flint knocks the coal from his translucent pipe onto his palm, watches it sizzle for a moment, then crushes it and tucks it away in a tin box. A very tidy person, Flint: even when making a mess. He closes the valise with the sense that he would have sighed, if he had been prone to sighs. His indifferent eyes turn to Smog. “Orders?”

“As soon as this is done,” Smog said, “Rain Shadow disappears. Make sure his body will never be found. His family dies. Make it look like a burglary gone wrong. Let me make this clear. You will carry confirmation that Shadow is dead to the enforcers at his family’s home before they make a move.”

“You lost it.” Flint said. “He saw. He can’t be allowed to tell anyone.” If his tone carries anything, it is agreement. Flint also knows Smog trusts him to keep quiet. Smog is all that stands between Flint and a well-deserved execution. It’s unlikely the griffin is capable of caring about that, but Smog keeps him fairly entertained, which means pure self-interest keeps him loyal. “The family?”

“Let this be a quiet lesson to those who will realize it was no burglary gone wrong. They will reconsider crossing me even if someone threatens their families. Let word quietly spread through the network. If someone in Shadow’s position comes to me before actually betraying me, I will reward them well, and I will truly do my best to keep their families safe.”

“Right. You appear to have lied to him.”

“I never lie, Flint. I never told Shadow that things could go back to how they had been. I asked him if he would like that. As for his family, an untimely death is the last thing that will happen to them.”

“He talked. You promised…” Flint blinks. “He just walked out of here alive and unharmed. He will soon vanish from Aura forever. His family won’t suffer from his absence. Promise kept. Fair enough. The big project?”

Smog saw no reason not to answer. Conversations with Flint were rare opportunities for someone to appreciate his cunning. “Ahead of schedule. Soon the Dustans will be forced to find something else to export to pay for the food they must import. The only thing of sufficient value is their technology. I have experts champing at the bit to reverse-engineer one of their steam-powered engines. They can, I’m assured, be run by burning the waste gas from Spectrum Engines. It will trigger a second industrial revolution and Aura will be the heart of it. I’ve ensured that the city council is heavily and historically in favor of Auran independence from the Empire. With magic-enhanced Dustan technology, they will have the economic and, if necessary, the military means to demand it. A free Aura can rewrite laws that the Imperial charter currently holds inviolate. Zavros needs to be secured. No more using their control of our food supply as leverage. Silverline must become a vassal to secure the supply of diamond-ice and to ensure they never become a threat. They will be shown respect and ruled with fairness, the better to ensure they stay docile under Aura’s rule. Her prosperity and security will vastly increase, and mine with her.”

Smog makes no mention, not even to Flint, of the dragons to the northwest. Within a century Aura would have a large fleet of armored airships armed with exploding Dustan rockets. She would have independence and a need to eliminate local threats. Not to mention the lure of those vast hoards. Smog had vowed long ago that he would bring those arrogant Old Ones to their knees. Not one of them: all of them. He had taken what came his way and guided it how he could. Things had been long in taking a shape, but he could now see the end. His race would be forced to grovel for their lives and forever after play by the rules dictated by the not-so-lesser races.

And on that day, Smog plans to laugh.

“Rain Shadow.” Flint said. “Particulars?”

Smog feels quite cheerful now. “Keep it clean.”


“Whoever pressured Shadow may be working for an organization trying to gain a foothold on my turf. I have other evidence that suggests this may be the case. If so, I need to know, and I want to know everything he knows about them. Extracting it will be a long, delicate process. You are the best.”

“Fair enough.”

**I cry every time you post internet... :D**

Chapter Two: Preparations and Plans

Smog lounges behind the bar of the Dragon’s Den. His claws clean and polish a pile of dirty mugs. The night is only an hour old but busy and looking to remain so. Smog reflects on the week just past. It had passed at a leisurely pace for him, at least by his standards. He’d shuttled between nights tending bar and days in his office maintaining his shadow empire. No more excursions, no more personally attending to things. No more opportunities to fray his self-control even more before he can repair the damage already done.

The preparations for the mission had progressed on schedule. On the day just past, Brando had put her through a series of test flights. The smuggler had insisted on watching the retrofit of his precious Snark. Smog had seen that coming and hadn’t made any plans that would force him to object to that. The engine and magic upgrades had only been the start. Smog knew the stresses of cramped living and had done what he could to moderate them. The mission rather depended on them not ripping each other apart before they got there and back. The Snark now had considerably more secure storage in the form of locking cabinets. Beds of the sort that could be folded up against the wall when not in use. Curtain walls of opaque, nearly soundproof shimmersilk for privacy. A parachute for Mithril, should they need to jump out in midair. He provided some books and a chess set with magnets for stability in the face of sudden jolts. As for food, Smog had spared no expense assuring flavor and variety. All expenses would be deducted from the payment before splitting it, so everyone (save Red) walked away with an equal share. Smog had done it just to avoid the arguments. Brando in particular would have whined about shouldering most of the expenses, and the griffin could test the patience of a rock when he really got going.

The griffin and Mithril had continued their romance, but kept it a secret. Except for from Smog, they appeared to mostly be succeeding. Smog hopes they go on being careful. Such relationships might not be illegal but they are deeply frowned upon in Aura. Smog could preserve Mithril’s career in spite of it, but not without considerable effort. An employee in need of punishing had been sent to rummage through Mithril’s trash. She had unearthed proof they were being careful in another way, and Smog is glad of that. Pregnancy is unlikely even if they actively tried, but it would add an entirely unnecessary complication to the mission. Not to mention afterwards. Brando isn’t the type to settle but parenthood tended to change people. Smog wants him and his fast ship available for courier work. Legal work, even: if Mithril insists. Personally, Smog couldn’t care less what people did to each other. He actually employs a number of hippogriffs, but in Neighpon, where people are much more relaxed about such things. Even so, the half-breeds were rather tragic creatures: without exception, sterile.

Pick hadn’t gotten rid of his incriminating insignia but Smog decided to let that pass. It had, after all, only been advice. And Pick had quickly moved to stow it aboard the Snark, which had much better security. If it had been an order, Smog would have been forced to make an issue of it. He makes a note to have someone steal the thing from Pick when they return from the mission. Red Raider has been quiet, moving through her usual routines but with a sense of doing so by force of habit. Everything involving the mission is either fine or heading in that direction. His backup plan is in place, under an operative who knows how to improvise on the fly. None of the four appear to be losing their nerve. While not exactly eager, they are at least solidly resigned. But if he had to bet which was most likely to try and bow out, it would have to be Red.

Morhoof hasn’t yet contacted Smog yet about whatever cargo it was he needs discreetly shipped. Nor had Smog’s investigations into whoever might be pressuring Morhoof borne much in the way of fruit. Yet. The pegasus who had pressured Rain Shadow had been quickly found, captured, and delivered into Flint’s cruel but oh-so-careful claws. Information would be forthcoming sooner or later: Smog knows better than to rush Flint. He rather hopes it leads back to Morhoof’s shadowy associates, who seemed to be quite good at operating undetected.

A worm of slowly growing discomfort gnaws away at the foundations of Smog’s mind. Rain Shadow’s death had been the direct result of Smog losing control. He had been sincerely prepared to give the pegasus a one-way ticket to Equestria and send money to his family for the next fifty years. Sheer habit had kept his words hedged enough to twist a different way. Shadow could have been useful. The dragon was always looking for more eyes and ears in the Empire’s heart: getting reliable information was a matter of comparing many independent reports and spotting the overlaps. The cost of all those spies and informants was, for Smog, incidental. He had money pouring in from a thousand different sources, legal and not. Almost all of it poured right back out again. Money was just a means to an end: another form of influence. Besides, Smog is well aware of how many criminal empires had been exposed and brought down by police-backed accountants. Smog has no illegal properties or incomes that he needs to pass off as legally gained.

The elusive trinket still isn’t in his claws, but that is a worry Smog knows how to handle. He knows where it is. One of the current city Councilmares owns a private gallery of less-than-legal art pieces. She is the one who bought the emerald-encrusted sapphire rose. There is no connection between her and the one who had pressured Rain Shadow, though. The fence she bought it from had been told to wait for an offer, but had approached the Councilmare and gotten a better one. Smog had eyes on the fence, but so far no one had approached. Getting the gem would be a tricky business. Smog promised her years ago that her secret collection would never be burglarized. He could simply offer to buy it, but the mare was almost dragon-like in her possessiveness. Fortunately she was also somewhat superstitious. Smog has carefully arranged a false history of the object, including rumors of a curse that plagues its owners with bad luck. Now he merely had to let it spread and grow until she got nervous enough to get see his offer as a way to get rid of it and recover what she spent for it. Smog even has feelers out to locate something else that might catch her eye and help her get over the loss.

Smog considers bending his promise. There is a need to rush, after all. He could argue that his promise didn’t cover freelance burglars: only those he controlled. But he decides not. His word has already been bent too far and far too often lately. That is a major reason for his nagging sense of unease.

Smog had, before forging the beginnings of his shadowy empire, looked for pitfalls to avoid. One had been clear: he must avoid becoming a monster. Monsters were hated. They were hunted. They were opposed, rooted out, and destroyed by people willing to pay almost any personal cost to see it done. The world had very little tolerance for monsters. After that, he set out to define monstrousness: to his logical mind, the best way to avoid crossing a line is to know where it got drawn. After long pondering of history’s monsters, Smog concluded that the best definition is a being without limits. A creature that has absolutely nothing it won’t do, only things it can’t do. A being of perfect unfettered freedom: and the power that freedom conferred. A monster could be free of malice. It could have the best of intentions. Many did. If it had no limits on what it would do to attain its goals, it was a monster.

Upon defining a monster, Smog had found it easy to hit upon a way to avoid becoming one. He needed to maintain limits. He needed to choose things he would not do and then hold to them no matter how desperate the temptation. And so he chose to renounce lying. Among other things. He would bend the truth, even tie it into knots. He would imply and omit and play word games, but however close to the line he danced, not one talon-tip ever poked across. Other limits had been imposed and he almost always honored them, but only one vow remained that he had never once broken. Not in over five centuries.

Smog finishes the mugs and hangs them up. Simple tasks like this one have slowly become a comfort to him over the last week. Music scratches at the edges of his awareness and part of his mind attends to the clear-to-him conversations of his customers. Another part sends his claws to mixing the drinks one of the tables has signaled for. Most of him ponders clean mugs hanging in a row and tries to figure out why he should take any form of pleasure or comfort from it. He forgets all about that as he stumbles over an unexpected vein of anticipation. His claws actually pause before he can set them back to mixing. Smog stares inward with disbelief, but it refuses to go away. Brando, Pick, and Mithril are due to arrive in an hour and he is…looking forward to seeing them again.

Sneering contempt washes it aside. Self-contempt, but the other sort as well. But like a rock drowned by the tide, Smog knows it is still there under the surface. Smog sets down the tray of drinks and raises a talon. One of the quartet of griffins slouches over to hand over a tray of empty mugs and grab the new tray. They have a tab, so no bits change owners. No servers in the Den: his customers didn’t like people wandering around and maybe eavesdropping. Smog’s opinion was that anyone who couldn’t walk to the bar to get a drink needed to be cut off anyway. Smog starts washing the four dirty mugs.

Then the griffin with the tray, walking carefully on his hind paws, stumbles. His wings instinctively flare for balance and one of them catches the female pegasus at a nearby table across the back of the head. Griffin flight is less magic-based than pegasus flight. They have larger, more physically powerful wings. Getting hit with one is no joke: griffin prisoners aren’t just wing-cuffed to keep them from flying away. The mare goes over like a felled tree and her Triple Cloudbanger washes across the table. Her family makes a living as small-time loan sharks with Smog’s blessing. Hoarfrost is unfortunately the sole working brain in her current generation. Her company tonight consists of two brothers, a nephew, a cousin, and an uncle. The smallest of them is big for a pegasus. The uncle is almost the size of an earth pony stallion, with wings to match any griffin and a brain able to outwit over ninety percent of concussed squirrels.

But if Icepick is a simple spirit, he is also one untroubled much by doubt or hesitation. The sooty-blue pegasus vaults the table from a sitting start, barely using his wings as he lands on the offending griffin with both forehooves. Things get complicated in a hurry as others pile in to defend the original two. Everyone not in one group or another suddenly decides to make for the far ends of the room. Being the sort they are, most remember to bring their drinks. Smog vaults the bar. He casually swats one of the brothers, named Bluefrost, in the gut: knocking him off the downed griffin. Smog sweeps his tail low to trip up the cousin, Northwind, and the pair of griffins that have jumped him. His calm never wavers. This was all an act: it was how a dragon bartender would be expected to behave. Besides, it serves as the occasional reminder that Smog isn’t all brain.

Icepick meanwhile finds himself hoisted into the air by his neck, which was likely a novel experience for the giant moron. Smog uses the pegasus as a ponderous club to bowl over the other brother, Icewind, coming at the last griffin with a bit-knife in his teeth. He looks for the nephew and finds him pulling Hoarfrost away from the fighting. Smog notes that for future reference: young Sleet kept his head when things got hairy. Icepick bucks and catches Smog in the gut with both hind hooves. Smog feels the kick, but that’s all. He twists the pegasus around so they can lock gazes. What Smog does is not in any way a grin.

Silence falls like a headsman’s axe and everyone freezes.

“Um…” Icepick feels around beneath him with a hind hoof, but the floor is out of reach. He nervously taps his forehooves together. The sound is loudly in the sudden quiet. His violet eyes dart as if they wished they could pop out of their sockets and run away. Then he plasters a huge desperate grin on his face. “…hi, Smog!”

Smog knows better than to ignore a straight line like that. He grabs Icepick’s forehooves in a claw, lets go of his neck, and grabs him by the hind hooves with the other. Twists in a half-circle and hurls the pegasus in a flat trajectory through the front wall. Being made of cloud, he isn’t even bruised, but the jolt of impact would not have been comfortable. Quite a large hole remains just to the right of the door.


One of the watchers sniggers. Understandable: Quernstone has a limp courtesy of Icepick and a missed payment a few years back. Bluefrost coughs, gasps, and resumes breathing. Smog drags him to the door by the tail and tosses him out into the corridor. Icewind is smart enough not to make Smog drag him. Northwind freezes in indecision. Then he goes to help Sleet. Smog catches his tail in passing, causing the pegasus to fart in fright. More sniggering, less muted, from the peanut gallery.

“Go get a doctor.” Smog said. He lets go and Northwind bolts for the door. Smog fetches the first-aid kit from behind the bar and forces a tonic heavy with healdust down the throat of the griffin who started it all. He is out cold, and no wonder. Icepick landed on him hard. Nodding in satisfaction, he pours a much smaller dose down Hoarfrost’s throat. He eyes Sleet and the other three griffins. No one meets his gaze. “THE MEDICAL HELP GOES ON YOUR TABS. NOT THE DAMAGES. OR THE DRINKS YOU NEVER GOT A CHANCE TO ENJOY. I SAW WHAT HAPPENED TO START THIS. IT WAS AN ACCIDENT.” And that was that. “GENTLEGRIFFS, YOUR FRIEND IS DUE FOR THE HOSPITAL. NONE OF YOU ARE BANNED, BUT I ADVISE YOU TO LEAVE HERE FOR TONIGHT. SLEET, TELL HOARFROST WHEN SHE WAKES UP THAT ICEPICK IS BANNED FOR A MONTH. BLUEFROST IS BANNED FOR THREE MONTHS. ICEWIND PULLED A KNIFE. IF HE EVER SHOWS HIS FACE IN HERE AGAIN, I’LL PLUCK HIS WINGS BALD.”

No one argues. The music starts up again: a slightly less pounding song than usual. Smog rights the furniture and cleans up the mess and everything goes mostly back to normal. Smog spares Red a nod, up in the balcony. She hadn’t jumped in this time, and had perfectly timed when to cut off the music. There was hope for her yet. The doctor arrives, along with four assistants and a pair of policecolts. The trampled griffin is hauled out on a stretcher. Hoarfrost declines. No one feels like pressing charges and besides, the policecolts are both in Smog’s pocket. Smog hires one of his more sober customers to go tell the usual cloud-repair company that Smog needs their services.

Brando, Mithril, and Pick arrive before the repair-ponies do, and Brando enters by hopping up into the hole and inspecting it before hopping down inside. He grins and his pipe skews sideways. He adjusts it with a gesture that looks halfway to becoming unconscious habit. Brando speaks, half-shouting to be heard over the music he assumes Smog can hear. “Must have been a big one, comrade.”


Brando leads the way to the bar, swaggering. “I don’t think I’ve heard of him.”

“I have.” Mithril said. She doesn’t elaborate, but her tone and expression say enough.

“So, Brando.” Smog said. “How did the test flight go?”

Pick scowls and Mithril inhales, both clearly about to speak. Smog idly wonders who would be first, and what they would say.

[this is a combination of Rapid Sparkle and The Rookie]

Pick looks at Smog and does his best to stop scowling. His and Mithril’s manes are a complete mess. So are their tails and his wings. “Well, our ‘comrade’ here likes to mess with his passengers.”

Mithril has a large bruise decorating one of her eyes, and she doesn’t look too happy. “It ran well enough.”

“I swear,” Pick said, “he must have been purposely throwing us around. I almost broke my guitar." He shoots a quick glare over to Brando without a pause in his speaking. “The ship itself runs smooth and goes…”

Mithril meanwhile gives Brando a pointed glance: “The flying on the other hand…"

“…well,” Pick said, “it goes a lot faster than I expected: to say the absolute least."

Pick chuckles quietly under his breath as he realizes he and Mithril have been talking over each other.

[from here is me]

The laugh doesn’t last long. Pick continues to try and not scowl, but he suspects he fails. Mithril isn’t nearly as upset but makes no effort to hide what irritation she does feel. Brando looks far too innocent to actually be innocent. His eyes twinkle with hints of amusement, guilt, and a bit of defensiveness.

Smog uses a pair of talons to delicately poke through the open first-aid kit still sitting on the bar. He removes a waxed-paper envelope and offers it to Mithril. “Here.”

Mithril grabs it with her magic and uses her teeth to rip away the tear-string glued along the crease of one side. It rips open. Mithril shakes out the thin disc of damp sponge and gently presses it over her bruised eye. It has a smidge of healdust in it, but just to add a kick to the witch hazel, aloe, and other herbs soaking it. The elastic string tied to the disc holds it in place like an eyepatch, though it would have worked just as well on a scraped knee.

“Oh, that’s better.” Mithril said. She sighs in relief. Smog digs far back in one of the more distant cabinets behind the bar and unearths a currycomb from the dense but organized contents. He blows off a bit of dust and hands it to her. “Thank you, Smog.”

Pick blinks. Frowns in confusion. “Why do you have a brush?” he said.

“Customers sometimes get disheveled.” Smog said. “Sometimes they wish to try and look more presentable before leaving. They rarely have the means to do much. You can use it after her.”

Pick eyes the kit. “You were expecting injuries?”

“That’s why I left it out, yes. Brando is more predictable than he likes to think. There is usually a method to his madness. You complain of bruises now, but if he ever needs to maneuver at speed, you might well end up avoiding worse than bruises thanks to the time he took to practice.”

Brando felt good. The test flights had gone nearly without a hitch: at least, what he called hitches. But that wasn’t it. Smog had added quite a few things to the Snark: paid for by all of them, and he’d get to keep them should the mission prove successful. But that wasn’t the reason either. It wasn’t even the feel that new redline system brought: and hard as it was to stay at the helm, the rush of acceleration was pure awesome.

After the first night at Mithril’s, Brando had slept for nearly thirteen hours straight. Even then he’d needed to be slapped awake by her, and ordered to go back to the Snark in case Red or Pick showed up. He’d wandered back to his ship in a warm pink daze. She’d been paranoid. No one had turned up. Brando had crawled right into his bunk from habit and lain there for a while, staring at the ceiling. It had taken a while before he realized why sleep wouldn’t come: he simply wasn’t sleepy.

Brando’s good mood came simply from having a clear head for once. After all this time, it actually felt a little weird not to push each thought through a haze of insomnia. The amount of sleep he’d gotten in the past week equaled what he’d gotten in the month previous. No more gut-twisting memories flashing up at random to wrench him upright in the middle of the night, while the Snark drifted in her camouflaging mantle of cloud.

After that first night, they’d been more careful: well, regarding public knowledge at least. Now sitting in Smog’s place again, Brando thought back over how quickly everything had been shifted around. Mithril was great to him…though probably not tonight thanks to that shiner. Should’ve been a bit gentler. But there was a reason he hadn’t. Smog had hit the nail right on the head. The maneuvers he’d pulled to simulate running the Breach were nothing compared to the reality. If they got through with nothing but bruises and ruffled feathers they’d be lucky.

Still, Brando felt bad. He’d have to find a gift or something to make up for it, maybe. Other than that, Mithril seemed to be getting used to the quarters as much as one could the few times she had come by. They were cramped to say the least, especially when testing bed weight restrictions and the ability of shimmersilk to block noise. Not totally soundproof. He wondered if they’d even be able to keep their secret, and how much of his cut it'd take to get Smog to bury that fact if it became public.

Pick, much as the griffin hated to admit it, was growing on him. Brando wasn’t about to propose, but he no longer entertained thoughts of booting the pegasus out the hatch just before running the Breach out of Dust. Pick seemed like a decent sort. Something was a bit off about him, though. When Brando had rocked the Snark hard, Pick had held his footing better than he figured someone of his knowledge would. He thought back, remembering Pick not knowing what a redliner was…or at least acting like he didn’t. Still, Brando couldn’t do much about his ignorance. His contacts in Aura had all vanished faster than free drinks at a party. Smog’s work: Brando had no doubt. Then again, even the people he’d owed money and favors seemed prepared to forgive the debts, and as none of them were the forgiving type, they’d been scared off or paid off. Just one more ‘expense’ to deduct from those two million bits, in all likelihood. So unless he cared to ask the dragon, he had no way of digging into Pick’s past. If Smog knew anything, he seemed unlikely to share.

That shovel was really bugging Brando. Some old rumor…

Well, at least Brando hadn’t broken Pick's guitar. He seemed rather protective of it, more so now that he mentioned it specifically to Smog. Brando could understand that: probably a family heirloom or a hard-won treasure of some sort. At least Pick seemed the type capable of keeping the mission secret. There was also the issue of only two of the crew knowing how to pilot the ship. Pick seemed the best bet to train, so Brando needed to talk to Mithril about having them take turns training him at the helm in the off chance they both got incapacitated. Or needed to sleep at the same time for some bizarre reason.

Brando still wondered about Red Raider too. She didn’t say much, didn’t interact with the rest of them much from what Brando saw, and came off as a bit of a cold shoulder, which surprised him: what with her being a DJ. Might have something to do with the mission, or that they were police and a criminal and she had issues with one end of those extremes or the other. Or maybe she'd just been so busy with other things and prepping there hadn't been enough time to properly greet one another. Whatever the case, he hoped she’d be of sturdy enough stuff to not get flung about when they hit the Breach, otherwise they might need some healdust sooner rather than later.

[This next bit is an expansion by internetcatchphrase.]
Or maybe the Little Miss DJ act was exactly that: an act. Brando hadn’t dealt much with Smog in the past, except as a bartender. He’d known that Smog was an information broker, but he hadn’t had an inkling of the scale. Over the past week he’d asked around as best he could with no solid contacts. He hadn’t learned much, but that alone had been scarier than almost anything he could have been told. Asking about Smog made drunks go sober. Chatterboxes fell silent. Bums suffered an attack of memory loss no amount of bits could cure. Whole bars of dockyard toughs acted like a pack of foals facing an angry teacher. Smog was feared, and no one inspired fear like without doing fearsome things.

Or, more likely, ordering them done.

Brando almost looks up at the balcony as an ugly thought sails into his mind like a fleet of Zavrosi interceptors from a cloudbank. Everyone associated pirates with the skull-and-crossbones. Brando happened to know that pirates flew the Jolly Roger to signal they were prepared to accept a peaceful surrender, loot and pillage, and leave them with their ship and lives. It was a good thing to see. When pirates flew a pure red flag, it meant no survivors. Red Raider had a red pennant flag on her flank. That wasn’t the name and cutie mark of a mare born to rock a rave, or whatever they called it. It was perfect for the worst kind of pirate. Was she trying to leave the life behind her, start a fresh life, only for Smog to blackmail her? Was this DJ act just a cover? In either case, was she Smog’s insurance policy: the dagger poised at their backs in case any of them felt…treacherous?

Or, Brando conceded, he could be paranoid.
[End insertion. See metatext.]

The ominous silence surrounding Smog made Brando feel a lot less comfortable about Old Pinky. Especially since the dragon had cut off all his other means of gathering information from the shady side of things. The near-magical vanishing of debts to pay and people to appease was a major weight off his back. But Smog never was much for charity. Some would say he’d been tossed out of the frying pan and into the fire. Even aside from being fireproof, Brando felt his situation had overall improved. Smog seemed a bit more solid than the types he’d dealt with before, and though Brando didn’t feel safe around the dragon, he did feel a bit more secure. One of the few things anyone was willing to share was that Smog’s word was gold. He never lied or broke a promise. If Brando kept his end of the deal, Smog would keep his.

Brando twitches his thoughts back to the present, looking back over to Smog after the two ponies had finished telling the miniature dragon what a pain he’d been. “She handles great, Smog.” Brando said. “The new kit doesn’t choke out the engine. She kicked into overdive faster than a frightened eel and almost as slick. I suppose that’d be due to the mechanics actually being mechanics, and not creeps that flunked out of engineering school, yes?"

[another insert]
“Indeed.” Smog said. He pulled a candle from behind the bar and lit it from a trickle of flame out one nostril. It was as poisonously green as his eyes, and the candle flame held the color. He held the candle out to Brando, who took it without thinking. As it swapped claws, the flame went from green to normal yellow.
[end insert]

Brando blinked, and then noticed that his pipe had gone out. Too busy musing while the other two talked to remember to puff. Relighting it with the candle and taking a drag from it, he let the smoke curl up over his beak. “I really got no complaints, other than the fact I can’t get her to hold a shroud. The new cloud generator works too fast for the spells in the envelope’s skin to keep up, I think. Instead of ending up wrapped in cloud, she ends up perched atop one, with only the cabin buried. Aside from that, and my having to get used to the new engine noises, I think we’re quite ready, comrade."

Smog blinked at Brando. Nothing more. “I’ll have the problem fixed tonight. Unless it takes longer, you will leave by tomorrow noon.” Smog didn’t look up, but he raised his voice to its usual muted boom. “RED, PLEASE COME DOWN AND JOIN US FOR A MOMENT.”
[end insert]

META: Before you start complaining about where I must have pulled that little swerve, the pirate flag trivia is historically accurate fact. I must confess that I helped DJ-AL3X decide on Red Raider’s cutie mark. The above fact may well have been lurking in my subconscious when I heard ‘Red Raider’ and handed me the thought of a red pennant flag. The connection surfaced while editing the above post, helped along by DioBrando dropping some of Brando’s backstory on me in a PM. It involves pirates. This lightbulb moment led directly to my inserted bit. DJ-AL3X has indicated he has a story as to why Red’s name and mark don’t match her profession. He hasn’t shared it with me and I haven’t asked. If I’m dead wrong, it’s still a suspicion Brando would logically have. If I just let the cat out of the bag, I apologize. But I couldn’t do anything else: it’s something Brando would notice.

Clouds idly floated in the sky. Or was that condensed steam? Morhoof sat in the cabin of the aircraft, fuming like a pile of fuel heated just below the point of combustion. The past three days have jerked him around enough that his cork could blow from even the slightest feather brush. Add flying to the mix, and you’ve got something worse than herd of Ursa Majors on your hooves. At least he had managed to get rid of a pair of eyes that had spent too long digging into his back. He hopes Pearls will be able to get everything into Aura before he gets back.

Morhoof retreats into memory.

A silvery ghost fleeted into an alley. It had been two days since his shipment had been lost, and now he was finally going to sniff out its trail. Morhoof pondered for a moment: whether or not he should shake the pony up in the alley, or follow him to see if he led anywhere interesting. The latter seemed the wisest choice, for obvious reasons. He hurried after his quarry, keeping sure to stay out of sight. It seemed almost pointless after the first fifteen minutes, but as the pearl-coated pony eventually slipped into a remote coffee shop, Morhoof couldn't help but raise a brow. A meeting?

Morhoof could only facehoof when he found out the pony was really only buying a cup of coffee. But this presented him with a good environment to back his quarry into a corner. Leisurely walking up to the counter beside his target, he gave his orders to the cashier: “I’ll have what he’s getting.” He nodded to the poor sap beside him, who froze up quicker than an un-greased lute peg in damp weather.

When the cashier turned his back, Morhoof leaned over to the pony and whispered. “We need to have a talk. You and I. Do not attempt to flee: you will regret it." Once they received their coffee, Morhoof led them to a table off in a far corner. They sat in silence for a few minutes, as Morhoof went over a few scenarios in his head. The other pony seemed to have quite lost his thirst.

Morhoof eventually took a sip of his drink and began. He used the serious, cold tone that he reserved certain kind of business. “I’ll let you know now that I am not pleased. It would be wise of you to not waste my time. I don’t care to know your name, but I need to know everything else. Even if I already know it. How did you know I was here? Who sent you here? Was what you blurted out to the surrounding public your only task?" Morhoof still couldn’t decide if he’d been lucky Smaug had cleared the room before hand. On one hoof, it meant only Smaug had heard the message. On the other hoof, Smaug might well be the one person in Aura that Morhoof would rather not have heard it.

The messenger pony was a lot calmer than Morhoof recalled, but still had a nervous air about him. “That night when the shipment was due, I was told where to find you and what to tell you. You know who sent me. He’s the only one to use such an obvious code. And yes, that was my only task."

Morhoof nodded. “Hm…” He stared down into his coffee, studying the rippled reflection of his scarred visage. “If your only task was to inform me, why are you still here?”

“Because I know where the shipment is now." Morhoof began to speak, but the new-blood went on to explain. “There was a snag in Zavros. One of the agents got himself caught, leading the stripe-arses to the smuggler. He was able to secure the cargo before they caught up to him. That was in Ina, which isn’t exactly on the border."

Morhoof mulled over the details. “So…it’s not very clear to me. Not only was I followed, but I’m also being watched. I can feel eyes on me. I don’t like to be watched. You’re going to do something for me: you're going to get rid of my stalker. Make it subtle, and make sure it’s not known. I’m sure you’ll find working for me a lot more profitable than working for that old goat.” Morhoof eyed the pony for a second, thinking. “Pearls."

Pearls cocked an eyebrow. “You’ll pay me in pearls?”

“No. As a name. Name aren’t--"

“What do you mean working for you is more profitable?"

Morhoof shot him a sidelong glance as he stood. “Let me rephrase. It’s less that working with me will make you richer in bits than working for him will eventually cost you something more precious: your life. Also. After you’re done with my little shadow, make sure to get the supplies out of Ina into Shadowville."

“And what if I refuse?”

Morhoof gave him a stare, letting all the long ages of his life rise into his eyes. Pearls shivered and dropped his gaze. Morhoof sipped his coffee. “You won’t.”

It had taken the better half of the day to reach Ina. Many might find that surprising, but Morhoof knew how to get around in a hurry when he must. Supposedly the crate was located in a worn-out water tower, just outside of the town. It would stay there until Pearls came by to pick it up. But Morhoof needed at least one thing from it.

Although it was old, and structurally failing, the tower remained sturdy enough to hold his weight. He was a bit surprised. The crate was rather…small. Big enough to hold about a hundred individual units. He reached inside and took out a small vial and a small parchment scroll, stashing both in a pocket stitched into the lining of his hood. A unicorn pickpocket able to magic something out of his hood without being noticed had too much skill to bother wasting it picking pockets.

A voice with a thick Zavrosi accent shouted up to him from outside the tower. “Hey! What are you doing up there?”

Morhoof jumped down, taking the brunt with his hind legs, relieving the stress to his front legs. Eying the zebra for a moment, he discarded the notion of it being anything other than a nosey equine. “It's none of your concern, local. Here’s a shiny bit, miss: be on your way and buy yourself a nice fruit.” He started to reach into his hood to fish out a bit.

The zebra looked ready to spit, possibly on him. “I’m not a local." Morhoof looked up at her, reconsidering his first impression. “And you’ve just pilfered my property. I’ll give you five seconds to drop it and never show your scarred face here again, wooden-hoof."

Morhoof sighed and held tight to the fraying ends of his temper. “It isn’t your property: it’s mine. I was expecting it at the fourth wall about three days ago. So don’t you try and claim that I’m stealing something that is not mine, or I’ll introduce your rump to my wooden hoof."

“You're the one I was delivering to?”

“Most likely. Is this all of it?”

“Not by a long shot. I set the sample case up there because it’s the safest place I could find. No one’s likely to go climbing on the rickety thing. There are three other containers. Bigger ones: the tower wouldn’t take the weight. Each holds about ten thousand units."


The zebra mare nodded. “Thirty thousand and one hundred.”

Celestia’s Mane! What is he planning that could possibly need that much? “Alright, alright. A lackey of mine is going to be by sometime within the next few days. Will go by ‘Pearls.’ Make sure he gets it to the fourth wall.”

A voice yanks Morhoof back into the present, where he rides one of the cursed airships. “Pardon? I missed that.”

“Would you like something to drink, sir?”

“Yes, yes. Anything. Something strong.” The stewardess nods and flashes a polished, insincere smile before trotting away. His nerves still felt frayed, but a maybe a drink would do him some good. Approaching hooves soon clop against the wooden floor, alerting him that his drink was to be soon enjoyed. Then the cabin lurched, making everyone stagger. Morhoof watched his drink sail through the air towards him. It hits, thumping him in the forelock as amber fluid splashes everywhere. That, he thinks as he shakes stinging drops from his eyes, really was the final straw.

The stewardess pounces on him, scrubbing at his face with a soft towel. “Sir, I’m very sorry, here, let me help--”

Morhoof yanks the towel down and her voice dies a swift death as she takes in his expression. Morhoof manages to growl some words. “Take us down. Land. Now.”

“I can’t, only the pilot has the authority to order an emergency landing and…sir you can’t go in there!

A pegasus mare idly drifted on a wisp of cloud, not quite napping but not quite awake. Then warm sun becomes cold shadow. She opens an eye just in time to get the returning sunlight right in it as the shadow’s caster moves on. She makes a rude gesture. “Zeppelins, think they own the sky…” She prepares to follow this up with a few words her mother never taught her, but then she hears multiple voices screaming in panic over the low drone of the propellers. The zeppelin that had buzzed her was dropping a lot faster than was legal or prudent. “Oh, horseapples…”

Some days after the…unfortunate incident…Morhoof arrived outside a restaurant in Hong Prong, waiting for his employer to arrive. Hours still remained before the specified time. Morhoof needed to make sure that old goat would not cause him any more trouble. He took a quick trot around the area. Hong Prong was packed and narrow, and that was a double-edged sword. It’d make it easier to be lost in the crowd, but moving through at speed would be impossible. He doubled back and began to watch the alleyway in back of the restaurant. A chef came out the back, dumping a pot of noodles into a dumpster. It gave Morhoof an idea.

Morhoof went in through the kitchen, causing all five deer cooks to turn and begin yammering at him. He managed to get across that he wanted to order dinner, dropping a compliment about how what they threw out smelled so good, what they served must be divine. That settled their fur well enough. Chefs and egos. Passing through to the main room, he sat, ordered, and then handed the waiter some bits. The food arrived and he idly began to eat. A bowl of vegetables: carrots, mushrooms, broccoli, and others. Morhoof’s ears eventually flicked, picking up cloven hooves of a different sort than deer. Three goats sat down at his table. One was considerably smaller than the others. Or rather, the others were unusually burly. Morhoof glanced up. “Evening, Clarence.”

The smaller goat answered in a voice with all the sweetness of a rusted hinge. “Evening, Morhoof. Based on the fact that you are sitting here before me, I trust that you have accomplished the tasks I designated for you?"

Morhoof nodded. “Aye. I got some extra hooves to help me get everything out of Ina, to where they needed to be. Smog won’t even know what hit him."

Clarence laughed in delight. “Perfect! I knew I could count on you. What did you do with your little helpers?”

Morhoof made a slitting motion across his neck, to which Clarence’s grin grew wider. The waiter came by and took the goat’s orders. He mentioned that the barley noodles were cheap today: special offer. It wasn’t, but Morhoof had bribed him to say it was. Clarence, the reliable old skinflint, ordered three bowls for him and his thugs. Morhoof looked sullen, but inside he felt both tenser and more relaxed. It was going to as planned.

Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as Clarence ate the flower arrangement. A little voice in Morhoof’s head laughed, the cackling madness of a pegasus trapped in a small box for thirty years. Not long afterwards the sounds of furious shouting and smashing dishes erupted from the kitchen. Clarence, reliably paranoid as well, nodded to the other two to go check it out.

Once the other two goats have disappeared from sight, Morhoof casually stands. “Call of nature." He quickly made his way towards the restrooms: he had about another thirty second head start. Morhoof entered one of the stalls. It had a little window. He opened it up and forced himself through it, teeth holding onto the strap of his lute case. Then he gets stuck. A little too much running or a little too much cider. Finally popping free, flipping himself around to cradle his lute, he landed on his back.


Then he’s up and running. The two large goats from the restaurant are soon hot on his tail, which only meant the little extra spice he’d added to the noodles worked that much faster. And he was glad now that he had worked out an escape plan beforehand. Even though it was later, the streets and even the back ways were still crowded, hindering his movements. He knocked people aside, and could hear that his pursuers were doing the same. But the first to barge through a crowd had an advantage in surprise. Anyone coming along afterwards found people not in the mood to be jostled again. He ran over his route in his head, Left, left, true, true, left, right, right, left, true. It would lead him to the nearby docks, a place that would certainly be easy to get lost in. More ponies there, so he didn’t stand out.

His pursuers had to break off pursuit halfway there, to attend to far more pressing urges in their bellies. The scents of dock and ocean tore through his nostrils when he arrived at the waterfront: it was like hitting a wall. He chose a good-sized boat that seemed devoid of life, galloping up the ramp and then down into the cargo bay. He’d wait it out here for a few hours. But then the dark and rocking and too many days of not enough sleep steal his mind away. When he awakens he has an abominable backache, which concerns him far less than the zebra staring at him.

It took about three days to get back into Aura. Luckily for him the captain and crew of the were quite superstitious little zebras, and they took to him like some sort of immortal. Of course most of what he had spewed to them was utter nonsense, but they lapped it up. This made the long wait at least somewhat bearable, and he was able to catch an express flight when they reached Nadira.

Morhoof was weary but in good spirits when he came around a corner of Shadowville’s warren to see the sign of the Brass Hoof up the street. It looked heavenly. Pearls had informed him earlier that with their current resources, they weren’t going to be able to get anything out of Ina. The security was too tight. So to Morhoof's great displeasure, he’d sent Pearls off to get a message to Smog. Morhoof himself had other business that needed attending to.

He burst through the front door. It was empty. That seemed a little odd, but it could only be that it just a little too early for most. He made his way hastily to the bar, pleading for the usual. The purple unicorn seemed a bit distressed about something, but it didn’t stop her from head into the back to get him his drink. Returning with the tankard held high, she gave him a wan but genuine smile.

“You're in luck, this is the last--" Her hoof caught a crack in the floor and she flew forwards.
((Thanks internet, you make everything better xD))

The sun was setting on yet another long, uneventful day as Tradewind swooped through the cloud cover to finally set eyes on Aura. The pegasus was genuinely awed by the sight. Cloudsdale was one thing, and ever since the Age of Harmony began she had become mightier and grander than ever. But Aura shone like a second sun. Flags waved everywhere, and airships of all shapes and sizes floated serenely through the afternoon sky. It was a sight beyond words, and for the stallion, a sight for sore eyes.

The pegasus hiked up his dangling jaw and pushed on, determined not to have to spend another day with a heavy set of saddlebags slung across his back. A month: it had taken an entire month to get there by wing. Luckily there were enough small isles between Equestria and Zavros that it had been easy to island hop: at least for a soarer-of-thermals like him. Tradewind hadn’t spent more than twelve hours in the air at a time over the course of the entire journey. The package he was carrying wasn’t much heavier than a full pack of mail, and the courier ran non-stop between Canterlot and Manehatten twice a week without his hooves ever touching the clouds or ground. This had practically been a holiday.

‘Heh, some holiday.’ the grey pegasus thought. ‘I don’t normally get accosted every ten minutes by bloody zebras and their bloody striped zeppelins.’ It had been hard making his way through Zavros airspace without running into people determined to find out what was in his saddlebags. Luckily, no airship could dive like a pegasus with his wings folded, and he had managed to outrun them every time.

Tradewind wished he knew what he was going to all this trouble for: all he had been told was that a mysterious client had paid ten times the normal shipping rate to get it to Aura as quickly and discreetly as possible. Since Tradewind was one of the only endurance fliers in the mail service who could do long hauls without an airship, the job had fallen to him. To say that he was curious would’ve been a gross understatement. The package was addressed to a dragon barkeep, of all things. The promise of a big payday (plus the urge to keep his wings intact) had ensured his professionalism remained unsullied.

Weaving and dodging between the mass of airships at the docks, the pegasus finally planted his feet on the clouds of the sky-borne city. He shook out his massive wings and flattened a few loose feathers before folding them in close to his sides. Sometimes he wished they didn’t stick out behind him so much, but oh well: that was the price he paid for being able to fly like he could.

Stepping through the crowds, which were thick even at this late hour, Tradewind located a map of the cloud-docks posted behind a pane of glass. He pulled out the scrap of paper. It showed a rough map of the docks area: his destination marked with an X and some instructions on how to reach the place hastily scrawled on it. He studied the rubbish map for some time, occasionally glancing up at the official map and making mental notes. One thing he noted was that his destination truly wasn’t on the official map. Finally, he headed in the direction of the X, hoping to get there before dark.

Three hours later, Tradewind was thoroughly regretting not letting the Zavrosi Air Patrol not catch him. The X on his map had proven impossible to find. Three times now he had made his way back through the maze of the town to the docks, where he started from scratch. Three times he had tried to find the place only to end up first in a dark alley, second: in a brightly lit theatre district, and third: back to where he started. Tradewind gave a strangled sigh of frustration and rounded on the nearest creature he saw, a fight-scarred pegasus with ragged wings and a look in his eye that said he would’ve sold his granny for glue.

Tradewind takes a moment to steel his resolve. “Hey, er…hi. You wouldn’t happen to know of any dragons around here, would you?”

“Dragons?” The goon’s ears briefly went from aggressively backed to nervously lowered. His sneer returned but it looked less than genuine. “You mean Smog?”

“Smog? I don’t know names, mate. Maybe that’s him. I’m told he runs a bar or tavern of some sort.”

“Aye, that be Smog, but what’s a thin streak of cirrus like you want with ‘im?”

“I’m just a messenger, where’s his place?”

“Tch.” The pegasus spat off to the side. “You’ll never find it. I’ll take you. Smog be good for slipping you bits if you do him a favor, so’s you do it again.”

Ten minutes later, Tradewind strode less-than-confidently down a corridor in the heart of the cloud-docks. It was completely unremarkable amid identical ones. He began to hear thumping music. His unexpectedly helpful guide opened an unmarked door and music poured out. He slipped inside. Tradewind followed. The conversations completely failed to stop, the music neglected to cut off with a scratch, and no one even bothered to look over. Tradewind felt less interesting than he had ever felt before. Oh well, time to do the last bit of the job and then find a place to sleep. Walking up to the bar, he caught sight of the bartender: a pink dragon. He couldn’t help but smile. The dragon was quite a bit bigger than he was, but still barely a teenager by dragon standards. The pink hue made him look like a toy for some filly in Canterlot.

Smiling, however, turned out to be a bad decision. The dragon’s vaguely amiable gaze turned to him. His vivid green eyes slightly narrowed and flared with a mix of contempt and distain. His glare was like the air at the loftiest heights Tradewind had ever reached: a cold that burned the lungs and cut right to the bone. An instant later they had returned to being good-natured, leaving Tradewind wondering if he’d imagined it. Either way, it had wiped the smile off his face. The pink dragon carefully rested an elbow on the bar, gently tapping each of his pink, needle-pointed talons against the white wood. He spoke in a bass but surprisingly quiet voice, just loud enough for Tradewind to make out over the music. “I let everyone make one comment at the expense of my coloring.” The talons grew still. “One.”

“Yessir.” Tradewind said. He decided he hadn’t imagined it. “But I wasn’t gonna say anything, mate.”

The dragon picked up a glass and began polishing it with a rag. “I think you’re in the wrong bar.”

“Uh.” Tradewind’s guide sidled forward. “He says he’s got a package for you, Smog. The idjit was lost but I brought him here safe and sound.”

Smog said nothing, just counted some bits from his register and handed them over. The pegasus made them vanish, and then made himself vanish. Smog returned to the glass. “Is this true? Hardscrabble certainly believes so.”

“I’m here to deliver a package to a Mister Smog.”

“From whom?”

“Dunno, s’from Equestria though.”

Smog pulled a black quill and an inkpot from behind the bar. Who still uses quills? It was oversized but looked too small in his grip. Tradewind noticed that it looked like a pegasus feather and then quietly wished he hadn’t noticed. Smog just gave it a dip and then held it up. “I’ll sign for it.”

Tradewind took a signature from the pink dragon and handed him the package, which promptly disappeared under the bar. Job done, Tradewind moved half his personal luggage to the other side so the saddlebags balanced. Setting them close by a barstool, he perched on it. “So, can I have a drink?”

“You can, but you might wish to reconsider. There are safer places to get a drink in this town.”

“I’m too knackered to look for one, mate.”

“Fair enough.” Smog poured him a cider.

[internetcatchphrase] META: I had to make somewhat profound edits to the interaction between Tradewind and Smog. I’m not angry, upset, or even annoyed with Molestia. He has proven his talent for solid writing on the G1. There are certain kinds of character I avoid using in my works because I’m utterly rubbish at writing them in a believable fashion. Every writer has them, I think. I fear that Smog’s type is one of Molestia’s. There’s no shame in that. I say without ego (okay, maybe a little ego) that Smog’s type of character isn’t one that many people can do well. They dance along the edge of Mary Sue territory and it’s easy to slip. What Molestia wrote was a decent character, it just wasn’t Smog. Aura’s a big place with lots of people. I can conjure up some NPC’s to make life interesting for Tradie. *


The observant may have noticed Rain Shadow’s cameo appearance in Tradewind’s introductory post. If you can’t spot him, go re-read the unfortunate pegasi’s physical description. Still having problems? Ask me in an email or a PM. But only if you really want to know. I slipped that detail in there without even consciously noticing until my final read-through looking for typos. When I noticed, I seriously considered taking it out again. But I left it in, though my conscience demanded I make this explanatory post. That detail hammered home something very important.

Smog’s not my PC anymore.

I honestly created Smog as a plot device. A mere sock-puppet avatar for me to use when interacting with the actual PC’s. A way for them to get hold of whatever information or merchandise or NPC’s they end up needing. Maybe a way to toss interesting missions their way, acting as middleman for various others. Smog didn’t stay that way. Like all the characters I write that are worth a damn, Smog took on a life and will of his own. That’s great in a novel, but this ain’t a novel.

Believe it or not, I truly intended to hang back in this RP: not get involved, just provide the background and maybe toss the PC’s a curveball now and again if things got stale. In a very real sense, I haven’t taken over. Smog has. You might be surprised at how little control I really have over what the pink bugger does. I have to write him doing things it is in his character to do. And it’s important to keep that character in mind.

Smog never lies. He keeps his promises. He tends to be quite polite and fair in his dealings as a rule. Not even I can quite decide whether or not he’s an outright villain. His long-term goals would make the world a better place for everyone but the dragons: and most of them are far from saints. But his motives are utterly selfish and his methods are questionable to say the least. He is the kingpin of organized crime in Aura. Horrible things are done on his orders. Lives ended, lives ruined. Crime is less common in Aura, but far more efficient. He’s a rules layer with his word. He’s selfish, ruthless, heartless, manipulative, and smart. If he’s polite and fair, it’s only because he’s decided it’s easier to catch flies with honey than vinegar. By no stretch of the imagination is he a nice person, and honey is as sticky as it is sweet.

I, internetcatchphrase, am your friend. I want you to have fun and have my own fun seeing where you take things. Kind of like watching a soap opera, if the comparison isn’t too insulting. That’s my goal. Smog has goals of his own. If ripping your head off would further them, he won’t hesitate. Killing off PC’s is very bad form, unless it’s their own colossal stupidity that painted them into that corner. I’m more than a little nervous about an eventual need to drop a clanker of a Deus ex Machina to bail someone’s rump out of the fire. Everyone, please: try not to let it come to that. Smog doesn’t give a rat fart whether or not you’re a PC. He’s utterly unaware he’s fictional and he’s playing for keeps. Cross him at your own risk. Morhoof especially should tread lightly in his plot to move against him. Luck will favor you, Morhoof, but there are limits to what luck alone can do.

Smog is not your friend.

I’m in the process of ‘nerfing’ Smog, but even there I can only pick and pry at the flaws that feel true to his character. Asking me to just have him suddenly repent his wicked ways would be like asking someone with a germ phobia to eat gum off the sidewalk. His flaws are enough. I know how Smog’s put together. I know how to take him apart. Morhoof shows every sign of being eager to help. Smog’s eventually going to end up dead, jailed, or a reformed character. Though even reformed Smog’s not going to be all giggles and sunshine. No matter what the outcome, all the PC’s currently forced to dance on his strings will find those strings cut. Smog’s a literary character outside his proper genre. Love him or hate him, the dude’s got to go.

meanwhile, elsewhere...

Dawn is past in Dust, the greatest (yet also the most humbly named) city in the world. Perth Fitzhammer stands at the window of his small, dark, and musty ‘parlor,’ one clawed finger easing the faux-velvet curtains apart. There is no sign that day has come: the overcast is thick and unbroken. He looks out into darkness salted with the sparklights of the lampposts. Perth watches a coach go by along the otherwise deserted street. The two earth ponies pulling it wear hooded oilskin cloaks. So does the griffin perching on the driver’s seat: he or she has managed to keep their pipe going. The rain is little more than drizzle but all signs point to that changing soon.

Rumor had it that in the Outside, the weather was controlled by magical race like earth ponies, only a bit smaller and winged. Storms only by appointment: a bizarre notion indeed. Perth flinches as lightning briefly turns the low black clouds white. Thunder rattles the loose pane in his parlor window. Perth lets the curtain fall back and adjusts his round, wire-rimmed spectacles. Smoothing the immaculately groomed fur of his ears, he tugs his unwrinkled vest straight and adjusts the hang of his already-perfect watch chain. The timing of that strike with his thoughts unsettles him, and Perth doesn’t need any further unsettling. The room is colder than usual but he feels a chill even this cannot explain.

Perth is afraid. Not of the storm: the garret apartment where he lives isn’t the height of fashion but the roof is in excellent repair. Seeing as how the roof is also his ceiling, Perth has quietly made sure of that. The fear in the pit of his belly has had years to age and gain complex nuances, like the cold-brewed eucalyptus tea he has no hope of ever affording. Padding to the tattered armchair before the fireplace, he sits carefully so as to not unduly wrinkle his trousers. His eyes stray to the meager coals, seeing once again the letter curling to ash. The letter that offered salvation and damnation in one package. He had committed it to memory before committing it to the flames.

No Koala left the nation of Dust. As the argument went, only a criminal would want to leave, so making it a crime to leave was plain logic. Perth is a criminal, though through no fault of his own. Coward that he is, a small coal of anger at the injustice of it burns in the heart of all that vintage dread. They wouldn’t call him a criminal, oh no: whatever the ugly reality, the proprieties must be observed. Perth is an Aberration, a Koala born with an unnatural power. The most painfully ironic one imaginable: he can make machines run better than the laws of Natural Philosophy allow. He can even make machines work that Natural Philosophy said shouldn’t. The love of engineering that all Koalas should possess has, in Perth, been twisted into a bitter joke.

Magic was the ultimate crime: it broke not the arbitrary laws of people, but the Laws of Nature itself. Perth stares down at his hands. Three clawed fingers and two clawed thumbs on each hand. Agile and dexterous, even for his kind, but how much is…natural? Where did his unwanted ability leave off and honest natural talent begin? Did he have any natural talent at all, or was it all magic? All the cunning tools, with sheath-handles to slip down over his claws: how much of his skill with them is undeserved?

Perth bounces to his feet and grabs his smoking box on the mantel, removing his pipe from within and loading it with a cheap but soothing mix of dried clover flowers, eucalyptus leaves, and shavings of cherry wood. And healdust, of course: to undo the damage the habit would otherwise visit on his lungs. Lighting it from the fire, he paces and puffs, puffs and paces, until he realizes it doesn’t help a bit. The ticking of his new pocket-watch has become a skull-pounding clang: one that is slightly but intolerably off-key. He heads for his workshop, though the narrow bed jammed into a corner technically makes it a bedroom. Taking out the watch, he stops it and deftly dips his claws into the sheaths of the tools standing in neat ranks and columns. Removing the golden brass back, Perth swiftly dismantles it. Tiny gears and other bits of clockwork lay in orderly constellations. Perth replaces his spectacles with magnifying ones, more from habit…and guilt…than need. He could have done it blindfolded, on a watch using a style of clockwork unfamiliar to him.

When it comes to machines, Perth just knows. Perth inspects each component, gripping it in a tiny tweezers worked by flexing that finger. The fear retreats as sharp focused clarity grips his mind in a horribly natural-feeling embrace. Perth cleans a speck of dusty oil here, straightens a tiny bend in a pin, and removes an imperceptible amount of metal from one of the hooks of the escapement. Dipping each piece in preserving oil, he wipes them clear of all but a gloss before reassembling it. He leaves off the back as he winds it. The ticking is sweet and pure now, though Perth knows with gloomy certainty that no one else would have heard any difference. Perth listens a while, and knows that the watch will be one second fast after seventy-one days. Barring sharp knocks. The finest watchmakers bragged of clocks that only lost a second in eleven. Perth replaces the back and then taps it with the curved pick on his left fore-thumb.

The guilt swells up as the clarity fades. And the fear, of course. That addictive, irresistible, unnatural mood robs him of all caution. He can’t take a job that exposes him to machines of any description. The need to ‘improve’ them would expose him if he indulged it but drive him dingbat bonkers if he resisted. The letter floats in his mind’s eye again. It promised to arrange Perth’s safe departure from Dust and set him up with a comfortable new life in an Outside nation. All he has to do is commit an unthinkable betrayal against his race. It also promised to expose him as an Aberration if he refused. Perth rubs his leathery nose with the furry back of one hand. That made the betrayal rather more thinkable. Thinkable enough that he has created a clever little machine to extract and collect the spores from the healdust in his pipe herbs before smoking it. He thinks of smoking, with bleak humor, as burning the evidence.

Thanks to taking some under-the-table work, Perth has managed to pay for his new heavy smoking habit without going hungry. The more organized sort of criminal appreciated the skill of a clever and discreet accountant. Perth puffs and then snorts smoke. Accountancy. His skill with numbers might be natural. Unbalanced ledgers and error-filled spreadsheets certainly didn’t provoke fits of deranged serenity. In his mind, painfully unborn, lies a mechanical calculating device. It would make the abacus as obsolete as the escapement had made the pendulum. Perth is certain it could be made without violation of the Natural Laws. The royalties from the patent would keep him in luxury for life. But it would also draw attention to him, and expectations, and inevitably suspicions.

Perth tucks the watch he couldn’t afford back into the pocket of the vest likewise. The plot to smuggle him out of Dust is inspired: the sort of staggeringly simple insights that are the mark of true genius. But it doesn’t permit Perth to sit around like a lump of mud waiting to be rescued. He has work to do to prepare the way. Work that requires a bit of nerve. Replacing his workshop to its previous soothing tidiness, Perth balances his usual spectacles on his nose and slips into his new ash-grey waistcoat. He dons his ash-grey bowler hat with its charcoal-grey band. Then he hides his understated finery under his rather older and much plainer oilskin cloak.

Anyone, Perth mused, could be brave when backed into a corner. And a corner was where he most assuredly stood. A bit of nerve? He’d find it. And because he needs all the help he can get, he doubles back to dig out an object from under his mattress. It is possibly the nastiest thing he has ever invented: a weapon that used compressed air to hurl little darts like a crossbreed of arrow and syringe. It holds a full score of them. With the mainspring wound tight and the reservoir at full pressure, he can fire them almost as fast as he can depress the triggering lever. Perth had filled their tiny reservoirs with a potent knockout drug rather than poison and resolutely ignored the idea for a blunt-headed version filled with explosive. Having made it fills him with a trembling mix of pride, horror, and resignation.

Slipping the evil but reassuring thing in a pocket, Perth grabs his umbrella from by the door on his way out. He seeks the services of a documents forger: one that the letter promised can be trusted to do what needed done and never whisper a word of it afterwards. He reaches the street just as the rain grows heavier. This opportunity isn’t to be missed: there will be few eyes out to mark him and maybe remember. And for those eyes that see, what will they see? The rain is all the excuse Perth needs to keep his hood up and his head down. His umbrella will serve as a walking stick for now. The forger lives in a good neighborhood, and Perth will stow the cloak when he gets close. The umbrella will keep him dry while showing off his clothing. That and the manners of his more prosperous upbringing will assure Perth fits in: no one will bother to notice him. Just a gentleman out for a stroll around the neighborhood in the rain. All logical reassurances.

They even help slow Perth’s racing heart. A bit.