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


Dio_Brando said:
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.”

Before Red can descend from her balcony perch, the door to the Den swings open. Two griffins enter, one after the other. One is a burly male: Kincaid. Aside from a white-feathered head, he is brown of feather and tawny of fur, with a yellow beak, eyes, and lower forelegs. The other is a sleek female: Felicia. She’s jet black from end to end, including her beak and eyes. A sharp steel cap covers the very tip of her beak. She is more falcon/panther than eagle/lion. They wear the gold-chased black armor of Aura’s Special Crimes Division. Smog doesn’t relax, because he hadn’t tensed. But if he’d tensed, he would have relaxed. He had been behind the founding of that division and no one joined it without being firmly in Smog’s pocket. Every one is a former criminal and current employee of his, but that actually makes them even more effective at solving non-Smog-backed crimes. Having access to Smog’s network of informants helps too. Aside from turning a blind eye to the local crime lord, they are beyond reproach. No bribes, no brutality.

Smog’s eyes stay on the griffins. His attention goes to the large-winged pegasus sitting down at the end of the bar, half-drunk and half-asleep. Tradewind had come in shortly before the barfight and sipped his way through three ciders since. Smog owns the SCD but the fiction that he doesn’t must be maintained. The detectives cross the open middle of the modest-large room, at first glance utterly ignored by everyone at the tables. Smog notices Brando staring into the mirror behind the bar, giving Felicia a look of mingled appreciation and dread. Smog notices Mithril noticing as well: the unicorn’s expression doesn’t change as much as solidify. The griffins somehow fail to notice the disgraced police lieutenant and her rookie partner slumming it in a den of criminal scum.

Felicia claims a barstool, its former pegasus occupant wandering off as if he’d simply decided he needed to be elsewhere. The griffin ignores him just as utterly. Kincaid puts his back to hers and watches the room. Felicia takes out a pipe with a long stem curved like a scythe handle and a bowl shaped like a tulip. The entire thing is so black that it looks like a flat cutout made from clean velvet. Stygian ebony: it would remain cool to the touch even after an hour in a furnace. Felicia tucks a ball of shredded herbs into it. She opens her beak and then closes it with a snap. The shaped flint that tips the lower half of her beak hits the file-rough inside of the steel capping the upper one. A tidy spray of sparks squirt down into the waiting bowl. She takes a long, slow draw, turning the sparks into a glowing coal, before letting pale violet smoke trickle from her nostrils.

“Smog.” Her voice matches her eyes: surprisingly deep and deceptively gentle. “We got wind of some possible contraband finding its way here. Reports of a courier crossing Zavros. One anxious to avoid being searched.”


Felicia makes a black-handled knife appear, the blade flicking out when she pushed a stud. Cutting the heavy woven straps, she unfolds the deeply oiled cloth to reveal a pristine leather briefcase. She tries the catches. Puffs her pipe. “Locked.”


Pft.” Felicia said. She makes the knife vanish and produces a roll of black velvet, which unrolls to reveal a set of lock-picks. The briefcase surrenders to her probing in a handful of seconds. She puts the picks away before opening it. Rich golden light washes out to strike highlights off her beak and feathers. “Well, well. Here’s a thing.” Felicia lifts out something shaped exactly like a standard brick, only a mere three inches long. It looks like pure metallic gold, but it shines too brightly to be natural. Rather than outright glow, it seems to sit in a sunbeam that touches nothing else. That sourceless light brightens as she holds it.

All the people carefully not watching go very quiet: those that can see the brick, at least. Smog delicately uses a talon to half-turn the briefcase. It holds three long rows of twelve padded nooks. Each nook save one holds another of the bricks. Each brick bears a stamp: the rayed sun of Princess Celestia’s cutie mark. “Sungold?”

Felicia carefully replaces the brick in its nook. “You didn’t know this was being sent to you?”

Smog adopts a mildly pensive expression. “A few decades ago, I recall striking a deal with a visiting Equestrian noble. He told me he planned to retire to Aura and that he would send his wealth discreetly ahead of him to hopefully stymie any pirates that might board his ship. I agreed to sign for the package when it arrived and to hold it for him until he arrived to claim it. I’m sure I can lay my claw on the contract, which was notarized and legally binding. I’m confident this was sent by him.”

“Sungold’s portable, I grant you.” Felicia closed the case and snapped the latches. “And it’s the hardest currency in the world. Only Celestia herself can make it and she makes sure it stays rare. Hm. Well, it’s not illegal. If I was that courier, I’d want to avoid being searched too. Do you mind if we hold onto this until that noble arrives? We have a vault and everything.”

“I have no objection at all. I’ll find the contract and send a copy to you as soon as I can.”

“Right, then. The courier probably didn’t do anything illegal, just suspicious as nimbus. He probably doesn’t know anything useful either. ‘Probably’ isn’t good enough to let it slide. Kincaid, he’s the big-winged one at the end of the bar.”

Kincaid swaggers to loom behind Tradewind. “You need to come with us, sir.” The burly griffin looked a bit stupid and acted like it too, but it was just an act. Tradewind goes quietly, though he looks every bit as nervous as even an innocent pony should. Felicia follows with the briefcase clamped under one wing.

Smog moves back down the bar to where three of his most important pieces sit. Within an hour he will have a copy of that contract in the hands of the police, as promised. Also within the hour, they will learn of a pirate attack on an Equestrian sea-ship heading for the White Pass. The ship burned and sank a week ago with no survivors. Including a certain elderly Equestrian noble with a paralyzing dread of flying. Smog had a secretary ready to ‘misplace’ the message capsule when it came by pigeon two days ago. It is time for that to be found again. By midnight the sungold will be back in his possession: legally his by default thanks to a clause hidden in the fine print. By dawn it will be on the Snark, and within an hour of dawn the Snark will be gone.

For a people who professed to despise magic, Dustans were just as greedy for sungold as everyone else. Besides currency, it flawlessly converted heat to light exactly like that of sunlight. Good thing it was easily worked, because it was impossible to melt. With the right design, a foil-thin mantle of sungold could produce an immense amount of light. Lighthouses and greenhouses used it all across the civilized world. Smog is mostly pleased, but with a hint of annoyance. Tradewind had been late. Smog has had the other five cases of sungold for a week now: each sent via a different method. The old unicorn hadn’t been one to put all his eggs in one basket. The news of the tragedy should have arrived after Tradewind did and spread with no delay that might be later marked as suspicious. The SCD were old hands at selective blindness, but they weren’t the only eyes to worry about.

Smog could have sent another case with the Snark, but he had other plans that hinged upon a case of sungold being openly and legally his. A bit of ledger-juggling and he’d easily be able to pass off all the other five as the legal one, though that required him to spend four of them in distant lands so that no one would spot the deception. The fifth he’d mostly divide among local charities, as befitting his public image of a person unconcerned with gathering wealth. The reputation of dragons being that it is, Smog always has to hammer that point home again every generation or so. His good deeds also pay a subtle but priceless return: his most solid defense against being brought to justice is that Aura always stood to lose more than it gained if he was.

This time, Smog decides the bulk of it will go to the Umbra Public Works Department. Though of course almost everyone but anal-retentive bureaucrats calls Umbra by the name of Shadowville. The streetlights there burn day and night, using waste gas from Spectrum Engines in the factories. But they burn a blue that is notoriously hard on the eyes. With sungold mantles they would emit far brighter light, and their light could sustain plants. Perhaps a park, though not named after him. Smog Park sounded unhealthy. He always did his good deeds by stealth. They were unearthed eventually, and then not only was he generous, he was modest too.


META: Molestia, it’s time for the fun to begin. The main point of this twist is to ensure you’re stuck here near Aura for a while. You’re in for a sleepless night, but feel free to skip your interrogation by Felicia and Kincaid if you don’t care to elaborate upon it. You haven’t done anything wrong and they’re just going through the motions anyway. They’ll let you go around dawn. Just a few things to mention in your next post: they’ll equip you with a tracking anklet and ‘suggest’ that you not leave the area for a while. They need to check up on your bona fides: which means a message to Equestria, bureaucracy, and then a message back. Given just how much questionable cash you turned up carrying across national borders, they’re not taking chances: if only so when some special Equestrian investigators poke their nose in they can reveal a dot on every ‘i’ and a cross on every ‘t.’

Felicia will suggest you take a room at a tavern/inn in Shadowville called the Brass Hoof. She has a reason for that, or rather Smog does. He wants a word. Remember, Tradewind won’t realize that yet. Morhoof won’t be there at dawn, I don’t think, and Smog certainly won’t. I have the seed of a promising side-plot in which you are the star. If you want to read up on the Morhoof-Smog plotline, that’s fine. If not, also fine: Tradewind won’t know about any of that stuff anyway, and if you really don’t know you won’t have to pretend ignorance. Do read the post below this one: it introduces the main NPC you’ll be interacting with. Though you can be sure I’ll send other characters your way, and Smog’s going to turn up eventually, and Morhoof might be around. And remember that at dawn, you will arrive sleep-deprived. A snooze and time-skip to the afternoon seems logical.

Morhoof said:
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.

Fantasy catches herself on the bar with a forehoof. The purple unicorn barmare looks up into the unamused and dripping-wet face of her lone earth-pony customer. Former customer. She snatches up a towel in her magic and holds it out. “I am so sorry, sir. Please, no charge for the drink.” She inwardly cringes. She’ll have to pay for it out of her pocket to make the register come right, and that was some expensive cider. She isn’t exactly rolling in bits.

“No, lady.” The pony pauses in drying his face to toss a small pile of bits on the bar. “I’ll pay. Some of it fell in my mouth. A proper quaff leaves the ears damp.” It’s obvious to Fantasy that he is trying hard to be calm, and his painful attempt at a joke actually surprises a nervous laugh out of her. He taps a hoof on the bar and she notices with a shock that it’s made of wood. “Another cider. No, wait. Did you not mention this was the last?”

“I’m sorry to say it is. Was. Of the Sweet Apple Acres cask.” Fantasy wasn’t often called a lady, or at least not without the tone being a sneer or a leer. Her cheeks feel warm. “We have more cider. It’s not as good, though.”

“I shall sample it.”

Fantasy trots to get it, the heat spreading over her muzzle and ears. He sounded like a proper gentlecolt like in one of the old books she rented from the library. Fantasy is painfully aware that her life is not the one she wanted. Her cutie mark is a book, not a mug. She is a writer, but while it’s what she loves to do, no one seems to love reading it. He was a rough-looking fellow, with those two scars on his face and the wooden hoof, but he carried a lute and that meant he had an artistic side too. His voice is at least half the reason she feels giddy as a schoolfilly with her first crush. And right now he looks adorably scruffy with his forelock and face-fur all roughed up from the towel.

A dark memory erupts and her stomachs cramp.

Cider slops as she overfills the mug. “Oh…foo.”

Fantasy takes a minute to try and make herself look cool and calm before heading into the front room again. The memory hangs in her mind like sullen storm-clouds. She’d imagined her first time a thousand times but not even her nightmares had come close to the reality. They had both agreed to pretend it never happened. She hadn’t seen him since. Fantasy is only too eager to convince herself that it hadn’t happened, but it doesn’t seem to be working. In fact it seems to be getting harder. Yesterday she’d started crying for no reason at all. She kept having nightmares about a huge monster invading her bedroom at night to whisper obscene things in her ear while she lay helpless: unable to move. But she smiles and sets the cider in front of the interesting stranger, already wondering if she could write a story about someone like that. “It’s a quiet night.”

“Sooth.” he said. He takes a swallow. Fantasy feels a tingle that chases away the fragile feeling. ‘He actually said sooth.’

“Um, is the cider good enough?”

“It suffices, lady. Your name?”


“I’ve rarely heard a lovelier name.” He studies her with eyes like amber. “You bear a more than passing resemblance to the great Twilight Sparkle.”

“I’ve been told that, yes.” ‘Not,’ she thinks, ‘nearly as often as I’d like.’ She adjusts her dark purple forelock. “I’ve thought about having magenta streaks done.”

“Nay: she is she and thee are thee. Better to be common yet fully yourself than the pale reflection of a past glory.” He drains the mug. Fantasy realizes she’s standing there making puppy eyes at him. “Another?”

“Right away!” Fantasy grabs the mug in her magic and bolts. In the back room she curses herself for a twitterpated idiot. “He’s not interested, he’s just making conversation, everyone in olden times were always complimenting women, he’d compliment your name if it was Mud, it means nothing, now get it together.” She walks sedately back out, butterflies in her stomachs and her heart in her mouth. “Here you are…”

“Morhoof.” he said.

“I’ve never seen you in here before. New to Shadowville?”

Morhoof gives her an odd look. “Ah, no. I’ve been here before. In sooth, I just returned from a journey.”

“I’ve never been anywhere.” Fantasy said. “Except in books. And my imagination. Fantasy.” She forces an airy laugh and inwardly cries. “I’d hate to be a bother, but it’s dead tonight. I’d lo-like to hear tales of your adventures. If you wouldn’t mind. I wouldn’t mind hearing you play, either.”

Morhoof pauses, mug raised to his lips. He looks at her: truly looks the way people hardly ever did. Fantasy feels hot and cold at the same time, with shaky knees and a skull as buoyant as an airship and butterflies the size of pegasi playing tennis in all of her stomachs. Morhoof gives a slow blink and sets the mug down. Fantasy finds herself holding her breath.

META: Cue interruption, if you like. By whoever you like. Clarence, maybe. Even Smog. This can be set a little later, after he’s sent the ‘mane four’ packing. Just remember he comes in the back door, not the front. Or you can put that off, and spend a scene amusing yourself with Fantasy first. And not that kind of ‘amusing’ either. Not unless you plan to woo her over an in-universe year or so and then put a ring on that horn. Remember to be a gentleman. Smog might not care what he did to her, but I rather do. She was intended to be a throwaway character, but she wouldn’t leave me alone. I’m compelled to continue her existence if I can. I’m going to try and give her something like a resolution.

I’m sending Tradewind her way next. Not sure yet what he’ll make of her, or her him. She’s a bit leery of the wingéd lads at present but Trade’s from Equestria and she’ll want to pump him for information. He’s always been a genuine sweetie over in the G1. With, I might add, an interest in the romantic aspect of RP. There’s a semi-broken bird here who could use a gentle hand. Or hoof.

Hmmm. It might be that the Brass Hoof will become the Dragon’s Den of Shadowville.

After the brawl, Red’s three companions came in. Mithril and Pick both looked a bit ruffed up, and slightly upset. Red smiled to herself. She couldn’t hear a thing, but she guessed it was because of that new redliner system on Brando’s ship. If only she could have been there to see one in action again, possibly tune it up. She crossed that thought out of her head: she knew Brando wouldn’t even let her near it. Just the kind of guy Red could hang out with, or that’s how it seemed so far.

Mithril, on the other hand… Red got a feeling they might not get along. She still didn’t know much about Mithril either, but she did seem like she was the ‘bad cop’ between her and Pick. Speaking of Pick, he seemed like a nice guy. He followed the rules: a by-the-book cop, or as she thought of it, the ‘good cop.’ That didn’t mean she could screw with him and he wouldn't get mad. It just meant that she’d have to screw with him to make him mad.

Then Smog spoke. “RED, PLEASE COME DOWN AND JOIN US FOR A MOMENT.” Red flinched a little. She set the turntable on the complicated process some liked to call 'The Scratch Method' which was basically an auto-play. It was called 'The Scratch Method' because if you didn’t set it up right the chain reaction wouldn't work and it often scratched the records, mostly ruining them. Red was a professional though, she made sure that didn't happen.

[insert by internetcatchphrase, due to having expanded the scene. DJ-AL3X was unaware of the expansion when he sent me his post, so this is entirely my bad]
Red started to glide down when the door opened and then she froze as a pair of griffins in gold-and-black armor swaggered in. Well, one of them swaggered. The black one sort of prowled. Red watched what happened next in a state of quiet panic, praying to the Princesses that they didn’t look up at her. She was glad she’d set up the auto-play so she didn’t have to worry about fumbling something with her shaking hooves. But they were after the big-winged pegasus who’d come in earlier, not her. The sight of the sun-gold made her gasp, thankfully drowned out by the music. The cops left with the pegasus and the sungold.

‘Better you than me, buddy.’ she thought.

Then she felt guilty.

Smog’s boom makes her jump again. “RED, PLEASE JOIN US NOW.”
[end insert]

Red flew down to Smog and the others, greeting Smog politely: after all he was her boss and held her future as Master DJ of the Sonic Rainboom in his claws.

“Yes, sir?” Red said.

Red flew down to Smog and the others, greeting Smog politely: after all he was her boss and held her future as Master DJ of the Sonic Rainboom in his claws.

“Yes, sir?” Red said.

Smog pauses to pour a tray of drinks and hand them off to a waiting pegasus, then refills the mugs of some of the customers at the bar. He gives Red a mug of cloudcream with honey. This isn’t a good time to speak of illegal business, even under the cover of the music. Happily there is nothing strictly illegal about this undertaking.

“After you run the Breach, you will need to go to ground. The hunt will be on. Conceal the Snark in a mantle of cloud and wait. I doubt you will need to wait more than a week, unless you make improbably good time getting there. There is a Dustan harvest-time holiday known as the Feast of Fools.” Smog catches Pick nodding to himself in sudden comprehension. “It is a yearly opportunity to relieve societal tensions and indulge in things usually held taboo.” Three of the four look a bit blank at that. “In the slang of Dust, they ‘blow off steam.’ The usual class barriers are relaxed. Koalas, griffins, earth ponies, and even diamond dogs freely mingle with each other. Everyone dresses up in costumes, usually of strange creatures. There are parades, fireworks, gluttony, drinking to excess, mild public debauchery, and serious pranks: including a tradition of dousing anyone not obviously making merry with buckets of icy water. Unicorns and pegasi are almost mythical to most in Dust. They’re a favorite costume for earth ponies. It’s a time when a real pegasus or unicorn can, with care, pass as a costumed earth pony.”

“I was wondering about that.” Brando said. “Genius.”

“It’s not.” Pick said. “It’s obvious.”

Brando puffs his pipe. “I didn’t hear you think of it.”

“You know what a griffin is?” Pick said. “A giant eagle with a lion stuck halfway up its butt.”

Red shoots cloudcream out of her nose back into her mug.

Brando laughs out loud, and this is clearly not the reaction Pick had expected to get. Brando coughs a bit and quiets, still grinning. “And a pegasus…” Brando doesn’t turn, but he senses Mithril’s glare boring into the back of his head. “…is the most marvelous creature around.”

“Pay attention, please.” Smog said. They do. He ignores them to hand Red a towel to wipe her nose. He dumps out the mug, filling and handing her a fresh one. After this he tends to some more of his bartender duties before finally speaking. “You will not leave the Snark until the Feast of Fools is in its second day. It lasts three days and the bracketing two are winding up and winding down respectively. On the second day the chaos will be at its peak. Among the new maps aboard the Snark is a city map of Dust City with a few locations marked on it. Go to the Prancing Pony tavern. The bartender is a contact of mine. I provide him with a steady supply of cloudcream, which is illegal there. He provides me with information and favors. Look for a koala dressed as a pink dragon.” Brando chokes on his smoke and then chokes on his laughter. Smog ignores this. “That is your contact. When you find him, retire to the private dining room upstairs and make the exchange. The contact has a nervous disposition. Do everything possible not to make him more so.”

“Wait.” Pick said. “Exchange?”

“The vial of spores for a case of payment. You will find the case in the smuggler’s nook of the Snark upon departure.” Brando’s strangled efforts to laugh came to an abrupt end. “You won’t have the key. The contact has the key. And Brando, I won’t make the bottles you stowed in there vanish. There was enough room to make the case fit. The bottles can stay, but be sensible about indulging.”

“You bird-brained alley cat.” Mithril said. “What is it? That tasteless Father-Stalliongrad-Makes-You-Strong rattleskull you like? It is, isn’t it?”

Brando projects a credible air of wounded dignity.

“He has,” Smog said, “multiple bottles of that very same ‘rattleskull.’ But also several vintage bottles of strawberry wine.” Mithril’s expression becomes the blank of a veteran cop. Strawberries are her favorite.

“Strawberry wine.” Pick said. “Wimp.”

Brando’s accent thickens into a parody of itself. “Let me to you introduce the ‘wodka,’ comrade. Then we will see who is being the wimp.”

Smog knows when to bow gracefully to the inevitable, or at least bow with every outward sign of grace. “You’ll have time to kill between arriving and the Feast of Fools. A moderate…but not impairing…amount of intoxication may help you more easily blend with the crowds. Acting nervous will get you doused with cold water if nothing else.”

“Won’t we need costumes?” Red said.

“Already aboard.” Smog said.

Brando claps a claw over his eyes and holds it there as he shakes his head, muttering. Then he speaks louder. “If mine is of a pooka, Smog…”

“You all have a musical ability.” Smog said. “I have ‘booked you a gig’ at the Prancing Pony on the second night of the festival. I suggest you spend the journey there practicing on playing together.”

Brando stares at nothing. “Squeezebox accordion, violin, guitar, and Red’s record player. We could get sweeter music from four cats passing kidney stones.”

“Very droll, Brando.” Smog said. “Make it work.”

“I can beatbox too.” Red said.

Brando buries his face in his claws, shaking with laughter.

Mithril just looks horrified. “I can’t play my fiddle in Dust. I use my magic to do it, Smog.”

“Pretend to do it by hoof.” Smog said. “Spend the journey practicing. The crowd will be drunk and the Prancing Pony is not an establishment famed for hiring quality entertainment. Now, Red needs to go back to work for tonight. She can sleep on the Snark after it leaves in the morning. The rest of you need a solid night’s sleep tonight. Do try and get it.”

After they are gone, Smog goes back to tending bar. He updates the ledger where he keeps the various tabs recorded, mostly because people confronted with written records of their debt tended to be less inclined to argue about them. The black quill he uses bothers him. There’s no risk in owning it. Pegasi shed feathers all the time and they often got put to use. But this one is special. It bothers him, but that is its purpose. It is a reminder of his failure. Those who forgot their mistakes were doomed to repeat them.

META: I suggest you google the Russian word pooka. No, it’s not dirty. Yes, it’s quite funny to imagine Brando dressed as one.

Captain Rasputin:
The Snark slips from her berth, the slaty blue-grey of her new paint shining in the sunlight. Just after dawn, it still slanted in sideways under the vast sprawling cloudbank of Aura’s foundations. An albino griffin, his beak chipped and his feathers yellowed, watches it go from the helm of a somewhat larger airship nestled tail-inwards at another berth. A pair of goggles covers his eyes. Red glass over the left to protect it from the sunlight: mirrored glass over the right to hide it. His black tricorn hat, in the Dustan style, hides his balding crest. The griffin wishes he dared to smoke while aboard. Ah well: it kept him on edge, which is where he needs to be. He adjusts his goggles in a habitual gesture.

His first mate knows it well. “Orders, Captain Rasputin?”

“We depart in an hour.” The albino’s voice is tenor, but full of gravel from decades of smoke and shouting. He taps a talon against the resonance compass built into the steering wheel: its needle pointing unerringly to the Royal Palace in Canterlot. Then against the resonance compass set below it, which points in an entirely different direction. “No mistakes, Sergey.”

The hulking brown griffin salutes. “Aye, Captain.”

An hour later, the bone-white airship Glass Eel slips from her berth. Heading north, she travels until noon and then slides into a cloud. A few long minutes later an oblong void opens up in the top and closes again. A faint shimmering outline in the shape of a sleek interceptor turns southwest, her unseen propellers no louder than a breeze sighing through long grass.

A small smirk formed on Morhof’s lips. Adventures? I’d imagine them more to be misadventures. Songs too? It has been many a year since I’ve last played for somepony.

Morhoof gives the barmare a slow blink and sets the mug down. Morhoof: The Tales of an Everlasting Pony. It sounded nice, but would never find its way onto shelves: he would make sure of that. He disliked the notion of being known for anything more than a talented musician.

Morhoof nodded to Fantasy, who seemed to be turning a different shade of purple by now. “As thou wish, Fantasy.” He swung his lute around and gently placed it on the bar. Opening up his case, he eased his existence out and into his secure hooves. A little booklet inside his case was simply labeled Shoreside. He adjusted the keys for a brief moment, before he strummed a first chord that soared through the Brass Hoof. “A marvelous land. A land that caused Equestria to bloom so green…with envy."

Absorbed in his own music, he played. His sounds came from the very sights he struggled to hold clear in his mind. The only ones that seemed to truly matter to him. It was, to him, a one-of-a-kind bliss. A sun that always shined, even when it rained. The moon soared high, casting its silver patina across the land during the soothing remedy of darkness. Followed by the early morning dew that gleamed valiantly in the presence of the dawning sun, accompanied by a fresh breeze off the ocean.

Morhoof’s descriptions were not absent-minded additions: he gave his best to portray the beauty that he saw and had once lived. Fantasy herself began to drift into the realm that the scarred vagabond painted with such passion before her with song and word. She was jolted back out of the dreamy haze that enveloped the air as Morhoof struck an awful sour note and soiled the mood.

He jumped a little himself. It was of course intentional, but he had not meant to hit that string so roughly. “But if there is one thing that life’s journey hath taught me, it is this: nothing is perfect.” And so began an almost entirely new song. It seemed as harsh on the instrument as it did on the player. Morhoof dared not speak. Not only for his sake, but the painful notes needed no explanation.

The music turned once again, into a soft but leaden melody. Their humming echoes lightly off the walls. “Perfect or not, all such things end. From ends are new beginnings forged. For better…or for worse." He struck a final chord that lingered for some time. It felt empty to him. He had decided to omit the actual tale of Shoreside. But he did not need to unbury such grief it caused him within these urgent days.

Fantasy forced herself to stay upright, and to keep her jaw off the floor. She couldn't believe such a musical prodigy, a musical genius was here, playing for her. This wasn’t the kind of thing that happened in real life. Her head was so devoid of thought it was almost nauseating, feeling as drunk as anyone who had ever dragged their rumps out of here or upstairs to sleep it off.

Morhoof felt a little relieved from the stunned look he received from Fantasy. He’d only ever played that for a very select few in the time that he had finished writing it. Some twelve decades.

Fantasy swallowed dryly, looking and sounding a bit sheepish. “Can…can I hear another?”

Morhoof raised a brow. How he would enjoy playing another, he was pressed for time. He blinked as he recalled the unfortunate fate of Clarence. Pressed for time? Ha! As if! Once more, he had all the time in the world. He was no longer running on anyone else’s time. His lips formed a small smile as he looked back down to his lute, then back up to the purple unicorn. “Right away, milady.” He was glad he’d found something to take his mind off of future negotiations. If he knew Smaug Silvertongue well enough, he’d definitely want something of Morhoof in return.

Tradewind tried to focus as the two griffins pony-handled him out the door of the tavern. It wasn’t helping that he seemed to have trouble staying on his hooves. ‘I only had…four? Three. Three mugs of cider. I don’t normally go down this easily.’ It must have been that he was tired and sleepy as well. That, and he’d been dry for the past month; it was bad form to drink on the job. ‘Even so, that’s some bloody hard cider. Okay…this isn’t good. I hope to Celestia that sungold exchanged hands legally, because they didn't give me any bloody paperwork beyond a standard delivery form.

The griffins marched him through the streets for some time, although subtly enough that it looked like three people out for an evening stroll to a casual glance. Eventually though, they reached a large and impressive building in one of the more affluent parts of town. A very official looking building. One that exuded the words ‘Law Enforcement’ out of every wall.

The two griffins led him deep inside, to a small windowless room made of cloud that looked harder than stone. It held a table and they sat him down at it on a hard wooden stool that must have been designed by a sadist. It wobbled just the tiniest bit. Just enough for him to notice his every fidget. Then they left him there. Tradewind couldn't help but notice the worryingly soundproof look of those walls. He wasn’t sure how long he sat, probably only a few minutes, but it certainly felt longer. Long enough for the fuzziness in his head to clear as the cider wore off. But that could have been the fear.

Finally, the door reopened and the two griffins who picked him up at that tavern slipped back in, the bulky one sitting upright before the now closed door, forelegs folded. The smaller griffin sat down opposite from the now very nervous pegasus. After staring at him for a moment, she pulled out an empty file, with the clear intention of filling it. Tradewind swallowed worriedly as she pulled out a pencil and looked up at him. More staring, and her pure-black raptor eyes were made exactly for such a task. After a long moment her gaze softened and she spoke. "Name?"



"Er…around twenty." This got a raised eyebrow from the officer. "Er…my parents weren’t big on dates bigger than seasons and they, uh, only started counting how old I was once the realized I needed to be certain age to start school, so yeah, either twenty or twenty-one; around that."

“Fine.’ the griffin said. She made a note on the paper. “Place of birth?’

Tradewind squirmed, he always hated this question. “Um… ‘Other.’ " He said it with a weak grin.

The griffin sighed and put down the pencil. “Look, I really don’t want to make this harder than it has to be. It’s going to be hard for you no matter what happens, but I’m certainly looking to make things as easy as possible for me. Paperwork is not easy, and I can do so many things to you without having to fill out paperwork. Got that? You’re talking with a Dustan accent, though it’s muddled. But you’re a pegasus. Explain.”

Tradewind recited the story that had been repeated so many times it was practically a mantra. “My parents used to run a supply ship between Equestria and Freetown; the trading post just outside the Twin Breach. Given that dad was a pegasus, he couldn’t enter Dust so my mother used to go through the Breach by herself. Unfortunately, she was pregnant with me the last time she ran it, and I was born in the air above Dust. After she landed, the local police confiscated her ship and sent us packing. No Dustan magistrate would sign a birth certificate, and it took my parents nearly two years of working in Freeport to scrounge up the money to get back to Equestria. By then I was a local. And the record keeper in Canterlot decided that since my birth was, well…up in the air, that it should remain ‘other.’

The griffin snorted and made another note. “Fine, whatever you say, sir. Current citizenship?"

Tradewind sighed in relief. “I know that one: Equestrian.”

“Okay, now, what exactly-” Tradewind’s interrogator was interrupted by a knock on the door. The burly griffin, who up until then appeared to be suppressing laughter, opened it. A small bookish-looking pegasus walked up to the black griffin and whispered something to her, causing her to nod and make another note in the file before her. After the pony left and the silent guard resumed his station, she looked at Tradewind again and spoke. “Well, your passport and other papers check out, so that’s something at least. At least you are who you say you are.” Tradewind relaxed, causing another raised eyebrow. “Oh, were you expecting a different outcome?”

“What? No! I'm just glad everything’s as it should be, that’s all!"

“Well, not everything. First you need to tell me why you felt the need to smuggle a fortune in sungold from Equestria to Aura."

"I-I didn't s-smuggle anything! It was all aboveboard. Well, as aboveboard as it could be without…"

The griffin’s stare turned hard as the steel capping her beak. “I think you’d better elaborate.”

“Look, all I…” Tradewind paused to lower his voice’s slowly rising pitch. “All I know is that whoever ordered the delivery paid ten times the normal rate for a bit of discretion and a fast delivery. Normally I’d carry a copy of the paperwork with me, just in case this very thing happens, but the client asked specifically for it to be a blind delivery. Er, that is, no paperwork to travel with the parcel."

The griffin continued to stare, until Tradewind's eyes were watering with the need to blink. “I see."

Tradewind’s nerve cracked slightly. “Hey! I-I’m just the messenger! I didn’t even know what was in the package before you-well, before it was opened. All the information you want is back in Manehatten, they have all the paperwork there!”

Tradewind lapsed into silence, which settled heavily on the room. He fidgeted with his fore-hooves, becoming painfully aware that one of his wing feathers was wedged under his flank, but he didn’t dare shift to free it.

Finally, the griffin at the door fell back onto all fours and moved forward. “I think he's telling the truth. I reckon we drop a line to Manehatten and sort this out.”

The black griffin nodded. “You’re right, Kin. There’s no point grilling this thin streak of cirrus any longer. He’s a know-nothing."

Tradewind bristled slightly at this, but inwardly he relaxed: they believed him. Thank Celestia.

The big griffin, ‘Kin,’ sat down next to the interrogator. He suddenly no longer looked at all stupid. “Right. Tradewind, my name is Kincaid, and this kind-hearted kitten is Felicia.” The female griffin snorted. “We’re detectives in the Special Crimes Division, which among other things gets to handle such delightful tangles as smugglers who cross national borders.”

“Usually.” Felicia said. Her raven eyes go cold and she snaps her beak, causing a spray of sparks. “That greasy sod should have been handed over to the stripes.”

Tradewind briefly wonders what she’s talking about, but Kincaid speaks. “We’re going to be the one’s investigating this little…hubbub. Please come with us.”

Tradewind stood and couldn’t resist the need to stretch his wings: managing to touch opposite walls of the small room with his wingtips. That earned a smirk from Kincaid. “Nice wings. Never seen ‘em that big on a pegasus.”

Folding his wings and shrugging sheepishly, Tradewind half-grinned at the officer. “Why do you think I get given all the long-haul jobs?” Kincaid snorted as they ushered him out of the room and down the narrow corridor to yet another small room, this time looking like the cross between an infirmary and a torture chamber. “My record is thirty-one hours without touching down, but I reckon I could go even long…er." He turned to look at the bulky Griffin, who had cleared his throat.

“Sir, due to an ongoing investigation in regards to your person, and the fact that you’ve got no reason to stick around, I’m going to have to attach a tracking clip to your wing.” He held up a ring of silver that shone a bit brighter than the room’s lighting could explain.

Tradewind sighed. “Fine. I’m not planning to run, so I don’t mind. I suppose it’ll make you happy.”

Kincaid snorted. “Yeah, maybe.” He moved to Tradewind's side and opened the ring, closing it around the base of Tradewind’s left wing. After a moment it became oddly comfortable, like something worn for years. Oh well: hopefully it wouldn’t be too long. "Okay, done. Any questions before we let you go?"

Tradewind paused, "Er, yeah, actually. Um... How long do you think this'll take?

Kincaid grinned. “Well, I'm not sure, but probably only a day or two. We just need to get a message to Manehatten and back.” He led Tradewind back out into the main hall, his partner nowhere to be seen.

‘Probably laughing at how stupid I looked in the interrogation to all the others.’ Tradewind thought. He was given his things back and bid a pleasant good morning by the old pegasus mare behind the front desk. ‘Wait, good morning?’ Stepping out the door into the cold night, Tradewind could smell dawn in the air. It must have been longer than he thought. He paused to wonder where he was going to stay. Going back to that tavern probably wasn’t a good idea, and even if he could find it again it hadn’t looked like it had rooms for rent. All the places in this part of town were well out of his price range. The thought of more flying appealed to him about as much as a kick in the teeth.

Resolving to walk, Tradewind started off to look for a lower-class neighborhood. He passed an alley between the police building and the next. A taloned hand grabbed him by the saddlebag and yanked him toward the murky crack. Instinctively tensing his flight muscles, he unfurled his wings, and then toppled sideways, unbalanced, when his left wing ignored him. It wasn’t limp or numb, but it refused to obey any command to open. The ring vaulted back into his awareness, feeling cold against his skin. Bugger all, the thing meant he was grounded?

A spray of sparks lit up the alley, then took root in the wick of a lamp. Felicia held it. She may have rolled her eyes, though it was hard to tell. She watched the pegasus try to struggle to his feet. Not being able to use his wing hindered him more than he would have believed. Then she offered him a claw, which he accepted after a pause.

The black griffin wasn’t very visible even in the lamplight. She filled her eerily black pipe and soon began puffing out violet smoke that smelled like burning hoof trimmings mixed with treacle. “You’re probably looking for a place to stay."

Tradewind perked up. “Uh, yeah, actually.”

“Good, here." The griffin handed him a card with some signatures and seals on it. “Since we’re requiring you to stay in our fair city, we’re required to at least chip in for your room and board. That’s a voucher. Notice the ungenerous upper limit for daily expenses. There’s a place down in Shadowville called the Brass Hoof. It has rooms to rent cheap. You can catch an airbus down there from the cloud docks. They run all night in half-hour shifts. Don’t worry about your tracking ring. It’s good for a few miles in all directions.”

Tradewind gratefully took the paper and tucked it in a saddlebag for safekeeping. “Thanks. Really. I had nowhere to stay, actually. I wasn’t expecting such an…eventful night. So yeah, I’ll say there, I guess. Thanks again."

Felicia turned to retreat deeper into the alley. But then she stopped and turned around. Looking at Tradewind for a moment, there was something like concern in her jet-black eyes. “You sound like you’ve been around some, but don’t let the pretty white towers and bright flags fool you. This place is a long way from the light of Equestria and not all the darkness is down in Shadowville." She sighed and knocked her pipe empty. “Good morning.” With that, she blew out the lamp and vanished into the murk.

Tradewind wondered what she meant by that enigmatic warning, but decided that enough was enough: he needed sleep before things could make sense. Making his way down to the docks, he caught the first airship shuttle to the ground-level city. Its streetlamps glowed an eerie blue despite the sun being up. Finding the Brass Hoof quickly enough, he spoke to the unicorn at the bar and gave him the voucher. The room was small but clean and the bed surprisingly comfortable. Not that this registered with the pegasus, who was asleep before he hit the mattress.

Tradewind awakened when his stomachs decided they were done being ignored. Nothing but dim blue light came in through the window. He frowned as he looked out onto the dark street, muzzily wondering if he’d slept the whole day through. Then he looked up and saw the dark roof of overcast. Shadowville. Tradewind rubbed his pounding skull and set out to look for a bathroom, as his tiny room lacked one. Finding one, he enjoyed a quick wash-and-dry before setting out to look for a hair of the Ursa Major that had bitten him. Then maybe his stomachs would decide whether or not they wanted to be filled with food or to empty themselves.

The Brass Hoof was an ancient building, more tavern than inn by the look of it. Tradewind hadn’t seen anything like it outside of a historical painting. From down in the ‘common room’ came the sounds of a lute being strummed: somewhat drunkenly, by the occasional missed note. Tradewind pushed his way through, seeing a different unicorn behind the bar than the stallion that had taken his voucher that morning. She stared wistfully at the only other person present: a rather gnarled-looking earth pony, all scars and wooden leg. Tradewind, not for the first time, fervently wished he wasn’t so plain-looking as he moved to sit at the bar. There were his wings, of course, but otherwise he was nothing noteworthy.

The music stopped mid-strum, and the purple unicorn noticed Tradewind. She blushed and looked at her hooves. “Um, good afternoon sir, can I get you something?”

Tradewind smiled gently. “Just a cider.” His skull gave a warning throb. “Mild, please.” As the unicorn hurried to fill the mug, he turned to the scarred musician. “Please, don’t stop on my account, it sounds good.” The pony shrugged and started up again, strumming the same tune as he had before the interruption. “Afternoon. I’m Tradewind. Your name?”

“Is mine.” The earth pony said it politely enough. “Call me Lute.” He fell silent, though he kept playing.

Tradewind had never met anyone with such a loud silence. It pulled at him, demanding he fill it. “I’m just off a long flight from Equestria. By wing, not airship. The package turned out to be dodgy, and now the Aura coppers have grounded me until they clear it up. The barmare returned and set the cider before him. “Thanks, love.”

“It’s no problem.” She hurried off to go give the far end of the bar a hard polishing it neither needed nor deserved.

“Dodgy package?” ‘Lute’ said. “What was it?”

“Come now, I can’t say that, or whom I delivered it to. I’m a professional. Besides, there was a nondisclosure.”

“Was it Smog?” Lute said.

Tradewind choked on his cider, and looked suspiciously at the pony sitting beside him, still quietly strumming his lute. “How in the Twin Breach did you know that?”

“I guessed. Then you confirmed it just now. I guessed because Smog is more spider than dragon, and Aura is his web. You should leave before he ensnares you in it.”

Tradewind snorted, but not in disbelief. He vividly remembered that brief cold stare, and then there was him being sent dodgy cases of sungold. “Yeah, easy as pie. Messages might flash to Equestria in a twinkling but bureaucracy takes time. It’s going to be days before this mess is cleared up. Then it’s a month by wing back to Equestria and almost as long in the kind of sky-sow I could afford a ticket for.” He took another draught of his cider. “I suppose I shouldn’t complain, Dad had to put up with much worse…”

Lute gave a faint almost-laugh. “A mystery, your accent. Dustans kill pegasi on sight.”

Tradewind grinned. “Yup, and we wrestle crocodiles and all of our national dishes are based on poisonous plants. Don’t believe everything you hear. Okay, yeah, in Dust proper, inside the Breach, they’re pretty militant, but in Freeport they’re a lot more relaxed. I spent my first few years there, not to mention a lot of time on-and-off since. Where you from?”

“Everywhere and nowhere. I wander. What was in the case that you gave Smog?”

Tradewind gave a weary sigh. “I told you, I can’t tell you. Ask him yourself if you’re so interested.”

“I might.” Lute said. He returned to strumming on his lute, when Tradewind spoke up again.

“So. That barmare…she looks a lot like this unicorn from ages ago…I can’t bring the name to mind.”

“Twilight Sparkle.” Lute said. “I thought everypony knows the history. Even out in Freeport.”

“Alright, alright, I know it, I just misplaced the name. That barmare is the spitting image of her picture in all the history books, don’t you think?”

“The mane’s wrong, but sooth, the resemblance is striking.”

Both ponies lapsed into silence, punctuated by the gentle playing of the musician. Lute’s silence no longer dragged at Trade. But something about the earth pony musician gave Tradewind the creeps.

META: internetcatchphrase here. Attention all RPrs.

Here’s a thumbnail description of the Brass Hoof for future reference. There’s an open room with booths around the walls, tables scattered around it, and a bar along the back wall. That takes up the front half of the ground floor. The back half is a combination taproom-kitchen. Cellar beneath both. The second floor has small rooms to rent, and the third floor is the private residence of the Longhorn family who runs the place. Small windows, low ceilings, lots of dark wood and not-too-pristine plaster. Smog has always been dead set against it being torn down and something more modern built. Nostalgia has nothing to do with it: having it rebuilt would mean laying proper modern foundations and his tunnel into the cellar would get discovered. It’s not a very profitable business, but that’s the point. It’s quiet and mostly ignored: great for the more furtive kind of business meetings.

Morhoof said:
Morhoof raised a brow. How he would enjoy playing another, he was pressed for time. He blinked as he recalled the unfortunate fate of Clarence. Pressed for time? Ha! Once more, he had all the time in the world. He was no longer running on anyone else’s time. His lips formed a small smile as he looked back down to his lute, then back up to the purple unicorn. “Right away, milady.” He was glad he’d found something to take his mind off of future negotiations. If he knew Smaug Silvertongue well enough, he’d definitely want something of Morhoof in return.

When Smog slips up the cellar stairs, he pauses at the top. Soft feminine humming seeps through the door. The cellar is lightless but he trails two flickering green flames from his nostrils to light his way. A small sign hangs on the door, sporting the awkwardly precise lettering of someone not at home with the written word.


Below it is a crude drawing of a dragon in profile, rearing in the heraldry position known as ‘rampant.’ Above it is a small brass ring on the end of a chain that leads out through a hole bored through the wood. Smog considers this. The request isn’t unreasonable, and it is politely worded. He catches the ring with a talon and gives it a tug. A bell chimes high C. The soft female humming beyond breaks off in an off-melody E-flat.

Smog opens the door and slips through. The barmare named Fantasy stands facing away from him, a dripping mop poised over the floor in her magic. Smog closes the door with his tail as he heads for the door to the front room. Then a change in her manner makes him pause.

“Father told me something. I didn’t really believe it. If I turn around, will I scream?”

Smog weighs a dozen subtle variables. “Possibly.”

“I have to look.” Fantasy said.

“As you wish.” Smog said. She pauses to put the mop in its bucket, takes a sharp breath, and holds it as she turns around with her eyes closed. Opens one a crack. Smog sits up on his haunches, hunched down and one of his milder expressions on his scaly face.

Fantasy doesn’t scream. She stares. Then, though she tries to fight it, she giggles. Smog’s expression utterly fails to change. Then he spots that the laughter isn’t the usual sort. “Oh…my…gosh. Oh my gosh: it’s really you. You’re Smog!”

Smog feels much better. “Indeed.”

“It’s just that I grew up hearing stories about you. I mean, you own the Brass Hoof but you never make us pay rent or even property taxes. The Longhorn family owes you so much and you’ve never asked much from us. My grandfather says his father spoke with you more than once.”

“Brassbell.” And for Fantasy to be this delighted, the bloodthirsty old rogue had severely edited the version he told his descendants. Typical. “You’re Fantasy.”

“Ohmygoshyouknowmyname!” Fantasy coughs. “Sorry. But I was told you…know people. All kinds of people. Contacts: that’s the word father used. You see, I write stories…”

“…set in a world where magic doesn’t exist and earth ponies are the sole intelligent race.” Fantasy just stammers, eyes huge. “As speculative fiction goes, it’s an interesting idea.” Her father had, during their exchange of letters, sent a manuscript along. Smog had memorized it, flicking through the pages with less than a second’s pause for each, and then absorbed it in small bites during idle moments. It paid to mind the trends in fiction. Generations had personalities when taken as a whole and understanding it was key to manipulating them. “I could get it published. It could do moderately well.”

Fantasy vents a high, thin squeak.

“I don’t do anything for free.” Smog said. “I know you don’t have money. I don’t want money from you. I want a favor. Nothing you’ll find objectionable. You’re the barmaid here. The bartender as well for the early half of the night. You hear the talk. I want to hear it too. Written reports. I know you can construct a coherent paragraph. I’ll give you an address to send them.”

This troubles her. “You want me to be an…informant?”

“I make it my business to know everything I can. That way I know when someone has a want that needs satisfying or a skill that needs employing.”

“Oh.” Fantasy wavers for a long moment but at the end of it she shakes her head. “No, I’m sorry sir. I couldn’t do that. People say things when drunk and they deserve to have their privacy respected.”

“I appreciate your honesty. You’ll do it anyway. No, don’t speak just yet. I know about you and the police pegasus.” Smog pauses to let that sink in. “I’m still willing to help you get your book published. I’ll also keep your shameful secret. All you have to do is keep your eyes and ears open while you work here and report it all to me. Only this and nothing more, you have my word.”

Fantasy’s eyes well with tears, but Smog can tell what she mostly feels is anger. “You…you evil pink…jerk.”

Smog has been called far worse, but he can rarely recall any word being spat at him with such sincere venom. It stings, and alongside the proper anger is a niggling of guilt. “I keep my word. If you know anything about me, you know that. I want you to remember that I offered the reward alone first. I only twisted your tail after you said no. Even then, I didn’t take the reward away.”

“Keep your ‘reward.’ I don’t want to profit from my book if it’s only famous because you arranged it.”

“I’ll only arrange the publishing and publicity. I make no promises as to how many will buy it. I sincerely believe that it will do moderately well on its own merits. When the royalties come to you, feel free to donate the bits to charity or throw them in the trash if it soothes your outraged conscience.”

“What if I confess my dirty little secret? Then your blackmail’s worthless. What then?”

Smog judges her angry enough to do it. “I own the Brass Hoof. I can call due almost four hundred years of unpaid rent. Swiftly and legally, I can crush your entire family down into the stoniest possible poverty. And I can keep them there. I can have your father on a street corner begging passerby to let him polish the mud off their hooves for a quarter-bit. Your younger brother could grow up on half-rotten market leavings that make his tummy ache. That’s a last resort. I will offer more minor punishments first, increasing in severity with every refusal. But keep refusing and it will come to that. My reputation is my most precious possession. I don’t let anyone defy me. I can’t take away your conscience. But I can make keeping it cost you everything else. Defy me and I will make an example out of you.” He judges the effect. “Let your employment begin now. I want to know everything you know about a certain earth pony with a scarred face, wooden fore-hoof, and lute.”

Fantasy tells him, in a numb voice. Smog prods her memory with questions until he is satisfied she has held back nothing. He nods. “Take the night off. I’m meeting with him tonight. And don’t go doing something stupid about the pegasus. That I know is not his fault.”

Smog leaves her standing there staring at nothing and heads into the front room. Unhooking a hefty pouch from the harness he wears, he tips out a pile of smaller bags onto the bar. Each one is made of netting and full of shiny brass coins. “FIFTY BITS TO EVERYONE WILLING TO LEAVE NOW AND NOT COME BACK TONIGHT.”

There isn’t exactly a rush for the money, but no one refuses the bribe. Except Morhoof, sitting at the same corner table as their last meeting. Smog gathers the unspent bags, rips each open, and pours them into the register. That was the arrangement established centuries ago: he can have the Brass Hoof to himself for any night he wants provides he compensates for the business he costs them. Bolting the front door, he sets the chair aside and hunches down across the table. Someone has rubbed the claw gouges full of something and re-varnished the table in a passable repair job.

Smog places a box before Morhoof: made of rosewood and carved with roses. Morhoof opens the catch. The large sapphire within had been delicately carved into the shape of a rose blossom, complete with tiny emeralds studding the underside for the sepals. It is a rare color, a dark yet icy blue. “TAKE IT. TELL ME ABOUT THE CARGO YOU NEED SHIPPED. THEN WE CAN DISCUSS WHAT IT WILL COST YOU.”

Canterlot, when the Age of Harmony began, had been a somewhat small city: hanging from the sheer side of a mountain cliff in a marvel of magical engineering. It still existed, but was known as Old Canterlot, or more usually as the Palace. The city had grown in step with the Empire it ruled: and it ruled not with the iron horseshoe of authority but with a velvet slipper of friendship. Of course, anyone especially unfriendly soon discovered that ‘good’ wasn’t a synonym for ‘weak,’ and that ‘nice’ didn’t equal ‘pushover.’

Up the mountain, down it, around it, into it: Canterlot grew over the centuries. It grew without covering one square foot of living soil with dead stone. In fact it produced more with its countless balcony lawns and cavern gardens basking in the warm glow of sungold lamps. There were wonders and glories by the hundred in Canterlot, and the Palace was no exception, but there was business to be done and businesslike places in which to do it. Some of them managed to be wonders, though, and the crown jewel of these unintended treasures was the Tower of Light.

From the outside it was impressive enough to be the pride of any city less grand than Canterlot. It was Princess Celestia’s horn reproduced three hundred feet tall: a soaring, spiral-marked spire made of seamless ivory glass. The Tower of Light was windowless, but far from lightless. A common magic made it much larger on the inside. A spiral ran from top to bottom: half ramp and half balcony and fully a hundred feet wide. The underside of each coil formed the ceiling of the one below: a mere twenty feet of clearance. Walls stuck out from the outer wall almost to the ramp’s inner edge, producing alcoves the size of ballrooms. Walls stuck from the sides of the alcoves to produce smaller ones. Walls divided these yet again, until the smallest were only twenty feet across.

Gems lined their three walls. Technically, they were halves of gems, broken in a way that left them whole as far as magic was concerned. What was done to one happened to the other. When one half was lit, both shone. Instantly. No matter how far apart they lay. Three pairs of ponies sat in every alcove, each pair to a single wall. A bull’s-eye lantern on a pivot let them shine a ray of light on any gem they chose, and a shutter let them turn that ray into long and short flashes. A simple code and any message that could be written could be sent. One pony used the lantern to send the messages delivered to him or her: the other watched the gems and wrote down the messages in from their distant halves.

Much of it, however, was internal and automatic. For every gem that had a half outside the Tower, there were a hundred with a half set somewhere else in its twinkling walls. The Tower was a relay, not a bottleneck. Magic could temporarily pair up any two gems provided the distance wasn’t too great. Clever magic caused gems in the Tower of Light to be paired simply through them flashing the correct sequence of numbers. It could link any gem to any other through no more than five relays, and the only errors coming out the far end of the chain were the fault of whoever flashed the original message at the start. Someone in Canida could chat with someone in Germaney with little delay, and even that only at the beginning.

The ponies in their alcoves still had a job to do. They sent out messages originating from Canterlot and wrote down messages sent to there. Very few individuals owned a gem half linked to the Tower. They belonged to the Empire, and were used for Imperial business. There was enough of that to keep them busy. Every sizable town had one and it was a rare day they didn’t have a report of some sort to send to Canterlot one coded letter at a time. The gems came in every color of the rainbow, and their massed twinkling filled the tower with a softly inconstant illumination as indescribable as it was beautiful.

In one particular alcove, in a cluster of them dedicated to the great cloud city of Aura, the red gem began to flash. The somewhat bored earth pony on spotter duty stopped chomping on his gum and pricked up his ears. This alcove was dedicated to the Aura branch of the Imperial Police. The red one belonged to the Special Crimes Division. It didn’t get a lot of use. Aura must, in Burlap’s opinion, be a very boring place to live. Burlap borrowed the signal lantern as soon as he could: the rules demanded he signal that someone was indeed paying attention before they would send the actual message. Flashing the go-ahead, he let Twinkle go back to relaying a multi-page insomnia cure of a bureaucratic document.

Burlap’s hopes weren’t crushed, though only because they hadn’t been that high to begin with. As his hoof automatically wrote out the message, his mind focused on their meaning. A possible smuggler caught entering Aura with twenty pounds of sungold? Still in their original bricks? A request for documentation from Manehatten to confirm or disprove that the smuggler was who he said he was. It couldn’t be relayed direct: SCD reports all had to be transcribed in the Tower, for the Canterlot records. Burlap borrowed the lantern back and flashed back what he’d written. Got the confirmation signal: no errors. Burlap sent it back and then bolted with the message in his lips. He handed it off to the desk in the center of the Aura super-alcove. “Red flag, Daisy Duke.”

The unicorn tipped him a wink. “On it, sugarcube.”

Burlap bolted back to his alcove, but no gems were flashing a request for attention. There might have been, though. An hour dragged past before Daisy rang for him. One bell for each alcove, each at a different pitch. Burlap dashed back out to receive the red-edged scroll. Twinkle muttered and broke off the snoozer. Red took priority. He sent it off to the Aura SPC with his usual rapid signaling, likely not really absorbing a word of it. Stroking the scroll along one side, he wiped the writing clear of its enchanted surface.

“That’s it for excitement today, I guess.” Burlap said.

Then the red gem began to flash again. Twinkle grunted and flashed the confirmation signal himself, then went back to his boring work. Burlap was trained enough that he kept transcribing even as his eyes went wider and wider. Then Twinkle sucked in a breath. “Did that say Rasputin?”

“Gregor Rasputin.” Burlap said. “Spotted leaving Aura this morning heading north on the airship Glass Eel.”

“He’s dead.” Twinkle said. “He was killed years ago. His airship exploded. No survivors. They made sure.”

Burlap let out a nervous titter, hoof still transcribing as his mind reeled. “Looks like it didn’t stick this time either.”

“You believe that guff about him being unkillable?”

“I believe the SCD in Aura aren’t about to triple-red-flag a report they saw the spooky coot unless they’re sure it was really him. I don’t know about unkillable, but it looks like he survived when the Nightmare exploded.”

“Luna’s Rump.” Twinkle said. This blasphemy would have been shocking from anyone. From Twinkles it’s enough to make Burlap to choke on his gum. The older earth pony thumped him on the back. “Keep it together, lad. Stay sharp and do your job. If Captain Redeye’s still breathing, the horseapples just hit the windmill.”

[scene change]

In Aura, Kincaid lights his cheap old pipe and takes a long shaky pull. That is against regulations. He is alone in the signaling room. That is too. He has just betrayed Smog by sending that second message. That isn’t against official regulations but it’s enough to rattle anyone who knows the old dragon as well as he does. It isn’t a matter of if Smog will find out: just when. But Kincaid still burns the transcript, in the hope it will buy him a little more time. Kincaid snuffs his pipe, bitterly aware the room still smells a lot more like burning paper than smoking herbs.

Even bitterer is the memory of Smog explaining his basic philosophy. The one about the value of being feared and the danger of being hated. Once again, the pink son of a lizard hit the nail right on the head. Kincaid fears Smog, but he hates Captain Redeye. The thought of turning a blind eye (and what a horribly appropriate euphemism that is) to that old monster’s presence had left his stomach twisted into knots. But not even Smog can turn back time. The damage is done. Kincaid feels the calm of the condemned sweep away his fear. He’s a dead griffin walking but at least Redeye will soon be hunted again.

Kincaid turns his mind to what little future he has left. How to spend it? Redeye wasn’t the only monster around. There was a lesser one closer to home. Close enough for Kincaid to reach out and touch. He stops off at the armory for a surprise or two. On the way out of the back door of the building, he comes across Felicia smoking. Giving in to an urge he has never been insane enough to indulge, he slaps her flank. She’s so shocked she forgets to claw his face off.

“I’m going for a fly.” Kincaid said. “Might be a while.”

He can’t hide anything from her. “You idiot!”

“I know.” He can’t think of anything else to say, so he doesn’t. He flies, taking a simple joy in it he hadn’t since he was a cub. ‘Flint,’ he thinks, ‘I never hated you. You’re not evil, you’re insane. But you aren’t the kind of crazy that gets better. I didn’t start out a cop, but at some point I guess the pretending stopped being pretend. And before I face Smog, I’m going to do one clean thing. I’m going to end you.’

“Time to earn my unhappy ending.”

Morhoof sat in his chair, leaning back, but pulled forward. His lips held a slender black rod with a small gold ring positioned near the base. It burned slowly, with a smolder. Through all the chitter-chatter of the tavern’s patrons, a small sweet ring assaulted his ears. He had been waiting for that. Nosing around earlier, he had found the bell, and the sign.

But Smaug failed to quickly appear. Closing his eyes, Morhoof identified noises one by one and banished them from his awareness. Silence fell, and in it he had little trouble eavesdropping on the conversation in the back room. Morhoof felt a number of things that eased and flustered him at the same time. Business was business, but this sort was truly low. He was glad though, that he had not mentioned anything of importance to the flighty unicorn to re-tell to her new master. Not that he blamed her for relenting. Something was definitely going to have to be done to keep Smaug at bay and spare his newest minion any undue suffering.

Smaug appeared, and he cleared the room in a far more congenial manner than last time. A long trail of ashes fell into Morhoof’s lap as Smaug positioned himself at the table, and the aroma of burning filter made itself known. The box set before him was new: he had not been expecting that as part of the package.

Smaug's voice boomed out in his casual 'higher being' manner: “TAKE IT. TELL ME ABOUT THE CARGO YOU NEED SHIPPED. THEN WE CAN DISCUSS WHAT IT WILL COST YOU.”

Morhoof ignored Smaug for the time, taking in the marvelous sight before him. It was everything he imagined and then some, but he could not help but think it's just missing a center of amethyst to make it complete. He reached out with a hoof and gently caressed a petal, his hard expression slightly wavering. He closed the small box and began to inspect it further: it was going to make another nice addition. He finally set the box down and looked into the green eyes of the pink mastermind. “I was not anticipating such a container as this. Pray tell, is this of your own generosity?"

Morhoof didn't bother to hear Smaug's answer. It had been sarcasm in any case. Generosity from a dragon? Easier to squeeze blood from a stone. “As for my cargo. It is but a few crates of unnamed consumables and will remain so. I am under orders to keep any credible information undisclosed." That much was true. Despite for whom he worked, Morhoof followed the orders bestowed upon him to the fullest extent of his skills. Not for the sake of his employer, but for his own reputation. "I just require assistance getting said crates out of Ina and away from the border. Patrols there are heavy, and I do not have the resources."

A crinkling noise gave birth to a memory. The parchment he had obtained from the water tower. It went on to discuss his actual task a bit more clearly. Most of which revolved around him getting rid of Smaug. It was clear that Clarence valued no one, as that was certainly looking for a death wish. The likelihood of getting the jump on Smaug was about the same as Luna being banished to the moon again. The other two goals were to get the remaining two crates into Silverline and Dust, one each. The ‘sample case’ was for Morhoof's own personal use, to carry out his objective in Aura. He had little interest in Silverline, but Dust held something everyone had their eyes upon.

Morhoof tossed the thought around in his head for a moment. He decided it would be a gamble, but if it worked, he'd be in a good position. "Oh yes…and one more thing. I am a bit behind schedule. Mayhaps you can find someone to escort a crate into Dust as well?"

The dragon studied Morhoof in silence for a long moment, but there were no twitches or shifts in body language to betray what lay behind those amber eyes. His own calmness comes as a surprise but a relief. He’s had time to get used to the idea of interacting with Morhoof again. The dungeons of his mind send up a howl, but nothing escapes. Much of his calm comes from his intention that there will never be a third meeting. Ever.


“Freeport is sufficient, provided the conveyance is rapid.”


Morhoof pretended to think this over, his decision already clear in his eyes. The earth pony planned to kill him. Smog has seen it in far too many people to ever miss it. But he has seen it too often for it to much annoy him, even from Morhoof. In an odd way, he found it flattering. You could judge a person by the quality of their enemies. Besides, if he killed everyone who wanted him dead, half the population of Aura and Shadowville would make the list.

After hearing Morhoof’s answer, Smog headed back behind the bar and on through the door behind it. Fantasy stood where she had been before. He ignored her, slipping into the cellar on his way to the tunnel.

After Smog slithers away into the cellar, Fantasy finally manages to shake free of the churning dread that held her frozen to the spot. Moving from habit, she fills the mop bucket with sudsy water and heads for the common room. She had heard him pay them all off, and it had been a few days since the last time. She slips through the door and begins to work, eyes locked onto the mop so that it barely shakes in the grip of her magic. The music starts so soft and gentle it creeps into her mind without her noticing. By degrees it calms her, at least somewhat. By the time she glances about, she is already aware enough of Morhoof that seeing him in the corner isn’t a huge shock.

“Oh. Hello.” she said.

“O maiden all forlorn, why dost thou weep?”

Fantasy blinks. “I’m…not crying.”

“Sooth, but thou art. Thine heart weeps.” Morhoof coughs, hoof still awakening music soft as sighs from his lute. He seems embarrassed. “Many pardons, miss. Did you even understand that?”

“I did. I read a lot of books about the long ago.” She almost asks why he talks like that. Fantasy bites her lower lip instead. What she knows, she will have to share. She goes back to mopping. “I’m fine.” Her voice cracks on the second word. “Ahem. I’m fine. Just…tired.”

Morhoof’s eyes call her a liar, but he doesn’t seem angry. Just sad. His mouth says nothing but his lute turns mournful. Fantasy mops harder, trying not to grind her teeth. Then hooves clatter up to the door and bang on it.

A male voice, slightly blurred from drink, filters through the ancient oak. “Hello the…sod, this place is a dump. Are you sure about this, Gavel? Fine, shut up. No, but your face did, so shut up. Hello, the ‘tavern.’ We should like to quaff a merry mug of cider or six, so open the mother-loving door already, sheesh.

“Foo.” Fantasy said. She unlocks the door and opens it, fumbling a bit as she her magic reaches beyond her comfortable range.

Two stallions come in, a swaggering little unicorn and the absolutely biggest earth pony she had ever seen. The life-sized statue of Princess Celestia over in the Plaza of Suns was no taller, and a great deal slimmer. The unicorn is buttermilk with a butterscotch mane and tail and golden eyes. Some kind of alchemical snake-biting-its-tail thing lies on his flank. Ouroboros: that was it. He wears a…blouse: a white shirt with ruffles at the neck and cuff and down the front.

The earth pony wears a black leather coat long enough to hide his cutie mark. He is iron grey with a black mane and tail and hairy black fetlocks. A hairy forelock too, hiding his eyes behind it. He speaks in a rumbling but quiet bass. “Ullo, Miss.”

“It Speaks!” The unicorn manages to pronounce the capitals, and Fantasy decides she dislikes him. “Never mind the brain trust, Gavel’s mostly harmless unless you get between him and his dinner.”

Gavel says nothing, but manages more distain with one cocked ear and a slight head-tilt than most could have done with a stream of paint-blistering profanity. The unicorn glares back and up at him. “Shut up.”

“You sirs said you wanted cider?” Fantasy said.

“Ah, yes. My name is Niter and I have decided to grace this establishment…with…my…” He trails off, looking back as Gavel ambles with floor-trembling steps over to Morhoof’s table. “An entertainer? Oh, Sweet Luna’s Mane, we’re here for the night, we are.”

“Ullo.” Gavel said. “How much for a song?”

“For you, this one is gratis.”

“Hard to beat free. I hope you’re good.”

“Lout.” Niter said. “Barmare, two mugs of Sweet Apple Acres cider. You do have it here, yes?”

Fantasy feels her stomachs drop. Morhoof begins to play, something light and fast and…somehow familiar. She can’t place it, but the feelings it stirs aren’t nearly as nice as the melody is. “I’ll be right back, sir.” Fantasy hurries away, grabbing two mugs. Then she takes down a huge old antique quaffing mug with two handles. Giving it a rinse, she fills it with cider, then a smaller, and takes them back out. ‘I hope they don’t know their ciders.’

They did. Or at least, Niter did. Gavel gave the huge mug the smile of someone unexpectedly seeing an old friend, and then began to slowly drain it without pausing. Niter took a sniff, a sip, and then spat on the floor. “Muck. What are you trying to pull here, short-horn?”

“Y-you don’t like it?” Fantasy said.

“If I wanted to drink urine I’d find a bathroom. Now go get the real stuff, you daft mauve nag.” His magic lands a stinging blow on her rump.

Fantasy grabs the mug in her magic and upends it over Niter’s head. Instead of hot, the unicorn’s eyes go cold. Silence falls as Morhoof ceases to play. Too late, Fantasy remembers. The Two Gallows Crows was a song with a happy melody and very dark lyrics involving a pair of pegasus bandits in the days before airships. ‘Big and blunt, small and sharp, both were twins in malice. Either crow would grin, and then, slip poison in your chalice.’

The song had been a warning.

Upstairs, half-asleep and despairing of becoming fully so, Tradewind hears a female pony scream. He snorts and rolls out of bed, miscalculates the height, and ends up giving the floor a painful kiss. “Stratus!” The scream comes again and he charges out the door toward it.

Down in the common room he find a small, mean-grinning unicorn with a sodden mane: using his magic to drag Fantasy from behind the bar by her mane. The biggest earth pony he has ever seen sits calmly nearby, drinking from an equally large mug held in both hooves. Lute sits in a corner, holding motionless, his lute in its case and both forehooves tucked inside his ratty old cloak.

“Oi!” Tradewind said. “Let her go!”

“Go cover a cloud, flutterguy.” the unicorn said.

The big one sets his mug down, ignoring the barmare as she skids past him trying to fight the sparkling golden grip on her mane. His voice is thunder with a head cold. “I hate pegasi in Umbra. I really do.”

META: For Morhoof and Molestia, I have a few points to make. One, alchemy is basically magical chemistry. Two, Niter is a name for an essential ingredient in gunpowder, and explosive. Three, a gavel is a form of hammer. Four, Fantasy has been frightened, threatened, and insulted: she is therefore in a mood to do something not in her normal personality. Mop Fu is a possibility, though performed with more force than finesse. Feel free to let your character end up in a precarious situation and toss the ball back to me.

For Morhoof, I don't for a minute expect him to sit this out. But if anyone has learned to bide his time and jump in when he'll do the most good, it's him.

For Tradewind, unfortunately I see him getting his rump handed to him, at least at first. He'd be in big trouble if this was just him against Gavel. But it isn't. It's three sober against two drunk.

Brando crouched at the helm, nestled into a kind of padded couch-bowl…thing. He’d left off the netting harness: that was to hold him down when things got hairy. It was very comfortable. Brando yawned. Too comfortable. He was glad airships didn’t usually require constant vigilance to steer. Even less since the Snark no longer pulled slightly to the left. Brando snorted. Like captain, like airship. He yawned again. Then he sneezed, and it caught him by surprise, jolting certain areas that didn’t take well to being jolted. They’d been overworked last night, which was why he was nodding now and Mithril was in back, snoring. He loved her, but by Celestia that mare could snore. Have her go camping in a graveyard and she’d make the dead rise just to tell her to shut up. Griffins didn’t have ears but they did have ear holes, and could wear earplugs with no one the wiser about it.

His thoughts turned to the costume. His, of course. A blue sequined dress, long but slit up high enough on the flanks to show off where his cutie mark would be if any griffin had ever had such a silly thing. It came with a hat shaped like a beehive hairdo but made of realistic-looking wax fruit. Oh, and a pair of cow horns, just for the final touch of the bizarre. A famous entertainer called Cowmen Miranda: one of the first bovines in history to abandon respectable farm life for big-city fame and fortune. By all accounts, that cow could dance. Brando seriously considered ‘disappearing’ the makeup case that had come with it. Mithril had looked a bit too eager about helping him put it on when the day came.

Brando laughed, blinking his gritty eyes. Years of experience in going sleepless would keep him from doing anything really dangerous, like fall asleep or yank the ‘emergency drop’ lever. But it didn’t stop thoughts like how to get back at the lizard for this one. ‘I can’t believe I’m seriously considering starting a prank war with the most dangerous criminal in the Empire.’

It was great to not be tethered to Aura any longer. Finally back in the air, Brando almost felt free. A small portion of him still considered dumping Pick and Red Raider out and making a run for it with Mithril. But it didn’t matter how long he could redline. Running did no good if hiding was impossible. Smog would put a bounty on their heads so big, their own mothers would squeal on them. Besides, he rather liked Aura, and he figured Mithril would be a bit upset if he decided they should spend the rest of their too-short lives on the run. He chuckled, having not thought so badly of the dragon since before the mission. That outfit had gotten to him a bit. He wondered just how much of his tastes Smog knew about, and figured it was likely all: probably with a detailed file of all he'd done alone, in private.

No need for that anymore. He had Mithril, and unicorns got up to stuff he’d never even heard rumors about. He was glad he was fireproof. When Mithril lost control, things sometimes got hot in the literal sense. The thought of it made him lean against the wheel, giving a full-bellied laugh. Speaking of, she hadn’t caught the ship on fire yet. The envelope was really good and probably perfect, so the danger of open flames was about was minimal as it could get in a vehicle slung under a huge balloon of explosive gas. He’d given in to smoking aboard the ship, figuring it was just as dangerous either way now. Not that he minded her presence. And without her he definitely would have kicked the other two out by now.

Probably just as Smog had planned, the old schemer.

At least she could talk them into keeping their infernal racket to a minimum. Brando couldn’t do it, not without getting nasty, and it was a really bad idea for the crew to hate the captain. It led to bad things like them stopping to argue when he gave an order that needed to be obeyed now. He had to be careful that all his orders clearly made sense and were important, so when they needed to hop, they’d hop when he yelled jump. Mithril could be the bad guy: that’s what a first mate was for. One or the other playing was fine, anyway. Both of them playing at the same time would likely sound like a concert where everyone had decided to put the ‘battle’ back in ‘battle of the bands.’ At least they were holding up in the most important way. Nothing worse than an airship full of airsick ponies. It was hilarious to Brando that pegasi could get motion-sick in airships even when they themselves flew. Never had affected him, though.

Brando’s good mood took a hit. He’d eventually have to tell them about the harpoons. The launchers in the bow and stern looked standard issue: descend, shoot them onto the ground, winch in the ropes, and done: airship at anchor. His launchers had a questionably wide range of motion. He also had a dozen spares, which was excessive. They had hollow heads that could hold a glass vial of liquid red. If they hit something harder than a cloud, boom. He wondered with the slightest bit of anxiety how Mithril was going to respond when she heard about those. Highly illegal. One of them, if it hit the envelope, could destroy just about any airship. Of course that was only in dire situations: normally an empty harpoon punching through an envelope was enough to take them out without people dying. The only time he'd used even an unloaded one had been against a multiple-envelope Flying Fortress. He'd almost regretted the decision, until they over-inflated the other four and started firing on him again. Persistent buggers, zebras. Well, most of them, anyways. They produced some really good mechanics, though he supposed they were just persistent in a different way.

Aside from those concerns, however, the ship was handling like he’d always dreamed (and never hoped) she would. Smog had gotten the cloud generator fixed, and the ride was quite a bit smoother thanks to having actual mechanics look her engines and props over this time around. The only thing that still shook her a bit was turning at speed, but she wouldn’t break. He knew the flaps and tail was solid, he trusted the person that had looked those over. Zacor: now there was a zebra who knew his way around a Spectrum Engine. Knew his way around another kind of equipment too, and Brando spent a minute fondly reminiscing. A guilty twinge surprised him. Zacor was the past and done, but apparently some dusty corner of his conscience didn’t like him daydreaming about it, claiming it was somehow disloyal to Mithril.

Then a more active part of his brain reminded him of Mithril’s costume. This laugh was pure snigger.

**This was sent back to me 1 hour before Brandos post so Internets edits might be invalid**

Red Raider awakened to the sound and feel of being on an airship. For one horrible moment she thought she’d just dreamed being a DJ in Aura. Then her memory started working. Slipping through the privacy curtain, she checked the only other one pulled shut. Pick slept on his side, curled up under the blanket. Combing out her hair and mane, she preened her feathers and tugged free a loose one. Pulling out her writing kit, she used the penknife to sharpen the end into a quill. Unlocking her fresh journal, she dipped into the pot of blood-red ink.

Paused. Smog wanted her to report to him, but she didn’t trust her memory for details. So she’d planned to keep them written down. It was a risk. If one of the others discovered it, she was in deep horseapples. But if she missed something important and Smog found out later, it would be very bad news for her. She didn't want to make Smog mad because that would almost guarantee the end of her. Not her career: her. Smog was safe as a kitten if you didn’t cross him, but cross him and he was about as safe to be around as a rabid tiger. But politer.

“Ahhh…to hay with it." Red leaned back and relaxed as her natural optimism recovered. Even if she did screw up she wasn’t helpless. She knew how to fight and she still had some contacts from her old days. ‘Wait, old days? I’m only twenty-five! Wow.’ She chuckled. ‘Look at me thinking I’m so old and wise!’

Red chuckled more as she remembered the costume that had been waiting for her when she got to the Snark. A very thin, very…snug bodysuit was the main part, colored bright red. Over it went a fancy harness of red leather and gold fittings. Knowing Smog, they were just gilded. It was made to look like it was holding on her wings, which meant unless she flapped them around they’d pass as fake. There was dye to make them match her hair and tail. The instructions said to braid her tail up tight so she could put a kind of red stocking over it, the end capped with a golden arrowhead. A little red mask covered her eyes, shaped into a scowl, and it had a pair of gold horns sticking from it. It was close to a kind of evil spirit described in mythology.

Red shook herself and stared at the blank page. There wasn’t really much she could report yet, was there? They’d only been flying for around ten hours and she’d spent them mostly asleep. Then she had an idea. She could disguise her reports like a personal diary. The details wouldn’t look out of place if they were mixed in with stuff about her feelings. Maybe a little weird, but she could claim a bad memory. She gave a nod.

Dear Diary. We’re on our way. I’m scared but excited too. Smog wants us to get back safe with his precious spores so I’m pretty sure he isn’t sending us all to get killed. It’s going to be tough fitting in at Dust, or will it? Shouldn’t wearing a decent costume and acting tipsy do the trick? I figured Smog would dress me up as a DJ so I brought a bunch of glow-sticks. The alchemy kind so they work after going through the Breach. Some of them are red so I guess I can hang them on my harness. But if they don’t have glow-sticks in Dust that might be bad. Oh well: I guess I’ll figure it out when we get there. We’ll need to practice pretending like we’re a real band. I have my record player so I guess I’m set. Sucks for the rest of them, I guess. Brando mentioned polka, I think, but the place where Smog booked the gig is called the ‘Prancing Pony.’ I dunno if the old oompah-oompah is going to go over well. I’m pretty sure it’s that kind of place, because Smog left Brando a Cowmen Miranda costume. He’s going to look absolutely FABULOUS!

Good thing I have a record with show tunes on it.

Pick’s got some kind of creepy white bird mask and black cloak deal. I’m kinda worried about that. He’s going to stick out like an undertaker at a clown convention. Urr, I just remembered. He’s even got a shovel. Bad thought, bad thought. Mithril’s is better, I guess. I thought I was going to pass out from trying not to laugh. People think Smog doesn’t have a sense of humor. Shows what they know, he’s just funny on the sly.

Red Raider put the cap back on the ink and wiped off the quill. The words had come easier than she’d figured they would. Of course her writing was horrible, but she could read it, so that was fine. Leaning back against the wall, hind hooves idly kicking at the air, she sighed. “It’s good to be back on an airship. Too bad I’m not captain."

But the past was the past, and if she did this she was pretty sure Smog would make sure it stayed the past.

Pick surged from the embrace of a nightmare into wide wakefulness. After a minute his breathing slowed. Rising from his bunk, he slid the shimmersilk curtain aside enough to peek out. All the other curtains were pulled aside and tied to a wall, the bunks behind them swung up out of the way. No one in the room but him. He was the last to wake up, and had done so violently. Pick just sat there for a few minutes, regaining his composure.

He couldn’t help but feel a growing sense of dread, growing more and more ever since the Snark left the cloud-docks. Pick had been preparing his old self for the trip, getting in more control of his emotions and practicing on not showing them. He had also practiced his lock-picking on his own locks: behind the privacy silk when everyone else was asleep. He knew he was good but he wanted to make sure he could get back up to speed. But with his old self came his old memories, and the nightmares. But this one had been something special, or at least new.

‘Smog has a sick sense of humor.’ Pick thought. His costume for the Feast of Fools was a dusty-black suit with a matching quartet of boots. A hooded cloak went over it, and there was black feather-dye for his wings. Last but not least was the mask. Off-white and unadorned, it had round eyeholes plugged with smoked glass and a long raven-like beak. The beak had holes where the nostrils went and a chamber inside full of incense. Lit, smoke would shoot out every time he exhaled. It was the outfit worn by plague doctors, so long ago it had been thought bad smells caused disease. The smoke was to keep it back. Medicine back then had been what would be called torture now.

His nightmare had involved being a plague doctor.

Not that the others were much better off. Smog had gotten Brando back for the clockwork ‘toy’ he’d slapped down on the bar. Pick hadn’t figured the dragon was going to let an insult like that pass. Now his revenge became clear: a Cowmen Miranda costume. Red Raider had something pretty eyebrow-raising, and that was without her even trying it on. Mithil’s costume… Pick wasn’t sure he wanted to know what Smog had meant by that one.

After calming down, Pick immediately checked his shovel and guitar. After he had made sure no one had touched his things, Pick stretched. Smog had told them to get some rest, so of course he had spent the whole night staring at his bedroom ceiling. Soon after the Snark left, Red had crawled into her bunk. Pick had followed her example and crashed instantly into sleep. Muscles eased, Pick made his way to the small round window and opened the flimsy brass shutter. Glaring white light poured in. Squinting hard, Pick looked out silently at a vast plain of brilliant white. They would make a stop in Silverline to pick up liquid diamond-ice. Some was coolant for the redliner system, which was currently running on plain water. The rest was an excuse: a false cargo they’d dump overboard as soon as they could. It was expected in Freeport, just outside the Twin Breach. They wouldn’t be expecting what the Snark would actually do.

They better not.

Oh…kay: not good.

Tradewind thinks it for the second time in as many days. The earth pony rose, slightly shakily, to his hooves. Tradewind had never seen such a gigantic pony. Tradewind was big for a pegasus, but this…monster…towered over him. He loomed more with ever slow step closer.

Tradewind backed away. “H-hey, guys, come on, I don’t want any trouble-”

The small unicorn snorted, still hauling Fantasy relentlessly toward him. “Yeah? Then you shouldn’t have set hoof in our town, you hoity-toity flying donkey.”

The giant chuckled. Sort of. He actually said ‘hur, hur.’ “Hur hur, flying donkey.”

Tradewind tried to unfurl his wings, only to fall over sideways when his left wing ignored him. He barely kept from landing on his right wing. This caused the earth pony ambling ominously toward him to stop and guffaw.

The little unicorn cackled too. “HAHAHA! A flying donkey that can’t even fly! What the hay are you good for, then?”

“Hur hur: good fer nuffin.”

Tradewind decided to play along, and plastered a huge sheepish grin on his face. “Heh, yeah, I guess I can’t fly huh, so I’m not much of a donkey, huh…I guess I look pretty stupid. So I’m just gonna go and-” Trade waited for them to relax, readying himself to jump the little prat. The unicorn would lose his grip on Fantasy so she could run, and he planned to be right on her heels. There was heroic, and there was just plain stupid.

The little one instantly stopped his guffawing, and he didn’t relax. “Now, now: that won’t do at all. You’re definitely not getting off that easily. Sic’im, Gavel!

Gavel suddenly displayed a surprising quickness. He wasn’t going to win any races, but for somepony that big… He moved well for a drunk pony, and the unicorn sat back, never relenting in his grip. Tradewind found himself being dragged to the door by his left wing. Struggling in vain against the slab of meat in the guise of a pony, he kicked out his back legs, catching Gavel in his coated ribs. It left a nasty gash in the black leather.

The giant stopped. “Ow.” Then he looked back. His ears slowly laid back and the shadows under his eye-hiding forelock seemed to deepen. “My coat.” Then…he growled. “It’s hammer time.”

The unicorn’s eyes narrowed. “You know what? Since you made us laugh, I’ll save your life, and because we don’t need that kind of trouble. Gavel! I have an idea.”

“Yeah?” The earth pony rummaged around inside his coat.

The unicorn deflected the mug Fantasy hurled at him with a swat of magic, not even looking. “Don’t hammer him.”

Gavel snorted. “It’s hammer time.”

“This is better.”

“Better be.”

“Pluck his wings.”

“Hur.” The searching hoof emerged empty. “Hur-hur. That’s a good one.”

Tradewind found himself rising into the air. His wings supported him in the air, but not just one and not like this. Then the world turned sideways and floor returned: it was overly happy to see him. A huge hoof came down on his side and pinned him down. “Hur, hur. Plucking the chicken. Cluck, cluck…pluck.”

Pain, as a few long primaries came free.

This is,’ Tradewind thought, ‘far beyond not good.

Fantasy saw Gavel yank feathers out of Tradewind’s wing. She sensed Morhoof still at his table, holding still. Like a coward. She saw the grin on Niter, happy and warm below cold eyes. Everything that had happened since Smog turned up suddenly compressed into a ball in her belly and exploded. She saw red. The mare had always thought that was just a literary convention. A way of describing a state of fury. She learned better as a faint haze of crimson crept over everything, shading to flickering black around the edges. Her skull felt close to exploding.

Niter had dragged her around from outside of the bar and kept pulling. The pain in the roots of her mane stopped mattering. Hot ice wrapped her spine like wires. Fantasy lowered her head and stopped fighting his pull. She flung herself toward him. At the same time she grabbed his sodden mane and pulled. They hurtled together at high speed, and the mare soared through the air with her horn down and murder in her heart.

Niter had good reflexes. He managed to dodge one way while yanking her in the other. She crashed, taking down a stretch of barstools, which she then landed upon. They did not break. Pain happened, somewhere on the far side of the world. Energy snapped through her horn, discharging with a stink like lightning. A fallen stool whipped sideways and swept Niter off his hooves. The second hit with its top first. The cushion covered a ring of wood, not a flat disc: that probably saved Niter from a broken horn. As it was, his horn skewered it. Niter tried to stand, but it was a real barstool: literal centuries old and survivor of countless brawls. The oak might not have burned if stuck in a furnace. It was practically stone with a grain.

In short, it weighed a ton.

Gavel paused, turning to look. He saw Niter struggle to his hooves, head dragged down near the floor by the stool attached to it. He laughed again, hoof still pinning Tradewind down. The pegasus groaned and then whipped his head back. His skull hit the hairy ankle of Gavel’s other foreleg. Gavel grunted and shifted his weight. Tradewind bucked, twisting free and rolling over on his left side. Then his right wing shot open, half-folded to drive the joint into the underside of Gavel’s jaw.

It sounded like a blunt hatchet hitting a tree.

“Oh…bloody hayfields!” Tradewind said. It came out as a hoarse, agonized squeak.

“Ow.” Gavel said. “Hur-hur, that was pretty good.”

Gavel lunged forward and then took an unsteady step sideways. He staggered back and sat down with a thud that shook plaster dust from the ceiling. Fantasy saw this in passing. Climbing to her feet, she had vaulted over the bar on a planted forehoof, grabbed the Barpony’s Friend, and vaulted over again. A supple bag of waxed leather, filled with a damp mix of sand and oil, hung in her magic. Niter saw it and tried to duck, but he had a barstool stuck to his head. He tried to swat it with his magic but Fantasy charged, holding it close and hard in hers.

It sounded exactly like a cosh meeting a skull.

“Schum…omepony schtop ringinging that bell.” Gavel said.

Niter gave a heavy snore.

Fantasy dropped the cosh.

Tradewind was on his belly, legs gathered under him, and his eyes not quite pointed in the same direction. He started to rise and shifted his right wing. Something made a small sharp click. The pegasus sagged. Gavel ignored him. He looked around and saw Fantasy standing over Niter. He shook his head hard and surged to his hooves. “Niter!” His hidden eyes swung to her with a heat she could feel. “You carrothead!”

Fantasy gasped, shocked to her core.

Tradewind surged to his hooves and shouted. “Oi! You do not[i] call a unicorn that in front of me!” Gavel ignored him. “Look over here when I’m taking to you, dopey! Yah, I’ve seen smarter rocks than you, and found prettier things living under ‘em!” Gavel took a step toward Fantasy. Tradewind looked at her, terrified, as he gathers himself to jump Gavel. “[i]Run, girl!”

Gavel reared and spun, shaggy mane flying. “WHO YOU CALLING A GIRL!?” Then he crashed down, now holding a pair of boot-hammers: a hoof-covering brass sheath with a thick iron slab attached to the bottom. “Nopony makes fun of my mane! I’ll stomp you into a rug!” He started a ponderous charge, the boot-hammers leaving slight dents in the tough old floor. Tradewind backpedaled.

The sound started low, harsh, and rumbling: a barrel of gravel poured down an iron shaft. It swelled in volume as it soared in pitch, ending in a howl like a sawmill blade finding an old nail in a piece of lumber. Several bottles up behind the bar burst. Fantasy had only ever heard it in a phonograph recording, back in history class. The recorder had been miles from the source, but even that faint and crackling echo had made her childhood nightmares far more colorful.

It was the scream of an enraged dragon.

Everypony froze. Then turned. Morhoof stood atop the corner table, hooves planted and head thrust low and forward on the end of his neck. Closing his mouth, he took a long slow inhale. His amber eyes lurked under his hood, drinking in the lamplight and sending it back as sullen orange fire. He swallowed, cleared his throat, and spoke in a rasping growl. “This ends.”

Gavel gave a snort and scowled. “Stay out of this.”

Morhoof hopped down, landing easily balanced on his hind hooves. His cloak falling around him, he barely looked like a pony at all. “Earth Pony. Take thine friend and depart. In the vernacular of the present…beat it.”

Gavel stomped a boot-hammer with a crash. “No. It’s hammer time. You want to be first?” Morhoof shrugged. Gavel turned back to Tradewind.

Morhoof’s cloak swirled as he pivoted, spinning in a circle upright on a single hoof. His forehoof seemed to move in a lazy arc as he came back around, but the empty pewter mug snatched from the table behind him practically hummed as it flew through the air. Gavel’s heavy coat draped down behind him, but split high enough to let his tail stick out. The mug caught him right under it. Fantasy wasn’t even male and she cringed. The huge earth pony let out a sound that mingled a laugh with a sob and sank to all four knees. Then he rolled over onto his side and made a tolerably successful attempt to curl into a ball.

“Pfaugh.” Morhoof said. He moved over to Gavel, bizarrely staying upright. The pounding of his hind hooves on the floorboards were at sharp odds with the almost floating series of strides. Morhoof’s ravaged voice would have made the words harsh. The sheer furious contempt filling it made them into a nightmare. “I abided only because it served a purpose. The lady thine crony assaulted would not have come to serious harm. I would never have permitted it. A guest I am in her family’s inn: hospitality obliges me to defend it, and her. But the lady is braver than she knew, and now her eyes are open. She won her battle unassisted and she shall carry that always. Thine purpose is served, knave. Now, what to do with you?”

Gavel tensed. A dark blur with a tip of bright silver swept in an arc. Morhoof’s cloak settled back in place. Gavel’s forelock fell off. The eyes underneath were large and blue and actually rather girly. They were also watering, squinted, and afraid. Gavel went still, probably realizing how close a very sharp edge had come to his eyes. Then he very carefully slipped off his boot-hammers and shoved them as far as his hoof could reach.

“I’m sorry.” he said.

“As well thou should be. I shan’t sing for a week.”

Tradewind spoke, sounding short of breath and in more pain than he wanted to show. “Lute. What in the name of good prairie sod are you?”

“A minstrel.” Morhoof said.

Fantasy laughed, the sound bubbling up despite never having felt less amused. Then it became a more ominous kind of bubbling noise. She barely made it to Gavel’s abandoned quaffing mug in time to be sick in it.

META: Just for the record, I'm stating that getting feathers yanked, while not fun, is not hugely painful. Unrealistic? Possibly, but that hasn't stopped us yet.

The mug to Gavel's boys? THAT hurt.

Please disregard. If a mod or admin sees this, I thank you in advance for deleting it.

Mithril stood in the room that wasn’t the bunk room and stared out of the porthole at the cold icy plains of Silverline. Brando had never bothered to name the rooms, not having others aboard with which he needed to discuss them. Her eyes were in the present but her mind wandered through the past and future. It had been years since she had been on an airship. Maybe it had been living up in the clouds, but for some reason she no longer got airsick, like she had when she first moved to Aura.

Her companions were…interesting. There were better words, but no politer ones. Brando…well, her feelings were deep and complex and in some cases contradictory. She knew he had something in the works. He always did. That may have been the cop in her, telling her not to trust anyone. On the other hoof, she was almost overwhelmingly happy to be with him again. When they had broken apart she had still been a new guard: doing everything by the book, her head filled with concepts of justice and defending the ponies of Aura, much like her latest partner. It had been the most painful thing in the world to learn Brando was a crook. Not even some grand evil: a tragic villain driven by dark hungers he was helpless to control. He was a money-grubbing freelance smuggler, too cynical to respect the law and too lazy to get an honest job.

That may have been why she felt just the slightest bit of guilt for ‘betraying’ Pick by, in a rather literal sense, sleeping with the enemy. It was, however, only a matter of time before Pick saw the darker side of the job. There was what was right, what was legal, and what was necessary. If you could manage two out of three you did it and counted yourself lucky. More often, you had to pick just one. She was starting to think he was already acquainted with the dark side, though. Something about his bearing spoke of a less-than-savory past to her instincts. He hadn’t been like that at first, but thinking back, his young-idealist act it had been too shiny: trying too hard. But her gut also said it hadn’t been a dishonest act. There was an old saying: ‘fake it until you make it.’

Red Raider was…well, Mithril quite frankly had no idea what to make of her. It was more than obvious to Mithril that the DJ was acting as Smog’s eyes and ears. Mithril didn’t expect any less of the dragon, though. But maybe Red wasn’t just his eyes and ears, but also his claws. As to the pony’s character, she seemed nice enough, but that was the word: seemed. While the bubbly-optimist act didn’t seem exactly false, Mithril’s gut warned her of black depths hidden under that rippling, sun-flashing surface.

Mithril had seen nut-jobs like that: genuinely sweet and nice and smiling, then some mental switch got tripped and they turned into a screaming bloodthirsty maniac or a murderous dead-eyed monster. Police slang had a not-quite-joke term for them: a fakershy. Learning to spot the difference between them and genuinely nice people was something that couldn’t be taught at the Academy. You had to go out and meet nice people and fakershys and then see a score of the latter go Discordian. Eventually something clicked and it was like the fakershys suddenly gave off a smell: something subtle that betrayed them.

Red Raider didn’t clang the alarm bell, but she pinged it.

Mithril shook her head and dragged her mind from that. Unfortunately it landed on the costume she had found waiting for her aboard the Snark. It was…essentially it began with a turtleneck sweater. A pink one, with cloth hearts and stars and similar sewn to the front. But then…expanded. It was a kind of bizarre knitted dress, with pink satin ruffles tacked on around the hem and cuffs and down the back, ending at something not quite a bustle. The overall impression was that someone had started out with a sweater in mind and then, almost done, suddenly decided to make the kind of prom dress that would scar some poor mare for life. A kind of beret made from (pink, naturally) silk rose blossoms crowned the monstrosity, her horn intended to jut from among them in a sheath of pink silk with a woolly pink bobble-hat pompom on the end.

For almost five hundred years, deranged fashion disasters of every color were called Pinkies. Her costume was a total Pinkie. A pink Pinkie. But the real horror hadn’t been of surprise but memory. This dress was clearly an ‘inspired-by’ knockoff. The original had been made by her grandmother: a genuinely sweet but absolutely batty old mare. A different kind of Pinkie, really, though very prim and old-fashioned. Mithril had actually felt a bit guilty about changing into her friend Harvest Moon’s spare dress during the carriage ride to the prom.

The dress wasn’t intended as a humiliation. Smog didn’t work that way. ‘Feared by All: Hated by None’ was practically his motto. It was a message. Smog’s little spies had dug deeply enough into Mithril’s past to discover that dress. More, he had done it sneakily enough that no whisper of it had reached her ears, and long enough ago to have that dress custom-made in time for their departure. Months ago: long before Brando turned up and Mithril got put on indefinite unpaid leave. Smog knew Mithril was smart enough to figure it out. You have been dancing to my tune since long before you heard the music. That was the message. Any clever thoughts Mithril might have, Smog had already predicted, and arranged ways to counter them all or turn them to his advantage. Mithril thought back and back, questioning things she’d dismissed as coincidence, seeing shadowy strings tugging her toward decisions she had thought her own. Smog was old: it was easy to forget that, since he was the size of a dragon teenager. He thought in terms of generations. Mithril doubted Smog had arranged her parents to meet just so they might breed a useful unicorn with powerful fire magic. But Mithril couldn’t quite manage to be sure he hadn’t.

Mithril wasn’t sure she hated, but she certainly feared.

Worse, or at least more immediate, the others had seen the costumes. They hadn’t been hidden but laid out on their individual bunks. Pick had been more disgusted by the dress and sympathetic of Mithril than amused. Red had, at least, made an earnest effort not to laugh. Brando, being Brando, had laughed until he cried. After that they had flown from Aura. Red had gone to sleep and Pick too, and Brando took the helm, leaving Mithril sleepy and sleepless, alone with her thoughts.

Mithril turned from the porthole and opened her fiddle case. It had been a hobby she had picked up in her younger days, a whimsical impulse inspired by the famous fictional unicorn detective Sherlock Hooves. Normally she liked slower-paced, soothing music, a direct opposition to her elemental affinity. Or maybe a counterweight to it. However, sometimes she felt in the mood for something with energy and passion. She propped the instrument on her shoulder and raised her bow to the strings. She took a breath, pressing down the individual frets with focused points of magic, and pulled a long slow note from it. The note wavered, but then smoothed and became richer as she honed her feel for the instrument.

Then she darted into a fast-paced sea chantey that rang out and filled the Snark. Compared to some classical pieces, such ditties were idiotically simple. As she played she lost herself in thought. Her life had gotten very interesting. Getting all but fired from the force, getting back with Brando, and flying off to infiltrate a unicorn-hostile country wearing the Prom Dress that Taste Forgot at the command of a dragon bartender. If someone told her she’d be doing this just a couple weeks ago, she would have dragged them to an asylum to have their head examined. Well, unless they mentioned the dragon. Then she’d at least hear them out before arresting them. But here she was. Maybe everything would turn out all right.

Yeah, and maybe tiny pink dragons would fly out her butt.

The Snark came in fast out of the rising sun, though not quite fast enough for the lookouts in the observation tower to justify slapping her with a fine. She descended on speed and angled vanes rather than by letting off gas. If she dropped gas, the Snark would need a good half hour of running her Spectrum Engine before it was full again. Nor did such engines rev instantly to life after sitting idle for a while. This way, the moment the anchoring cables let go, the airship would head straight up. Using the vanes, she could turn it into an angled ascent, shunting some of the upward force into sideways motion: meaning she could get up a good turn of speed even with her engine cold.

Or so Brando explained to the others, though their interest didn’t match his enthusiasm. Red took it upon herself to remind Brando of the ‘hot-start’ mod of the new redliner kit: a careful injection of red-heavy rainbow into the engine to warm things up in a hurry. If they needed to bolt from a standing start, they could. Brando countered that this was so, but that they’d still want a nice full envelope of gas when they took off like a duck with its tail on fire.

“And speaking of ducks,” Brando said, “hang onto something.” Something about his grin had them diving for the ohluna handles set here and there on the walls.

Brando fired his bow harpoon, aiming it by means of a little replica harpoon launcher among his control. They were linked through magic, so when he moved the little one, the big one obeyed. The barbed head bit deep into the dirty ice and stuck fast. Brando twisted the left vane into reverse, so now it pushed them up instead of down. The Snark heeled over to the right. At the same time Brando flipped the rudder, sending them into a sharp left turn. They ended up traveling sideways through the air, the dangling cabin trailing behind the envelope and the un-spooling cable trailing behind that. Sideways, the airship wasn’t exactly aerodynamic, and the drag of the sudden braking pulled them all to the right.

Then Brando hit a resonance chime attached to the forward winch. It locked. The cable came taut and jerked the bow to a stop. The stern kept swinging around and several people said impolite words. Brando cackled. At the same time that he locked the winch he moved the propellers into neutral, then into reverse. The ship came to a halt and swung back upright. The propellers pulled them, but tethered as they were it only drew them closer to the ground. Aiming using the back-looking periscope, Brando fired the stern harpoon straight down. It bit hard and he hit the resonance chime that hooked the engine to the forward winch. It groaned for a second and then began to haul in cable, forcing the shorter stern one into an angle. Since it couldn’t stretch, that put them closer still to the ground. She ended up crouched evenly between the angled anchors only twenty feet up, nose into the prevailing winds she’d had at her stern on the approach.

Brando killed the engine and a ringing silence fell.

“Brando…” Mithril said. “Tell me something. How is coming into port for a Drunken Duck landing count as not drawing attention to ourselves?”

“Because they know me here.” Brando said. “If I am coming in sweet and quiet, they will be suspicious. This? This is just me being me.” Brando began to load his pipe, whistling ‘What Do You Do With A Drunken Pirate.’

“It’s not rusty,” Mithril said, “but I have a razor.”

“I’m not drunk.” Brando cocked his head, considering, as he tucked the herbs in place. “Or a pirate.”

“Do you know ‘At the Cocoa-Banana?” Red said.

“Da. Why?”

Red gave a giggle. “Just wondering.”

“How long before they roll a tower to us?” Pick said.

Brando got a grudging flicker of flame from Mithril and puffed a few times. “Hour. Maybe two.”

“That long?” Pick said. “They aren’t busy.”

“Da, but they can find lots of things to do rather than haul out the gantry for a wise-guy pilot. Like pick at their nose. Sorry for the delay, sir.” Brando settled into the padded embrace of the seat that had kept him in place during the wild maneuver. “Part of the game. Besides, no one expects a tip when they show up late.”

The gantry tower, much like a fire-escape minus the building, began to move. The iron was black with age and white with frost. Mithril spotted it first, looking out at the snow and trying to keep her cool. “Huh. Smog has clout in Silverline. What a surprise.”

Brando snorted smoke. “Da, shocking. The last time they hurried, it was because they wanted to search for contraband. None aboard this time to find.”

Mithril spotted the very brief look of deep discomfort on Pick’s face. She gave no sign she noticed. Pick turned to look out the windows lining the front two sides of the triangular room. “Mother of Mares, they’re naked.”

“So are we.” Brando said.

“We’re in here. They’re out there.”

“They aren’t fat, comrade. They are very wooly sheep.”

“I think they’re cute.” Red said.

Brando laughed. “Da, they are very cute. They are also soldiers in the Silver Army, put on dockyard duty for being naughty. Maybe you can find a ram into pegasi.”

“Don’t be disgusting.” Red said.

“Soldiers?” Pick said.

“No non-military airships in Silver.” Mithril said. “Except foreign ones. There’s no point. Most of them live on the coasts where the weather is saner. Silverline only exists to mine and export diamond-ice. The workers need places to live and eat and relax. I hear it’s a rough place.”

“Da, from me: and I should know.”

Tradewind picked himself up and staggered over to where the young mare was being noisily sick into a mug the size of her head. Despite the stinging in his left wing where the gigantic brute had pulled his pinions, and the aching in the joint of his right, his brain foggily reminded him that there was a lady in trouble. He was dimly aware of Morhoof un-gently parting Niter from his barstool hat. A very meek Gavel slung the unicorn across his back and waddled painfully out into the night. As Fantasy finished retching and raised her head out of the tankard, he leaned down and nuzzled her cheek gently, ignoring the smell of bile.

Tradewind half-expected a smack. She smiled weakly instead. Tradewind cleared his throat. “Thanks, really. That pony would’ve ripped my wings off."

Her smile grew slightly wider. “Oh, um, that’s okay. Those bullies…” She grimaced, partly from the memory of the recent encounter, but mostly from the foul taste in her mouth. Tradewind noticed, and jumped the bar to fetch a glass of water for the mare. His legs still worked, anyway. That was something. “Hey, you can’t go back there!” Tradewind clumsily filled a glass with the water faucet. “Oh.”

“Sorry. I know it’s not much, but it’s the very least I can do for you after what just happened.” Tradewind held up the glass for the purple Unicorn to grab in her magic.

Fantasy took a mouthful and swished it around, then attempted to spit it into the mug in a ladylike way. “Bleagh, thanks, I hate that taste.” She paused, and her eyes grew wide. “Oh my goodness, you’re bleeding!” She pointed at the pegasi’s grey wings.

“Huh? Oh…yeah.” Tradewind said. He twisted his head to look at the red spots on his wing, along the little feathers around the base of the three plucked flight feathers. “Yeah, they’ll ooze a bit. It don’t half sting but I didn’t lose enough not to be able to fly.” Of course I can’t fly anyway… Tradewind tried to move his right wing and a bolt of what felt like lightning clawed down it into his shoulder. “Oh sod, that…really stung.” Fantasy stared at him, worried, and he wasn’t about to worry her more. “I think I sprained it hitting that moron. Oh well, so much for getting to Dust for the festival, I guess I’m gonna be here for a while…" Tradewind trailed off, unsure why he did so.

Lute, silent during this, finally spoke. His hoarse rasp reminded Tradewind of why the earth pony might care not to talk. “Friend, you cannot stay here much longer. Those thugs were but a glimpse of what happens to pegasi here.”

Tradewind stared at Lute again. ‘Minstrel my cutie mark. Knife-work like that isn’t picked up peeling oranges.’ Fantasy spoke, drawing his attention back to her. “T-that’s right! You can’t stay here. You’ve got to get back up to Aura!” Fantasy sounded on the verge of tears. “Because they’re going to come back! And they won’t be drunk! And they’ll probably bring their friends!”

“Possibly they are stupid enough.” Lute said. “Though my impression is they are lacking in friends.”

Tradewind nuzzled her cheek again as she wailed, causing her to calm down somewhat. She turned red too, but she calmed down. “Okay, I’ll leave right now, I'll catch a air-shuttle back to Aura, I'm sure that that griffin lady will understand.” He sighed again. “I just don’t know where I can stay. Aura is so huge, and everything seems so expensive…" Tradewind didn’t share the rest of it: ‘…and going back to that pink dragon for help feels like it would be a stupider move than staying here.’

Fantasy beamed. “Oh, I’m sure there’s something in your price range. If you’d like, I’ll come with you just as soon as I clean up the bar, I don’t feel much like staying open. Besides, I haven’t been shopping in Aura for months, I bet all the fashions have completely changed since I was last there, ha, not that it matters with the amount of money I have." As she spoke, the unicorn busied herself pouring three drinks for her new-found companions.

“Well…if you really want to." Tradewind said. “But I’m not very good company…"

“Oh hush, I think you’re okay." Fantasy said. She giggled, but then stopped. Her expression darkened and went distant. Probably remembering what had just happened by the way she produced a brush from her apron and began to drag it through her admittedly messy mane.

Tradewind blushed. “Um, thanks, I guess.”

And with that the room sank into the kind of deeply relieved silence afforded only to those who have just experienced something unpleasant which is now over. It spoke of uncoiling tensions and blooming friendships. Tradewind embraced the warmth of the bar and the cider, and the tender care with which Fantasy set about getting his right wing into a sling. Lute picked out a gentle tune in the major key. Tradewind wanted to find out more about Lute, but he as much as Fantasy had saved him from about the worst indignity a pegasus could suffer. That counted for a lot. Fantasy didn’t seem about to chew the earth pony out for not getting involved sooner, with some half-baked defense of letting the barmare realize she was braver than she knew. She had taken that nasty Niter down all by her lonesome, though.

Outside, on a side street too minor to have gas-lamps, Gavel walked along with Niter snoring on his back. He didn’t flinch when Felicia lit her pipe with a snap of her beak striker. Not the stygian ebony. The matching one of dragon-tooth ivory. Faintly glowing red smoke seeped from her nostrils as she exhaled. “You’re walking like someone hit you in the worst way and someone trimmed your stupid forelock. It’s also too early for Niter to be passed out drunk. You failed, then?”

“Maybe.” Gavel said. “I dunno if it was enough.” Felicia puffed hard enough for him to see her unamused expression. Gavel grimaced and his manner subtly changed. “I was unable to make as thorough job of it as I desired, but he managed to badly sprain the elbow joint of his right wing. My jaw will be sore tomorrow. Niter was quite useful. A masterful actor, with the flair for improvisation required for this. I find him a distasteful pony. I suspect he genuinely enjoyed himself right up until the barmare began pelting him with stools. Barstools.”

“And the other objective?”

Gavel shrugged and dumped Niter off his back with the minimum care needed to make sure he didn’t crack his skull on the greasy cobbles. “For that you must ask Niter, or at the very least rummage through his ridiculous shirt.”

“He had better have succeeded. Come on, hand it over. I can tell by your absence of absence that you managed to grab at least one.”

Gavel, with a certain understated flair, pulled a two-foot-long grey feather from up a leather sleeve. “Here you are, Madame Detective. You may soon have him attractive to every adult mare who lays eyes on him. If Niter’s shirt contains mane hairs of the barmare, you may make her attractive to stallions. Given both, the resonance can be refined to mutual exclusivity.”

Felicia puffs her pipe. “You aren’t nearly as smart as you talk, Gavel. Or you wouldn’t have told me you figured out what you figured out. Did you read a dictionary?”

“Thrice, as it happens. Part of my orientation before I was dispatched. There is quite a bit of linguistic drift. For example, ‘fanny’ has a different and much tamer meaning here. But neither am I as stupid as I look. That is why, upon being generously offered the opportunity to turn my coat and retain my hide, I accepted, and have not betrayed my new employer. He is refreshingly practical. One knows where one stands with Smog. One might not like where one stands, but one is assured of comprehending one’s position. My intelligence is why, forelock or no, magic-amplifying herbs or no, you are not going to induce me to gaze upon those obsidian orbs you call eyes. If you wish to induce me to divulge information, cash suffices. That was the arrangement. Information on demand and errands by arrangement, but always for an equitable compensation.”

Felicia tapped the pipe empty, spat with great accuracy onto the coal, and tossed a jingling pouch at Gavel. He ignored it, and then when it was on the ground he dropped a handkerchief over it before picking it up. “I don’t have any catching diseases, Gavel.”

“That as may be, Madame Detective.” Wrapping the pouch in the cloth, he pinned it shut and slipped it inside his ridiculous ‘thug’ coat. “Nevertheless, I intend to hand this over, untouched and unopened, to a law-abiding and quite popular local banker. Insofar as any banker is popular. It would be quite tragic and extremely public were he to suddenly die.”

“Give the bits an overnight soak in strong vinegar.”

“Oh, well done, Madame Detective. You flatter me with your assumption that I should be clever enough to foil a first-level gambit. I should think I will pass on your suggestion, and certainly not in an enclosed space. For shame. Gaseous toxins are indiscriminate. Enough humor. Give me bits I can confidently put, unaltered, into my banker’s claws or hooves. Or I shall, with considerable reluctance, raise the issue of our friendly antagonism with our mutual employer.” Felicia tossed him another pouch, which he tucked away in the same way as the first. “I am near to blushing. You prepared a clean payment, meaning you assumed failure was an option. As one always should.”

“I really hate you, Gavel.”

“Dust is unkind to the magic-inclined. This is not a prejudice I ever shared.”

“I couldn’t care less that you’re from there. You’re a turncoat, a traitor. You’re scum.”

“As are you, Madame Detective.”

Felicia never gave the slightest sign how much it needled her to be called that by him, but she suspected he didn’t need evidence to deduce that it did. He certainly kept using it. Her eyes hummed with energies that ached to turn Gavel into a talkative mannequin. She was going to have a headache later, and for nothing. “There’s scum, and there’s scum. Smog never breaks his word, and nor do I. I’m pond scum. You’re cesspool. Now leave.”

Gavel removed his shortened forelock, tucked it away, and set a full shaggy one in its place. “Of course it was fake. It always was. Made from my own hair, however. Until we meet again, Madame Detective.”

“Drop dead, Gavel.”

“Ladies first.”

An hour later, Tradewind and Fantasy were sitting close together on a cheap airship to the cloud-city above them. A combination of Tradewind’s fear that he might not find a cheap place to stay, and his insistence that he pay the ticket for the young unicorn snoozing against his shoulder, had resulted in him finding the cheapest airbus on the ground. It was a big one, mostly used for cargo lifts, and while it had a deck of seats the thing was for ponies who needed to get to Aura but weren’t in a rush. It would be at least two more hours before they docked in Aura.

Tradewind took the opportunity to study his new friend in close proximity. He had never had much luck with girls, and despite his impressive sarcasm in the face of danger, he was a fairly shy and retiring pony. Unfortunately, that had translated to a rather lukewarm romantic life, and even now he was uncomfortable having this pretty mare touching him so much. One wing didn’t listen to him and the other hung trapped in a sling and all things considered that was just as well.

Oh well, she had earned a nap. Barely even midnight and it had already been the longest night of Tradewind’s life. Tradewind shifted his slung wing gingerly into a new position. She had really done a great job defeating that drunken idiot. Trade blushed slightly and leaned back against her. He closed his eyes and then, daringly, he moved his nose near her forelock. He slowly inhaled. The stench was so foul it likely curled his nose hairs.

Tradewind gagged, for one horrible second assuming that it came from Fantasy. Then he looked out into the night, where motion caught his eye. Liquid rained down from the pointed base of the cloud docks, fraying apart a bit as it fell toward a pool that looked unsavory even in the sapphire glow of the streetlamps. Though he noticed they burned greenish near the pool. Tradewind stared. The smell left no doubt. The grand shining white city of Aura was… Tradewind considered quite a few colorful phrases before settling on jettisoning waste.

A voice made a noise somewhere between a cough and a laugh. Tradewind turned to see an old earth pony with a bushy white moustache looking back at him over his bench. “Heh. Midnight. We’re downwind of the ‘chocolate rain.’

The overnight freight lift is cheap fer a reason.”
The smell was bad, but not enough to keep Tradewind from falling into a doze. He wasn’t a night-owl. Next thing he knew, they were being shaken awake by the conductor of the blimp, telling them that they had docked and to get off his ship. Wincing slightly at his stiff legs, Tradewind helped Fantasy off the ship and onto the docking pier, watching carefully as she negotiated the narrow floatwood walkway. A bored-looking yellow unicorn in a booth brightened up. For a very reasonable fee she cast a spell on Fantasy that would let the purple mare walk on clouds for a day and night. Spell done, Fantasy bounced gleefully on the stratus that made up the base of the city and giggled. “Oh, it’s been so long since I’ve been up here, I forgot how fun it is to walk on clouds!”

The booth mare caught Tradewind's eye. Then she dropped a slow wink. Tradewind looked away fast, ears hot. “Er…is it? Heh, I guess you don’t really notice when you spend a lot of time on them…” He pawed at the ground, embarrassed, and then jumped as Fantasy came in low and nipped at his hind left hock as if she was still a silly filly. He snorted but she just trotted away, giggling, and shot him a playful look over her shoulder. She bounded off in the direction of what he thought of as ‘Upper Aura,’ where the streets were bridges linking open-sided towers with walls like stacked rings of arches. Tradewind grinned and trotted after her, all thoughts of flightless-ness and police officers forgotten for the moment.

The next few hours were spent in a whirlwind of frantic…staring, as Fantasy pranced from shop to shop, pressing her nose against windows, and even venturing inside and trying on some of the more sparkly gowns. Tradewind couldn’t help but notice how pretty she was during all this, and found himself staring at her more and more. However, he wasn’t exactly sure why. Something was happening in the back of his brain, which throbbed in time with the different aches in his wings: yanked feathers and a sprained joint.

Finally, after it seemed that the purple unicorn had finished trying on everything in every store in the district, she turned to her unwitting shopping buddy with an expression of sudden horror. “Oh, no! We forgot to find you a place to stay!”
Tradewind jerked from his daydream, the contents of which he would never have shared with his dear old mum. “Huh? Oh, yeah! I forgot! Better go back to the crap side of town…” Tradewind thought of the ‘chocolate rain’ and gave a shudder. ‘Hopefully not that far.’

An hour later, with dawn threatening to start snuffing stars, it seemed to Tradewind the only thing he could do was turn himself in to those griffin cops and sleep in whatever jail cell they had. Both he and Fantasy were tired and hungry. Clouds may have been soft, but walking on them all day still wore out a pony’s hooves. A lot like loose sand. Tradewind had spent most of his life traveling by wing when at all possible.
Tradewind finally broke down and planted his rump on the curb of one of the streets they had walked down: the third time that day. The vacant cheap room hadn’t been there any of the three times. “Ugh, this is impossible! Celestia, why am I so poor? I don’t even know any ponies here, so I can’t get any help from anyone!”

“Aw, I’m sorry sweet, but we tried the best we could. Maybe you can find a…half-way house somewhere and stay there?” Fantasy rested her head on his shoulder again, and attempted to cheer him up. “Hey, let’s go get a drink! I’m sure you can afford one of those.”

“Yeah…drink. …drink! Ha!” Tradewind leapt to his hooves and trotted off in the direction of the docks. Fantasy had to canter to keep up. “Thanks for the idea. I do know at least one person in Aura. Not a pony, and probably not willing to help, but it’s a shot!”

Soon after, they arrived at an inconspicuous door in an inconspicuous passage in the heart of the cloud-docks inverted tower. There was no Sign above the door, but from inside came the muffled thump of modern music and the muted roar of a dozen conversations. Tradewind looked at Fantasy, suddenly nervous. “You can stay out here.”

“No, I’ll come in, I know a tavern when I see one. I wonder why it’s unmarked? Oh well, come one then.”
Tradewind nodded, and pushed open the door.

Smog didn’t glance up at the door when it opened. He’d gotten a late start tonight and his customers seemed intent on making up for lost time. But just now no one wanted a drink and all the mugs were clean. He passed the time with a zebra up here on business. The mare had drawn attention to herself by asking certain questions in certain places. Certain employees of Smog had advised her to seek a certain discreet drinking establishment. She had challenged Smog to a game of chess and he had accepted.

She hadn’t realized yet that the person she’d been sent to meet was the one behind the bar. Smog was rather interested in seeing how long it took for that particular tenth-bit to drop. He retained his amusement when he saw Tradewind enter. That had been a long shot, but not an entirely improbable one. Tradewind likely wanted an advance on the money owed him for the courier job.

Then Fantasy slipped into sight. If Smog had been prone to spontaneous expressions, his face might well have matched the one Fantasy adopted when she spotted him. Smog’s eyes did in fact go narrow and wavered upward a bit before he kept them focused on the chessboard. His opponent gave a chuckle. “I wondered when you’d spot my trap. Well done.”

Smog refocused on the board, but the only possible thing she could mean was a tiresomely predictable feint he’d seen coming the moment she shifted her white-square Pegasus behind a Pony along one edge of the board. He had been entertaining himself by maintaining a position that could always get him checkmate in six moves or less while keeping her from spotting this. Smog moved his remaining Pegasus, the one on black, two spaces on a diagonal. “CHECKMATE IN FOUR.” Smog left the stripy mare to comprehend the sudden reversal. He glanced up as Tradewind crossed the floor to the bar. Fantasy trailed behind, giving the back of the pegasi’s head a stare of mingled suspicion and horror and similar emotions. “TRADEWIND.”

Fantasy’s upset deepened and she trembled on the verge of eruption. But she glanced at Smog, then glanced away, then stared at the floor and bit her lower lip. Tradewind was oblivious to her distress, attention wisely on the dragon before him. “Sorry to intrude, uh, Smog. I can’t find a cheap place to stay in Aura for love nor money. Shadowville…”

Smog let his eyes move to the pegasi’s wings, letting Tradewind notice him examining the sling on one and bandage on the other. “…IS UNWELCOMING OF PEGASI. YOU APPEAR TO HAVE RUN AFOUL OF A MISCREANT.”

“Yeah, but I’ll be fine.” Tradewind probably didn’t realize he was subtly bragging: flaunting his masculine achievement for the prospective mate nearby. “Fantasy here helped me, and an earth pony stallion. We sent the giant hairy moron off walking funny, and his little unicorn friend was out cold.”


Tradewind blinked. “Not anymore. The forelock, I mean. It got…trimmed. You know Gavel?”


“Yeah, word would get around.”

Smog knew Gavel was no moron. He also knew Gavel didn’t start fights in bars of his own accord. He further knew every name on the list of people had the authority to tell Gavel to go start a bar-fight. It was a short list. Finally, Smog knew he had neither ordered such an action nor gave permission for one. A lot of his employees worked with a great degree of freedom, being given guidelines rather than goals. But Gavel was a high-value resource and as such making use of him required a nod from Smog beforehand. Or, to be fair, an extremely good reason why there hadn’t been time to ask. Smog considered that short list and a name leapt out: the one who had escorted Tradewind out of here the day before yesterday.

Felicia had finally made her move. Smog was more pleased about it than anything. He’d always felt she made the wrong decision when she joined the Special Crimes Division, which was essentially a retirement plan. The griffin had the potential to be so much more. Given a lifespan of centuries she could have developed into a genuine rival for Smog. He had learned of her plan, but if Smog hadn’t considered it likely for Tradewind to return here, it likely hadn’t even crossed Felicia’s mind.

Sprained or broken wing. Missing feathers on the other. Felicia had directed Tradewind to the Brass Hoof, then sent Gavel and another to start a fight. A fight which ended up ensuring Tradewind would be grounded even after the tracking ring was removed. Classic: if you can find no leverage, or lack the time to seek it, make some. Keeping the courier here, bleeding his meager reserves of money, and then extending him help…for a price. Probably a courier job. A quite important one, but one that could wait until Tradewind could fly again. Felicia knew the risk she took, and she wouldn’t take it without equally great reward. She’d want her hold over her courier to be as strong as possible. Missing feathers…Gavel was no slouch at sleight-of-hoof. Smog looked at Fantasy again and this time spotted the scatter of tiny patches where some had been yanked out.

Smog looked between the unicorn and pegasus. The music suddenly blasted at his hearing as he relaxed his habitual resistance to magic. Smog returned it a moment later. As expected, Tradewind radiated a low-power glamour of attractiveness. Fantasy didn’t. Wherever those mane-hairs were, they weren’t in Felicia’s claws. Gavel and his accomplice had failed in their full objective. Tradewind had described sending the two off in defeat, so that fit. The pegasi’s feelings for Fantasy were apparently genuine, and her feelings for him weren’t entirely due to the glamour. In fact, Smog doubted it did much more than to counter her personal reasons to shy from pegasi males. Though Felicia had no way of knowing the glamour would have an uphill slog for this particular mare. Obviously the griffin had planned to make Tradewind and Fantasy fall in something that could be mistaken for love: then she could use the threat of harm to Fantasy to ensure Tradewind cooperated with whatever scheme she had planned. Simple, but the best plans often were.

Felicia had used what she had, despite being only being able to limit the target of Tradewind’s glamour to adult unicorn mares. Smog would have refrained from doing it halfway if he couldn’t do a proper job of it. He would have hired someone to root through the Brass Hoof’s trash looking for a wad of long purple hairs plucked from a brush. In fact, he would do exactly that. Tied in a mutually exclusive link, the glamour would become almost undetectable, whereas now there were people who could sense the highly illegal spell and would call the police.

This should, Smog decided, be settled in-house.


“That…would work.” Tradewind said. “What’s the catch?”


“Oh…bloody grass.” Tradewind said. “That stupid stinking triple-cursed voucher. I forgot I had it.”


Some of the healdust spores needed to go to the anonymous buyer in Equestria, after all. Tradewind was a possible means of transport, either for the real thing or one of the decoys he’d also send by various means. Smog wasn’t supposed to know the buyer acted on behalf of Celestia. Smog got a vast amount of ironic amusement at the knowledge that he had Princess Celestia willing to do business with him. Even if the business was, in this case, quite legal.

“Sounds good.” Tradewind made to spit on his hoof to shake and seal the deal. It was an unthinking action, but he halted it almost before it began, and that halting also seemed to be unthinking habit. That meshed with someone raised in Freeport who lived in Manehatten.

“Trade…” Fantasy said. He looked at her, and behind his back, Smog looked at her too. “I-I should go. You have a place to stay and money and it’s almost my bedtime.”

Tradewind watched her go, sensing the wrongness but apparently unable to decide its source. The zebra mare muttered a lyrical Zavrosi curse involving shadows and untimely death before knocking her Princess over in the signal of defeat. The pegasi eyed her, and then looked at Smog. “Do you know a decent doctor who works cheap?”


“You…are a doctor?” Smog turned the kit around so Tradewind could see the framed parchment set behind glass on the inside of the lid. “…I have to ask: why?”

“THIS IS A BAR. DRUNKS CAN BECOME VIOLENT. THEY CAN BECOME INJURED. I’M QUAILIFIED TO PATCH THEM UP.” And do so discreetly, whereas hospitals had to report wounds that looked to have been done with malice aforethought. The hotel across the way had a well-equipped surgery hidden behind a false wall. Smog also used his skills to patch up various employees as well, though not so much anymore. Back then, his network had been a lot smaller. Now he had over a dozen skilled (though technically ex-) doctors to handle that sort of thing. He still did it often enough to keep from rusting, and the personal touch would near-inevitably cement that person’s loyalty with the illusion Smog cared about them. Smog began to unpack the kit. “I ALSO QUALIFY FOR MALPRACTICE INSURANCE. I DIDN’T WANT SOME DRUNK I PATCHED UP TRYING TO GET RICH SUING ME.” Better to settle it in court, all nice and legal. Then there was a lot less suspicion directed his way when said drunk suffered a tragic accident some time afterwards. Smog truly detested ingratitude. He paid his debts: all of them. Meaning if someone did him a good turn, he didn’t repay it with a bad one.

If he did, they’d never do him another good turn.

“I meant, why be a bartender if you’re a doctor?”


Tradewind gave Smog another look. Smog knew what he saw: a half-ton of armored, fire-breathing, bat-winged lizard, delicately opening a jar of sterilizing alcohol with fore-claws equipped with long sharp talons. “Honestly, no.”

Fantasy made it back to the airbus in a daze, her head filled with churning hot vapor instead of thoughts. She felt like an idiot. Tradewind was chummy with that heartless jerk. She should have known. He was a pegasus and she knew what they were like. Growing up in Shadowville, of course she knew. Her secret shameful mistake had just been the topping on the pie. Smug hoity-toity self-entitled turkey-winged sloth-donkeys: that was what they were. She got aboard the creaky old blimp and took a seat. She glared out through the wavering glass of a little round window but saw nothing.

But once she stopped moving, she started thinking. He was big for a pegasus: and if you liked wings his were magnificent. There was a certain saying about pegasi with big wings, too. She remembered his shyness. The cute way he tried to hide his awkwardness around her. The way he couldn’t quite seem to keep from nuzzling her despite that awkward shyness. The fact that he had yelled insults at a huge earth pony to try and distract him from her, though he barely knew her. The fact that he’d gone on an hours-long window-shopping trip with her and never complained once. The anger slipped away, hard as she tried to keep it.

Fantasy kept her face to the window and her tears silent.

Felicia slipped into her apartment and totally failed to freeze in place. Palming her switchblade in the foreclaw holding her groceries, she went on with locking the door and headed for the kitchen. The ceiling light snapped on with the hum liquid rainbow made while being converted back to light. Now Felicia froze. “Kincaid.”

“Yup.” The burly white-headed griffin lit his pipe, sitting ready before him. He puffed, and then used the stem to point at his puffy black eye. The other was bloodshot and tired and not entirely sober. “Smog let me off with a warning this time. Not that I saw him, personally. Turns out he expected me to be stupid. Planned for it, in fact. He didn’t even mind about Flint. Much. The bloodthirsty lunatic was slowly getting worse. I didn’t do anything that wasn’t necessary, according to the messenger. I just did it ahead of schedule.”

Felicia unfroze and put the groceries away. Sat down across the table from him. By the stiff way he sat, his feathers and fur hid more bruises. A lot more. But he wasn’t missing any bits that Felicia could see. “I’m not unhappy to learn you’re alive. I still need to pay you back for slapping my rump. I made it clear years ago what would happen if you ever did that again.” She set the knife on the table.

Kincaid laughed, holding up his claws in surrender. “Can I plead temporary insanity? I thought I was a dead griffin walking, and I made it clear years ago that you are one smoking-hot babe.” His one open eye stared right at hers, a profound gesture of trust. A clear invitation.

“No, Kincaid.” But she said it gently.

“Worth a shot. Smog’s messenger came by my place again while I was curled up with a bottle of pain elixir and some cheap rotgut. By the way, all those warning labels are right. They really don’t mix. Remember that time I snorted what turned out to be uncut hyper-sugar? I feel now like I did after I came down. Tuh. Straightjackets aren’t my style.”

“You’re avoiding the subject.”

“I was sent here with a message for you. Good news first. You’re going to live. The free, uninjured, still-employed kind of alive. The bad news? Smog knows you’re running a scheme without his nod. He knows about the courier, the glamour, and about Gavel. I have no idea about any of it: that’s just what I was told. Thanks for not involving me, and I say that with sincerity. I would have hated to have to rat you out. I was told to tell you that Gavel’s up to his neck in it too. Smog apparently thought you’d find that comforting.”

Felicia’s self-control was hard as cast iron and just as brittle. “Somewhat, yes. It is.”

“He wants you to stop by for a chat.” Kincaid said.

“Here’s how this is going to work, Kin.” His yellow eye flicked down toward the knife. “I’m going to have a drink. Then we’ll ‘celebrate being alive,’ as I recall one poet putting it. Tomorrow, you forget tonight happened.”

“Fair enough. You had to wait until I’ve been pummeled by experts before finally saying yes?”

Felicia lit her black pipe. “Yes.”

Kincaid took a while to consider this. Then he shook his head. Winced, and carefully twisted his neck until it crackled. “I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know.”

Felicia’s eyes rose to the ceiling light, a halo of pastel rainbows dancing around the soft white core. Her cheeks felt warm. “It’s not like that. You’re tougher than a bag of old boots. Not my type. But now you’re beaten up and you’ve been mixing painkillers with booze. You get to be helpless. I get to…offer comfort.”

“You. Are into. You.” Kincaid stared at nothing, his good eye wide. “Sleek, black, terrifying, tough-as-nails, ice-blooded, smoking-hot Felicia Ravenor, the retired ‘information extraction technician’ with hypnotic eyes, is a closet cuddle-fiend. That is so freaking weird.” All his feathers fluffed up and he shivered. “Seriously, I got chills.”

“Like I said, tonight never happened.”

“Upon my honor, your secret is safe with me.”

Morhoof flipped a few stools upright and then sat down to play his lute, as well as enjoy his newly poured drink. He left Tradewind and Fantasy to clean up more thoroughly. The ponies of Shadowville have become even more unsavory than he last remembered: not that it couldn’t be understood. Anypony would become quite spiteful living on the bottom for so long, looking up at what they could never have. He tossed the thought from his mind. Enough of the night was already sullied by that pair of goons.

Morhoof’s mind stilled, as it sometimes did: remained eerily empty of actual thoughts. It was a bad omen. A vague flicker in the corner of his eye prompted him to whip his head sideways at neck-straining speed. He blinked. There was nothing there, save a few chairs and tables.

“Hey Morheeerr…Lute.” Fantasy’s tongue slipped: Morhoof had made a note to her to refer to him as anything other than Morhoof. Which she understood enough to try and respect his request. “I’m closing up. Are you coming with Trade and I up to Aura?"

Morhoof blinked again, and then shook his head. “I’d much rather get some rest.” He pulled a small purse containing the last of his funds and set it on the table, gathering his things he made his way upstairs.

“Wait, don’t you need a key?”

Morhoof waved his cloak, making a barely audible clink. Nopony had asked him for it back, so there was no need to give it up until he was done with it. He unlocked his room, entering, and locking the door behind him.

The room was small, the only accommodating furnishings were a bed and a small side table with a candle, but it served its purpose to Morhoof’s lavish demands. He placed the rosewood box on the small table and sat down on the bed, resting his lute on the adjacent wall. He just sat there for some time in the dark, save for the dim blueish haze that filtered in, his eyes fixed to the spot where his lute stood. Morhoof reached out to lay his hoof on it, and a faint whisper hissed just outside of being understandable.

“Do you smell something burning?!”

Morhoof bolted upright and surveyed the bottom floor of the barn. Fire was spreading fast. “Oh, haystacks. Rose, we gotta go!” The fire had already gnawed at the underside of the floor, their hooves beginning to bubble. The weakened wood gave way, sending the two into the midst of the inferno below. It was a short fall, but unexpected and disorienting. Once Morhoof came back to his senses he located Rose, who had not been far away, shaking the confusion from her head as well. Morhoof shouted to her over the roar. “Stick close to me!”

The smoke choked their lungs, the light blinded them, the heat was a physical force upon them. It seemed hopeless to Morhoof: it seemed there was no way out.

“Morhoof!” Rose said. She clung to him, sudden coolness where the heat couldn’t reach. “I don’t want to die!”

Her pleading voice sent a surge of greater panic and uncertainty rushing through him. Morhoof’s vision was starting to fade. He was sure that he’d seen what looked like a way out, but now he wasn’t sure he could find it. “You're not going to-” The thick smoke send him into a coughing fit. “I think I can” hack “see a way out! Hold on to me!” Rose bit onto his tail as they both pushed for what he hoped was freedom and life.

The structure groaned and nails screamed as they tore from their holes. Splintering wood showered him. Thunderous cracks rocked the old barn. Morhoof’s body was disturbingly numb and he was sure he wasn’t in the same spot he had just been in. He didn’t know how long he had laid there, but the numbness had begun to fade and was being replaced with a searing sensation. He felt calm, and strangely comfortable. He swiveled his head a bit, looking for Rose before he even realized that was what he sought. “Rose!” Morhoof screamed in sheer panic. He scrambled to his feet, tripped, and crashed back down with another scream. He managed to uncurl himself to inspect what had caused so great an agony. “Sss-s-sweet Luna…” Morhoof felt the bile climb up the back of his throat. His forehoof was…gone.

Just barely picking up a quiet sob, he carefully drew himself up and began to stumble around on three hooves, trying to find the source, fighting back the pain and weakness that was slowly conquering him. But then he found her. Words could not describe the feeling that exploded inside him. The paper would have burst into flames if they had tried. He found Rose pinned under a section of collapsed wreckage. Morhoof, with every fiber of his being, attempted to free her from the wreckage. Flames nipped at him. The crackling of fire mocked him, tearing at his sanity. He felt something touch his back leg. “Morhoof…” Rose said. So faintly. “Just…go…”

Morhoof couldn’t keep it in. The lies spilled forth as if by saying them he could make them so. “No! It’s going to be all right! I'm going to get you out of here!” He stopped his futile attempt to rescue her for a moment to kiss her, trying and failing to believe it wasn’t for the last time. He went back to trying to free her. “Stay with me, Rose! Fight!” There was no answer.

He uncovered her from most of the light debris: the only thing that stood in his way was what he could only guess was part of a support beam. He felt it budging: he was going to free her! Morhoof laughed, emerging as half a sob and half a barking cough. “I’ve almost got it! I got this! D-don’t worry!” His legs trembled, fatigue suddenly washed over him, and his strength abandoned him.

It was like a nightmare after that. Distant. Unreal. Senseless. Hooves extended from the flames towards him, clutching firmly, and dragged him away. Out of that hopeless death trap. He tried to thrash in protest but it was hopeless, he only managed twitches. He couldn’t even go on with that, he could only lay limp, sobbing into his rescuer's arms. The rest of the night became nothing more than just a blur he had never tried to recall.

Hey. Hey! Heeey! Ah! There we are. Back amongst the living, are we?

Morhoof surveyed the tiny tavern room, but no one was there. Well, not physically. A fuzzy, grinning replica of himself stood at the base of his nose.

Aww, what? You’re not crying now, are you? Its voice oozed with acid mockery. Hmph. Figures, you’ve always been weak: nothing but a failure. Why do you even keep that thing? Do you really think she would have wanted you to have it?

Morhoof sneered at himself. According to the little parasite, it had always been there with him. But had only decided to take an active hoof in making him miserable within the past few centuries.

Oh don't give me that look, it’s not my fault you’re completely batty. Don’t blame the symptom for the disease, as it were. The little pony stepped closer along his snout, parking himself right before his eyes. Hey, hey! Guess who I aaam! The little pony’s mane started to turn to a restful purple.

Morhoof swatted at his face. “Enough!” His shout was louder than he wanted, and he paid for it. That roar was never performed without cost. Coughing and choking on himself, he could hear the little hallucination snickering.

Oh no, we’ve only just begun. Mr. Happy Cider isn't here to save you now.

Pick looked outside the window and mentally sighed. He wasn’t about to let any kind of soldiers look through his personal belongings. He started to go over all of the places he could hide them in his head. That didn’t take long. Brando’s smuggler hole. He would have to get Brando to hide them in there, but not just yet. Rummaging through the food, he made himself a meal and forced it down past the lump of nervousness in his throat. After that he went to his little corner of the sleeping cabin and pulled the privacy silk closed. Taking out his journal, he filled in the details of the flight so far, what his feelings were, and of course, the details of his nightmare. Then he moved onto his observations and thoughts on the others.

Brando. Maybe if I had met him in better circumstances we could’ve been friends, or at least acquaintances. He at least is always doing something interesting or making somepony laugh, whether it was with or at him. Mithril. Well, she’s alright, definitely a dirty cop but probably not a rotten one. Kind of hard to see what’s going on in that head of hers. Red. She seems pretty nice. I’m going to have to think of something to do for her considering how much trouble she got me out of at the bar. She seems to know something about airships, I should try and learn something from her since she’s less likely to do anything too bad, well compared to Brando at least. One last thing: the costumes. Smog certainly wanted to mess with us: well, excluding Red that is. At least it will give me something to do. Some commentary on when we start the show.

Pick finished writing and re-read what he’d written. Then he sighed. It always seemed so clear in his head but somewhere between his brain and his hoof it always got messed up somehow. Not badly messed up, just…awkward. Putting it away, he went to look for Brando and found him still in the bow. Thankfully he was alone. “Brando, can I ask you to do something for me? If you do this for me I’ll do any favor in the future no matter what it is.”

Brando perked up in a way that made Pick wonder if saying that had been a good idea. “Well, that depends on what you want me to do. Did you say anything?"

“Not anything anything but I promise to think really hard about doing it before I say no. Pretty much anything, unless it’s illegal. What I need you to do is make sure no one touches my stuff, so could you hide them for me and make sure the fuzzballs don’t get anywhere near it?”

Brando smirked. “You have my word, comrade: I will not let anyone else touch your stuff.”

Pick headed straight from him back to the other cabin, the one mostly lined with supplies. They even hung from the ceiling in nets. Mithril was there. “Can you make sure Brando doesn’t go through my things? He gave his word not to let anypony else go through them. I trust him to keep his word, because if he breaks it then I don’t owe him diddly. But he didn’t promise he wouldn’t look through them himself. Can you make sure he doesn’t?”

She gave Pick a cop look. Not a cop-to-cop look, either. The other kind. “What are you trying to hide?”

Pick shot back an answer instantly: her stare and tone had jabbed an old reflex. “Nothing. I just really don’t like people looking through my things.” Mithril stood there for a moment completely silent, eyeing Pick. He stared back. Because he’d spoken without thinking, he hadn’t had time to look nervous, and so look like a liar.

After a too-long moment, she answered. “Alright.”

Pick gave her a nod of thanks and headed for the sleeping cabin. He quickly took his tattered jacket out of his lockbox and put it on, then dropped the insignia back in the box. Pick locked his lockbox and grabbed his guitar. Dropping the box off with Brando, he found Mithril already there. He headed for the one place Red Raider could be: the engine room. When he came in she was examining the injection manifold on the redliner like she knew what she was seeing. Pick only knew the thing was called an injection manifold because she’d told him earlier. To him it was just a twisted mass of half-mirrored glass tubes wedged above the engine and under the canisters holding the liquid rainbow and liquid red. A low aura of rainbow-swirling magic covered the tubes. The aura blazed up when the redliner kicked in, and arcs of blood-colored lightning crawled all over the thing. It made his coat stand on end, and not just from awe. The stuff smelled like a too-close lightning strike: a hot-tin-shaving stink.

“Hey Red,” Pick said. “Once we finally can get off, do you want to go exploring?"

“Well, okay. I was wondering what kind of music they listen to in Silverline, but this sounds like the kind of place strangers shouldn’t walk around alone."

“Great. Let’s get some warm clothes on.”

It wasn’t long after they’d bundled up that Brando opened the hatch. He gave Pick an annoyed glance that said Mithril had stopped him from snooping. Pick and Red slipped out, easing around some of the sheep. Up close, they weren’t at all cute. And not just because of their heavy curled-up horns. They were all kinds of pastel colors, not just white. But all of them looked like they were overdue for a serious whole-body shampooing. Or barring that, some cologne.

One of the sheep stepped in their way before they could walk along the metal-mesh bridge sticking out from the side of the mobile staircase-tower. He chewed something Pick hoped was gum, though cud seemed possible. The thought of having to eat your dinner again just grossed him out. The ram eyed Pick’s guitar. “Well, what do we have here?”

Pick couldn’t help but roll his eyes. It was just such a classic cheesy thug-looking-to-start-something line.

Brando watched as Pick and Red Raider left the ship. Seeing Red has the situation in hoof, he ignored it, hoping whatever trouble they got into they leave it here. Fleeing military rams was not his idea of a good time. Still, at least the sheep could provide amusement. Soon, the upward storage hatch was opened and they were loading the liquid diamond-ice in the space above the cabin: within the envelope and below the gasbags.

The loading process went along nice and smooth, right up until he caught sight of a grime-coated blue sheep. Well, at least the base color was. The sheep was striped with bright yellow lines painted vertically on his fleece. He actually had to stifle a snicker. As the striped monstrosity drew near, Brando gave a wide grin to the ram, who stopped in the loading line: causing a few curses from those behind him. Moving faster, he placed his canister with the others and came off to the side, near Brando.

“I remember you, gryphon. And the trouble you caused me last time you were here. Four extra weeks of dockyard duty. Four weeks of this.” Mithril looked to Brando with concern in her eyes, lighting her horn slightly.

Brando shook his head, a mischievous grin (which Mithril greeted with a snort) spreading across his face. “Yeah, but it was worth it, wasn’t it, comrade?” Brando beamed: the scowl on the ram’s scarred face dissolving as they both exploded into laughter. They gave each other hard pats on the back, clinging in a semi-hug to keep from falling over until the fit died down to chuckling.

The ram, named Gruff, sighed. “Yeah, fair enough, it was." He gave a snort, started to spit, then thought better of it and swallowed. “How did you get out of there, anyways? With your wings messed up you couldn’t fly, and I was so drunk I was actually seeing double for once outside of a head-banging contest, not to mention the guards chasing you with them. Did you manage to…save any?”

“I did, I did, but let’s not go into details, tell me about your new…style.” Brando gestured to the stripes.

“Lost a bet.” Gruff said. Deadpan, but slightly sheepish.

“How about we make a wager?” Brando said. “Say, I’ll tell you how I got away if you win. If I win, you put another set of stripes on you: horizontal.”

“I…frostbite take it, Brando. You know I can’t resist a bet. Liar’s Dice, like usual?”

A quick game of Liar’s Dice later, Brando enjoyed a post-game pipe and quiet gloat. One of the other rams, now having finished loading the cargo under Mithril’s watchful eye, was sent off to fetch a bucket of paint. Gruff looked mortified, his buddies crying with laughter as the yellow stripes were squared off with horizontal ones: to everyone’s mirth save Gruff. Even Mithril laughed a bit. They used the red used to paint anything an airship might crash into.

“A blue, yellow, and red ram.” Gruff said. “I’m never going to live this down. Thanks, Brando, I’ll be sure to repay the favor someday. Much as I'd like to do it right now, if I don’t get back to work they’ll tack on another week to the couple days I got right now. I’m not about to spend any more time chewing this cud than I have to. You take care.” Gruff shook Brando's claw, nodded to Mithril, and stumped out, finally leaving them in peace as Brando closed the door. He sniffed, then cracked a few windows to get rid of the smell of overworked sheep.

Brando turned to Mithril, grinning sheepishly. “Before you say what I think you’re going to say, let me say something: I’ll tell you some other time. It's not that great of a story anyways, honest. Pure luck.”

Mithril shook her head, sighing. “You know, I believe it. And I already have enough stories of your bizarre adventures to last a lifetime, though in a nicer, calmer, and above all warmer setting, I might want to hear it.”

Brando nodded, popping the hatch up for his secret compartment and staring at Pick’s box. He'd kept his word, nobody else was going to touch it, but Brando had a well-developed sense of curiosity and Pick had landed on it with all four hooves. Mithril’s raised voice made him twitch. “Hey! Don't you dare, Brando.” She gave him a sly grin. “Why don't you go lie down? It’s far too cold here for me: I could use some nice warm feathers. I'll just be a moment…” Sauntering away to the restroom, she did something fairly foolish: she left Brando alone with the box she’d just told him not to open. Now he had to.

Closing the smuggler’s hole, Brando made his way over to the entrance of the bunkroom and turned back, sighing. Mithril was going to be mad at him, but he had to know. He pulled the chest up and extended a talon loose, stuck it into the lock, and fiddled around. Finally finding his talons were no match for the lock, he went to his own set of chests and popped one open, digging around. After much muttered cursing, he returned to the box with a bit of flat metal and another with a hook, and began tinkering with the lock.

Mithril didn’t actually need to go to the bathroom. The truth was, she felt something was up about the box from the moment Pick gave her that too-slick answer earlier. In most ponies, that being ones she didn’t know, it would’ve registered as truth. But with Pick, it was as if his character had just done an about-face. Instead of bursting out to yell at Brando, she waited, listening to the griffin fumble around first with his talons then with the actual set of lock-pickings. He took forever with them: being used to breaking locks open rather than picking them. Finally she heard the latch snap, and breathed a sigh of relief. She’d worried she’d have to help him undo it.

Grabbing her brush with her magic, Mithril heard the top creak open and slammed the bathroom door open. “Brando, I knew you couldn’t resist, you birdbrain!” She launched the brush at him, which he only partially deflected by his claws.

Brando chuckled at her. “Oh please, if you were actually mad I’d be unconscious right now.”

Mithril stayed in character, not missing a beat. “You know we’re trying to gain trust, not lose it, right? How do I know you won’t go through my things?”

Brando sighed, not making a comment about being able to guess what’s in her lockboxes. He grinned at her. “Well, too late to go back now. Maybe you should come look through the stuff with me, a policemare might have more insight.”

“Alright, fine, but if Pick finds out, or if we have to confront him about something, just remember you unlocked it all by yourself and that I said not to.” Mithril gave him a bit of a grin, coming around to his side, more curious than feigning anger would continue to allow.

Brando gave a snigger. “Right, right, wouldn’t want to lose that ‘special favor,’ after all.”

A loud CLOP echoed through the Snark as Mithril smacked Brando in the back of the head.

Brando and Mithril touched beak to nose, smiling, and then peered into the depths of the box. Brando moved a journal aside for later perusal and then felt his feathers and fur do a tolerably good attempt at standing on end. Mithril sucked in a breath as he picked up the insignia: two shovels crossed behind an equine skull. Brando dropped it again as if it had suddenly flashed hot. “Mother’s Egg!”

“That’s a new one.” Mithril said.

Brando’s accent had thickened. “Is very bad thing to say.”

“I take it you recognize that symbol?” Brando just nodded. Mithril started to feel a chill that had nothing to do with this cursed iceberg of a place. Brando…speechless. “I had to notice that other thing. Those are illegal in ways I can’t even describe. Also very expensive.”

Brando gave the object a mere glance. “The Skulldiggers.”

“Oh, that’s horrible. A pun on skullduggery, really?”

“Is not being a joke, those guys.” Brando closed the lid on the box, wishing his memory had a lid he could slam closed too. He paged through the journal, which had a rambling look and multiple writing styles. Not multiple writers, unless they all shared one head. He hit on a few pages covered solid with I’m sorry over and over. “Pick is being a few sparkles short of a glitter, I am thinking.”

By the time she got home, Fantasy felt so drained she barely had the energy to brush her mane and tail, gathering both up so they wouldn’t be impossible tangles by morning. Lying down, she paused. She’d forgotten to do something. The thought of letting it go undone caused a small but sharp stab of panic. Fantasy groaned and got up again. Yanking her brush free of the purple hairs, she wadded them up and then opened the window. The wad drifted outside. After a long moment to focus, a weak fire-spell sputtered into being. It took three tries to burn the hair to ash. Looks or not, she was no Twilight Sparkle.

Fantasy closed the window before the smell could get in. She pulled the heavy curtains and darkness fell. Crawling back into bed, she pulled Mr. Billy from under her pillows and cuddled the goat doll under her chin. Her grandmother was superstitious, always burning her shed hairs and hoof trimmings so nopony could put a curse on her. Fantasy never had been, until after… She shivered and twitched her thoughts away. Now she was knocking on wood for luck and burning her shed hairs and she’d pulled Mr. Billy from the back of her wardrobe because suddenly, after almost ten years, she once again couldn’t sleep without him.

Not that he helped, not today. Eyes closed, Fantasy used her magic to feel down between the mattress and frame. The two long grey feathers tucked there were still there. She knew she should throw them away. No: burn them. Forget about the pegasus. Try to focus on her writing. Get her life back to normal. Groaning again, Fantasy shoved Mr. Billy back into his pillow cave and kicked the covers off. Rolling to her hooves, she headed down to the kitchen for some milk. It probably wouldn’t help but she was desperate enough to try anyway. So far her determination not to touch anything stronger as a sleep aid held firm. She knew that was a path leading nowhere good.

Morhoof had a room near the stairs, but Fantasy only heard it because she had kept both ears swiveling in search of noises from below. She really didn’t want to see anypony just now. But this noise drew her: tiptoeing, avoiding the creaky boards using a lifetime of experience. She put an ear to the door. Quiet sobs, the kind that kept coming long after the tears had faded to dry burning. They had an edge to them, something that spoke less of sorrow than anger and frustration.

A hoof gently rapped on the door. It startled her so badly she leapt back with a strangled eeep. The sobs cut off into a horrible thick heavy silence that rolled off the closed door like cold from a huge block of ice. Fantasy realized she had been the one to knock. She tried to run and found herself frozen instead as a memory ambushed her. Morhoof had the nearest room to the back stairs. The room where it had happened to her.

The door opened a crack and suddenly there were two Fantasy’s: the one in the present and the one trapped in the memory. The wrong one was in control. She watched in helpless horror as she gave a tipsy giggle and ambled forward, pushing at the door. It gave way as Morhoof retreated, expression guarded. Fantasy watched as she put a hoof to her lips. “Shh.” It turned into a giggle. “We have to be quiet while we do this.” Her magic started pulling off her flannel pajamas.

Morhoof retreated more, eyes growing wide. “Lady…”

“Shh.” It turned into a giggle. “We have to be quiet while we do this.” She cornered him and grabbed at his cloak. He hung on tight. Fantasy tugged harder. He started to protest and got her hoof pressed against his mouth. “Shh.” It turned into a giggle. “We have to be quiet while we do this.” Morhoof went still, staring at her in dawning suspicion. Fantasy blinked and felt a pair of hot tears fall. Then Morhoof’s expression filled with a mix of fury and disgust. But not at her.

The room dropped away from Fantasy and did a couple of flips, and then the bed came up and hit her just about as hard as a mattress could hit. She vaguely remembered being grabbed and then there was a shoulder in her chest and then she’d gone flying. Fantasy tried to rise and instead struck a seductive pose, head braced on one hoof. Morhoof shimmered and became the pegasus cop for a moment. Then he returned, but just for an instant she thought she saw a tiny version of Morhoof sitting between Morhoof’s ears. Then it was gone and Morhoof turned away to look out the window, one fore-hoof raised to rest on the little table below it. He turned back. “Lady Fantasy, forgive me.”

“Shh.” It turned into a giggle. “We have to be quiet while we do this.”

Morhoof moved to stand by the bed, not looking her in the eye. Fantasy, the real one locked in this waking nightmare, began to fear he was… Then his hoof came out of his cloak holding a journal-type book with floppy leather covers. He used it to slap her. It hurt less than a hoof but stung more. Fantasy gasped, but her body was listening to her head once more.

All she could think to say was: “You’re forgiven.”